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.

Wanderu’s Site Lets You Research And Book Bus And Rail Travel

chicken busIf you’re a traveler, then you’re a Kayaker. Not a paddler, but a devotee of Kayak.com, the airline (and hotel and rental car) search engine that makes booking the lowest fares a breeze. If you’re a traveler, then you’ve also probably cursed the fact that a similar site doesn’t exist for bus and rail travel.

We can now count our blessings, thanks to Wanderu. According to Thrillist, this ingenious domestic search engine offers “hundreds of routes, operators, and schedules into a free, trip-aggregating database.” You can even make bookings, which is like a giant gift from the Travel Gods.

As soon as Wanderu or a competitor makes this info available for international travel, budget travelers won’t have anything left to complain about – except maybe the quality of their guesthouse banana pancakes.

[Photo credit: Flickr user DavidDennisPhotos.com]

Travel in the southern United States for free with Megabus

megabus gives free transportationWho doesn’t love free travel? With a new hub in Atlanta, Georgia, Megabus is giving away 10,000 free seats to travelers using their new routes during trips taking place November 16 to December 16, 2011. The eleven cities included in the new route leaving from Atlanta include:

  • Birmingham, Alabama
  • Mobile, Alabama
  • Montgomery, Alabama
  • Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • Knoxville, Tennessee
  • Memphis, Tennessee
  • Nashville, Tennessee
  • Gainesville, Florida
  • Jacksonville, Florida
  • Orlando, Florida

To take advantage of the offer, just enter the promo code ATL10K when reserving your seat online.

Getting to Harar: riding the bus through eastern Ethiopia

Ethiopia, ethiopia, Harar, harar
It’s good to be back in Ethiopia again.
I’ve noticed some changes since my last trip to Ethiopia. More high-rises are going up in the capital Addis Ababa and ATMs have finally appeared. The Internet is faster too, although it isn’t the full broadband promised by the government.
Addis is fun, but my real destination is Harar, a medieval walled city in eastern Ethiopia. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Harar is reached by a ten-hour bus ride run by two companies–Salaam Bus and Sky Bus. I’m taking Sky Bus (“German technology, Chinese price”) which like its rival offers modern coaches, breakfast, and even a TV playing Ethiopian movies and music videos. This luxury can’t change the fact that you’re stuck in a bus for ten hours, though.
For some reason Ethiopians like to start long trips at an ungodly hour of the morning, so at 5:30am we set out through the darkened streets of Addis Ababa. The only people on the streets are a few sad-eyed prostitutes and drunks staggering home, and joggers zipping along during the only hours the streets aren’t choked with exhaust. A homeless man, bulky under layers of rags, grasps a telephone pole and does a series of quick deep-knee bends.
The sky brightens to the east as the buildings thin out and the countryside opens up. Thatched roof huts called tukuls dot the landscape like haystacks. Farmers with adzes over their shoulders stroll to their fields while tiny children wield thin sticks to control herds of goats.
The road is asphalt all the way but modernity creates its own hazards. Increased speed on aged, bald tires leads to blowouts and more than once we have to creep along the edge of the road to pass overturned trucks. One blocks the road entirely. The bigger vehicles turn around back in the direction of Addis, now two hours behind us. My heart sinks. Our driver doesn’t like that option so he steers the bus off road. Thorn trees scrape the metal sides of the bus like witches’ fingernails. We run over several bushes and sharp stones and I’m positive we’ll puncture a tire, but we emerge victorious back on the road and speed along. Not two miles further on we pass an overturned beer truck. Smashed bottles lie in glittering heaps and the tang of alcohol wafts through the cabin.Little else happens and I feel a bit lonely. Last time I did this route I was sitting in the middle of a half dozen college girls who all wanted to practice their English. Harar was taking care of me even before I arrived. This time the woman next to me gives me a friendly smile and a hello as she sits down and the proceeds to ignore me for the next ten hours. That’s a Western trait I hope doesn’t catch on in Ethiopia. I stare out the window. The defunct Addis-Djibouti railway snakes by, its rails slowly rusting under the sun. We pass little villages next to sheer gorges cut into the hard-baked soil. In the rainy season they become filled with raging torrents. Now none of them have more than a trickle.
We stop for a pee break. The men stand behind thorn bushes as the women cross the street and squat behind a low ridge. As I come back to the bus I see the driver throwing out a pile of trash into the field. All along Ethiopia’s roads you can see plastic bags blowing in the wind. The Ethiopians don’t think anything of it now but some day they’ll regret it.
Then it’s another several hours before we stop at Hirna, a collection of concrete buildings on either side of the highway, for lunch at a noisy little two-room restaurant. I look in vain for an empty table until a man waves me over with a hand covered in sauce.
“I’m Kete, want some lamb?” he asks as he indicates a platter of injera bread and a long bone with some meat stuck to it.
I roll up my sleeve and order a cup of rich Ethiopian coffee. All food is finger food here. You tear off a piece of bread and dip it in some sauce, or use it to grab some meat from the lamb shank.
Kete works for an NGO helping children orphaned by AIDS. They provide education, vocational training, and healthcare. I’ll be covering their branch in Addis later in this series. We chat until his phone rings and he’s called off to a meeting. “Sorry,” he shrugs, “work never stops. Enjoy your trip.”
Soon our driver comes through the restaurant clapping his hands to tell us to get back onto the bus. The highway to the east of Hirna winds up and down a series of ever higher hills. The land is drier but people still wrest a life out of it. Ever since leaving Addis we’ve been driving through the Oromo region. The Oromo are the largest of Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups and populate the region all the way to the Somali lowlands. Harar is an island in the middle, separate from but reliant on the surrounding Oromo.
We arrive in the mid-afternoon and park on the main street connecting the new city with the Jugol, the walled medieval Harar. My spirits lift immediately. I say goodbye to Mrs. Silent, grab my backpack, and head towards my hotel. A bejaj, one of the blue three-wheeled motor rickshaws that are everywhere in Ethiopia, sputters up and the driver asks, “Where are you going?”
“Ras Hotel.”
“I’ll take you there for 15 birr.”
“Fifteen birr? It’s only a five-minute walk away.”
He looks confused.
“You’re been here before?”
“Yes, last year.”
He grins and shouts “Welcome back!”
He does a quick 180 and speeds off, one hand still waving.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Harar tour: a walk around one of Africa’s most unique cities!

Holiday trip? Consider rail travel

rail travelUnlike Europe and Japan, the United States isn’t known for its high-tech, efficient rail travel. Which is a shame because, as I recently discovered, taking Amtrak is sometimes a better way to travel this big country of ours, and generally speaking, it has a lower carbon footprint per passenger than driving or flying.

You definitely need to have time to spare for long distance trips, although with the epic waits at some airport security checks, you may well come out ahead on shorter routes. Amtrak offers a lot of promotions and deals on its website, and children two to 15 ride half-price. The train can also be more fun for kids, and help save the sanity of parents who dread the airport schlep and subsequent whine-fest.

When I lived in the Bay Area, I’d sometimes take the train from Berkeley to my brother’s place in Truckee, in North Lake Tahoe. Given that it’s a three-and-a-half hour drive in perfect weather, assuming you leave at the crack of dawn to avoid traffic, the five-hour rail journey isn’t a bad idea for a winter trip. Note: Depending upon route, make sure your trip doesn’t have a connection by bus, which can considerably lengthen your trip and detract from your comfort. That said, I’ve ridden Amtrak’s motorcoaches in the past and found them pretty nice. They’re a far cry from the filthy, stinking, hell-on-wheels that is Greyhound, and at least there are increasingly excellent options on the East Coast for short-distance bus travel.

rail travelStill, I’d never done an overnight on Amtrak, mainly because I hate to take 17 hours to travel somewhere that’s a two-hour flight away. But on a recent trip from Chicago to Washington DC, the train was running $85/o/w for a coach seat. At the time, even with the additional cost of a sleeper, it was cheaper than airfare, so I went for it.

The only part of the Midwest I’d visited prior to Chicago was Wisconsin, so the train also provided a great way for me to see a new part of the country. And it would be relaxing…a mini-vacation, if you will, where I could escape traffic and the electronic leashes of Blackberry and computer (Amtrak’s AcelaExpress commuter trains are currently the only ones equipped with Wifi).

The Capitol Limited route took me from Chicago’s bustling downtown Union Station, through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. Getting a ticket is as simple as booking online, which I recommend doing in advance if possible, although you can also purchase them at the station from an agent or kiosk, and over the phone or your mobile device. Long distance routes have various sleeping options, ranging from one-to-two person roomettes to bedroom suites that accomodate four adults. For future reference, I suggest you book at least a month ahead on the more popular routes, to ensure you get a sleeper. I selected a 3’x6″ x 6’x6″ “Superliner Roomette ($128 additional fee, including meals).” The Superliner is a double-decker; the roomette a private cabin with sliding doors and curtains, windows spanning the length of the compartment, climate control, a garment rack, fold-down table, and two very comfortable reclining seats that fold into upper and lower berths. Unlike the single-level Viewliner car roomettes, there is no sink or toilet.

Compared to the airport, the train is a stress-free snap. Arrive at station, print out ticket, go to private waiting room, check bag, read, eat free snacks. When it’s time to board, you’re led to the correct platform, and you climb aboard. Tip: If you’ve gotrail travel a lot of luggage or a really heavy bag, get some assistance. Trains are a lot longer than you’d think, and my back was giving me the metaphorical finger by the time I staggered to my car, lugging my corpse-size duffel.

The friendly conductor showed me to my cozy roomette on the second floor. There was a clean bathroom just steps away, as well as a coffee/water/juice station (included with fare). The shower was downstairs; I was expecting the worst, but it was clean, the water hot and plentiful.

The sightseer lounge cars have huge windows and tables, so I spent the first couple of hours watching the sun set over Indiana. FYI, some routes, like the West’s Coast’s Pacific Surfliner, Coast Starlight, and Amtrak Cascades, and the California Zephyr in the Rockies, are justly famous for their scenery. Amtrak also provides a stop-by-stop guide for its routes, so you can learn the historical and cultural significance of each.

As for dinner, I’m pretty sure I harbor a repressed childhood trauma from an airline chicken breast, because while I think nothing of eating dog, goat testicles, or witchetty grubs (or, probably, human flesh), I can’t deal with meals produced for mass transit. So I bypassed the dining car, because it just smelled unappetizing, and the plates of food didn’t look much better. Instead, I brought my own travel picnic with me. To do otherwise in a city with dining and grocery options as fantastic as Chicago’s would be a shame..

What I really love about Amtrak is the fact that it lets me enjoy transit for transit’s sake, which is something I don’t often experience domestically (probably because I’m always flying or driving). Like riding the bus in foreign countries (my favorite wayrail travel to travel, and inevitably a fascinating cultural immersion), the train allowed me to just zone out. I had the time and privacy to read, doze, think, daydream, and watch the world go by. At 9pm, the conductor came to turn down my bed. I slid between the sheets, and watched the starry Midwestern night slip by. The rhythm of the rails lulled me to sleep.

In the morning, I sipped my coffee and marveled at the brilliant fall foliage in Maryland and West Virginia. I arrived at DC’s centrally-located Union Station feeling far more relaxed (and free of neck-kinks) than any flight has ever left me. Thanks, Amtrak. rriving