x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Ticket to writhe

A bus trip from Dubai to Abu Dhabi has an air of unwanted adventure.

Terminal Illness: Abu Dhabi's main bus terminal during a rare quiet moment.
Terminal Illness: Abu Dhabi's main bus terminal during a rare quiet moment.

The road between Abu Dhabi and Dubai is a well-traveled one, and not all who have set off along it have survived to tell the tale. I am not just talking real carnage - although there is plenty of that - but when I found myself catching the bus service which thunders its way along that hazardous road dozens of times a day, I was a less-than-willing volunteer. Judging from the number of people who opt to navigate their own paths along that well-worn route - usually in reinforced 4x4s - I was not alone. In the UAE, the private car is king, and I couldn't help thinking those drivers knew something I didn't.

Unfortunately for me, without a driving licence or the budget to splash out on a Dh500 return taxi fare, I had no other option but to rely on the services of Messrs Al Ghazal and co. Leaving Abu Dhabi outside peak hours, my bus was half-empty and as the only female in the ladies' section, I had plenty of room to stretch out, catch some shut-eye and pass the 90-minute sojourn in relative comfort. In fact, I was so relaxed I curled up on two seats and only woke when we hit Dubai city centre just in time to peer up sleepy-eyed at the Manhattan-esque skyline.

I assumed the return journey would pass in a similar fashion. I could not have been more wrong. By day, Bur Dubai bus station is a fairly calm thoroughfare. But at night it is transformed into a rabble-rowdy marketplace, with crotchety passengers vying to get home as quickly as they can. And woe betide anyone who, like me, is brave - or foolish - enough to catch the last bus. The bus back to Abu Dhabi was heaving with passengers, with men desperate to get home, crammed into the ladies' section at the front of the bus.

Spotting the only vacant pair of seats four rows back, I gratefully heaved myself and accompanying bags into them — only to be shouted at by the driver for being so shameless as to take a spot in a section not reserved for the fairer sex. With all eyes on me and blushing furiously, I slunk back to the front of the bus and waited like a naughty schoolchild to be directed to the right seat. One seat was vacated when a passenger was bumped off - what sin they had committed, I know not - and I slid in to hide my burning red cheeks.

Alas, the trauma was not yet over. A young, pretty girl standing on the pavement outside began screaming at the driver in Arabic. From my pidgin Arabic, I could deduce she wasn't happy because she had booked my seat, although the tickets quite clearly stated there was no reserved seating. I had learnt my lesson from the unfortunate traveller who was booted off, and remained glued where I sat. But I didn't reckon on the bus driver, who insisted I move.

There was clearly a pecking order based on looks (what happened to age before beauty?) so I reluctantly made way for my pouting, triumphant rival, glaring at her as I slithered out of my seat once again. This was clearly war. But just as I was contemplating admitting defeat and spending the last of my hard-earned dirhams on a taxi, there was, to my dismay, yet another seat shuffle: an elderly woman was ordered out of her chair.

Our joint protests fell on deaf ears and as she clambered into the front seat next to the driver (noisy from the wheels underneath and choked with traffic fumes), I sank into her chair. The nightmare was far from over; there were still more passengers on board than seats and no one was leaving in a hurry. In the ensuing cacophony which erupted, there was a quite staggering - and I have to say impressive - range of dialects and languages heaping abuse on the hapless driver.

The Ethiopian girl next to me tutted and hissed at him. A Pakistani family shouted in Urdu. The pouting princess yelled in Arabic. And the man sitting behind me bellowed in a language unknown to mankind, waving a toothpick dangerously close to my head and spraying flecks of dislodged food all over the place. I sank miserably lower down in my seat and settled down with a copy of OK! Middle East, trying to drown out the discordant racket. But toothpick man insisted on repeatedly pressing his knees into the back of my seat for the duration of the journey.

Edging forward in my seat did little to stop his insistent harassment and when his grubby fingernails, reaching round to grasp the back of my seat, caught in my hair for the fifth time, it was the final straw. Rolling my magazine into a compact weapon, I beat his fingers until they retracted and he emitted a howl. It was a relief to finally get home to Abu Dhabi - and there is little need to ask whether I will be repeating the journey. Taxi!