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

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.

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.

Sounds of Travel 4: King of the Road

Here at Gadling we’ll be highlighting some of our favorite sounds from the road and giving you a sample of each — maybe you’ll find the same inspiration that we did, but at the very least, hopefully you’ll think that they’re good songs.

Got a favorite of your own? Leave it in the Comments and we’ll post it at the end of the series.

WEEK 4: “King of the Road” sung by Roger Miller

When my brother and I were young, our parents gave us Hummel figurine music boxes. His figurine was a small boy sitting on a fence with a bundle tied on a stick that rested on his shoulder. When the key was wound, the melody “King of the Road” played while the boy turned.

My figurine was a girl feeding chickens. Although, I dearly loved my music box– the girl looked like Heidi, that independent lass who lived in the Alps with her grandfather, I was drawn to my brother’s more. There it sat on his chest of drawers in a spot within reach.

Even before I knew the lyrics, the title of the song was enough. King of the Road. What could sound more grand?

The lyrics, though, said it all. Hitting the road without cares or worries–the thrill of being in control with each step towards the horizon. A life spent enjoying simple pleasures as long as a person can keep moving and make connections with folks along the way.

Never mind that I happened to be female–and at the time, one of the only known female travelers who got much press was Amelia Earhart–and we know how that turned out. I come from a line of women who have wandered.

Those women carried the aura of far away places, particularly Aunt Clarissa. It wasn’t the stories my great aunt told me of her time in Japan as an Army major after World War II that captured my interest–I don’t specifically remember any– it was the feeling I surmised that traveling gave her. The zippidy do dah.

When Roger Miller wrote King of the Road in 1965, he was telling the tale of a carefree traveler at the same time Miller was on the road seeking out his dreams as a singer-songwriter. After he sings in the video, Miller recalls that the song was inspired somewhere between Dayton, Des Moines or Chicago when he saw a road sign that said, “Trailers for Sale or Rent.”

What caught my attention about this version is Miller’s utter exuberance, both in his voice and his body, particularly when he belts out the third chorus and throws that fast crook in his elbow–and how the song stuck with me all day once I listened to it again.

When I think of my King of the Road experiences, the ones where this song played in my head, I am:

  • by myself on a bus heading to Maine from New Paltz, New York to work at a summer camp after my senior year in high school, the possibilities endless. This summer was late nights doing laundry so I could head out every weekend to places like Boothbay Harbor, Camden and Ogunquit, eating lobster and clams dripped in butter and skinny dipping in a lake with the moon shimmering across the water;
  • I’m walking down the streets of Arhus, Denmark, my arms swinging in stride with my legs as I head to the Viking ship museum, my entire body feeling in sync with the sidewalk beneath my feet and the breeze through my hair. I’d come alone–or if I was with someone, I can’t recall because the memory of being so in touch with my body on that day and the sense of adventure has eclipsed a companion;
  • I am walking away from my village into the Gambian bush to hang out under a tree for a few hours drinking tea, writing and listening to music, soaking up a bit of R&R from being the village Peace Corps volunteer. As cows grazed nearby and finch flitted and darted between the scrub brush, I regained balance;
  • and I am taking a friend of mine on a road trip through New Mexico so he can see how the landscape changes. As the hues of reds and browns change with each turn past Jemez as we get closer to Bandelier National Monument, we marvel at the wonder of us and our good fortune to have a car and all the time we need.

Whenever I hear that song, my feet start tappin’ and I want to head out–see new places, make new friends, visit old ones and know that the world is my oyster. What better feeling is there than being a king of the road?

Despite the lyrics, I’ve never smoked a pack of cigarettes in my life. I do, however, look at trailers with great affection.

Here’s a bit of King of the Road trivia: It’s been used in the movies: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Swingers, Into the Wild, Im Lauf der Zeit (In Due Time), and if you saw Brokeback Mountain, who can forget the scene where Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack, confident and full of energy, is heading in his truck to see Ennis? King of the Road was playing on the radio. Of course, that was before Jack’s hopes were dashed.

Still, the song for me is an optimistic all will work out.

Click here for previous Sounds of Travel.