Night Bus Adventures – Are You Brave Enough To Endure This Right of Passage
Night buses are one of those things that seem like a good idea at the time, after all you reach your destination while sleeping, you don’t need to pay for a night’s accommodation and they are often all that is available for long trips at short notice. Despite my many less than stellar night bus experiences I’m still tempted into booking one occasionally, like childbirth it’s hard to accurately recall the depths of discomfort after the fact but take my word for it there will be discomfort!
To start off your average night bus is a bit of a lucky dip. It’s hard to predict if you will get a sleeping berth or a reclining seat, if you will get a skilled, well rested driver or even if your bus is likely to be overbooked. Like one bus I took in Vietnam where the bus was so full to overflowing that there were people curled up in the aisles, making a trip to the restroom an impossibility.
Another pitfall of long distance travel is the quality of the seats themselves, I once saw a grown woman reduced to tears on a night bus with reclining style seats when she discovered that not only would her seat not recline but all the rest still would, leaving her to ride 14 hours with the seat in front pressed hard into her legs. Tall people and large men may struggle in parts of Asia where the ergonomics are designed for the typical Asian stature. I’ve heard many a curse from men unfolding themselves after 18 hours with their knees squished up by their ears praying mantis style, simply too big for their seats.
To come out of a night bus experience unscathed you must be prepared for this unique experience. You can tell seasoned travellers by their sleepless, Zen like qualities. You need to be ready not just with the snacks, entertainment and baby wipes such a trip requires but the almost transcendent mindset that lets you survive sleepless nights, inadequate bathrooms and pushy vendors without losing your cool.
A night bus to me is that blurry feeling as you stumble home after a night out, the feeling of kinship of surviving an ordeal with strangers, the quintessential rhythm of long distance travel and the adventure of even the smallest experience becoming an epic quest. A night bus may score low in comfort but it definitely makes up in experience. As long as you don’t need to be alert and chipper the next day it may just be worth the ticket.
I come from a family famous for our ability to sleep anywhere. As such it was a mystery to me why I could never get a solid night sleep onboard a night bus. Rather floating through the night in a semi-conscious doze. Eventually I concluded that the motion sickness bands I wear on my wrists for long journeys somehow inhibit my ability to fall into a deep sleep and any night spent on a night bus will leave me in a floaty state of exhaustion.
Also I can be a bit paranoid, I like to check and double check on stops and time frames, especially in foreign countries. Despite multiple talks to the ticket collector on board and an alarm set for 5am I woke one morning to find my bus had driven an hour or so past my stop, the town where I had accommodation and attractions booked. Eventually I was able to convince the driver of this, he promptly stopped and turfed my travel companion and me out on the side of the road with our packs. Leaving us a half hours miserable trudge from the center of town and unable to afford to retrace out steps and visit the attractions we had planned on.
Through the night there will be various stops, some for fuel and food, and some to let passengers off and on. Some buses in the USA and Canada when refueling are not allowed passengers aboard meaning every person is turfed off into a florescent lit convenience store hell for a freezing 40 min at 3am. Let’s just say between the stops, watching your bags, lights, sounds and other passengers expecting to sleep would be a mistake.
If you can manage to enter the dream like state long distance travel requires, there can be unrepeatable rewards. One night when all my fellow passengers had their curtains tightly closed trying in vain to sleep. I stared out into the endless darkness watching a stream of vehicle’s winding up the mountain side like a dragon’s fiery tale, Beethoven serenading their epic quest. Another time in the middle of the night we passed a power station, so austere and commercial during the day lit everywhere like a magical abandoned village the sparkling machinery moving as if by magic.
The trick is to have a strategy, understand you will need food and rest, that your next day will be wiped out and be ready to be unreasonably patient at the end of your trip as night buses are prime targets for every tout around. My friends and I developed a strategy where we refused to talk to anyone (this takes much more insistence than you would expect) we would walk away for half an hour, eat and drink carefully horded snacks and have a quick wipe down with baby wipes before returning and haggling our way to the best accommodation possible. It sounds simple but without this half hour time out a breakdown of epic proportions was almost guaranteed, let’s just say you don’t want to yell at anyone who may be latter serving you food and leave it at that.
One bus we were on somewhere in Asia had a good percentage of local travellers. An elderly and possibly drunk local man was the center of attention, telling stories and talking away. Eventually hopping off, grabbing his stuff and wandering away, we were at the next stop before we realized that the belongings he walked away with weren’t his. The driver called back to the previous stop and men were sent to retrieve the 40kg bag of rice the old gentleman had acquired. The lesson here is to always keep an eye on the unloading of baggage even at 2 am, yet another reason you are unlikely to sleep.
One thing that can be guaranteed however is the characters you will meet, bus travel it may be said is not for the rich and glamorous, it is however for the adventurous and kooky and you will meet some individuals worth remembering. Night buses tend to be a little less social, everyone busy just hoping their neighbor doesn’t snore but bus stations and compulsory rest stops band passengers together in sleeplessness. I remember crying with laughter listening to an African American gangster lookalike and a 50+ suburban housewife give some very conflicting girl advice to a fourteen year old boy being sent cross country to visit his Grandma. Of waiting patiently while 20 odd Egyptians lined up to ask me questions through the translation of one guy with some English and my phrase book and buying some convenience store burritos for a quiet young Mexican man with all his belongings in a black bin liner while his 6 year old brother stayed at his feet for the entire 12 hour journey. Their mother had died and they were travelling 4 days across country to live with an uncle they barely remembered.
I suppose reading this you would think I hate night buses and I suppose in a way I do but there is something about the Zen like rhythm of long distance travel, the rocking of the bus, the wind in your hair and lethargy that colors all your experiences that is somehow intrinsic to the travel experience. The hardships of the journey just make the destination more significant. If I was to give you advice however, it would be that if you are travelling more than 7 hours continuously seriously taking a train. =)
If you enjoyed this post check out this article about my unique experience on the train in Cairo.