Like most people with wanderlust, it has always been my secret wish to jump onboard a Greyhound bus and glide through the night across the United States. Those on the global adventure trail refer to it as the quintessential road trip.
I found myself in San Francisco a while ago and decided to take the plunge and bus my way to Las Vegas via Los Angeles. Friends in 'Frisco looked at me incredulously when I told them my plan.
"Don't do it, it's not safe," they chorused. I'm from South Africa I reminded them, and I've bussed in India and Zimbabwe. Besides, at $75 it was definitely within my budget.
The San Francisco central bus terminus screams, "renovate me" and is in a part of town you didn't want to stand still in for too long. I check in and move through to the waiting area when a guard asks me for my destination tag. I didn't have one.
"You ain't getting on dat bus without it, son!"
I backtrack to the scowling, peroxide luggage clerk and get tagged.
Peeling blue paint, mesh metal seats and faint smell of old garbage give the waiting area a 'lived in' feel. I find a seat and survey my fellow passengers, keen to see just who travels doggie style.
Management has a sense of humour
A wistful Sikh in an orange turban, tattooed students and a guy who looks and smells like he's been around the world in 80 days face me. To my right a John Wayne sound-a-like in a moth-eaten Stetson tells his nail-chewing neighbour he's done the trip before and reels off a minute by minute account of what to expect. Sounds like I should have flown.
The microphone barks out we'll be leaving late. No one seems worried. I look at the sign that says 'Greyhound ' Ready to roll when you are!' Management obviously has a sense of humour.
The cigar sucking Vietnam-Vet on my left tells me to take my luggage off at Los Angeles, as we'll be changing buses. I know he's a Vet because he has a big badge on his chest saying: "I'm a Vietnam Vet." A queue has now formed to a non-existent bus.
We pull out at 1.30pm, an hour late. The first-come, first-seated rule applies. No problem, I'm a master at shoving and fold myself into a seat. The first three seats are for the disabled, but no one cared. Someone had been sick in the bus at some point and any attempt to clean up appears to have failed miserably. Our driver looks like an impoverished version of Morgan Freeman and tells us we'll be in his safe hands.
"You folk in the disabled seats, you gotta move yohselves," he drawls, "'cos I cain't release this hound till you do."
Soon the air has become a toxic cloud
They won't budge, things get abusive and station security throws them off. I looked around to see if I was perhaps on a movie set.
First stop is Oakland. Two large ladies board, sit one behind the other and in no time the entire bus is up to speed on their families' dirty laundry. They spray perfume about to combat the vomit smell. Needless to say it's not Chanel being used and soon the air has become a toxic cloud.
I get up to stretch and walk towards the driver. "You don't want to step over that yellow line, son," drawls Morgan. Why was everyone so keen to be family I wondered?
"Why?" I ask. "Security line, son" he says, making sure I see him finger the economy-size can of mace.
I sit down; plug in my iPod and watch the Californian countryside flash by. Morgan is in a hurry and tells us we'll now also be stopping at San Fernando, San Bernadino, North Hollywood and Hollywood. Each stop brings a decline in the calibre of passengers until it seems we were on a bus carrying a troop of dope-reeking convicts.
A smelly bus turns into the hound from hell
Two hyperactive kids terrorise passengers with water pistols until one of the tattooed brethren crushes the toy with his boot. The fork-tailed dissident screams, prompting his mother to go ballistic and yell at the driver to do something. Without ever removing his gaze from the road, Morgan casually said something about passengers "cooperating" with one another. Man this driver is cool.
The two perfume sprayers get involved with language that could strip paint. A smelly bus turns into the hound from hell.
Dinner stop at a Burger King releases some pressure. I get a chance to see that your average overweight American can in fact devour a triple cheeseburger, thick malt and fries in under five minutes. It's not a pretty sight.
By the time we reach Los Angeles tensions are white hot. Bags get hurled off and a mad scramble ensues. The ticket says Greyhound is not responsible for loss or damage, I can now see why. It's 8pm. I've missed my connecting bus - despite Morgan's heavy foot we are still late. There is nowhere to sit. The glamour of LA has bypassed this station. An overweight security guard with a .38 revolver perched ridiculously on his gut intimidates passengers.
The first option that comes up is a bus to Vegas via Salt Lake City. I take it and am once again wedged into a seat designed for a midget. The action on this bus is all at the back. They're big, loud and have the look of serial killers - they get to do pretty much what they like.
My talkaholic neighbour whines on about Iraq and the difficult choice to choose a president. I close my eyes and tell myself the trip has to end soon. I found out later we had broken down and I'd slept through it.
Approaching Las Vegas at 5am was like driving into a light bulb. It had been 16 hours and almost 2000 miles. True to form the Vegas depot was in a seedy part of town, where rappers cruised past in bouncing SUVs and beggars were a dime a dozen.
My lift pulled up and kept the motor running. "Hurry up," she called, "it's not safe here!"
"So what do you think of Greyhound'" she asked as we sped off.
"It's gone to the dogs," I replied.
Previously published on iafrica.com