The buses in Malta deserve a special post all of their own. These ancient relics will no longer be in service from July 3rd 2011, so I feel privileged to have experienced them. Depending on which information sheet you look at, there are between 90 and 102 bus routes across Malta, which is effectively the same size as the city of Sydney (and some may argue has similar traffic problems as Sydney!). The island is divided into zone A (most central), B and C (to the furtherest edges of the island), with most lines covering zone A and most only operating in and out of Valletta. The cost of a ticket in zone A is 47c (euro cents, so about 60c AU) for one ride to almost any route over the island, although I’ve noticed that when you give the driver 50c you don’t get any change – which I didn’t mind too much as the 1c and 2c pieces were tiny and fiddly.
Now these buses are so old they are almost comical, and I loved them! They are bright orange and only have one door to get on and off. The driver still issues tickets and handles the money, and sometimes the door is located two seats behind the driver, so there is a human traffic jam with people getting off and others trying to get on and pay. I was amused by how many people would fit in the isle, which was not much wider than an average size person. If you didn’t know where your stop was, I found it was easier to sit up the front or you had to push and shove and squeeze your way past everyone in the isle to get out, and in the process you risked the driver taking off before you reached the door.
The door – if there was one in fact – was never closed, so you could leap on or off at any stage and I laughed at the idea of buses like this back home. The driver simply slowed down a little and people often hopped off as the bus was still moving. It did make it easier, and marginally faster, for the bus didn’t have to gear up again to get going. Mind you, it seemed the buses only operated in second gear. They took off in second, drove at second, and slowed down in second to allow people to alight! The noise was amazingly loud, since all the available windows were open and the space for the door let in even the engine noise.
It was the small things I found amusing and took photos of, which I’m sure some people thought I was crazy for being interested in. The system to notify the driver you wanted to get off was similar to our trams, you either had a button to push, or a cord to tug on, or some people simply stood at the entrance and told the driver they wanted him to stop/slow down. What I found most interesting was the location of the buttons to push, as they were on the ceiling of the bus at infrequent locations. The cord style was usually hooked up to a large replica bicycle bell and made the same noise as a bicycle bell! Some of the buses had a seat that was perpendicular to the rest of the seats, and aligned with the front left side of the bus with those passengers facing the side of the driver and had to negotiate their toes being trodden and mind their eyes for careless elbows of people pushing to pay for a ticket and squeeze themselves into the isle.
The seats were not made for overweight people, and although there were some larger people on the bus, everyone still squeezed two to a seat and often some additional luggage or groceries. Some bus drivers charged people extra for luggage, some didn’t. Some were cheerful enough, some were downright miserable and not forthcoming when asked for directions. I had one grunt at me when I asked for a ticket to a destination I was unsure of the location or pronunciation, and when he continued to hold out his hand I guessed I hadn’t paid him enough so added 10c to the pile. He threw the money in the tray and gave me a ticket worth only 47c anyway!
One bus had a suspicious looking floor that I was uncertain would hold up with the weight of everyone on board, and another had a full bucket of water underneath a seat. I noticed that one when it splashed onto my foot when the driver braked suddenly – which was a regular occurrence. The funniest experience I had on these buses was on the way to Mdina. A middle aged local woman got on the bus and when she sat down she made the sign of the cross on her head and chest. This caught my attention, and I didn’t have to wait long to find out why she was praying… It had started to rain (yes, apparently it does now rain in June in Malta) and the roads were obviously slippery. Not something that usually concerns bus passengers I’m sure. This bus however must have had tyres that were as bald as a baby’s bum because the bus began to slide all over the road. The driver wasn’t going all that fast either, but corners became rally corners, with the rear end of the bus sliding out as soon as the brakes were applied. Even stopping at the next stop became a sliding halt rather than a graceful stop. I couldn’t stop myself grinning at the shock and uncertainty on the faces of the other tourists on the bus and enjoyed myself immensely.