Defying Expectations (Indonesia #8)

A kite ('layang layang') competition in rural Sumatra.

The Wondrous Kite Competitions of the Central Sumatra Highlands

June 12, 2015 Comments (0) Asia, Experiences

Fire, Flood, and Dangdut: The Longest Bus Ride (Indonesia #9)

cute kids playing with bubble wands in Bukittinggi

This isn’t part of the story. I just think this girl’s adorable.

“Are you joking? Can you check again?”

There was only one bus per day, and he told me it was full. Crikey. I’d already packed my bag and crossed Indonesia’s largest lake to get here – I wasn’t going back.

After years of travelling I’m still unravelling the nuances of busses. There are busses that run on schedule; that run only when full. That stop for everybody; that stop for nobody. That put human cargo on the roof; that allow animal cargo inside. There are busses that carry more butts than seats; and busses that have aircon, wifi, free snacks and reserved reclining thrones.

And in Indonesia, they have all of these busses.

Now there was a new one: Busses that are full, but not full. Either due to this man’s opportunism, or my good fortune, a seat suddenly became available.

He warned me that it didn’t recline, and it was beside the bathroom. So I didn’t expect the 16-hour overnight trip to be pleasant. But when you don’t have choices, you learn to be content with nearly any situation. Plus, a little discomfort is character building. 1

I’d like to share the timeline of events from my notes during that bus trip, along with a few iPhone photos (admittedly, not my best work) in something I’m calling:

The Longest Bus Ride

16:30 After waiting two hours for the bus to arrive in a 99% abandoned bus station, I board to find the back row, and my seat, fully occupied. Two large dudes are overflowing into my allocated buttspace.

After some futile discussion with the bus boys about broken promises and full-fare bus tickets, I slot myself in beside them.

A father and his toddler sit on stools occupying much of our leg room. I am compressed between a fat guy and the toilet, but at least I have space to completely stretch out a leg (only one at a time).

bus station panorama in Parapat

This bus station looks a lot nicer and less abandoned than it actually was.

17:15 The stools underneath the father/son are seamlessly removed and replaced with sacks of rice.

Introducing the father, son, and two sacks of rice

Introducing the father, his son, and two sacks of rice

17:40 Wow. They load some rather unusual cargo inside, even for Indonesia. A motorbike.

I’m impressed, but also, I’m not impressed. Though it provides an extra seat – and yes, someone is using it – the motorbike is filling all remaining area between the toilet and the rear exit. It’s also blocking both.

Unusual bus cargo. But an extra seat.

Unusual bus cargo. But hurray for an extra seat.

18:10 The 2 fat guys have vanished, replaced by a family of 4. They teeter atop each other and spill into the area behind the back seat, joined by a bus boy having a rest. Why hadn’t I noticed that spot earlier?

One of their kids complains a little, and I realise why nobody was there before. The back-back-seat is directly above the overworked engine, and despite thick insulating blankets, it’s nearly burning their butts to be there.

This also explains why my back is so hot.

Two hours into my trip, there are 8 people back here with me amongst three actual seats. At least this ride is interesting.

Father, son, and half the second family.

Father, son, and introducing: half the second family.

Glad nobody is claustrophobic. That's my body blurring the bottom.

Getting cozy back here. That’s my brown shirt blurring the bottom right.

19:30 A wild thunderstorm has begun. The lightning out the window entertains us children a while.

19:50 The storm has become very local. The toddler son was the first to notice, droplets on his neck. Then the trickle became a pour, and water inundated our little neighbourhood. The floor is flooded an inch deep around our feet.

This ride is going to feel a lot longer than 16 hours.

child on bus shows us it's beginning to rain inside

“No, it’s not raining on you, don’t be silly.”

child on bus shows us it's beginning to rain inside

“Wait, yes. It’s definitely raining inside the bus.”

20:30 The rain has stopped, the water has drained away, somewhere. The Great Flood has ended.

[nearly 4 hours later]

00:05 I managed to get some half-sleep, but some awful noise as awoken me. The driver’s decided now is the optimal time to blast mind-jarring ‘dangdut’ music (ubiquitous in Indonesia). It’s like kryptonite against sleep.

(Apparently up at the front – a Korean girl told me later – was a grandmother with a stereo on her lap. She cranked her own dangdut music, the two combining into a horrific cacophony. Thankfully me and my crew of families at the back couldn’t hear it.)

00:20 We have probably now crossed the equator. I’m not in the mood for celebrating.

bathroom exhaust fumes

For no particular reason, the engine exhausted into the bathroom

00:40 The family girl beside me has pulled out her smartphones. All three of them. I asked her in Indonesian why she has three. I don’t think she knows either.

I really need to sleep.

02:20 One of the large men who vanished earlier has returned for his bag, which was in the pile near the motorbike. He tells me his seat near the front is now vacant, and I may have it.

I am elated. I follow him to claim my prize.

02: 21 His is not a reclining seat. It’s not even a seat. It’s one of the front steps beside the driver.

I return to my original seat, reminding myself of a lesson I learned in Peru long ago: It’s always better to stick to the devil you know.

02:22 My (former) seat at the back is now occupied by the rest of the family, who have climbed down from their hot shelf. I climb over them, onto the inferno.

Wow, it’s actually large enough to lie down.

02:30 I am sweating profusely. But I have my own bed.

I put in my earplugs and try to sleep properly, before someone tries to invade my precious burning shelf.

[6 hours later]

08:30 I am awoken to the old man shaking me. Someone is yelling “Bukittinggi”. That’s my stop, huzzah!

WHAT A MEMORABLE ride. I lived, and even got some sleep. Despite the discomfort, this story is not a self-congratulation. Because when I said goodbye to those two families, they were still beginning their trip. Destination: Jakarta.

Another 35 hours away.

So you see, mine was not…

[wait for it] 

…The Longest Bus Ride.

-Mike

Completely unrelated to this bus trip, here are some pretty pictures from my destination, Bukittinggi.

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Cane Man.

trash on the ground

A sad but true metaphor depicting most Indonesian people’s attitude to trash.

For each kilogram of plastic this kid collected, he earned a measly $1.

For each kilogram of plastic this kid collected, he earned $1.

Lake Maninjau, one of Indonesia's largest lakes

girl and brother playing with bubbles

…still adorable.


  1. More on this later; I’m working on a ONE Project post about ‘comfort zones’.

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