The Night Bus to Battambang

Cambodia
October 2010

Three hours from Phnom Penh, late afternoon, the bus makes a rest stop at a restaurant with a market out front. If this is the midpoint, we have three more hours until we reach Battambang.

The market is crowded with people getting off work. People from the bus purchase fruit and pastries. I buy them, too. A surprising amount of good pastries in Cambodia, the legacy of French colonization. I haven’t eaten all day.

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The Station Cat

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
October 2010

When the bus from Sihanoukville reaches its station in Phnom Penh, it dumps passengers off in a narrow street on the north end of town. All the bus companies have separate stations. None are close to each other or near where you want to go in the city. I am just passing through, though. There are no instructions for onward connections when I arrive. People wait beside the bus to claim their luggage, then the bus disappears.

Inside the small station, there is a ticket window with no attendants and three people sitting at a desk, who all give conflicting answers when I ask about my connecting bus to Battambang. There are lots of people standing around on one end of the station between the ticket windows and the filthy bathroom, and a small waiting area with seats in a narrow corner near the front door.

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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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