The Thrill Of Local Transport

It’s A Can Of People: White-Knuckling It Through Indonesia

A postcard of the sardine express: memos are Indonesia’s version of public transportation with all the comforts of…um…er…absolutely nothing.

Parents are odd animals, especially when their children travel abroad to such exotic foreign locations as Southeast Asia, the Middle East and East St. Louis. Death, tropical disease, the likelihood of my getting killed or being a crime victim undoubtedly topped my mother’s list of things that might happen to me while I was out on this jaunt. Fortunately, she had no idea how I planned to get around Indonesia. If she had known I was considering riding in the same bemos (no frills transport vans) locals used, she not only would have stopped talking to me altogether, she also would have done everything in her power to keep me from going, even if it meant committing me. 

It’s not that the vans aren’t safe, however, (even though they aren’t), it’s more that everything about a trip in a bemo could easily be titled “Unsafe At Any Speed.” The book of the same name may have been about Corvairs, which had a nasty tendency to spin out of control rounding hard turns, but neither the book nor car had anything on bemos.

This is one case where Hollywood movies aren’t wrong. If anything, the films may have under-exaggerated. Riding in a bemo is like being in the scene in “Romancing the Stone” where romance novel-writing protagonist, Joan Wilder (played by Kathleen Turner) rides in a bus loaded with people, chickens, big ass bags of rice and beans with the occasional random, odd piece of livestock thrown in just so it can wander the aisles. The only difference is that in the real world all of that is stuffed into a vehicle about the size of a Ford van. And I’m not talking about a new-fangled mini-van with enough room for a small country, either. No, I’m referring to the type of van that may be ideal for terrorists carrying weapons of mass destruction but not so perfect for carrying enough people to play on both sides of a major league baseball game. The limited seating never stops the drivers and their assistants from trying, however. 

Apparently, bemo drivers subscribe to the belief, “it isn’t the size that counts, it’s what you do with it” because they don’t let such silly things as size and the laws of physics bother them. Instead, the drivers of the beat-up vans with benches made up of wooden boards running along each side of the back routinely start their routes at a busy street corner, stuffing in as many people as they can, then adding a few more until all the physicists, engineers, ergonomists and mathematicians in the world would say there was not a single jot of space left, even on a sub-atomic level, for so much as a speck of dust. Then they drive half a block and take on five more passengers. 

Riding in such cramped quarters may not be a big deal to locals because most of the people I rode with were short enough to make me feel like I was a Wilt Chamberlain in a land full of H. Ross Perot. Although I’m thin, I still felt quite cramped as I was forced to pull my legs closer and closer into my body with the addition of each passenger until I found myself riding with my chin on my knees. The strange twisted postures I had to assume as a result only made me stick out more. It wasn’t trying to blend in, exactly. My Jewish/Eastern European/Caucasian features made that impossible. I just wanted to fade into the background. Unfortunately, my appearance on a bemo seemed to so startle riders that it often made me feel as though they’d never seen an American before. To escape the stunned scares of the curious, I often shunted to back of the van, away from the windows. This may have been a blessing in disguise because it prevented me from looking out and seeing how dangerously unskilled most bemo drivers really are.

After countless rides in countless bemos, I finally realized that bemo drivers are so consistently bad that it must be a religious issue. Apparently, each of these guys (and they are all guys) belong to a religion with only one major commandment: Thou shalt not allow thy vehicle to be passed by another conveyance on either side for any reason whatsoever or thou wilt be snuffed. The rule applies to vehicles ranging from motorbikes and civil defense authorities to police cars and ambulances. My theory must be right because I can’t think of any other reason why drivers would recklessly speed up whenever anyone tried to pass them including other bemo drivers. And no evasive maneuver was too risky including swerving into oncoming traffic or driving in the wrong lane on two-lane roads through mountainous areas with hairpin turns.

The drivers also had this nasty habit of thriving on little sleep, drinking heavily and slamming energy beverages — some legal, some not — to stay awake. In the time I was in Indonesia there were at least three major accidents where bus drivers either fell asleep or were too drunk to drive and not only ended up killing themselves, but also large numbers of unsuspecting passengers. 

I didn’t know all this when I set foot on my first bemo. I just knew I wanted to go on a dry run across town to prepare for a bemo ride to my next destination, the town of Ubud. I figured a trip to the American Express Travel Service office at the Grand Bali Beach Hotel would be just the right length.

Since I didn’t want to be a total rube when I climbed aboard my first bemo, I went to a tourist information office and asked how long the trip should take and the likely cost. The official told me the two bemo, hour-long trip shouldn’t cost more than 1,100 rupiah (approx. 55 cents) each way. Indeed, the bemo drivers were more than happy to oblige at that rate because I didn’t ask if it was what they charged, I told them in broken Indonesian and English that a tourist official told me they charged that amount and just paid it. The second driver even turned around when I missed my stop, got me as close to the hotel as he could, dropped me off and sped away. 

Finding the hotel proved more difficult because I misunderstood the driver’s directions. Although he claimed it was 300 meters down the road, I walked east when I should have gone north. An hour and a four kilometer round trip walk later, I headed north, found the resort, checked for mail, cashed traveler’s cheques and roamed a resort that looked like it was straight off the grounds of Walt Disney World in Orlando. It had the requisite tropical trees, buildings with lots of bamboo, an 18 hole golf course and, of course, the obligatory sign greeting the current week’s batch of conventioneers: “Welcome Malo-Cranial Facial Association First ASEAN Scientific Conference.” After seeing the sign I wondered what the members of the group had been doing at all the other conferences that made them unscientific.

Still, it was nowhere near as ponderous as what I saw in a nearby grocery store where I bought a soda. The cash register had a picture of an obviously pregnant woman lying on her back with such a tortured, pained look on her face that delivery appeared imminent. The photo and an accompanying note were attached to a transparent box with a large thin slot at the top and plenty of rupiah stuffed inside, suggesting that the store was collecting to cover the woman’s hospital costs. The lack of a picture of a baby indicated to me that the woman might have been waiting to deliver until the store raised enough money. 

I hope they hurry. 

It looked like a very old photo.  

Returning to Surf Doggie proved more difficult. While the bemos were full on the way out, they were so chock full on the return trip that it made me wonder if the driver was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for getting the most people into a Volkswagen Bug at the same time. Sure, the van was bigger than a VW but, then again, we all have to grow up some time, don’t we? Besides, the artist in him must have realized the larger vehicle meant a larger canvas to paint on, as it were. 

Although I don’t understand Indonesian, I was pretty sure I got the gist of what the woman occupying the bemo’s last inch of space was saying when the driver picked me up. It’s too bad. I’m sure I could have learned some of the language’s more colorful phrases as she protested. When she wouldn’t listen, he got even. He sat me next to her.

Finding a van back to Kuta at the bemo station/transfer point wasn’t easy. (The word station is a bit misleading. It wasn’t so much a formal building as it was a market area with parking stalls for vans waiting for passengers, and drink stands for thirsty drivers). There was one driver so willing to take me there that he grabbed my backpack and threw it in his van. When I asked how much he charged, he said 10,000 rupiah (approx. $5). Not much by Western standards, but a hell of a lot compared to what the Indonesian passengers were paying. I don’t mind paying a little more for being an out-of-towner, but I do mind being gouged. I walked off, found a driver that gouged at a less insulting rate and headed home. It was my first negotiation and I was pleased with how it went even though I knew I was still being fleeced.

Not bad for a beginner.

I was ready to hit the road in a bemo bound for Ubud and the Monkey Jungle.