GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
I can never get my head around this question, let alone answer it: How come the ‘Maltese Bus’ is so famous and revered, that it graces the mantelpieces of homes in all corners of the world? I know they are attractive to look at – but so are many other things – and I admit they are ancient, ornate and colourful, but is that a plausible reason for intelligent, well-travelled tourists to become so besotted with these little steel boxes on wheels, that they want to buy them, bring them home, and love, honour and cherish them for evermore. I find it astonishing, but it’s true, and it has become too much of a mystery for my minuscule brain to unravel. It has also become a great money-spinner for the makers of these little model busses, and for the hundreds of souvenir shops that stock a myriad of them in all shapes and sizes, flog them like hot cakes, and in all of this, indirectly promote Maltese tourism throughout the world.
Of course, the big difference between the colourful imitations in the shops and the real thing, is that the little souvenirs are silent, harmless, and don’t emit poisonous pollution, while the real live vehicle is the opposite in every respect. For ten years I’ve vibrated around Malta in those rickety tin boxes, my inside feeling like a cocktail being shaken, my body absorbing pneumonia-inducing drafts, and my lungs clogged with the passive smoking of lethal and obnoxious gases. The old pot-holed roads of the island carried thousands of these antiques for as long as most Maltese living today can remember, and while the passengers gracefully retired after their life’s work, these old ‘bangers’ and their ageless drivers worked on to shake, rattle and roll a whole new generation.
The drivers were a law unto themselves. No age restriction existed, because most of these old veterans actually owned the busses, and were on self-employed contracts with the government. Their longevity, demeanour, and laid-back disposition, made a perfect match for the old vintage wrecks they were driving. They sauntered along at their own speed, oblivious to timetables, load restrictions, or pollution controls – nothing ever fazed them.
I’ll tell you a little story that always gives me a chuckle whenever I recall or relate it, an incident that illustrates clearly the casual approach of these archaic operators, and would be really funny, were we not talking about the delivery of a vital public facility, and the only one available to the travelling people of Malta. I was returning from a day in the city of Valletta, and waiting at the bus terminus to board the 49 to Bugibba. Like the taxi-rank system, you took the one at the head of the queue, and your luck on the day determined the age and well-being of the antique you got – that day mine was down, so I eased myself into a true relic of old decency, driven by another survivor of history, and with a full load of perfectly contented, swaying passengers, we wound our way out of the city in the general direction of Bugibba.
It was mid afternoon, the atmosphere on board was casual and relaxed as we snaked along, all moving in harmony with the gentle shimmying of the old shaker. We made a few stops, said goodbye to a few and hello to a few others, in a time consuming interlude, as the addled old cashier struggled with the intricacies of “this newfangled money they sent us from Europe to replace our beloved Maltese Lira.”
Almost at our destination, we made our penultimate stop, that would certainly have been our final stop, were it not for the ingenuity of our much-maligned driver, who held his nerve and resolved a tricky situation without fuss or bother. The big gear lever, standing tall in the front, refused to engage when requested, and seemed to have popped out of its slot below, just swinging around like a stick in a bucket of water. We were stuck – couldn’t move an inch. Heads turned as we looked bewildered at each other, wondering how far we had left to travel, and how we would cope with an unexpected long trek on a hot afternoon. Without an explanation, an apology, or even a glance back in the direction of his passengers, our driver got out, went around to the rear boot, returned with a large toolbox, and preceded to unscrew the large steel plate that surrounded the gear lever. The removal of the plate left a big gaping hole in the floor, but also gave access to the gearbox.
Back in his seat, with the plate, gear lever and tools strewn over the floor, our driver/mechanic calmly, without a word, or even the slightest gaze in our direction, continued the journey, changing the gears with a large screwdriver and giving us the little added bonus of a bird’s eye view of the road moving beneath us. Sure where else would you see it except on the little quaint and charming Island of Malta?
Alas, that’s all ‘water under the bridge’ now. At long last, the little old iconic yellow busses are no more – banished into oblivion – not at the behest of the Maltese or the government, but because of pressure from the EU, insisting that enough poisonous gas has been inhaled, demanding the retirement of the entire fleet of wrecks, the elderly owner/drivers be compensated, and the only derogation granted was the retention of the fleet of models on the shelves of the souvenir shops.
So, on the 1st July 2011, a new dawn awakened for the long suffering commuters of Malta. A Swedish company, Arriva, launched their brand new fleet of luxury busses, rescheduled the routes and timetables, and hiked the fares to previously unheard of levels. This complicated reorganisation caused massive upheaval for the travelling public, created chaos and confusion, and almost brought down the government.
The daily newspapers had pages of horror stories of people stranded and scorching at bus stops in isolated villages, commuters arriving hours late for work, and long cumbersome bendy busses causing havoc, trying and often failing, to negotiate sharp corners and narrow thoroughfares. A lot of these problems could have been avoided if enough preparation and forward planning had been done. Such a huge change – unwisely made at the peak of the tourist season – using a whole new team of inexperienced drivers, was bound to backfire and blow up into mayhem, widespread confusion, and frustration.
They have now seen off Arriva, replaced them with a Spanish company and hopefully, at long last, Malta will soon have an efficient, streamlined transport service, and all the travails of the past will be forgotten.
But I have to tell you, I haven’t, as yet, joined the queue to buy a little model yellow bus for my Irish mantelpiece – I just might now. It would be a nostalgic memory of a unique phenomenon – ‘The Maltese Bus’
From ‘It’s a Long Way to Malta’ (An Irishman’s Gem in the Med)
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