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!

Five ways to make bus travel bearable

I’ve been spending a lot of time on buses lately – and not the kind that trace an east-west route across Manhattan. For the trips I’ve been taking, it’s been the best way to go, but rolling by bus is still far from exciting. From having to smoke outside with the homeless people in front of Port Authority to being stuck next to or in front of a loud cell phone talker, it’s hard to find a less appealing way to travel. Some bus lines are better than others, and I’ve been fairly impressed by the one I’m taking these days. Nonetheless, it’s still a drag.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make your bus ride much easier.

There are obvious tactics, from music to reading materials, but anyone who travels (or has merely waited in a long line somewhere) can figure them out. Instead of the basics, which you should be able to figure out on your own, let’s take a look at five tricks that only come from painful experience.1. Get in line (or on the bus) early
This may seem obvious, but the reasons come with some subtlety. You want to claim your space as soon as possible. Wait too long, and you could wind up having to set next to someone who is already on board. Step onto the bus early, and you’ll be putting someone else in that position. The odds of having your own seat for the ride increase profoundly.

2. Look undesirable
As people get on, especially when there are no empty pairs left, they have to make some tough choices on where to sit. Your goal is to make them pass you without even considering an invasion of your personal space. Eat some smelly food, wear torn or dirty clothing or cough and sneeze. This will help you win the opportunity to stretch out later.

3. Spread out
If there are multiple stops before your destination, more passengers may get on. This only happens when you’re headed toward the “big place,” though. When I leave New York, for example, I don’t worry about losing space to passengers who get on later – the net flow is outward. Yet, when I’m headed back home, it’s hard to rest easy until we’ve left the last stop before the city. To further discourage people from sitting next to me, which is harder than in (2) above, I tend to spread out a bit, pluck away at my laptop and generally make it look time-consuming and annoying to clear space for another passenger. Nobody wants to wait in the aisle, especially for someone who is not really interested in helping.

4. Enlist your friends
While you don’t want to be among the degenerates who talk on the phone during the entire bus trip, you will need to be entertained. Texts, communication via BlackBerry Messenger and even traditional email will amuse you without annoying those around you. Make sure you have a few people on board to help you out, case someone gets bored or busy … or just doesn’t care about your plight.

5. Engage the world
I think the number of tweets I send while riding the bus skyrockets relative to my already elevated volume. If you aren’t a Twitter addict already, become one if you’re going to be spending a lot of time on a bus. It’s quiet, and it will keep you busy. Follow the right people, and it will also keep you laughing. To start, may I suggest @Gadling?

[tweetphoto via @tjohansmeyer]