Smells on the Chinatown Bus

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It’s kind of insane that after 25 years as a broke-ass, I had never taken the Chinatown bus until last weekend.  Don’t get me wrong, I adore budget travel– I’ve been cramped on overnight buses in Portugal, watched a boy floss his teeth with twine as he sat across from me on a Moroccan train, and waken up at the most ungodly hours just to save a few bucks on airfare.  But until last weekend, I had never boarded the biggest diva of domestic cheapo travel– that dirty, crowded Chinatown bus that never picks up where it’s supposed to, and leaves whenever it damn well pleases.  My friend and I took the bus from New York City to Philadelphia to get out of town for a couple of days, and try out another personal broke-ass first: couch surfing (I know!  I’m the worst broke-ass ever, but I’m catching up).  Both the Chinatown bus and couch surfing proved to be invaluable discount travel experiences (I could write a whole other post about how amazing couch surfing was)– saving us tons of money, allowing us to meet new people, and for sure spicing up our weekend getaway.  But while there are a lot of things to talk about when talking about the Chinatown bus, one aspect in particular definitely remains on my mind (and in my nostrils)– the smells.

When I first stepped aboard that rainbow-geometric-pattern-upholstered mass transit vehicle, I smelled Freedom.  The freedom to travel, no matter how poor I may be.  The freedom of briefly trading the trash-laden, industrial streets of Brooklyn for the trash-laden industrial streets of Philly.  The freedom of escaping the clutches of that toothless meth addict with the hole in her forehead, who spit profanities at us when we got lost while looking for the unmarked Chinatown bus stop.  I didn’t even care that I nearly contracted a disease from drug-addled street lady or that the bus left at 3:36pm when it was scheduled to depart at 4– the Chinatown bus was my ticket to a weekend of relaxing on a stranger’s couch, and decompressing from the stresses of being overworked, underpaid, and annoyed by the general name droppy-ness of NYC.  On the Chinatown bus, there was none of this pretension– it was the People’s Bus, from the People’s Republic of China.

While the smell of freedom lingered on throughout our mini-vacay, I must admit that at times it was overpowered by a distinct odor of fried fish.  This didn’t bother me too much, because honestly– what else would you expect a bus that transports cheapskates back-and-forth between cities all day to smell like? Petunias?  Of course it reeks of greasy fast food, people!  While a number of passengers chowed down on their Filet-O-Fishes, my friend and I held our noses and wondered where the next rest stop would be, so that we could step out and get some fresh air.  Well, newsflash: there was no rest stop.  Our pores began to clog with deep fried seafood air, but we didn’t let the pungent, Long John Silver’s-y aroma hamper our roadtrippin’ excitement.   We simply plugged our noses and split a cookie, which, the moment it was divested of it’s plastic packaging, also began to sweat in the fishy humidity.

Sea life-flavored cookies and meth heads aside, our journey to The City of Brotherly Love was a major success.  We stayed on the coolest girl’s couch, ate a cheap Mexican feast, danced to jams DJ-ed by a guy who looked like Drama from Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory, and pretended that we were sophisticated ladies living in colonial homes.  By the end of it, we were admittedly sweaty from walking around all day– and lookin’ grungy in uniforms of frizzy hair, beanies, big jackets, and giant backpacks definitely didn’t help us look like the Ladies we wanted to be. After popping into a couple of stores and being met with “Are they hobos?  Should we be scared?” looks, we realized it was time to take our dirty selves back to Brooklyn and shower.  We boarded the Chinatown bus again, this time familiar with it’s greasy fumes.  About an hour into our ride, our nostrils were met with yet another familiar smell, however, this one more gag-inducing– the entire vehicle had suddenly filled with the strong, unmistakable odor of putrid human urine.  Whoever had used the on-board bathroom had clearly missed the toilet and whizzed all over the bus.  Coughing and wondering how we were going to stand the remaining hour of our ride, we couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that we had fully completed our hobo transformations– we know sported a cologne of Eau de Old Piss, as well.

In short, a trip on the Chinatown bus is quite memorable… for the olfactory sensations you experience on the ride, that is.  But if you can get past the nasal assault, the confusion, and the unreliability, the Chinatown bus can be pretty special.  I mean, it’s a total adventure– you don’t know really know where you’re going or what time you’re getting there, but at least you’re going somewhere!  So next time you’re low on cash and have an itch to get away, I recommend gettin’ down to Chinatown, fools!  Just stick to short trips, because you never know at what point in the ride you might encounter some pee spillage, and let me tell you– those bus windows don’t open no matter how hard you claw at them.

Photo credit:  The Lo-Down

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Carrie Laven - Pretty Penniless

Carrie Laven - Pretty Penniless

Carrie Laven is a natural-born storyteller from California, but she
lives in New York now. She likes dogs, nail art, and Mexican food,
but mostly she likes scoring sweet deals at thrift stores. She tends
to have a flair for the dramatic.