The night bus: perhaps the most common (and the most economical) transportation option for travelers covering long distances.
From a rational standpoint, the night bus makes perfect sense. Get on the bus, allow the bouncing tires to lull you to sleep and wake up at your destination.
For Dani, this is exactly how it works. With just a jacket under her head to soften the bumpy ride, she’s out like a light most the night. For me, however, the longer I travel the less I sleep on buses for one simple reason: I’m keeping watch over the bus driver.
This isn’t exactly because I don’t trust the driver. I really do, considering that night buses around the world arrive in tact every single day. And of all the ‘types’ of bus drivers, overnight, long haul drivers are by far the more professional than the others.
Pimp My Bus – A Bus Driver Break Down
The short distance drivers – two hours or under – tend to treat the road like a popularity contest. The actual driving taking a back seat to all the honking and waving at locals and fellow drivers passing in the opposite direction. When they have no assistant to handle the money, passengers pay up front, and one or two inevitably join the driver, standing up front holding chummy, jovial conversations with the driver for lengthy blocks of time.
These drivers also tend to have this deep need to express their personality through their bus decorations. In Panama we took a trip out to the less visited Gatun locks from Colón, and the bus driver had converted his chicken bus into a reggaton disco decorated with acres of fuzzy neon fabric. Other times, the drivers are no-nonsense sticklers for rules, with signs all over the bus – don’t talk to the driver, pay in exact change, no standing, no exiting from the front of the bus, etc.
Then there are the middle distance drivers, who cover anywhere from three to eight hours. Some of these guys (and no matter what, bus drivers are almost always guys) seem like they’ve just been bumped up into the minor leagues, but are still playing the popularity contest. Some drivers wear uniforms and work for companies, others wear jeans and holy t-shirts. There is less need for an assistant on these buses as tickets are often paid for in advance, so these drivers are social in other ways. They’re the ones who love letting food vendors on, or people selling Bibles or Band-Aids, pens or sewing kits on, who then sell at the top of their lungs for a dozen kilometers before getting off at the next stop. Making the same stops along the same routes every day, these drivers often have a restaurant where someone packages them a lunch or dinner at one stop, and have a group of driver buddies to smoke cigarettes with at others.
We once had a chicken bus driver in Guatemala who had hooked up a flat screen TV in the front and run surround sound around the bus and had movies blaring for the hundreds of indigenous people crammed six to a school bus seat for hours at a time. A few months later on a bus in Nicaragua, on the way to the Costa Rican border, our driver had a full-sized (non-flat screen) TV somehow hoisted up to the front showing non-stop Europop videos from the 90s. It was an…interesting…experience, and Dani was able to school me in a genre of music I’d thankfully not had to personally experience in the mid-90s, when I was balancing a life-affirming mix of grunge and gangsta rap.
All of this individual personality is erased once drivers make it up to the major leagues. Long-haul bus drivers work mainly for larger companies and are responsible for driving 10, 12, sometimes up to 30 hours like our recent trip through Patagonia.
Regardless of the country or part of the world, drivers in the long-haul big leagues almost always have short, gelled hair, a button down embroidered with the company logo, maybe a sweater vest, nice slacks and shiny shoes. These drivers never deal with cash or pick up anyone at unofficial stops. In reality they have more in common with airline pilots than other types of bus drivers, as passengers are served meals, shown movies and have bathroom access on board.
Often times, there are two drivers who switch off between sleeping and driving; other times new drivers get on at a stop and take over for the rest of the trip. The companies run a well-oiled operation, and I am sure that these drivers are also well-paid and well-rested.
Night bus nightmares: Dozing off and the time we almost died
But it’s not like I don’t know what it is like to drive long distances at night. I’m no professional, but I know how hard driving becomes at the six, seven, ten hour mark, no matter how loud the music plays, how much coffee I drink, how long I have the windows open. And doing anything that requires such intense concentration at night is always so much more challenging. I think we can all remember attempting an all-nighter during college finals and waking up in a pool of drool hours later, remembering nothing.
But night bus drivers can never, ever (ever, ever) have a moment of drool – with up to one hundred people in their charge. Except in our experience, some actually do…
On a 2010 trip from Valladolid to Chetumal in Mexico (a mid-range, day time trip) the driver was slowly hypnotized into sleep by the rows of perfectly planted palm trees lining a never-ending straight road for hours and hours. Dani and I watched, as his blinks lasted longer and longer. Eventually his neck gave in to gravity and for one second he fell asleep before snapping up and driving flawlessly, adrenaline likely now pulsing through his veins as much as it was through ours.
But the time we thought we really might die happened last year, when, after a few weeks of travel through Laos, we joined a minivan of 10 other ‘Farang’, or foreigners, headed back to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
One hour in, the driver stopped at a 7-Eleven off the highway for a ‘bathroom break’ and laid down in the front seat for ten minutes. Back on the road and he starting swerving on either side of the white line for an hour until he pulled over again at a different 7-Eleven, this time napping for 20 minutes. In the back, the silent stress among us 12 strangers had been building until the point when the driver’s head snapped down asleep and the minivan swerved uncontrollably a few times just as the clock struck midnight. He incessantly rubbed his eyes and had conversations with himself which I translated as “Wake up champ, you can do this, don’t kill the nice people.” This is when we all knew we’d have to take matters into our own hands.
Sixty very slow kilometers and another couple of unplanned stops later, including one at a hospital (we had no idea what it was about and were scared to ask), he pulled into another rest stop, put his hands together and asked our forgiveness – ‘Twenty minutes I sleep,” he begged and parked his carload of tall white foreigners in another empty parking lot at 3am. One British farang who spoke enough Thai gathered that the driver had been forced to do this 12-hour trip back, forth and back, three times in the last 48 hours. The Brit told the driver to get in the back and sleep, and he drove us the rest of the way back to Chiang Mai. When we arrived to town 16 hours later, the driver was still passed out in the back with a blanket pulled right up over his face.
The same blind panic I felt that in Thailand shot over me just last month in Argentina as I drifted off to sleep on our 27-hour bus ride from Bariloche to El Chalten. The bus was shoddy, the drivers less put together than most, and the journey traversed hundreds of miles of barren nothingness on unpaved gravel roads.
My Late Night Patagonian Game Show
As Dani slept peacefully, I created a game show where contestants could win $1,000,000 for sitting in front of a screen and successfully watching just one hour of the bleak, unchanging Patagonian landscape go by without falling asleep. None of the contestants won the game show in my head – so how could I possibly conceive of these two bus drivers successfully doing this for 27 hours without falling asleep?
How do any of these drivers do it? Do they undergo some kind of secret army-level training and what-if scenarios?
I highly doubt it, which is why I always wonder just how many times we have been on buses where drivers doze off like ours did in Mexico and Thailand?
One thing is certain – if we actually do die on a bus, or a train or a plane for that matter, at least we both will have no regrets with the lives we have made for ourselves. I’d just rather not deal with that, that’s all.
Have you ever had a driver fall asleep during an overnight bus ride?