The appeal of long-distance bus travel: you sit and stare, listen to some music and become increasingly bored with your idle state of nothingness. There are articles promoting the art of boredom and if you’ve been wondering how to practice it I suggest you take the bus. There is something oddly satisfactory in being bored and not having the ability to change it. In one such recent bored moment on a bus, I had the dull realisation that I’ve travelled long-distance buses in every country during this trip.
Whether in a 3rd world or a 1st world country, bus travel is surprisingly similar across the globe. Big buses roll like mansions down the road, their interior coolly air-conditioned, some silly movie showing on the television screens. My bus behaviour is equally unchanging. The seat is my domain for the duration of the trip, strewn with music device, head phones, ear plugs, a selection of warm clothes and my diary. If you’re lucky you get to set up house using two seats. If you’re not, half of what should be yours is annexed by your neighbour.
I have been amazed at bus travel in South America: Argentina, Bolivia and Peru all have sleeper buses in which you get seats that recede to flat position. This is a “cama-seat”, ‘cama’ being the Spanish word for bed. A bus ticket often includes meal service: you get a little tray with food (soft white sandwiches wrapped in foil, crackers, a packet of cookies) and as much Coca Cola as you can drink. Companies also advertise with the on-board toilet which they, unfortunately, often don’t let you use. So numerous times I found myself squatting behind piles of rocks or debris, anything I could find that gave me the illusion of privacy, during the driver’s cigarette break. (Not nice after having had a meal that was too rough on a European stomach.) I have also been amazed at the stuff people bring: bedframes, televisions and mattresses are stowed away with the greatest ease in some compartment of the bus.
It seems to be common knowledge in the States that only the oddest bits and pieces of society travel by bus. So naturally I was quite excited to take the bus from Iowa to Colorado (touching upon three states in one bus ride). “Bigger better” does not apply to everything in the US of A (they can learn a thing or two from South American buses). My bus travelled mostly through the night, but sleeping was not an option on the narrow, upright chairs. So I studied my fellow travellers instead. Behind me sat a lady who took up two chairs with her body size: she spoke loudly on the phone and snored softly in her sleep. The poor thing was completely helpless in retrieving her phone when she dropped it between the tightly arranged seats. A few rows in front of me sat a man who every ten minutes jerked his head to look at me, which freaked me out a little, until, after some hours of this, I decided he must have some compulsive disorder. In front of him sat a crossover between a character from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Forrest Gump. This man chose to start talking to me at 4am in the morning during our stop at a gas station, at which point I was too dazed to talk back. The cherry on the pie of passengers was no doubt the bus drivers. The first driver used the PA system to propose karaoke, a suggestion for which I of course cheered loudly, causing the whole (silent!) bus to look back at me expectantly… The driver saved me by doing a wonderfully horrible impression of Bruno Mars. The second driver, a fat short man, should have been an announcer at a fancy fair: “we will now cross over to Colo-Colo-Colorado, Co-lo-raaa-dooooooo!” (yes he really stretched the ‘o’ that long). By the time I made it to Denver I was exhausted.
The exception to my observation of homogenous bus travel is of course Malawi. Yes, they have a few big buses there, but that’s as far as the comparison goes. No air-conditioning, no receding chairs (often not even a chair) and no schedule to adhere to. This basically means that you have to wait until the big bus fills up (like with all modes of transport in Malawi), which can be a long wait. Word of advice: do not travel with a big bus in Malawi if you don’t absolutely have to.
The most recent hours of boredom were on a bus in South Africa. Air-conditioning was, true to form, on full blast (for which the lovely stewardess apologised), the screens showed sappy American movies with a clear moral of family values. The bus company I travelled with “promote[d] the Christian message on board”, so naturally we had a communal prayer after the bus departed. It worked: we arrived safely (as requested in the prayer) after travelling eight hours over a distance of 450 kilometres. Plenty of time to practise the art of boredom.