Taking the Public Bus in a Foreign Country
There's something almost threatening, yet thrilling, about using public buses in developing countries. Signs and destinations posted in a foreign language, inevitable delays, people spilling out the windows, and car horns that incessantly announce their arrival. I've ridden and hated public buses in Jordan, I've seen a naked boy pee in the bus aisle in Cambodia, and I've had a baby placed on my lap on a fully-loaded bus in India.
Why are travellers so afraid of taking public buses? Almost everywhere I've been, I've run into countless foreigners who desperately search for the "Coach Air-Conditioned Buses" that promise reserved seats, a space for your luggage, AC, and faster connections. Why anyone would opt to take these over the dirty, broken-down, slow, mechanically inefficient, and spilling-over-the-edges-with-passengers-and-luggage public buses is a wonder to me. Public buses are just so much more of an adventure and gateway into the culture.
Some advice to those about to embark on a journey using public buses in a foreign country:
1. Don't expect anyone at the bus station to speak English. As well, destinations on buses will most likely be written in the native language, and I've often stared at a Hindi word, not able to decipher whether it says "Delhi" or "Uttarkashi." The best policy is to look as you feel: lost. Within two minutes (30 seconds if you're female), a local will approach you and ask where you want to go. Even if they don't ask you in English, just tell them your destination and they'll lead you to the right bus (or find someone who can understand your garbled pronunciation).
2. Don't be surprised when someone leans their head out the window to throw up. In India, I've seen countless locals suddenly lurch their heads out the window and succumb to motion sickness. Ninety percent of the time it's older women, who aren't used to traveling on the winding Himalayan roads. Be prepared, if you are occupying a window seat, to be asked (read: forced) to switch seats mid-journey so that a local can be near the window in case of emergency puking. This has happened so many times in India that I started to wonder why it never happened in Jordan - why in 2 years, I hadn't experienced the same frequency of Jordanian women throwing up on public buses. I realized that it's because Jordanian women don't travel on buses, since they rarely leave their homes.
3. When a bus arrives, be prepared to fight for your seat. I've mastered the art of using my elbows, of racing on board even before the bus stops at its loading station, and of throwing my bag in through the window to reserve a seat on the bus. The strongest will survive, so be strong and quick.
4. Expect buses to stop frequently. This is a given - public buses will stop anywhere to let someone take a quick bathroom stop, to pick someone up, or to allow the driver an excuse for a cigarette break. In Jordan, the bus would often stop in the middle of the desert - no civilization visible for at least 5 km - to pick up or let off a passenger. In India, as well, I've often wondered from where these magical villagers appear from or disappear to when we stop in the middle of a mountain road to pick up a 60-year-old man who is carrying a load of 6 crates full of apples or to drop off a family of 8.
5. People will carry any and everything onto the buses. There is no maximum weight limit. I've seen a woman load onto a bus with 6 20-kg bags of flour and a man get on with 4 truck tires. I've seen a boy get on carrying a humongous drum wrapped in a quilt and a farmer load baskets of vegetables onto the top of the bus. Once, during Ramadan, I was taking a public bus in northern India when, at one of the stops, a man stopped to buy chicken thighs and breasts for his family's sunset feast. I watched, horrified, as the chicken seller cut off the selected parts, wrapped them in newspaper, and handed them to his customer. After haggling over the price, the man, cuddling his chicken meat, jumped on the bus, and tossed his chicken-in-newspaper onto the compartments above. I snatched my bag down, certain that with the amount of jostling on the bus, there was sure to be chicken blood all over within 5 minutes.
6. Calculate which side of the bus - right or left - will be shaded during your ride. To do this, ask yourself 2 questions: 1. Which direction (north, south, east, west) am I travelling in? and 2. Will the sun be rising or setting? Then, determine whether you should stake a seat on the right or left hand side of the bus.
7. Enter any public bus with a free and open mind. Public buses are an experience in themselves, and use this opportunity to people watch unabashedly.