The bus from Qufu, where Confucius lived, to the mountain hamlet of Tai’an, is sticky and brown. Decades of exhaust clings to the threadbare seat backs just as the plastic armrests cling to the skin. When summitting a hitch in the road or fording a pothole, the entire bus rattles and bends as if it were fifty pieces of aluminum, tied together loosely with twine.
The ride is supposed to be an hour, but it takes an hour and a half when the driver picks up whoever waves his or her arms by the roadside. The new passengers are covered in dust, lugging babies, boxes of fruit, or bags of scraps. They are always eager to board.
Beside a wide bridge, we picked up a few more riders. My new seatmate was a tall, slim guy in his early twenties. He had a buzz cut and wore a striped button up, black pants, and shiny black belt, the standard issue for young professionals–the type behind the counter at the travel agency or selling mobile phones in street side kiosks. His shoes were brand new, nylon loafers with a gleaming stainless steel buckle. But the narrow, pointed toes were already thickly caked with yellow soil. The soil in this region is so fine that when there is no rain, the soil levitates into the air, a brown haze about ten feet high, permeating closed doors, clothing, lungs. He had walked a long way in the dust.
He sat next to me quietly with wide eyes. He looked first at the mildewed blue curtain tied back against the window, which was smeared with the grease left by tired heads. He peered at the red plastic ceiling light, aged to opacity save for the faint outline of a hundred dead moths. He looked at the tiled floor, with its strings of exit lights, mostly burned out. Then he touched the sticky plastic armrest, lifting it gingerly into place and then lifting it again to release it. He did this maybe twenty times with unbroken fascination.
“Where are you headed?” I finally asked him. He looked at me puzzled and a bit alarmed. I repeated my question, carefully enunciating as best as I could, trying to avoid the American twang that sometimes injects itself when I’m in a hurry.
His expression brightened with understanding, and he smiled excitedly. “To the City,” he said.
I nodded and smiled, turning back towards the window. But I felt he looked at me a long while after that, marveling, I think, at this foreigner with a funny accent and strange clothes, this person who had ridden buses before and lived in the City.
When we arrived at our stop, I said goodbye. “Take care of yourself,” I said simply, but I tried to convey in the tone of my voice, my full wish. For him, a short and gentle road from inexperience to worldliness, and for me, his sense of wonder.