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The romance of travel -- as a "bus buff" sees it

When it comes to the romance of travel, the lowly bus takes a back seat. Most people think if you're looking for adventure, you must soar above the clouds in an airplane, or soil a ship on the high seas, or ride the silver rails aboard a train. Buses, they believe, are what you take to mail a package at the post office, or visit your grandmother in Detroit.

Such is the popular wisdom -- but I, for one, know better. As a veterans of bus travel in more than 20 countries on five continents, I consider myself something of a connoisseur. I can state with candor that in the course of my acquintance with buses I have found romance, adventure, suspense -- and a lot of surprises. To put it another way: If train enthusiasts are known as "railroad buffs," you would not be amiss in dubbing me a "bus buff."

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Not that I set out to achieve this dubious distinction on purpose. It's just that during a couple of periods in my life I was accorded enough time to travel extensively -- without an equally generous endowment of cash.

As a matter of fact, the bus ride on which I first glimpsed the possibilities for adventure didn't cost me a cent. It was deep in the desolate outback of Australia, perhaps a hundred miles from Alice Springs. I was standing disconsolately by the side of the road, knapsack at my feet, when I spotted an ungainly vehicle bouncing down the dusty track. It was a long-distance bus, replete with a full load of city-bred tourists. The driver stopped to look me over, the passengers took a vote, and they all decided to offer me a ride "on the house" -- or in this case "on the bus" -- to their next destination. On safaris of this kind passengers travel together for weeks -- logging hundreds of miles off the beaten track -- and they camp out at night by the side of the road in tents provided by the tour company.

If, in Australia, some buses seek out nature, there are other places where nature seeks out the buses. In a bus traversing Central America, mysterious nocturnal rustlings were eventually explained by the presence of stowaways: a gang of international mice. As we crossed the borders of each tiny tropical country, these pirate mice traveled right along with us, with undisclosed sleeping accommodations in the floor and walls, and covert dining facilities amid the snack foods stored by paying passengers.

On a bus in the West Indian island of Timor, by contrast, riders not of the human persuasion were free to socialize quite openly with more conventional customers. En route to the local capital I found myself squeezed elbow to elbow with dozens of boisterous Timorese -- and a vociferous contingent of chickens and goats. Though the chickens squawked indignantly, they certainly could not have been protesting second-class treatment -- it was the humans who were relegated to the back of the bus.

Even a back seat would have been a luxury, however, on a bus I boarded in pre-Khomeini Iran. Since the regular passenger compartment was filled to capacity, I was assigned to overflow seating in the "balcony": the luggage rack on top of the roof. It was really rather pleasant up there, with the night wind blowing in my hair. But I was warned to keep a sharp eye for utility wires crossing above the road, lest my trip -- and my earthly existence -- be cut abruptly short.

That was not the only time I had occasion to shiver. Throughout Mexico, bus drivers enjoy a reputation for brandishing their machismo by hurtling along precarious mountain roads, manfully oblivious of the need to keep all four wheels firmly on the pavement. Small wonder the drivers universally post icons of their favorite sainst -- usually the Virgin of Guadalupe -- near the windshields of their buses.

Actually, I soon discovered that a variety of religious practices unimaginable on a Greyhound or Trailways are quite at home on buses in more exotic parts of the world. On the Hindu island of Bali, drivers stopped their buses at regular intervals to step out and deposit flowers on the altar of whichever deity presided over that particular stretch of road. On a ride through pre-Soviet Afghanistan, the bus would halt five times a day so devout Muslims could unroll their prayer rugs on the sand by the highway and salaam in prayer towards Mecca.

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If you decide to try buses yourself, you will probably find your travel experiences to be worth their weight in greenbacks -- yet the cost of the tickets may sometimes seem hardly more than confetti. Of course, bus fares vary widely in different parts of the world. But to give you an example, four years ago my wife and I enjoyed an extended honeymoon, covering roughly 1,500 miles across southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. The tototal fare: about $50 each.

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