I’ve never tried to calculate the exact numbers, but I can state with some certainty that I’ve spent a significan percentage of my allotted lifetime hours in transit. Or trying to find transportation, waiting for my chosen mode of transport to show up or backtracking back to my original intended destination after getting lost in transit. And as I mentioned in my earlier post, some of those hours were much more enjoyable than others. But as we all know, the worst travel experiences are often the best travel stories, so here are my three worst memories of my times on the road.
1) The oldest, slowest bus in the Baltics
Overall, Lithuania and Latvia are two of my favourite, under the radar travel destinations, but I do have to admit that when I was there in 1998 they were just emerging from communism’s shadow and some things were pretty rough around the edges. And nowhere was that more evident than the transportation system. I had to get from Riga, Latvia to Klaipeda, Lithuania and on the map the 300 km journey looked like an easy trip. And then I saw the bus. Or what could have been described as a bus about 40 years ago. I once toured the civil rights museum in Nashville and saw the actual bus where the Rosa Parks incident took place in 1955. This bus could have been that bus’s grandfather. My vinyl bench seat had only one of the four legs securely attached to the floor and I had to brace myself to keep from sliding into the knees of the person behind me with each turn. The temperature was about 35 degrees celsius that day and I’m not sure who was worse off, the half of the bus who had dusty air blowing in their faces from the windows that wouldn’t close or the other half that were sweltering behind windows that wouldn’t open. A young, sullen looking soldier two rows behind me took it upon himself to remedy the lack of sound system on the bus by turning a portable radio to a station playing tinny Russian pop music, then promptly falling asleep. And we were in no danger of getting out of that radio station’s range any time soon as the 300 km trip took over eight hours. Eight long, hot, uncomfortable hours that I’ll never get back.
2) The slow boat through China
When I went to China, I decided to break off from my usual independent travel style and join a tour. It was a small group adventure style tour, and it was the perfect way to still get out on my own to experience the local culture, but have the main logistics of the trip looked after. However, things don’t always work out the way you hope. The highlight of the trip was supposed to be a 2 day cruise down the Yangtze River on a purpose built tourist boat. But the travel gods had other plans. Our boat was pulled out of service at the last minute, and the substitute plan was a commuter hydrofoil down the first half of the route for day one, a stay in a small city along the river, then a “local” ferry for the second half of the river portion. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a passenger hydrofoil up close, but one thing they aren’t meant for is views. The windows were low to the water and filthy and we could only view the gorges by taking turns standing up in a small hatch opening in the top while the spray whipped into our faces at whatever ridiculous speed we were travelling. The second portion of the trip was by river ferry and the it did have actual cabins, but you could quickly see the difference between a “tourist” boat and a “local” one. I have a snapshot of our six foot tall tour leader standing in a four bed cabin with his head brushing the ceiling of the cabin and both hands touching the walls on either side. And in contrast to the speedboat of the day before, this boat trundled along so slowly the ducks were passing by. We spent the day playing cards and drinking tea on the open back deck, watching the boat pull into every little village along the way to load sacks of rice and bags of cabbages. But at least we had plenty of time that day to enjoy the views.
3) The fast train to Belgrade
On my first trip to Europe with my brother, we had a lot more ambition than experience. We hadn’t originally planned to go to Hungary, but once we were in Austria, it seemed like an easy hop to Hungary. The country had been behind the Iron Curtain less than a decade earlier, and it seemed a little bit daring and exotic to venture to a country with such an interesting recent history. We boarded a train in Vienna that made a stop in Budapest and eagerly watched the countryside go by. After a few hours, we appeared to be approaching a major city. I scanned the signs as we pulled into the station on the outskirts and tried to figure out where we were. The ticket said we would stop at “Budapest Keleti”, which our guidebooks marked as a major rail hub near the centre of the city. This station said “Budapest Something Else” and appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. We decided to stay put since we had noticed on several occasions that trains would make stops on the outskirts of major cities before reaching their main stop. Unfortunately, once it began going again, the train showed no sign of stopping. We whizzed through the city and right out the other side and soon we were in the countryside again. I volunteered to go and try to get some information, but I was hampered by another issue that had cropped up. At our Budapest stop, the train had been inundated with new passengers, all of whom had brought an inordinate amount of luggage with them. People were crammed in every compartment and passageway, stuffing and cramming duffle bags and suitcases into every conceivable location. In the compartments families were frantically unwrapping various consumer goods and packing them into their bags. People were piling on layer after layer of clothes and packaging was piling up all over the floors. I had to squeeze out of the way as two men lumbered down the aisle with an enormous duffle bag slung between them who’s contents were alarmingly similar to the shape and size of a human body. I finally got to the bar car where all the conductors were passing around a vodka bottle and held up my ticket and asked, “Budapest?” They roared with laughter and one of them replied, “No Budapest! Next Belgrade!” That posed a bit of a problem. You may remember that in 1995 a bit of nastiness known as the Yugoslavian civil war was in full swing; Sarajevo was still under siege, the Dayton peace agreement was months away and Belgrade was not a place that two novice backpackers had any interest in visiting. We had a tense hour or two on the train, debating what would happen at the border and what we should do. Fortunately for us, the train continued to have some extra changes to the written schedule and we suddenly began to come to a stop at a small town about an hour from the border. This time there was no hesitation about whether we should get off or not; we were climbing off before the train even came to a complete stop and within and hour were back on another train heading back towards our destination. And I will forever wonder what that duffle bag actually contained.