Don’t Be Afraid: Taking the Bus in a Foreign Country

I once got lost on a bus. Where, you ask? Navigating the streets of Nairobi, maybe? Perhaps the cold, unforgiving lair of the London tube in rush hour? Rio? Shanghai? The windy country roads of the Cotswolds, surely?

Nope. In San Francisco. Where I lived. Heading back to my own house. Of nine years. From a class I’d been taking. In the same location. For six straight weeks.

If there is such a thing as directional dyslexia — and I think I can safely guarantee you that there is — I’m pretty sure I have it. But humor me: I’d just gotten out of one of my first meditation classes ever, the one when I finally got that transformational sense of calm and inner peace that brought me a glimpse of oneness with the universe and all beings. Afterwards, I calmly boarded the bus I’d arrived on, and after a full 11½ blissful minutes, snapped into consciousness, looked around, and realized that bus was still going in the same direction as it had been before, which meant I was now two more miles away from my house.

You goin' my way, sailor?
Where am I going? And why do I need an oyster? I have a good clam chowder recipe; does that count?

Taking the bus in a foreign country can be scary. For me, it flat-out is scary. I’ve been a travel writer and guidebook author for 16 years, and I have to work up the courage to use public transportation in a new city. In a new country, I need no less than three good-size hugs and maybe even a ‘there, there’ before I even think of boarding a bus or metro by myself. Taxis, walking, hop-on/hop-offs … they’re all much easier and I will readily, happily take them if I don’t have the time or energy to learn the bus system.

But, as I wrote about in a previous post on travel minimalism, I truly believe you don’t need much when you travel besides one thing: challenging yourself. (Vacationing is a totally separate thing; for that you need mai tais and a paper umbrella.) And there is nothing like standing in the freezing rain at a bus stop in Amsterdam for 30 minutes wondering where the hell the tram is, or sharing a ride on a manure truck in Western Kenya, that will not only challenge you but give you a window into experiences you wouldn’t have had any other way. Or, so I’ve heard.

External reasons to take a bus

If you’ve read previous blog posts, you’ll know that I secretly love nothing more than to tangibly experience what it’s like to live day to day in a new culture. And you know what people do every day, in every place around the entire world? Take the bus.

You see it all on public transportation: teenagers being teenagers, grumpy businesspeople, smiley babies, families interacting, the way a society treats its elderly and most fragile members. When I lived in Guatemala for three months in 1996, twice I brought enough snacks to share on long bus rides. I shared them with several seatmates each time, most of whom I found out had never tried cheddar cheese or a chocolate chip cookie. Maria de la Flor told me what it was like to raise 12 children, and I got to hold and pet a four-week-old puppy.

Riding with amblers, school kids and moms in the Cotswolds.
Riding with amblers, school kids and moms in the Cotswolds.

Personal reasons to take a bus

You know what else I secretly love more than almost anything? Sitting on my ass while somehow being propelled forward by a power greater than my own two legs, luxuriating in having the time to sit back and just watch the world pass by while I think, observe, write, play iPhone Scrabble. The slower, the better. There’s a certain thought process that seems to take place only when the universe is playing out around me.

Also, look at it this way: Doing this most basic act is courageous but easily attainable in — literally — almost every single place on the entire planet. Take public transportation in a foreign country, and you are instantly awarded twelve points of traveler cred.

How to take a bus

Taxis, walking, hop-on/hop-off tours … they’re all easier than taking the bus. You’ll never see any 68-page guidebooks on how to hail a taxi. But you very well might have to sift through pages or websites full of maps and schedules and holiday times and dates just to get from one place to another by public transportation. But like most things worth having, the extra effort you put in will be rewarded back to you. Times three.

Is there anything better than taking a bus in Argentina? None!
How many experiences are better than taking a bus in Argentina? None!


1. Start small. Don’t plan on traveling overland from Guinea Bissau to Djibouti in the rainy season on your first go. Metro systems like the underground in London or Shanghai are always easier than city buses, since there are maps everywhere and everything eventually connects.

2. Pay attention. Whether or not you’re required to pay attention is, for me, the dividing line between traveling and vacationing. When you’re taking public transportation, especially alone, you need to pay attention constantly. Have a paper map with you. Keep an eye on street signs. You’re here to observe daily life. Take out your headphones and be there.

3. Go without an objective. I once spent about a week and a half living with a model and one-time extra from Baywatch in Venice, Italy. Not surprisingly, she found a boyfriend within a day. I found the vaporetti. On several occasions, I purposely got lost and spent the rest of the day getting back to our apartment.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask — the driver, passengers, locals near bus stops. You don’t even need to speak the language; a paper map and pointing will do. You might look silly. People might stare at you. You want that traveler cred, right? Be prepared to make monkey sounds if it’s the zoo you want.

5. Read up in advance. Last week in Helsinki, rather than take a hop-on/hop-off, we took a DIY tram tour. Granted, I cheated and brought a card-carrying Finn with me, but found out later the tourism authority publishes their own tram tour guide of Helsinki. I’ve seen great blog posts on taking the bus in places like Panama, and Lonely Planet publishes a ‘Getting Around‘ page in every guidebook and on the website on public transportation in every country in the world. There is something wonderful about the serendipity of travel, but there are ways to prepare for serendipity.


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