Karaoke TV

Cambodia
October 2010

Karaoke TV on the bus. They blare it loud, louder than ear plugs can suppress: wholesome, chaste love songs sung from the heart.

Men in military uniforms sing great pronouncements of love and fidelity, make grand gestures, while all around the open-air bandstand pretty couples ballroom dance on the parade ground in the late afternoon sun, always smiling, plastic smiles. They dance slow waltzes. Sometimes they merely sway and make elaborate, swirling hand gestures.

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On a Bus to Kampot

Cambodia
September 2010

Less than a mile after departing the Phnom Penh Sorya station, the bus to Kampot breaks down for reasons unknown. We wait nearly an hour — mostly Cambodians, a couple of foreigners, and me — for another bus to arrive.

We schlep our things to the new bus. The air conditioner smell is the same, like Bengay, but it’s a little more comfortable — for me, at least. A tall American across the aisle sits with his girlfriend, his legs wedged unbearably into the tight space between the seats and doubled back like a fold-up ruler with his knees practically to his chin.

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Colectivos

Chiclayo, Perú
September 2009

Nothing prepares you for the Latin American colectivo. In some countries, they call them combis. Outside the stop in Chiclayo, a young man and his colleague shout out destinations and guide people to the correct vans. It’s chaos, not orchestrated. It’s like herding moving cats while juggling simultaneously.

A colectivo is a small bus or larger van, sometimes a truck, that carts people around town or to outlying places. Not really a bus, but not a cab either.

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On a Bus to Huaraz

Perú
September 2009

The Cruz del Sur bus to Huaraz follows the Panamericana north from Lima, hugging the Pacific coast line. For a while it winds along sandy cliffs overlooking the ocean, cliffs carved like giant sand dunes piled high and far, gray sand mountains like dull facsimiles of the golden, limestone cliffs of Egypt.

In the first class cabin, Peruvian travel shows and dubbed American movies blare from the television. Travelogues produced for the bus line preview Sipán and Chiclayo, coastal locales that I will visit near the end of my trip to the north. A thin, fashionable hostess takes the tours, then visits a popular restaurant. The restaurant’s maître d’ and chef display the wide array of dishes, introduce the full wait and kitchen staff. It’s all very Telemundo.

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Scenes From a Bus Ride

Arequipa to Puno, Perú
September 2006

As the bus pulls away, a tall man from Arequipa stands in the aisle and points out where the bathroom is located. Dressed in a white shirt with black prints, he begins an evangelical oration in a booming voice, hands out a free book on the life of Pope Juan Pablo II, and tells how “papa” should be made a saint. Then, he touts books for purchase and a complete map of Perú.

The man goes on loudly, as if it is of ultimate importance. Some listen, but most ignore him. I’ve never been so glad to not speak Spanish well. I wish someone would throw him off the bus. About an hour into the trip, on the far outskirts of the Arequipa region, he bruskly takes back the “papa” books from those who haven’t bought anything and disembarks.

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Planes, Trains, Etc.

When it comes to transportation, know your options in advance, but play it by ear when you get there. A lot depends on the type and quality of the infrastructure. If there are good, fast, affordable trains, take a train. If you are covering a long distance, check into budget flights. In some countries, a local flight doesn’t cost much.

If there are no trains, and flying isn’t an option, take the bus — but take the best bus possible. In South America, air-conditioned, long-haul buses are comfortable and comparable to trains, making them popular among locals. On the other hand, the Central American chicken bus is like riding a rickety U.S. school bus for several hours with all the locals — and everything they can carry — while the loudest Latin party music blares in your head.

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Highlights: Argentina and Uruguay

November 2011

“Tell me about your trip,” our friend Allison says. “How did it go?”

The scene is a second-floor sushi restaurant near downtown Orlando, looking out across the road at a block building shared by a bridal store and a mixed martial arts dojo. It is our usual place, Karimé and mine, where we began to plot this adventure. Now three days later, she and I sit with Allison, just in town from Oakland on business. Allison peppers us with questions: “Where did you go? How did the two of you get along?”

In Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg tells tales over bitters at his private London club. “What adventures did you have, old boy?” his listeners would ask. “What marvels did you see?”

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