I think it is safe to take the bus at night in Honiara. It’s not Port Moresby or Rio. But people do still get murdered after dark. A young civil servant was stabbed to death just before dawn one morning recently. And the cousin of a friend of mine was run over and murdered as he tried to find somewhere to buy cigarettes one night earlier in the year.
It is about 8pm and I’m on the street in Point Cruz waiting for one of the modified Toyota Hiace’s that serve as buses across the Third World. Taxis and SUVs drive past, occupants invisible behind tinted glass.
I’m under a streetlight but its glow doesn’t carry far. Occasionally groups of young men saunter by. Shocks of hair, jandals slapping the pavement, walking slowly. Watching.
There is a woman waiting for the bus, and it feels better not to be alone. But she’s anxious too. Almost as uncomfortable as I am. She looks Melanesian but won’t speak to me in Pijin, complaining to me instead in loud, broken, Australian.
“The street light’s no good mate. The council should fix it. Blaardy no good corruption mate.”
When the bus arrives it’s piloted by youths. Hip hop music is pounding from the stereo. The driver is singing and rocking back and forth to the beat. The conductor is manic, howling catcalls to girls on the street. I sit in the front seat by the driver. The woman seats herself as far to the back of the bus as she can.
For a while I’m able to enjoy the anarchy of it all. The exotic and the different. And the fact that I can negotiate this city. But slowly the other passengers start to thin out. The woman with the strange Australian patois gets off. Then more passengers. Then, at the second to last stop, the bus empties.
While they watch the curves and sway of a young woman as she sets off towards her house, the driver and conductor are talking to each other about something I can’t quite understand. Taking money. Taking $100 off someone. Taking money from someone, but I can’t figure out who.
I am on my own.
The driver looks at me expectantly.
“Savo Maket,” I tell him the name of my bus stop.
He turns, talking to the conductor and to me at once. Saying, in rapid-fire, slang-laden Pijin that I can’t quite follow, something about Savo, and danger and fright. I think he’s saying I should be afraid to go to Savo at this time of night. But I’m not really sure. All I know is that I am in the dark. Alone in the bus on the outskirts of town, on the edge of a squatter settlement, with two young men, who are talking about danger and taking things.
I’m swallowing and my mouth is dry. I imagine their plan: drive off further down the road. Where it is empty and unlit. It would be easy to mug me then. No one in Honiara, I think to myself, responds to cries for help from empty roads at night.
My mind races over a counter-plan. There’s the hand break. As we go past my stop I will pull on it as hard as I can and then jump. It won’t stop the bus but it might slow it enough for me to leap free.
We drive by the Reef Island settlement. Drunk men stagger about the road. Groups of youths look at the passing bus. The only reason I ever take the bus home at this time is that my bus stop is beyond the people here and the menace of young drunk men. But now isolation seems every bit as dangerous as street drunks.
Pull the hand break, jump and then run. The brake needs to work. My arthritic legs need to work. Pull the break, jump, run.
“Iu stay lo wea?” (where do you stay) the conductor asks me as we approach the market. The music is quiet now. The only noise in the bus is our voices. It is almost pitch black outside.
“Haus lo dea,” (the house over there) I say trying to sound confident. Trying, as if the tone of my voice alone might reach forward in time and change the end of the story. I point to home, where the front gate’s two concrete pillars are just visible down the road from the market. I’m not sure I should be letting them know where I live. But, I think, I need to keep talking to them. Need to sound confident.
“Ok,” the driver says, his face and voice unreadable. He passes the house, accelerates a bit and then pulls a big sweeping U turn off the space provided by a side road. We sweep round heading back towards town. And we bump to a stop in front of the gate
As we do I open the door. The car light comes on. And in its glow I see the young men aren’t men at all. They’re just boys. The conductor grins goofily.
“Good naet mate.”
I’m grinning goofily too. Just boys, and the only danger in that bus that night was that which they’d imagined for me walking around in the darkness on the end of town. That was what they were talking about when they delivered me to my gate.
“Um, yeah, thank you. Thank you. Gud naet.”
I hop out of the bus, fumble for my key ring penlight and use it do guide me the last few yards into the illuminated, understood world of home.