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Bus Travel in Indonesia


Imagine a carnival ride of death

that lasts for eighteen hours. 

            Looking back, there were signs. The kind you try to ignore when your options are few. The travel agent in Ubud, Bali’s artsy-fartsy tourist town, had slicked-back hair and a pencil-thin mustache. He wore the standard Dacron ensemble of hustlers worldwide. 


“Is the bus air conditioned?” I asked.


“This is a picture of it, yeah?” he non-answered. He held up a glossy photo of a cushy, tint-windowed coach. Well, at least I’ll be comfortable, I thought.


            I bought a ticket to Yogyakarta, 18 hours by bus and ferry, and waited outside with the other passengers -- an Aussie family of four, 2 young German couples, and a Swedish guy traveling alone. When the bus arrived, we all kept looking down the street, since this piece of crap couldn’t be our bus. But of course it was.


            It looked to have begun life as a rent-a-car airport shuttle. The air conditioning had been ripped out. The sweat-stained cloth seats were torn. It boasted an impressive layer of grime inside and out. The heavily tattooed driver and his partner jumped out and quickly threw our luggage aboard, probably a pre-emptive strike to keep us from backing out. Bewildered and irritated, but resigned to our tourist-dupe fate, we piled on.


  I found a seat midway back that had most of its covering and flopped down, opening the window. We did not leave right away. We had to wait for the driver and conductor to finish their liter of Bali Hai lager. When the driver realized I was watching him, he paused for a second, then gave me a big grin and drained the bottle. He dropped it out the window and turned the key. We lurched into the street.


The beer gave our driver the confidence he needed to pass truckloads of water buffalo on curves while honking frantically. After half an hour of this, we looked a lot like the water buffalo -- cramped, scared, powerless. The water buffalo, however, had better ventilation, and hence were a little more comfortable.


I tried to enjoy the countryside, but couldn’t help thinking I might become part of it at any moment. We pitched and yawed. Looking out the window brought forth a wave of motion sickness. We spent more time in the air than in our seats.


A few days earlier I had bought a cheap fake Walkman on the street in Kuta. I tried to listen to some music and doze -- what a joke. Whenever disaster threatened, which was often, the Aussie family would shout, “Shit! Shit!” and I would look up to see an oncoming bus or truck miss us by molecules. Collision-fear drove one of the German couples from the front to the rearmost seat, where they cowered like beaten dogs. The driver saw this, laughed, and honked the horn to the beat of his Dire Straits tape. Sweat trickled down my legs. We hit a chicken.


After a couple of hours, and with one more to go before the ferry, we stopped. The driver got up and looked at us, frozen in our seats. “Pee, pee!” he said, motioning us off the bus. He disappeared behind a shed, which housed a small, poisonous-looking open-air restaurant. I bought some very old-tasting cookies and a local-brand pack of clove cigarettes. The clove oil crackled every time I took a drag. God, they were good.


The Australian mother and daughter walked to the outhouse behind the restaurant, but returned quickly -- much too quickly to have done anything. “Was it too dirty?” I asked the mother. She said nothing, storming past and stomping onto the bus, which was jacked up while they changed a rear tire. I asked her teenage daughter the same question. “The driver tried to get her to go into the bathroom with him,” she said, her face and voice hovering between humor and horror. I gave the rest of my cookies to the Swede. He and I sat smoking in the shade, waiting for the driver. He emerged from the shed and hopped onto the bus, a fresh food stain on his orange gas-station uniform shirt. Only an hour to the ferry.

At Gilmanuk, the ferry town, we lost time looking for the ticket booth. Nothing was in English and the driver didn’t know where it was. Finally we got our tickets with about a minute to spare. We ran for the gangplank, our backpacks flapping, with angry harbor police shouting “Run! Go!” and the ship’s horn sounding. We boarded through the vehicle entrance and climbed the oily stairs to the passenger section, where our driver was waiting for us.  


The ferry crossing was a 20-minute interlude of peace, other than the satellite TV blaring U.S. country-music videos. On a ship from Hindu Bali to Muslim Java, veiled women and fez-topped men sat rapt as some schmendrick in a cowboy hat hopped around with a guitar, praising the simple country life as he danced through his appliance-laden house and drove a fancy pickup.


            On debarking, we talked about how the next bus had to be – just had to be -- better than the last. Then I heard someone say “Oh no, it can’t be that one”. It was another airport-shuttle job. The filth and stench level were about the same, but the radio speakers had been sawed out of the ceiling, and the whole bus shimmied sickeningly every time we pulled out to pass. The driver had removed his sunglasses and pushed on, the constantly flashing headlights now accompanying the horn.


            We began to calm down a little. After all, we were still alive after 8 hours on the road. We had developed a kind of warped confidence in our driver. Sure, he was a foolhardy drunk-driving jackass who propositioned women passengers, but the way he dodged cattle was pure poetry.  But like the beginning of the trip, we had turned a blind eye to what we didn’t want to believe.

 We were passing a truck, on a steady collision course with what looked like a Land Rover. This part was old hat -- even the Aussies didn’t care. As it became obvious that we could never make it, we expected the driver to pull back, as he had a few times before. But no. The horn, never silent for more than 20 seconds, now blasted steadily. The truck we were passing took up the chorus, its driver waving us back wildly. The Land Rover driver swerved off the pavement, yelling out his window as we sailed by. He maintained reasonable control though. I looked back and saw him pull back onto the road. Our driver’s face showed no more concern than if he had squashed a beer can.  But his smile looked forced, and he did stop honking for about a minute.


            Around midnight we stopped on a deserted road to switch buses again, this time to an air-conditioned Greyhound-type bus.  I could have cried. We said our good-byes to the Aussie family and one of the German couples, who were continuing to Mount Bromo on the Hell Bus. I boarded the Greyhound and grabbed the long seat across the back, hoping for a nap, but it was like trying to sleep while being pummeled by a middleweight. The road was a single very long crater filled with smaller craters. At least twice I woke up in mid-air, landing with a smack on the greasy cushions.


            Day broke as we approached Yogyakarta. We had begun our journey at noon the previous day. As we picked our way through the suburbs toward the city center, the bus conductor came back to talk to the four of us left -- the Swede, a German couple and me.


            “If anyone’s interested, there’s a bus tour leaving in three hours to see the Hindu and Buddhist temples surrounding the city,” he said.


            Fatigue and disbelief struck us mute. Get on a bus. In three hours. After about fifteen seconds of us staring at him, he said something sharp in Indonesian and walked back to the front of the bus.


The final stop. We staggered off the bus and followed an early-rising tout through the sewage-stink dawn to a 6-dollar-a-night hotel, which had no seat on the communal toilet. We didn’t care. I got a room with the Swede and we slept like dead men. The next day our temple-tour bus driver tried to use the opposite-side shoulder of a four-lane highway to pass, but lost his nerve and weaved back over to our side of the road.  “That was chickenshit,” the Swede said, lighting a smoke and looking out the window. “He could have made it.” 


If you enjoyed this story, check back, I'll be posting more. You also might like the one about the Embassy party in Tokyo.

Or maybe you'd like to read about my coast-to-coast motorcycle trip across the US.

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