Save the best until last, they say. I can’t say that this will be the best blog post from my time in Reunion, but it might just be the most important – considering the amount of time that I have spent here on buses, or waiting for them at bus stops.
Waiting at the bus stop is in itself a harrowing task. The local bus stops are furnished in a minimalistic style, and often provide no shade from the sun whatsoever. I soon learnt that the timetables are not to be trusted. The bus can pass by at any time in a 30 minute zone around the advertised time; more often than not, it is 5 or 10 minutes late, but every so often it will leave super early for no apparent reason – so you can never be too careful.
As a general rule, you’re safe if you’re at the bus stop 10 minutes before. Usually. But you can never be sure. Many a time have I waited at the bus stop in a sweaty panic wondering whether the bus has already passed. Why is no-one else at the bus stop? Why hasn’t it come yet? What do I do if it doesn’t come? How do I get home? And so on.
I was astonished (and somewhat exasperated) to notice that many locals seem to have an innate – even magical – ability to appear at the bus stop at exactly the right moment, just as the bus arrives, no matter whether the bus happens to be early or late or on time on any particular day.
9b is my bus route – a code which shall be forever etched in my memory, rather like 974, Reunion’s postal code, or OM REU, those five wonderful letters that started it all. There are two drivers on the 9b route. One is friendly and makes conversation; the other is less friendly and has a rather gruff manner. This difference may be because the second driver thinks that I’m an idiot, ever since I accidentally left my groceries on his bus near the start of my time here.
In any case, I found a far more entertaining bus driver on another bus route further up from my place – a Rastafarian créole man who was smoking… something… and uttering incomprehensible phrases in slurred créole. However, I do admire all the bus drivers here for their ability to manoeuvre these huge machines along the narrow roads that twist and turn on their way up the hill.
The buses in use across the local network seem to be rotated every so often, and each change seems to assign an even older, clunkier bus than before to the 9b line. Aside from being ancient and grotty, it often means that the automatic doors don’t work, meaning people sometimes have to kick themselves out of the bus, literally.
On the upside, however decrepit the bus is, you can still listen to Freedom, the island’s radio station of choice, where people call in about anything and everything. It is both an intriguing insight into local life and, let’s face it, an amusing source of entertainment for an outsider. But it is an important source of information for locals; in cases of lost & found or petty crime, people often turn to Radio Freedom before they turn to the police.
My bus is largely dominated by older créole women going out to do their shopping and local children going to school and back. But there were some memorable characters: a well-dressed man with a sunhat and a wonky pair of sunglasses with the temple missing on one side, one of my students from the lycée who knew a lot about English football, and, on one occasion, a man holding budgies in a cage in one hand and a chicken in a cardboard box in the other.
I may be rambling, but there is just so much to say about the buses. But here’s something really interesting – in Reunion, you have to clap your hands twice to tell the driver to stop. Number of claps can vary from two to, well, as many as you want. I usually go for three, so that the first is a sort of soft warm-up one.
In terms of the whole island, the famous cars jaunes (literally ‘yellow coaches’) link up the main towns in Reunion. These buses are painted in a bright yellow that matches the sun beating down upon this beautiful island for much of the year. These, like the local buses, are frustrating and limited.
The buses have undoubtedly provided me with a few funny stories to tell after I leave, but whilst I’ve been here they have been a constant source of frustration and stress. It’s been so complicated to organise things and go places, and there are no trains at all to offer another option. It’s a shame – how different things would have been if I had had a car here. A nice fast car. But it’s a problem that I knew about before coming, having read up about Reunion, and, well, I survived with the buses and the odd lift from friends, I didn’t get stuck anywhere too far from home… so it could have been worse.
Anyway, enough of these buses. I’m going home tomorrow.