Sunday, May 3, 2009

South America by Bus

The art of a proper bus ride is a hard, but necessary ability to hone, especially when in South America. Here is a continent of few, if any, trains; where buses will almost always be cheaper than planes. However, time as well as comfort are something of a sacrifice when riding on these buses. This is where mastering the perfect bus rides comes into play.

Getting excited about our first plane ride in nearly a month this Wednesday (we found a rare occasion where flying actually is about 20 USD cheaper than taking a 2.5 day bus ride to Buenos Aries), I've started thinking about how our preparation for, and coping with extremely long bus rides has evolved. In doing so, we have come up with some tips and tricks to accomplishing that perfect bus ride and fighting this war against boredom, uncomfortably, and insanity.

First, know how long the fight will last. This is paramount in proper preparation, especially when it comes to food. Most shorter bus rides (eight hours or less) will not serve food, so it is in your best interest to carry some food on board. Sandwiches and other finger foods work the best, but keep in mind you trip itinerary. If you are going to cross a border, you will need to throw away any fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats. Even if the bus ride is longer and there are meals on board, they may not be appetizing, so it still may be prudent to bring a back-up snack.

Second, make sure your weapons are sharpened for battle. This means have your ipod and laptops fully charged and your reading material is ample and desirable. There is nothing worse than riding down the spine of South America, nothing but desert on all sides, and having your music abruptly stop. For most of us, music is a sort of lifeblood, and to have to stricken from us can be devestating to a good journey.

As for the books, make sure it is a book that is fitting to the trip and countryside. When traveling Peru, I was reading "Red Mars", by Kim Stanley Robinson. This book tremendously immersed you in the alien landscape of Mars, as I was being immersed in the strange, yet beautiful Andes Mountains of Peru. On the other hand, Melanie, while stuck in the Andes, at four in the morning, trapped by a mudslide, civilization many many miles away, was reading "Death in the Andes", by Mario Vargas Llosa; a book about the Shining Path terrorist organization that still exists in the very hills that we were occupying. Not a good choice for keeping sanity.

Thirdly, know thy enemy. Find out about the bathroom situation. This cannot be stressed enough. Find out what the bathroom rules are- if there is one and what can be done in them. This especially applies in Peru, where, more times than not, on-board bathrooms do not work. This information, of course, will not be revealed until two hours of a six our trip is over and you have just finished a one liter bottle of mineral water. You will have to resort to cutting of the top of the bottle with a pen to make a bigger target, instead of simply not drinking the water to begin with. Worse, some bathrooms are reserved only for certain bodily functions. This, however is revealed via an angry bus attendant knocking down the door and passengers passing out as you quickly try and pull up your knickers.

Fourthly, be on your toes. Pack your carry-on lightly, because most of the buses are quite cramped in their seating arrangements, but pack thoroughly. This includes your camera. Just because you will be spending the better part of you life on a bus, does not mean that a photo, such as a young girl boarding the bus carrying her pet llama that is as big as she is, will not come up. Be prepared for these things, otherwise you could miss out on capturing a great memory.

Fifthly, strength is in numbers, so stick together. If you are traveling with company, make sure one knows where the other is at all times. Waking up while stuck in the Andes, at four in the morning, trapped by a mudslide, civilization many many miles away, and finding that your travel mate is missing is a rude awakening indeed. In fear and panic, poor Spanish becomes completely indecipherable and you will not be able to convey your thoughts and descriptions about the missing individual. Instead, the rest of the passengers will simply laugh at you when you discover, after waking up half the people and asking everyone you can see through the darkness, that she has just relocated to the seat behind you for more space.

On a similar note, buses will leave your ass (yes, leeeve yo asssss). I repeat: do not assume that the bus will remember that you were a passenger. If the bus stops at a gas station to refuel and allow the passengers to releave themselves (since the bathroom obviously doesn't work), do not be the last one in line at the pot. While your in there doing your business, the bus is outside starting its engines. And as your cursing yourself for forgetting toilet paper, the bus is leaving your ass behind. Even if everyone on the bus is screaming to the driver that he is missing one, and you are sprinting behind, while still trying to button up, the driver will keep on going until his next stop. He will not pull over for you and wait. Sorry. Hopefully there is a taxi, or you'll be discovering the Nazca lines by yourself. (Yeah, Mel never knew she could run with such cheetah-like speeds.)

So, in conclusion, the fight against the bus is winnable. Just because you may be forced to take long rides to save some money, doesn't mean you have to be miserable. Remember, know how long the fight will last, keep your weapons sharp, know thy enemy, be on your toes, and strength in numbers and you will, at the very least, survive your trip.

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