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How to Enjoy Possibly Unreasonable Trips on Public Transportation

Riding in a tro-tro is kind of like wearing a straight-jacket in a sweat lodge. As a twenty-five year-old, I regularly feel arthritic after a trip in one. Overflowing with perspiring bodies and sometimes animals – both live and dead – tro-tros are also home to otherworldly aromas. You may find that the person to your right is holding a giant bowl of tilapia. On your left, the one-year-old strapped to her mother’s back is giving you a wet-willy. Meanwhile, there is a basket of live chickens at your feet and they are just as uncomfortable as you are.

I wrote that about tro-tros (minibuses in Ghana) last August. It is in Africa that I have experienced most of my adventures in public transportation (I have yet to find public transport that stretches physical limits more than the bush taxis of the Sahel), but I have also spent a good chunk of time on buses, boats, and vans in SE Asia and South America. My description above and the tips below are not unique to Africa. They apply to developing world public transportation in general. While a crowded minibus does not provide much in the way of comfort, the social and cultural experience is unmatched, and I maintain that public transportation provides one of the best ways to get to know a place. Here a few tips to manage the journey.

1. Greet the driver/captain/chef du voyage and give him some peanuts

First of all, it’s just polite. Beyond that, there are practical reasons. In addition to holding his life in your hands, the driver may also be able to help you in a bind. On this bus trip between Takoradi and Abidjan, a trip that became complicated because I was not on the passenger registry and I was sitting in the stairwell, the driver had my back during a tricky episode at the Ivorian border. Peanuts? Yeah. Or anything really. Try to avoid alcohol.

2. Choose your seat wisely (if you have the option to do so)

In situations where you can choose your seat, figure out which direction you are traveling and avoid the side that will spend most of the time in the sun. Do not sit in the front (the “death seat”). Sit somewhere between the middle and the back. This way you are oblivious to suicide attempts by roadside livestock and poor decision making on the part of the driver. You will also (hopefully) benefit from some air flow and if you need to get off, it’s not impossible.

3. Befriend your neighbors

This may happen whether you want it to or not. Greet the people sitting next to you. Smile and try to say at least a few things in the local language. There is a good chance you will be traveling with them for a while. Besides sharing food and laughter, you will undoubtedly learn a thing or two and you may find that they become good friends.

4. Buy food on the road

While Africa is the only place where women deftly carry cargo on their heads (check out Afia’s 4 AM load in this movie), it is not the only place where you can buy food while in transit. Economies have formed around public transportation routes and unless you want to bring your favorite biscuits, there is no reason to stock up on food before your trip.

5. Eat like a bird

You can buy food on the road, but don’t be an idiot. Stuffing your face on an extended journey is foolish. So is experimenting with unknown, possibly unidentifiable food items. Avoid caffeine, eat simple foods (bananas, bread, and peanuts are my staples), and don’t eat too much.

6. Bring Imodium

Just in case. I am generally anti-Imodium. It holds offending bacteria in your gut and can actually prolong intestinal illness. I do, however, make an exception for serious overland journeys because I don’t enjoy catastrophes that involve fecal matter and people I don’t know.

7. Have patience

Come to terms with the fact that you may not arrive on time. That your van/bus/boat may break down. That there may be unexpected and unexplained delays, detours, and roadblocks. Be patient. Huffing and puffing will do nothing. Use the time to get to know your fellow passengers. Ask them to teach you a local joke, game, or dance, and continue your language education.

8. Give thanks

I have a ritual of touching my left index finger to the ground when I arrive somewhere. This suggests to bystanders that I may be unbalanced, but it also forces me to acknowledge the moment. Arriving safely, there is nothing more important. Be thankful.

Adventures in Public Transportation

For more insight on public transportation, check out some of these links:

Journey to Timbuktu Part 1: a Breakdown, an Overloaded Pinasse, Flying Urine, and a Late Night Foot Job – A ferry trip I took to northern Mali.

It’s Not a Proper Bus Ride without a Chicken or Two – Jodi from Legal Nomads actually has a tag called adventures in public transportation. Here she documents a ride through northern Laos, complete with chickens and a vomiting child.

Holy Transvestites! An Indian Train Ride – Wes from Johnny Vagabond is one of the best storytellers around. Enjoy this entertaining tale of a train ride in India.

The Iron Ore Train. – Benny and Mitch from Amateurs in Africa document a journey that few other travelers will make, stowing away on an iron ore train through Western Sahara and Mauritania.

The Great Circular Indian Railway Challenge – Christine’s husband, Drew, and friend Troy, circumnavigate India by train in 16 days. What? Yes. Also see the 140 second version of the trip.

Central America Chicken Buses – Jason and Aracely from 2 Backpackers offer a comprehensive look at buses in Central America. Complete with photos, video, and commentary.

Bolivian Bus Hell – An Illustrated Guide – Erin and Simon from Never Ending Voyage have created a hilarious illustrated guide documenting an overnight bus ride in Bolivia.

The Ultimate Train Challenge

While we’re on the subject of public transportation, I want to call attention to a project started by Michael from Go, See, Write. Not too long ago, Michael completed a round the world trip without planes. Perhaps that trip was not ambitious enough as he has now conceived the Ultimate Train Challenge: traveling by train from Lisbon to Saigon in 30 days. Michael invited me and a handful of other folks along for the ride, effectively making it a competition. While my participation is contingent on a few things, namely what happens in West Africa on this upcoming trip, I am excited about the possibility. The website for the trip is up and running at ultimatetrainchallenge.com. There is a forum where you can suggest side missions for us to go on, and it’s looking like we will also be raising money for a charity that rehabilitates agent orange victims in Vietnam. Go Check it out and let me know what you think.

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{ 36 comments… add one }

  • jill- Jack and Jill Travel The World April 22, 2011, 10:34 am

    Good tips all around, Phil. We’re just about to take our first long distance trip in South America. We’ll make sure we’ll bring peanuts for the drivers 🙂

    • phil April 23, 2011, 1:29 pm

      Or AREPAS!!!!!

  • Erin April 22, 2011, 11:38 am

    Great tips and thanks for linking to our Bolivian bus post. I think buses in South America have nothing on Africa – we have that joy to look forward to!

    • phil April 23, 2011, 1:32 pm

      Every place has it’s own challenges. In West Africa, the roads are often in bad shape, but they are typically on flat ground, whereas so many bus routes in South America go through narrow mountain roads with nothing to stop you from going over the edge!

  • Jodi April 22, 2011, 12:06 pm

    Thanks for including me, Phil! I know we both agree public transportation – while sometimes harrowing (and vomit filled) often serves up some of the most memorable travel moments. I hadn’t seen the Bolivian Bus Ride: Illustrated edition before but it sums up my own experiences too – love it!

    • phil April 23, 2011, 1:35 pm

      Jodi, we’re definitely on the same page about this. Now if only we could agree on other things… I’m thinking of a word that begins in T and ends in “arsiers”

  • Christy @ Technosyncratic April 22, 2011, 4:20 pm

    Highly useful and surprisingly entertaining tips! And peanuts are just a good thing to carry with you at all times, in my opinion. 😛

    I hope you’re able to participate in the train challenge!

    • phil April 23, 2011, 1:36 pm

      Peanuts are great! Lots of calories, protein, will last a while, easy to carry.. Glad you like the post 🙂

  • Dalene - Hecktic Travels April 22, 2011, 10:34 pm

    Some really great tips here – never thought about giving anything to the driver! Smart!

    One more that I might add…consider dehydrating yourself a bit! You never know when/if a bathroom break will come, and while I’d never recommend this otherwise, a little dehydration is almost necessary to survival on a long bus ride!

    • phil April 23, 2011, 1:38 pm

      Dalene, I would agree with that.. depending on how much you are sweating 🙂 Also depends on the state of your bladder. You’re right though, bathroom breaks can be few and far between!

  • Jennifer Barry April 23, 2011, 12:42 am

    Hi Phil, I love your stories about public transit in Africa, then I’m glad it’s not me. 😉 Don’t get me wrong, I will take a bus or metro just like the next person, and that’s often a great experience. Next time I will bring the peanuts because you never know. However, I don’t think I could take these 24 hour trips!

    • phil April 23, 2011, 1:39 pm

      Thanks for the comment Jennifer. It’s weird how much you can adapt to these long trips once you are on them, but the really long ones, 24 hours and up, I’m not too crazy about 😉

  • Yvonne April 23, 2011, 8:25 am

    really great tips! thanks for sharing!

    • phil April 23, 2011, 1:43 pm

      Thanks Yvonne!

  • Tijmen April 25, 2011, 2:39 pm

    Love the tip of feeding the driver with some peanuts 🙂 I usually like sitting in the front of the bus, I like the view. Never really thought of the danger it could bring, driving is a bit safer here then in Africa. But its a good point to remember when taking the public transport in countries where the safety standards can be a bit different then the western world.

    • phil April 26, 2011, 3:48 pm

      Hey Tijmen,
      Glad to see you over here 🙂 These tips are definitely specific to developing world transport, otherwise I also prefer the front seat!

  • Anthony April 25, 2011, 4:16 pm

    Ahhhhh when all else fails Imodium comes to save the day. Especially when in transit 😉

    • phil April 26, 2011, 3:49 pm

      True story

  • Theodora April 26, 2011, 12:04 am

    I could not agree more with all of this, Phil. In particular Imodium. Clearly the devil’s work, except for long bus journeys which cannot be rescheduled when nature must not take its course. Great post. I’d add, for ladies, wear a tube skirt so you can piss under it at the roadside without exposing unnecessary flesh. God, I’m such a classy bird sometimes…

    • phil April 26, 2011, 3:50 pm

      Tube skirt. Noted. 🙂

  • Nicole April 26, 2011, 12:32 am

    Really great photo above! And love your travel foods. 🙂

    • phil April 26, 2011, 3:50 pm

      Thanks Nicole!

  • Katie April 26, 2011, 11:46 am

    I have another tip for public transportation via water: if they tell you to buy plastic bags to encase your luggage, do it. Don’t ask why. Just buy as many as you can and double wrap. We took a panga boat (massive hollowed out canoe with a serious engine) to a tiny island off Nicaragua and almost drowned, and the boat didn’t sink or tip. Apparently this is commonplace.

    • phil April 26, 2011, 3:53 pm

      Whoa. Another reason to heed instructions from those who know. This could also be handy in situations where your luggage is on top of a vehicle. There are often goats up there and they pee wildly.

  • Jade April 27, 2011, 11:46 pm

    Really great tips- especially befriending the driver. We would not have made it to The Great Wall or Mt. Fuji by public bus if our driver didn’t help us along the way and get off at the right stops/ transfers.

    Excited for the train challenge- Good luck!

    • phil April 28, 2011, 4:27 pm

      Thanks for the comment Jade. Glad to know I’m not the only one that tries to buddy up with the driver 🙂

  • The GypsyNesters April 30, 2011, 4:34 pm

    While we are firm believers in, and frequent users of public transportation, I don’t believe we’ve ever had a journey requiring Imodium.
    Good stuff, thanks.
    -David & Veronica

    • phil May 1, 2011, 6:25 pm

      Hey David and Veronica, I hope you continue to have journeys on public transport that don’t require the use of imodium 🙂

  • Benny May 1, 2011, 4:25 pm

    Great post mate. I’d have to say though eating like a bird is one thing, but eating some part of a bird or any other animal at a roadside grill is what we loved the most… 😉

    As for the Ultimate Train Challenge, well that is indeed very interesting and right up our alley…

    • phil May 1, 2011, 6:26 pm

      Roadside brochettes… mmmm nothing beats em!

  • Anita May 3, 2011, 10:48 pm

    Wow. Death Seats? Wet-willy? (Which, btw, what the hell is that?)

    This sounds more arduous than the chicken buses in Central America. Great tips on how to survive…love the idea of tipping the driver with treats!

    • phil May 4, 2011, 12:54 am

      Anita, you have never heard of a wet willy?! It is when someone covers their finger in saliva and then sticks their finger in your ear. It’s as unpleasant as it sounds.

      Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  • Dina May 29, 2011, 12:34 pm

    Cool article! I like the photo of the car breaking down 🙂

    • phil June 12, 2011, 3:08 pm

      Hey thanks Dina. That photo is a sotrama in Mali. Tire change was a quick minute and a half or so :O

  • Haley June 2, 2011, 11:02 pm

    Great tips,thanks for your post

  • simon fenton November 28, 2011, 10:09 am

    Hey – greetings from Senegal. Just reading some of your blogs – all great stuff. Not sure if you saw it, but here’s the story of when I did end up in the death seat…

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