Welcome to a series of short (I promise! Yeah right....) stories from my Indonesian travels thus far. Just FYI, since I have been out of touch on a "mass scale" for quite awhile, I wanted you all to know I have been traveling in Indonesia now for the past two months. My 60 day visa expires in a few days, and even though I wrote this email a month ago, I haven't been able to send it until now. I think there will be a part 2. Despite what you might read, this country is full of lovely people, amazing scenery and fabulous, fabulous food.......I'm coming back, I just don't know when!
> Before I left Borneo I got a 60 day visa to visit Indonesia. Anyone who has
> ever been to this incredibly beautiful country (besides you "I'd only go to
> Bali" folks out there...) knows how difficult travel here can be. The roads are
> painfully long, windy and endless. An inch on a Sumatran map can easily take
> 4 or 5 hours. Yeah, it can be bad.
> I was going to title this email "If You Want to Lose Weight, Come to
> Indonesia." or "All Roads Lead to Somewhere......Eventually" Why? Let me tell you about some hair-raisin', white-knuckling trips I have taken thus far.
> **Black Bags and Green Faces**
> **My very first bus ride came on the same day I took the ferry from Pulau
> Batam (an island south of Singapore) to a little nothing town called Buton
> (or Bhuton or Buhton or Butan or Bhutan.....every source, every map, every
> place I look the name is spelled differently, and sometimes not even
> mentioned at all, so if you find yourself trying to find it on Google Earth
> -- cause I know you have nothing else to do with your days but map my trip
> -- I wish you the best of luck. It's somewhere in central Sumatra, near the
> east side). I was then transferred from luxurious ferry ride (ok, not really
> luxurious per se, but I did manage a "VIP" seat cause the ticket lady liked
> me! I had leg room in the very front row and for the first 1/2 of the trip,
> the seat next to me sat vacant. "Indonesia's gonna be great!" I foolishly
> and naively thought. What did I know?) to very local bus. By this I mean
> torn seats exposing thin foam padding and sharp metal springs and
> things protruding in places you would rather they not be, at least 2 people
> for every seat and the ubiquitous and dreaded car-sickness bags, hanging
> just out of reach high up on a metal bar near the ceiling spanning the
> length of said bus. At least they were black in color. Black hides stuff.
> As the afternoon wore on, the supply of bags depleted. The twists and turns
> of the road, the endless potholes the driver apparently never saw or became
> oblivious to, the inexhaustible cigarette smoke and voracious speeds were
> enough for me to loose my cookies. My stomach has never really been too
> agreeable when I find myself a passenger in the back seat of a moving
> vehicle, especially in a bus. A smoky bus. A moving bus. A bus that I was
> rather surprised wasn't pretzel-shaped when we finally made our destination.
> What happened to everyone's barf bags? What do you think? Out the window of
> course. Not their problem anymore. This is, after all, Indonesia. I
> dutifully kept my bags (read: plural) until we got to the bus stop, where I
> had a heck of a time trying to find a garbage can to throw the retched
> things away. To this day, I am still looking for that trash can. I can count
> the public garbage cans I have seen thus far using only a fraction of my
> digits. Well, okay, maybe I have seen a few more than that, but not by much!
> But that's another story. Another time.
> **Finger Food and White Knuckles**
> **I didn't want to go through THAT again, so opted for the door to door
> minibuses from here on out. Sure, I paid twice as much for the comfort of
> A/C (ehem....when it worked!), but the pick up and the drop off from and to
> my guesthouses was unparalleled, and I always assured ahead of time I would
> get the front window seat. If it was booked, I didn't leave town until I
> could get that seat. My seat.
> My first minibus was to arrive at 10. I set out at 9:20 to find breakfast.
> "I'll take it away and eat it while we drive merrily down the road,"
> I naively thought to myself. How did I know that of all the warung (food
> stalls) in this stupid town, the one I haphazardly chose, turned out to be
> the same one everyone else wanted to get food from as well?!?! I call them
> the "invisible people." See, I can order food in the local language with no
> problem (if you love to eat as much as I do, this is undeniably the best way
> to start learning the language -- start with ordering food and you're set
> for your trip!), I can ask what ingredients are in a particular dish and
> understand when the answer comes back in Indonesian. What I don't understand
> is where all the orders come from. Just when I think I am in luck and the
> only person at a food stall, the chef/owner has a zillion invisible
> customers in front of me. Where are they all? When do they appear to collect
> their little bags of TAKE AWAY, pay the man and disappear? That's one thing
> I haven't been able to figure out yet. Naturally, this happens when I am in
> a hurry. Today, I was in a hurry. Murphy's Law apparently happens in this
> part of the world as well.
> As the little hand was on the 10 and big hand moved closer and closer to the
> hour mark, I got increasingly impatient. I realized I had changed and voiced
> my menu choice but gave him ample time to make adjustments (I didn't realize
> at the time he hadn't even begun to start on my meal yet). In the end, I got
> what I originally ordered, which, by then, I didn't care, but he couldn't
> understand the word TAKE AWAY. Everyone knows TAKE AWAY, except this one,
> even as I mocked walking away and exclaiming "Jalan-Jalan" (walk). This guy
> was clueless. He offered me my meal in a real bowl, with a real spoon, and a
> real seat, not a brown TAKE AWAY wrapper. I felt like a 4- year old who had
> to go potty, I was squirming and nervous I would miss my expensive ride.
> Thankfully, a local who came up to order behind me understood what I was
> after and took off to another warung to grab a take away wrapper. Finally,
> the message got through. I never got a utensil, but then again a good
> majority of Indonesians eat with their fingers anyway, so, "when in
> I got back to my guesthouse at 10am sharp. Whew! At least I could understand
> enough from the limited-English lady at my losmen (inexpensive
> accommodation) to figure out the minibus had come and gone already. Damn! I
> cursed the slow cook. I cursed the invisible people who got there first. I
> cursed myself for going to THAT place. I cursed myself again for not seeking
> food earlier. Then I sat down and ate my breakfast.....with my fingers.
> The woman at my losmen, bless her heart, called the minibus company and told
> them to come back and pick me up. It took an hour before they got back to my
> place. One, count them, ONE person was in the backseat. One. How in the
> world could the minibus have only one person in it, as we were supposed to
> leave town at 10am? We were on our way at 11:15. On our way through the
> streets of this pitiful town. Thank goodness I had bought a ticket for an
> A/C minibus. But the A/C didn't work. Rolling down the windows was the only
> way to breathe through the subsequent cigarette smoke that lay stagnant in
> the vehicle the entire ride. "I'll deal with the mop of wind-blown hair
> later," I thought to myself, silently cursing as my hat was in my rucksack
> in the far back of the bus.
> We drove around town for 3 hours picking up passengers and stopping randomly
> for unknown reasons. The driver would disappear for sometimes 10 or 15
> minutes and then reappear again and we'd get back on the road. Once, we got
> a brand new driver. What was that all about!? I was starting to recognize a
> few signs, buildings and landmarks so I am sure we circled the town for
> awhile, looking for passengers. Minibuses only operate with an advance
> reservation and don't pick up random passengers off the sides of the road,
> unlike local buses. At least, they are not supposed to.
> Smoking at the gas station while standing near the pumps, smoking in the
> vehicle (so much for the "NO SMOKING" sign displayed on the
> dashboard....some things can just be overlooked quite easily in this part of
> the world), no A/C, loud, no BLARING music,....thankfully, once we got our 8
> adult passengers in the van, we were finally on the road to the next
> destination. The last person we picked up had so sit next to me, which meant
> I lost out on wearing my seatbelt for the duration of the trip (it was
> pressing into my neck anyway for the first hours before picking up my seat
> As we were stopped at the streetlights in town, boys ran up to us with the
> local papers, shoving them into the front windows hoping for a sale. Great
> -- today's front-page news was about a possible bomb on an airline flight,
> and yesterday's had a gruesome photo of a deadly bus crash down a rocky
> ravine. Not the news you want to see before heading out on the Sumatran
> The road was windy and long, but being in the front seat and able to look
> out the front seat made all the difference. I didn't once feel sick, save
> for the smoke. Landslides were common, often partially obstructing one lane.
> The road, when there was one, was potholed and patched -- it looked like a
> colorful, bumpy quilt! Numerous times one lane (always our lane) of road
> just........disappeared. I looked down the embankment and found it, often
> quite far down. It's as if monstrous chunks just fell away and tumbled down
> the cliffs to their road-deaths way below. That's one place I don't wish to
> be at times the road decides to fall apart. Being down to one lane meant
> taking turns for both directions of traffic to navigate.
> Having the front seat isn't all peaches and cream. The guide book, Lonely
> Planet INDONESIA, put it best: "This way you get to look death head-on." It
> only took one road trip (ok, two, but this was the first one where I was
> able to sit up front!) for me to realize there couldn't be a more accurate
> statement to depict the driving in Sumatra. Petal to the medal, barely a
> breather when rounding corners, excessive honking meaning
> and slowing for nothing is a nice way of describing this trip. The narrow
> misses of oncoming cars whether we were passing or others were passing going
> the opposite direction were too numerous to mention. I can't even count that
> It took 8 hours for that 5-hour trip to conclude.
> **White Knucklin' It, Part 2"**
> **My 10 o'clock minibus from Bukit Tinggi to Bengkulu arrived 1/2 an hour
> before the scheduled departure time, and I wasn't even there to get it. I
> got to my guesthouse and 9:45 after a morning walk up the street, and then
> had to wait for another hour before the decrepit old minibus reappeared to
> pick me up, with only 2 passengers inside the 8-person van. It was going to
> be another long day. I was told when I bought the ticket a few days prior it
> was going to be a 12-hour trip. I have since learned never listen to the
> estimated times for road trips in Sumatra. I should just automatically
> double the hours, rather than risk disappointment.
> I had a seatbelt that worked this time, well, for part of the trip anyway,
> until I had to share the front seat again with passenger #10. The A/C
> worked.....but the driver didn't turn it on. At least I could breathe cause
> no one was smoking.....until all hopes were doomed.
> I have a new motto for Sumatran travel (and you are talking to someone who
> learned long ago not to expect things in life): Expect a motorcycle or a
> car or a bus or a very big truck around every single curve, turn, bend in
> the road. Every road. You'd be lucky if you encountered just one of the
> above at a time. They usually came in twos or threes or mores. Cars careen
> around every corner, narrowly missing potholes (or, hey, why go around them,
> let's barrel through at lightning speeds), honking excessively to let people
> know the following:
> *I'm here
> *Get out of my way
> *I'm passing you and every other vehicle in front of you
> *Get off the road, you foolish pedestrian
> *Or simply, just because.
> Acoustic Scorpions blared from ancient cassette tapes interspersed with
> pathetic Indonesian grunge music. Every time the driver's cell phone rang, I
> seized the opportunity to play "DJ" and turn the music down, offering up a
> sheepish grin, as if I was doing it for the sake of the driver.
> The following don't mean you have to slow down:
> *When you come to a curve in the road (Sumatra's roads are made entirely of
> twists and turns)
> *An animal crosses in front of your path
> *You come to a town or village (no matter how many stray animals are walking
> along, how many kids are playing in the streets, how much rice is laid out
> on the pavement or on tarps drying in the sun)
> *When you are driving faster than the vehicle in front of you but you
> haven't passed yet (tailgating is a word yet to be translated into Bahasa
> *You come across a pothole on your side of the road (This has an easy
> solution. You just swerve around it -- way around it -- even if you end up
> in oncoming traffic, where 9 times out of 10 you are guaranteed to do just
> I think my knuckles are permanently a shade lighter after this trip.
> Don't even ask how fast we were going. The speedometers never work.
> We got in at 3am.
> **Slip and Slide....and Pray**
> **The last significant road trip in Sumatra had all the makings of the first
> two, all rolled into one. Add in torrential rain, wipers that chose not to
> work when needed, windows that refused to roll up all the way, fog (I
> thought you weren't supposed to use your high beams in heavy fog???), more
> twists and turns and accelerated speeds.
> We drove for a couple hours on a section of road that seemingly was left out
> on asphalt-pouring day. Now that was rough going. Many huge trucks were
> pulled over both on the steep up and the steep down portions of this
> gravely, hole-ridden pathetic excuse of a road. They belched black smoke and
> smelled like burning tires. They pumped the brakes continuously on the way
> down. I can't remember if I have ever been on such a terrible stretch of
> "main road" before. I thought we were going to get swallowed up in some of
> those potholes.
> Picture this scenario:
> It's dark, we're heading up a steep hill, we are passing a big truck, the big truck
> is passing a big bus, the big bus is hugging the center divide, we're on
> a blind curve, there are headlights heading our way, the lights are getting
> brighter by the second, our driver doesn't slow the vehicle. Does anyone
> freak-out or overreact? Just yours truly, but I contained any wildly
> irrational reactions, keeping them to myself and praying silently to any
> higher being that wanted to lend an ear at that very moment. We all
> survived. Each time. Somehow.
> If the creators of Amazing Race hired Sumatrans for the driving portions of
> the competition, the race would be finished in half the time.
What I can't figure out is if they drive so fast, why don't we get
there faster......? Hmmm?
> **Bummer Days**
> **The only road travel I did in Java worthy of writing about is heading out
> of Yogyakarta, 42 KM to Borobodur on a local bus (okay, two buses. You can
> never just take one bus to get you somewhere. It would never be that easy.)
> It took nearly 3 hours to get out of Yogyakarta's traffic and down a lovely,
> peaceful road dotted with little villages and bright green rice paddy
> fields. 42 KM....3 hours...so much for "it's only one hour away!"...and the
> guy behind the wheel was not a Sunday driver! Go figure. Buses stop
> wherever, whenever to drop people off, pick people up; sometimes animals and
> often huge sacks of rice are involved. More often than not, there are not
> enough seats for all the bums riding the bus. And by "bum" I don't mean
> **No Need To Ever Go To A Shopping Mall Again...If You Can Handle The
> **i learned quickly the best way to get around Java is by train. After
> Sumatra, I needed a break from the road and decided to try
> out the rails instead. For 2500 Indonesian rupiah (about 25 cents US), I
> hopped aboard an economi klass train to Jakarta, 1.5 hours away. I thought I
> would check out the capital for a few days, just to say I had been. I'm not
> a big city-lover, but figured I had better see what it was all about, since
> I was so close. The price of the ticket was also a good reason to go. The
> trip itself, though, well, that was a very-local experience. My first
> thoughts as I boarded the train (after first walking directly over numerous
> train tracks to get to it) and even as we initially set off was, "Gee, this
> isn't half as bad as I expected!" There's that word again. Expect. Never
> Well before boarding, I thought I would have time --and space-- to read, to
> journal, to look out the window during this 1.5 hour trip. Boy was I ever in
> for a surprise! Sure, the few plastic seats that lined and faced both sides
> of the carriage "aisle" were full, but somehow between those of us that
> stood we still managed to create some sort of alleyway so vendors could walk
> by and sell their goods. Oh, the vendors.....pushing carts of cold drinks,
> food of every sort, holding boards of all manners of stuff including hair
> accessories, envelopes, pens, balloons and colorful stickers. The guy with
> his rolls of clear tape, instant adhesive and shoe polish. Water
> pistols, plastic toys for the kids, combs, nail clippers and polish. The one
> I got the biggest giggle over was from a man selling what I initially
> thought were staplers but upon further inspection (slyly, so as to
> not conjure up any remote possibility that I might be interested in said
> item), I noticed he was selling mini sewing machines. Mini, as in
> could-fit-in-your-palm mini. Not a bad idea, really, when you have something
> small to sew or stitch up. In fact, if it hadn't been for the lovely elderly
> owner of a recent guesthouse in south Sumatra who sewed up a rip in my pants
> "gratis," I may have contemplated buying one of these "must-haves!" Every
> time a vendor walked down the aisle shouting out what he had for sale, I was
> reminded of late-night infomercials and all the things you think you could
> really use in your life.
> Who needs to ever go shopping again? Just ride the local economy trains in
> Indonesia! They've got everything!
> Watching the vendors in crazed-action was a short-lived concept for me.
> Within one station stop (out of at least 100.....or so it seemed), the train
> became overly jam-packed, filling every nook and cranny of
> the carriage interior and spilling out of the open "doors," or openings, as
> there were no doors, per se. I found out later there were people hanging on
> for dear life on the top of the train as well, given the lack of room
> inside. If I had been pushed any closer to the window, my face would have
> been pressed up against it, I'm sure, flattened, like one might see a bored
> kid do in a passing car on the freeway. Only that is done on purpose; this
> would be because there would be no other placed for my head to go. I was a
> bit surprised I had enough room for my diaphragm to move as I breathed. I
> had been clearly warned against traveling this way (economy class train)
> during peak commute hours (many people commute to work like this to Jakarta
> every single day, which makes spending 1-2 hours in stop and go traffic on
> the freeway each day seem like a piece of cake. At least one has room to
> breathe -- and a stereo to listen to!). I figured if I left at 10:30, I'd be
> safe. And I was, only I still felt like steerage. I was assured by a man on
> the train during those hours, people are literally on top of one another.
> This, currently, was nothing, he told me. This was not the case in my book.
> Cramming in 500 people in a space made for 50 is not nothing.
> A few times I managed to turn around slightly only to find a couple of
> vertically-challenged people (children) just hovering at or below belt line.
> They couldn't move. If I was 5 or 6 or 9 or 10 years old, breathing at bum
> level, or should I say multiple-bum level, no parent in sight, not knowing
> if the next stop was the one I needed to alight (ya gotta love the British
> for bringing all the fun words to the English language!), I would probably
> start bawling. These kids, however, probably wouldn't even be heard even if
> they did start screaming, not over the voices, the chatter, the clanking of
> the tracks and the rocking, knocking and pinging of the train. No, Asians
> are generally pretty quiet, pretty calm people. I don't know what happened
> to these kids, I just hope they didn't get trampled on.
> Before getting on this train, I emptied my pants pockets "just in case,"
> taking no chances of wandering fingers. If a pickpocket was going to target
> me (and why not, as there wasn't a single foreigner on that train other than
> yours truly!), all he would find was a wad of tissue (Kleenex), lip balm and
> my 25-cent ticket stub. Fortunately, no one even tried. I even had my
> ever-growing fingernails poised and ready to dig!!
> **Spilling, Falling, Laughing**
> **I learned a number of years ago to double travel time when in South East
> Asia. This is precautionary thinking but I believe one is safer when
> thinking this way, because invariably something will happen. Usually, it's
> just a breakdown or two or ten. Wherever or from whomever I picked up that
> advise was right on the money. My "It's only a 7 1/2 hour train ride"
> turned into a 15 hour ordeal. What else is new?
> I was up at 6:30, put on a fresh clean shirt I haven't worn the past month
> and out the door by 7:22, 3 minutes ahead of my personal scheduled departure
> time. My train was due at 8 and my rucksack, backpack and I only had a
> 15-minute morning walk to the station. I already had my ticket: "Eksekutif
> Kelas" from Jakarta to Yogyakarta (FYI: The Ys are pronounced as if they
> were Js). Executive class probably only meant I'd get my own seat, I thought
> to myself. I wasn't expecting much. All I knew was I wasn't going to take
> the bus. Yeah!
> I bought an overpriced Indonesian noodle breakfast from the train station
> for TAKE AWAY (ok, it was only a buck fifty, but when my meals usually only
> cost the equivalent of fifty cents, we're talking a 3X markup!), but as the
> morning wore on, and I found myself still standing on the crowded train
> platform, knowing "as soon as I set my rucksack down and start digging in,
> the train will come and all hell will break loose up here," I decided it
> best to wait, despite my ever-cooling breakfast in it's CFC-free container
> (yeah, right, Suz!) and plastic bag. The train was only 1 1/2 hours late (I
> finally set my rucksack down 15 minutes before it arrived!), but I was
> pleasantly surprised, once inside, to find plush, wide seats offering ample
> legroom. The man sitting next to me even helped me put my rucksack up on the
> top shelf! "We're off to a good start," I said to myself. I need to stop
> thinking like that before I take journeys. Perhaps somewhere down the line I
> jinx things when I think positively.
> I settled into my seat, read for a bit, watched local life whizz by through
> the dirty windows, and after about an hour, decided I was ready for some
> cold noodles. While balancing the container of noodles on my lap and little
> green train pillow, I struggled but managed to open up a package of sambal
> (chili) sauce (in a packet like one would find catsup from a fast food
> joint) and proceeded to pour it on my noodles. I got more on my shirt than
> my meal. My mother should have named me "Grace." I didn't dare get into the
> bag of broth!
> As soon as I finished my meal and put all my garbage neatly back in the
> plastic bag, I turned to the window to watch the scenery go by once again.
> Within moments, I heard, "Miss, gratis...breakfast" only to turn to my left
> and find a smiling, nice-looking train steward holding a plastic tray of
> food...for me! Didn't I just eat? Oh well, who can turn down free? I
> devoured my second meal in 15 minutes.
> We ambled along the incredibly beautiful countryside; volcanoes jutting up
> out of nowhere, rolling hills, rice paddies and lots of other agricultural
> plots of land I wouldn't even begin to know what to tell you they were.
> Truly serene...and green. Many conical hats and colorful shirts dotted the
> fields. How I wished I had a good camera lens and tripod....and a clean
> Sometime just after 3pm, the train stopped at a nondescript station. We must
> have been there about 1/2 an hour without going anywhere, when an
> announcement came on the loudspeaker, after which many people began to
> excitedly move about the carriage and some even got off the train. It was
> more Indonesian than I knew, so I sat there, figuring, if people start
> grabbing their bags and hi-tailing it off the train, I'm going to follow
> them. They didn't. No one panicked. I didn't know what was happening so I
> settled into my captivating book, figuring, as always, we would eventually
> get going again. It took about an hour before I found out why we were not
> moving. Apparently, between the train station where we currently were and
> the next station, a train had "fallen over." Evidently the last two
> carriages of a train heading towards Jakarta had jumped the track and
> "fallen over." That train had been traveling slowly -- fortunately -- and
> from what I understood, the track was mangled, so the train was unable to
> stay upright. No one got hurt, just shaken up, but we were stuck for 3 1/2
> hours while authorities checked out the scene of the accident, and had to
> use heavy machinery to clear the wrecked train wagons off the tracks.
> One of the wagons that fell over was housing the generator, and since the
> train needed to get to Jakarta that night (at least 6 hours away), we gave
> them ours. How nice of us, eh? That could only mean one thing. No power for
> us. The A/C was no more and once it got dark, we didn't have lights. Ok, I
> take that back, as poor as this country is, people still have cellphones,
> and by golly, if the carriages didn't light up with cell phone lights!? One
> Indonesian man even came prepared with a candle that he put on his window
> shelf! It did a nice job illuminating the first couple of rows. Innovative,
> I must say......
> Once we got rolling again, we traveled about an hour at snail speed
> (especially, presumably through the crash site, as I saw many rubberneckers
> getting out of their seats and peering out into the pitch dark on the left
> side of the train at one point) to the next station. We had to wait -- again
> -- for a generator, so we could continue on to Yogya. Finally the lights
> turned on and the A/C was restored, much to the delight of my animated train
> carriage. Whoops, hollers and lots of hand-clapping preceded someone singing
> Happy Birthday in English. Someone was excited. It was a good feeling all
> We pulled in to the station at 11pm, and fortunately I had two things in my
> favor. One, my guesthouse was within 5 minutes walking of the train station
> (that's a first!), and two, I had a good, comfortable feeling of the town
> the moment I stepped out of the station and onto the street. I don't
> usually find myself out late at night (duh, single female traveler traveling
> with laptop. Not smart), and especially not with all my bags on my front and
> back (can you say TOU-RIST!?!) walking though a strange town. Guess I lucked
> out on that accord. My guesthouse turned out to be a little slice of heaven.
> A bistro table and two wooden chairs in the center of a courtyard, hidden
> amongst a plethora of thriving plants and fruit trees; Javanese art on the
> walls and shelves; my room being the cleanest and most tidy of all the
> places I have stayed, complete with a wooden table, big mirror, bench seat
> and a 4-poster bed! I even had a drying rack for the laundry curling up and
> dying a slow death in the bottom of my pack. This is luxury for me, coming
> from the I'm-happy-with-a four-dollar-a-night-no-frills-room-thank-you-very-much
> frugal traveler that I am. This room was $3.00 a night. I stayed five
> Ok, it is currently August 31st and I am just now sending this. I have no ending to this short story-er-one-of-Suzi's-long-drawn-out-novels, just perhaps a continuation, a part duex if you will.
> Hope all is well with everyone. Keep your seatbelts fastened for another installment.
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