Bus Ride to Kep: A Story of Differences

Image by Scott Haber

Image by Scott Haber

KEP, Cambodia — “Would you like a VIP ticket?” “Why not,” I thought to myself, as I proceeded to thoughtlessly purchase my first ever bus ticket.

I sat in the back row of a mini-van. Though, there are only 3 seats, we sat 4 to a row. To compensate for the lack of space, my knees hug on to one another and my elbows glue tightly to my sides. The trunk is over stuffed with luggage; A fact I am reminded of each time a bag knocks into my head. The driver blasts electronic music and swerves over poorly maintained roads, using both lanes of a two-way road.

My seat is sandwiched between a male and female, both of Western background. Their frequent sighs serve as audible expression of their displeasure. The person to my left relentlessly fidgets. He goes in and out of sleep, constantly shifting his position, none that he remains in for more than a few moments. The lady to my right, maintains a look of agitation on her face. She voices her displeasure with the situation – not to anyone in particular – but to anyone who will listen.

A few hours into the drive, we stop at a gas station. Another mini-van was also refueling. This van was dilapidated: the exterior was coated with splotches of dirt colored white and rusting paint. The windows were hinged open. And it was devoid of any seats. Everyone was seated on the floor, every inch of the floor, as the bus had an unfathomable amount of heads packed inside. Further, the door of the trunk was ratcheted open and a wooden platform extended from the base, serving as a small bench, where more passengers sat. This mini-van was seemingly a “local only” bus.

Fascinated by the ability to maximize space, I went to take a picture. While taking the picture an old man sitting on the trunk bench smiled at me. As I returned his smile, a deeper feeling of sadness lingered. Here I was, a white male tourist taking pictures with an iPhone. Why was I born into privilege? How do I have so much when others have so little? How can I use what I’ve been given to help those born into different circumstances?

My contemplation was abruptly broken. The smiling old man, with teeth a decaying brown color and cracked enamel like a creviced landmass, started pointing to me. He motioned to the roof, presumably saying there is room for me on top of the van. After processing his insinuation, I began to laugh, only momentarily composing myself to shake my head no, and return back to my van.

But this isn’t about a funny interaction. It’s about the differences between the people who ride said busses, rather the differences in reactions.

For several minutes I was able to observe the other bus: no one was sleeping, no one fidgeted, no one was on their phones; no one even looked distressed. Rather, they all sat there in stillness. Though there was a sea of bodies cramped into a small space, there were no signs of resistance or struggle.

How did they react to their situations so differently? Can the difference in reactions to bus rides reveal larger difference in reactions to life?

In the western world, we live in cultures that perpetually try to improve themselves. Our cities are constantly being developed, our technology incessantly advanced, and our politics /economies are always under repair. This isn’t just the larger picture of our society. On an individual level we constantly seek for improvement: buying new things, striving for better bodies, aiming for more money, and seeking more knowledge. While there is nothing wrong with improvement (especially if we are to strive toward a more sustainable future), problems arise when we, as individuals, have a compulsion to always improve everything. As when we constantly try to better ourselves, we become consumed with striving for more, and lose appreciation for where we currently are. We become engrained with the mentality of: if we don’t like something, we don’t have to accept our situation or change our mentality. Rather, we can seek for an external solution.

Further, in modern societies, we live at the apex of technology: automated intelligent personal assistants, self-driving cars, even nannying robots. The advancement of technology is with the intention of making our lives easier, better, more convenient. While technology poses invaluable benefits, the truth is: life isn’t always convenient. Through its’ hardships, its’ up and downs, its’ trials and tribulations, life can be anything but convenient. No matter the technology, we can’t always improve our situation. Yet, the more we lean on technology, the more we reduce our intrinsic capacity to deal with the totality of life. This, taken with a perspective of “there is always some external solution,” has reduced our capacity to deal with life’s obstacles. As often, the answer isn’t to change our external environment rather our internal one.

Who can better handle an uncomfortable bus ride? The population used to working in the country side, waiting for seasons to change, rain to fall, and plants to harvest? Or the population who gets an Uber as close to the door as possible with optimally short arrival times? This isn’t just about patience and acceptance with a bus ride, this is patience when we wait in line, acceptance of others who may frustrate us; this is patience and acceptance with ourselves.