The belle of the bus

Kyin Thein has proven that even a middle-aged woman like herself can work as a bus conductor, or rather conductress. Despite the rough and tumble nature of the job, she’s willing to risk life and limb to cope with Yangon’s high cost of living, along the way urging Yangon commuters to wake up to a new reality: bus conducting is no longer the preserve of men.

Since Myanmar started to open up in 2011, Yangon has seen more public minibuses and single-deckers on the roads usually choked with traffic. These battered old buses may be a blast from the distant past and unlikely to be phased out of service anytime soon, but these workhorses shoot across town at hair-raising speeds whenever traffic permits. And that doesn’t deter Kyin Thein, 54, from taking up her position at the bus’s cramped front or rear door.

With the bus’s steps about the size of a book, she needs to thrust half of her stout body out the door, and has no qualms about standing there as the bus whizzes down the road like a horse that has just broken loose from its tether.

“Slow down,” she yells, her hand holding onto a handrail.

As the bus pulls up, she blurts out her routine pitch: “Calling at Budar, Natsin, 54, 56, 77, and 107 [bus stops]. Get on board. Room inside. Who wants to come along?”

As soon as the bus leaves the bus stop, it’s time to collect the fares.

“Don’t fall over. Please hang onto to the handrails. Don’t stand there without holding onto someting,” as she yells a warning at the passengers.

Hearing her shouting commands, I became aware of what a good and caring heart she has, something one cannot find among the male bus conductors, themselves notorious for being downright rude, abusive and ready to verbally or sexually harass female passengers whenever they get a chance.

Kyin Thein has three children who bought her the Hino BM bus. With her husband as the bus’s driver, the couple has been running a contracted shuttle service for factory workers in Bago for the past three years now. The shuttle service requires them to get to Alwan Hsut village in Thilawa Kyauktan, just outside to Yangon, the night before pickup. The daily delivery round begins at 6am and involves transporting the workforce to several garment factories in Bago, which earns them KS30,000 a day.

On weekends when these factories are closed, their bus roams the streets of Yangon by night as one of those unlicenced public buses on the South Dagon Myotthit to Tamwe route. Her husband drives the bus and she acts as a bus conductor to supplement their income at a time when households are struggling with Yangon’s high cost of living.

Since her foray into the male-dominated bastion of bus conductors, these female bus conductors are becoming more and more visible, proof that women can stand shoulder to shoulder with men in this field.

The point is public bus operators have taken to employing female bus conductors simply because they perform better than the men when it comes to communicating with passengers and collecting fares.

“We usually operate as a public bus on weekends at night-time only. Though we are not a licenced public bus, we provide the service based on an informal agreement. They accept us probably because we are their elders. Most bus lines know me as ‘A May Gyi’ (a polite mode of address to an older woman),” said Kyin Thein.

“We provide transport to the girls on the rest of the week. We only get home on Saturday nights. We eat and sleep on the road,” she said, gesturing to a section of the bus cluttered with a mat, a cloth bag, toothpaste and toothbrushes.

“We have to pay Ks 1,500 if we hire a bus conductor. We did it once. He ran away with all of our money so we decided not to hire a bus conductor anymore. I decided to work as one myself,” she said.

Kyin Thein holds that since women are mostly seen as housewives in Myanmar, female bus conductors are an unusual sight. Their presence in the field reflects their ability to work on equal terms with men and their courage to confront whatever life throws at them.

“I have three children. Two of them are married. The youngest son is a soldier. So there isn’t anyone left to work as a bus conductor. Some women my age don’t work anymore. They mostly stay at home. But I have to work due to the conditions of my life. I have to work as much as I can. I felt a little scared when I first started out [as a bus conductor]. Now, I’m not afraid anymore,” said Kyin Thein.

While fully aware of the fact that her contemporaries have retired to their family homes where they spend their free time babysitting their grandchildren, she has noticed that every woman has a say in both their career choice and fate these days.

“No matter what you do, you need to pluck up the courage to do it. You would end up getting nothing done if you are afraid,” Kyin Thein enthused.

Source: Eleven Myanmar

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