Highway to Hell

Trip Start Apr 21, 2010
Trip End Jul 07, 2010

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Flag of Indonesia  , East Nusa Tenggara,
Saturday, May 22, 2010

Rather than lapse into a string of rather tedious accounts of the various things I've been doing, I thought I'd write a little about Indonesian transport. Traveling through Indonesia can be both a exhileratingly and frustrating experience. Timetables are non-existent, buses almost always only leave when full, and sometimes a service will just disappear off the face of the earth for one day only. Bar the train network and large tourism companies, operations are privately owned and therefore there is no fixed price. Indeed,  I seem to have such a charming affect on many of the locals that they see it fit to offer me a 'special price', often 'only for you sir'. Whilst I am undeniably grateful for such hospitality, this is often about 50% more than everybody else is paying, and so each journey begins with some, usually polite, bargaining.  However it's buses, indeed public transport in general, that makes travel across a country so alluring. Cruising from one hotel to another in an air-conditioned tour bus seems a world away from being crammed into the back of a 4x4 on the daily market run. It's the excitement of turning up a terminal, fighting through the hawkers to find the right vehicle, bargaining a good price, and then sitting back to enjoy, (as much as possible), a journey quite like no other. Many of the roads throughout Indonesia offer jaw dropping scenery, but experiencing it on a plush leather sofa to the sound of gentle soaring, air con and overheard headphone noise just seems wrong. It's about been thrown half way across the seat at every turn, your legs perched upon a cage full of chickens, whilst a Bob Marley remix explodes out of the wall next to your ear. Well sometimes I think it is...

Unsurprisingly for a South East Asian country, anyone who's anyone, owns a motorbike. Private cars are a relatively rare commodity, and the one seen on the road are remarkably new, owned by flashy company execs. It would appear that for many Indonesians, rather than spend a bit of extra cash towards a cheap car, they'd rather upgrade to a faster, bigger and ideally more shiny bike. Bikes are so central to national mindset, that locals almost always incredulous to the fact that in England they're relatively rare. I suppose it's the weather... Here they are used for everything. Whole families can be transported, with 3 cramming on the main seat, a little'un in the foot well, and a lucky other grappling onto it's mums shoulders for dear life. Nor is it uncommon to see them laden with sacks of rice, vegetables, and other produce as they make the daily run to and from the market. Hanging around on street corners, near bus stops and other specified points budding Gianfranco Rossi's offer rides on the back of their charges for a bit of cash.

However, for many Indonesians even the running of a scooter is beyond monetary means, and so they turn to my preferred method of transport, the bus. I love buses, even red London ones, and I've spent the last 3 days using them to track my way across the island of Flores in Nusa Tenggara. Here there are no large bus firms, let alone trains, yet rather than the old veterans of Java and Bali, the operators are , er, somewhat younger. Kitted out in baseball caps, earrings and 3/4 length jean shorts I wasn't completely bowled over when I saw the 'team' running my bus from Labuanbajo to Ruteng. They looked more like they should be hanging out on BMX's or fighting over sweets, rather than offering to drive me along the treacherously winding Flores highway. As soon as they spotted my camera they insisted on a series of photos, posing around their Mitsubishi van, puffing out their chests and making devil hand signs. If this wasn't confidence inspiring enough, from what I've heard, driving lessons are so expensive in Indonesia that the actual test is rarely taken. Instead money for a 'donation' to the local police office is saved up. Miraculously, only a couple of weeks after said 'donation' is dropped off, and lo and behold, a driving liscence with their picture magically appears in the post. Amazing stuff.  Realizing that my chauffeurs driving background probably consisted mainly of playing Need for Speed on XBOX and watching Formula 1, I gingerly inspected the 'ride'. To say the seats were rough round the edges would be an understatement. The whole interior resembled the aftermath of a feeding frenzy by a pack of rabib rats, with foam spilling out of slashed seats at every turn. It wasn't hard to see where the money had been spent. Sticking out like an eyebrow piercing on a nun, 4 huge silver speakers adorned the top of each side, whilst some imaginative wiring traced its way to a a complicated stereo system at the front. Perhaps all of the other buttons were broken, but the bass lever certainly seemed to be working. Each track was drowned out by a low grunt, whilst the whole chassis vibrated with a worrying rattle. I squeezed my way in among the sacks of rice littering the floor and seated myself next to the most normal looking person on offer.

This however was Indonesia, and buses like this only ever leave when full. Very full. There were 3 seats left on this particular one, enough for 2 families and a few animals at least. In the minds of bus drivers however this is not a problem. To them every town is full of possible customers, racked by indecision as to whether they wanted to go to travel the 5 hours to Ruteng that very day. A good bit of shouting and horn honking would easily win them over. We crawled round the streets, spying out the weak and vulnerable, before a torrent of abuse was unleashed. Ruteng seemed some sort of Nirvana, surely only the clinically insane would not want to go. You must get on this bus now! Anyone carrying any form of produce was similarly laid into. Such was Ruteng's economy, you'd surely get twice as much for your rice there! Children were packed in neatly among the luggage, as somehow potential customers were tracked down. At one point we turned down little more than a foot path, squeezing between two wooden shacks, purely for the sake of providing door to door service for somebodies Aunt, bullied into coming via mobile phone. At last we pulled away, lurching round successive S bends as some plucky soul scrambled around on top, desperately trying to secure packages and sacks of rice to the flimsy roof bars. A curious soundtrack of Indonesian artists, mingled with commercial rap and, very peculiarly, a lot of Bryan Adams followed. A mere 5 and a half hours later, 1 and a half more than expected, we arrived. Tired, with earache and a few bruises to match, it had been a bumpy ride, but a fun one none the less....
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