Let’s face it, most of the time when you are traveling abroad, you are not in control. As soon as the plane takes off from your home airport, you are a passenger. You are a passenger in the plane, taxi, bus, subway, boat, or bike; you are not in control. You are simply along for the ride as you put your faith in the hands of strangers who may or may not speak your language.
However, one of my travel creeds is that the best experiences are the ones where you simply let things happen and you put your trust in others. This is not an easy thing to do and there have been a handful of times where I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that this day may very well be the last day of my life.
I’ve been a passenger more times than I can even count. On my around-the-world trip I often found myself hurtling around a corner on a single-lane mountain pass, with no guard rails, and the driver laying on the horn to warn any oncoming traffic that we were coming through. There was also a hair-raising experience in a taxi in Naples where the driver drove down a main street the wrong way at break-neck speeds, yelling obscenities at people to get out of his way and laying on his horn. And how can I forget the time I was riding a local bus in Morocco that broke down in the middle of the desert and we had to wait for a part to arrive. It was 110 degrees outside and a decision had to be made – do you stay in the oven of a bus baking to death, or do you go outside to the desert and bake to death? It was a toss-up.I used to think that New York taxi drivers were the craziest drivers in the world, until I actually traveled in the world and realized that riding in an NY taxi was like riding with my grandmother. I realized that seat belts were non-existent, a taxi driver that could speak a little English was a luxury, and I learned that everything – and I mean everything – was a negotiation.
Obviously I survived these encounters, but not without a few mental scars and a constant supply of Dramamine. From these experiences, I have put together a few tips on how to not only survive being a passenger, but how you can make the most of it.
I learned the hard way that no matter how tough you think your stomach is, it’s never tough enough. After my experience on a ferry from Zanzibar to Dar Salaam in waves that felt 20 feet high, I learned to always have motion sickness pills with me. There’s typically an easy ‘tip off’ on the motion sickness factor of a journey; if you board a vehicle and they hand out plastic bags the motion sickness factor is high! The bag is not for you to throw your garbage in; these are puke bags. Pop your motion sickness pill or ginger candy right then, and don’t try to be a hero.
Know your co-ordinates
With a long bus ride ahead of you, think, look, and listen before you sit down. Picking a seat could be the single most important thing you do! An 11-hour bus ride with the sun beating down on you is not a pleasant experience. It can make the puke factor worse when on a winding road. If you know your direction and time of day, you can actually figure out what side of the vehicle will be baked by the sun.
Next, look and listen for kids. Steer clear of the crying/screaming kid factor; it’s not only their vocal chords you have to worry about. I was once on a bus ride in Morocco where the kids behind me were puking for hours. The smell was horrendous in the hot, non-air conditioned local bus. I happily donated the plastic bag that the driver handed me when I got on the bus — they needed it more than I did.
Bring a distraction
Sure, it’s nice to look out the window at the countryside going by. However, it’s always important to have a distraction. A distraction from what, you may ask? Seeing other vehicles hurtling toward you on a one-lane road; or worrying about how you are inches from a 100-foot drop-off with no guard rail; or other people staring at you; and of course you will need a distraction from puking kids.
A distraction gives you blinders in a way. I had a lot of practice with this as I commuted on the subway in New York for three years. You always needed a distraction so that you could ignore the crazy people around you. While traveling I often relied on my ipod; it helped drown out any noise associated with the offense. With my ipod on, I could ignore horns, cussing taxi drivers, the sound of dry heaves, or a screaming kid.
I learned that in India, it was always better not to even look out the front window of the car I was riding in as a passenger. Watching my driver play ‘chicken’ with a large bus on a one-lane road while battling it out with horns was not something I wanted to see. Yet I did watch long enough to take a photo! I thought I may need it to explain what happened to me when I was in traction in the emergency room. In case you couldn’t guess, the bus always won, as we would veer off to the side at the last minute and let the bus go by. Yet my driver was persistent and kept trying to battle the buses. Maybe he thought it would earn him a better tip?
Have a little faith
I’m not a terribly religious person, but drivers are. Every car, bus, taxi, boat, or bike that I got in/on had some sort of religious medallion on it. The normal resting place for these medallions was the rear-view mirror or the front dash. Sometimes there were multiple medallions, and sometimes they even played music or lit up.
I learned to respect those medallions, and even to believe in them at times. I always made a point of trying to ask my driver about them, what they were and what they meant; just knowing more about it made me feel safer. I even bought my own Tibetan prayer beads once.
I had them on as we drove through a mountain pass during a snow storm in the mountains of western China. A storm so treacherous that everyone on the narrow road had to get out and help push the car in front of them around the bend at 7000 feet with no guard rail. I spent that day staring at the prayer beads on my wrist as I was too nervous to look out the window. To this day every time I put on those beads and smell the familiar sandalwood, it takes me back to Dequin, China and one of the scariest days of my travels.
Open up your mind
Finally, I think the most crucial item to have when you are a passenger is an open mind. When travelling, I usually used public transportation – hours at a time on a vehicle held together with duct tape and a religious medallion, and packed with locals. I often used the time to survey the locals; talk to them, study them as they studied me. It’s a great time to learn about the culture and have a global exchange off the beaten tour-bus path. Sometimes it wasn’t an exchange of words, but more of a non-verbal recognition; an acknowledgment that we were in this together.
It’s also a time to reflect. On my memorable puke-filled bus ride in Morocco, I used the time to explore my mind and wrote this blog post titled “Pass The Barf Bag Please…Wonderings on a Bus. It was therapeutic in a weird way; or maybe the heat and the smell was making me a bit crazy. I find that I am the most creative on long journeys. The world slows down a bit and I have time to think and absorb what is around me and explore what is in my head; even if it is a little unstable. It’s strange how the most chaotic situations can unleash clarity.
Now you are ready to go out and relinquish control! Be a passenger and survive!