The mango and cashew trees have just started to flower. We are in the mist of mid-winter — a winter far and wide as the ocean and sea that we experience back in Holland. The accompanying dew is everywhere to be seen as the sun sets at 6 p.m. in the picture-perfect setting on one of the Goa’s numerous beaches dotting its 105-km coastline.
The real attraction on this evening is not the weather but my travels on an overcrowded, private-owned but public, transport bus, which will be of intense interest. The whistle blower, or conductor in local terms, is the main character in my short trip from the coastal village in Cavelossim to Margao, the commercial center of Goa. Margao is a good 17-km drive away.
The outside of the bus was painted in multiple colors, similar to the multitude of colors the women wear as dress every day. Fortunately, there was only one color on the inside and its sitting capacity hovered at something around 50-60 passengers.
Among the numerous instructions found on the inside of the bus were "only 19 standing passengers allowed," "no smoking," "reserved for women," and "reserved for handicapped."
The first journey from the village starts at 5:30 a.m. All the buses on the route operate on a rotation basis.
The whistle blower is a local man. He is not the type of whistle blower who reports corruption from within an institution, but a bus conductor, operating on the various inner routes of Goa. He brings to a halt the movements of the vehicle with his unique whistle, and also collects ticket fees from the passengers.
The whistle blower blows the whistle and the bus comes to a halt, even if it is not a designated bus stop.
The privately owned vehicles are not the only buses playing on the roads in Goa. The former Portuguese colony (until 1961) has also the state-owned Kadamba transport corporation (KTC), which has a uniform color for their fleet of buses and a uniform schedule. The conductor is accountable to his immediate superiors and is easily distinguishable by his uniform.
Sadly, the KTC buses are far and few between. They cater to the entire state with an area of 3,702 square kilometers and a population of nearly 2 million.
The conductor on the private buses is not distinguishable from the passengers, but the whistle is his only weapon to make him stand out. He wears no uniform. He does not use a mechanical whistle. A man new to the conditions would wonder whether this man is trying to blow a kiss to his wife and, presto, suddenly you find the man inserting his greasy, sweaty fingers in his mouth to unfold his magic whistle.
The intensity sound level and punch of the whistle is sweet music for a devoted music buff. The decibel level has special signals for the driver, which one comes to understand over a period of time as one gets familiar with the joy ride on the overcrowded buses.
There are no fixed bus stops, no fixed times, and irregularity is the order of the day.
Mind you, there are bus shelters at bus stops built by the local self-governing body, or Panchayats, as they are called locally at the village level. In Goa, the bus waits for you at your door step, even as you put on finishing touches of make-up or finish getting dressed for about five minutes.
The road transport authority has a schedule which has to be adhered by the buses. Traffic rules only exist in the rule books. The whistle blower and the driver are the bosses of the road.
People wait for the bus to make their way as the timings fluctuate with the whistle of the conductor.
The whistle blower is also a conductor, or ticket collector. But it might be better to call him a money collector. Seldom are tickets issued to passengers. No records are kept of how many people are riding, and his boss would have a hard time keeping track of money he pockets at the end of the day if tickets are not issued. A benefit for the bus owner is that because there are no tickets, he does not have to pay the passenger tax.
If the owner is honest, he cannot survive in the business. He must also bribe the local police to keep them from harassing him. So, at the end of the day, whatever the amount of cash the whistle blower doles out, the owner must accept it. Antagonizing the police and RTO officials is like killing the hen that lays golden eggs.
The driver envies the whistle blower, as he has a horde of college girlfriends ready to profess their love if the whistle blower makes a move. The pretty lasses are bowled over by the enormity and sweet talk of our whistler friend. At sunset, when it is time to return home, the conductor has a larger kickback for the day, while the driver has to settle for whatever his friend shells out to him.
The lusty-minded have forbidden desires released as they are sandwiched between two members of the opposite sex. Some more daring ones try different tricks and end up getting a slap on the face for their antics in the crowded bus.
A cause of concern in recent years has been the increase in transport on the narrow roads, which have remained the same for the last 20 years. Old timers recall 20 years back the public transport system was much worse. The craze of drivers speeding on the narrow roads has led to violent deaths.
But for all the pushing and jostling in the bus, Goans are thankful that they do not have to face the situation where one travels on the crowded bus top of a private vehicle or inside trucks, as in other Indian states such as Bihar and Orrisa.
So at the end of the day it was a unique experience traveling on the Goan bus with my wiling friend — the whistle blower — a character which I am trying to play before my Goan friends, sitting as I am in a small village bar frequented by the elderly men and young people seeking their quota of liquor.
The decibel level of the sound in his whistle is a mystery for some, but fortunately I understand it just like the driver. I can blow a whistle standing on the roadside to bring a moving bus to a halt. The passengers, onlookers, and conductor, along with my friends, have a hearty laugh. The driver gets red in the face having to make an unprofitable bus stop and for having being taken for a jolly good ride by the new Goenkar in Cavelossim town. A Goenkar who speaks to the driver in the local language Konkani while everything falls in place.
So it is time for me to put my legs up and have another beer as the bar man puts finishing touches to the fish dishes in his kitchen. The aroma is difficult to resist after tasting the spicy fish dishes over the last five years in what is known as Susegado (laid back) Goa.
Armstrong Vaz, Qatar
Author: Armstrong Vaz- Qatar