A recent car ride down the West Coast road to Parika sparked memories of my youth at Hague, and later Vreed-en-Hoop, in a time when a major factor in public transportation on that stretch was the unique Guyanese country bus totally unlike the mass-produced metal buses common to North America and Britain. With our smaller market and our fewer financial resources, our version was created by building a basic wooden superstructure on a truck chassis. These buses, in use throughout the country, were individual constructions – no two of them looked alike – with two doors at the front, one in the back, and rooftop accommodation for luggage and freight, reached by an outside ladder adjacent to the back door. Given their countryman ownership, the buses were all brightly painted, with colourful names. On the West Coast, I remember My Blue Heaven, The Hawk and Atom Bomb, and patronage tended to be a personal thing, so that travellers waiting by the roadside would often let an empty bus go by waiting for their favourite ride to show up. For the bus driver, (I remember Lucknauth on West Dem) who was often involved in ownership of the vehicle, being in front on the trip from Parika to Vreed-en-Hoop to catch the ferry to Georgetown was ideal for scooping up waiting travelers, and as a result there was often a good-natured kind of racing going on where passengers would become involved, either urging the driver to “slow down nah” (the senior folks) while the younger crowd would be more likely to be enjoying the speed. I remember a drive from Hague on one of those speed runs where, as we approached the Den Amstel turn, a young man shouted to the driver, “Look a corna hay; war wid um.”
I’m referring to a time when seniority was a dominant factor in the culture, so young people like myself were at a big disadvantage on the trip. If the bus was full, and an adult boarded, it was axiomatic that youths were expected to get up and give the adult your seat, but if a youth boarded a full bus, it was stand and wait for a vacant space. There was a trip down from Vreed-en-Hoop when a bus ahead of us had run off the road negotiating the very sharp curve at the Crane turn, and had ended up in the rice field on its side. It was rainy season, so although the passengers clambered out safely, they then came on board our bus, full at the time, and I had to get up and give a large Chinese gentleman my seat. Like the others boarding, he was soaking wet and covered in grey mud, so by the time I got off at Hague one would have thought I had been in the rice field, too; at least, my mother thought so.
Naturally, overloading was a constant condition, closely monitored by the police, especially as the buses neared the Vreed-en-Hoop police station, so bus drivers heading for the ferry would routinely stop at the Crane turn, about a mile from the stelling, off load the excess, drive to the ferry and drive back empty to Crane to pick up the extras. I often saw those rejects waiting at the roadside but never actually was one of the group – it must have been a long wait in the hot sun.
The wooden bus creature was also a way of life on the Essequibo Coast road between Adventure and Charity, and with my father’s farm in the Pomeroon, I would be often on a bus travelling that route. The service there seemed to be dominated by a man I knew as Kass (his name was actually Sugrim); I cannot recall riding with anyone other than Kass on that trip, but it could well be that I was choosing him instead of his competitors. I do recall Kass having a mischievous side. Passengers disembarking the bus at the rear would come to the front to pay him their fare, and on at least two occasions, I saw Kass giving the passenger his change and being told it was a few cents short. Playing a game, Kass would say “Oh yes, here it is,” and stretch out his hand with the coins while slowly letting out the clutch. As a result the passenger would be trotting alongside the bus to get the money just out of his reach. Kass would run him for a good 100 yards before relinquishing the coins. In retrospect, I never saw Kass pull this stunt on a female passenger; it was always a man getting the gears.
Writing this, I am reminded of another feature of the West Demerara bus which had space at the rear for large galvanized cans carrying milk picked up from various farmers along the coast; the driver would stop and the conductor would unload the cans as they went; that was on the morning drive. In the afternoon, heading back up with the empty cans at the back, instead of coming to a dead stop, the driver would slow down, and the bus conductor would hold onto the back door ladder, with one hand, and swing the cans gently into the parapet grass, without ever damaging a can and without requiring the bus to stop. As a youngster, I was intrigued by the almost athletic skill involved; those conductors were the cream. Today, of course, that entire wooden-bus regimen is no more. Modern minibuses and some hire cars dominate the West Dem road, and you never see travelers waiting at the Crane turn to be carried to the ferry. As we say, dis time na lang time, but the way my mind works I’m left wondering: how are the cattle farmers on the West Coast getting their milk to market?