Thursday, July 28, 2011

Getting Around

My earliest memories of a car ride is no good. For some reason, I tended to get car sick. This went on till I was 10. We had a taxi uncle who lived in our terrace row, so we often enlisted his yellow top cab service. He sometimes took us to school, sometimes to North/South Bridge Road. He got so familiar that we even made up a ditty about him, or rather my aunt and mother did. I'm afraid it's rather X-rated, and it does sound better in Cantonese. I think it was because folks found him a little talkative and ham sup (lecherous).

Taxis back then were mostly of the Morris type, single front seat and back. Single front seat? you ask. Yes. Think of it as a couch. Maybe it was because of this that my car sickness arose. Most of the time, I couldn't see what was in front. So a short ride would put me in nausea jeopardy. It was highly unpleasant.

I loved riding trishaw though. Each ride was like 20 to 40 cents. If there were more of us, we would huddle at the front, holding on to the guard rails. When it rained, the trishaw uncle would roll down a transparent plastic sheet to shield us. The pitter-patter of rain on that sheet was quite unmistakable, as were the see-through patterns on it.

I rode in a school 'bus' probably until end of P2. I put that in apostrophe because it was actually a VW van that carried more children than it should. If you had ridden in one, you'd know that it had windows that opened up only a little, same kind of windows the VW Beetle had in the rear. So it was very stuffy and uncomfortable especially when children were late on a hot day. It didn't help that there was a smart mouth bully riding with us. We got into a fight once. It became a "I don't disturb you, you don't disturb me" kind of stand-off. No, he was not from my school. He came from the neighbouring Mattar East. I was pissed when they pulled down my school instead of his. Come on, our school was the first in Singapore to have a library with terrazzo flooring. That had to count for something, right?

After school, we often waited for the school bus along Mattar Road, which was also accessible via the back gate of the school. There's an open space there and vendors would set up their carts to hawk their stuff. A popular one (needless to say) sold toys. Another one sold waffles. A woman accosted kids on the footpath with her home-made pin-ball game. This same woman would sometimes sell malt candy, the kind one would whirl into a ball on two short little sticks. In Cantonese, it's called mark ar tong. Sometimes a man who sold peanut bars would turn up. He would use a large F&N bottle as a rolling pin to roll and beat out the peanut dough into a layered bar. It's delicious. You can still buy this kind of candy from Hokkien cake shops. One such shop is Gin Thye Cake Shop in Sembawang.

Waiting for our school buses, we would often engage in our little games like One Leg, Zero Point and Block. One Leg was a catching game where the catcher had to chase the others on one leg. Zero Point was played with a long elastic band made entirely of rubber bands. You skip on one leg whilst trying to hook the other with your free leg. When a set is completed, you do the 'zero point' by hooking the band set at the holders head height. Block was a game we played using the black markings on the concrete  floor in our waiting area. It formed a natural 2x4 and 2x6 grid (all depending on how many players were involved). These markings were actually the concrete expansion rubber strips in the floor. In Block, team players try to block the opposing team members from getting across. If it's a 2x6 grid, then there would be two players blocking at each of the three levels. At times, we used the same grid to play Kok-Kok. In this game, you stand on one leg to kick a piece of stone around the grid. You would lose a turn if your stone rested on the grid lines (sometimes we'd draw the grid with chalk) or if you have kicked your stone out of the grid. The more usual games were Five Stones and Chatek.

My school wasn't too far from my home in Geylang. It was only 15-20 mins by bus. I don't remember how I got started with public bussing... it just happened. For my school area, many of the buses terminated in MacPherson Estate, so I had a number of choices going back because Geylang Road was the main arterial road that led to many places. At first the buses were single entry/exit type. They did not have doors and you had to be careful to not fall out. A long seat the width of the bus would be in front behind the drivers cab. If you sat in this, you would be facing back. One time, a girl fell asleep on her ride. When the bus turned, she slid from one end to the other. She woke up rather embarrassed. At another time, an old lady plopped from that long seat to an opposite front-facing one when the bus jerked to a stop. She was ok but her false teeth took needed readjustment.

This kind of bus was often used with No.61, a bus I took often home. It was a single entry/exit bus so it wasn't that big. Look-wise, it didn't have the usual flattened face of most buses. In fact, it had a kind of hulking presence when seen from the front. It was rounded at the top corners... maybe to help it run faster. And boy, was it nimble and fast. I remember we almost fell off a cliff racing through a dusty road in Changi. With no doors, you could literally see the road fly by!

I know some folks cannot ride looking back, they'll get nauseous, like I did in the cab when I was younger. The ride in this kind of bus sometimes got very hot because the windows tended to get stuck. You either couldn't close them or had problem opening them up properly. The problem is that they were the up-slider sort, the kind you had to lift to open. And many a times you had to jerk them left and right to get it loose. Most annoying. And the catches were often coated with grime.

These sort of buses were easy to dent and they rattled a lot. But because there was only a single doorway in the middle, it was also the only bus you could play daredevil with. You do this by being the last person to board on an overloaded bus. Then, holding on for dear life, you feel the wind rush at you with your butt inches away from the traffic below. Sometimes the ride was free because the bus conductor couldn't be bothered to reach you. In any case, you wouldn't have a free hand to dig for fare money either.

At times, I pity the poor bus conductor, especially in a crowded bus. I mean the fella is there to collect payment and issue a bus ticket. He didn't have to squeeze through bodies like he was in a stadium at a popular football match. Remember, these buses had no aircon. You would often see them with a towel in their collar or a hanky somewhere to soak up sweat.

I wonder where you can ride a bus with a bus conductor now. The nearest experience is perhaps riding a train. They still have conductors who come and check on the validity of your ticket. In a bus back then, the conductor would often click-click his ticket puncher to tell you he's around. And also to remind you to pay up if you hadn't already. He would wear a green pouch with a few sleeve pockets for different types of change. Depending on how far you went, he would issue you the appropriate ticket. The tickets would be in stacks arranged in a row on his small hand-sized metal 'clipboard'. The tickets were of different colors indicating different charge amounts. A small white elastic band held them down in place. The numbers indicated the stage at which you boarded, often marked as smaller numbers next to the bus service numbers at the bus stops. These plates were usually red in color. If a bus travelled the same route either way, they would be differentiated by a green or red side service number plate. 

Each ticket was serilaised with four digits and as mentioned had columns of running numbers to indicate the fare stage where you had board. If you had boarded at the start of the journey, say, the terminus, the conductor would punch the number '1'. This helped him to keep track of your journey. People sometimes cheated by buying a cheaper fare and rode the bus for further. Just don't get caught when the bus inspector boarded. He (and later she) usually wore a white official-looking shirt and could order you off the bus.

I would at times observe the tickets the conductor had with him. It's quite the thrill to get a ticket with four similar digits, not unlike striking 4-D. I did manage that one day, snagging a ticket with four zeros. I spent the next day fending off my classmates wanting to trade with me. Yup, public bussing could start you a hobby collecting bus tickets. I still have my collection, together with the many stickers I've collected from that uncle who sold toys outside my school. Many years later, I met him again. By then, he had a shop in Marine Parade.

Strangely, when TIBs came along and introduced OMO (one-man-operated) bus rides, I did not pay attention to the tickets anymore. Somehow a machine issued ticket wasn't as charming as a hand-punched one.

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