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The island of Malta does not exactly have a central bus station. Instead, it has the Funtana tat-Tritoni, an open-air fountain in the middle of the capital city Valletta, which is home to a frenzy of bus-related activity. From early morning until late at night, fume-belching buses sweep around the fountain, picking up passengers, negotiating log-jams and stopping for the odd half-hour rest.
As well as the crowds of Maltese commuters that could be seen thrusting their way around the vehicles (office workers, school children, elderly nuns), I also noticed a good number of nerdy-looking tourists who were photographing the buses, recording mysterious details in little notebooks and generally getting in the way.
I was not at all surprised. You see, Maltese buses are rather special. They run on a unique owner-operator system, much like taxis in Britain. Drivers buy – and in many cases, build, or inherit from their fathers – their own buses. They alone are responsible for running and maintaining them. At night, they park them outside their houses and, in some cases, actually inside them.
The vehicles themselves are striking. Since 1995, they have been painted canary yellow (in the 80s they were green and before that they were colour-coded by route). But there the consistency ends. Anybody can buy, build or adapt his own bus, apply for a licence and take to the road. If it is yellow and it moves, and you get a licence, you are away.
For this reason, the Maltese bus is the very definition of quirk. Each vehicle is as singular as the personality of the man who drives it. As the afternoon wore on and the heat rose, I saw oversized chrome grills and bulbous headlamps, visors overhanging windscreens like massive baseball caps, hooters and shrines and strings of stuffed toys, badges and symbols and patterns.
I struck up a conversation with a couple of nerdy tourists. The average Maltese bus, I discovered, is 35 years old. Many have been around for 50 or even 60 years. After World War II, enterprising Maltese men purchased old British Army vehicles, stripped them to the chassis and welded hand-made bus bodies on top. Amazingly enough, many are still in operation today.
But not for very much longer. Come 3 July, they will be replaced by a modern fleet of Arriva buses, under the banner of Transport for Malta, or TfM.
But enough of that. I would like to linger with the old, beautiful machines just a little while longer.
No traditional Maltese bus would be complete without a collection of slogans hand-painted on the back. I spent some time recording these in my notebook. Here is a brief selection: ”Forever young”; ”Tracy Star”; ”Speed of light”; ”Chelsea Nigel”; ”Travel magic”; ”Life in heaven”; ”Reliance”; ”Babozz”; ”Zunzan”; ”Dominant”; ”Get one free”; ”Eat my dust”; ”I wish you triple you wish for me”; ”You’re my own time lover”; ”Living dreams”; ”Simply the best thank god”; ”Panorama elite 3″; And my personal favourite, “I don’t care what people say – strong enough”.
I went to buy a cool drink at one of the stalls around the fountain. It was there that I met Charlie Xerri, a gentle, grey-haired bus driver with owlish glasses and a slight stutter. He pulled out a crumpled, black-and-white photograph of a Maltese bus. ”This was taken in 1968,” he told me. He pointed to a 16-year-old boy posing next to the bonnet. ”That’s me,” he said. “I was just starting out as a conductor. And that’s my dad. The bus used to belong to him.” Like the other owner-drivers, Charlie had received compensation from the Maltese government and the offer of a position at Arriva (although, he said, Arriva will not pay very well).
But being over 55, he was also offered voluntary retirement, which he accepted. ”Some of the younger drivers are very angry,” he told me. But he just feels sad to see all this colour drain from the island. But it makes practical sense. The old buses are polluting, unreliable and uneconomic. As a result, most people drive. Malta is the most car-dense and congested country in Europe. A modern bus system is sorely needed. Nevertheless, he said, it will break his heart to see his old bus scrapped. He shrugged and said he had to get back to work. I asked if I could come along to see his bus. We walked out together towards the fountain.
There she was. A shoddy and magnificent yellow bus, hand-built in the 40s by Charlie’s father. He fired the engine, waved and rattled off on his way. As he did so, I caught sight of the slogan on the back of a nearby bus. It read, “All for nothing”.