The Brutality of Budget Travel, and Why We Do It

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Budget travel allows you to see the world and seek adventure even without being rich, but sometimes that extreme low-budget breaks you, tests you, crushes you, or defeats you.

Yet, it is in those times when you realize the reason for going through that type of brutality on the mind, body, and soul. What is that reason? Well, my friends, that is what this short story is about.

Please Note: This is a short story/memoirs style article. So that means good ole’ fashioned words and no photos. So if you’re game, read on. If not, head over to my Photo Essays for pictures.

Somewhere in Scotland…

I awoke at blue hour somewhere in the southern region of Scotland, rolling on and on toward Glasgow, or so I assumed even though I had absolutely no clue where I was.

My eyes peeled open like ripping band-aids off the skin. I could feel the veins in my eyeballs screaming for water. Silhouetted trees flashed by like ink-brushed blurs set against the moody sky canvas, the swooping black power lines like outlines of rolling waves.

We could have been anywhere in the world and I wouldn’t have known. No signal, nothing distinct, everything unknown.

By now, whatever the hell now was in that twilight hour, it felt as though I had been traveling forever in an endless loop. A skipping record. Stuck in some rolling purgatory. My shoulders ached. My back ached. My knees could barely bend out of the position they had been folded in for 8 hours or more. My eyes seared red from lack of sleep and dehydration. My stomach was upside-down.

I looked around in the darkness. The standard array of broken souls on an overnight budget travel bus — just dark blobs within the darker nothingness.

Mangled and twisted bodies lay as lifeless mannequins tossed into grotesque heaps on the seats. Everyone was now a professional contortionist whether that planned that path in life or not. I know I was contorted in weird ways to get some shut eye and I could feel the pain of it.

We all tried to find some semblance of comfort on those gaudy patterned seats, speckled with a red and blue and turquoise design of kaleidoscopic barf.

Every long haul budget travel bus in the world is the same…

Decorated by some failed artist and MC Escher wannabe with felt confetti, filled with people coming from somewhere or going somewhere, and all stuck is the budget bus hell.

We were all in this together, a circus of folded origami strangers through time and space and the void of the highway. There is almost a silent camaraderie, or maybe just shared sorrow.

I watched the limbs in the darkness shift around, and slipped in from sleep and a semi-conscious delirium. It felt like a morgue. My body shivered and I could almost see my breath through my chattering teeth.

Dammit, why didn’t I grab my hoodie, knowing full well these buses are always cold rolling meat lockers? My legs dangled over the edge cutting off the circulation. My body was slumped over the uneven ridges of two seats, and my face buried in the crease near the window. This is what it would feel like to sleep on a camel I thought. Is that a peanut?

Eventually, I was kicked off my spacious table bench by a rude deaf guy who silently commanded me to move so he could have the whole table area to himself to watch movies. Both benches and all. I didn’t even have the energy to be rude back, however much I wanted to give him the finger.

There he sprawled out his stuff over the entirety of the table and made sure it was known that he was King of the booth.

I wandered back to another seat. A passenger beyond my new “bed” had a Pikachu pillow and they looked like the most comfortable person alive. Damn him, how I wanted to throw him off the bus and steal that Pikachu pillow for myself.

During one of the numerous awakenings I had, I realized my face was buried into a seat many asses have sat in, sweated in, farted in, and whatever else you can imagine.

I sighed at that dirty depressing thought with my face still buried deep in the crease. This was the most comfortable position I had found yet, so I stayed laying against the eons of asses and gasses collected in that cushion and silently prayed I don’t get pink eye.

My lullaby was the constant roar of wheel on road just feet below my head. When I shut my eyes, I could have been back on a plane, or even at a beach with my ear to a conch listening to the sea. Oh how pleasant of a thought that was. We always fantasize about glorious things right before insanity takes hold.

On and on we rolled down the white striped blackness, all reduced to hallucinations about the basic desires in life: food, a bed, a bath. All dreaming of arriving. All dreaming of unfolding.

And most of us, however much our minds and bodies scream NO! will do this all again to save a buck or two.

Why do we do it? Why do we destroy ourselves on budget travel?

Why do we subject our minds and bodies and souls to such crippling lows to get from one place or the other? You’d think by now I just enjoy self-punishment — like some star in 50 Shades of Megabus. Just not as fun and full of way more kinks after the long ride.

However much you try to fall back asleep, once woken it’s futile to try. You stare at the clock and the passing blackness waiting and waiting. Is the end near? And the harder you try to will yourself to sleep, the more you fail.

I wondered, as I do every time I’ve brutalized myself this way — why am I doing this again?

I never come to the answer in that moment, mind melt has taken full effect by then.

Some time in the night, a mannequin rose up and decided to spend 5 minutes hocking into a plastic bag a few seats down from where I lay. They sounded like a giant cat coughing up a monstrous hairball, jolting everyone awake by the disgusting sounds. Eventually, everyone went back to sleep. It was just bus life after all. There’s always someone with a hairball.

The next time I opened my eyes, deep green hills and dark pines streamed by the highway. Out the front windshield of the bus bulbous mist-covered Scottish hills unfolded, rising and falling into fabled valleys. Mysterious and beautiful. My nirvana to this budget travel torture. The dark blue world was turning purple and orange, the breaking dawn bruising the sky with its coming.

A bright blue “Glasgow” sign whizzed by, we were almost there. And still so far away. I dug into my rations that I picked up at the Victoria Coach Station; a falafel wrap with a big fat red £1 sticker on it because it was going off that day, and some fruit.

It looked sadder and frumpier than the fresh falafel wraps in that stand, but was £2 less, so I’d have that for breakfast with my fruit bowl. The fruit must have been off too because the strawberries tasted fermented from sitting out all night on the bus. If only I could have a drink, a sip of whiskey, that might ease the pain.

Of course, there an abundance of kiwi slices, given I’ve said I’d never eat another kiwi again after working in a kiwi fruit factory in New Zealand. But alas, I was painfully hungry and couldn’t give a damn. I bit into the juicy kiwi fruit that had once been the bane of my existence, and somewhere the backpacking Fates laughed at me.

I’m just in a divine comedy after all. The falafel wrap, as suspected, was soggy and depressing and worth only that single pound. If that. I could feel my stomach cringe. I chomped down anyway.

An endless blanket of soft green hills rolled on, now glowing in the rising sun. I imagined myself laying on those soft hills and melting into a deep sleep. Little white puffs dotted the fields, those cotton-ball like sheep grazing on the morning dewy grass. I imagined they would cuddle me in my frail state and all would be well again napping beneath golden rays of sunlight.

Beyond, great big windmills groaned with the slow wind. Time was going nowhere, but my mind was fleeing me.

Then we arrived. The green hills dissolved into dark red brick buildings, old Scottish churches sprouted up and blinding glass took over the skyline. I was finally here, finally in Glasgow. Broken and bent as usual. A budget travel martyr once again.

It’s often I find myself in predicaments like this. Such is the life and times of a budget traveler, one who does anything to save a little money here and there to keep the adventure going just a little longer. It’s like an addict going to any length to keep it going, and I guess it is an addiction.

Is cheap travel worth breaking yourself just for the adventure?

Sometimes, yes. Other times it’s a necessary sacrifice.

Sometimes you decide to hop off a train headed from Goa to Mumbai last-minute and take a another 3rd-class train into the countryside of India on a whim. You’re stuck surrounded by hundreds of people sweating in a hot rolling sardine can as it inches along railroads under construction.

Indians splash and spit and hock loogies just inches above your head into the sink, and you feel the spray of what you hope is water hit your face and head. Smells you can’t even imagine fondle your nose in foul ways, and the air is so thick you can barely breathe.

But as you lift your dangling feet up into the train just before rail signs pass, threatening to lop them off with the other Indians sitting beside you, you laugh because you feel crazy and free. Freer than you do sitting at an office desk looking at the Taj Mahal on the latest World Wonders calendar.

All of the sweat and frustrations fly away as you hang out the train door, waving at the others doing the same, feeling the breeze and seeing the great expanse of the world hurdling toward you. You’re on the move, living not just letting life flash by. And on that diversion, you meet people who become best friends.

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.

Robert Louis Stevenson

READ: 31 Inspirational Travel Quotes to Give You Serious Wanderlust!

Hard travel and tough tales become amazing memories in the end. Most of the time.

There are those days you reminisce about that time in Rome when you had exactly $18 to your name and not a clue as to what to do. You had to go to the fountains at night to fill your bottles of water, and eat stale discounted bread from the markets with ketchup for flavoring because you could only spend €3.00 per day while waiting on that freelance paycheck.

But it was the best time of your life, sipping a €2 bottle of wine and watching the world act out scenes below, like Hitchcock in Rear Window, except out of a 2,000 year old theater window loft a friend let you stay in. Or a brutal bus journey that lets you see the fantastical beauty of Edinburgh.

These are my budget travel experiences, and some of my happiest memories involve being more broke than a bum in the City of Angels. I’m still abroad, I’m still traveling, I’m still moving. Hugging zero but rich with experiences.

It sucks, and it can’t last forever, but nothing does. Savor those sweaty, broke, stressful, and utterly wonderful misadventures.

These are the times that are immortalized in my memory, ones that tested me and pushed me to new limits and forced me to think outside the box. These are the moments when I realize, hell, I can survive. I can figure out how to keep going. I don’t have to have anything to have everything.

And I know these are experiences I couldn’t or wouldn’t want to have if I was older. So do it now, do it while we can become contortionists for a night.

Of course, there are times when these moments absolutely break you, and make you want to give up traveling all together. I’ve been there, done that, and even got a tattoo to remember overcoming that bad experience.

Or, at least, they make you curse yourself for being so cheap instead of just spending the extra cash on a shorter trip with more comfort. Eventually, nights spent on overnight buses to save on accommodation add up and leave you a pitiful mess. Budget travel allows us to travel, but I don’t think the brutality of it is sustainable long term. So, even though I champion it because I’ve done it for so long, I know the pros and cons well.

Maybe it is time to move on from budget travel to some better style of backpacking.

Maybe it’s time to travel less but travel better. But will it still have that same taste, that same grit, and that same glory of accomplishment you so love when you overcome all the gauntlet and trials that the world can throw at you as a budget traveler?

Would that beer taste the same after a hellacious journey to simply get where to wanted to go? Would it be appreciated like it was the nectar from the gods if you were simply sipping it in luxury?

That, I believe, is why us budget backpackers break ourselves to travel cheap.

In part because, yes, we just don’t have the money for anything better. In another way, it’s because you are tested and grow in ways you can’t at home in a comfort zone. It’s because when we return home and vow to save up money to have that “better” trip, you ache to leave soon after. You can’t wait for more money to come, you have to go.

It’s as if something pulls at a lose string inside you, and if you don’t go, you’ll be unraveled into a giant mess. That fernweh, or farsickness, it calls you back to the road and you just simply can’t wait any longer. Even though you only have a few hundred dollars in the bank, it’ll do. It has to or you’ll disappear into oblivion the wanderlust hurts so bad. Those of us like this, we find a way. We always do. And if not, well hell, it looks like it’s back to bread and ketchup and night bus blues.

Budget travel teaches you thousands of life lessons that can’t be learned in comfort. Now, I’m not stomping on comfortable travel, I’m just saying the lessons are different.

To breathe calmly in the face of frustration. 

To laugh at the unbelievable mishaps on the road.

To not give up just because shit gets hard.

To appreciate the little things. 

To have patience.

You find that the best things in the world are a bed or a hot bath or a smile from a stranger or a cold beer with new friends. Those are the glory moments of budget travel, the moments that don’t seem so special otherwise.

There may be a part of me that wants to travel a little less extreme budget backpacking. This past week has tested those limits and broken me more than ever. I was in transit so much I thought I was going to collapse into nothingness or that I was stuck in an episode of Twilight Zone.

  • 10+ hour bus from San Francisco
  • 12+ hour flight to London the next day
  • 10+ hour overnight bus to Glasgow (and nearly passed out from exhaustion)
  • 3 days in Scotland exploring
  • 10+ hour overnight bus to London
  • Night in London airport laying on the floor
  • 10+ hour flights to Belgrade with layovers in Germany
  • 3 days in Belgrade
  • 10+ hour flights from Belgrade to Istanbul and then Athens
  • 1.5 hour bus ride to the marina

At this point, it’s almost comical how much time I spent on transportation that week just so I could see a handful of friends in different parts of the world. And most of the time I was “sleeping” on buses or trains
or in stations. In stations on wee covered floors that is.

Given my line of work, sometimes you don’t get paid on time and that leaves you $15 to survive on in Belgrade for 3 days. Like last week. Or €6 in your pocket just to get to the bus station. A bank account that is overdrawn because of the waiting game for a check that hasn’t arrived on time.

You figure out how to budget enough to get to and from airports and if you lose one coin you’re fucked. That’s the fine attention to detail to not get stranded.

Though, after all of that trouble, I can say that the cheesy bread Turkish Air served up as a free snack was the most glorious cheese toasty I ever tasted. And that orange juice, damn it tasted like orange juice squeezed from orange groves in heaven. And seeing old friends when I arrived at the marina in Croatia made my spirit fly.

Right now, I am finally in a place to leave my bags for a few months as I start my season at sea as a photographer. I made it here by the lint of my pocket, with only €6 euro for the bus from the airport to the marina — leaving me with 20 cents. I made it by breaking myself and my budget for the sole purpose of the joy of travel. To go places and see friends.

And damn will this be the best sleep I’ve had in weeks. That’s what it’s about. For now.

See more of Scotland on the Travel Scotland page!