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Bad Tripping: Minibus Madness

The off-color guide to global public ground transportation.

BAD TRIPPING: Wayward Travel Advice for the Anxious and Burdened
Minibus Madness: The Off-Color Guide to Global Public Ground Transportation

Dear Tristan,

This is the first time I’ve ever traveled in Southeast Asia, and I’m scared as hell. I feel like I’m going to die every time I change cities — they’re driving like lunatics over here! I usually go by minibus for short 3-4 hour trips, and every driver so far has nearly wrecked. I can’t give up the minibuses — trains and planes don’t go where I’m going. Do you have any advice?

Perilously yours,

Mort L.

Dear Mort,

It is all too common to see irresponsible drivers while traveling, especially in developing countries. It’s usually easier and cheaper to bribe the police than to put forth the effort of actually getting a drivers license. Many nations also have a vastly different idea about personal space on the highways. Overtaking someone with only an inch between your bumpers is not considered very dangerous — after all, there was still an entire unused inch of free space. Personally I don’t abide by this philosophy, especially after seeing the traffic mortality figures for the region. Do not fret though, there are ways to help assure you arrive safely.

The first step is to inspect the vehicle. Major damage aside, the primary thing to look for is customization. Has the driver decorated the interior or exterior? The less so, the better. People who decorate their vehicles feel more territorial and have higher rates of road rage (Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2008). Spiritual iconography is a big warning sign and the specific religion matters. Reincarnation gives little motivation for defensive driving: it’s like playing Pac Man with unlimited quarters. Any religion that promises an eternal, pleasant afterlife should be held suspect. Heaven should not be a reward for poor driving. Avoid drivers who follow religions that espouse that life is suffering — a nice fatal car wreck would solve all their problems. “God Protects” and “God is My Co-Pilot” written in any form or language are bad signs as well. You want to be protected by a good driver and a well-maintained vehicle, not a bumper sticker.

The only vehicle customization that truly enhances safety is a family photograph. The ideal driver is an atheist single parent with ten young children and no other family members who could take over in the event of his/ her death. In most cases, finding this driver is simply not feasible. As an alternative, try to ride in minibuses that have fewer than three religious decorations.

The next step is to learn to recognize the symptoms of drug usage. The consumption of illegal stimulants in the transportation industry is quite common, yet unsurprising, considering the long hours and monotonous work. Unfortunately, once you learn to recognize the symptoms you will become extremely suspicious, and every driver you see will appear to be high on something. Your newfound awareness will help you to hone your skills in unfounded paranoia.

Once you have selected a minibus, do your best to sit directly behind the driver. This seat is usually already taken due to its ideal location. I recommend uncomfortably straddling its current occupant while you confirm, re-confirm, and re-re-confirm your drop-off point, behaving like the idiot foreigner the driver probably thinks you are anyway. Taking up too much space is annoying to your fellow passenger, but usually not enough to convince him to move. Eating spicy food prior to boarding is the key. If you can manage to profusely sweat onto the seat’s other occupant, within a matter of minutes you will find that it has become mysteriously unoccupied.

The space behind the driver is best for a few reasons. Firstly, in the event of a crash drivers tend to protect their side of the vehicle, enhancing your own safety. When the driver inevitably falls asleep (after the drug you suspect he was using wears off), you can shake him awake more easily. Furthermore, in the event of a crash the laws of the road dictate that you are the first one allowed to smack him in the back of the head for his mistake. This is an ancient custom that has long been reserved for the most honored of guests.

When fully seated, the next step is to wedge the backpack between your torso and the seat in front of you. This acts as a substitute for your seatbelt (which has inevitably been removed). It also prevents petty theft, saves space, and you probably packed way too damned much anyway so there’s no other place to put it.

Make sure to wear basic head protection for the bumps. A bandanna rolled into a headband will do the trick. Since you are sitting behind the driver, this puts you directly against the side wall of the vehicle. During every turn, your head will uncontrollably smack into the large, gaudy, sharp-edged aftermarket speakers the driver has installed in lieu of new brake pads. The headband will also help to keep the sweat out of your eyes when you discover that the air conditioning is broken and you are sitting on the sun-facing side of the vehicle.

Finally, remember that the only way to get off a minibus is to miss your stop and disembark at the next one. Therefore, attempt to exit the vehicle one stop preceding your intended place of arrival. This will assure that you reach your final destination on time.

Got a problem? Ask Bad Mike:

badmike [at] vagabondjourney.com

Filed under: Bad Tripping, Bus Travel, Transportation, Travel Safe

About the Author:

Tristan Hicks is a compulsive traveler who believes that travel and “real life” can be one and the same. He has combined working and studying with his long-term travels, living in the seven countries to date and traveling in dozens more. He is currently on the road. has written 18 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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