For 10 days in February, I was holed up on the Spanish coastline, chasing some sun. I figured with a name like "Costa del Sol", it would be a good place to start. Not so much. According to the concierge at the hotel, it was some of the worst weather he had seen in a long, long, long time. He was flat-out amazed at the amount of wind and rain pummeling the coastline. I, on the other hand, wasn't surprised at all.
One stormy day, I decided to head to Malaga to check out Picasso's birthplace and museum. One would think, given all my (mis)adventures on public transportation, that I would take a cab. One would be wrong. I opted for the M110, the local bus marked "Benalmadena to Malaga". The way I saw it, I spoke passable Spanish, the bus stop was directly in front of my hotel, and the museum was the last stop on the route. All things considered, what could possibly go wrong? Well, let me break it down for you.
I hopped on the bus with a big smile and a twenty euro note and asked the bus driver, "Malaga Centro?" I've found that this is really the best approach to take when you have absolutely no idea where you are going - ask the guy driving. In this case, he replied, and this is a direct quote, "si, but it is only 1 euro 25. Do you have anything smaller?" Yep, this was going to be a piece of cake.
Generally when travelling on public transportation in a foreign country, I try to get the seat closest to the driver. In this case, I snagged an aisle seat, front row, right side of the bus. I considered it a win-win situation. Chances were pretty good that no one would want to crawl over me to get to the window seat; I could see the driver, and, more importantly, the driver could see me, which meant that the odds of him telling me which stop to get off were leaning heavily in my favor.
The bus driver was, by far, the happiest guy I have seen working in a public sector industry. Absolutely nothing phased this driver -- not the traffic, not the weather, not the old Brits (which, by the way, from what I can see, make up almost the entire population from Benalmadena to Torremolinos) who held the bus up while they were digging for their fare or bus passes, not the road construction, which was B-A-D bad. I even caught him humming a time or two.
Well, just as I had anticipated, when we reached the last stop at the Malaga bus station, the Happy Driver turned around and said, "this is you." Muchas gracias, senor
! I hopped off the bus and immediately decided that it was not the day to see Malaga. The rain had picked up, the wind was raging and, quite frankly, I did not want to deal with the weather hassle, let alone sacrifice one of my new umbrellas.
So, decision made, I jumped on another bus, this one marked "Malaga to Benalmadena." As before, I approached the bus driver, this time with 1.25 on the ready, and asked for a "billette." Unlike before, I did not get a ticket. Instead, I got what would probably be best described as a Spanish verbal smackdown. Tapping deep into my Tex-Mex Tijuana Spanglish, I was able to discern that, apparently, when boarding a bus in Spain at the station, one needs to purchase a ticket at the booth and not
on the bus. Good to know. But, I also learned that if one keeps pushing the buck 25 back at the driver, and the line starts to seriously back up, the driver will, eventually, take one's money. Pick your battles, people, that's all I'm saying.
As before, I took the seat on the first row, on the aisle, door-side of the bus. Even though there was no chance in hell that this particular driver was going to give me the heads-up on my get-off stop, old habits are hard to break. I settled in and watched as the bus started to fill up.
It was obvious that this driver did not enjoy anywhere near the job satisfaction as his colleague, nor did he share his same sunny disposition. He rarely acknowledged anyone, unless you consider "rapido" a greeting. He cut people off in traffic; he yelled at other drivers through his window; he cursed when he didn't make the traffic light. Basically, he was just an all-around nasty man.
As more and more people got on the bus, I got to feeling a little guilty about blocking the window seat. I decided that if an old person got on the bus carrying something heavy, I would slide over. That was my deal -- old and carrying something heavy.
I don't know who tipped the devil off to my internal bargain, but, sure enough, a couple of stops later, this old man got on the bus, literally dragging
a huge green duffel bag. Curses! I slid over. Since the duffel bag would have blocked the aisle, the man wanted it on his lap. Being the good global citizen that I am (okay, to make myself feel better about hogging the seat), I leaned over and helped him put his bag on his lap. I also slid as far to the right as I possibly could, crossing my legs to give him even more room, which meant my knees were now smashed up against the side of the bus. Small price to pay to ease the guilt.
As the bus navigated through the various pothole-ridden roads and construction zones, a pattern emerged. The bell would ring, the driver would look in his big center mirror (with a very irritated look on his face), the bus would pull over at the next stop, and people would get off. It was Pavlovian beautiful.
We left the city center and entered the motorway, where the bus picked up cruising speed. Now, I don't know why
there are bus stops on the Spanish motorway, but, there are -- lots of them. As before, the bell rang and the driver, looking irritated, pulled over at the next stop. But, unlike in the city center, this time, no one got off. The driver, looking even more irritated (which I didn't think was humanly possible), waited for a break in traffic and then merged back onto the motorway and started picking up speed.
We jostled down the road for a couple of more minutes and then, brring, brring. The driver once again pulled out of traffic and stopped at the next stop. Once again, no one got off. The driver glared at us from his center mirror and shouted something in Spanish, which I didn't catch, but, from the look on the faces of the people around me, it must have been a real gem.
Just as the bus was accelerating to merge left back into traffic, brring, brring, brring, brring, brring. At this point, the driver is not watching the road - at all. His eyes are fixed on the center mirror, trying to catch whoever it is pushing the button. The rest of us on the bus are looking around trying to do the same thing. Personally, I had my money on the young guy with the cammo jeans and the white jacket with the Ipod wires dangling from his ears. He just looked way too nonchalant, in a very cocky sort of way. If anyone was going to kick Cujo, it'd be him.
We had gone about a mile or two before the bell went off again. The driver pulled over. No one got off. At this point, the driver was well on his way to a ruptured aneurysm. Part of me admired anyone with the cajones
to jack with this guy, but another part of me was mortified that he was going to make all of us pay - dearly. From where I was sitting, we were one gun shy of a CNN reported incident.
By now, it is getting pretty damn uncomfortable on the bus, largely because of the maniacal way the driver kept glaring at us from his rearview mirror. He had stopped cursing several stops ago, and, quite frankly, I found his steely silence even more disturbing. The old guy seated beside me started shifting in his seat, moving closer to me, in, what I presumed to be, an attempt to dodge the driver's direct line of sight. I, too, did not want to risk making eye contact with the driver, so I looked down at my lap. And, that's when I saw it. The little red thing. The little red thing that my knees touched every time I moved. The little red thing that goes brring, brring, brring!
I've only experienced paralyzing, mind-numbing fear a couple of times in my life and this was one of them. Fortunately, survival skills kicked in. I knew I had to get off the bus, immediately
, but I couldn't exactly push the little red button now, could I? Instead, I jumped up and yelled "proxima por favor
The bus driver pulled over. I got out. I walked the last two miles to the hotel, in the pouring rain, without an umbrella, singing to myself, "the bells on the bus go brring, brring, brring," and thinking about winning the battle, but losing the war.