Do you remember the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” starring Steve Martin and John Candy? Well, I recently took a trip that reminded me a little of it, except in my case the adventure would more accurately be described as “Bus, Ferry, Sky Trains and More Buses”… Here’s what happened:
In order to help out a friend working a convention, last week I travelled to Portland Oregon. And since I was up for an adventure, I figured I’d tackle the trip as a total “budget-minded” traveller. This basically meant (a) using a lot of public transport, and (b) sleeping alongside 9 other random dudes in a hostel dorm room for five days! But hey, why not? Like I said, I was up for an adventure!
The real goal in taking this route was to document my experience(s) in two or three blog posts, depending on how much fodder was available. And based on what I experienced along the way, hitting that goal will be no problem; in fact, by the time I’m done there might even be a book (or even a major motion picture) in the works!
I knew right up front that this adventure wouldn’t be akin to riding The Orient Express followed by nights spent at some luxurious Four Seasons Hotel, and to be honest, that was the point. I simply wanted to get a sense of what this style of travel – budget travel – was truly like, complete with the good, the bad and the ugly. And trust me when I say there were a few good, a few bad and some definitely ugly points along the way!
Regardless of whatever happened, I was pretty confident that (besides a few surprises) there’d definitely be moments along the way that would challenge my comfort zone – but that’s what makes it fun, right?
Oh, and for the record even though taking city buses, ferries and skytrains were part of this journey, I’ve done them all a million times so there’s nothing special to report there. The real story begins and ends with the Greyhound bus ride(s) to and from Portland – so if you are all settled in, let’s get to it.
Grey “Hound From Hell”
My journey began early one morning when I stepped out into the cold rainy Victoria drizzle, and was mentally preparing myself for my upcoming country-to-country trek, getting psyched up for the full 17 hours of travel time it would take me to get to Portland. As mentioned, there were several modes of transport which meant lots of “lining up” of schedules and… Hang on a minute – did I just say 17 hours?! WTF? Using our car, Paula and I made the same Victoria to Portland trip this past summer in just 9 or 10 hours – why on earth would it take so long this time?! Welcome “Budget Travel” Surprise #1!
Unbeknownst to me, it turns out that there are two different buses that make the Vancouver – Portland run; one that makes 3 stops and one that makes 11 stops… Guess which one I was on? Yep, I took the “slow and steady” Greyhound when really I should have been on the “Bolt Bus” a bus whose very name signifies that it’s mission is to move like lightning. I felt like an idiot who chose to take granddad’s 1974 Chrysler K-Car out on a date instead of accepting his cool cousin’t offer to borrow the hot, sexy sports car… Let’s call this “Rookie “mistake #1”, shall we?
The good news is I now intimately know almost every teeny, tiny dinky town between these two fine cities; and yes, there are a lot of them. Oh, and not to forget, I was also exposed to a lot of scuzzy, small town petty criminal-types sporting neck and finger tattoos and make the bus reek of stale cigarette smoke when they boarded the bus at every tiny stop along the way. I quickly learned to clutch and guard my backpack harder than ever before, if you know what I mean…
So yes, it turns out I spent the better part of 10 hours on the Greyhound bus, which brings me to Budget Travel Surprise #2… The drivers I had on this trip.
You know how whenever there’s an ad on T.V. for Wal-Mart you think “Those sure aren’t the kind of people working at our local Wal-Mart”? – Ditto for Greyhound drivers I encountered on the way down to Portland. First there was the big, surly guy with the attitude to match, and everything he did with was accompanied by a big, laborious sigh, inferring that by doing his job we were putting him out. Every polite question and inquiry asked to him was curtly replied in a tone that inferred “The only thing I hate more than my job are stupid customer questions”.
Now to be fair, as noted earlier I’m sure that he deals with some pretty sketchy customers so this is probably his defense mechanism; but did he really have to be so rude with every question and inquiry from passengers?
I’m serious! Despite using my very best Canadian charm and manners, he gruffly answered all my questions with one or two words without ever really telling me what it was that I want to know. In the end I gave up trying to get information about the trip, what to do and where to eat, etc. and instead just settled into a grimy seat, hoping and praying that my iPod had enough charge to go for the next 8 hours or so.
After about an hour into the trip we arrived at the U.S. Border, where we pulled into customs. Before exiting the door with the speed of a jack-rabbit, the driver bellowed out “Take all your stuff off the bus or you’ll have to come back and get it”. I grabbed my day pack off the seat next to me, jumped off the bus and ran inside Customs where I was greeted with suspicious glares from the U.S. Border guards.
Now it’s no secret that the United States are taking their border duties very seriously, and for good reason – none of which they’ve brought upon themselves, I’m sure. However the collective demeanor of the guards was one of those wanting to cross the border are definitely “guilty until proven innocent” of anything, be it smuggling in a contraband apple or worse – rogue Maple Syrup.
Despite being a meek, law-abiding Canadian, I couldn’t help but wondering if the collective menacing stares, aura of intimidation and big-ass guns strapped to their bodies was necessary at this particular border; I mean seriously, it’s Vancouver – Seattle… I doubt there’s a bigger group of peace-loving-non-violent types anywhere in the world!
Regardless, in I went and strolled back-and-forth, back-and-forth through the rope maze to the front of the line. A HUGE guy – basically a building with feet – gave me the beckoning “two finger” come-hither wave, so over to his window I went.
“Where you going?” “Portland”
“For how long?” “Five Days”
“What are you doing there?” “I’m going to…”
Suddenly the orderly air-of-calm-mixed-with-intimidation in the room was shattered by a madman screaming out “Who left a bag outside?! GO GET YOUR BAG AND BRING IT INSIDE!” It was our driver, and guess whose bag it was… Gulp.
Looking around I realized everyone else had grabbed bags and suitcases from under the bus – something I didn’t know we had to do. I ran out, picked my backpack up off the sidewalk said to the driver “I didn’t realize we needed to bring these in too”. He said “Yeah, I usually tell people, I just didn’t bother to do it today”... Are you kidding me?
My blood pressure begin to rise…
I went inside, back to the same kiosk where the border guard took one look at my bag and said “That’s a lot of clothes for three days”. “Damn” I thought; “I’d said five days but do NOT want to correct him at this point… What to do?” I shrugged my shoulders, smirked a little and said “Gotta have socks and underwear!” all while praying I wouldn’t be called out for being such a smart ass.
The guard snarled a bit, then stamped my passport and – before pointing to the exit doors – stated very matter-of-factly “Welcome to America” then waved me off. He didn’t have to tell me twice! I grabbed my bags and headed outside towards the bus when once again, the driver yelled at me.
“NO! STAY THERE!! CAN’T YOU READ THE SIGN?!”
WHAT F*&^%$G SIGN?! Everytime this guy opened his mouth he was yelling at me, and even though it was pissing me off, I did my best to remain cool. He pointed at a tattered, weather faded, photocopied paper sign reading “DO NOT ENTER” stuck to a pylon. Seriously, it was barely visible to the trained eye, let alone a novice eye like mine.
I wondered why this multi-gazillion-high-tech-securitys-border-designed-to-keep-out-the-worlds-worst-criminal-masterminds didn’t have a proper sign to make this important point to those of us crossing the border? It doesn’t matter; all I knew is that because I’d missed its shoddy substitute, the greyhound driver felt it was his right to point out yet another one of my perceived flaws…
As I backed away from the curb, my blood pressure continued its upward climb…
A few minutes later everyone had cleared customs and was back on the bus, and we were on our way to Seattle where – after two more stops – we finally arrived around 6:30 p.m. Having not eaten in 12 hours, I was starving.
“Everyone OFF the bus!” screamed the driver; and as obedient lemmings we all did as we were told and filed off the bus one by one, before heading into the terminal to stock up on goodies and possibly get a hot steaming cup of coffee, because Hey – we’re in Seattle, right? There has to be a Starbucks SOMEWHERE, right?
Much to all our surprise, not only wasn’t there a Starbucks, but there was no snack shop or anywhere to grab something to eat… just a few scrappy vending machines strewn about. I mean Seattle is a major city right? Doesn’t the bus station in a city of warrant more than a few dented old vending machines whose best offerings are overpriced pop and chips? Don’t we, as weary travellers, get even a sniff of fresh ground Starbucks coffee beans to sooth our souls and let us know that we’ve arrived in Coffee Mecca?
Apparently not. Pretty much all there was to do was to go pee, then wait while our new driver prepared to take us on down to Oregon. “At least” I thought, “This one can’t be as bad as the last driver”… something that as I write it now, makes me realize this wasn’t the last time on this journey that I was wrong.
A few minutes later, a new driver showed up in the form of a pit bull of a woman with a snarky attitude that made the first guy look like Mr. Rogers. In her wake was a new crop of motley passengers, who puffed cigarettes as they shuffled along towards the bus. The driver barked a few orders, then pointed at the undercarriage of the bus, telling them to “Put your luggage there”.
The new passengers all looked the same; most were predominantly skinny, seedy guys wearing baggy pants, oversized hoodies, and sporting greasy hair and neck tattoos. As they spoke they constantly cursed out loud, trying to appear like real badasses, despite being in the company of a young single mother in line with her three kids… Great – more quality seat-mates for the journey to Portland.
“Smoke break’s over!” bellowed the driver, followed by “Show me your piece of paper to get on the bus!” I wondered “Huh? What piece of paper?”
I approached her and explained I didn’t have a piece of paper, simple because I wasn’t given one. Without looking up, she quipped, “Can’t get on the bus without it” and kept checking in the other passengers.
“But here’s my luggage slip, and (pointing under the bus) there’s my luggage and that’s all I was given” I pleaded. She sighed, then said “Hang on for a minute while I deal with these people”. I could totally sense that she was relishing this “power” she held over me, and was going to milk her annoyance for all it was worth.
Just then I saw the original driver, and called him over. I explained what was going on and asked him to vouch for me; after all, he was the one responsible for me not having the required piece of paper, right?
Yeah, Good luck with that.
“Where’s your piece of paper?” he demanded, followed by how I need it to get on, should really have had it, there are rules, etc. – basically he was belittling me in front of the new driver, and all the passengers for not having the slip that he never gave me; and with that, my blood boiled and I’d had enough, and I let him know.
I told him I was frustrated; actually I said “I’m so F$%^&*G frustrated with YOU!” YOU didn’t give me the paper but are now saying I had to have it – YOU gave me this baggage claim and put my bags on the bus in Vancouver, YOU haven’t answered any of my questions, and YOU didn’t say we needed to take our bags out at customs!”
His eyes widened, as did the new drivers. He stammered for a second, not sure what to say – after all, all three points I was making were valid. Unsure how to respond he simply yelled out “OKAY THEN, GET ON THE BUS!” while waving his hand full of slips in the air. And without a word, that’s exactly what I did.
Now to his credit, about 3 minutes later he boarded the bus, approached me and apologized for his behaviour, saying something about it “being a long day”, not realizing what he’d done and could have handled it better. I thanked him for his words, and wished him well on his trip home. Were things finally turning around on this trip from Hell?
I’d like to tell you that the next driver was better, but she was even worse. Without getting into the details, I’ll just say that when we finally arrived in Portland she didn’t know her way around the city, and got lost. We spent a half hour circling the city while she tried to find the depot, and she wore her frustration on her sleeve, complaining loudly at each road closure she encountered.
At one point a concerned passenger asked her “What was going on?” which he quickly regretted. Rather than explain to the CUSTOMER why she was having challenges, she yelled at him loudly (for the benefit of the rest of the passengers to hear) “There’s a detour! If you feel you can do a better job, then feel free to take over the driving!” The poor guy quietly cowered back into his seat, looking like a puppy that had been caught peeing on a new rug. Bad dog!
We eventually arrived at the depot about 2o minutes late, and just before 11:00 p.m. I looked around and didn’t recognize what part of town we were in, and being late (and in a seedy part of town) I foolishly thought I should ask a local expert – the driver – where I was, and how to get downtown. Clearly the lack of sleep must have made me delusional to think this was a good idea!
“Excuse me please, can you tell me where Glisan Street is? I thought it was around here but I’m not sure” I inquired.”
“I don’t know where it is!”
“Oh I heard you saying that you were going home to bed so I thought you lived here”
“I don’t live here!”
And that was it. I couldn’t handle anymore asshole conversations with drivers. I picked up my bag, walked past the 10+ homeless people camped out in front of me and headed what appeared to be North.
It turned out that I wasn’t actually too far away from my destination, the hostel that would be my home for the next five nights. Being in the “Alphabet District” (meaning the streets are named in alphabetical order) made it easy to find Glisan Street, and once I located it, I headed off to the hostel.
It took me about 30 more minutes, and was a nice walk. The rain had stopped, and it there was a warm breeze that welcomed me into the city. As I trudged through the streets, I wondered two things:
1) Why on were the drivers so fundamentally rude to the passengers? and;
2) Why did we, as customers, put up with it?
And then I remember; it’s called BUDGET travel for a reason. Case in point: Last summer between ferries, gas, parking etc. our round trip travel cost from Victoria to Portland was approximately $350-$400; this round trip including all modes of transport it, it came in at about $150 – at least half.
Is saving $150+ enough reason to put up shitty attitudes, scuzzy surroundings and very long hours sitting on a bus? You better believe it! Besides, if you are on your game and fully prepared, you can avoid most of the rookie mistakes that I made. So…
To make this a bit easier for anyone who doesn’t want to go through such a hellish trip, here are the top 11 tips I learned on this trip on how to make your bus trip better than mine was; follow these and I promise it will be a cost effective way to reach your destination, but you’ll get there with a smile on your face (perhaps). At least you’ll have some cash in your wallet!
9 Tips to Making Any Bus (And Probably Train) More Palatable
1. Pack Snacks: If it’s going to be a long ride, make sure you have some fuel to keep you going for the whole journey. As I learned, many stops don’t have “real food” available, only vending machines; and the stops that do have food have limited choices that are usually quite expensive. Don’t forget to load up on goodies before you leave!
2. Pack Entertainment: Ditto goes for something to do. Charge the IPod, load a couple of movies on the computer or tablet or bring some books. Whatever you do, don’t rely on the bus to entertain you, because looking out the window gets stale really fast, especially during the short days of winter.
3. Just Because They Offer Something, Doesn’t Mean Its Available: The side of our bus promised both power outlets and free wi-fi – both of which never materialized. Come to think of it, somewhere along the line I think they offered us friendly professional drivers, as well…
4. If You Get Off, Make Sure You Get “The Paper”: Usually a polite conversation answers most questions and solves most problems, but this tactic didn’t seem to affect my two drivers. Save yourself the trouble, and just clarify with drivers what protocol is so that you don’t find yourself getting frustrated like I did.
5. Wear Layered Clothing: Because you never know if it’s going to be hot, cold or blasting air conditioning at 3:00 a.m. on the bus (especially in winter) so dress so that you can add or subtract layers. Don’t forget a hat too – because inside cold is still cold, regardless of what’s happening outside.
6. Always Carry Change With You: Again, you never know if you will feel like a cold drink out of a vending machine, or a hot coffee that costs $2.00 at a route stop so why not be prepared? Carry $5.00 in change (Not a bill) and when the moons line up, you’ll be able to have a tasty beverage!
7. Careful Who You Talk To: Don’t get me wrong, a lot of nice people take the Greyhound; but to be honest so do a lot of weird and creepy people too. I’ve learned not to engage with people because the nice ones will think you are one of the weird creepy ones; or worse, the weird creepy ones will never leave you alone, and may even ask you for more than just company. As awful as it sounds, for me, just minding my own business seems to work best*
8. When You Get Off, Know Where You Are Going: As well as how to get there. If possible, have someone meet you; if not, have a plan so you aren’t negotiating your way through bad parts of town, because with luggage, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb for sure.
9. For Long Trips, Pack Your Own Toilet Paper: If I have to explain, clearly you’ve never taken a long haul on a Greyhound… don’t question, just do it.
* Please note that this doesn’t mean being rude or unfriendly; it just means I chose not to strike up conversations with passengers I don’t know.
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