Travel is about the journey, not just the destinations. Cliched, we know, but an apt reminder given that most modern travelers complain about airplane food and the bus being 15 minutes delayed.
Uncooked aerial potatoes are of trifled inconvenience when three goats are struggling beneath your chair, a monk’s vomiting on your knee, and the train is already 28 hours behind schedule.
While craziest forms of local transport are painfully uncomfortable and inexplicably slow, it makes for some of the best travel tales. Nobody cares that you were upgraded to business class. Exotic travel is about doing as the locals do and arriving at your destination in a crumpled sweaty mess. Here are some of the most memorable and insane types of public transport you can find from around the world.
1) Cattle Class on a Long Distance Indian Train
Let’s start with a classic. Indian trains can be wonderfully comfortable and efficient, but the sleeper class tickets sell out well in advance. Arrive on the day and there’s a good chance you’ll be herded into the cheapest carriage: cattle class. Six or seven bums share a bench wide enough for three, elongated turds cover the floor, and the nauseating smell induces vomit in the uninitiated. And that’s just when the train is moving. When it stops at stations, transvestites and snake charmers climb aboard demanding money (third class carriages are not protected by train guards like in sleeper class). Refuse to pay and you’ll be beaten by the cross-dresser or attacked by a cobra. And this is luxury. You could be traveling on the roof after all…
2) Filipino Jeepney
A Filipino jeepney resembles a cross between a muscle truck and a pounding nightclub. Vibrant murals cover the exterior and passengers face each other on narrow benches in the back. At first it’s comfortable. But the bus never refuses passengers and soon you’ve got a village woman sat on your lap and a colony of chickens pecking at your angles. All profits from customers seem to be siphoned into obtaining the largest and loudest speakers on the Asian continent. A jeepney is always blasting out bad tunes at maximum volume, causing the vehicle and your own body to vibrate to a rhythm of continual bass.
3) Indonesian Ferry
Indonesia’s islands are connected by rattling ferries. They’re slow and hideously overcrowded. But that’s not what makes them crazy. Every year a few ferries capsize. There aren’t enough life jackets or life boats. Even worse, most people can’t swim. So thousands of drown annually and of course you don’t hear about it because no foreigners are involved. However, getting around remote Indonesia means you’ll probably have to risk it and climb on board one of these creaking metal wrecks.
4) Central African Pick up Truck
In the jungle heart of Africa the roads roll with mud and slime. Nothing is paved. Nor should it be given that only two vehicles pass per day. Long distance transport in the jungle is provided by pick-up trucks, the passengers usually sitting on top of vast mountains of luggage. It’s bumpy and you’ve got a chair leg poking into your groin. And that’s just for starters. When the rains come many roads become impassable. So all the passengers must assist in digging trenches and forging temporary roads with wooden planks. Then you trundle off again. To give you an idea of how insane one of these journeys can be, Random Vacay once met two malaria infected travelers who had just crossed the Democratic Republic of Congo by pick up truck. The journey had taken four weeks. Yes, weeks. They said next time they would take Congo Air.
5) Congo Air
Banned by the international authorities for being absurdly unsafe, Congo Air continues to operate in its native country. They don’t even try and hide their failings. Half a dozen plane wrecks are left to rot close to the runway in Goma, a terrifying site for anyone coming in to land. There’s usually a deadly crash each year and it’s often blamed on something absurd. For example, in 2010, they blamed 20 dead on a crocodile that escaped from a duffel bag and frightened passengers. How did a crocodile get through security?
6) Amazonian or Bornean Jungle Canoe
A more serene water based trip can be found in the jungle. Traditional wooden canoes ply through the trees, connecting villages that have never been reached by roads. While the brutal humidity leaves a blanket of sweat across your arms, running hands through the water isn’t wise. Crocodiles and flesh eating fish wait beneath the surface, eager to snap off a juicy finger. And then craziness comes in the form of distance. An Amazonian jungle journey isn’t measured in hours. It’s measured in days.
7) European Beer Bike
Not technically public transport but hilarious all the same. Cropping up all across Europe you’ll find multi person beer bikes. Essentially, everyone faces each other and peddles away, vociferously quaffing from the pints of beer delivered by the on-board bar man (or bar lady in laiderhosen in certain parts of Germany). Music blares out, slowly you get hideously pissed, and all the locals think you’re a bunch of obnoxious dickheads.
8) Four Day Chicken Bus Journey Across the Andes
Travel in South America is marked by seriously long journeys. Trundling chicken buses wind up and over the mountains, around the valleys, back up to over 5000 meters in altitude, and then onwards to the next town. Conditions aren’t that bad on board, except for the passengers hit by motion sickness and vomiting on the floor. And, of course, the sacks of live chickens beneath your feet. But it’s the distance that really makes this a craziest form of public transport. Some buses take four days. That’s four full days only interrupted by the odd stop at a greasy roadside cafe. Try Buenos Aires to Quito if you’re really brave.
9) The Crowded African Taxi
Africa evokes many stereotypes about overcrowded public transport. The local way to travel involves vehicles that failed roadworthy tests in Europe, got shipped to Africa (the place we send all our unwanted rubbish), then were fitted out with seats narrower than baby carriers. In some countries, overcrowding means a hefty bribe to the police at roadblocks. But in others, expect 20,25, 30, or even more to squeeze into 14 official seats. Which wouldn’t be that bad if the taxis didn’t also transport livestock and huge banana fronds. For the most insane overcrowded local experience take a taxi in Mali, Tanzania, or Benin.
10) Sailing the Darian Gap
If you don’t fancy the African jungle then try navigating a passage through the Central / South American jungle. The Darian Gap between Panama and Colombia is controlled by drug lords and bandits. Nobody without machine guns attempts it. But the continents are connected by an alternative. Wooden sailboats leave Panama for Cartagena (Colombia) stopping at the San Blas Islands on route (another place dominated by international cocaine smuggling cartels). You can pay for luxury and have a cabin, but it’s best to do it standard class by sleeping on the deck beneath the stars, getting rum drunk all day, and vomiting any sea sickness into the Caribbean.
11) Avoiding the Roadblocks in Afghanistan or Somalia
Travel to the most dangerous destinations on earth and you’ll have to be smart. Instead of buses you get military roadblocks. But these countries are at war and money can get you far. Local drivers know who to bribe and who to avoid as they meander into the tribal controlled lands of Afghanistan and Somalia, something Jefferson Taylor did when he met a heroin snorting tribal chief. It’s kind of safe, so long as you’re with someone speaking the language and you dress like the locals. This is the way immigrants, refugees, and intrepid reporters have been traveling for decades.