The last true adventure in Europe

[You know about Long Reads, right? Well, this is the Longest Read – in the history of my blog. From my travelogue archives, an edited and re-mastered account of my 78 hour bus ride from southwest Spain to northeast Romania in June 2004.]

The build up

Some travel elitists will tell you that Europe has been done. Every reasonable morsel of discovery and adventure in Europe has been uncovered and subsequently made passé by hundreds of millions of tourists.

The following is what occurs when you remove “reasonable” from that statement.

Indeed, I recently participated in one of the foremost, categorically unreasonable travel adventures in contemporary Europe. There’s a little something for everyone in this package: danger, resourcefulness, tenacity, diplomacy, physical punishment, mental fortitude, white knuckle driving, barf suppression, deliberate starvation, sleeplessness, hygienic challenges, bladder endurance – and that’s just the stuff I can remember now. There’s no telling what will surface during my post-traumatic hypnosis therapy. Self-flagellation? Bestiality? Public toenail clipping?

Yes, the 78 hour, 2,330 mile bus journey from Cadiz, in the southwest of Spain to Iasi, in the northeast of Romania, is the kind of unremitting, confined, spine-grinding, physical punishment and psychological tear-down that would break the will of the hardest prisoner. I’ll save you the suspense and admit right away that I did not fare well. After only 12 hours I would have gladly given up my social security and PIN numbers. After 36 hours I would have sold my grandmother for a Happy Meal and a cold glass of water. So, you can imagine my state after 78 hours.

If one wants to truly push the envelop of stupidity, one might choose to make this trip in the unrelenting heat of mid-June. Compulsive masochists might like to take the journey on a dubious Eastern European bus company. Psychotic losers will of course cap the whole thing off by ending the trip with the first, and possibly the last, meeting with their new girlfriend’s parents when dropped off exhausted, stinking and near raving lunacy at 3:30am on a Monday morning.

Who else thinks this would be a killer reality TV show? Clearly, no sane person would voluntarily undertake this ordeal without a million dollar prize to be had. The decision was pretty much made for me under extreme duress.

I had enjoyed a temperate winter/spring of travelogue editing and wine drinking in Cadiz, Spain, during which time I met and started dating Catalina, a Romanian geo-ecology student. As our time in Cadiz came to a close, I decided – actually, I believe I was ordered – to accompany her home to spend the summer in her hometown of Iasi. That’s the ‘why’. As for the ‘how’…

I did not want to take the bus

I really did not want to take the bus. I wanted a nice flight from nearby Malaga into Bucharest, via Paris, supplemented with a couple non-taxing stints of ground travel. Though I am deeply steeped in the budget travel arena, I am also 34 years old, with a temperamental back and finding it more and more difficult to achieve slumber in anything other than near-perfect conditions. From my perspective, three straight days on a bus in the dead heat of summer would be an excruciating study of previously uncharted cruelty endurance.

I spent two weeks fruitlessly looking for a plane ticket that didn’t have a price-tag that made me audibly gasp. Even if I took a train for nine hours to Madrid and flew from there, I was still looking at a €500 (US$610) plane ticket. Ouch.

Then of course there was the chivalry angle. Sending my girlfriend home all by her lonesome on a sadistic three day bus ride, while I jetted in quickly and comfortably seemed a bit reprehensible, even though she had already successfully made the trip once before and was generally more physically prepared to weather cramped quarters for long periods of time, being she was 10 years my junior, all of five feet tall, with a spine seemingly made out of rubber.

After exhaustively scouring the internet, interrupted by a few bouts of uncontrolled sobbing at the prospect, I made the reservation for the bus and mentally prepared myself for the tribulation of a lifetime.

The journey begins

The final itinerary:

•    8:00pm Thursday – Get on a four hour bus from Cadiz to Malaga.
•    Midnight to 5:30am Friday – Spend the night on the street in Malaga. (Neither one of us felt like dropping €35 (US$43) for a hostel room that we would only occupy for about five hours.)
•    6:00am Friday – Get on the bus to Iasi.
•    6:01am Friday to 2:00am Monday – Suffer through the worst indignity that I have ever inflicted upon myself on purpose.
•    2:01am Monday – After three days with almost no sleep, no shower, no shave and subsisting on a diet of crackers, cookies and the occasional rest-stop, over-priced, expired sandwich, introduce my old, unemployed, American ass to Cat’s stunned and appalled parents.

A person with a mature, finely-tuned sense of self-preservation would have spent his last two nights before such a trip relaxing and hoarding sleep. My last two nights in Cadiz were occupied with two separate, wine-soaked goodbye parties at the beach resulting in supremely drunken, inadequate sleep both nights.

We managed to get from Cadiz to Malaga without any trouble and what I had expected to be an excruciating, sleepless night on a bench in front of Malaga’s bus station with weirdos, prostitutes and drunks (the station closes from midnight to 6:00am) was only mildly unpleasant, even with my already sizable sleep debt weighing on me.

Our first sight of the bus that would be our home for 68 hours was actually very encouraging. It was a double-decker affair and being a grizzled bus travel veteran, I knew that it was imperative that we get the seats on top and up front for the fantastic, up-high, panoramic view of the landscape, maybe done standing with our arms outstretched like in that scene from Titanic for form’s sake.

As we boarded the bus, we were sternly warned that it was a “new” bus and that we should treat it with exceptional care. Barely a minute later, we started to happen upon all of the broken bits, which included my first seat that reclined with difficulty and then fused in that position for the remainder of the trip, an unsettling clanking noise below the dashboard on the second level, the front shade only going half way down which was absolute torture at the height of the afternoon sun, and what was either a tremendously deficient air conditioning system or the driver’s inability to effectively operate it as air seemingly hotter than outside air was pumping out of the vents more often than not.

In the beginning, the amount of personal space was borderline giddying. Malaga was only the first of many stops, of course, but for the moment there were just eight of us sprawled out over a 71 seat double-decker bus. We could each lay full out across an entire row of seats in relative luxury. However, by the time we had stopped and brought on passengers in Granada, Alicante, Valencia, Barcelona and countless smaller Spanish cities over the next 16 hours, it was a different story. The shrinking personal space problem aside, there were a few ripe individuals who appeared as if they had already gone three days without a shower before getting on the bus.

By carefully spreading our bodies and bags across the four front seats, Cat and I managed to make the area uninviting enough to new passengers that we succeeded in keeping all four seats to ourselves. Though this might have also had something to do with the deteriorating comfort level up front. As the sun rose higher and beat down on those gigantic windows, the front of the bus was quickly turning into a heat bath, making the perk of the superior view less and less appealing.

I’m about as likely to get genuine sleep on a bus as I am to get genuine assistance from a German train conductor, but having had less than 10 hours of sleep in the previous three nights, I unexpectedly and very unwillingly lost consciousness the instant the bus pulled out of the station. This was unfortunate in that the scenery while driving across the coast of southern Spain is spectacular. Until we hit the Alps in Austria, it was by far the best scenery of the entire trip and I missed nearly all of it while drifting through various states of oblivion. There were breathtaking mountains, Arabic ruins and the sparkling sea to ogle virtually the entire way and all I saw of it were during the lively, barely awake moments immediately after the driver had taken one of his preferred, jarring turns, causing all of us to list wildly into the window or the person next to us. After each of these hair-raising maneuvers, I would inevitably be faced with some fantastic vista, but then my eyes would abruptly roll back into my head and I’d return to a coma-like state until the next hard turn.

Did I mention it was hot?

I finally came to and stayed awake after our stop in Granada. Once the Sierra Nevada mountains dropped out of sight, the scenery became positively dull. Just the open highway and nondescript countryside with nothing but gas stations and rest stops to break up the monotony. It was like driving through Nebraska, except hotter. Much hotter. It reached 95°F by noon on the first day, and with those giant windows on three sides of us, we seared and wriggled like ants under a cruel child’s magnifying glass. From about 10:30am until 7:00pm the heat in the bus was so unrelenting that I couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t sleep, couldn’t read, couldn’t appreciate the scenery and couldn’t absorb the on-the-fly Romanian lessons that I was trying to wrench out of Cat.

That afternoon, after copious suffering, I asked Cat to go down and inquire about the possibility of coaxing cool air from the vents rather than the hairdryer-in-the-face treatment we had been getting, but she wouldn’t go. Actually, by that point, no one would talk to the bus staff. We were on a hateful Romanian bus line called Atlassib, who, we realized over the next three days, almost exclusively employed ruthless sociopaths. Among the many exasperating indignities the staff inflicted upon us was playing the same CD non-stop for the first 10 hours of the trip. This would have been intolerable even if it had been the Beatles played at a reasonable volume, but it was some kind of super group of Turkish yodelers and Kraftwerk wannabes bashing out nearly identical tunes on what sounded like a 1983 Casio keyboard. The volume was cranked up to mid-evening-at-the-bar level and the speakers were copiously placed above every other row, so there was no escape. When one of their favorite songs came on they’d jack the volume up even higher.

When someone finally went down to plead for a music change and reduction of volume, she was treated with outright contempt. Then the behavior of the Atlassib people deteriorated from hateful to negligent. At a 10 minute rest stop, they closed the doors and started to pull out of the parking lot at nine minutes and 55 seconds while two of us were on final approach to the rear door. Apparently they felt that this passive-aggressive, feigned, near-abandonment was an acceptable manner in which to demonstrate that we had been walking back to the bus too slowly for their liking. As I climbed on the bus, I expressed my displeasure with this tactic with a cascade of vivid observations about their mothers. The language barrier probably prevented the staff from appreciating the nuances of my reprimanding, but my attitude was unmistakable and from then on the air between the staff and me was icy. Fortunately in Barcelona, at the 16 hour mark, there was a requisite full staff change and the next shift was notably less vindictive.

Malnutrition joins the party

The worst, borderline criminal indecency, however, was the complete lack of rest stops at places that served actual food. I was pretty miffed at Cat over this particular situation actually, as she was fully aware of this policy, but failed to give me fair warning. Until very late in the trip, when we were well into Romania, the bus only stopped at protein-deficient gas stations. Had I known that I would be going 78 hours without a proper meal, I would have packed a more nourishing grab-bag of snacks. Cat belatedly confessed that her stomach disagrees with genuine food on long bus and train rides, thus she actually prefers to limit herself to chocolate, potato chips and the like. It never occurred to her that I might desire something more substantial. I’d only packed cookies, crackers, juice boxes, water and apples, all of which were crushed/melted/mushy/piss warm hours into the trip.

As we pulled out of Barcelona, the sun mercifully went down along with the bus’ interior temperature and we were treated to mediocre, but sufficiently distracting Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies to get us through the night run along the south of France. At the conclusion of the movies, I wrenched myself into a pseudo-horizontal position in my two meager seats, which is saying a lot for someone who can’t even touch his toes, and managed to enjoy three hours of sleep before the sun rose when I struggled stiffly upright to discover that we were well into Italy.

Exploring the depths of boredom

The scenery in Italy was no better than northern Spain. Just endless, dull, non-descript highways, fields and gas stations selling nothing more nutritious or energizing than a Snickers bar. As we zipped through northern Italy, we had momentary jolts of excited anticipation as signs for Verona, Padua and Venice came and went, but the best views we got of these places were limited to distant rooftops and broadcast towers. This was a Spain-to-Romania bus, meaning we were not making any stops in cities between the two countries, so we never veered any closer to these places than the perimeter roads would allow.

Late in the day my head jerked out of one of my numerous unintentional, exhaustion and boredom fueled losses of consciousness to see the fast approaching Southern Limestone Alps, which may not be as impressive as the Swiss Alps, but after over 24 hours of flat nothingness, I couldn’t have been more pleased. There was an intermittent, thick cloud cover, but the views were amazing. With my head cocked straight up, absorbing the new distraction, I completely missed the seamless border crossing into Austria.

I had expected that we would take a spectacular, long, winding, ascending and descending route through the Southern Limestone Alps, but instead we proceeded to drill right through the mountain range in surprisingly short order via dozens of long, dark, dispiriting tunnels. Once every few minutes we would burst into open air where we would be surrounded by isolated mountain villages, rivers, waterfalls, steep slopes and glorious greenery, but then we’d abruptly enter another tunnel, reducing us to pathetically squinting off into the distance for the next hopeful pinhole of light.

Border guard etiquette

As night approached, so did Hungary and the unpleasant revelation that certain Eastern European border crossings are still manned by unsubtle shake-down artists. We essentially had two options: sit and rot at the Hungarian border for the rest of eternity while the border guards leisurely went through each passport and piece of baggage, predictably finding something gravely wrong with everything, all requiring substantial paperwork, fines and delays before they would allow us passage or roll up to the border with a lavish cash offering.

The procedure was shockingly organized and matter-of-fact. There was an announcement on the bus an hour away from the Hungarian border that an assistant would come around and collect five euros (US$6.10) from everyone. All the Romanians, glumly familiar with the procedure, coughed up the cash without comment, which was stuffed into a plastic bag and casually accepted by the border guards. Duly bribed, they did a quick and careless sweep through the bus to stamp everyone’s passports without so much as a cursory photo check before we were sent on our way.

We’re all going to die

The entry into Hungary marked the commencement of an unholy series of two-lane, narrow, unlit, crumbling roads, where a double-decker bus and an oncoming semi could just barely pass without tearing off each other’s side view mirrors. This being Eastern Europe, where awareness of one’s mortality hasn’t progressed much from Roman times, these hair-raising passages were naturally performed at full speed. The bouncing and knocking around one experiences while traversing roads that are half reclaimed by nature is multiplied when one is sitting up high like we were. The slight wobble experienced on the lower level from a pothole was magnified into a violent lurch on the top level which threatened to dump insufficiently braced people into the aisle.

Our drive through Hungary was done almost entirely at night, but with the way we were being thrown around on the second level, there was no sleep to be had. Most of my attention was devoted to not being brained against the window or pitched across the aisle into Cat’s lap. We spent the night with a death grip on our seats while watching three low-budget movies, each of which had warning messages running across the bottom reading: “If you have rented or purchased this movie or are watching it anywhere but on a demo monitor inside a video store, you are watching a bootleg copy and several agents from the international copyright brigade are going to arrive shortly and execute everyone.” At least that’s what was implied. Atlassib was turning out to be a real class act.

At 5:30 the next morning, we entered Romania shaken and bleary-eyed. The crossing into Romania was another exercise in cruel, back-alley border bureaucracy, but not as greedy and brazen as in Hungary. If a Romanian spends more than 90 days outside of their country, which those working in Western Europe often do, when they try to return to their country they either have to bribe the border guards with €200 (US$244) or get slapped with a passport interdiction confining them within Romania for two to five years, depending on how overdue they are. After a few naughty, tardy Romanians were pulled off the bus to cough up €200, we were on our way on roads that were unfathomably even worse than in Hungary.

By European standards, Romania is a very large country (slightly smaller than Oregon) and we had to stop in each city of moderate size for people to disembark, so it took nearly 24 hours to inch across the country to Iasi on the northeastern border. This crawl included two maddeningly lengthy bus transfers, one of which left all of us standing in a sweltering dirt lot with no shelter for three hours as the Atlassib people paraded us back and forth across the lot with our bags to load and board a bus, then let us sit and bake on the bus for 45 minutes, then order us off the bus, retrieve our bags, drag everything to the other side of the lot and do the same on a different bus. After the third round of this cruel game, there was the distinct possibility of a public execution as all of the hot, frustrated people simultaneously came unglued and started screaming at the Atlassib reps. These delays took us from running a refreshing three hours early to being almost two hours behind schedule.

Arrival, barely alive

Finally, at 3:30am we puttered into Iasi. We were so deep in the throes of sleep deprivation, hunger, aggravation and pathetic feebleness that we could barely talk. Cat’s sweet parents didn’t have me deported on the first pig truck to Bulgaria, but instead helped us home where we ate a hot meal, somehow pooled the strength to scrub off the filth from the trip and then rapidly fell into Snow White-like slumber. It was nearly two days before I had the cognitive capacity to venture out of the apartment.

Perhaps with better preparation, a reputable bus company, decent food options, cooler weather and a bucket of Dramamine this trip would have had a few redeeming qualities. I had almost convinced myself before departure that the novelty of covering Europe from west to east on the ground in three days would provide some great views, memories and adventure, but it was really just one long, sucktastic, sucky series of suckiness. It was the kind of odyssey that can only be appreciated by the caliber of people who find exhilaration and fulfillment in going to the brink of discomfort, pain and insanity and living to tell the tale. And quite frankly, people like that should not be allowed to travel without a chaperone.