Welcome to Morocco, My Friend

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“You tell him fuck off.”             

“Haha. I’m not doing that.”

“Yes! You tell him ‘FUCK OFF!’ and he fuck off.”

“Well he might fuck off if you told him to but he wouldn’t if I did.”

It had seemed a good idea to get to Morocco the classical way, through Spain by train and across to Tangier by boat. But it had meant two long days of travelling and an evening ferry which sailed an hour late (it apparently always does) and no longer comes into the old port but to Tangier Med, fifty-odd kilometres along the coast.

I had taken it for granted that the bus into town would stop right outside the terminal building, but it didn’t, and there was nothing to tell me where it might stop. I asked people at the stores in the port but they gave me instructions so vague they were of no use at all; the security guard on the gate was the most precise with “out on the road” accompanied by an expansive wave of the arm. There were several roads.

The sort of people who loiter around every port in the world approached me with ostensible offers of help but their tone and mannerisms seemed better suited to an early-hours argument about a spilled drink. I walked away from them all. Eventually, a girl who worked in the port showed me the way: through the car park, over a verge, out onto the main road, up to the top of the hill.

The only space on the bus was on the back seat, either side of a big guy with his legs spread wide and the look of a man who is never too far from considerable violence. Nobody, it seemed, dare sit next to him. I stood. But then a helpful Moroccan tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out that there was space on the back seat, so I had to go sit there. Then the driver flung the bus round the corner and I fell on top of the hard guy.

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He picked me up with a look of extreme impatience and when I struggled with my bag, grabbed it with one hand and slung it into the corner of the seat. I squeezed in next to it and tried to become invisible.

Another shifty guy got on at the next stop and gave me the hard sell for an unofficial taxi, but I declined that and set off walking towards the Medina.

My guidebook said that muggings were “not unknown” along the Cornice, but that slippery formulation – popular with writers who are not sure what they mean – could embrace everything from they have happened on rare occasions to they happen all the time. I walked briskly, in any case, with my 20 kilo pack and 10 kilo day bag.

The closer I got to the old Medina, the more figures slipped out of the shadows and walked in step beside me.

Buenas noches,” they tried. I ignored them.

Bon soir.” I looked straight ahead.

Buena sera.” I kept on walking.

 “Hello.” I quickened my step.

You have hotel?”

 “Yes thanks,” out of the corner of my mouth.

You want hash?”

No thanks,” still not looking at them.

They peeled off and melted back into the shadows, except one who stuck with me all the way, keeping up a constant monologue.  “Welcome to Morocco, my friend.

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 “There are good guys and bad guys everywhere,” he said. “I’m a good guy.” He told me that several times and I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

Ask any of these guys,” he added, gesturing towards the men sitting in doorways, as if I could really approach them and say – in English – “excuse me, but is this guy a good guy?”

The old Medina is a wiring diagram of alleys and I tried to orientate myself while pretending I knew exactly where I was going.

I can help you, my friend,” said the good guy, “just tell me where you want to go”.

Eventually, he wore me down, and I did tell him and he took me up into the Medina but I refused to follow him down the quieter, darker alleys and stood ready to run if – as I expected him to any minute – he pulled out a knife.

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But then I saw a sign for the hostel and relaxed a little. It seemed conceivable that he really was a good guy. I gave him 20 Dirhams for his trouble and he suddenly became very angry and demanded 200. I had only just arrived and was not sure whether 200 Dirhams was a little or a lot and was certainly not going to whip out my iPhone and look it up. I gave him the money with bad grace and worked out later that he had earned about £15 (US$20) for 10 minutes work, which is a lot more than I used to get as a lawyer.

Heroin,” spat the manager of the hostel when I told him the story; “immigrants,” he added. He was the Moroccan equivalent of a Daily Mail reader.

You tell him fuck off,” his assistant advised, if anyone else approached me.  He checked me in and I walked round the corner to find a restaurant and ended up in the Petit Socco and sat at an outside table at Cafe Central, which – though I didn’t know it then – was Burroughs’ local when he lived in Tangier, strung out on heroin, writing the disturbing, hallucinatory masterpiece, Naked Lunch.

I went to look round after dinner, up the street to the Grand Socco, down the next street and into the souks where the stalls were still trading, even though it was late.

My friend…” a man called. I ignored him.

Mon ami…”

Amigo…”

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The lane which I thought took me back to the Petit Socco turned out to be a dead end.

My friend…”

And the man I thought I had shaken off ten minutes before had, in fact, been following me all the time. “My friend,” he said, with about as much friendliness as angry men who tack “mate” to the end of “have you got a fucking problem”.

I ignored him and walked away but he hurried after me. “There are good guys and bad guys everywhere. I’m a good guy.” A different guy but word for word the same lines.

I stopped, turned abruptly, and went in the opposite direction, but he stuck with me like a missile locked on target. “I can help you my friend.” I told him I didn’t need any help; I told him to go away, although not in the words suggested by the guy at the hostel.

What’s that yellow building?” I asked, pointing at nothing at the bottom of the street. It is an old trick but he fell for it and as he looked down the street, I sprinted up it, back to the Grand Socco, and down the first street – the wrong one – towards the port, wondering how I was going to find my way back to the hostel.

At the bottom of the hill, though, I recognised the street, past the bars, along the front where I had walked with the first dodgy guy, and the steps leading up to the Petit Socco, then the alley which led through to my hostel.

I got back and slept fitfully, waking at intervals from complicated nightmares.

© Richard Senior 2016

Journeys in the Sun

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It was the last day of April, well into New Zealand’s autumn, but the sun was warm and the sky was a searing blue.

The single-track road cut through the Marlborough wine region, past the big, internationally-known Brancott Estate. The vines had turned yellow and stretched to the horizon on either side of the road. Beyond them were mountains in front of mountains in front of still more mountains. The distant peaks were a hazy blue, the closer peaks grey, the closest green.

I spent the night in Nelson, a pleasant enough town with a few Edwardian and Art Deco buildings and umpteen galleries and craft shops. I was glad, though, that it was only one night.

A man and woman in front of me in the supermarket queue squabbled over precedence. He was technically first but was standing between two check-outs, which she argued was “neutral territory” and that by standing there he had forfeited his place. They worried the point tirelessly like a nasty little dog with a bone and I wondered how empty your life had to get before it came to that.

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A big, silly ginger Tom loitered around my hostel and strolled in whenever he got the chance. He was a stocky, solid thing, a regular tough guy: a Clint Eastwood of cats. There were scars on his nose, dried blood on his lip and his ears were serrated; he clearly liked nothing better than to belt the crap out of other cats. But with humans, he was just a ginger blancmange.

He butted my leg and wrapped himself round me and rolled on his back with his feet in the air, purring and dribbling with a stupid grin on his face. If all the cats he had leathered could have seen him then.

It took all morning and most of the afternoon to get to Christchurch, but it was a lovely journey, again. The InterCity bus motored back through the Marlborough vineyards and on through Havelock, which the driver told us over the microphone was the world capital for green-lipped mussels and lost himself in reveries about green-lipped mussel pies.

He kept up the commentary and pointed out the old school of William Pickering, whom he called a ‘rocket scientist’. Pickering would have demurred. Physics, electrical engineering and telemetry. Come on, it’s not rocket science.

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I gazed out the window at golden trees and crimson trees, wrapped around hills, reflected in streams; at great shards of stone thrust skyward. There were gentle hills one minute, great mountains the next. There were cows and deer and hundreds and hundreds of sheep.

We drove out to the coast and traced the outline of the island down, passed seals basking on the rocks and penguins staggering ashore.

On and on through the mountains, along roads so twisty I thought of the original Italian Job and Matt Monro singing, “Questi giorni quando viene, il bel sole, la-la la-la la-la …”

The bus interchange in the middle of Christchurch was wrecked in the earthquake of 2011 and the bus stops now in the inner suburbs. I jumped out, got my backpack and set off walking into town to the hostel. Then, halfway there, I remembered the other bag I had left under the seat and turned round and went back for that.

© Richard Senior 2016

Vineyard image: By Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Slow Boat to Amsterdam: a Sailing Diary

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In the summer of 2012, I worked a passage from Stavanger to Amsterdam on the Dutch tall ship, Wylde Swan. I kept this diary, of sorts, with the idea of writing it up into a feature:

Thursday, 30th August

Arrive in Stavanger in the late afternoon. Blustery day. Call up the number and they come to collect me in the tender and take me out to the ship, which is moored off a small island. Dutch skipper, German mate, Danish engineer, German cook.

The Swan was originally a steamship, built in 1920, on a German flag. It was a herring boat, built for speed. A Dutch outfit bought the hulk in the Noughties and refitted it as a two-mast topsail schooner – biggest in the world, apparently.

More of the crew arrive in the evening, two Dutch, one British (but born in the Netherlands).

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Friday, 31st August

Bright and sunny in the morning. Not sailing until evening so get the tender into Stavanger, look round, take photos, get lunch.

Back to the ship. Three more crew aboard, one German, two Dutch.

Sail around 5pm.

I’m on the 1pm-8pm and 1am-6am watch, so I’m on straight away. Weigh anchor. Slip out of harbour. Stop alongside another ship for the last crew member (Norwegian) to jump aboard. Get a couple of stay sails up. South, south, south…

Can’t sleep. Read until midnight. Shaken awake at 12.30. Back to work.

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Saturday, 1st September

Still heading south. Up on the roof at 4am sweating a sail down, gathering and tying. Trimming and tidying; hauling ropes and cranking winches.

Sailing ships are incredibly noisy things: banging and clanking, creaking and groaning. The wind howls across the deck, slapping hard against the sails. It means I can shout and swear when I repeatedly make a mess of coiling a sheet, and nobody hears me.

The sun is coming up and I want to stay and watch it, but I want to sleep more. It comes easily this time.

Ship pitching heavily when my next watch starts at 1pm. A few of the crew are seasick. But it’s a dull watch. Not much to do. A couple of sails up, a tack, but mostly pootling along on the motor. Cloudy and cold but no rain.

I stare out to sea for hours. It sounds dull but it’s more peaceful than anything I can remember. No rushing, no deadlines, no shouty emails.

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Sunday, 2nd September 

The work always seems to be in the early morning watch. Strong wind across the deck. Ship heeled right over. Deck soaked. Hard to stay upright. A few involuntary sit-downs. Stretch the safety net across the leeward side so no one goes overboard. Stay sails back up. Exhausting first two hours then quiet after that. Quiet and cold.

Only me and the watch leader still standing. Everyone else on the watch is seasick. I can understand it. The ship rolls and pitches and suddenly the horizon rears up at a 30 degree angle. But thankfully I don’t get seasick.

We reach Danish waters around midnight, down the coastline, past the oilfields. Rigs lit up like Harrods at Christmas. The computer shows tankers all around us but none is in sight. The watchleader shows me how to fill in the log and I do it next time.

Still cloudy at lunchtime. The last watch put up the jibs and top sail. It looks more like a tall ship should now. No mainsail though. It takes 10 men to raise it. They call it “the Bastard“.

Two thirds of the way down the Danish coast by 2pm, heading for Germany. I belatedly hoist down the courtesy Norwegian flag. We forgot about it until now. Don’t suppose it matters.

There was talk of being in Amsterdam tonight but the skipper thinks lunchtime tomorrow at best. We take it for granted now that we can be anywhere in Europe in two hours, and anywhere in the world within the day (more or less). Everyone travelled like this until a couple of generations ago. It used to take a couple of months, I think, to get to Australia.

Another quiet afternoon. Ship porpoising gently. Cruising at around 6 knots. A cruise ship going north is about the only thing I see for an hour. Not even any gulls here. The mate has resorted to cleaning the ship. Must be bored.

And then it starts drizzling.

Slight change of course to break the monotony. Re-trim. Swing on the grinder. Make a mess of coiling the sheet again. How hard can it be for goodness sake?

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Monday, 3rd September

The 1-6 watch is hard. Just as you start to get properly to sleep, some sod wakes you up and makes you crawl from your bunk and put waterproofs on.

We are in Dutch waters now, I think. Tracking 190 degrees. Cruising at 7 knots. Busy waters here. Tankers all along the horizon.

A quiet watch. Some trimming of sails, nothing too exciting. Music and tomfoolery on the quarter deck.

Dutch coast in sight at 10 30. Sun out too. The last watch has pulled the sails down. Just motoring all the way now: into Ijmuiden, through the locks and down the canal to Amsterdam. Due in early afternoon

Sunbathing on the half deck until my watch starts; sunbathing a while longer as well. Nothing much to do.

On the outskirts of Amsterdam we monkey out on the nets round the bowsprit and pack the sail. Six of us wrestle with the bloody thing to wrap it into a sausage, get it onto the bowsprit and tie a daisy chain round it. People on the bank whip out phones to photograph us.

We arrive around 3pm, throw fenders over the side and moor up. Climb the rigging – like something out of a movie – to lower and tie up the topsails.

 Grab my bag, say goodbyes and wander towards Dam Square.

© Richard Senior 2016

Journeys through the Rain

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The rain had followed me all the way down the North Island. It didn’t rain all day, all every day, but it did rain every day, and some days it rained all day. Then I got to Wellington and it stopped, and stayed stopped as I took the ferry across to Picton and buses on to Nelson and then to Christchurch.

But it was raining again as the TranzAlpine Express pulled out of the station. I wondered whether its promise of “the trip of a lifetime” was meant to apply in all weathers, but I had not read it literally in any case.  It depends on the rest of your lifetime, I guess.

The train spent the morning threading its way through an operatic landscape from east coast to west, from Christchurch to Greymouth, and the rain spoiled none of it: not the illimitable mountains, not the great swathes of forest with splashes of yellow and brown in amongst the dark green of the pines, not the fathomless gorges, not the fast-flowing rivers way down below. I would not think to call it a trip of a lifetime, but it was a nice way to spend a morning in New Zealand.

It was drizzling in Greymouth, which suited it. The girl on the desk cheerfully admitted that hardly anyone stayed there anymore. There was a For Sale sign outside the hostel. A German couple were the only other guests. “I love NZ but not Greymouth” someone had written on the wood of a bunk in the dorm room I had to myself.

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It stayed fine, for a change, the next morning, as the InterCity bus chugged down the coast road and stopped off in the little town of Hokitika for a lunch break.

It stopped outside the National Kiwi Centre, which in the happily small-town way of New Zealand is a modest clapboard building, next door to Jeff Evans Plumbing. They had New Zealand eels, which they told me were anything from 85 to 100 years old and a tuatara, which they called ‘the oldest living dinosaur,’ as well as the kiwis, which I never managed to pick out of the simulated darkness.

The rain started to slap against the windows as the bus continued south to Franz Josef, where I had a hostel booked. It felt like a ski resort with its log cabins, chalets and homely wood smoke. The air was mountain fresh.

There was an anonymous poem from the nineteenth century framed on the wall of the hostel. It was simply called The Rain:

It rained and rained and rained.

The average fall was well maintained 

And when the tracks were simple bogs 

It started raining cats and dogs. 

 

After a drought of half an hour 

We had a most refreshing shower 

And then most curious thing of all 

A gentle rain began to fall. 

 

Next day but one was fairly dry 

Save for one deluge from the sky 

Which wetted the party to the skin 

And then at last the rain set in.  

Franz Josef Glacier was hidden behind cloud, so there was nothing much to do but go to the Glacier Hot Pools. There are three pools in the middle of a rainforest with glacial water heated to 36, 38 and 40 degrees. It is open air, but with a canopy to keep out the rain.

I only had time, in the morning, to see the glacier from the bottom of the mountain, but it was still impressive from there: a bluey-white torrent of water, eight miles long, stopped and frozen, filling a crevice in the mountain like expanding foam.

I got back on the bus, then, for the last time, for a final dash south to Queenstown. It was an eight-and-a-half-hour run, but I had got used to spending all day on a bus by then.

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Needless to say, it was raining. But if it blurred the sky into a miserable smudge, it at least made the waterfalls dramatic. The driver stopped, briefly, to let us get out and scramble through the forest to go look at one.

The road twisted inland, past Mount Cook, and wound tightly round the mountains – sharp right, sharp right, sharp right, sharp left – and the driver kept the speed up, taking a racing line in the big old bus when he could see far enough in front.

In the late afternoon, we shot over the Shotover River and pulled into a car park in Queenstown.

© Richard Senior 2016

Decoding the Tokyo Metro

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It looked like a multi-coloured version of the squiggle people do when they are trying to get a pen going.

It might have been a wiring diagram for a Toyota Camry had it not been for the words “Subway Map” in the bottom right-hand corner. They were the only words in English: the station and line names were all in Japanese.

I compared it with the subway map which came with my guidebook, but it might as well have been for a different city. Neither seemed to reconcile with the map in the back of the leaflet I had picked up at a station I passed through earlier. It made no sense.

I got off at Shinjuku and went through to the ticket hall to try to find a better map. I remembered then why I had heard of Shinjuku: it is officially the busiest station in the world. Some 3.64 million people pass through it every day, roughly equivalent to the entire population of Los Angeles, or the combined populations of Birmingham and Greater Manchester.

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They all seemed to have arrived at once. I stood, bewildered, with my guidebook in one hand and my baffling map in the other, looking from one bank of searing neon to the next as busy people in suits knocked me this way and that.

There were fifty-one platforms to choose from, and two-hundred exits to leave by if I decided to bugger that and get a taxi. Somewhere amid the mass of humanity, under the kaleidoscope of neon, behind all the cheerful jingles to announce that a train was arriving or leaving, on one or other of the Yamanote Line, Chūō Main Line, Chūō Rapid Line, Chūō Sōbu Line, Shōnan-Shinjuku Line, Saikyō Line, Odakayu Odawara Line, Keio Line, Keio New Line, Maranouchi Line, Toei Shinjuku Line, or Toei Ōedo Line was the train I needed to take. There was only a 50:1 chance of getting it wrong.

I struggled with a combination of maps and signs, got on a train and counted off the stops. Then – to my astonishment – I was back in Ōimachi, right where I had started two hours before. All of the maps agreed that that was impossible. But there I was.

For a good two days, I tried and failed to understand why all the maps seemed so very different, how two stations could be adjacent on one map and have five or six stations between them on another. I followed signs through stations the size of airports, which took me up through three levels of platforms, out through shopping malls and down the street, round the corner, to a different station entirely. It all remained a mystery.

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Then I found out that there are two separate subway networks, the four publicly-owned Toei Lines and the nine privatised Tokyo Metro Lines, and another dozen or so networks of mass-transit railways, some owned by the state, some by private companies, which connect with, run parallel to and operate in much the same way as the subway network but are not technically part of it; then there are a further sixteen suburban lines. There are different maps for different networks.

It all made sense then and, in time, I could use the system without a map and a vacant expression. I thought that I ought to have got a certificate or something.

At rush-hour it hardly matters whether you know where you ought to be going. A Tokyo commuter crowd is like a fast-flowing river. Only the strongest can swim against the tide: the rest are swept along with the current, forced round obstructions and out into the open sea.

If the crowd transfers to the Hibuya Line, then so do you; if it takes Exit A, then you take Exit A as well; and if the crowd stops off at a department store to buy a tie then you need to think quickly what colour would go best with your shirt.

© Richard Senior 2015

Station image: “Rush hour at Shinjuku 02” by Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rush_hour_at_Shinjuku_02.JPG#/media/File:Rush_hour_at_Shinjuku_02.JPG

Night Bus to Bangkok   

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They told me that the trains were all fully-booked, but I had heard that before in Thailand.

It usually just means that you have to go out the station and down a side street to an agent who will – for a price – get a ticket biked over from goodness knows where. But the crowds who had flocked south to spend New Year’s Eve on the beach were now going home and, this time, the trains really were fully-booked. All that the fast-talking agents could offer was a seat on the VIP Bus.

A minibus collected me from Nopparat Thara in the middle of the afternoon and dropped me at the interchange in Krabi Town, where a confusion of travellers sat hugging their backpacks with fluorescent dots on their singlets.

Buses came and buses went. The staff shouted, flung their arms in the air and darted about. Travellers got up, looked around uncertainly, and hurried to the bus, but most were turned back because their fluorescent dots were not the right colour.

Orange was the wrong colour several times, until, eventually, a bus came to take me as far as Surat Thani on the opposite coast, where I arrived in a tropical storm. The rain drummed on the tin-sheet roof as I waited; water advanced across the floor. Travellers lifted their feet and hoisted their backpacks onto spare seats.

The VIP bus was a big six-wheeled, double-decker coach with luridly airbrushed flanks, similar to the one below. There were no frills beyond reclining seats and curtains to pull across the windows.

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I could no more sleep on a bus than compose a piano concerto, but that was okay because I had a pile of books for the journey. Then the driver turned off the roof lights and I flicked the switch for the reading lamp and nothing happened. Twelve hours, then, of lampposts, signs and crash barriers.

It was sometime around midnight, I think, when we pulled into the services with dozens of similar buses, all heading north to Bangkok and beyond. I threaded between them and went inside, then realised I had no idea which bus was mine. I had a feeling it was red, but it might have been blue, unless that was the one I had taken to Surat Thani, and I thought it was somewhere around halfway down the third, or fourth, or possibly fifth, line of buses, but several had come and several had gone in the meantime. I blundered from bus to bus, looking for clues, and found mine largely by chance. It was yellow.

Hours later, when I was about the only passenger still awake, we pulled into a lay-by behind a van, and I could see people milling about and hear conversation and lockers being opened and shut but could not work out what was happening. I thought it was the police, then I thought it was hijackers, then we set off again and I thought no more about it.

At something to five, I spotted tuk-tuks and temples and then the roof lights came on and the woman doled out hot towels and we stopped and the doors hissed open.

The bus was supposed to run to Khao San Road, the main street of the backpacker ghetto, but the place we stopped looked alien to me in the pre-dawn gloom through the fog of a sleepless night. I was mobbed by tuk-tuk drivers clamouring for business when I tried to get my bearings, so I ducked down an alley between rows of closed shops and came out into another road and tried again to work out where I was.

What street’s this?” I asked another traveller.

Khao San Road, man.”

I had walked down it dozens of times, but from early in the morning to late at night, it had always been crowded with travellers and hawkers and tuk-tuks and taxis and big neon signs and bustling bars; and now in the silent early hours, with everything shut and the lights all off and the travellers sleeping and tuk-tuk drivers busy with buses arriving a block away, it was an altogether different street.

I checked into a guesthouse and opened my backpack and saw that the string I never bother to fasten had been neatly tied in a bow, and I worked out, then, why we had stopped in the lay-by.

© Richard Senior 2015

Bus image: By Flying Pharmacist (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons