Photo Wanderlust – Part IV: Bus Travel for “Country Hopping” Photo Adventures

Photo of boat on Dal Lake in Kashmir, India by Ron Veto

 © Ron Veto All rights reserved.

People always ask me why do I want to go to India?
The answer is simple. India is magical. It will change your life.

People who want to understand democracy should spent less time
in the library with Aristotle and more time on the buses and subways” Simon Strunsk

Bus travel in Asia for the extended stay, budget minded photo traveler is all about having fun, making friends, getting great photos, and tolerating some tough travel issues in order to get to those off the main road locations. I choose to go the hard way! Why? Because I want to experience those places that are still frozen in time. Because I don’t want to miss seeing those beautiful mountain or island gems. The adventures you encounter between point A and B are half the trip. That is what bus travel is for this photo wanderlust.

Before you hit the open road, you’re no doubt going to be visiting various cities and you’ll want to experience the ground transportation that’s available. The slow bumpy ride thru Old Calcutta’s cobblestone alleys from the back seat of a human powered rickshaw will be an unforgettable ride. It’s like going back in time. The determination and good nature of the barefooted rickshaw puller inspires and humbles me. They are a dying breed proudly hanging on to times long past. And in Thailand, a common means of transportation is the Tuk Tuk– three wheeled motorcycles with a cab and bench on which to sit. They are a fast, convenient and ubiquitous. I think a trip on a Tuk Tuk is one of the most exciting rides in the world. The screaming of the two stroke engine that blazes you through the exotic streets of Bangkok triggers an instant rush of adrenaline throughout the body. Because they are dangerous, noisy, and terrible for the air quality, Tuk Tuks are slowly becoming another relic of old Asia. Taxis are now cheaper and have air conditioning, but I still love a good Tuk Tuk ride!

Photo of rickshaw and rickshaw shadow on street in Calcutta, India by Ron Veto

 © Ron Veto All rights reserved.

I discovered this interesting rickshaw shadow shot while exploring Calcutta, India. Life is hard for many of them, but the people are gentle, hardworking and happy.

Photo of TukTuk in Bangkok, Thailand by Ron Veto
 © Ron Veto All rights reserved.

A Tuk Tuk driver takes a break on a hot Bangkok afternoon.

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” – Martin Buber

Get Ready for the Open Roads

Sure, you can take a train and enjoy more sanitary and comfortable conditions, along with the possibility of a hot meal, but they can be slow and many times have topographical constraints. So for me, I choose the bus. They may come without the frills, but they go almost everywhere. You sleep on board, stay on budget, and experience local culture at ground level.

Perhaps misery loves company, but being in a bus for an extended time creates a bond among the riders. By the time it’s all over, and you have arrived at your final destination, you‘ve seen the best and worst of your travel mates. Quite possibly you have also made some friends forever.

Bus Travel is an Extended Stay Travelers “Rite of Passage”

Photo of ticket office in New Delhi, India by Ron Veto
 © Ron Veto All rights reserved.

New Delhi, India: Carefully pay attention to the signs and then double check your itinerary and time tables. India has a certain English influence, but you should never count on anything. Be sure to ask and plan and ask and plan again? Only then can you plan the next few legs of your journey. You may not be able to read the language, but there are certain things which every one will have to find, like your name on the docket.

For the adventurous traveler, traveling by bus offers a sweet and sour relationship. Strangely enough, some of my best and worst travel memories are born from a long bus trip. If travel adventure is what you’re looking for, bus travel in Asia is at the top of the list. Bus rides give a traveler confidence and a sense of accomplishment. Don’t forget to bring along your sense of humor, because it is an important tool. There is laughter all around you!

Get your ticket ready, put on a happy face, prepare yourself with some simple survival gear, hang on and enjoy the trip.

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” – Clifton Fadiman

The Bus Kit

The first rule is to have your bus survival kit handy. I include a small bag, which I hook on a seat or other object in front of me. Included in this kit are the basic supplies needed to make a bus ride bearable.

#1: Toilet paper
Have it ready for immediate use, because you never get advance warning of a rest stop. At 3 am all of a sudden the bus will come sliding into a dusty, smoky town and slam to a stop.

#2:Small Plastic Bottle of Cologne
It’s great for masking the stench of Asian toilets. I store it inside my roll of toilet paper.

#3: Bottled Water
Used for both drinking and sanitary purposes. In Asia asking for “mineral water” will get the point across. Asking for “bottled” water may confuse them.

#4: Medications
You need to carry all necessary medications with you in your bus kit. I also carry Flagyl in case I get Guardia from drinking or eating something washed in contaminated water. It’s a quick fix to a nasty intestinal bug.

#5: Hand sanitizer

#6: Mouthwash

#7: Spoon & Chopsticks
I choose to carry both to fit the country I’m visiting—as the saying goes, “While in Rome, do as the Romans do!” In India you don’t have to use eitheryour right hand is used for eating and the left is used for hygiene.

#8: Nourishment
Fresh oranges and bananas with the skin intact. Nuts and hardboiled eggs are also safe and keep well.

#9: I-pod & Earplugs
Both help to drown out general noise, but the I-pod also lets me slip away and forget the long hours ahead.

#10: Travel Book & Reading Glasses (if needed)

Bumpy roads and lack of light make reading difficult, but during bus transfers or long layovers it’s a great way to pass the time or plan the next leg of your trip.

#11: Small LED Flashlight

Attach it to your bus kit. It will come in very handy in case you drop something or need to navigate the terrain on your way back to the bus during a layover.

#12: Inflatable Pillow & Small Blanket
Creature comforts are a must, so bring what you can to make the trip in a third-world country more bearable.

Photo of hawkers selling food outside of bus by Ron Veto
© Ron Veto All rights reserved.

Usually you have to find the food, but sometimes the food finds you. Stick to items which are naturally enclosed like bananas, oranges or hard boiled eggs. In India and Nepal you’ll hear the hawkers yell “Chai-chaiya (tea)!”–always a refreshing treat.

Bus Strategy

For safety sake, try to stay in the middle of the bus between front and rear wheels. That may mean getting to the bus early and quickly loading up when it’s time to board. Go for it–be assertive, but friendly and positive. Remember that you’ll have to spend a long time together on this bus.

Avoid sitting in the front section of the bus. It has added noise due to the constant traffic of other travelers coming and going and it can be dangerous should a head on collision occur.

Sitting in the back of the bus behind the rear wheels is also not recommended. It’s like being inside a popcorn machine. Every bump will launch you up in the air. It beats on your body organs like you were in a prizefight.

Secure the Luggage

You packs will sometimes need to travel on the rooftop. The chaos of loading is stressful, but you need to quickly take care of business. Position your packs face down and secure them with an 8 foot security cable that has bells attached to it (your mini alarm system). Cover all with a space blanket for added security and protection from the elements.

If traveling as a pair, teamwork is the key. One person jumps on the rooftop to lift and secure the packs, while the second traveler reserves and controls your two seats.

In India, passengers also travel cheaply on the rooftop, so with this added activity, it’s very important to try to position your packs directly over your seat position. The sound of your bells will warn you of any intrusion of your gear.

Delhi to Kashmir: A Ride to Remember

Photo of Northern Himalayan mountains in India by Ron Veto
© Ron Veto All rights reserved.

India, in its stunning and raw natural beauty. We were beginning our ascent up the Northern Himalayas–prelude for a trip to remember.

“A Bus is a vehicle which runs twice as fast when you are after it as when you are in it.” – Unknown

Everyone has fun bus stories and this is one ride that my fellow traveler and I will never forget! And when you’re done reading this, you’ll ask, “Why would anyone want to travel through India by bus?” You’ll get the answers when this ride comes to an end…

Day One: Our accommodations consisted of a third class Indian “deluxe luxury” TaTa bus going from the city of New Delhi to the Valley of Kashmir. We were told the journey would take approximately 30 hours– make that 33 hours as leaving was delayed by 3 hours. That should have been our first clue that this was going to be one long ride!

As we bounced and rattled North at sunset into the wonderful Indian countryside, we had this need to visually take in as much of our surroundings as possible before the daylight turned to darkness. Our adventure had begun.

Photo of the countryside in India by Ron Veto
© Ron Veto All rights reserved.

The mass of humanity within the Indian cities only serves to
highlight the contrast of the beauty and silence of the Indian countryside.

India, the land of contrast! These buses were very old and seemingly unsafe, but they had a working videotape machine and television mounted on the front bulkhead. For entertainment, Indian Bollywood movies began to blare loudly and as we would find out, they would continue throughout the night. The earplugs we carried with us would definitely be an asset, because we quickly learned that sleep was not going to come easily!

At 3 a.m. the bus finally came to a very well needed rest stop. Open fires greeted us, creating a surreal setting. Smoke filled the air, combined with the sweet and pungent smell of curry, cow dung and the burning of human flesh—those who had passed on were being cremated. Mixed together, the smell oddly wasn’t an unpleasant aroma.

This truly is going to be one interesting ride!

Day Two: Our TaTa bus trucked on thru the night into the following day. The comfort level may have been low, but daybreak brought with it magnificent scenery that kept everyone’s spirits high.

We’re finding out that the bus only stopped at rest stops about every 6 hours and with the bus filled to capacity it was a challenge not only trying to get off the bus quickly to take care of personal business, but a challenge to get cleaned up and refreshed, enjoy some nourishment and conversation with fellow travelers, walk about and snap some photos in time to get back on the bus. At least the bus driver honks to let you know they’re ready to hit the road again.

Note: Hygiene is a constant concern and Indian restrooms at remote bus stops leave much to be desired. It takes practice, but Asian squat toilets can be mastered!Be sure you have your bus kit with you to handle those personal needs.

Photo of camel and mileage sign near Rajasthanr, India by Ron Veto

© Ron Veto All rights reserved.

Camel trekking in Rajasthan, India

This camel appears to be asking, “Which way do we go?

The sun was setting on our second day and we still had 15 hours or so to go.

By midnight, hour 30, the bus ride became a total mind game. The constant body jolts from the bus hitting rocks and potholes, the honking of horns, the rattling of windows, and the ear piercing video kept us awake but in a kind of a trance. Locals and travelers alike were all in their own little world. The mental and physical discomfort becomes bearable because your mind goes into a kind of forced meditation.

Creatures Living on a Bus?

By 2 a.m. everyone onboard was either trying to sleep or as me, deep into a catatonic world. My attention back to reality was soon aroused when I felt movement on my knee. I looked down and saw this giant brown rat sitting on my leg. I quickly brushed it off toward the windows and it managed to grab hold of the window drapes, climb up, run across the television screen and finally jump into a hole in the ceiling. The rat’s silhouette running across the television screen brought on a wave of laughter throughout the bus. It actually became a pleasant diversion to an uncomfortable ride and an instant bonding moment for us all. We sure had something to talk about at our next stop!

Day Three: Come sunrise of the third day the usual bouncing around and noise took on a different tone. We had a flat tire. Everyone took it in stride and we took it as an opportunity to stretch our legs, enjoy our surroundings and get to know our fellow travelers even better.

But before the job was completed the driver cut his right hand on a sharp piece of metal and was bleeding profusely. No problem–he wrapped a large cloth around his wound and we were off again.

At this point in our journey, we were on very narrow, northern Himalayan Mountain roads. At 10,000 feet the scenery is strikingly beautiful, but the ride itself is sometimes terrifying as the bus sways back and forth. These roads are not physically easy for any driver to navigate and ours now had an injured hand. He was struggling to maintain control of our lives–driving with one hand and holding the now soaked bloodied cloth over his wound with the other. The adventure continues…

Photo of Northern Himalayan mountains in India by Ron Veto
© Ron Veto All rights reserved.

Our journey unfolded before our eyes. India is a feast for the senses.

Thankfully, within a couple of hours we arrived at another bus stop. We were at altitude and the air was thin, creating vivid colors on the massive mountain range—a beautiful place that we would not have been able to enjoy from a plane. As we enjoyed a cup of hot chai and readied ourselves for the final leg of our long journey, we noticed what appeared to be a change of drivers–a very welcomed sight. But as we boarded the bus, I pointed out to my companion that the same driver was behind the wheel with these men seated behind him. His injury had been treated but he looked tired and in obvious pain. I watched him for the next hour then walked up and asked, whom I thought were his relief drivers, when they would take over the drive. They simply bobbled and shook their heads as Indians do and said they were not drivers. They were hired only to keep our driver awake. India is so much fun!

Slithering Wildlife on the Bus?

By 11 a.m. our deluxe bus became public transportation. We would be constantly stopping in the mountains to pick up and drop off passengers. At one of the stops an older local gentleman sat in the empty seat directly behind me. He had a long gray beard and was dressed in traditional Indian clothes. In his lap rested a burlap sack and a large basket. For the next hour I couldn’t help but wonder what was in his basket. I finally turned around and asked him the best way I could. He understood my curiosity so he took off the lid to reveal a basket full of deadly cobras. My jaw dropped! He was a snake charmer. We had five hours to go now before reaching Kashmir and here we were in this bus with an exhausted, injured, one-armed driver, on a small dirt road with a basket full of deadly snakes behind us. If we were to crash and survive, waiting for us would be a dozen or so very angry serpents. Only in India!

A Life Experience Makes It All Worthwhile


Photo of houseboats on Dal Lake in Kashmir, India by Ron Veto

 © Ron Veto All rights reserved.

Once in Kashmir, I decided that living on a houseboat along Dal Lake would be a wonderful experience. Here life revolves around the water ways. These water taxis or Shikaras provided daily service across the lake. Relaxing on these magic carpets and floating across the lake in style is the way to go.

Each night our houseboat host would warm the night by way of a large pot bellied stove and for a really nice touch, we would discover hot water bottles warming our beds.

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.
I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

We arrived into Kashmir not without incident but with wonderful golden memories. We all looked quite exhausted but happy. The bus trip was finally over! We hugged and said our goodbyes then quickly dissolved, being swallowed into the mass of India. Our long 30-hour ride turned into a 45-hour marathon. During this journey wonderful characters crossed our path. A few have become life long friends. Collectively we all share these memories and have a common connection with that dusty road and that far off mountain pass. It’s the people who make it special and I wish them safe journeys.

To travel by bus is truly half the trip and half of the adventure. It’s about seeing and experiencing the culture of a country outside of controlled tours that come with strict constraints. It’s about being an extended stay traveler with the time to travel.It’s the “spirit” of traveling by bus.

Kashmir was magical and India for me was by far the most amazing, beautiful, sometimes difficult, but life-changing travel experience. India stirs the soul. As I’m writing this piece I can almost hear that TaTa bus climbing up that mountain.

Traveling never goes exactly as planned. That’s the fun part. It takes on a comical, magical life all of its own. All we can do is to hang on, eat a banana and enjoy the ride.

Be safe and happy travels.

Read the Introduction…

Photo Wanderlust – Part I: Packing for “Country Hopping” Adventure Photographers

Photo Wanderlust – Part II: Preparing for a “Country Hopping” Photo Adventure

Photo Wanderlust – Part III: Security for a “Country Hopping” Photo Adventure

Photo Wanderlust – Part V: “Hunting People” with My Camera

Photo Wanderlust – Part VI: “Photo Shooting Strategy”

Photo Wanderlust – Part VII: “Shooting Silhouettes”

Photo Wanderlust – Part VIII: “Serendipity”

by Ron Veto

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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