Five Things To Bring On A Long-Distance Bus Trip In A Developing Nation

chicken bus
David Dennis, Flickr

It may be a cliche, but it’s true: if you want to get off the beaten path when you travel, at some point you’re going to have to take a long-distance bus ride. Even if you’re not a backpacker, some destinations are accessible only by the most inconvenient of methods. I’ve traveled by bus, Land Rover, bush plane, horseback and canoe, and while not always comfortable, I take great delight in using alternative forms of transit.

If the idea of taking the bus gives you the heebie-jeebies, be aware that it’s primarily bus travel in the U.S. that sucks. I’ve yet to have an experience on Greyhound (it’s called the “Dirty Dog” for a reason) that wasn’t totally jacked up. There’s always a toilet overflowing, an addict nodding out and drooling on your shoulder (true story) and a guy who can’t stop screaming into his cellphone or having a conversation with himself. But I love long-haul trips in developing nations, no matter how janky the ride. It’s the best way I know of to see and experience a country. It’s cultural immersion at both its most infuriating and its best, but I’ve yet to have a bad experience with regard to fellow passengers.

There are, however, some key items you’ll want to bring with you. I speak from painful/mortifying experience. Read on for what you’ll need for any bus journey lasting more than a couple of hours (bear in mind that in many parts of the world, you can’t rely upon bus timetables; I recently took a four-hour trip in Paraguay that turned into 11 due to monsoonal flooding. And there was no bathroom on board). Bringing snacks and extra water is crucial; usually vendors will come on board during stops, but you should never rely on this.

empty toilet paper roll
GorillaSushi, Flickr

1. A blanket or ultra/microlight sleeping bag
You’d be surprised how many clapped-out buses crank the AC. If you get cold easily, 14 hours of that might render you nearly hypothermic. Conversely, if you’re sensitive to heat and in a tropical country, bring along a packet of Emergen-C or electrolyte chews (I love Honey Stingers and coconut water) and something to protect you from the sun.

2. Imodium®
Trust me, if you’ve ever suffered from gastrointestinal issues while on a long bus trip, you’ll do anything, anything, to ensure it never happens again. That said, don’t let fear deter you from trying all those great street foods. I’ve learned, however, to dial down the gluttony before a lengthy journey. Ladies, I’ve also had to deal with a UTI on a bumpy 14-hour ride through rural Mexico. Pack your first-aid kit accordingly.

3. Toilet paper
See above; if you’re lucky enough to even be on a bus with a toilet, don’t count on it being well equipped. Also be prepared for pit stops on the road, whether by your necessity or someone else’s. TP is also great to use as a tissue, as an impromptu washcloth, or to wipe that weird goo off of your shoe from the aforementioned pit stop. Hey, I’m just reporting the facts.

4. Sleep aid
Even if you don’t suffer from insomnia, you may want to bring along something to help your slumber on overnight trips. Rutted-out roads, blaring DVD players, blasting radio, crying children – sometimes all at once will make you glad you have an ace in the hole. If nothing else, bring ear plugs.

5. Baby wipes and/or antibacterial gel
You’ll be grateful for these on sweltering rides, especially when the windows are jammed open and you’re dealing with noxious clouds of carbon monoxide or dust. Also useful after aforementioned bathroom runs, and before snacking.

‘Chicken Buses’ Add Color To Guatemala (GALLERY)

When weathered school buses are retired from commission in the United States, they don’t always end up being scrapped: many times, they find a new life (and a new paint job) in Guatemala and other Central American countries. Known to English speakers as “chicken buses,” because of the likelihood travelers might find themselves sitting next to livestock, these buses can be found throughout the country and are often filled to the brim with locals, budget travelers and goods.

Across the world, many modes of transport seem unique to those of us using them for the first time – and these buses are no exception. An excursion in one of these vehicles can be chalked up to an amusement park ride, complete with drivers racing around curves at seemingly impossible speeds. The inside is as animated as the wild colors painted on the exterior, with people entering from both the front and back doors and vendors hopping on to try and sell ice cream, plantain chips and other goodies. Benches intended for two schoolchildren are crammed with three (or more) people, with others standing in the aisles and sometimes even riding on the roof.

Most entertaining, however, is the bus driver’s right-hand man, the ayudante. This helper keeps track of all the bodies on the bus, ensuring everyone pays a proper fare, organizing suitcases, and calling out the names of stops to people on the roadside. Keep a close eye on this guy, as he often finds the most opportune moments – such as when a bus is tearing around a harsh curve – to climb out the bus window and onto the top of the bus to secure packages.

To check out more of these richly decorated buses and the culture that surrounds them, click through the gallery below.

%Gallery-167670%

[Photo by Libby Zay]