Falling in Love with Indonesian Buses
Originally published on 5 April 2018 in World Nomads
I left Dili with a sickening feeling.
No, it wasn't just the 7 drinks from the night before. Or the fly-infused street food I'd cautiously lived off while traveling East Timor - a ferociously expensive backpacker destination - on a budget.
It was the few weeks ahead that was causing my nausea.
My plan was simple. I’d travel from East Timor’s capital at least as far as Jakarta. In 30 days. And, almost exclusively, by bus.
The Paradise Travel commuter van pulled up, complete with its pink decor, sticky vinyl seats, and legroom for the legless.
The roads in Timor Leste proved to be grim: pot holed tracks poorly etched into the hillside, often crumbling into the roaring seas below.
It was slow going. The speed limit on Timor’s southern highway? 30 kilometres an hour.
A bizarre mixtape consisting of nothing more than Johnny Cash and Pitbull, and then Johnny Cash remixed in the style of Pitbull, blasted through tinny speakers at concert-volume.
After 12 hours, we arrived - Cubano-country rhythms blaring - in Kupang, Indonesia.
I was elated - overjoyed! We’d made it! A mouldy, mosquito infested dorm room had never looked so inviting.
But then I realized: I’d only traveled 300 kilometres. I had 29 days, 5 more islands and 2000 more kilometers to go.
It was going to be a long month.
For one month, I lumbered along this vast archipelago via a mode of transport most people would see as outdated and hellish.
Those without a fetish for overlanding genuinely think I'm mad. ‘Why don't you fly?’ They ask. ‘Isn’t it dangerous?’, they insist, citing Indonesia’s woeful road safety record.
After that first day on the road, I felt they had a point. And I’ll admit, it was a slow courtship, the buses and mine.
The Paradise hadn’t quite lived up to its title. And the bus network to come was hardly known for its comfort.
Regardless, I plodded on.
As Indonesia’s tourist Meccas drew closer, the buses transformed. Out were the 70’s diesel-guzzling minivans and in were coaches decked in all the luxuries the early 1990’s could offer. There were bulging TV screens up front, semi-functioning (and overused) bathrooms down the back, and air conditioning that dribbled coolant on my forehead as I attempted what could loosely be described as ‘sleep’.
It was like I was en route to year 7 camp, though with fewer peanut butter sandwiches (thanks, Dad), and more 3 am roadside rendangs.
I get it - this sounds awful. And bussing it did take a toll. I'd go days without showering. I didn't get much rest. Though I did devour several books and savoured carefully rationed Oreos I'd been picking up along the way.
But by Lombok, I was in the rhythm. And it became addictive. Sick of a place? Flag down the local bus, and enjoy the amused expressions of passengers as you search for a seat amongst the chickens and sacks of rice.
It was one episode, though, that made the hardship worthwhile - and exemplified how bussing across Indonesia can open a door to aspects of the country you might otherwise never see.
I was on the final stretch. In Denpasar, I jumped on a 16 hour bus to Jogjakarta, my second last port of call.
After two brief breakdowns in the dead of night, I was relieved to be moving again. And then, BANG!
The bus shuddered violently. If not for the slow-going of Indonesia’s highways, I'm sure it would have lost control.
Two tyres were blown to smithereens. They only had one spare. We were in the middle of nowhere.
What followed was an ambitious repair job that would take the better part of 5 hours with the help of a team of local mechanics who'd emerged from the ether.
Delays can be frustrating. But those 5 hours exemplified the best of Indonesian patience and comradery.
Not a syllable of complaint was uttered by those on the bus. In fact, laughter and smiles dominated those early-morning hours.
Some passengers had old friends in the nearby village, and took the opportunity to catch up for tea and cigarettes.
Most made new friends - including me.
5 hours by the roadside is a surprisingly good opportunity for a local to practice his English. So I learned a lot about my fellow traveller - about his hometown, his business, his kids, and his hopes for his country.
Tyre repaired enough to get moving, the driver summoned us back on board. There was no hollering, no celebrations. Some seemed pained to cut their conversations short.
I've caught a few coaches between Sydney and Canberra in my time. Hours stranded on the Hume Highway would be enough to flood the bus company HQ with a torrent of angry letters.
But there, in the Indonesian countryside, it was all part of scenery.
This story was originally published in World Nomads 'Stories'.