As we sat on a creaking local bus in Hanoi, Vietnam, my travel partner gritted her teeth.
Loaded backpacks crammed on our laps, we dug for the dong needed to pay the bus man. The seats were so dusty and rusted, I was certain they'd crumble beneath us as we hit each pot hole.
"I always feel like we're gonna die on these local buses," she complained. It had taken us 35 minutes just to find the right stop, and we were only fairly sure we'd caught the right crosstown bus anyway.
All I could do was smile.
Back in Colorado, I'd almost never taken the bus. I'd bought my own car at 17. I usually drove — to work, to the hiking trails, to my friend's house — and only took the Light Rail when I ventured out in Denver.
No public transit for this girl, no sir. I was content in my silver Camry.
Of course, part of this car ownership was born out of never living in a city. After almost 11 months in Beijing, it's hard for me to imagine driving again.
When I need to cross this city, I just hop from one subway line to another. When I've closed down the trains and bars, I hop a cab, confident in my Chinese language in getting home. I walk to work — whether rain or snow or ball-melting humidity and summer heat. Still unable to ride a bike, I've found instead a number of hutong (alleyway) shortcuts to cut down on my commute.
And with most of those walks happening in some of the highest pollution in the planet, it feels good to opt for more sustainable methods. (The locals standing next to me on the subway as I literally drip sweat down my cleavage probably wish I'd cab it, but such is city life.)
Travel in America was almost always a road trip. Now, it's a quick flight and whatever public transportation is cheapest. In Hong Kong, it's the front seat on the double-decker bus when heading out to Big Buddha on Lantau. It's the ferry getting from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. It's the Seoul subway system when I hop from Itaewon to Myeong-dong in South Korea.
In Asia, it's quite literally the journey that adds to the joy you find in the destination.
As I'm haggled with a taxi driver to turn on the meter or laying curled up on an overnight sleeper bus, I'm secretly pleased with how damn hard it all is. You earn your destination, in a way, when you put yourself in the way of public transit.
Stuck in traffic from Halong Bay back to Hanoi, I sat between two French backpackers on a makeshift seat that was surely against any American regulation. We'd just left the "mandatory" rest stop — the kind whose owners probably paid the bus service to stop there so they'd get travelers' money for food and drink. In fact, our bus driver took a half-hour nap to ensure even the proudest traveler caved for a water bottle in the Vietnamese heat.
I tried to read for a bit and then gave up. It was all too much — too foreign, too fun. Out the window, I watched as a cow-drawn cart slowly plodded past our bus along a major highway. If this was public transportation, I was hooked.
No car for me, ma'am. I'll hop the next train.