Photos from India

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The torture of traveling by bus in Sumatra

I know I have talked as if everything in Sumatra is quite wonderful but I have failed to mention how difficult getting around here is. The journeys between towns are the most difficult and miserable of anywhere I have been before. While you can probably imagine crowded buses and bumpy roads, unless you have been here, you can't imagine what it is like to be stuffed into a small van or mini bus with a ridiculous number of people not to mention the fact that there is always room for one more on board. I can only say that the short trips I have made so far on the island have been some of the most trying and difficult times in my life and it honestly makes me feel sick every time I think about the distances between all of the places I want to visit here in the future.

On my journey between Bukit Lawang and Berstagi, I began my day by walking a couple of miles carrying all of my gear through the rain to where I was able to find a motorcycle taxi who in turn brought me to the bus station. This was the only real bus I have ridden on here and was also the most comfortable portion of any of the journeys yet. While it was bare bones, extremely cramped and very bumpy, it was a virtual luxury compared to the vans and mini buses which are the main forms of transportation to so many of the remote places I am visiting here in Sumatra. It took three and a half hours to travel seventy five kilometers or about forty miles. Not so much because of the constant stopping but the roads were more like a four wheel drive path through deep muddy puddles and rocky escarpments scattered throughout the jungle.

After the long bus journey I had to switch to a mini bus. I boarded a half empty mini bus which is basically nothing more than a big van with a ton of seats inside. It is set up to have five rows of five seats plus three passengers in the front with the driver, totaling 29 people in the same space that back home we would normally have room for maybe 12 to 14. Now just because the bus was half full when I got on didn't mean a thing. In the hot tropical sun, we all sat for over an hour waiting on the bus to fill up before departing. With half the passengers smoking, the heat from the sun cooking the van and my shoulders jammed between the window and a wall of people I was beginning to feel absolutely sick. Just when I had reached the point where I didn't think that I could take it any longer, we started moving and the breeze began to flow through the window making at least the cigarette smoke dissipate as well as the sweltering heat. For two and a half hours this time on fairly decent roads we manged to cover about sixty kilometers (about 35 miles). When we finally arrived, I gladly exited the the torture chamber that the driver kept referring to as a bus in the chilly mountain town of Berstagi.

Traveling yesterday however was even worse than the previous trip. This time there was no chance of riding on a regular bus at all and I would have to make my way through three different mini bus transfers over the course of four and a half hours covering around 100 kilometers or sixty miles. Of the three mini buses I was on yesterday, only the second one which also happened to be the longest was completely miserable. The other two probably would have been worse had I not experienced an arduous journey a few days prior but I don't think I have ever been as cramped and miserable as yesterdays travels.

When I boarded the mini bus just outside of Berstagi on my way to Lake Toba, I looked at it and it seemed to be a step up in quality from the one that had almost driven me out of my mind a few days ago. They pointed me to the first row of seats where sat the two heaviest Indonesian people I have ever seen. Seeing as how I am bigger than most of the people here, it is strange to come across two people who are extremely fat and swollen to at least twice the width of my body. Most everyone else is smaller and very thin so I can see where putting five people in a row of seats is not so bad to them. As I sat down next to the heavy set couple, I was feeling a little cramped but I thought that this would be a bearable journey and I began to relax.

As the bus filled up waiting to depart, the driver made a motion to me which I soon realized indicated that there was going to be another person sitting in the row with us. I looked around and realized that there were actually four headrests on my seat instead of the three I thought I had noticed. The large couple and I squeezed in as tight as possible and made about half of a narrow seats width worth of room for the Indonesian man who would be sitting next to me for the entire trip. Without enough room for all of us to sit with our shoulders side to side, my left shoulder was digging into the middle of the back of the man to my left while the squishy arm and shoulder of the woman to my right came to about the middle of my chest. Every turn was excruciating as I we leaned from side to side with the motion of the van careening down the narrow and bumpy road. I don't know if I was in more pain or the poor man whose back was taking the full force of my shoulder digging into it along with the weight of myself and the Indonesian couple beside me.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse and all the seats were filled, we began stopping and picking up more people. In the front seat next to the driver was a double stack of three people in the seat and three people on their laps which completely blocked my view out of the windshield. All said and done, for me that was probably for the best as I didn't have to look at my life flashing before my eyes every time we passed someone or went around another turn. Now in the row with myself and the three other people was a man standing directly in front of me. Hunched over and holding onto the front row of seats with a cigarette in his hand, he continuously ashed on my legs and blew smoke into my face. To the left and the right of my head were the faces of two other people who were in a similar position to the man standing in front of me only they were positioned one row back. Using my shoulders as grips around the turns they pulled and tugged to avoid being tossed around as we followed the narrow road a little further down to where we could find more people to stuff in the tiny little van.

I never took count of how many people were actually in the van but at one point I would have to guess from the amount of smoke as well as the number of times we stopped and another person crammed in behind me that this van held over thirty five people. With my legs cramping, my shoulders hurting and sweat running down every inch of my body, I don't think there are many things in my life that I have done that have been half as miserable as that journey. I admit that the rewards of the places I have seen have been worth the journey but this makes me miss the convenience of having my own car back home where I have my own seat, my own music, the ability to roll the windows up and down as I please, and most importantly the right to ban smoking from inside my vehicle!


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