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Riding in Buses with Natives

by Tamlin Wightman / 07.08.2010

A hunched-over toothless man has polio. Or whatever makes people bend that way. He mumbles to the large lady next to him. Her curves push at the bright silk of her sari. Her ears resemble dried apricots. An orange stripe parts her hair and a red dot sits between two pencilled eyebrows. She ignores the polio mumbler until they both exit the bus in a narrow street on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.

The creepy kid next to me on the bus is definitely a Speed Freak. Speed and heroin are pretty big here. Along with weed and rum. And Bob Marley. The kid is all verbs. Wriggling, singing, dancing and laughing. He keeps bobbing his head like Anthony Kiedis on stage with The Chili Peppers. A real Gonzo character.

Gonzo is fun, but not when it’s this close. I wanted off the bus. Unlike Rosa Parks. But I had far to go. The town of Flacq to buy grapes no less – and I was already quite a distance from the village of Trou d’eau Douce – which was home for my stay. Island life is definitely not as paradisiacal as the travel brochures imply. Hell the Bible is a truer portrayal of the world than a travel brochure! Anyway, I’m the only white face. The other cramped bodies are Indian, Creole and Chinese. Foreign tourists were probably sucking on 20 Euro mojitos in beach chairs at their hotels. I was set on integrating myself into “island culture”. Hence the bus.

Speed Freak is suddenly running up and down the aisle. Then he literally opens the emergency door and jumps. Sweet Jesus, I scream. Half of the passengers are Catholic – the Creole half. Still, no one is interested in me, so I’m safe from the stake. A dwarf woman by the window elbows my ribs – speaking French. She taps her wrist. Eleven I say with a smile. More people board. A pretty Indian girl with piercing blue eyes and a sparkling nose ring sits down next to me. Most Indian locals have nose rings but hers is extra shiny. I want to be her friend and am about to talk to her when she scoots from her seat to sit crammed elsewhere.

Was it me? Humiliated, I stared out of the window. Annie Leibovitz once said: “Years before it ever occurred to me that one could have a life as a photographer, I had become accustomed to looking at the world through a frame. The frame was the window of our family’s car as we traveled from one military base to another.” Run down houses, peeling paint, 3 legged dogs, cats in cages – was it art?

The bus finally arrived in Flacq. There were men in orange and red. Only men. With several long pins puncturing their bodies, cheeks and foreheads. A few had statues of Hindi gods on their heads. A religious procession. Others walked over hot coals and blocks of wood with pointy nails. What a show! I didn’t have my camera with me – but made like Annie and captured the chaos and excitement in the frame of my window.

The locals didn’t seem fazed but I was jumping out of my skin. Sheltered in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, the most action I’d seen was a donkey cart on Main Road. I watched the procession pass. And got off the bus.
That sparkling nose ring had given me an idea. I walked past street goods. Bananas alongside socks and toothbrushes. Posters of Indian gods and pirate dvds. Men kept shouting Taxi! Taxi! at me. At the first open jewelry store, I asked for a nose ring. “I’d like a nose ring,” I said, and picked out the sparkliest one. Then sat down to await the piercing gun.
But they only had a needle – no anesthetic, no rum, no gun. He jabbed it into the side of my nostril. I was ready to faint. When I could speak, I asked how to clean it, and they said, “There’s no need to.”
The street was a blur of cars, buses and saris. With grapes at last, I headed homeward.

On the bus back I felt local. My nasal rock dazzling. Still nobody took any notice. Expert avoidance. I returned to Annie’s window. It was a reality TV show out there – about a tropical island with unfriendly natives.

All images © Tamlin Wightman.

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