Colorado’s tourism commercial dared me to do it. I was asked, “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” Then I was left to consider the question. I have been wanting to travel, and I have been on planes and trains. I traveled across Zambia on coach buses for three years, but I have never been on a coach bus in the states. So, I thought why not take a trip on Greyhound. My American assumptions led me to believe that the travel-by-bus experience would surely be better here than there, so I booked a roundtrip ticket from Seattle to Austin with the most succinct schedule possible – 55 hours (one way), with only brief layovers between transfers. Here is a brief comparison between my experiences riding halfway across the USA on Greyhound versus frequent trips halfway across Zambia on either Juldan or Likili.
Schedule vs a paying passenger in every seat:
Greyhound operates on a schedule – for the most part – but the schedule is subject to change based on mechanical or safety issues: a driver might decide that a couple tires are bald and need to be replaced 10 minutes after the scheduled departure time or a driver may have to pull over to intervene in a fight.
Juldan and Likili are a couple of the more scheduled bus lines in Zambia, but it is not uncommon for a bus to sit at the station for hours as passengers slowly trickle onto it so as not to lose out on a few extra kwacha by having empty seats. Rarely is departure delayed for mechanical or safety issues; it is a cultural belief that everything is fine until it isn’t, why worry about things that aren’t broke.
Greyhound: During my 110 hours of travel time on Greyhound I witnessed a loud verbal altercation that caused the driver to pull over on the shoulder of the freeway to separate the passengers; a passenger or two in every bus station who walked around talking loudly to no one in particular, and one of them who ended up on my bus for hours of loud, non-stop chatter – again to no one in particular; and a Caucasian couple yelling and swearing at Hispanic people for speaking Spanish in America. But for the most part, people really just keep to themselves.
Juldan and Likili: All of these things would likely happen in Zambia as well; however, most of these perpetrators in Zambia would be drunk, whereas Greyhound has strict policies against drugs and alcohol (not to say that it doesn’t happen). Buses in Zambia are widely utilized and people pile themselves, their families, and their goods unto them. It is common to have the center aisle crowded with baggage – and sometimes people – and there is usually a scared chicken or two huddled under someone’s seat or a box of chicks peeping in the overhead luggage rack. There are also excellent opportunities for good conversation, because odds are you will have several different seatmates over the course of your journey.
Greyhound: The driver is the only employee on a Greyhound bus. During these 110 hours on Greyhound, I witnessed drivers: command people back onto the bus because they failed to wait until a step had been placed between the bottom stair of the bus and the ground; threaten to leave people because they were not at the station the required one half hour before their scheduled departure time; stand at the front of the bus and talk at the passengers for 10 minutes to justify the hour and a half delay in departure time; threaten to leave passengers not back on the bus by the end of the break; and a driver who caused a scene with two passengers waiting to get their tickets printed from the shop at a curb-side stop – a scene so significant that he turned off the bus and wouldn’t leave until a police officer arrived – then the driver never said a word for the rest of the trip.
One particularly grumpy driver caused the woman in front of me to comment to her seatmate, “They’re mean…it’s not personal…they deal with idiots.” This caused me to wonder if the drivers – Greyhound in general – really deal with idiots or if the lack of communication, subjective driver-based rules, and sleep deprivation turn us all into one? Are we idiots or just treated like we are? It is very difficult to identify cause and effect.
Juldan and Likili: Bus drivers in Zambia also have a conductor. The job of the conductor is to take ticket money and make sure you get off where you’re supposed to. If anyone is going to get gruff with the passengers it would be the conductor, but this typically only happens to the most belligerent of drunks who cause trouble.
Food and facilities:
Greyhound: Most Greyhound stops are at truck stop convenience stores where there is no real food. Most Greyhound stations only have vending machines, but the Dallas station does have hot pizza. Stops typically happen every couple of hours, but there is really no time to wander during a stop; you need to stay close to the bus or risk being left behind. Most stops are about 15 – 20 minutes in duration, a few up to 30 -45 minutes. Stops at stations can be about one and a half hours for bus service and driver change. The buses do have (spotty) wifi, electrical outlets at the seats, and a lavatory at the back of the bus.
Juldan and Likili: In Zambia there is no wifi, electricity, or toilet on the bus, and it can be up to four hours between breaks; however, in dire circumstances, and upon request, the driver may pull off to the side of the road as people pile off and head for the brush. Also, anytime the bus stops women run to the bus selling soft drinks, bottled water, fried chicken, boiled groundnuts, seasonal produce, roasted ears of corn, hard-boiled eggs, potato chips, and biscuits.
A wide variety of people ride Greyhound. There are some people that seem to be professional Greyhound travelers and show up with a pillow, blanket, and bag of food. Bus travel seems to be popular with last minute travel planners; all you have to do is show up at the bus station – one half hour before travel, if you want to stay out of trouble – purchase your ticket(s) and get on the bus. However, if you plan ahead, a round-trip Greyhound ticket is comparable in price to round-trip airfare.
Basically I thought Greyhound would be a grand adventure and a great way to see the country. It was certainly an adventure – my definition is loose – but I was constantly worried that I would miss a connection and then be spending the night at a truck stop convenience store in the middle of nowhere. I never did miss a connection though, to my utmost surprise and good fortune! A couple who was travelling from New Jersey to Boise missed connections twice. They told me that all Greyhound did for them was to change their tickets and give them a can of spaghettio’s for dinner – they were responsible for their own lodging if they wanted it. As for the scenery, it was simply a freeway view, nothing spectacular.
Here is the gist. Greyhound is probably not going to be a good travel option for you if you:
- get anxious about delays and possibly (or actually) missing connections
- have difficulty sitting still for extended periods of time
- aren’t good with vague details and subjective rules
- if drama floats your boat
- if grumpy people make you smile
- if the sleep- and proper nutrition-deprived you can maintain your sense of humor and adventure
- if time is of no concern to you
then Greyhound is what you’ve been looking for! Bon Voyage!
*My favorite bus riding experience was in Tanzania. I traveled from Dar es Salaam to Arusha via coach bus. The journey was long, about nine hours, but soft drinks and biscuits were provided en route. There were also female conductors on these buses, which provided a sense of calm and organization to the journey.