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.

The Port Authority hot dog


I don’t think anybody enters a bus station looking for an unforgettable culinary experience – at least not a good one. But, when you’re in transit, you need to eat, especially if you’re staring down several hours on what is quite possibly the most unpleasant form of transportation. So, before dashing down to see the in-laws on Christmas Eve, I stopped at Villa Pizza, in the southern part of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, to grab a bite. I saw hot dogs wrapped in pizza dough and knew my problem had been solved.

I didn’t have high hopes for the dog – c’mon, I picked it up at a bus station. And, because there was dough instead of a traditional bun, I realized I’d have to eat it sans ketchup and mustard. As I rode the escalator down to my gate, I started to wonder if I’d made a mistake. I was about to chomp into a nude Port Authority hotdog. There were no condiments behind which to hide. I’m committed to my unique brand of hot dog blogging, though, so I had no choice but to follow through.Once I got settled into my seat at the back of the bus, I finally took a look at my meal. The hot dog from Villa Pizza was thicker than most, and it was still hot (lukewarm dogs suck).

The hot dog lacked the snap characteristic of the fare of New York’s better hot dog shops (such as Gray’s Papaya), but it was decent on flavor. Like most dishes in a pizza place, it was a tad too greasy, but I was able to live with that. The pizza dough in which the dog was shrouded added a dimension – a texture not normally found in a hot dog experience.

I wouldn’t rush back to Villa Pizza for a hot dog. In all fairness, it isn’t the joint’s focus, and there are many dogs in the city that are far superior. When you have a bus to catch, though, your range of choices shrinks drastically, and you could do worse than to pick up a dog from Villa Pizza.

What’s that bad smell? Travel impressions through the nose

I haven’t noticed it, but there’s a bad smell at the Greyhound bus station in Columbus. A woman got off the bus and noticed it. As she pointed out in this article, a bad smell the first thing someone gets off a bus is not the best way to make a good first impression. As a matter of fact. it’s hell on tourism.

A bad smell might give a person an idea to get back on the bus and head back out as quickly as possible. Considering that I wrote up a walking tour of Columbus with the idea that someone might come in on the bus, I’m hoping that the odor caused by old cooking grease from the bus station restaurant is dealt with soon.

Last time I took the bus to New York City, I stopped in a Port Authority bathroom before I headed to the subway and have to say thought that New York had really gone down. There was a terrible smell. Unfortunately the smell was connected to a person. That made me feel bad and indicates a much more serious problem than a grease receptacle that needs to be emptied more often. As wonderful as New York City is, and it is, the smells can be overwhelming for a person not used to pungent odors. New York streets are not the days when women spritzed lavender on handkerchiefs to put up to their noses when passing by particularly bad spots, but there are those whiffs that can make a person’s eyes water.

This June, a green market was started at Port Authority and is now held each Thursday as one way to create a better impression. What better smell is there than fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers?

In Columbus, which generally has a neutral smell, I don’t notice a difference from one block to the next, although there used to be a strong fresh baked bread smell near the Wonder Bread plant that could get overwhelmingly sweet depending on which way the wind blew. The plant was to close in May which has narrowed Columbus’s repertoire of olfactory experiences.

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