The situation: You have been waiting for what seems like forever under a 35-degree sun for an illusive bus. After you finally spot it and signal the driver to stop, he glares at you and keeps driving. When, after a similarly long wait, the next bus arrives and the bus driver does stop, you happily get on, give a Euro as a fare payment and ask the driver for some directions. He grunts, signals you to take a seat and does not answer. A bit shocked, you walk away only to realise he hasn’t given you any change. The bus becomes packed to its full capacity and it gets hot and sweaty. And you wonder as you sit there in that rickety and overcrowded vehicle, ‘How do the locals put up with this?’ Here is something to put you in the right perspective.
The Drivers: Maltese bus drivers have a notoriously bad reputation with tourists. They are not government employees and for this reason, cannot be fired. A limited number of bus licenses were issued in the past and you can become a driver only if you inherit or get hold of a pre-existing licence. The drivers themselves tend to come from working class families and have limited education, usually dropping out of school at 16, when it is legally possible to do so. While English is the national language of the country alongside Maltese, it is very much the language of education and some families may decide to not use it in everyday life, hence the questionable English language competence of some drivers and the blank stares or annoyed looks tourists get from them when asked questions. To make your experience smoother, remember the following tips. Fares are paid to the driver once on board. When you pay your fare, always give the exact amount as it has become increasingly common for some bus drivers not to give change to tourists. Considering the insignificant amount of money involved, you will be met with angry looks if you give a bus driver paper money. If you don’t have the exact fare and he fails to give you change, avoid confrontation: it will only lead to a public display of annoyance which you’d probably much rather avoid. When it comes to the failure of some drivers to stop when signalled, you need to take your own responsibility here. Locals know that when all seats are taken they need to stand in the space in between, and it is polite to move as far back as possible to make space for new passengers. Some tourists seem to be oblivious to this and remain at the front or somewhere in the middle because it is more convenient, causing the driver to think the bus is full. Remember that he is subject to a fine if he has more than the stipulated occupancy number on board.
The journey: Every bus departs from a particular bus terminus, and contrary to what you might think, they do actually leave on time. The problem is that buses use normal roads (bus lanes are rare and usually also illegally used by cars) and can come across a varying degree of traffic, number of red lights and amount of passengers to pick up and drop off along the way, so the length of a journey on a specific route can differ greatly. Another common complaint consists of the fact that buses are often full during peak summer season. The best way to prevent being left behind is to, when possible, catch the bus from the terminus it originates from. Getting there may seem like an unnecessary detour, but it will save you time and most importantly, frustration.
The buses: While new buses have recently been introduced, some old noisy ones are still around. Sit towards the back if you are bothered by the engine noise and look on the bright side; these dinosaurs have a charm about them which can never be equalled by the new generation of vehicles, and riding one of them is an experience you won’t easily forget. It is true that they have no air conditioning, but simply push open their huge windows and enjoy the breeze.
Some good news: Despite a four-day strike in 2008 which put the entire country’s public transport system to a halt, the government decided on a public transport reform and has recently negotiated a buy-out, meaning that things will get better as bus drivers finally become employees, require training and face penalties for unsuitable behaviour. But these changes will take time to be implemented. Until then, think the way the locals do; they are grateful for the dirt cheap fares compared to those in other developed parts of the world, and they know that with some early planning and an Mp3 player with enough battery charge, the relatively short bus rides are not so horrible after all. Also remember that there are more than a few bus drivers out there who are friendly and helpful, so while you have been warned, don’t get too paranoid.