From Bajawa to Riung: The Longest 45 Mile Bus Ride on Earth

Along the Trans-Flores Highway

Mini bus on the trans-flore highway

If I told you that we were on a bus for 6 hours and 45 minutes and only went 45 miles, you’d probably assume that we broke down or were stuck in a major traffic jam. That would be false. That is the amount of time it takes to travel from Bajawa to Riung on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Well, sort of. Let me explain.

Bajawa to Riung by Bus

The bus picked us up at our hotel at 12:00 noon. We boarded and found the aisles filled with large sacks of rice that rose to a level slightly higher than the seats, meaning that any passengers would have to walk a balance beam atop the sacks and then plop down into the chair. There was a man in the back row and a Muslim woman in the first row. After the Biblical rainfall that occurred the day before, we refused to store our bags on top of the bus and instead brought them inside. We wedged ourselves into the front row opposite the Muslim woman and settled in the for the 45 mile (75 km) ride to Riung. We were fully aware that we’d have to drive around the small town of Bijou scooping up other passengers, but I assumed that would take an hour.

Next, we went to the market and parked. The driver shut off the engine, removed the key and left. Muslim Lady and the other passenger debarked and disappeared. “This isn’t good,” we said.

After about 15 minutes at the market, the driver and passengers reappeared and we took off again, gaining no cargo or people. We cruised the back roads of Bajawa scooping up a few people, then went to a bus terminal and backed in. Immediately eight passengers came over to the bus and got on, some putting sacks of fruit on top, one lady stowing a chicken under the seat. We remained at the bus station for a solid half hour just waiting. The driver was sitting in the front passenger seat smoking cigarettes like it was his job while some random guy sat in the driver seat. “We shouldn’t get excited about leaving until the driver gets in the driver seat,” Kristi warned.

Along the Trans-Flores Highway

A common sight on the Trans-Flores highway.

Finally, the driver resumed his seat and we took off. It was a little after 1pm and I assumed that we were leaving. I figured we’d cover the 45 miles in about 2 to 3 hours, be in Riung at 4pm and we’d be watching a sunset with a cold Bintang in hand.

FALSE.

After the bus station, we cruised around some more getting passengers from the far corners of town. Once, we pulled up to a lady who gave the sort of long and emotional goodbye to her family that is usually reserved for people going off to war in distant lands. She was going 45 miles. After a considerable delay, she finally got on the bus. Then we returned to the market, pulled in forward and again the engine was shut off, the driver disappeared into the maelstrom that defines an upland Indonesian market and nearly everyone got off the bus.

F$%&.

Fifteen minutes later, everyone reappeared and we left. At the edge of town, a lady flagged down the bus then hurried across a large lawn to her house. The driver plus two young guys followed. A few minutes later, they emerged from behind the house with a large sofa and three massive chairs. The tacky furniture consisted of wood frames with red velvet cushions embroidered in a gold design. It looked like something you’d see in a low-end brothel, a Liberaci fever dream or a Carnival cruise ship.

Liberaci Fever DreamHaving already been in the bus for two hours, I decided to use this stop go for a pee. There was a thicket of trees nearby that would make a nice bathroom. I jumped out of the bus and headed for the trees. The driver was on top of the bus lashing down the chairs like a sea captain tending his sails. He said, “TOILET!?” I nodded yes, he semaphored to the home-owner who then waved me over. I went over to a tin-roofed house and used their bathroom. It was very surreal.

Finally, after 2.5 sweaty, frustrating hours, we took off down the road. It was a huge relief. We will get in around 5:30pm, I’ll be there just in time to get a sundowner and we will have the evening free to arrange a boat tour for tomorrow, I thought.

Wait for it…

 

 

FALSE.

This was the most painfully slow journey I’d ever been on. I can’t say I wasn’t warned for I’d read several blog posts attesting to the slowness of the journey, but my mind wouldn’t allow me to think of something this slow and miserable. The road was just wide enough for our bus and when we’d encounter oncoming vehicles someone would have to pull over or back up to let the other pass.

The road was impossibly steep and twisted and turned all the way down the mountain. The brakes spit sibilants in protest and the transmission grumbled like an angry camel. On the rare uphill portions, the engine roared like it was going to explode.

We stopped often for people standing on the side of the road who would flag down the bus, gather their items, say goodbye to their friends, find a spot for their stuff either on the roof or in the crowded interior, then find a place for themselves, which at this point was atop a sack of rice in the aisle. However, the young invincible boys clamored up the back ladder and rode on top with the cargo, legs swinging off the side.

We did indeed arrive to Riung about 5:30pm, but the entire process from Bajawa was done in reverse order. A person in the bus would shout something at our driver who would slam on the brakes. After the bus had come to a complete stop, the passenger would then methodically put on their sandals, gather up all their packages, have a few words with their seat mate, deliberately exit the bus, walk around the front of the vehicle, dig around in their pockets and extract a handful of grubby, wadded bills, hand them to the driver who would then fish around his pockets, tell the passenger that he didn’t have change, then the passenger would search some more and finally correct change would be sorted out. Then the passenger and driver would say goodbye, we’d drive another 15 meters and the process would be repeated. No one it seemed was capable of getting off and walking even the slightest distance and no one was prepared to get off and pay in a timely manner. My frustration had hit the boiling point. I looked around the bus and everyone was as docile as a Hindu cow – no one shared my angst.

Pull Quote FloresWe pulled up to a guesthouse. I was hoping it might be ours. It was not. We unloaded the tacky furniture, which meant that men had to untie the tarp, unfasten the sofa and chairs and delicately lower them down. I had to get out of the bus and walk around; I was on the verge of snapping. When the cargo was unloaded, the driver told me that the next stop would be ours. I could have kissed him.

At 6:45pm, long after sunset, we arrived at our guesthouse, nearly seven hours after we boarded the bus in Bajawa. It was easily the most inefficient bus system I’d ever been on. That was just the beginning. We would end up spending a total of 25 hours in buses on the Island of Flores. Despite this, or maybe because of it, Flores was our favorite island in Indonesia.


Have you ever endured a miserable bus ride while traveling?

 

46 Comments on “From Bajawa to Riung: The Longest 45 Mile Bus Ride on Earth

  1. I once went to South Carolina and Virginia to get to North Carolina via Greyhound, so I can sympathize. I’ve never traveled by bus again!! You probably could have hitchhiked faster.

      • Oh yes. I took buses once from La Ceiba, Honduras, all the way to my hometown in Oklahoma. By far the worst part of the journeys as from El Paso to Oklahoma. They even managed to lose my bag. The flight from El Paso to OKC was cheaper than the bus, I just took the bus to complete the journey by land. I think people on Greyhound are on the fringe of society.

      • Honduras to Oklahoma??? Holy crap. That’s probably worth a post right there.

        After completing grad school, I took greyhound from Flagstaff AZ to Charlotte NC. 52 hours. Never again.

      • Greyhound from Flagstaff to Charlotte must have been horrible. You could have flown in probably 3 hours. But you had some good stories, right? Probably not. I was Greyhound.

  2. Miserable. They do that in Africa too the endless picking up if people. Ten years ago in Laos I had about an 8 hr journey through a very muddy road in the jungle before the Chinese started building roads there – good for transport but they now they also have better acess to steal the forests… Although the journey was slow it was made all the more interesting by a sprightly ‘mud negotiater’ who would hop on and off constantly getting us out, over, and through every sticky situation even when I assumed we woukd be stuck oermanently.

  3. I shared your pain through every stop along the way – perfectly written! Besides the frustration weren’t you also nervous with all the cargo blocking aisles and dodgy roads?

    • We were moving so slow I wasn’t really worried about crashing. I’ve been pinned in the back of buses before where I knew I’d die if we crashed, so this wasn’t that bad in that regard 🙂

  4. What an appalling journey! Painful. I too would have been about to explode. I think it’s just an entirely different mentality than what we’re used to in the ‘west’ – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I can imagine myself practicing meditation and presence as a way to deal. But for 7 hours! Great post. You’re a very good story teller 🙂
    Our worst was from Vientiane to Vang Vieng in Laos when I was wedged in on a kind of put-together seat between the 2 front bucket seats of a van, face about 15 inches from the rearview mirror, and the driver starts playing with 2 cell phones, one in each hand as he’s driving. Scary. http://alisonanddon.com/2013/05/11/laos-part-4-vang-vieng-and-luang-prabang/
    Alison

    • Hahaha! Been there with the driver simultaneously smoking, texting, talking, shifting gears and looking at himself in the mirror while pounding the horn the whole way. You have to give those guys credit for multi-tasking.

      You are right that it is a different mentality. I think they are more patient often times. Plus, they are used to is. I am sure there are things that would drive them crazy in the U.S.

  5. Well, in Bangalore, it takes around 30-45 mins for a 3-4 mile drive to office that too in my own car, without the long route and with only one traffic signal in between.

    Any bus travel which has these kind of routes especially which includes villages in between… timing is one thing they really don’t care about.

    • Wow, 30 min for 3 miles? You must have some insane traffic! You are right, timing isn’t important. I think there is only one bus a day and everyone is more or less used to the slowness.

  6. With only limited time on the island, we knew we couldn’t rely on the buses when we went to Flores. However our worst bus ride was from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. We were told that the trip would take 8 hours, but it ended up 11. Around half of the entire road connecting both cities were pretty much dirt and gravel, and it was a kind of minibus which people used to hop on and off between towns. We shared the space with chickens, fish, and fresh produce. However it is this kind of journeys which will make us laugh at our own ordeal in the past, and we’ll keep telling the story to our parents, friends, children, and grandchildren over and over again.

    • Bama, you are right that those tough journeys are the most memorable. Tragedy + Time = Comedy.

      Truth be told, those 25 hours in Flores were some of the most interesting for sure. I have a post dedicated to the 2nd half of the island, from Riung to Maumere, that I’ll post in a few weeks.

      You are the 3rd commenter to talk about Laos. I’ll have to go there for a truly terrible bus ride!

  7. Oh my goodness, I know this is not funny, but I was chuckling as I was reading this post. Thinking of all of these people & their wares, packing themselves on the bus is hysterical.

    Closest I have come to this experience was a ride to the airport in Antigua. Flying along some back road, packed in like sardines, we were in fits of hysterical laughter, feeling that we were most likely going to die before we ever got on the plane. We actually have it on video…so funny!

  8. I feel your pain, I’ve had similar experience with the stopping and picking up passengers in Indonesia although mine was not as bad or as long as yours was. I would say that it makes for an awesome story to tell and chuckles to share with others then…:)

  9. Haha, glad you ended up going there and that my post didn’t put you off! It was definitely one of the worst journeys I’ve been on, but looking back at it now it’s one of the more memorable ones.

    • Jon,

      Your post told me what to expect, but like you, I couldn’t fathom it would take so long. I am certain that I could have biked there faster. Thanks for sharing this on your blog and giving me insight.

  10. Yikes! That is easily the bus ride from hell. I hope to never experience anything similar.

    On my last day in Taiwan, taking a bus from Keelung to the Taipei airport, the bus stopped in a random bus station in Taipei. The driver waved for me to get off too. Showing my bus ticket and using sign language, I was told by an employee to then get in line – for the bus I had JUST STEPPED OFF OF.

    Where did the bus go? To the airport? No, that would be too easy. We went right back to the Keelung station, where I had to start all over again. Thankfully these were just 35 minute trips, and I had plenty of time to kill before my flight.

  11. What an enjoyable bus ride. Reminds me of my backpacking days in Guatemala and Peru. I can fully understand that it takes a whole day to go 45 miles!

    Brings back memories of sitting next to the big lady eating her dinner almost on my lap while a father sitting by the window (thank god) switched between lifting his son and daughter to the window so they could throw up…The poor kids had to stand the whole trip and they didn’t even reach up to the window. No wonder they got car sick.

    I was also amazed of how many people you can fit into a mini van (not even counting the ones on the roof/on the side). Every time I was like ‘Ok, now there is definitely not room for any more people!’ I was proven wrong.

    Oh, and then there was the night bus (not sure why we chose the cheapest one that only the locals used, we should off course have used one of the tourist buses..) that got stopped by the police with a canine – people disappeared real fast from the bus when the police entered and only half of them came back. The rest disappeared somewhere in the dark …. No more chicken buses for me!

    Thanks for bringing back the memories … I think 🙂

    • Those Guatemalan chicken buses are famous and were my first experience on such transport. That makes for a long journey when the kids are vomiting out the window (or missing in your case.) Gross. That is funny that people didn’t return to the bus, but at least you probably had more space.

      Rule number one of bus travel: There is always room for one more on the bus!

  12. Greyhound from Albuquerque, NM to Green Bay, WI. Over 2 days on a bus. TWO DAYS. I feel your pain, sir.

  13. Jeff I am not sure if I should laugh or cry on your behalf. I think we would agree that often the things that do not go right when we travel afford the best stories. It helps my patience with most everything immensely.

    • It was painful, but I had to remind myself that I was doing it for fun and it was the daily reality for the locals. Plus, there were some awesome beaches at the end.

      Yeah, it was miserable though.

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  15. “everyone was as docile as a Hindu cow” Hahaha 😀 we just get used to it and accepted that – it was a communal understanding 😀
    Anyway, it sounds like Indonesian bus service that I am (was) familiar of! My last backpacking trip with bus was years ago and it was in East Kalimantan in 2005. Ten years ago then. In every corner the bus stopped and waited for potential passengers…and ugh, people were smoking inside the bus back then. I guess nothing much changed even after ten years 🙂

    • Ah yes, I forgot about the smoking. I have a bunch of words written about the Riung to Moni section which may been worse. Loud Dangdut music blaring the whole way!

      But I secretly enjoyed it all.

  16. I understand the frustration you felt since I have had frustrating experiences using inter-city buses back home. You get to the bus station very early and get on a bus that has only five passengers for it to be full and start off. However, what happens? For every passenger that gets on, another ‘passenger’ gets off. Bus crews usually pay people to sit in the bus to make it look full. I remember waiting for six hours one time just waiting for the bus to fill up. I could not get off because passengers have are made to pay as soon as they get on the bus. It is very frustrating but unfortunately, passengers are not protected from such practices.

    • Oh man, that sounds horrible! I waited on some buses in Zambia and Malawi for about an hour, but never six!

      I realize that my bad bus experiences are a daily reality for the locals, and that makes me sad. It must be so annoying to deal with. I think that is also why most locals are more relaxed about it.

      Hopefully things will change there because no one should have to wait six hours and people shouldn’t be paid to make a bus look more full. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Bama has already told you about our epic minivan ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang… the man who organised the whole thing promised it would be faster than the tourist buses. “Only 6 hours,” he said. How wrong he was! The worst part was four consecutive hours of being rattled to the bone. I don’t know how the locals managed to sleep through the whole thing!

    We had a similar toilet experience, except that it was at a gas station and not someone’s house. About an hour later we randomly stopped by the road and all the passengers got off and walked to different bushes to relieve themselves. But we also had the best noodles of the trip at a small roadside stall somewhere along the way. It turned out to be an 11-hour journey but I don’t regret it at all!

    • Those bus rides are hell at the time, but almost always lead to amazing experiences. Laos may have some of the worst mini-buses on Earth.

      Did you ever read Lunatic Express?

      • I haven’t yet, Jeff, but that is a great title! Did you read it before going to Africa?

      • I read it while in India. The author travels around the world on the slowest, most uncomfortable and most dangerous means of conveyance. It is actually quite terrifying!

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  19. …isn’t it kind of funny how we “Westeners” tend to lose our minds when we encounter such experiences? We have a long way to go to learn to relax and just take things the way they are, observe the differences between them and us, and end up being happily calm like that Hindu cow you mentioned 😉 I find it harder to stay calm if I know I’m away for only a few weeks of holidays. When we were traveling with loads of time ahead of us, such experiences would end up being the funnest things ever 🙂

    • Having loads of time certainly makes it easier, doesn’t it. I try to remind myself that although this is miserable for me, this is a daily reality for the people on the bus.

      • The thing is – they seem to be having the least problems with it 😉 I’ve never seen stressed out people on those buses, always just laid back and happy people, on all of the bus rides I’ve taken around the globe. We could learn a lot from them.

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