The Back of the Bus
Travel Stories: Laurie Gough reflects on a classic travel experience: The bus ride through a developing country. Cue the bumps, flat tires and Lionel Richie tunes in the jungles of Sumatra.
03.17.08 | 4:43 PM ET
I usually love bus rides in developing countries, the bumpy joy of rattling along, the strangeness around every corner, the excitement of the passengers at the pure joy of living—we’re off!—the cacophony of music, the occasional goat onboard, the narrow jungle roads. As I boarded, and found myself in the exact same spot as the last bus—the back corner on the bench, this time next to five teenage boys—I reminisced about my bus rides in Morocco through the Atlas Mountains where the passengers clapped and sang for the entire journey, or the bus rides in Fiji where I watched big hairy men dressed as women, or a bus ride in Malaysia where a woman next to me cooked an entire meal at her feet on a little stove, or another bus ride in Malaysia where the woman next to me vomited into her sari and held the contents there for the rest of the trip. Perhaps not all bus rides were ideal. But this Sumatra bus had potential because we’d be hurtling over steep mountains of tropical forest as we made our way west.
Our bus was the usual ramshackle collection of rusty metal filled with people and their various cargoes of bundles, boxes and babies. As we drove through the outskirts of the city, fumes billowing beneath us, and headed into the mountains, it became obvious that much of the road was under repair, and the unrepaired stretches were in atrocious condition, perhaps impassable in places. The bus had no suspension and the back of the bus, where I was, suffered the worst of this bone-jarring journey. The driver must have thought he was in a race, flying around corners on what was often just a single-lane road, his only concession to safe driving being an occasional honk of his horn. I was relieved to note, however, that despite the bumpy ride over treacherous terrain, none of the passengers nearby was vomiting, a practice Indonesians are known for on buses. To accompany the entertainment feature of being thrown around as if on an amusement park ride, a speaker directly over my head began to blare whining and nasal Eastern music at full distorted volume. Occasionally, an old Lionel Richie hit was thrown in for variety.
As the hours passed we cut a swath backwards through time into the roughest country imaginable, jungle-covered mountains, mud houses with crumbling walls clinging to cliffs, and deep steamy canyons. With every mile the trappings of the modern world lessened as the surroundings became wilder. On a torn piece of paper, the teenage boy next to me sketched a tiger, leaned across my lap to hold the picture up to the window, and shouted something like, “Roar!” I laughed with him and his friends, hoping we’d catch a glimpse of a tiger lurking in the jungle beyond. I was in wild Sumatra, where gruesome traffic deaths were an hourly occurrence and where pigs charged out of the bush. Some neglected part of my brain stirred from the exhilaration of being a stranger in a faraway land and I realized this must be what I came for, to cross over to the unknown.
It grew dark as we penetrated deeper into the jungle and I felt as if I were leaving my old life further and further behind, that I was as secluded from the world as I’d ever be. We jolted over the mud road, the bus raging through the night like a big clumsy animal. As the road became rougher, so the driver’s attack on it became more zealous as he charged headlong into the potholes. I’m sure I spent as much time airborne as in my seat. Next to me, the boys chain smoked clove cigarettes, talking amongst themselves, and often watching me and giggling. They spoke a little English, and, thinking I’d try to save their young lungs and mine, I told them that in North America, it was no longer cool to smoke. They seemed to find this fact fascinating and I think actually believed me because—coolness being the reason teenagers smoke in the first place—they didn’t smoke for some time after that. Later, down the road, we all jumped in fright when a loud bang fired beneath us. This could only mean that bandits were shooting at us, or, we had a flat tire.
It took over an hour to fix the tire. All the men got off the bus to see the flat tire for themselves, leaving me, by this time the only female passenger, alone and finally with enough room on the bench to sleep. Eventually the men and teenagers returned, a heightened sense of gusto and camaraderie surrounding them after what I assumed was a group effort in the repair, and the bus resumed its mad course.
Hours later, we stopped at an all-night market in the jungled middle of nowhere. I wondered how such commotion and frenzy could occur in this remote place at such a dark hour. Staring out the window, I felt as if I were dreaming, my surroundings as dense with strangeness as the jungle itself. I got off the bus, walked straight through the open stares of people and their curiously wide-awake children, and bought some bottled water, spiky red fruit and pistachios. Like many midnight markets it was full of noise, people chatting and eating, wandering dogs, and enticing tropical smells, but since I had no idea how long we were stopping, I rushed back to my bus so it wouldn’t leave without me. Cracking pistachios and waiting for the bus to leave, I watched people out the window as they laughed, gossiped, and bargained with merchants, as children chased each other, darting around wheelbarrows. A circle of men were engaged in a heated debate, their voices rising up through the crowd, while some women looked on in pride at the antics of their rambunctious kids. I thought of how humans the world over are essentially the same, our bodies bright sparks of wilderness evolved over millions of years, wholly made to absorb and discover the earth and each other. Finally the bus driver returned and we tore off again.
At the next night market, I got off to stretch my legs for just a few minutes and had to run back when I saw my bus pulling away. I made it just in time. It was nerve racking not speaking the language, not knowing what was going on, but I soon learned that my fellow passengers didn’t always know either. The bus driver was leaving the stops on a whim. At one market, he only stopped for a minute—luckily I stayed on that time—but two of the teenage boys on the bench had gotten out and didn’t make it back before we took off. The other three boys began shouting at the driver. The driver slowed down, hesitated for a moment as if he were going to relent, then changed his mind, yelled something back and stepped on it full throttle, continuing his obsessive rage into the darkness and leaving the two boys forsaken back at the stop.
Remarkably, two hours later, when we stopped again, the same two forsaken boys reappeared on our bus, next to me as before, and to this day, I have no idea how they caught up to us. In any case, I was impressed, even if it did mean having to sit up on the bench again, squeezed into the corner, and tired beyond comprehension.
“We’re gonna’ have a party, all night long. All night, all night long, all night…” Lionel Richie sang overhead, mocking me.
We continued into the night, forging across an island that was discouragingly large, approximately the size and shape of California, but without California’s pleasant roads. A video at the front had been showing Kung Fu movies with no sound. When the Kung Fu finished, the driver’s assistant, a man wearing a little suit jacket, put in a Chinese porno and turned to the enthusiastic passengers with a toothy smile. I looked around at the passengers. The unsettling awareness came over me that not only was I the only woman on board in the middle of a jungle at four in the morning, but I was a foreigner who nobody in that part of the world would notice missing, and I was, like the actress in the movie, white and friendly—although certainly not as friendly as she was. What if they wanted a real life reenactment? Some men on the bus turned around to watch for my reaction and giggle nervously. They also giggled at every sex scene, these Muslim men who were evidently far less fundamentalist than men in other parts of the Islamic world. I considered leafing through my guidebook to see if they had any advice, tips for the foreign woman who finds herself surrounded by 40 horny men in the jungle. Tell a joke? Fake an epileptic fit? I soon realized I had nothing to worry about with these shy men. The movie had lousy acting, a feeble plot and some very odd squealing scenes which didn’t seem natural. This was entertainment to divert attention from the bus ride, I told myself. I looked over at the teenage boys whose eyes were glued to the small screen. They’d started smoking again.