A year measured in buses

Today I have more Bolt Bus adventures in store, heading back down to Seattle from Bellingham. Over the past year and some I've spent time on literally any kind of common transportation you're likely to imagine. Airplanes, trains, ferries, ski-lifts, subways  and aerial trams. No horses. Plenty of buses too.

In fact, I feel like I could measure the past year in buses. Everywhere I went the system for boarding, paying and indicating your desired stop on a public buses seemed to change. Sometimes you spoke to the driver and other times there was a dedicated person on board to handle transactions. In some you're expected to haggle and others you can't even buy a bus ticket on the bus. Public transportation via bus has a lot more cultural variance than you might expect.

I've taken to measuring the past year through single points this way. It makes consuming a full year of travel and seeing so many places, experiencing so many new things and such a wide array of emotions easier to digest. I could measure the year in kitchens, things I've accidentally destroyed in kitchens, toilets, beds, the kind people I've met, beaches & oceans, sunsets & sunrises, boats, food...

But today it's buses. A year ago I was navigating the swarming fleets of presumably sanctioned, van-like buses of Peru, where asking for directions to the airport resulted in two people pointing me in opposite directions and I had an accidental encounter with Google Street View (Black shirt, gray shorts, arms crossed on the west side of the road). The switchback climb from Aguas Calientes to the dizzying tops of Machu Picchu, sitting in the back of the bus as I fought off the terrible headaches and dehydrated-feeling brought on by altitude sickness, despite the copious quantities of coca tea and quinoa I'd consumed. Later that day a landslide would block the train coming back into Cusco for many hours.

In Uruguay an overnight bus into to Brazil stands out; sitting in rain-soaked clothes and feeling generally deflated having learned barely an hour before my departure that my grandma had passed away. It was the first of several overnight buses I'd take through Brazil, and no matter how remote our location it seemed we were never far from a dining hall buffet to stop at — a tradition I came to love.

The public bus in Iceland from Reykjavik to remote town of Skagaströnd only ran when you called ahead of time to schedule it, so infrequent where its passengers. The driver was one of the few people I'd met who only spoke Icelandic, so we sat in relative silence as he drove me past majestic snow-capped hills, mountains and lava fields while Fuck the Police played, inexplicably but delightfully uncensored, on the radio.

The matatus in Naoribi marked a dramatic cultural and comfort shift  in my year of buses. Prices were negotiated and boarding and disembarking had to happen quickly and confidently (even if I was seldom confident as to where I was exactly). The more surprising and unnerving thing to me though was the physical barrier erected between the passengers and the driver on the minibus. In this wall were giant speakers, blast beautiful Afro-pop at ear-ringing decibels. Taking the matatus at night was an adventure in sensory deprivation.

Zanzibar and their dala-dalas were similarly in a number of ways, but open-air — essentially a cover  over the back of a pickup trick with several benches. I still remember the smell of spices and burning things, the bundle of sticks someone had tied up and thrown on top next to my backpack and that time I broke haggle etiquette by refusing to negotiate, got my things tossed off the top and had to wait for the next bus. I remember someone watching from the crowd came over after this happened and whispered in my ear "I can take you for that price. Next bus."

Bulgaria & Greece took me past mediterranean ruins and churches galore. It also brought  my only real border-crossing scare — something I'd been prepared for from the outset but slowly came to think less and less about until it happened. Being an American born abroad via a peculiar country (Saudi Arabia), with a passport full of peculiar stamps (Iceland, Kenya, Tanzania) trying to pass a small, unassuming border into the Balkans raises suspicion it would seem.

The man had gone down the line, looking at passports and handing them back to their owners. He shook his head from left-to-right right to indicate approval the way they do in Bulgaria,  but when it came to mine he looked at it, looked back at me, put it in his pocket without explanation and continued through the rest of the bus. Without talking to me he got off the bus and went over to the border offices. For thirty more minutes we sat there. When he finally returned he handed me my passport sans-explanation and the driver was free to go onward.

The only other time something like this had happened to me had been passing the border into Canada on my way to Vancouver, oddly. That was also a bus.

There were overpriced tuk-tuks (which were more taxi than bus I realize) in Thailand, and the double-deckers in Hong Kong — a vestigial reminder of British colonialism but with the feel and general efficiency that modern Asia likes to bring to most things.

And now I'm home, more or less. On a bus, rolling through Oregon and Washington and getting reacquainted with my surroundings. Everything between Portland and Seattle seems close enough and similar enough to call home. The weather lately creates a particularly gloomy, pacific-northwesterly backdrop to this excursion. Some of the trees have buds but most are still quite bare; the overcasts skies cast everything in a flat-light and, combined with the perpetually misty rains, the terrain looks coated in wax.

I wonder what this coming year will look like, measured in buses.

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» January 30, 2014
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