Archive | Travel RSS feed for this section

To bus or not to bus…?

13 Feb

Have you ever taken a ‘what seems like an endless road journey’ where for miles and miles there is nothing, and for hours at a time the landscape you see from your window seat, stays almost the same with perhaps the exception of the odd few sheep here and cow or two there! And sometimes in passing, you see the crazy people who think cycling 4000 kilometres in the blustering winds on a dirt road for months is a good idea! I am talking slow cycling, with 20-kgs of luggage hung over the bike, not Tour de France style! And for miles and miles of no civilisation which for cyclists I assume would be days and days.

So it hit me when I decided to take the Ruta 40, down the South of Argentina, at first the idea to travel all the way down south by bus sounded fantastic. You think to yourself at the time, ‘hey I get to cover some land, there will be no hassle of airports, no check in counter, no security queues and no airport taxes!’ Result! Instantly you’ve saved money, time, and hassle. Plus how hard is it to sit on a bus? And whats even more impressive, is that you can tell your friends you saw some new places, even if you just see them through the window as you drive by, it’s all the boxes ticked.

However what you don’t know or even begin to consider, is the longevity & duration of the journey! If you are from Europe, the concept of travelling by bus means 3 maybe 4 hours and you actually get somewhere, and sometimes it only takes 3 hours maybe less to reach another country, so you think how bad can it be to take a bus in South America!

Well I’ll tell you what all travel guides fail to mention, is that some journeys take hours and hours of nothing, see nothing, do nothing, nothing!!! I do not think anything can quite prepare you for it, unless you have travelled a fair bit before or taken similar journeys.

Anyhow you buy your ticket which instantly guarantees ‘only tourist’ as travel companions and in turn that means you will have paid triple the price of the ‘real cost’ because it is ‘high season’. You curse the tourist, the high season, the people in the travel guide-book and the locals who rip you off and arrive at your point of departure, which is usually outside a tourist excursion shop or some place where ‘you’ the tourist can not get lost! But you are a tourist and you will always get lost. You quickly learn that bus stations can be anything and anywhere!

Anyway you and the rest of the people waiting for the bus stand there guarding luggage as if its ‘the crown jewels’, eyeing each other up and down. In your head you try to suss them out, there really isn’t much else to do, and it is all about first impressions! And do not be fooled into thinking that they have not already done the same with you, it’s all stares and guessing at first. And so you come to your conclusions: (You will find that on most bus journeys, there are always the same kind of ‘tourist’ types)

The Israelis, who travel only in groups, it is very rare that they travel solo. ‘Some of these groups’ or ‘one in the group’ will be sure to try and make your journey unpleasant, for example, leaving a nasty little surprise in the stainless steel basin which acts as the on board toilet, that does not flush nor does it allow solids to pass. There is no significance to the sign on the door which is printed in large bold caps: “LIQUIDS ONLY”! You will just have to except that this is some form of entertainment for them, sitting quite literally in their own shit for hours! In large, most Israelis keep to themselves but be prepared to encounter the more rude and socially inapt types at times!

The Dutch, you will always meet some Duchies on board, they are all over South America. Question? who is left in Holland and if World War III broke out, who would be on the front line??? You will always meet a Dutch who is happy to share stories with you. You realise the Dutch are well-travelled.

There is always the odd German, however don’t expect there to be much conversation. There will be a serious lack of conversation skills, IF, A. you are not German and B. do not speak German. Expect nothing and be pleasantly surprised for any interaction whatsoever.

And then you have on the rare occasion the French, mainly in couples, who are brave enough to venture out of France/Europe. Hold your breath for any positive conversation, the French show no interest in talking to you because A. ‘the French’ only like ‘the French’ and B. ‘the French’ think France is the best place on earth.

If you are lucky there will be an odd American or Canadian, who in general will always be happily happy about everything, and overly keen to converse with you.

And so, finally that leaves you, who maybe the only person representing the British, and of course, you think you are the only sane person on the bus.

Inclusive in your ticket and at no added cost (because you have already paid 3 times the original price) you get; two for one ‘only Spanish’ speaking drivers, a couple of badly dubbed pirate movies that have been released over a year ago. Note, you will sit there baffled for the longest time, repeatedly asking yourself ‘why don’t they just have the original copy?’ You will never find the answer because there is no logic behind it. The South Americans take piracy to a new level, watch out China!

Also included is a meal, which makes McD’s look like a Michelin Star Restaurant. Lunch or dinner, whichever it maybe, there is only one serving and it will consist of stale-hard-white bread with ham & cheese, no butter but a sachet of mayonnaise for your taste and some form of dessert – which will have somewhere in it, the ever famous ‘dulce de leche’. All of this will all be on one white poly foam tray wrapped in cling film. IF you are lucky there may be some coffee, expect the coffee to be bad, it will look like tar and the taste could scar you for life!

Welcome to South American buses… at times it will feel like torture and at other times, it will feel like the best idea you ever had.

How to pass some of the time through the journey, entertaining yourself:

1. a book – if you can read on the bumpy ride.

2. iPod/iTouch/iPhone/iPad/some form of mp3 player – if you have one, if not then you are doomed to the noise of the air fans, the engine, the noise from the tyres on the dirt road, stones flying at the window and the bad taste in Spanish music at all times, which blasts from the front of the bus, if you are unlucky the back speakers may work too and at times you will find added vocals from the drivers. (I highly recommend becoming part of the ‘Apple Inc’ cult, it is enough ear torture for 12 hours to convince George Bush into confessing all his crimes!) AND sometimes, again if you are unlucky, there will be only ‘one’ music DVD on replay throughout the whole journey. This takes torture to another level!

3. Your own food – that is what ever you have with you, usually in form of crackers, biscuits, bread, toffees, and any other crap that has no nutritional value whatsoever, at least you know if the bus breaks down in the middle of no where (believe me, there is a lot of no where in South America, especially in Argentina. And you will break down at one stage or another) you won’t starve. Your only hope if you do break down is the odd passing “4×4” who stops to try and help the situation, but in reality cannot do a damn thing to help you and 33 other people. (Do bear in mind that the equivalent of AA in the South Americas may not be able to get to you for hours, that’s assuming there is a AA service in the middle of no where!) Optimism is a great thing.

4. A camera – to take a snapshot now and again, hey its something to do. Also this will remind you never to take the journey again!

5. And finally you are back to the beginning, the company of the other people on the bus. Who obviously, like you thought the idea of taking the bus in first place was a good one.

Smart people fly.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the people on the bus will be your saviour at any point to the never-ending journey. You are more than likely to meet some characters and have a few conversations, some people will be more tolerable than others, and some will make you wonder if you are indeed from the same planet. You will always meet the people who constantly feel the need to give you, what you might think at the time is ‘great travel advise’ (remember you are stuck on bus for hours, maybe deluded at this point, everything you are told sounds wonderful) do take it, smile and nod. BUT ALWAYS make your own decisions along your travels.

There will always be the ‘travelling couples’ who are reluctant to talk to you at most times, or there will be one in the pair who does want to talk you but will resist because of the other. At some stage or another there will be some small talk ether when the other is in the toilet or asleep. Expect daggers and open whispers! (Points to the couples who have managed to entertain themselves for 2 minutes at your expense!)

And then you have the people who for some reason or the other find it hard to communicate, period! So they just stare at you. Language barrier perhaps? Even so it’s a little strange and it will freak you out. Paranoia is all you need to add-on to what feels like the longest bus journey of your life! But all in all, you and these people are in the same position and you just end up living with the way people are.

What you won’t realise at the time while on the bus, is the falling in and out of coma like sleep. Because you are sitting in incubator conditions for hours. The bus will get relatively hot when the sun is out, magnifying its rays through the window causing desert like heat, your body will automatically go into survival mode, shutdown and sleep. Don’t panic you won’t really notice it until you wake up in shock because your clothes are wet from sweat and it will be freezing as the air con sporadically starts and stops. This will continue to happen at random intervals.

Road and more road...

Throughout the journey you pass through all 4 seasons, and experience at least 3 types of weather conditions all at once. The bus at times will seem like it may not make it on the dirt grit road, with the winds blowing so strong that Harry Potter would have no chance on his broom stick! While the bus rocks side to side and the driver is speeding at 110 kilometre per hour, you fear for your life but then you fall into coma like sleep again. All is well.

Break down in the middle of no where...

The  journey continues on and the bus has only broken down once! Bad news for you, this means leg stretching is limited to twice the whole journey, the first time is at the gas station, and that was at the start of the journey! Shit! A numb bum and 7 hours later you are sitting there wondering what will happen, will the bus stop, will you drive of the side of the earth, will something, anything happen!?!

Hours of nothing....

You almost start to hallucinate, that something is happening. Aliens are taking over the world, Roger & Jessica Rabbit are sitting in the seats next you, there are birds and bunnies singing in tune outside the window, Tweety Pie is trying to sell the other passengers something, possibly drugs, you want some! BUT in reality you snap out the somewhat bizarre daydream, and nothing like the sort has happen or will happen! And so you continue to sit there, watching the sky change, because through the journey the sky & weather will be the only things that will have changed.

All in all, the only way of knowing when it will be over, is the confirmed time of your arrival. The other indication will be when you feel the road change from dirt rough to a smooth layered road, from the window you will see lights, living civilisation and buildings. The bus pulls into a sudden stop which you assume is the bus station. At this point you are hoping that it is your stop. You are in serious need of fresh air, space and body movement, the driver yells ‘VAMOS’, and you know for sure that you have arrived. You pinch yourself, ‘is it real’!! And then ask the person sitting  in front of you for confirmation.

When you disembark the bus, you do wonder how you managed to get there and the last 12 hours become a somewhat distant memory, because you are just so relieved its over. 24 hours later, after a shower, meal and some real sleep, you convince yourself that you need to take another bus to your next destination because the first one, really was not all that bad.

In a space of 3 weeks, I travelled from Buenos Aires to Mendoza down to Ushuaia with Miriam Van Harten, stopping in between towns and cities. A total of 4501 kilometres, travelled via 5 buses over 40+ hours on the Ruta 40. I would not change the experience nor would I ever do it again. I thank Miriam for keeping me sane on these somewhat crazy journeys.

So you think you are a traveller???

4 Feb

Have you ever wondered why when you go away on your travels, whether it be a holiday or a backpacking expedition, you come home with the perception, that the place you spent the last week, month or year in, is the most fantastic place in the world? And so you eagerly tell everyone and anyone willing to listen to your stories, all about your experiences and the amazing things you did, like climb Mount Everest or swim in a lake full of pirañas & caimans, (ok lets face it you didn’t really do that, but you met someone, who knew someone, who knew someone else who did it!) You paint this perfect picture for your audience, only you make the colours brighter and strokes broader therefore almost creating an illusion of perfection because A, that is how ‘we’ like to tell our stories and B, hold our good memories. But the point is, do we create something bigger & brighter than it is in reality…

I have been travelling around the South of America since the end of last year, so far my journey has taken me to Brazil, Bolivia, Peru & currently Argentina. My travels started when I decided that London was boring, I hated my job and there was really nothing left to stay for, so after a fairly convenient redundancy I booked a trip to the South Americas. The brochure I was given at the travel agency, had me captivated by the picture of adventure and cultural experiences, I mean how many people do you know, say they have been to Lake Titicaca to live like the local Peruvians in a small village where electricity is a new concept and the toilet seat is still a mystery!

The point is the brochure promises some seriously amazing experiences and of course at a cost. However while you stand there with this fresh painted picture in your head, you think ‘hey why not, I only live once’. So you jump on the next available plane to start your journey of a life time, like Dora the Explorer in lands of the Americas, but there is one problem!!! … when you step off that plane, you and 150 others with The Lonely Planet Guide in their hands walk of the plane with exactly the same idea! ‘No way’ you think! YES WAY. You soon realise that you are not the first to discover the Americas, I believe that was Christopher Columbus and nor will you be the last. So how perfect was that picture in the brochure with the added descriptive sales jargon the travel assistant painted for you!

Anyway you and your ‘Lonely Planet Guide – South America on a Shoestring’, venture into the world of unknown or well at least unknown to you personally, all you have is your book as reference, a pre booked hostel and lack of language skills to get through the next 5 months. The adventure really begins…. What the brochure fails to tell you, is that if you walk around with your backpack, a tourist guide-book and a map, you are instantly subjected to: 1. being ripped off – well if you can, why not? The key is to charge tourist 25% more than locals, it makes a great profit and then you can buy the Ford that costs more than your house! 2. Being mugged in broad daylight, why not, you are after all a walking wardrobe with additional accessories from the western world and not forgetting the added BONUS of some cash in whichever currency, money is easily changed, no questions asked! 3. And finally, being robbed some more at any given opportunity!

So after the initial ‘I’m a tourist’ shock, you head to your hostel to seek some shelter, some quiet time is definitely a need, however what you receive as soon as you walk through the door is a crammed common room with a bunch grouped travellers, if it’s not the Israelis then you are guaranteed the Dutch. And at the point you ask yourself ‘why?’. Some shared stories and polite conversation later, a hot shower (the only place you can be alone, well in some places!) and bed with your guide book beside you, are your only sanctuary! As for tomorrow, it will be another travellers day in ‘paradise’.

So you think you are a traveller?