Day Tripper: Ah, she’s got a ticket to ride

January 23, 2014

Travel. Traveling. Traveler.

The word and its variations conjure up images of exploration, adventure, boundless personal growth. Marco Polo—now he was a traveler! That lady who wrote Eat, Pray, Love—she did it right, didn’t she?

Transportation, crossing space to reach a destination, is often not easy, and certainly not glamorous. This difficulty is not only the case in trips to exotic lands, but even in and around the district. We moan when the GUTS bus takes the “long way” to Dupont and fret when NextBus provides us with misinformation about the G2.

When friends return from abroad and recount their travel experiences, their stories of transportation are generally positive.

“The buses there are so nice! They give you cookies for free!”

“I met this really nice lady on my overnight train, and now we’re best friends!”

While I’m sure the free  baked goods were delicious and that lady from the train was very kind, it’s important to keep in mind that overland travel does require some planning in advance. These tips should help make the best of your bus or train experience.

First, suspend disbelief. Even if the bus company you booked markets itself as a luxury line, your bus seat will not be lined with rose petals. It might get smelly, it might get awkward. To enjoy it, you’ve got to overlook the uncomfortable. Focus on the comedy of the moment.

I once found myself sharing the back of a minibus with some chickens while traveling through Georgia. The smell was unpleasant, and I realized the risk of contracting an avian disease was high. But by the end of those four hours, I had made friends with all the passengers on board and even helped get the birds out of the back seat once we reached our destination.

It may make you uneasy to think about what you might encounter. Forget your American sanitation codes and learn to live like the locals.

On a separate occasion, as I was traveling through the Ukraine, I purchased a bus ticket I thought was a “kupé” ticket, the Ukrainian equivalent to business class. A kupé ticket will get you a spot in a four-bed carriage with a door that locks. I just nodded when the cashier asked, “Platzkart?” and assumed it meant something about the blanket I would receive.

It came as a shock when I found myself in a compartment not with three, but 53 people. Beds were stacked three high. Small children immediately flung away their clothes and were running naked up and down the aisle. With no windows in the compartment, I’m positive temperatures reached above the boiling point.

I would have preferred to spend the night in kupé-class, but the real reason I was upset about my fate in platzkart was not my physical discomfort. It was that the experience took me by surprise, which could have been avoided if I had put a little more effort into the language.

It’s crucial that you know what you’re buying at the ticket counter at the bus or train station. Putting in the extra ounce of effort will save you an uncomfortable misadventure.

Another time, I was visiting a friend who was studying abroad in Pamplona, Spain. She organized the bus tickets for a trip to Madrid, where we were supposed to catch a budget flight to London for New Year’s. We located the bus at the station, dumped our bags below, and climbed on board. What could possibly go wrong?

You can imagine that we were upset when we were dropped off in San Sebastian several hours later. There were no more buses until six the following morning. We spent the night wandering around the city and lurking outside a nice hotel until the first bus arrived the next day.

Though amusing in retrospect, we could have saved ourselves a lot of stress by just double-checking the bus’s destination or asking our fellow passengers.

It is crucial to know where you’re going. If you think that impedes on your spirit of adventure, then at least know where your bus is going.

Simply put, drop your pride. Don’t be afraid to look or sound foolish—it’s worth it to avoid transportation pitfalls.

In a weird situation, remember that you’ll eventually cherish the memory; it just takes a little mental readjustment.

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