With only a few buses plying the routes of some of the roads in the rural communities, many of the drivers often times do as they please all in the name of earning a few extra dollars.
One popular misdemeanor was trespassing into other bus routes close by or even at great distances from which they were licensed to ply. Oftentimes oblivious to the stress their frustrated passengers go through having taken them on much longer and bumpier journeys than they had bargained for.
Many times we would protest to these detours, but with a defiant driver in control, the choice between the better of two evils had to be made. Either to ride on the bus for an additional ten minutes or to get off and take another transport that may not arrive for another hour.
I want to share with you an event on one of these detoured trips that could have cost my family the lives of two, that of myself and of my sister’s.
One of my smaller sisters and I had to travel a thirty miles round trip on a daily basis to the closest high school in the parish. In order to get to school on time, we had to be at the gate from a quarter to six and would take the first vehicle that came along, since the buses hardly stuck to their route and schedule. Sometimes we would travel by robot taxies, minivans or the large sixty-seater “Country bus” that occasionally plied the route.
This morning in particular the first vehicle to arrive was the big slow Leyland “country bus”. About a mile from home at an intersection the driver switched on his left indicator and turned, detouring from the regular route. Not daring to upset the driver my sister and I exchanged knowing glances at each other as we inwardly protested to this detour.
Now this road leads to two smaller farming communities, Windsor Forrest the closer to the main road was a mile away and Hartford the further was two miles away. The roads leading to these communities were narrow and winding. The surfaces were in dire need of repairs as they had deep crater-like holes. Large shrubs grew wildly all along the sides of the roadway extending onto the roadways. The region being of hilly terrain, had many of the roads built along the sides of the hills. Etched in the mountainside, the road twisted in snake-like curves with inclines sometimes as steep as fifty degrees. To the sides of the roads in some areas were gullies with sheer drops of up to seventy feet or more.
Having traveled in vehicles that have made this detour before, we expected that our driver would turn the bus around at Windsor Forest, the halfway point, and then we would head back to the intersection and continue on our way. But to our dismay, he continued along the road towards Hartford. The surface of the road to Hartford had even larger potholes than the ones we had just negotiated on the Windsor Forest road and had much longer hills with greater angles of inclination and deeper gullies to the left side of the road.
The driver had just driven over one of the shorter hills and was almost to the top of a second hill extending about a hundred feet long when a female passenger shouted “One stop driver!” He expertly steered the bus by the shrubs along the left side of the road and allowed the passenger to alight. The conductor collected his fare, slapped the side of the bus with the palm of his right hand and shouted above the noise of the engine “Your time driver!”
Still holding the break pedal with his left foot he pressed the clutch lever with his right foot the driver attempted to shift the gear lever into first gear with his left arm, while gently holding the steering with his right. However the gear stick refused to move even after numerous attempts.
There we were, about one-and-a-quarter miles away from the main road on a broken down bus. School was scheduled to start at a quarter to eight, and the bus was stuck in neutral and would not go into gear. Agitation and frustration began to set-in as a chain of thoughts began to run through my head. Getting another bus in this region was futile. Did it mean that we would have to walk back towards the main road to get another bus? What were we going to do?
With the bus broken my sister and I disembarked and stood by the side of the road with our heavy knapsacks on our backs. Other passengers did likewise and joined us outside while some remained seated in the bus.
The driver, conductor and handy man removed the engine cover and started do some repairs in the gear box. During the process of fixing and trying to get the bus to start they had, with the help of the male passengers pushed the bus over to the right hand side of the road and backwards down the hill about one hundred feet.
By this time, we had been standing outside for over thirty minutes, our legs had gotten tired and our bags were weighting us down so we went back to have our seats in the bus. Shortly thereafter the “mechanics” closed the gearbox, seemingly satisfied that they had completed their repair and was ready to go again.
Stones that were used to secure the wheels of the bus were removed. The driver switched the ignition key, and the engine rumbled into life. He went into the motion of shifting the gear stick and before he realized, the bus began rolling backwards down the fifty degrees hill. The unexpected motion of the bus alerted him that something was wrong. He added more pressure to the foot brake, but the bus did not slow. He quickly reached down and tugged at the emergency hand brake, it came up to it highest point but the bus still continued to roll.
With eyes seeming to pop out of his head from fright, the driver eased up out of his seat, turned to look over his left shoulder through the back window of the bus then frantically began to steer the galloping bus that was increasing in speed down the hill. Beads of sweat popped out on his brows and his biceps muscles bulged as he fought to control the non-powered steering to keep this monstrous vehicle on the road.
Catching a glimpse of the driver’s face, interpreting his body language, and feeling the frantic uncontrolled movements of the bus we all began to brace for the inevitable. Many of us held on to the back of the seats for our dear lives as our bodies began to jerk in motion with the frantic bumping of the bus as it fell in and roll out of potholes in the road.
As adrenaline began to circulate in our bodies, a few others, including my sister attempted to head toward the front doors of the bus to jump out, her movements were halted however when the driver’s voice resounded above the noises in our heads, “Sit down Pickney!” he shouted. My sister, still in a state of panic and with only the thought of getting out of the bus made another attempt to get up, but was again thwarted by another shout from the driver “ Pickney, me say you fi sit down!”
Within a minute that actually felt like hours, we felt the bus slowed to a halt. Before it could settle, we were all on our feet scrambling to get to one of the two exit doors, each wanting to be the first to get out of the monster.
Heading towards the back door we found an elderly lady who was in her sixties hurrying to get out. With her movements being slower than the rest of us, it appeared to us as if she was blocking the way. Voices cried, “ Move out of the way!” “Hurry up nuh!” “Give me pass!” all wanting urgently to get out, for fear that the bus would start rolling again down another hill about forty feet from where it had come to rest.
I am not sure if it was adrenaline setting in that caused her knees to give way, or if she was shoved from behind, but the next thing I knew the lady had fallen from the steps flat on her belly in the middle of the road. The frantic passengers oblivious to the woman’s plight, jumped over her fallen body to in order to get away from the bus. In between being scaled by the frightened passengers the woman managed to scramble to her feet and scurried off to the sidewalk.
The bus remained where it had stopped however and the bus crew used stones again to secure the wheels. With everyone frightened but unhurt, the mechanical apprentice team set to work again determined to solve the problem. Confidences rose when sometime during the crew’s fiddling and test-drives the bus began to work normal again.
Later with adrenaline levels somewhat reduced; we timidly climbed into the bus which started off down hill belching huge puffs of smoke from its muffler. Holding on tightly to the seat in front, I whispered many prayers to the God above praying that we would travel the fifteen miles of winding, hilly and pot-hole ridden roads to reach Port Antonio safe and in one piece.