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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Having 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…
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.
We 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?