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Circus Family Is Ready for a Safety Net

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Circus Family Is Ready for a Safety Net

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Circus Family Is Ready for a Safety Net

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

If you're driving the Atlantic seaboard later this month, you may catch a curious sight - a bright green double-decker bus headed toward Baltimore. It will be traveling very, very slowly. Don't get annoyed and start honking because onboard is a tiny troupe of circus performers returning to Europe after a world tour that has lasted more than a decade.

NPR's John Burnett met up with the Sprockets Circus in Texas.

(Soundbite of music)

JOHN BURNETT: Two circus performers are entertaining a crowd on the tree-shaded deck outside of Central Market in Austin on a recent Sunday afternoon. The show is good but not terribly unusual. There's juggling, a unicycle, acrobatics and lots of slapstick humor.

(Soundbite of screaming)

(Soundbite of applause)

BURNETT: What's remarkable about the Sprockets Circus is their itinerary. On the road nonstop since 1997, they've performed for audiences in 33 countries. From street kids in Calcutta to the Sultan of Brunei, and in hundreds of villages from Turkey to Thailand to Guatemala. They ship their bus between continents on container ships, which at $5,000 per trip, keeps them a subsistence circus.

Ms. ISSABELLE FERAUD (Co-owner of Sprockets Circus): I'm Issabelle Feraud, I'm French and I've been doing circus show for 16 years.

Mr. SCOTT HARRISON (Co-owner of Sprockets Circus): My name is Scott Harrison. I'm from Bath in England, and I started doing circus when I met Izzy 16 years ago.

BURNETT: They travel with their now 11-year-old son, Theo, who was away playing with new friends during this interview. The fourth member of the troop is a lime-green 1962 Bristol double-decker bus.

Mr. HARRISON: Only about 45 years, beautiful.

BURNETT: How is it that your bus only goes 33 miles an hour, top speed?

Mr. HARRISON: It was designed as a city bus. It was designed to just pick people up and drop people off around a city, so there was no need for it go any faster than 33 miles an hour. And at the time in 1962, when this bus was made, 33 miles an hour was quite a respectable speed.

BURNETT: As the old double-decker has chugged along highways in Iran, Nepal, Singapore, Colombia, and California, it has taught the circus family things about the people who inhabit these places. It has taught them about the notion of civil-ization.

Ms. FERAUD: You know, you don't see a bus like this every day and you - still people will get you the finger because you're too slow or shout at you, swear at you, you know.

BURNETT: When you're driving your bus in a third-world country, you don't get the finger?

Ms. FERAUD: They don't, they wave.

BURNETT: They don't shout at you?

Ms. FERAUD: No, they wave and they're just so happy and you know, it's just so different and then you feel, hey, this is what you call a civilized country because civil means polite.

BURNETT: In this respect, of all the places they've traveled all over the world, their least favorite was right here in the U.S.A., the Golden State.

Ms. FERAUD: We had a lot of finger in California. We had a lot of people shouting.

Mr. HARRISON: Yeah, it wasn't a good place, we didn't enjoy California. And I don't think they enjoyed us.

BURNETT: They're speaking from inside the bus, crammed with trapeze rigging, costumes, golf clubs, Theo's schoolbooks and Lego, and a wood burning stove. The Sprockets had lived in this bus on the road for so long, they've noticed how the digital revolution has changed the world selectively. Cell phones and text messaging is everywhere, but some cultures seem to have surrendered to it more than others. Issy and Scott have watched how some places, particularly in Latin America, still prize human interaction over wireless communication.

Mr. HARRISON: And then when you get back to the West with all our high-tech stuff, you see how people have lost all their communication skills. You know, the really important skills, not e-mailing people, but just being able to sit and meet at a piazza, an exchange, conversation, just sit there and have a drink together. It's not happening enough.

BURNETT: This adventure is about to be over. They're still looking for a few more gigs on the East Coast in the next few weeks. But when their U.S. visas expire next month, and their bus is in the hold of a ship steaming towards South Hampton, England, they hope to find a real home in Europe. Issy says she's ready.

Ms. FERAUD: The circus is my passion and that I will not stop. But now I wouldn't mind having a base, somewhere where every day now can stop. I wouldn't mind having a garden, something that I can plant my flowers. You know, I wouldn't mind having a cat or a dog, you know, and that's the kind of thing that I miss.

BURNETT: How long they stay put is anybody's guess. Scott Harrison's next project is to acquire a boat that will accommodate the bus, then take their tiny circus to small islands inaccessible by commercial freighter - The Sprockets' second world tour.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

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