By Bill Ackerbauer
It was a remarkably well-behaved chicken. Plump and massive, it sat like a glossy-feathered black Buddha in the lap of its owner, watching me with one unblinking eye. The bird neither clucked nor fussed, content to be stroked occasionally by the old woman as we sat side by side on the crowded bus that would take ten hours to reach the other side of Jamaica.
I’d picked a bad weekend to visit friends on the North Coast. Mudslides from a recent tropical storm had made a mess of the main road across the mountains, so buses traveling from the south had to take the coastal route around St. Thomas Parish on the eastern tip of the island. From where I was staying, in May Pen, the trip to Port Antonio would have taken half the time if the road hadn’t washed out. But I was an 18-year-old exchange student on a break from school, and there was nothing better to do than spend a day on a cramped, hot bus beside the woman with her bloodshot eyes, her toothless smile and that fat fowl.
It was 7 a.m. on a Friday when I left the house and walked down the dirt track and over the bridge into downtown May Pen, pausing to let a small but menacing herd of goats trot across my path. I caught a mostly full bus to Kingston: mostly full is better than empty, because the buses don’t roll until the seats and every square inch of standing room are filled with passengers. Choose a seat on a mostly empty bus, and you’re liable to wait an hour for it to start moving. A person in a hurry can always pick a bus that appears to be filled to capacity, or even jump onto one that has begun to move. The greedy thugs who wrangle passengers and collect the fares are always able to find room for one more, even it means pulling a rider in through a window in a tangle of sweaty limbs.
That particular morning, I was lucky to get one of the last open seats on a bus that was filling up fast, as the ones bound for the capital usually do. It headed out of May Pen, past the bank and the post office, past the drugstore and the Kentucky Fried Chicken and on its way to Spanish Town and then Kingston. I got off at the chaotic terminal near Trench Town, a desperate, flyblown section of the capital where a few months later I would witness a riot — from the safety of another bus — whose purpose I never learned, but whose burning tires and outraged screams are indelibly etched into my memory.
The terminal was a slightly more peaceful place the day I jumped off the bus from May Pen and quickly spotted one headed around the big bend to Port Antonio. This vehicle, a baby-blue former school bus, was nearly empty, so I grabbed a seat and settled in for some downtime. A man reached in through the open window next to my head and, like an angel of vice, promptly sold me a pack of Craven ‘A’ cigarettes and a mercifully cold Red Stripe.
The beer, combined with the long wait and the oppressive heat, must have lulled me to sleep, because when I awoke, the bus was bumping along a pot-holed stretch of country road. Sunlight was winking off the dirty pastel squares of houses and the corrugated metal roofs of the ramshackle rum shops.
And to my left was the chicken.
There’s nothing quite like waking up on a moving bus in a foreign country and being startled by the reptilian gaze of a chicken just inches from your face. After a moment of shock, I looked up to see the face of the person carrying this strange cargo. Her smile was wide enough to reveal discolored gums, and her tongue clicked with amusement – tch, tch. I said hello, and she nodded and mumbled something I couldn’t make out.
We sat together for hours, the bus crawling up and barreling down hills, but there was no conversation. When we reached Port Antonio and passengers started to stir, I realized with some alarm that my legs had both gone numb from the long hours in a seated position. The old woman must have sensed my problem, because she sprang up from her seat, tucked the chicken under one stringy arm and helped me stand with the other.
I thanked her as we climbed off the bus, and she nodded, mumbling again. She carried her bird off toward the waterfront, and I stumbled up the hill toward the Bonnyview Hotel, shaking pins and needles out of my legs.
Bill Ackerbauer is a writer, editor and one-man jug band who teaches journalism at the University at Albany. He lives in Johnstown, N.Y.