There are some smells so recognizable that they seem familiar from the first time you smell them. A Green Tortoise bus is one of those smells. Climbing aboard the converted municipal bus on which 38 people will live, eat and sleep for much of the next nine days, there is the heavy smell of road travel: sun-warm skin, sleeping bags and damp leather sandals mixed with paperback books and unwashed hair.
Lyle Kent, vice president of Green Tortoise Adventure Travel and son of its founder, has witnessed a range of reactions to first whiffs. "Some people climb on and realize that there is no air conditioning, no bathrooms and they want off," he says. "Then, there are people skeptical at how crowded you have to be. And finally, there are the ones who are open-minded and excited about a new way of traveling. They're generally curious."
Curiosity about Green Tortoise is fair enough. This San Francisco-based adventure travel company operates a fleet of buses, which serve as roaming hostels for 15,000 passengers per year willing to sacrifice varying degrees of comfort, privacy and habit for a budget vacation with plenty of local color and group bonding. On this trip to Baja, Mexico, there are some fair-skinned Canadians and Irish, Australians who have been drinking themselves around the world, a Swiss man, a few solid-looking German women, a Dane who bursts into Elvis songs unprompted, a Swede and some rowdy Americans. Though most passengers are in their mid-twenties, ages ranged up to the mid-fifties. All have paid $309 for nine days in Baja. This price includes transportation, a spot to sleep en route that's precisely the size of a sleeping bag, most meals and five nights of Mexican seaside camping. The same price will buy approximately one night at a fancy all-inclusive Mexican resort.
The barren Baja peninsula, dangling like an appendix from Southern California, is separated from the Mexican mainland by the Gulf of California. The largely undeveloped territory has long lured handfuls of adventurous Californians and expatriates to wander its dusty roads and empty beaches. But mainstream adventure tourists are slowly discovering Baja's many appeals: The sea kayaking and whale watching are less crowded, the beaches are more deserted, and the beer and tacos a lot cheaper than anywhere in Southern California. For those who rank their vacations inversely according to the number of gringo tourists encountered, Baja -- especially the more austere southern part -- has become a target.
Aboard the bus, I nestle myself in between Gabriel Meseth, of Germany, and Ben Jacobs, from San Francisco. Conversation swirls broadly at first, involving a large radius of people, and then settles into smaller circles. Meseth, calm and bohemian with an open face, speaks in a soft, measured tone about her U.S. trip that is now coming to a close. She has studied at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., and then went to a drumming workshop for women in Big Sur, Calif. On my other side, Jacobs is fully bearded, monotoned and a Green Tortoise veteran.
As the bus lumbers across San Francisco's Bay Bridge, the talk is subdued, matching the dim interior. Eight wooden bunks run along each side of the bus, partially blocking the windows. The rest are obscured by our heads, rolled-up sleeping bags and jackets balled into pillows. Half of us, around 20 bodies, are tucked into the back of the bus, which contains a large mattress platform. The front is set up with two long couches and diner-style booths, where people sit before the entire bus converts to a vast foam bed each night.
This is what the Green Tortoise legacy is built on, this absolute lack of convention and personal space that enforces group intimacy and keeps costs spectacularly low. For its fans, the odd and uncomfortable journey has as much appeal as the destination.
T.B. Hansen, from Denmark, a veteran of four Green Tortoise trips, says his first, a cross-country jaunt, was the "best trip of my life. The moment I got on the bus, I had left all my friends back at home, but I felt like I was home in a way." He has a scrapbook of recent Green Tortoise trips and has learned such phrases as "holey moley" and all the words and inflections for Elvis's "Viva Las Vegas," definitely in the category of fringe benefits of GT travel. On our last night aboard, he will do a dancing/lip-sync act to an Elvis CD, trying to get sleepy passengers to dance and sing along.
"There is a social interaction that occurs because the experience becomes about the group as much, if not more, than about getting to where you are going," Kent explains. "The barriers are broken down immediately when your physical space is so immediate."
Indeed. As we instantly discover, there is simply not enough room inside the bus for any hesitations about privacy. If they make it through the door on Day 1, they are gone very quickly. You change into pajamas around other people. You talk to people inches away from you before brushing your teeth in the morning. Strangers' unclipped toenails graze your arms and legs all day and night. As Jacobs puts it: "Things that normally you might not do become all right in some conditions.' On other GT tours, he says, trips to a hot springs start with people who "separate into groups of those willing to get naked and those that won't. There are rarely members of the latter group. It sounds really '70s, but there is a lot to be said for the hot tub mentality."
One night, a small group winds up taking a late-night swim in the Gulf of California. Everyone swims naked.
One of the two drivers (the only Green Tortoise staffers on board) soon acclimates the passengers to the "Green Tortoise pee factor," used to rate the urgency of a stop. "For those who are desperate and/or adventurous, there is a funnel located at the front of the bus." The funnel is connected to a hose that led outside directly onto the pavement; thankfully, it was used mostly at night while most of us slept.
After a while on the road, a rhythm sets in. You start realizing that you have more questions about drumming workshops than you knew. You forget accents and listen to content. You fall asleep in whatever position you've been squeezed into. You listen to the next tape that gets put into the stereo system and even when it's Hootie and the Blowfish, you don't gag. I notice someone using my pillow, the one item of luxury I brought with me, decide not to ask for it back, and never see it again.
Shortly after 6 a.m., about eight hours down the road, the bus winds its way through groggy Los Angeles side streets to the breakfast stop. As people unfold out of the bus and settle into restaurant booths, talk is of the first night's sleep. The only way everyone can sleep horizontally is in the standard Tortoise position of sleeping head to toe on down the line of passengers. As a result, to talk to the person sleeping next to you, you must talk over the feet of the person sleeping across from you. I sit with a few German women and a very quiet Canadian who doesn't quite look as if she's emerged from REM sleep yet. I mention that I had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a bit more space by wiggling my toes and hips during the night, but I receive only a closed-lip, sympathetic smile from one of them. The conversation ends.
Later in the day, we have the first of the communal meals that will keep everyone fed until we begin our return journey north. From the underbelly of the bus emerge stoves, cutting boards and milk crates of bowls, cutlery, food and serving utensils. Salmon, bagels, fruit salad, granola, coffee and tea appear for breakfast with the help of about half the passengers. (The loose GT rule is for people to aim to help with about half the meals, whether in cooking or cleaning up.)
The rest of the day is spent pushing farther south into Baja, which becomes increasingly desolate and remote. Aboard the bus, people sleep, read, listen to Walkmans, write in journals, play cards and talk. Every time a stop is made, people flop back down into new spots in the bus, creating constantly changing conversations and neighbors. I've learned about mining for gold, about being born under the Cancer sign, how the stomach of a cow works, bars and restaurants and bands to check out, and about what actually goes on in cricket.
We stop at a Guerro Negro supermarket for lunch, where all of us conspicuously line the curb while eating. The dinner stop is at a campsite a few hours away, just outside the historic mission town of San Ignacio where our first and last showers for the next six days are available. We cook a Creole shrimp rice meal for 38 and take our showers in concrete stalls by candlelight, since the power has gone out at the campsite. People drag tables outside and eat elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder as rounds of beer and margaritas are bought at the cantina.
This is the most historic town we'll visit, and after dinner, small clumps of people take flashlights and wander into the sleeping hamlet to check out the mission that dates to the 1700s.
The next five days are going to be spent at Green Tortoise's private camp, Playa Escondida, which is around eight miles beyond the reach of our big bus. Luggage is transfered to a smaller bus, but the passengers must hike there. The walk descends several canyons before leveling out past a goat ranch and crossing a series of small bridges. Thanks to heavy rains, the surrounding hills are a tropical green rather than sparse.
Three Green Tortoise staffers have been at Playa Escondida for the past few weeks, constructing a makeshift kitchen tent, digging an outhouse hole and clearing rocks from the beach. Sean McFarland, one of the camp's caretakers, gathers the passengers under one of the few shade trees and begins listing activity options: snorkeling, swimming, hot spring or freshwater lagoon hikes. For an extra $20, there's a day of mule rides or fishing with a local guide. McFarland, who is camped out in a deserted bus that doubles as the nightly beer cantina, outlines the meal schedule: "Dinner is around sundown, breakfast a bit after sunrise, and lunch is somewhere in between."
The camp is supplied with fresh water for drinking and washing dishes, a "pee tree," food and a few large structures for shade made out of a gauzy black material and sticks. People pull out their bedding from a pile of foam mattresses and wander off in different directions to stake out sleeping ground. A few have brought tents and wander farther from the group core, but the majority extend the bonding established on the bus and use their bedding to form one large mattress.
This is the first chance people have to express themselves more personally, and some clusters head out for day hikes or a few hours at the beach. Others opt for for solitary walks, swims and naps. A couple that paired off on one of the first nights makes camp just out of view; a larger group of a few Australians and an Irishman make for a regular drinking club around the nightly campfire; and Meseth and Tanja Puttke are off almost every day to hike canyons and explore peaks and keep up their chatter in English.
But there's always a new person to ask questions of and share travel fantasies with. It's a group of people with little in common beyond a habit of sharing their experiences generously. These are people who are used to giving away more of themselves to connect with others in unfamiliar surroundings. This isn't like meeting people in a bar or on the adjacent Stairmaster. And this, I now suspect, is the reason most of us have come.
Since Baja receives one to two inches of rain per year, Green Tortoise has not bothered to assemble solid rain structures. We discover this during our first night, when a downpour begins at 4 a.m. People scramble to collect their bags and wedge into the tiny bus that has delivered the packs. We're now trying to rest on plywood in damp sleeping bags with knees pressed into a neighbor's back, but almost everyone keeps laughing.
Kent explains that rain hoods usually extend off the buses for cooking or sleeping, but because it was the first trip of the season, they aren't in place yet. "I find it incredibly revealing that there's a generator here for making ice for margaritas, and a makeshift spud-gun that projects potatoes for entertainment, but we're without any shelter at all," says Tony Harmon of Sydney.
After our days in the sun, the bus begins its northward journey. At stops in San Diego and Los Angeles, a dozen or so more passengers collect their bags and separate from the bus -- but not before the entire bus empties out to exchange e-mail addresses, hugs and encouragement for future visits. The rest of the ride back through the Central Valley of California is spacious, rainy and somber. A few people sleep sprawled in the new spaces, and others form a circle around the mini-tiles of a travel Scrabble board. The rest read, talk intermittently and look out rain-streaked windows as a Sting CD plays and the landscape becomes familiar again.
Green Tortoise crosses the Bay Bridge again around noon on Sunday, completing its nine-day loop and dropping off the last passengers downtown. A few remain on board to catch a lift to the Green Tortoise hostel, where most of the out-of-towners are based while finishing their travels. Anja Wickboldt, from Germany, full of wide smiles, shares a story about returning from her previous 14-day cross-country trip from Boston to San Francisco. When she and her traveling companion arrived at the hostel, she found herself unable to sleep without being in the familiar Green Tortoise position.
"I missed the bus and sleeping like sardines," she said. "So I decided to sleep with my friend in the bottom bunk and within 20 seconds I fell asleep."
Other Green Tortoise destinations include Costa Rica, Alaska and a national parks loop. Nine- and 14-night San Francisco-to-Baja trips are offered throughout the year; prices begin at $269 per person (plus $61 for food) for nine nights. For more information, contact Green Tortoise at 1-800-867-8647, http://www.greentortoise.com.
Kelly Wilkinson is a freelance writer in San Francisco.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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