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Driven to Distraction…On a Bus in the Snow

As the owner of the Arctic Colour Apartments later told me, I picked one of the most roundabout and interesting ways possible to get from London Heathrow to the tiny town of Porjus in Swedish Lapland. Nearly everyone flying to northern Sweden has to fly via Stockholm; however, most people take direct flights from Stockholm Arlanda to Gällivare and then get a ride 45 minutes down the road.

Landing in Skellefteå

Coming in for a landing in frozen Skellefteå.

This was much too simple for me; instead, I flew from Stockholm to Skellefteå, caught a taxi that drove me into town (30 minutes), caught the bus to Luleå (2 hours), and then changed buses to one that took me directly to Porjus (3 hours). There was some method to my madness; I needed to fly into Skellefteå for work, and the only way to fly from there further north is to go via Stockholm, so the bus was actually the best solution.

I’d bought my round-trip bus ticket online through the SJ website, and the ticket confirmation told me to go to the station to pick up my tickets. When I arrived at Skellefteå Busstation, all of the office doors were locked. A bus driver sitting in his bus didn’t know why I needed to pick up tickets but informed me that, because of the impending public holiday, all of the offices were closed. The person inside the small cafe told me roughly the same thing, so I waited and hoped that my bus driver would a) speak English and b) understand what I was talking about.

Skellefteå Busstation

Waiting at Skellefteå Busstation.

When I made it to the bus stop, dragging my suddenly-heavier-by-20kgs-because-it’s-being-pulled-through-snow suitcase, I was greeted with organised chaos. Two double-decker buses had arrived instead of one, and people were flitting back and forth between the two. Both said ‘100 – Haparanda,’ so I was clueless as to the difference. I guess I looked pretty lost, because a woman came up to me and asked where I was going, then spoke to both bus drivers before directing me to the first bus. Apparently, everyone was trying to get out of Skellefteå for the public holiday so they’d run multiple buses in anticipation of this.

As I had thought, my bus driver had no idea what to do with an online ticket either, but he eventually took it. Before letting me on board, he was insistent that I put my camera bag in the luggage hold at the back. It took me a while to convince him that I really didn’t want to part with it. He eventually directed me to the front seat and told me to put my bag in the luggage carrier just behind it.

Skellefteå Busstation

Near Skellefteå Busstation.

My decision was completely justified almost as soon as we pulled away. Someone from the station came chasing after us — proving that running on ice and snow isn’t as difficult as I found it to be — and flagged down the driver. Breathlessly, he told the bus driver some very important information that I couldn’t understand. But I did understand the driver then getting out of the bus and closing the luggage hold. No bags had fallen out, but what would have happened if that man hadn’t stopped us? I could imagine bags falling out with every bump we went over, causing cars the cars behind us to swerve and go out of control on the ice.

I told myself that he must have been distracted in the chaos at the bus station, but I soon found that distraction seemed to be his permanent state. 

Thus began one of the scariest bus rides I’ve ever been on. It wouldn’t have been quite as terrifying if I couldn’t see exactly what the driver was doing as we slowly drifted back and forth, barely contained by the lanes on the highway. Sure, I wasn’t on a bus with one wheel popped off the edge of the Bolivia’s ‘Road of Death,’ but that didn’t really calm my quickly fraying nerves.

Skellefteå Busstation

All the sensible people waited until the buses arrived to go outside. I went out for the scheduled time.

As soon as the hold was closed, the bus driver picked up the bus phone and began dialing it. Fair enough, I thought. The bus company must approve of it being used if it’s attached to the bus, right?

Then he needed to read something to whoever he had dialed. Was it my suspect online bus ticket? Possibly. But it turns out that this bus driver needed reading glasses, and since his other hand was already holding the phone, he began steering with his knees while he reached for them. Glasses on, he read from the page, occasionally looking up at the road. Could he see it with his reading glasses on? I hope so.

By this point, we were barreling down the highway at 100km/h, which was covered in a fresh coat of snow and presumably a reasonably thick layer of ice underneath that. At this point, I didn’t know that all vehicles there were fitted with tyres with little pins sticking out of them to grip the road, which probably would have given me a bit more piece of mind…but not much, given that the driver had now put down the piece of paper and had replaced it with a mobile phone. He was alternating between talking on it and the bus phone.

Snow-covered bikes

Bikes parked at the busstation for the winter.

I tried to close my eyes and pretend I couldn’t see what he was doing, but I could still feel the bus and the fact that we weren’t going in a straight line. I decided I’d rather keep my eyes open and see what was coming…not that I could do much if I saw that we were about to plow headlong into a bank of snow.

It all turned out fine; after we’d made a few stops he seemed to settle down and concentrate on keeping our bus on the road. Still, it made me wonder — was my next (and longer) bus ride going to be the same? What about my return trip?

Luckily, he was the exception rather than the rule; all of the other bus drivers I had, especially on Länstrafiken Norrbotten between Luleå and the north, were excellent. Despite the fact that the roads became snowier and less traveled (by car — they became significantly more traveled by reindeer), I felt much safer on them. 

Will I be on scarier bus rides in the future? Probably, but at least now I know to sit where I can’t see everything the driver is doing!

What’s the scariest bus ride you’ve been on? How did it turn out?

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