The curious case of bus travel…

Sometimes all you need is a bus. The chance to connect, to observe and have time to reflect, especially when you might have a 35 hour long journey. Encounters on busses are not limited to the people you share it with but with the situations that can arise from taking one, so here are some memorable reflections from South America.

Chilean greeting on a bus journey

Welcoming a traveller onto the bus

A bus Shelter is not a requirement for gaining access to a bus. People flag busses in the most remotest of places. Busses will turn up just as your about to leave and prices will always vary, even if three of your want the same service at the same time. Bus travel can be perplexing and chaotic but at the same time wonderfully interesting.

My longest Journey was 35 hours from Quito to Bogota which was highly memorably because at the convenient hour of 3am some army boys jump on the bus, herd us all out and make us pick out our bags. Finally letting us stand waiting inside a metal pen, if ever i was too feel like farm food, now would be the time. They searching our bags, realise that my stash of fruit is of no danger and finally point us back on the bus by the barrels on their rifles.  Our first break in the morning after entering colombia threw a surprise my way. When asking for coffee they declined and gave me a hot chocolate instead…with a lump of cheese. Cheese? It is not as bad as you think! 

When a bus stops, it will either be because it can no longer continue or a respite is due. In this instance follow the locals, if they all get off, if they sit down and eat at a roadside shack, you to should also indulge, but be quick about getting back on that bus. Once the driver has finished his food, the rule is, so have you.

Buying tickets is exciting and at the same time maddening. You may buy a seat, where once on the bus someone else has also bought that seat (occurring mainly in Bolivia, where the little indigenous women, will convince you there are seat’s and that you are getting a good price). Your getting neither. My journey from the Argentinian border to Uyuni in Bolivia I was fortunate enough to get a seat on the middle passageway, with the view of my neighbours trainers, on both sides. Luckily the views outside were described as a sandy gravel coated earth lacking in vegetation and signs of life. Potentially more exciting than reading the Adidas symbol for 2 hours.

The real enjoyment though when purchasing tickets is listening to the bird like tweets the vendors of bus companies bellow out at you as you walk on through the station and if you do decide to join in, you will certainly make friends, which led for a cheaper tickets for me, finding a foreigner joining in with their chants of business.

The fear for your baggage is also sometimes an issue for first time travellers to this continent, where each time you part with bag to the undercarriage or roof carriage, you cant help fear that some kid will at the last minute hoist your bag off the bus as it speeds off. This never happened, but do be careful when you put your bag on, as depending on the people of your bus, putting your bags on last is sometimes a good idea, as the Bolivians and Purvians, do like to take with them everything including leaking food and drink. Some unfortunate traveller ended up with an absolutely revolting smell spread around his bag. Not a good surprise when you get off an 8 hour bus trip and want to search around for some accommodation. 

However also putting your bag on last you might want to take out of your bag anything valuable, as sometimes, you will see (probably again in Bolivia) a man or two falling out of the baggage holdall at food breaks. Free travel for what is probably a friend of the drivers. ‘Bus surfing’.

You might have heard horror stories from bus travel on this continent, but the services have vastly improved from old tales and really the majority of travel I experienced i had no such problems. The only notable encounter was obviously going to be in Bolivia.

On my journey from Sucre to La Paz (Bolivia), the bus came to a halt, as just in front a showering of rocks were making their way across the road. There was no road closures, just your typical tractor pushing rocks from a road higher in the valley down onto our road….? This built up a huge backlog of buses, until one small bus, decided that he was probably going to be late for his dinner, so with just some smaller rocks still flying across the road, he overtook our bus, full throttle into the storm and into the distance. Our bus driver, following some herd instinct, thought…well if a small bus can make it, then so can I. He did. As we throttled our way up the hill, rocks were indeed hitting the base and wheels of our vehicle. Nothing fortunately hit the windows. What a relief, nothing quite like an exciting bus journey at the peak of night-time.

I will disclose here, that busses are generally comfortable, have meals and frequent stops. Just don’t believe this when taking the local/ public one. Safe travels.

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