Monday, March 25, 2013

Hell On Wheels - Third World Transport

               Everything was completely familiar; the lack of personal touch or emotion vacant from the walls, a small cramped cubical decorated with plain grey floor tiles, head ache provoking florescent lights casting odd unnatural shadows beneath the furniture. There was hardly room enough for a small table with chairs jammed beneath it. Sitting and waiting. Always waiting and with waiting comes the sweating, it’s not that I’m getting good at it but I think it’s just that I’m growing de sensitized to the authoritive dominance they want you to feel, as it was in truth, the second time that day I found myself on the thin immigrational ice between two countries who don’t really want you. That’s right, I’m being interrogated again. I feel like I should be collecting international immigration interrogation room points so the next time I get upgraded to twirly chair or a free coffee.
The Indonesian Port Authority officer points at the $25 American Dollar fee to enter the country, I don’t have American dollars because I’m neither an American or in America so I want to pay in local currency but of course In the Port of Dumai of East Sumatra, there are no ATM machines in the customs checkpoint for the small passenger boat that I just traveled on from Malaysia. Luckily however Indonesia customs still work with the older un-updated version of “Illogical Solution to Easy Problems Handbook” (Unlike the Philippines) and they tell me I can go into town to use an ATM and come back to pay them while they hold my passport for ransom. The gauntlet of motorcycle drivers and taxies are frothing at the mouth and piling on top of each other to be the first one to rip me off as they see me being led out of the customs control. Just then the one armed Indonesian guy I posed in pictures with on the boat ripped me free of the frenzy with impressive and surprising strength. The eager businessmen are silenced and deterred as they all turn away sending hateful eyes to my one armed savior.  My friend offers me a drive to the ATM but just then I see a horribly fat white Swiss man paying for his visa and convince him to lend me the $25 USD in return for a small commission when I repay him in local currency. A good trade except for the fact that I’m now burdened to this rude sex tourist yelling and spitting all over the eager taxi drivers.
My first experience of Indonesian hospitality was incredible as my one armed friend drove me and the fat Swiss sex tourist around for an hour looking for atm’s, minibus drivers, and bus stations to get us to Bukittinggi in West Sumatra.  My heart sank every time the Swiss man bellowed out a new command to my Indonesian friend, his kindness was directed towards me and this clumsy oaf who was attached to my hip until I paid him back was clearly abusing it. We were finally dropped off at a bus station where I couldn’t deal with another price negotiation over a difference of $1.50 so I was overjoyed when the Swiss guy strolled away in defiance of the extortionate $6.50 bus fare for a 12 hour journey. With the belligerent Swiss man gone, I thanked my friends and apologized on his behalf.  I waved them off and there I was, in a deserted bus station, in the middle of effing nowhere, not knowing a word of local language, and without a guide book or map. Its times like this that I always think of home and wonder if my parents think I’m on some beach resort sipping an umbrella drink. It brings a joyful tear to my eye knowing that 99% of the world will never enjoy this feeling as much as I do. This feelings reminds me off all the other times just like it and how it always turns out all right in the end, I’m happy, proud, anxious, and confident however little did I know that the next 20 hours were going to be the worst of my life. Indonesian Hospitality is nice, the smiles are wide, but the roads are hell. This is one among many horror stories circulating the traveling world, a story worthy of keeping entire families at bay in their home town’s before they even consider a plane ticket to a third world country.
                It looked sour right from the start. I walked over to the only bus in the empty terminal to find a couple teenage boys wrenching on the underbelly of the bus trying to stop the river of oil and engine coolant now flowing down the road and into the storm drains. I was also the only passenger there, another indication that something’s not quite right. It was one o’clock when I arrived and purchased my ticket for the promised ten hour trip to cover the 381km distance. Not being adapted to the currency difference yet, I later found out I was charged double for the “ten” hour journey. I was told the bus would be leaving at 3:00 pm and we would arrive sometime just after midnight, this was to be one of many “indescrepencies” about this bus journey. The bus itself was pretty old and dilapidated with a mix match of panels and a couple layers of paint hiding a long history of accidents and carnage. It had no air conditioning, but did have a tv and two seats in the front had been removed for the installing of two stand up speakers and subwoofers, nice Il make sure to get a seat at the front for a better view of the the tv right? This was to be one of many of my own mistakes.
                Five hours after arriving, three hours after the bus was scheduled to leave, it was all of a sudden a mad rush to pack the luggage for all 6 passengers into the belly and board the bus. Six O’clock in the afternoon we finally made an attempt to get on the road however the tropical monsoon rains fell down and the discovery was made that the window wiper was nonfunctional. Not a problem though because this is Indonesia and there’s nothing an old bicycle tube can’t fix. A rubber strand was attached to the top of the wiper and handed in through the window behind the driver. Lucky or not, I was the closest person to the front of the bus in hindsight for a good view of the tv, so the manual operation of window wiping  was mine with each tug of the rubber strand. The responsibility of keeping the bus load of people alive on the hectic roads and heavy rain became dependent on me. Fortunately the rain didn’t persist and my nerves and arm could rest within the first 20 minutes.
                Road rules are absolutely non existent in Indonesia. Every man for them self with the only real rule being the bigger vehicle wins in a game of chicken. The roads were built on old village walking tracks, there’s hardly enough space for a single bus on the partially sealed and dirt roads however in Indonesia it’s the perfect invitation for a bus to pass a truck that’s passing an ox cart while the bamboo huts mark the shoulder of the road with their front doors. The massive pot holes, muddy patches, and children playing on the road didn’t seem to deter the driver from keeping the speedometer above 110km/h anywhere he could. I knew then that the kids I saw working on the bus earlier that day had removed the brakes and installed a horn where the pedal should have been. My first two hours where white knuckle gripped on the seat in front of me watching the near head on collisions every five second or watching the poor family on a scooter being forced off the road into a muddy ditch. I learned a new lesson about third world bus travel in those first two hours, if any one of those near misses was a hit everyone is dead and watching your death from the front window isn’t going to make you any less dead so there is small amount of comfort found in not watching the reality of what’s actually happening. Just don’t look.
                The bus was filling up quickly; I’m not sure where they were coming from because the bus never slowed down enough for anyone to get on or off. The driver fumbled with a cd and fired up the dvd player and tv. Finally, a movie to concentrate on instead of the driving, a thought of course that only a dumb westerner would have. I felt the sound waves smash into my chest and resonate around my skull from the subwoofers bolted to the floor in front, they don’t watch movies on busses in Asia, they listen and sing to Indo Bollywood Karaoke. It was so loud I couldn’t even hear the screeching infant 4 inches away from me. I’m still not sure which of the two was worse. The bus started to get crowded at every stop in the ditch that was made, despite arguing with the driver and showing him my ticket number I was moved out of my place and into an aisle seat even closer to the speakers. Soon the bus was packed like an “Indonesian bus trip”, even sardines have more room to move around in their can.  The Indonesian man sitting next to me against the window was a small man but insisted on having his backpack be on the seat between him and the window, taking half of my own space. This resulted in me being forced hard against the stationary arm rest. The only way I could breathe was to have half of my body and my left leg out in aisle squeezed hard against two bag of rice and chicken cages that now piled high in the isle. The Karaoke went on indefinitely, being reinserted each time all 13 tracks of screeching cheesy Indonesia pop stars would finish. There was no end to the screeching well into the morning hours as the long and grueling hours crawled by. I tried to counter it by stuffing socks under my headband and over my ears with my own mp3 player on full volume. It didn’t work.

                Smoking is encouraged on public transport and being a non smoker it was taking its toll on me. I was the only person out of thirty or more people besides the children that didn’t have a cigarette drooping from the lips. It’s not my country and I’m not about to lecture a bus full of people on why it’s bad to smoke in public places especially with children but I do honestly think that hot boxing a bus with cigarette smoke is wrong anywhere in the world. I reached over the man next to me numerous times to open the window and suck a couple precious gulps of air but an arm would always extend from ahead or behind and slide it shut before the molecules could even reach my mouth. I patiently watched this happen four times but my sanity and patients where both being crippled by the toxic environment. I opened the window but stayed on my feet this time. Whap, I slapped the first hand I saw extending towards the window, another attempt from the woman in front, and then from the guy next to me. Whap, Whap, Whap, it was like an arcade game slapping away their efforts to close the window as I desperately sucked at the open hole. The man in the seat in front grabed my wrist and reached for the window with his other and so I retaliated by giving his outstretched hand a nice little whack with my fist. The result of that only brought a combined effort of hands flailing all at once to shut the window and I’m ashamed to say that my pumping fists were no match to the furry of hands and yet again the window was closed. Getting fresh air was a losing battle and the man next to me wasn’t about to give up his seat so I could suck at the draft sneaking past the weather seals. The only solution was going to sleep and hoping to wake up after the nightmare was over.
                My first attempt to sleep didn’t last long when the baby in her mother’s lap behind me, who had spent the first four hours of the journey whaling, threw up all over the sleeve of my arm in a disgusting milky liquidly solution that looked like curdled tea but smelt much, much worse. Turning my head to the left was too horrific; consequently it also meant facing the passenger next to me blowing cigarette smoke directly into my face. Every so often the bus would stop and I could get out and have a few minutes of fresh air. At each stop I would climb over the seats and sleeping passengers through the front of the bus and make and attempt at pulling the cords free from the DVD player and put an end to the crippling Karaoke music blaring into the late hours of the morning. By three in the morning I couldn’t fight the smoke, deafening music, window closers, or the horrible smell on my left shoulder any more, I managed to fall into a light sleep. Unfortunately so did the guy next me but he had the awful tendency of falling asleep with a burning cigarette in his hand that always managed to find my exposed knee. The first time it happened I woke up in a yelp looking down at the ashy residue on my skin. We were both startled but once he realized what had happened, the apology was extended in the form of a cigarette offer for his clumsiness. When I did end up falling asleep without a burning cigarette on my knee, the brother of the child who puked on me would reach between the divide in the seat, pulling on the blond ends of my hair in curiosity of its color.
                The hours of torment dragged on and I thought the rising sun at five in the morning was finally my much anticipated death. Just when the Karaoke cd was re inserted, the smell of puke, sweat, and cigarette smoke coated the inside of my nose in a thick sludgy mucus, I contemplated suicide when the bus started rolling out of the petrol station. Suddenly the driver stopped short of the road puzzled by something when he turned around to look for me, he pointed at me and rambled some words so I pointed back and replied “Bukittinggi”. He waved me up and shooed me out of the back door before fishing my backpack from the luggage bay and speeding off with a plume of Tabaco smoke following in its wake. Too tired and morally defeated to do anything, I propped my bag up against a closed shop roller door and slumped down to rest against it myself. All the built up aggravation and furry from the incredulous treatment I has just endured for the past 12 hours dissolved as the horizon exposed itself in beautiful outline of active steaming volcanic mountains. There I was, exactly where I wanted to be, a little later than promised, twice as expensive as it should have been, but I was alive and well, an accomplishment in itself. Getting away from the tourist beat and off the beaten track is what I’m always in search of, complaining about this ridiculous journey would only make me the biggest hypocrite known to Hop on Hop off Open Top industry. This may have been the worst bus journey of my life and hopefully the last, but I realized while laying up against the roller door in the darkness breaking hours of that morning that I got exactly what I was looking for.

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