Thursday, September 11, 2008

Minibus adventures (part II of our Hua Shan trip)

By Kevin

As Wes and Ruth boarded our minibus back from Hua Shan to Weinan, I hurried over to a little store to buy us some water, figuring a shop in town would sell it for significantly less than the 5 RMB they charged on the mountain. 1.5 RMB bottles in hand, I hurried back to the bus, discovering that Wes had needed to use his “angry voice” to insist that the bus wait one minute for me to return before the driver left. That would have stunk, being left behind. I could have found my way back, but I was tired and it didn't sound very appealing.

We were surprised that the driver would want to leave with empty seats, since the bus only had seats for maybe 16. At 12 RMB apiece, the 10 passengers would only bring in 120 RMB (like $17). Surely they'd have a hard time breaking even on gas on the 2-hour drive.

Disappointingly, about 10 minutes down the road, in the next town, the driver pulled to the side of the road. At first, I thought he was picking up more passengers, but he wasn't. Instead he went into a store and sat down, poured some water and proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes eating a bowl of noodles while our stomachs growled, anticipating our first trip to Weinan's famed McDonald's (the only stand-alone McDonald's I've ever seen in China, let alone the only one with a drive-through). So this is why he was in a hurry to leave the bus was dinnertime.

I thought back to our journey to Hua Shan in the morning. Just before we got to the mountain, a policeman standing in the center of the road stopped our bus and made the driver pull to the side of the road. Angrily muttering something under his voice, he did.

The driver got out and hurried over to the police car parked at the side of the road and began bargaining with the police officer as the ticket-taker on the bus pulled a bag out of a locked compartment in front of us and brought it to him. She said something to the half-dozen passengers who had boarded mid-trip: the ones without seats, who were standing in the aisles. A few muttered things under their voices, but they exited the bus without a fuss. They knew the risk they were taking when they boarded the full bus: it's illegal for long-distance buses to fill the aisles with extra passengers. The trick is that 9 times out of 10, the law isn't enforced. The fines aren't stiff enough to stop the practice, so usually it is worthwhile for the driver to take on extra passengers. Clearly this sort of thing had happened before and the driver was prepared.

Wes overheard a passenger explaining to us what was happening.

“There were too many people on the bus,” he lamented, explaining that the driver was bribing the police officer with “several packages of cigarettes” so he wouldn't have to pay a fine.

“China isn't like America. In America you have laws, don't you?” the passenger said, going into a diatribe about the state of law and order in China.

He said he didn't mind buses taking on extra passengers. He was only frustrated that enforcement is inconsistent. Some officers enforce the prescribed fines, while others can be paid off with cigarettes.

By the time the evening driver returned to the bus and revved it up, we the sun had nearly set. We were ready to be back. Midway through the two-hour journey, the 18-year-old ticket-taker realized that Wes spoke Chinese. So she struck up a conversation with him.

In the middle, he asked us about what minimum wage is in America. Apparently, she was curious if most people in America worked on contracts or some other basis. He explained that he was excited to talk with her because usually blue collar workers in China don't speak very good Putonghua—standard Chinese--just the local dialect, so it's hard to talk with them.

He learned that the girl's family owned the bus, so she doesn't get paid at all, but her family earns anywhere from 4,000 RMB to 10,000 RMB per month in profit by operating it – a really good chunk of change for a family in small town China. He also discovered that the girl actually had a foreign teacher in high school. Apparently, there have been a handful of schools in the rural areas who employed foreign teachers.

When we got back, our legs ached. Even though we've made a point of using the stairs rather than the elevator most of the time to get to our third-floor apartment, our stiff legs told us we'd had enough exercise for the day. So we pushed the third floor button and staggered back to our apartment, exhausted. “I'm glad we went,” I told Wes. “At least I think I am.”

“Yeah, give me a couple days,” he admitted with a grimace, figuring that he'd appreciate our trip more after our legs healed a bit.