I’ve always liked traveling overland. It’s not just because I dislike flying. I picked up that fear halfway through my travels.
I like the hours on the road, admiring the changing landscape from my window seat, letting my thoughts run like wild horses.
I need this mental downtime. Traveling can be arduous. Scoping out places to find food, figuring out the rhythms of the place, what to expect and what not to.
These stretches of time were like a mental rejuvenation day at the spa. I could dream of future adventures, of fun I might have, of what the next place might be like.
Or I’d use it to ruminate over past situations, people, and places. Or blend the two into some sort of thought novel, chopping up bits and blending scenes and manipulating the flow like a music producer.
Maybe I appreciate overland travel so much because I grew up in Florida. It’s a state whose highway landscapes would lull even the most caffeinated driver. Trees, asphalt and sky is all you have to look forward to. If you’re lucky, you might pass a landfill. We call these hills.
The Best Rides
In New Zealand, the landscapes are otherworldly. On the same island, one could see white sandy beaches, gloomy rocky beaches, toothy glaciers the color of a morning sky, violet colored mountains, and towering waterfalls. It’d be a shame to fly over all that beauty for the sake of speed.
In South East Asia, the window movie was more uniform. Green, lush vegetation, brown rivers, and the occasional smattering of homes set back from the road. In Laos, I opted to travel from one city to another overland instead of taking the river cruise that everyone else rode. I always did have to be different.
I might have decided different had I known what I was in for. A Toyota van built in the 80s and meant for 8 people was stuffed with 14. I crammed in the back with two Japanese tourists who squealed every time we hit a bump. The 9-hour journey was on a mostly unpaved road.
There was a lot of squealing.
Laos is a largely rural country. On these back roads, clusters of huts formed villages around the road like magnet filings under a microscope. Brown and green, brown and green, save the bright red Coca-Cola sign hung up on one of the hut’s walls. Here, that sign would be called vintage, paid for at an overpriced flea market in a trendy neighborhood and hung up in someone’s loft.
And then there are the chicken buses. It sounds like an urban legend or a slang term for a broke down bus. But no. Chicken buses have actual chickens on them. The birds are stuffed inside a straw sack and tied to the top of the bus with the rest of the cargo.
Most of them are old school buses that the U.S. had sent for retirement. In middle school, me and my classmates refused to ride more than two to a seat. Here, it was a mandatory three full-sized (and I do mean full) adults.
Colombia’s Overland Pleasures
Colombia is my favorite place to travel overland. I’ve been as far north as the Caribbean coast and traveled straight down through the border town of Las Lajas, with its magnificent cathedral built in a tight valley worthy of UNESCO status.
From the the winding mountain roads of Colombia, one could expect to see secret waterfalls, crops, farmhouses in the middle of nothing but land and mountains, fruit stands and food stands and furniture making stands, macaws soaring over the valleys, cowboys, mudslides, wild flowers, and some of the greenest greens God has created.
Lessons Learned on the Road
It’s not just the landscapes I see from the windows. It’s the window into locals’ lives that I appreciate. There are few situations that a lone traveler can get such an intimate look at the way people live as this. It doesn’t require an invitation into someone’s home or making a friend. Just observation.
I’ve learned a lot this way. Older people who live in rural areas and don’t travel much often get motion sickness on the bus and spend most of their time barfing.
Personal space is not a concept shared by most of the world. Aside from cramming onto a school bus bench with two others, there were also people hanging out in the bus aisle, clutching the steadying belts overheard, leaning into the person on the aisle for weight support.
Or, in the case of a long stretch in Vietnam, a few people boarded with their hammocks and slung them up in the aisles. On rides like these, it’s futile to tense your leg enough so that you’re not rubbing thighs with your seatmate. You can expect to get elbowed by the old lady next to you who digs in her purse every few minutes.
I’ve learned what snacks make the best road trip food when sellers hop on board at one of the stops or circle the outskirts of the bus. I’ve learned that people actually do buy the products sold by those who board mid-ride and recite a script a-la infomercial about some weird potion that will cure some random ailment.
I’ve learned that the concept of time is fluid because no buses really leave when they’re scheduled to. And just when I thought a bus was full, the driver deemed otherwise, squeezing more people on. If these buses were buildings, the owners would certainly be issued a fire hazard citation and possibly condemned.
But maybe nothing is better about traveling overland then getting off the bus and finally being able to move freely without rubbing against another person. Because at the end of the journey, I am in a new place, a place I have worked so hard to get to. I have endured hours of bumps, twists, turns, jabs, rubs and dehydration just to arrive.
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