White Men Can’t Talk
“It’s hard to talk and not be vague.”
–Bathroom graffiti at The Maneater, the University of Missouri’s student newspaper.
Having had my fill of Indonesian trains, I opted for an air-conditioned bus from Yogyakarta to one of Jakarta’s primary bus stations before catching a shuttle to the ferry terminal for the ride to Sumatra. Lonely Planet has a lot to say about buses, too. It doesn’t discourage their use, it just warns that travel agents try to get as big a commission on bus fares as possible.
Large is a relative term, especially in Indonesia, however. Although some travel agents charged a seemingly outrageous 26,000 rupiah, the total in U.S. dollars was $13 for a trip that easily lasts 10 hours under the best circumstances. (Of course, the best of circumstances is a meaningless phrase at the backpacker level because there is no such thing. Backpacking in Indonesia can be tricky and somewhat uncomfortable but usually rewarding and fun. If you want the best of circumstances, stay at a luxury hotel.) While the going in a bus is slower here than in the States, it helps to remember that $13 isn’t even enough to get a bus out of a Greyhound depot in the U.S. That wasn’t even the rock-bottom rate. The next travel agent asked 25,000 and a third charged 24,000. A fourth was at 30,000 until I said I’d found a rate of 24,000 so he matched it.
That’s one of the key differences between Indonesia and the U.S. In the States competitors will try to outbid each other for business. In Indonesia, people tried to figure out how much they can get out of the customer, then name a price so high no self-respecting local would ever pay. Then, when they’re caught gouging tourists, they only back-pedal enough to a point where the magnitude of the highway robbery is reduced to a gentle mugging on a tiny side street. Still, it’s the principle of the thing. No one likes to get taken. Even if the difference is a few dimes or nickels, it’s still dishonesty, and that’s irritating.
The shuttle to the bus station was late and so was the bus. While waiting, I struck up an acquaintance with a Japanese couple and ended up sitting across from them most of the trip. I say most of the trip because the bus driver made me sit in my assigned seat next to a young Indonesian woman for the early part of the trip even though there were lots of empty seats. I didn’t mind sitting next to her, it’s just that I prefer a seat to myself over sitting next to someone I don’t know.
We talked briefly, or tried to talk, but she spoke little English and the only Indonesian I knew came from my phrasebook. Although she was a captive audience, she was patient enough to wait for me to flip through my book trying to formulate a few small talk questions. After the third question, however, she got so frustrated with my phrase book that she made me close it.
I eventually wandered back to a seat next to the couple and we all drifted off to sleep knowing we were the only ones on the bus who spoke English and, thus, were the only ones who didn’t know what was happening. We knew a snack and dinner were included, but we didn’t know when because no flight attendants were in evidence and we didn’t think the driver would be able to put the bus on autopilot while he served the meals.
I thought I had learned the answer to the meal question a few hours later when a man holding a basket of black bean humbow rolls woke me up. My first suspicions this was not the meal I was expecting came when I reached out to grab one and he slapped me with his tongs. My suspicions were confirmed when he charged me 500 rupiah. Apparently, the driver let on a few hawkers at a short stop and this child hit me when I was down. My mind was still sleep-fogged when the next one came along, but I was not going to pay for something when I didn’t know what it was.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s 2,000 rupiah,” the boy responded.
“I know that. I can see the price, but what’s in it?”
“It’s coconut, raisins….” and he rattled off several other ingredients.
“Yes, but what is it?” I persisted.
“It’s 2,000 rupiah.”
By the time I reached the major bus transfer point on the edge of Jakarta, the saga had stretched into day two and I felt like a refugee from “Trains, Planes and Automobiles.” I awoke, bleary-eyed, just in time to grab my bags before being thrown to the wilds of the untamed bus depot. It took 30 minutes, conversations with 10 traffic cops and mad scrambles across three multi-lane ramps filled with fast-moving buses just to find the shuttle to the Sumatra ferry at Medak. Although I was the only Caucasian on the bus, I didn’t attract as much attention as I did when I rode in bemos on Bali. In fact, the two-hour, 3,500 rupiah ride was uneventful, but hot because I was riding on a bus without an air conditioner.
Indonesian buses are always too hot or too cold. The heat isn’t worth mentioning because high temperatures are a fact of life in the tropics. What surprised me was the reaction to the heat. Most business owners blast it into submission by over-cooling everything including buses, theatres and shopping malls. The Matahari shopping center on Kuta, for example, had such strong air conditioning I could feel the cold air two storefronts away from the store’s entrance. It’s always a good idea to bring a coat on an overnight bus ride so you won’t feel like an icicle in Hell.
Being the only white guy on the bus wasn’t a big deal on the way to Medak, but it became one when I reached the ferry terminal and tried to make sure I had purchased the right ticket. Fortunately, the security guards at the dock were more patient than the woman on the bus and were willing to stand around while I flipped through my phrasebook in a fruitless effort to find the right words to ask about my ticket. In fact, they even got in on the act, looking over my shoulder and pointing out words and phrases that weren’t exactly helpful but amused them greatly. And that’s all that really matters. The ferry arrived while I was in mid-question and I was motioned through the gate and onto the platform up to the ship.
Much to my irritation, I quickly discovered the ticket agent assumed that I wanted to go second class because he sold me the ticket without asking my preference. I wouldn’t have gone first class, but I didn’t mind going third class and it seemed awfully presumptuous for the ticket seller to guess I wouldn’t want a cheaper ticket. It may have been for the best: second class had air conditioning and third did not. Given the heat, I was glad he made the executive decision. It may also have been the path of least resistance because asking questions in Indonesian merely would have complicated matters.
I could tell by the wide berth people were giving me and the large number of empty seats near me that I wasn’t just a curiosity, I was an item of concern. It was as though they thought my whiteness was contagious. I can just imagine the conversations that were going on around me.
“Look, dad, there’s a Caucasian. Isn’t he cute?”
“Well, yes, for a white guy but don’t get too close. It might be catchy.”
Once the ferry docked I caught a bus to Bandar Lampung. Although my ultimate destination was Bukkitinggi, a spot on the central western point of the island, I stopped overnight in Bandar Lampung because I knew my body couldn’t take the 40 plus hours of non-stop travel necessary to get there from Yogyakarta. I didn’t know much about Bandar Lampung. The town wasn’t even mentioned in my guidebook, but it was the closest decent-sized town where I might be able to find a place to stay and my reading of my map suggested it was only an hour away.
Not a bad plan, in theory, but I quickly found the flaws as the trip progressed. For starters, the bus ride took three hours, not one. It didn’t help when the bus had a flat tire half way to Bandar Lampung. I was sure it was going to take hours to fix it while we waited for Indonesia’s answer to AAA, but the drivers were so experienced at making quick fixes that we were on our way within 30 minutes. On the bright side, I found a losmen quickly once I arrived. It wasn’t great, but it was cheap. The problem came when I wanted to eat. The first restaurant served chicken satay but none of the dishes that are safe to eat when sanitary conditions are a bit dodgy (such as nasi goring –fried rice—or mee goring – fried noodles). It was difficult for me to explain what I wanted so I left the restaurant with a local boy walking behind me saying he would find a restaurant for me. And he did. I ate gado gado and had a warm Sprite. He also told me to meet him at his office after dinner for more information but I declined because I figured he wanted to charge for his services.
Having had enough adventure for the day, I purchased a cold coke at a nearby store, went back to my room and settled in for an evening of reading and writing in my journal. Even a power outage couldn’t slow me down. I fished my headlamp out of my backpack and kept on writing. I finally went to bed at 9 p.m. after fatigue and eyestrain got the better of me. Although I’d forgotten to turn off the light when I went to bed, the restored lighting wasn’t what woke me two hours later. It was the sound of people speaking English with a New York accent. I had run into plenty of Canadians, English, Aussies and Kiwis in Southeast Asia, but I hadn’t seen any Americans since I left Bali. I ran out of my room and sped toward the lobby in hopes of talking to fellow countrymen only to discover the voices were coming from the TV show, Law & Order, which the losmen owner was watching with his friends. I had seen the episode before, but it had been so long since I’d seen an American show I stayed up and watch it for fun.
When I left the following morning to buy a ticket for a bus to Bukkitinngi, the losmen owner said the bus left late in the day, would take 48 hours to get there and that the fare for an air conditioned bus was about $10 (which is an obscenely small amount to pay for a 24 hour trip, much less a two day one). Apparently, he hadn’t shared this wisdom with ticket agents because most said it would take 20 hours and they were charging anywhere from 35,000 RP for an air-conditioned bus and 28,000 without. This is when I began to engage in the fine art of negotiation.
The problem with negotiating here was that I couldn’t just go from one bus company to another because many of the agents were in the same room. Instead, when I heard a price I didn’t like, I had to get up and look for the nearest non-adjoining office in this round building only to be intercepted by one of many men who would ask me, “Where you go?” When I responded “Bukittinngi” the tout would inevitably take me to an office on the opposite side of the building. This happened so often I couldn’t tell which office I’d been in and which I hadn’t. They were so similar I began wondering if they were spinning the building when I wasn’t looking.
While not all Indonesians look alike, their bus offices sure do. Recognizing agent and office became a crucial issue because one had agreed to a rate of 20,000 for an unairconditioned bus while others would only go down to 23,000. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find Mr. 20,000 again. I went back to Mr. 23,000 and talked him down to 22,000 (from $11.50 to $11) for a seat on an un-air-conditioned bus leaving five hours later. I tried to drive a harder bargain, arguing over a matter of 13 cents until one agent asked, “Why?”
Lacking a good response, I simply shut up and conceded the point, wishing I’d had a snappy comeback, even if the agent couldn’t understand it.
Having nothing to do, I went back to my losmen to read. Instead, I entertained the family that owned it. The older son tried to walk off with one of my tapes and his wife, Sofie, touched me because she had never seen a white guy up close before, especially one with so much chest hair. So, she reached through the collar of my shirt to touch it, then grabbed a bunch of it and pulled to make sure it was real. Meanwhile, the grandfather studied my phrasebook and offered to buy it. I don’t know why I didn’t take him up on his request. It wasn’t doing me any good.
The close scrutiny and constant questioning was amusing for the first hour, but quickly got old in hour two. I had no idea how “in-your-face” Indonesians could get until I started writing in my journal. Everyone in the family stood behind me so they could watch over me write, even though many didn’t speak English and had no idea what I was saying. As they “oohed,” “aahed,” and occasionally laughed at what I was doing it occurred to me that I could be writing nasty things about their ancestors and they would still stand around and laugh. I can see it now:
Me: ” . . . then there’s the guy to my immediate right who has bad breath and the face of a pig. And who can forget his wife, Helga, a woman with all the personality of wallpaper and a face so ugly she must have run through the forest and hit every tree?
The insulted one (In Indonesian): Man, he sure does hold his pen funny.
Even in a foreign language, the continuing commentary and having people staring over my shoulder as I wrote was so distracting I gave up and walked to the bus terminal to buy food for the trip and wait for the bus. I was shocked to learn the bus was already waiting so I climbed on and took the first available seat. Right before the bus left the terminal, the ticket agent moved me up front even though I was happy where I was sitting. Then he moved me back to my first seat and then back to the front. Moments later, the driver drove to the edge of town where we baked in the stifling hot sun for two hours before returning to the station. As Robin Leach would say, “I don’t know why!”
The only advantage of being moved to another seat was that it brought me closer to the only other white guy on the bus. He was a seat in front of me and I was so happy to see anyone who spoke fluent English that I started chattering away at a mile a minute. At some point during the conversation the man beside me got so tired of our having to lean around seats to talk to each other he traded places with the guy. We spent the remainder of the long trip talking.
Bus rides in Sumatra may be murder, but the scenery is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Coming from a person who hails from a country that boasts sites ranging from the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the Everglades and the entire state of Montana, that’s saying something. I’d always thought I’d seen one of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls when I visited Snoqualmie Falls in Washington, but I quickly changed my view when I saw Tasmania’s Columba Falls, a small, but dramatic set of falls unspoiled by human development, lodges, restaurants or gift shops. This island made Columba but a memory and was equaled in beauty only by the brilliant night sky over Port Arthur.
The more time I spent staring out bus windows in stunned silence at the hills, mountains, valleys and precipices, the more I realized I had seen this scenery before. In a cartoon. I don’t remember whether it was “Ferngully,” “The Jungle Book” or some other feature-length animated film set in a tropical jungle, but I do recall that the animators had drawn a lush, green setting filled with exotic plants and trees scattered at various heights ranging from valleys to multi-level rises starting at the edge of hairpin turns on the highway and stretching to the horizon. When I had first seen such backgrounds in movies I thought they were too fantastical to be real, but once I saw them I realized the cartoons were sallow imitations of the real thing. The only other time I could recall seeing such vivid colors was while looking at photos in National Geographic or ads in Life magazine. In fact, I saw a rice field so bright yellow green set against a backdrop of mellower shaded green palm fronds and grasses that it looked like something out of a full page ad for Fuji film.
The creeks and rivers filled with naked kids playing in them, the houses set into the bottom of fields and terraced areas where farmers cultivated their crops made it seem even more like a set out of “Ferngully.”
The only drawback to all this beauty was that it made travel a trial by ordeal complete with hairpin turns around two lane bends where there was so little room to maneuver that they should have been used as a dictionary picture illustrating the definition of the phrase “accident waiting to happen.” Not too surprisingly, bus drivers took the turns at speeds over 100 km/hour. Despite the inconvenience, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
As it turns out, the old man back in Bandar Lampung wasn’t far off in predicting a 48 hour ride to Bukittinngi. It may not have taken that long, but 36 hours is still closer to his prediction than the 20 the agent promised.
Bus travel in Indonesia is rarely easy and this trip wasn’t even close. Not only was the bus hot and crowded, it also lacked a bathroom. Not good news to an ulcerative colitis sufferer like me. Although I wasn’t in the middle of of a flare-up, they come and go without warning and are marked by a strong need to go to the bathroom, NOW. There’s really no negotiating with an angry colon. Even if I don’t make it to the toilet, I’ll still be going to the bathroom whether I like it or not. The disease might dissuade most people from traveling into unknown areas, but not me. The reason is simple, really: I am an idiot. But I’m an idiot with a coping mechanism. I realized that I could reduce bathroom visits on lengthy bus trips by avoiding solid food and relying on liquid sustenance for the duration.
I suppose I should have been thankful the bus didn’t have a bathroom. It wouldn’t have helped much. If I thought going to the bathroom while sitting on a toilet seat in a moving Greyhound bus was difficult, I’m sure it would be nothing compared to doing so over a squat toilet. After all, hygiene considerations dictate that the butt of a user really shouldn’t make contact with the receptacle he is squatting over. To keep from making a huge mess I would have had to hold my position over the toilet even as the bus swayed. This seemed comparable to a night bombing run over enemy territory without any targeting mechanism.
In what could only be considered a case of poetic justice, I spent the last hour of the trip sitting in the back of a crowded bus next to a drowsy teenager who kept falling asleep and resting his head on my shoulder. The people around me laughed at the spectacle. I just nodded because I understood.
The journey wasn’t over once I got off the bus, though. I was a distance away from town and I wasn’t happy about it, but decided to start walking. I didn’t realize this until a young boy came up to me and asked where I was walking. When I told him, he said the town was three kilometers away in the other direction, it was too far to walk and that I needed a taxi. By now, I was so cranky I didn’t care and I wasn’t about to listen to a kid who I was sure was trying to drum up business for a relative who drove a taxi. Even though I kept telling him I wanted to walk it, he kept saying “You need a taxi, mister?” After having said no nicely five times without him listening, I finally yelled, “I SAID NO!” The poor kid lept back as if he’d put his hand on a hot stove burner. I tried to be nice but he was so relentless I finally lost my temper. I felt bad, but he just wouldn’t listen. I continued walking in the darkness for another 15 or 20 minutes until a guy who said he worked for the police offered me a ride for 2,000 RP, even though he was driving a motorbike and I was afraid of falling off. At this point I was so tired, though, I really didn’t care. I almost fell off several times and lost several cassettes on the way, but I finally got a bed at Hotel Gangga at 12:30 and fell asleep as soon as I hit the mattress, content knowing that I was back on the regular tourist routes where Caucasians aren’t so rare, even if Americans are in short supply.
Then I kissed my Miss Beasley doll and said; “tomorrow is another day.”