As dawn breaks over the city of Thimphu, the first rays of the summer sun softly envelop the cityscape, an image mirrored in the determined eyes of 34-year-old Lobzang Dema. Her destination? The city’s bustling bus office, where her bus awaits, key ready and in need of a morning’s tidying.
Bhutan’s city bus service may have been launched in the late 1990s, but it was only last year that the first female bus drivers took to the roads. Among them is Lobzang, one of seven women who underwent a gruelling eight-month training regimen, sharpening their skills behind the wheel of these hefty vehicles.
A veteran bus conductor for the city for seven years, Lobzang found herself jobless with the implementation of the smart card system. But her journey was far from over. Now, she serves as a temporary replacement for male bus drivers, navigating the vibrant streets of Thimphu with grace and precision.
Settling comfortably into the driver’s seat, Lobzang flashes a warm smile, her dark hair cascading down her shoulders. The bus’s engine hums to life under her steady hands, manoeuvring smoothly out of the parking lot onto the open road that leads to the bus station.
Arriving at the terminal on her second day as a relief driver, she expertly docks the bus in its assigned spot. As the students swipe their smart cards, the system utters, “Lobthru Gi Shogjang,” and she greets each passenger with a kind demeanour and an easy smile. At approximately 7:30am, her journey begins, ferrying her first set of passengers – students en route to their morning lessons.
By the third stop, the bus teems with eager students. Lobzang, ever mindful of her passengers’ comfort and safety, checks on them through the cross-view mirror before continuing the journey.
Upon reaching Motithang Higher Secondary School, her first major stop at around 8:00am, Lobzang’s bus clears as the students alight, cards scanned and ready for the school day. The process repeats at Jigme Namgyel Lower Secondary School, with the bus significantly emptier as more passengers disembark.
After a brief respite at the terminal, Lobzang embarks on her second trip of the day, her eyes darting left and right to spot potential passengers waving for the bus. She prioritizes safety above all else, regularly checking on her passengers and maintaining strict adherence to road safety regulations.
The mid-morning finds Lobzang back at the terminal, counting the day’s earnings over a well-deserved cup of coffee. Her serene break ends as quickly as it begins, with her third excursion waiting in the wings.
Recalling her early days as a bus driver, Lobzang reflects, “When I first started driving, people were sceptical. They would say, ‘I don’t want to get on this bus because the driver is a woman.’ However, as time passed, their doubts faded and they began to trust us.”
As the sky begins to drizzle and noon rolls by, Lobzang enjoys her first meal of the day at a nearby restaurant. Re-energized, she makes her way to her daughter’s school, combining her duties as a mother of two and the family’s breadwinner with her professional commitments.
Lobzang’s final round starts at 4:00pm. The bus, once again filled to capacity with the chatter and laughter of students, mirrors the bustling energy of the morning.
The day’s journey ends at 6:50pm. Parking the bus and casting one last grin, Lobzang disappears into the terminal office, her day as one of Thimphu’s pioneering female bus drivers complete.