Overnight Bus Rides: Good, Bad, and Ugly

As a world-traveling vagabond, I’m accustomed to various types of transportation. Whether it’s a tuk-tuk in downtown Bangkok, a friendly donkey in the countryside of Laos, a rickshaw in India’s dusty streets, or a backseat on a rusty, squeaky moped.  Whatever the type of transport vessel, I’ve probably tried it and lived to tell about it.

Over the past several years, I’ve fine-tuned my transportation palette and become a connoisseur for the most common mode of backpacker transport – a type often used on cross-country journeys and marketed to the penniless backpacker for whom a flight is just not an option. Yes, I’m speaking fondly of the renowned overnight bus ride. We’ve all taken them. If you haven’t, then count yourself among the lucky ones without permanent back pain.

Load up for the long ride with plenty of snacks!

Load up for the long ride with plenty of snacks!

During my countless experiences on the beloved overnight bus rides, I’ve developed my own “bus rating system,” purely for entertainment purposes, of course. My impractical system gauges such important aspects as seat comfort, bus temperature, leg room, available entertainment, cleanliness, driver friendliness, number and location of rest stops, head rest softness, perhaps most relevant of all, the likeability of the seat partner!

Now, I’ve had quite a range of seat buddies and have accordingly developed a rather high degree of tolerance for a wide variety of personas. For instance, I have been wet on by babies, thrown up on, sat on, stepped on, slept on, drooled on, spit on, and spilt on (both hot and cold drinks). I’ve been groped, flirted with, asked to babysit, taught languages, and invited to discuss the current President more times than I can count. I’ve listened to stories, fables, songs, poems, weight concerns, family worries, and love problems.  I have survived breakdowns, sweltering-no-air-conditioning saunas, freezing-too-much-air-conditioning ice lockers, and what-the-heck-are-we-carrying-under-the-bus-I-hope-we-don’t-get-stopped-by-customs possible drug vehicles posing as tourist buses.  Basically, I’ve been in any situation one could imagine, and have learned that whatever the circumstances of the bus ride, the seat buddy either makes or breaks the ride.

With that being said, I boarded the overnight bus between Auckland and Wellington in high spirits for the opportune bus riding seat mate. “He” would be tall and green-eyed with a splendid accent – a knight in shining armor that will let me rest my head on his shoulder as we share Robbie Williams on his IPOD.  What a story to tell our grandchildren some day.

A girl can dream.  Nicely put, she resembled an NFL linebacker, had more gold teeth than the Black Pearl crew, and managed to spit directly in my face whenever she spoke. Regarding her stature, I was smashed up against the window with half of my left leg hidden somewhere under her body, a helpless appendage that immediately started tingling as blood stopped flowing to major organs (like my toes).  My companion smelled like a horrible brand of rancid raspberry lotion which she rubbed on her bare feet every 20 minutes. Upon inquiry I was told that this was to soften the calluses…of course.  If the smell wasn’t enough, her annoying gum chewing in which she was constant chomping, snapping and bubble blowing nearly drove me to jump out the window and hitchhike the rest of the way.

On the other hand, my companion was tremendously friendly.  We talked and talked for hours and hours while our Intercity bus sped through the night.  I shared chocolate covered almonds and she shared warm, slightly melted gummy snakes. As the time drifted past 2 a.m. she was still talking. I half listened and nodded at appropriate times for it would be rude to fall asleep in the middle of her ramblings. She talked about her church, her kids, her cats, her house, her car, her husband, her eleven grandchildren, her knitting, her grocery list, and her health problems, ailments, doctor’s visits, past three colonoscopies, back difficulties, pills, daily medications, and her ingrown, yellow toenails. I tried my best to show compassion and offer whatever suitable advice I could muster on the spur of the moment as both the pink dawn and Wellington city approached in front of us.

Downtown Wellington

Downtown Wellington

Wellington Arrival – We were dropped off on platform nine of the railway station at 6 o’clock in the morning. I bid farewell to my seat buddy, wished her well with her church cookie-athon, and hopped off the bus with as much grace as my poor, bruised leg could muster.

City buses didn’t start running until 7 a.m., leaving me an hour to tour the empty bus station and pace back and forth, waiting for the bathrooms and coffee shops to open.  After a brief mis-hap with boarding the wrong bus, and a small jaunt through the morning rain, I finally arrived at the Nomad’s Capital Backpackers.  It wasn’t long before I was crawling into bed to sleep for the rest of the day. Finally!


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