Every morning at exactly 5:35 AM, you carried me half-awake from Ang Mo Kio to Tanjong Katong. School bag on my lap and seat secured, I let the gentle stop-and-start of your engine rock me in and out of half-remembered dreams.
When school ended, your spacious upper deck became a playground. Endless battles of Pokemon were won and lost while Jay Chou sang from a Nokia sliding phone. Free from adult surveillance, we un-tucked our shirts and fought endless skirmishes, one aisle against the other.
Best of all were the rainy days. Once the curtains of water were drawn, it was easy to imagine yourself in London or Azkaban as the world outside dissolved into a wash of colour.
A decade has passed since graduation, but my love affair with long bus rides has never faded.
If time permits and a route exists, I always choose the bus. Call it a fetish if you want, I’m not ashamed. There is no greater pleasure than escaping into the bubble of privacy created by a good podcast and a window seat where you can watch the world whizz by.
“Especially with a good book,” she added.
This discovery soon led to others.
One friend shared that bus travel afforded her an opportunity to ‘stone’. For another, choosing bus over train was a no-brainer even if he had to wake half an hour earlier every morning for the privilege.
This infatuation with public transport sounds lame, but I hold that it is the most natural response to being alive in 2018.
Modern life is lived in the margins between work and more work. Thanks to Whatsapp, Slack and other accursed forms of ‘connectivity’, you can never unplug from the soul-sucking Matrix. Professional and social responsibilities, like a nosy aunt at CNY, constantly intrudes upon one’s waking life with a parade of the inane and the stupid:
‘When you have the time, take a look at slide 12 on the deck thanks’
‘Pls revert asap’
‘Can you RSVP to my pointless industry circlejerk’
Even when you’re not on the clock, this cult of productivity demands that you ‘spend your time wisely’ with wholesome shit like the gym, yoga, or networking events. As a result, even our leisure time is poisoned by the same attendant pressures/responsibilities/demands that make work so unpleasant.
In other words, we are exhausted by ‘productivity’, but we also feel a tinge of guilt when time is spent ‘unproductively’ on Netflix or Facebook.
Long bus journeys offer a brief respite from this paradox. When a message pops up asking if you’re free to attend a meeting 2 weeks in the future, travel gives you an excuse to ignore it for the time being.
They can’t expect a reply because you’re already ‘busy’ with something: travelling to point B.
In reality, you are the opposite of busy. You are enjoying some me-time with Drake as the bus meanders through Bedok.
You are mindlessly browsing Instagram, safe in the knowledge that your time could not be ‘better spent’ learning about Bitcoin or something.
In theory, trains and planes can provide the same refuge from ‘efficiency’. Sadly, they never do in practice.
Finding a seat on the train these days is harder than locating the foreskin of Christ. And as for air travel, it punishes both saints and sinners alike. Nobody can feel zen after fumbling through the 300 or so hurdles between taxi and take-off.
Not so for bus travel.
Bus understands. Bus doesn’t play games with you.
I could vomit 6000 more words on the subject and yet fail to capture the elusive feeling of bus-ing home after a long day, with my head against the glass and Adele singing in my ear, evening awaiting me like a promise of rest.
My friends can’t put their finger on it either.
One attributes ‘bus feels’ to the ASMR white noise produced by traffic, which lull him into a pleasurable trance-like state.
Another compares the bus to a street-level aquarium with commuters instead of fishes.
“Watching fish behind glass always relaxes,” he claimed.
All valid feelings and true, but there is something about long bus journeys that transcends ‘scenery’ or ‘seats’. No SMRT train can make me feel the same way, no matter how empty the carriage or how scenic the stretch.
To me, the crucial difference is that buses are not divorced from the world like a plane in mid-air, or a train hurtling through the black nothingness of a tunnel.
When you take the bus, you can’t help noticing the names of mamashops, hardware suppliers, eateries, etc. You register a chiobu gazing sourly at her phone, a salt-baked chicken eatery, National Aerated Water Company, and an assortment of uncles, smoking or standing with arms neatly folded above their pot belly.
Mix these impressions with a soundtrack and something magical happens.
It’s not a journey towards X anymore, but a journey into the labyrinths of your own subconscious.
The salt-baked chicken reminds you of other chicken meals eaten with friends who’ve long since left the country. The uncles remind you of cigarettes shared with former colleagues while the water company’s ruined facade recall ageing shophouses near whatsthatplacecalled, or the ruins visited on a long-ago family holiday, remembered in yellowing photo albums.
Before long, you’re not really listening to Drake or people-watching anymore. You’re lost in your own thoughts.
Some would call this ‘meditative’. Others might choose the more prosaic term of ‘spacing out’. But whatever the label, it’s a strange yet intoxicating feeling; being carried down a stream of faint impressions and dusty memories towards a destination unseen.
In Singapore, it’s probably the closest thing to zen you’ll ever experience.