Adventures in Public Transit

Photo by A.Currell

I don’t like to ask for directions.


And as a result, I try never to leave my house without a plan. Now, this does not mean I never wander or decide where to go serendipitously. I just plan to be serendipitous. In fact, one of my favorite things to do in a new city is meander down the streets, and look at architecture or find a secluded cafe, which I can pretend no tourist before me has ever encountered. I’m comfortable wandering down random side streets despite my discomfort with asking for help because I love maps and I fancy myself a person with a good sense of direction.

Cities–even old cities–generally make blocks, and I rarely feel truly lost because I’m confident that I can find my way back to something recognizable. I’ve found that some people do not share my love of wandering, and who are skeptical of my abilities to get us back to where we started. I respect that, and sometimes I let other people take the lead in planning routes and figuring out where we are and where we want to be.

Now, If I’m with other people, and we really need to know how to get somewhere, and for whatever reason I do not have a map nor a mental image of a map, then I make whoever I’m with ask for directions while I stand by awkwardly. On the off-chance that I am alone, mapless, and in need of help, I generally rise to the occasion, swallow my pride and anxiety, and ask for directions.

Except for that one time in Ecuador.

I had been in Quito for less than 24 hours–most of which I had spent asleep in my hotel room–and I was really just passing through on my way from the airport to the Highlands where I would be staying with friends. I knew there were two bus stations in the city and I think I needed the southern one, but I’m still not entirely sure what went wrong. Miguel, the hotel owner, gave me a map and instructions on where to catch a local bus that would take me to a station where I could transfer to an intercity bus. He was pretty sure he was directing me to the right street corner, but suggested that I check with the driver to make sure. He told me the ride to the station would take almost an hour.

I considered taking a cab, but was feeling cheap, and I wanted to prove that I could handle this bus adventure with my luggage and my conversational Spanish skills. I thanked him and walked to the appointed street corner. Riding the bus in Ecuador is a fascinating cultural experience, and I in no way regret how that day turned out, but, needless to say, something did go wrong.

In addition to my usual anxieties over asking strangers for help, I was nervous about asking in Spanish, and having everyone think I was a scared, confused tourist (as if my luggage and pale skin didn’t already convey that message loud and clear). Miguel was almost positive it was the right bus anyway, so what was the harm in not confirming? I got on the bus, and found a spot where I could stand comfortably with my luggage. It was crowded, and I decided I would push my way to the front and ask the driver if I was on the right bus at the next stop. Or maybe the next one.

This lasted for 45 minutes. At this point I was worried. I had no idea what the bus station looked like, so what if we passed it? Or what if I’d been going the wrong way this entire time? I finally worked up the courage to lean over and ask the driver if we were going where I hoped we were going.


What a concise response. I tried again, calling the bus station by a name I had read online rather than where Miguel had told me to go. The driver thought for a moment, and said reluctantly that yeah, we were going there. Clearly, he knew that the two locations I had asked for were not the same, but even if he had tried to warn me, I probably wouldn’t have understood.

Once I got off at the bus-station-which-was-not-the-right-bus-station, an Ecuadorian man struck up a conversation with me (obviously, I was too shy to have spoken first) and politely informed me that the bus station I wanted was up a hill from where we were. And no, I could not walk there as I initially was going to try. He was nice enough to give me unsolicited directions to first take a bus to Cayambe, and then from there take a bus to Otavalo, that way I wouldn’t have to spend anymore time riding public transit in Quito. I thanked him, and eventually made it to my final destination.

I can’t be the only one who hates asking for directions. Does anyone else have a public transit catastrophe story?

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.

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