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  • Writer's picturefromelsewhere

The Journey Maketh the Traveller - Long Distance Bus Trips from Hell

"It's not the destination it's the journey." On a less than memorable bus trip through Central Vietnam I contemplate some of my most crazy bus trips around the world.

On board the Camel bus

The bus conductor hawks a gob out the door. The driver is shouting on his mobile phone. The bus is littered with the left behind rubbish of the last passengers, stinks of cigarette and I just know those blankets haven't been cleaned in a long while.

The trip didn't start well, with 7 people and backpacks jammed into a beat up old mini van and ferried to a petrol station to board a bus that went right past our hotel anyway.

That's what you get for allowing your 2 star hotel to book your ticket. And I got Vietnam's notorious Camel bus. Despite its flat bed seating and shoes off policy, travellers' forums rate this as the one of the worst of the country's tourist-carrying buses. But it's not the worst bus trip I've had and I find myself with 4 hours to contemplate the journey's that were, for better or worse, my most memorable.

Anchorage, USA - Whitehorse, CA

The bus driver shouts my name from the street as I scramble with sleeping bag and backpack to the bus I nearly missed by sleeping through my alarm. I'm instantly confused. The 'bus', a minivan, is filled with bundles of newspapers. I climb in and sit on a pile with the other two passengers as it's explained to me we are also the papergirls.

For the next 20 hours we wind through the hamlets and outposts of the USA's last frontier, Alaska, delivering the weekend editions of the Anchorage and Fairbanks news. We take turns braving the icy conditions, sometimes delivering as few as 2 or 3 newspapers at each stop. At 2am, with the seats mostly cleared of newspapers, we pull into to the laundry / hotel / brothel that's our accommodation in this gold prospectors town.

Isla Ometepe, NICARAGUA - Managua, NICARAGUA

After mountain biking for 3 days on an island with no water but lots of mud I transfer from bike to boat to chicken bus. The bus conductor swings out the door and onto the roof to collect the fare from our hop-ons up there.

I might rather be up there, I think, as a woman in the aisle randomly hands me her child to take care of and the woman in the seat next to me has 3 open buckets of bloodied fish water splashing over us at every bump. There are a lot of bumps. Sweaty and covered with mud and fish guts, I arrive in Managua.

Tibetan Grasslands, China-Tibet-China

As we negotiate a narrow gravel road on a 3000 metre cliff one of our wheels goes over the edge. The Edge. Our driver, nick named Ray Charles for his sunglasses and grim face, shows no emotion as he glances into the abyss, chunks it into a different gear and pulls all 4 wheels back onto the road.

Tapacula, MEXICO - Puerto Escondido, MEXICO

Contemplating why I keep waking up and thinking I see the same donkey out my window I realize, with dismay, in the morning daylight that my overnight bus has spent the night parked by the side of the road only a few Ks past the bus station we started from, and we have a whole 7 extra hours added to the trip.

Cusco, PERU - Ollantaytambo, PERU

How many people fit into a mini van? 26. I spend 3 hours crossing the Peruvian andes with a woman and her child sitting on my lap.

Lima, PERU - Quito, ECUADOR

36 hours on a bus can never be fun no matter how you cut it. By mid morning and 20 hours in, it's clear our aircon isn't working and the bus is crawling along. Stifling hot we stop at a bus depot in the Atacama desert town of Tumbes and are given lunch while they try to fix the bus.

4 hours later we're stranded in no-mans land: the 7 km frontier between the Peruvian and Ecuadorian immigration offices. After waiting 2 hours for the mechanic to arrive he informs us he can't limp the bus back to the depot so he takes our driver and leaves the dozen of us passengers with the dead-on-the-road bus to make our own alternative arrangements. Such is the South American service ethic.

2 by 2 we flag down tuk tuks and make our way to a bus deport in the border town, Aguas Verdes, where we can purchase tickets as far as Quito. We board the bus which promptly breaks down a km up the road. 3 buses, 5 hours and 7 km later a bedraggled bunch of Brazilians boys, Bolivian twins, a Colombian, a Peruvian and this expat are at Ecuador's dusty, chicken strutting, frontier border station ready to pull our second all nighter.

Sichuan Province, CHINA

Our bus driver is in the ticketing office arguing with a colleague. The shouting turns to shoving, turns to punching. The driver chases his colleague into a room only to be chased back out by the other man wielding a fry pan. We wait on the bus, watching the punch and Judy show with amusement. The police turn up and drag our driver's ass back on board, demanding he stick to driving the damn bus. The driver shouts out the window at his colleague, who, right back at him, waves the fry pan threateningly. Serious road rage for the next 200 Ks is matched by 3 turban headed women dry retching out the window.

In Guatemala my plans were changed by a landslide. In Cuba I saw the power of the people as they turned on the bus driver after we broke down in a small no where town they presumed he must have had relatives at.

I've braved thieves, vendors and vomiting Vietnamese. Landslides, breakdowns, bandits and near misses. Met dozens of travellers and locals, been served up glasses of wine with my onboard meal (I love you Argentina) and seen scenery to die for.

The easy runs, the bus rides that go without a hitch, are the ones you hope for but aren't usually the ones you remember.

An hour later the bus is full, the stink of feet and wet shoes permeates and we're back at the original petrol station.



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