I have had my fair share of bus journeys that were memorable for all the wrong reasons – a couple of blow-outs in Java and Laos, ending up in a ditch in Bali, a complete breakdown and three hour wait for a replacement in Vietnam, our bus catching fire and burning out on our way back from Prague, an armed soldier using my shoulder for a pillow for the entire journey from Palmyra to Damascus, an almost unbearably cramped and nauseous ten-hour overnighter from Odessa to Sevastopol…….
Perhaps my worst one ever though was the late afternoon five-hour journey from Turkey to the Georgian border, as this extract from my book describes……
Bus journeys are the Beelzebub of travel compared to the saintly joy of the train. I wondered what the Devil had put aside for me. Restrictive seating, no loos, traffic jams, erratic drivers, loose schedules – all arranged neatly to get your stress levels up.
We were not to be disappointed or put more accurately, no pleasant surprise was in store for us.
My blow-by-blow account:
Blow number one – my seat was broken, so that if I leant on it I would end in the lap of the girl behind me. This would be frowned upon anywhere, but in the more noticeably Islamic part of Turkey, it would be deemed tantamount to sexual harassment for going to close to areas only a husband should be allowed to go to. I would have to sit leaning uncomfortably forward for the whole journey.
Blow number two – the seating area was so cramped that I had my knees crushed in front of me and my right buttock could not help but sit upon the disused seat belt holder. A bruise would be inevitable.
Blow number three – the bus went into the centre of Erzurum for a pick up at the old bus station, which was situated a mere kilometre from the train station.
(To explain this blow, we had hoped to explore Erzurum having arrived by train, but all taxi drivers at the station insisted we had to go to the new out of town bus station to get to the border – this meant we had wasted a £10 taxi fare, not seen anything of Erzurum in Kurdish Turkey and had to spend three hours in a comfort-free bland bus station in the middle of an intersection).
The bus then filled completely, so my hopes of moving to an empty and in tact seat to stretch my legs were dashed.
Blow number four – the driver was a chain smoker and the smoke seemed to be taking a direct route to my nostrils. Just for good measure, the conductor was also partial to regular fags, so my eyes were taken care of too.
Blow number five – just as we left the old station, I could feel my bladder refilling a little. I knew what this meant. In thirty-minutes or so I would need the toilet. I would have to stick as long as possible in the hope that I would not bust in the process.
Blow number six – the route was up, down and around mountains. All hairpin bends, meaning being shaken around like dice in a cup along the way. I had to pull the seat arm up and wrap my arm around it to stop myself vaulting into the aisle at regular intervals. There would be more bruising to follow no doubt.
Blow number seven – the conductor started handing out free cups of water. Not only could I not have one due to my precarious state, but also I took this to mean that we would not be stopping en-route until the first stop in Artvin, predicted to be at 21.30, some two and a half hours hence.
I was bursting by now and in plenty of discomfort. I tried to think of things to take my mind off it. Why did every thought turn to bloody water!! My ipod even shuffled to ‘The Riverboat Song’ followed by ‘I’m Only Happy When It Rains’!
This was turning out to be a real test of endurance. One bright interlude took my mind off my discomfort for a few minutes when the conductor, a middle-aged Turk with hairy belly sticking out of his Yesil Artvin Ekspres white cotton shirt, squirted disinfectant liquid into every passenger’s hands.
This seemed to be compulsory as every passenger willingly held out his or her hands for a dollop of the stuff. Blakey (as we christened him after the ’70s UK TV comedy London bus conductor who appeared in a programme called ‘On the Buses’) clearly enjoyed this part of his role.
He squirted away in the style of a cocktail bartender, holding the bottle higher and higher as he took aim.
Most splats were delivered with aplomb, but mine missed its intended targets and landed straight on my trousers. Another blow. Lovely.
Blakey just huffed behind his thick handlebar, which I took as an apology, but more likely it was a ‘take that you English varmint’ (or perhaps even ‘I hate you Butler’, a catchphrase from the same ‘70s TV comedy).
We traversed countless tunnels and continued to be tossed about in our seats like a salad in its bowl. My bladder did not need stirring any more thank you. I was just about at breaking point when a saviour came to my aid.
We had spent a good twenty-minutes trying to get past a truck that stubbornly refused to stand aside. The bus driver continually pulled out to see if it was clear to pass. Every time, a bend obscured the view or oncoming headlights were too close.
We even had to move to the side together as a convoy of wide loads crawled past. Still the truck would not yield. Finally, after at least twenty aborted manoeuvres, the truck driver at last pulled in for a kebab. Thirty seconds later we did exactly the same at one of the dust bound shops-cum-restaurants-cum-services that you only ever see on overseas bus journeys.
I needed no second bidding. I just caught the start of the driver’s announcement, “we are stopping here for as long as it takes me to have a glass of tea and smoke six cigarettes”, was my take on his probable proclamation. I was outta there, ‘WC 1TL’ sign spotted. Up some rickety wooden steps, past a prayer room and into a dark space in the attic that housed the loos.
A grubby chap in filthy grey overalls had shouted at me as I flew up the precarious steps – I would pay on the way down, I shouted back. The conveniences were Turkish style, but as no squatting was necessary, that was fine.
The cubicle was tiny. I stupidly forgot the fact that I was wearing my daypack on my back and like a fool rushed in. I then found myself wedged between the door and the wall, unable to move.
My bladder was about to explode and now I could not move, trapped in a straight jacket of my own making. I spied the hole. I could aim from where I was and just about get a hole in one. Relief first, release second.
I managed to pull my right hand free and was soon in not so sweet smelling heaven!