Back in the early nineties while in my fifties I went backpacking in Asia for about four years with many memorable adventures. I had spent a year before leaving studying and learning a lot about close-up magic, juggling and stuff, which stood me well in my journey. In going through some of my old travel journals I came across a particular bus ride………….. [an excerpt from chapter fourteen of ‘The Magic Man’].
&nb sp; The Sulawesi Express
In the morning I took a walk out to Masamba and bought a bus ticket for Manado. Had to go to three different banks to get money changed, but finally got it all done. Did lots of goodbye sorcery for the locals back in Palu, then hopped the bemo to the Masamba bus terminal and spent about an hour doing tricks and juggling for the folks there until the bus was ready to go. It was about 4:00 p.m. when the bus was scheduled to leave, but alas there was no bus. “Maybe at 5.00 or maybe at 5:30… it will be here” they told me, and I remembered they are on ‘rubber time’ in Indonesia.
Around the same time, a German fellow about my age named Manfred, who seemed to be a very well seasoned traveler, showed up. He was also going up to Manado, and said he thought that the bus ride would be fifteen hours to Gorantalo and another seven to Manado. I figured it would take about twice that long and we finally got underway a little after 5:30 p.m., the bus being mostly empty. One thing that did surprise us was that they had designated seats so Manfred, who was well over six feet, made sure he had a seat with lots of legroom and I got a window seat on the other side of the bus. There were three near-idiots up front as revolving drivers, and shortly after we started they let fly with the stereo. The ‘music’, which was obnoxious in itself, was much too loud for the long row of small speakers down each side of the bus and the overload volume totally distorted anything that came out of them. When we told the drivers to “turn it down” they found that very funny and had a good laugh about it, but the music did not subside. Our bus tickets even included a free meal which was quite unusual, and when we stopped for supper I took that opportunity to chat with Manfred. After we ate and had discussed the conditions of our trip so far, we concluded it was upon us to adjust the volume on those aforementioned speakers. We returned to the bus and taking out our trusty Swiss Army knives we deftly cut the speaker wires in several places from front to back. Neither one of us was a licensed electrician, but our efforts seemed quite successful as we heard nothing more from those speakers around us again. That being said, the drivers still had a little speaker on the dash which they kept turned up at a distorting volume all night. They never could figure out what had gone wrong with the other speakers, as they continued picking up more passengers along the way until the bus got quite full.
The following day, being the summer solstice, was technically the longest day of the year, which turned out to be true in more ways than one. I don’t think anyone on the bus got any sleep as the drivers were totally nuts, partying all the way with their only two tapes, both of which they kept blasting all night long on their lone-remaining palm-sized speaker bouncing on the front dash. By then Manfred, who had a great sense of humour about the whole bus ride so far, got chatting with me through the night. Sometime around 3:00 a.m. the bus stopped for about two hours where the three drivers got off to apparently get considerably more intoxicated, or at least try. Then we took another seven hours – to 10:30 a.m. – where they mercifully stopped for breakfast. Another three hours until we arrived in Gorantalo at 2:00 p.m. in a torrential downpour, some twenty hours after we were supposed to have started.
In Gorantalo we were informed that we would have to leave this bus and change to another one for Manado. The expected waiting time was about two hours…… (rubber time, of course). We were then all herded from the bus to a tiny concrete room with no benches to wait the two odd hours, while the rain poured around us. Some fellow came by with our new tickets to Manado, however they had different seat assignments from what we had before. They had put the two of us, the only foreigners, at the very back of the bus where there was absolutely no legroom. When our objections were ignored, Manfred just refused to be shoved to “the back of the bus!”, to which the driver retorted sarcastically, “Tough luck!” Obviously, they didn’t know Manfred.
We decided to wait for the bus – expected at 4:00 p.m. (yeah, right) – and then just muscle our way on considering we were both bigger than anyone else around. No bus came at 4:00 p.m. or at five or at six or at seven, but to our surprise at about 7:30 p.m. our bus finally showed up. The entire bus terminal had been packed with passengers throughout the afternoon, and ours was the very last bus to come in. By then the boys in the terminal were well aware of the fact that Manfred intended to re-assume his old seat assignment on the new bus, and they were all huddled around each other spending considerable time and effort discussing how they were going to prevent this from happening. In the meantime, we had drawn a huge crowd in the bus lot: Manfred for his seating assignment venture and of course me for the close-up stuff. All the while we were waiting I had been flirting with Ending and Fitri, two beautiful young locals, and when the bus came up we exchanged addresses and promised to write.
The bus guys figured that we, being foreigners, wouldn’t understand what they were saying. But Manfred was pretty fluent in Bahasan Indonesian, having done a lot of traveling over the years in that country, and his understanding of the language wasn’t bad. When the bus did roll up to our spot, about eight of these guys had hatched a ‘foolproof’ plan that would keep the two foreigners from getting their old seats back. Of course by then Manfred had figured out their perfect plan, and as the bus pulled up in front of the crowd the two of us bullied our way in through the side entrance; Manfred getting his old seat with the leg room by the side door, and I got my old window seat back as the bus started to fill up. The bus guys, having been duped, ordered everyone off the bus where they then locked the side door and actually took Manfred’s seat right out of the bus, leaving only the bare springs!
Then the ‘bus boys’ stood by the rear entrance to block Manfred and I from getting on while all the locals were ushered on to take their assigned seats. This did little good as Manfred, standing at about 6’3” just pushed everyone aside, including the irate ‘bus boys’ and got on the bus, went to his seat, and sat down on the springs! Meanwhile we hatched a plan, which was honed and executed with Fitri and Ending and it seemed most of the locals were supporting us in our efforts. I went around behind the bus to the back door and got into a heated argument with the ‘bus boys’ over our seats, which was actually just a diversion to distract their attention as they hardly understood any of my English anyhow. Fitri and Ending grabbed the seat that the bus boys had removed from where Manfred now sat on just the springs, and while the ‘bus boys’ were occupied arguing with me, the girls passed the seat in through the window to Manfred, who reinstalled it to the applause of all the folks around the bus and to the chagrin of the ‘bus boys’. Now Manfred had a big seat all to himself. My seat had been taken up by a family who were pretty well sitting on my backpack by then as it was wedged in front of the seat. At this point, no one was interested in sitting anywhere near Manfred, and I couldn’t blame them. I finally got on the bus and sat at the very back in quite an uncomfortable seat and eventually the bus headed out and we started picking up people along the way. Still no one wanted to sit beside Manfred, and they were running out of seats. I continued doing sleight of hand for the passengers, and each time we stopped there were tricks for the locals that gathered around the bus. We two foreigners were getting quite popular, even with the new drivers that had come on board. They finally came back to me and asked if I would like to sit up next to Manfred where all the legroom was, because this of course would give them several more seats to fill up. As Manfred said, all this could have been done in the first place, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun as the way we ended up doing it.
The best part of this leg of our trip was that the stereo on this bus was actually broken by then, which didn’t upset us in the least. We stopped to eat about 10:00 p.m.; which was our first meal in the past twelve hours. Right after supper we boarded the bus again and then were immediately ordered off. It wouldn’t start! We all got behind it and pushed it for a jump start, and after about a half-an-hour of failures the drivers crawled underneath, trying to figure out what was wrong. When they had supposedly repaired some wiring, we were off – again. Around the first corner and the bus came to a dying halt, and we all got out for another half-an-hour while the driver crawled under it – again. A while later we were off – again.
Very early in the morning, we were racing along (and I mean racing) when everyone up front started yelling madly and screaming at the driver as it was apparent we were driving along halfway off the road. The driver was fast asleep at the wheel, and the frantic passengers even had trouble waking him up. After shaking him hard, since they still wouldn’t change drivers, he got back on the road. A bit later, he pulled off the road to clear his head and, of course the bus conked out again. We went through the thing of repairs for a half-an-hour and we were off – again. A short time later everyone was yelling at the driver – again; he was fast asleep – again, and we were now off the road and headed across some field towards trees. Yes, trees.
We finally got him back on the road and discovered why his relief driver wasn’t driving. That was the one who was lying on a piece of cardboard in the aisle of the bus, and he was too drunk to wake up, let alone drive! We couldn’t stop again and let the driver have a nap for if we did, the bus would stall, so the people up front kept a constant vigil all night taking turns keeping the driver awake for the rest of the journey. Recall Manfred saying that the only thing that hadn’t gone wrong on this ride was that we hadn’t had a flat tire….. Sure enough a few minutes later the bus began bumping its way to a stop with a flat but we had to keep the bus running while they changed it.
We finally got into Manado about 9:00 a.m., about forty hours of traveling, which was nothing compared to Manfred who had come all the way from Poso, so he had an extra whole day of traveling. We could see that the local sharks were waiting for us in Manado, being the only foreigners, for the terminal people told us 5,000 rupiah for a cab to town, which of course was ridiculous. We walked about a hundred meters out to the road and flagged down a cab for 250 rupiah.
I followed Manfred around looking for a room as my guidebook didn’t really do too well in Northern Sulawesi. Manfred found a nice hotel room that was in his German guidebook for half the price of the room advertised in my book, and instead of sleep which Manfred needed even more than I did, we showered and headed straight for the Pelni office. Manfred obviously wanted to team up and get lots done, and he wasn’t one for wasting time. As a photographer he was fascinated by the shots the magic created on the faces of the locals and was constantly snapping with his lens peering over my shoulder.
We got our tickets for the Pelni ship to Irian Jaya, went to the immigration office and the tourist office which was a couple of hours of steady walking, changed some money and checked out the local ferry over to the island we wanted to explore and go diving at. Finally I got a short afternoon nap. Manfred then introduced me to some new foods and taught me how to get the hot red peppers out of it, which he loved and got. That night after tons of conjuring and a great supper, I finally spent a couple of hours catching up my diary over what had happened in the past few days on the bus.
(Manfred and I spent the few weeks in Irian Jaya together, before he headed back to Jakarta and I went on to Papua New Guinea. We have kept in touch ever since these twenty odd years, and he still backpacks each winter, mostly in India now.)