I’ve taken a lot of buses in the last seven months, and a lot of buses on previous trips to the Middle East and South East Asia. It’s fair to say that I have a high level of tolerance for crazy bus journeys, with past experiences including a 12 seater minibus with thirty people, a pig, baskets of chickens and no floor in Laos, an eight hour bus trip that became fourteen hours after a breakdown and two run-out-of-fuel-in-the-middle-of-the-desert stops in Iran, and getting bogged for hours and waiting on the side of the jungle in Cambodia. What makes this one so ‘special’?
The bus was new, the seats were comfortable, terrible music was playing and the bus was only three quarters full. I was taking the Bucharest – Istanbul bus with the intention of jumping out at Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria. I took my seat, the bus started driving, and I heard a number of clicks followed by a whiff of cigarette smoke. Now, I’m a smoker [I know, don’t start], but something I appreciate is that smoking is not allowed on things like buses. It’s an enclosed space with a whole bunch of people who may not smoke, and I don’t want to force them all to passive smoke for the whole journey. Nor do I want to spend hours sitting in a bus full of smoke instead of air.
There were ‘No Smoking’ signs in a number of places on the bus, but clearly seven men and two women decided that this didn’t apply to them. It doesn’t take long for nine people to fill the entire bus with cigarette smoke, and it’s not like you could open the windows to get some fresh air. Furthermore, it wasn’t like they were just having one cigarette – one of the women and five of the men were chain-smoking the entire way, lighting the next cigarette with the last. It was disgusting. Within less than an hour the whole bus reeked, and the thick smoke made it impossible for me to read a book I was holding eight inches in front of me. It was almost impossible to see, and the density of the smoke was causing my eyes to sting fiercely. The steward on the bus told one of the women that smoking wasn’t allowed, but didn’t say anything to the other eight – although just about everyone else on the bus did. They just did not care – they just started abusing whichever other passenger had the audacity to ask them to stop.
Note that the bus actually stopped every two hours for at least ten minutes.
I’ve gotten used to the fact that people smoke everywhere in Eastern Europe – it’s the same in South East Asia, the Middle East, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, basically everywhere I’ve been. I don’t mind so much in restaurants or bars, as usually there are windows or doors open or a reasonable amount of space and movement of air. I just try to sit outside. But on transport? Not a fan. On long distance trains it’s normal for people to smoke in between the carriages; as there are usually two doors to go through to get to that space, very little smoke makes it near the cabins, so it’s not a problem. On buses? I’m sorry, but this should NEVER be allowed.
Unfortunately that wasn’t all. The woman in front of me, the one who was asked not to smoke, wasn’t happy about it. I can understand if she was annoyed at the hypocrisy of her being told not to smoke and no one else, but that didn’t seem to be the problem – she turned around and complained to me that they dare tell her not to smoke, she’ll do what she wants where she wants. She went somewhat ballistic, shouting and yelling and throwing a tantrum and trying to pick a fight with anyone who would listen. I’d put her age at least around mid-thirties.
After she settled down, the bus stopped and everyone piled out – mostly hoping for some fresh air and that the smoke would clear out of the bus. When we got back on, a bunch of chunky old women who had been sitting at the back among the equally fat old chain-smoking men moved to sit at the front, some taking other people’s seats and others picking the seats that they knew were empty. You’d think that the people at the front would understand them wanting to move away [at least the ones who didn’t seat-steal], but no – they seemed too concerned about protecting their space and the seat that their jacket and handbag needed to sit on. The bus was soon filled with the sounds of angry old women shouting at each other; I couldn’t understand a word, although it seemed that a fair few unpleasant words were being exchanged. Red faced women with their hair covered in floral scarfs were going mental in the front of the bus.
The steward had to sort it out, keeping them away from each other and making the jackets and handbags that needed their own seats move to either the owner’s lap or the racks above the seats. Alas, this temporary peace wasn’t to last. As soon as the bus was moving again, the chain-smoking arseholes at the back all lit up.
I don’t know what happened exactly to make the fat old ladies lose the plot again, because when they started shouting again it wasn’t directed at the back of the bus but at each other. Suddenly they were out of their seats, pulling hair and slapping and screaming like banshees and even throwing things. Yep, this group of grumpy grandmas started throwing things at each other, from empty food wrappers to magazines to plastic cups and – most disturbingly – a cup of hot tea. Were they all on crack? That’s the most logical explanation I could come up with. I wished that I understood or could speak Romanian, as I wanted to tell them all to grow the fuck up. It was actually really embarrassing.
It was with GREAT relief that I jumped off the bus on the side of a highway, where the bus driver pointed to a light in the distance and said ‘Veliko Tarnovo’. I didn’t even care that it was pitch black and I was being left on the side of the road god only knows where – that’s how happy I was to be off the Bus from Hell.
As it turned out, it was only about a ten minute walk from where the bus dropped me off to the nearest light source, which happened to be a bus station.