Once upon a time on the roads of Crete…

There were times when going up into the mountains or heading over to the south of Crete was a bit of an adventure, as indeed was the route to Heraklion.
And while for the visitor the hassle could have its enjoyable aspects, for the permanent resident it was a part of daily life. For this reason too, the role of the drivers and conductors in those days was not simply important. Their work had a more social dimension, as is abundantly clear from their descriptions. The people who lived on the buses of earlier decades share with us their experiences.

“We were the link between town and village”

“I first got behind the wheel as a job in 1971. My father owned a bus and as soon as I had completed my military service at the age of 21, I started work,” we hear from Michalis Psathoyanakis, for many years a driver with KTEL Chania – Rethimno. And his first route was one of the most difficult ones. “My friend the supervisor, Markos Kanitsakis, sent me off to Theriso – in March, in winter. At that time, the road was in very poor shape, much narrower, more of a lane. A difficult route for a new driver. At that time, the worst routes were to Theriso, Meskla, Selino and Sfakia. In the beginning, and during the 1970s, the roads were in a terrible state. Even when we went to Heraklion we had to take the old road – the modern national road didn’t exist. So you needed two hours to get to Rethimno and another 2 ½ hours to Heraklion. For me, that was the toughest route.

I had an old Japanese 32-seater bus. Mechanical problems aplenty, you didn’t know if you would get to your destination. Out of every 10 trips there would be one at any rate where you were stuck with clutch or other mechanical problems. And you can be sure there was neither air-conditioning nor heating: in summer it was boiling and in winter everyone froze,” remembers Mr Psathoyanakis. He also remembers the warmth of the people and the good relationships with the drivers. Yet problems there were. “I was heading to Heraklion one Sunday afternoon and when we got to Damastas a man came onto the bus who was drunk. He was shouting, swearing and touching the women passengers.

What an uproar! I had to find a place to stop where there were policemen so he could be removed from the bus because it was impossible to make him behave. However, people loved the buses; there were no private cars, so they needed us. Folk were also more outspoken in those days. The best passengers were those from Lassithi because they travelled that way very often. A remarkable feature of that period was that the drivers were considered to be a good catch as husband and had their successes among the fair sex.

In 1977, Mr Psathoyanakis drove the first 50-seater bus at a time an effort was being made to increase the route coverage. He also stresses the community role of KTEL and its buses. “The driver and the conductor were the people linking the town with villages. From 1977 onwards, KTEL began to modernise. We were also greatly helped by Mr Mitsoutakis,” he adds “in achieving the position we are now in, launching services to Thessalonica.”

Conductor but also … doctor, pharmacist, baker!
It was in 1965 that Prokopis Tomothakis began as a bus conductor, working for many years on the much loved mountain buses with which KTEL served the route Chania, Rodovani, Sougia, Koustogerako three days a week and then on three other days Chania, Rodovani, Temenia, Paleochora. Particularly loved by the residents of the province, and beyond, Mr Tomothakis was for many years perhaps even more important than the rural doctor! “The trip from Chania to Koustogerako took four hours! We took with us on the bus rubber boots, shovels and mattocks because there are a number of spots where earth or rocks would fall on the road or where the road would be closed by snow in the winter. You couldn’t count the times we had to stop to clear soil, stones or snow.

I remember once we were travelling from Rodovani towards Sougia when we found the road blocked by a metre and a half of mud. The passengers disembarked and we cleared the vegetation from three terraces and threw it on top of the mud to form a roadway for the bus!” On another trip, again heading towards An. Selino, while it was snowing, the windscreen wiper of the bus broke. “The snow was bucketing down and with 30 passengers we couldn’t just stay on the road. So I went and sat on the bonnet of the bus and cleared the snow off the windscreen with my hands while we drove the six kilometres to the village of Agia Irini. When we came to a stop there, my hands were numb like wood and I had goodness knows how many kilos of snow on top of me. They rubbed me for an hour before I recovered!”

Knowledge… of medicine
In particular it was when it snowed that the problems multiplied. “We were heading out of Chania for An. Selino and the dispatcher said we would be better advised not to go because it was snowing. I had a chat with the driver, Yiorgos Parthalakis, a really tough fellow, and we decided we wanted to get the job done. With 30 passengers, we reached Sebronas but one and a half kilometres after that the snow began. We couldn’t go either forwards or backwards! We left the bus and all headed back to Sebronas but we had among us a woman who had been discharged from hospital and was returning to her house in Prines. She wasn’t able to walk! I therefore carried her piggyback the one and a half kilometres back to the village. However, she didn’t feel well, was in poor condition and getting steadily worse. We then called an ambulance but it could not get any further uphill than Prasses. With three other passengers, we then carried her on our backs as far as Prasses, where she was taken on board the ambulance and off to hospital.”

Niall Finn

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