Power and Privilege on a Public Bus

Stifling heat. Human bodies. Stale air. Constant shifting, swaying, strenuous balancing. You nearly nod off, but a sudden jolt almost throws you headfirst into the metal pole. Your only respite is the fresh breeze and picturesque views from the open windows, and occasionally some local tunes on the radio. Welcome to the ubiquitous public bus system in Sri Lanka.

While cheap and frequent, bus travel in this small island country can be either a relaxing scenic voyage or a taxing exercise, depending one’s luck. I had been warned early in my trip: Always try to get on at the starting stop where the bus is empty, or risk standing for hours. Even when sitting, one has to be wary of the reckless driving. One time I even saw an 180-lb man get, quite literally, thrown out of his seat during a particularly sharp turn along the steep mountain roads. Imagine.

In any case, last week I made my way from the Southern coast of beaches, old Dutch forts, and coastal flair to the central Hill Country of tea plantations, nature hikes, and misty mountains. Knowing that I had 10 hours of travel via four buses in one day, I set out with a fighting spirit. Either sit or perish, I told myself.

A few hours into the third leg, something interesting happened. The man who had been sitting next to me got up suddenly, but asked to keep his seat. Ten minutes passed by. I was beginning to wonder what had happened, when, all of a sudden, an old man emerged from the crowd. Then it all made sense: The man had been saving a seat for his father the entire time! I wondered if he had ridden from the origin stop for this sole purpose. If so, it would have been touching, but not entirely surprising given the country’s heavy Buddhist presence and Confucian influences.

Thinking about that possibility, it suddenly dawned upon me that the public bus was essentially a microcosm of power dynamics in the wider society. We all paid the same fare, but some had it much easier than others. Sitting in my comfortable window seat, I could easily turn to the window and admire the scenery, enjoy the cool breeze against my cheek. But how often do I choose to turn around to check if a childbearing woman or an elderly person is among the crowd, eager for a moment of rest?  With the continuous onboarding and deboarding, the task of protecting vulnerable populations required nearly constant vigilance. I had easy excuses at my disposal: I was tired, I got on first, I needed the window for photography, et cetera.

In health and development we often talk about protecting the rights of vulnerable populations. We argue for equity over equality because it takes into account the differing starting points. We use fancy terms like Access Frontier Analysis to highlight the systemic nature of the problem.

The scary thing is that sometimes we forget–or at least I find myself forgetting–that we as individuals are part of this system, in each and every moment of our existence. The flip side of working for a social cause is that it gives one a false sense of security: that we are doing our best, that we are doing enough. In reality, there is always more we can do.

Meanwhile, a young girl boarded the bus and maneuvered over to the old man. Almost immediately, she slipped off her schoolbag and slid it into the old man’s lap. He took it in without batting an eyelash. I remember being surprised by the societal norms that this simple act revealed. Though he was three generations her senior and a total stranger to her, it was a given that the burden was collective and that access to resources (in this case, the seat) was to be shared, regardless of gender, race, or any other qualifier. I wondered if that bag would have been accepted so easily anywhere else in the Western world.

At the end of the day, we are all on the same bus headed for the same destination. Some may get on or off earlier than others, but our paths undeniably crossed for some time. If we each remain aware and observant, we would have a much better chance of spotting injustice. We’d be better at practicing what we preach, not just in meeting rooms and classrooms, but outside as well.

When was the last time you turned around from the window to look at the crowd?

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One response to “Power and Privilege on a Public Bus

  1. It is nice to see simple acts of kindness of my country through the eyes of a foreigner. 🙂 simple things that we miss to notice…

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