Buses

Giovanna Coutinho is the person I've been friends with the longest, and I've never even met her in the flesh. When we first encountered each other on Neopets, we were both eight years old. We chatted on MSN, and when that became obsolete, we moved to Facebook messenger. We stopped playing Neopets, and moved on to Gaia Online, and then other things that didn't stick quite so well. We've been mates for 17 years.

Once, while she was still living in Brazil (she's based in the USA now), I told her that I caught the bus to school. She was amazed. Apparently, in Brazil, you couldn't catch the bus. (At least at the time—I'm not up-to-date on current Brazilian bus politics.) She told me that busstops were basically tourist traps: people would mug you if you were waiting in one because the buses were unreliable and unused, and the only people who attempted it were tourists who were probably carrying passports and valuables worth stealing.

This was one of my first encounters with incredible cultural differences. We'd had conversations before about the definition of an 'arvo' and other little bits of nonsense, but nothing had felt as significant; I had been doing something every day since I was six, but if my friend had tried to do the same, she might have been stabbed.

In primary school, my mum used to drop me at school on her way to work, but then I'd catch the bus home. It was bus route 14, and the driver's name was Shawn. The older kids used to sit closer to the back of the bus, but only the cool kids could sit on the back seat. That was never me.

I used to talk to Shawn about my hobbies and interests when I was first catching the bus. I was in the second grade and I liked chatting with adults more than kids because they were less likely to throw mandarin pieces in my hair for reading on the bus. I told him about fairies, and how there were fairies living in my parents' backyard. He brought it up years later when I was too old and cool for fairies, and embarassed me in front of a group of my peers. I despised him for it.

At first, my mum would wait for me at the bus stop and walk me home. The trip involved crossing one street, and walking about a block through the suburbs and when I got older, I was allowed to walk that path alone. That's when I met a lovely older woman who lived on the way, and who had an adorable old corgi who would wait for me in the afternoons so I could give him pats. He passed away some time during my highschool years, and she doesn't live there anymore.

There was a section of Number 14's drive from Maroochydore to Coolum where it stopped to transfer children between it and another bus: Number 16. We knew of it only through the whispers of the highschool students who joined us for the rest of our route, and they mostly kept to themselves. Once, one of them mocked me for my lisp by making me say 'lisp' repeatedly. Another time, they tricked me into calling one of their younger brothers 'cute' and then told me that meant I had a crush on him.

When I graduated from Stella Maris and started at St John's College, I became one of the highschoolers who travelled on Number 16. The students who caught the overcrowded 111 (which was referred to as one-one-one) were jealous of our route: we had the coolest bus driver, and fewer passengers crammed into the seats. They weren't wrong, but also Graham (our driver) complained to his boss too often and rocked the boat (or bus?), so they kept denying his requests for an upgraded vehicle; we spent most of our highschool transit in seats without seatbelts, and on a bus without air-conditioning.

While 14 had an 'oldest students at the back, youngest at the front' ecosystem, 16 had a cultural agreement that St John's kids sat at the back and Nambour High kids sat at the front. I was bullied just as much on 16 as I had been on 14—and people were just as interested at throwing mandarin segments at me as ever before—but the strange war that developed between our private and public schools helped me unite with my peers the way only a common enemy can. Soon people were bullying me less, but only because I was helping to harass those Nambour High kids. The bullied became the bully, and so the circle of highschool life continued.

Every student loved Graham, but now that I look back on my time on 16, I think that our parents would've had some issues with him if they knew what he let us get away with. The same freedoms that we loved him for would have bothered them, I suspect. Our bus trips were filled with misbehaviour, and some of the most influential formative experiences in my teenage years.

This is where I made an active decision not to join a popular clique at my school, where I formed crushes and broke hearts, and where once a fellow passenger's mother tailed the bus from Coolum to our school and we had to be escorted up the hill to the counsellor's room to make formal statements regarding what we knew about our friend's safety. It's where I went from trying to impress my peers so they'd stop bullying me, to learning how to stop reacting to their nonsense and continue being myself.

When people ask me what my most embarassing moment is—the thing that keeps me up at night—the situation that always comes to mind happened on 16. I was napping on the bus, half-asleep but counting the stops, and using that to figure out which one mine was. Once we turned off the motorway, went around both roundabouts, and pulled over, I stumbled off the bus. But then I looked around; the bus had made an extra stop, and I had unknowingly stepped off several blocks from where I should be.

I had to walk all the way down the street to where my mum was waiting in her car, stressed about the fact that I hadn't arrived when the bus did. The next day, Graham asked me if that stop was more convenient for me; he could stop there every afternoon for me if it was. I had to awkwardly say no. Looking back on this now, I've no idea why it embarassed me so much; I've certainly done worse and objectively more mortifying things. But this one gets me.

Part way through year twelve—my final year of highschool—Graham quit his job. Or he was fired. The rumour that went around was that he was asked to do something unreasonable at work, and he told them to 'get fucked' and left. It's hard to know whether there was any truth to that story; I'm not even sure where it came from.

Graham was replaced by a grumpy old man who nobody liked. He never waited at the bottom of the hill for the straggling students, and so people became much more likely to miss the bus if they didn't hurry from their final classes. He refused to put up with the misbehaviour we had exhibited for years, often yelling at us and sometimes calling the school to report us. Once, he stopped on the side of the road and refused to budge, even after we all fell quiet and sat well-behaved on the blue patterned seats.

This is a story that my mum hates me telling, but it's one of my favourite stories about her. It is one of those stories that made me realise how my mum could be a force of nature, and how I wanted to be like that when I was an adult with enough agency to make change in the world.

While we sat on the bus, not going anywhere, our bus driver smugly lording his control over us, I called my mum. I explained the situation, letting her know why I would be home late. She was not happy. 'Put him on the phone,' she said.

I distinctly remember standing up from my chair, and walking up the aisle of the motionless bus, the phone still pressed to my ear. 'My mother wants to talk to you,' I said when I reached the driver's chair, with as much sass as I could muster. I passed over my phone, they spoke for a moment, and he returned it to me. As I walked back to my chair, the engine rumbled to life and the other students whooped and cheered for my mum—and for me, for facilitating this exchange.

See, my mum gets things done. Inspiring.

I made friends and lost friends on 16. I laughed and cried, I slept (and sometimes fell off seats), I had things thrown at me and I threw things out windows, I read books and did homework, I shared MP3 earbuds with a guy named Luke and sung along to Jack Johnson, and I spent hours reflecting on who I was and who I wanted to be. According to my calculations, I spent something like 500 hours on Number 16 during my highschool years.

Catching the bus to school was practical and unavoidable but, outside of school hours, the bus became a symbol of freedom. I used to walk to the stop on the esplanade and catch the bus either north to Noosa Junction or south to Sunshine Plaza. Sometimes I did this with friends and even boyfriends, but in my memory, the people fade into the background. I just remember the freedom.

Buses have played so many roles in my life. I used to catch a taxi to the Nambour Station from school, and a bus from there to the university, back when I was studying a course while still in year eleven. I remember getting changed in the bus stop at the bottom of the hill before I left, so I wouldn't have to sit in classes in my school uniform. I used to do my creative writing readings on the bus.

I also remember catching the bus from home to university for the first six months of my full-time studies because I didn't have my licence yet, or to Buderim for lunch and shopping inbetween my classes.

The bus was a symbol of my childhood, and my adolescence. It was a place of suffering, and a place of joy. Some of my strongest, clearest memories of my school years are contained in those poorly air-conditioned tubes with their red leather chairs with their chewing gum and graffiti covered backs. Even more than the memories I've shared here. Perhaps they will find their way into future entries.

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