Friday, August 12, 2011

My Favorite Things About South America: Long-Distance Bus Rides - An In-Depth View

After a much-delayed blog that has been promised now for almost over a month, I finally provide you with an in-depth view (and somewhat of a tutorial) in regard to the primary form of transportation that has more or less dictated my trip thus far: Long-Distance Bus Rides.

Before I begin discussing the complex aspect of the South American bus transportation system, I must first pay tribute to what has actually been quite the enjoyable experience during my trip (if spending 12 hours on a bus every few days can be considered ¨enjoyable¨). For all of $1-3/hr, bus goers are provided with ridiculously comfortable seats (almost Lazy-Boy-esque) that recline anywhere from 135-180 degrees (depending on your ticket fare), as well as a bus that is almost always on time. When almost everything else is on this continent seems to function at 50% efficiency, it is always great to rely upon this beyond-its-worth bus system. I can only imagine the cardboard cutout of a seat that awaits me on my flight home from Lima for 100 times more per hour... Nevertheless, let the lesson commence:

Buying Tickets: Part 1 - Where to Buy - By far the most entertaining aspect of every journey, purchasing one´s tickets for a long-distance bus journey is best accomplished at the bus terminal itself, for two key reasons.

1. It is almost always cheaper, as hostels and tour companies add a ¨significant¨ commission onto the purchase price (Significant = 10% on top of practically nothing -- It adds up!)

2. It is much more entertaining, as detailed below.

As witnessed on several occasions (depending moreorless on geographical location), an almost sedate bus terminal comes alive as soon as the presence of gringo comes within its depths. With shouts and screams of ¨gringo-preferred¨ destinations from all directions, it is almost an Entourage-esque type scene. Imagine walking into DTW airport, and almost every airline ticket agent instantaneously commencing to yell ¨New York! Miami! Chicago!¨ towards your direction. It can be quite the overwhelming experience. If on the off chance you make the mistake of pronouncing your preferred destination to one of the various ¨bus hawker´s¨ roaming around the terminal (it is difficult to tell if they are selling cocaine or actual bus tickets based on their creepiness-level), you will almost always be whisked away/dragged by your arm, and placed on a dilapidated bus for almost twice the price. Ideal method to utilize = Avoid any eye contact as you attempt to sneak glances at which companies bus photos from the 1980s provides the most alluring option.

Buying Tickets: Part 2 - Choosing Your Operator - With countless bus companies serving almost identical routes, it is quite the difficult decision choosing a company with which to travel (unless you rely upon whichever companies agent shouts at you the loudest, then it is quite the easy decision). Upon approaching one of many competing bus companies with general questions on departure times and costs, you are almost always provided with 75% lies as to the services provided. An advertised ¨direct bus with onboard bathroom¨ almost always guarantees approximately 278 stops throughout the night to pickup ¨stragglers¨ along the road, as well as a closed bathroom due to ¨maintenance.¨ A few ¨dime a dozen¨ companies do exist that live by their word, yet the excessive surcharge for ¨guaranteed services¨ typically eliminate their usage.

Bus Ride Preparation - Despite traveling from the humid tropics of the Caribbean coast, to the frigid heights of the Andes, one constant among bus travel that is throughout the continent is freezing, oh-so-freezing, cold temperatures. With the A/C almost inevitably on full blast, the only hope one has of remaining warm throughout the journey is to rely on wearing 1/2 of the clothes in one´s bags as it would make no sense to set the bus temperature to, oh I don´t know, a normal level. Oh yes, and piss your heart out beforehand and don´t even think of drinking a drop of water as bathroom breaks are almost never a guarantee. Bladder control is almost a developed skill among backpackers in South America.

Entertainment - With almost every bus encompassing some sort of entertainment device hanging precariously from the ceiling (e.g. television), these screens only serve as a constant reminder as to what potential entertainment COULD be provided. With the majority of buses relying upon the ¨Top 100 Latino Music Videos of 1983¨ or endless, endless, oh god endless, pan flute music played at full volume throughout the night, when a movie finally IS played, it is almost always a disappointment. Either starring Jean Claude Van Dam, or a half-decent film frustratingly dubbed in Spanish (pleas for ANY subtitled language almost always fall on deaf ears), one´s best bet for entertainment is to watch as your iPod battery slowly approaches empty, thus forcing you into on-and-off slumber for the remainder of the journey. Favorite Form of Entertainment: Plastic TV-shaped box with a PHOTO of a movie scene -- Provided at least 5 minutes of solid entertainment.

Food - See previous post about Food Hawkers. On rare occasions, a small box of food will be served, and is typically enough to satisfy the hunger of a fairly anorexic gerbil.

Safety - Despite having no issues thus far (knock on wood), stories galore are abound in regard to safety-related issues on long-distance bus journeys. Countless travelers have been met who´s stories range from the mild pickpocket or bag snatch, to full buses being held up by armed robbers in the middle of the night (I think I can safely put ¨having a gun/knife thrust in my face¨ at the bottom of my list for desired travel experiences). As to help protect from this, some bus companies have gone as far as fingerprinting and even videotaping boarding passengers. Nevertheless, if one does avoid any sort of theft-related incident (typically by keeping their backpack in a Suzanne Sommers thigh-burning-like lock between their legs for the majority of the journey), they must also find a way to protect themselves from the relentless drivers who feel every curve and corner should only be taken at speeds that put the bus up onto at least 2 wheels. Favorite (aka Least Favorite) Safety-Related Incident: The two men who spent about 3 hours joking about tourists they had robbed in what they thought was untranslatable Spanish, before referring to me and Laura only one row ahead in whispered voices. Fun factor = 0/10.

Local Etiquette - While I have met and spoken with numerous locals throughout South America that have been the most pleasant and kind people in the world, something comes over locals when placed on long-distance buses. All common-courtesy is thrown out the window, as every bus journey will undoubtedly include either someone having an above-normal-volume phone conversation at 4AM, or playing 8-bit analog tunes through their shitty cell phone speakers for the entire bus to enjoy (see previous note about pan flute music). And finally, when the bus finally does arrive at its final destination, no form of formal exit exists, as each and every local will shove their way to the front, refusing to allow anyone else to pass before them. Deep breaths are a must.

Arrival - The last aspect of every bus journey can also be the most complicated. Typically upon arrival, a destination is shouted throughout the bus in almost inaudible Spanish, and thus one is forced to judge whether or not the departure point is the correct one. Typically a clear sign is other gringos departing, although an entirely empty bus is also a solid indication your destination has been reached. Finally, since no bus terminal is ever located in a convenient area of a city, a taxi ride is almost always a necessity. However, at a typical rate of $0.10/minute, it is by far a wallet-buster.

I leave you finally with some of the country-specific highlights of long-distance bus journeys:

Panama = Vomiting, vomiting, and a bit more vomiting. Drivers take turns as if every one is a complete surprise and must be swerved for at the last possible moment.

Colombia = Inability to manage a consistent 30 minutes of sleep throughout the night due to almost hourly passport control checks as well as frequent stops to local ¨bus stop restaurants.¨ Vomiting persists.

Ecuador = Some of the cheapest (as well as shortest) bus rides on the continent. Bus Hawkers typically out-number passengers on most routes. Vomiting limited due to time-restraints.

Peru = Best buses among the ¨poor nations¨ (Non-Brazil/Argentina/Chile) along the first straight roads in almost 2 months (I imagine some ingenious Peruvian proposed this idea to a confused road council who could not imagine roads that don´t change direction at every potential opportunity). Straight roads = NO vomiting!

Bolivia = Ass-numbing bumpy roads, as well as falsy-advertised functioning bathrooms (Bladder control is quite difficult when your body is being vibrated by 8 hours of dirt roads). Back to the floor for vomiting.

Chile = Amazing buses (for which almost 5 times the price is paid), and probably the rudest group of South Americans thus far (I can only imagine what thoughts flow their their minds as they shove past a politely-queuing group of gringos waiting for their bags).

After losing almost an entire´s trip worth of photos thanks to a USB-craving virus, the risk of uploading a few bus-related pics prevents me from adding any pictures at this time. Til a later date...

Next Week´s Lesson: TBD (It´s an indecisive day for me today)

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