Katharine tells the story of a friend who worked in Rwanda, greatly enjoying her experiences in a land that has shed so many tears. It was on her return to Ireland that the friend became depressed, annoyed at the the pettiness and the emptiness of much of Irish life, thinking trivial and unimportant the things that filled the news.
The friend’s thoughts seemed appropriate this afternoon, attending a Christmas gathering of Filipinos from the Cordillera region of the Philippines in Katharine’s church. Being called upon to say grace before the meal, Dave the leader of the gathering, announced that I had been to the Cordillera and had ridden on the Rising Sun bus.
‘The Rising Sun bus’, I had forgotten the Rising Sun bus, I must have told Dave at some time and he had remembered.
On 2nd January 1991 from the bus station in Baguio, the Rising Sun bus carried us up into Mountain Province. The Philippines still had dangerous areas, the low intensity conflict between the Aquino government and the New People’s Army still claimed lives and terrorised communities. Mountain Province had its share of troubles, the village to which we were going had seen men shot by the army.
Looking back, the three nights spent in the little village of Kayan near Tadian seem much longer. The isolated rural community lacked many of the most basic amenities, the road to the village was mud and stone and inhibited easy transport. Walking out across the rice fields, we visited subsistence farmers whose simple houses were without running water and without electricity. The community nurse in the village aspired to having a refrigerator in which medicines might be kept. Yet there was a rich community life in a situation where there was frequent absolute deprivation
By Saturday, 5th January, it was time to move on. We would catch the Rising Sun bus at 4 am. Sleepily, we gathered at the centre of the village, where there was already a buzz of activity with women already about their daily chores. The single deck Rising Sun bus, with its huge knobbly-tyred wheels rolled into the village, it was full. Not full in the Irish sense, full in the Filipino sense. This was a country where we had counted 15 people on a motor bike and sidecar. There was a quick exchange of words and our bags were lifted inside the bus and hands reached down to pull us up onto the roof. We were going to make a journey on mountain roads that were no more than dirt tracks riding on the roof of a bus (I feared there might be some exclusion on my insurance policy). It was fine getting up, the problem was that there was very little to hold onto. I took a firm hold on a wire rack with one hand and a firm hold on the arm of our Filipina guide with the other, “This is very dangerous”, she said, “very dangerous”. At more than one point as we cornered and our view was the sheer drop into mountain ravines, I thought that we perhaps should have listened to the guide’s advice.
I went back to the Philippines in 2001, the country had improved almost beyond recognition, but the spirit of people who rode on bus roofs remained unchanged. The community, the laughter, the willingness to work and the warm hospitality remain as strong as ever.
The Rising Sun bus was the real world, a world entirely removed from the pettiness of life here. Does it really matter who wins Big Brother or You’re a Star or Celebrity Come Dancing? Ride on the roof of a bus and the world looks different.