THE REALIZATION THAT YOU WILL spend the next six hours (maybe seven? It’s not really clear) on a bus that certainly, at one point, has transported convicts to death row, and is indeed still probably haunted by their ghost terrors, is a sort of badge of honour in the travel world, something to offer a quick anecdote around the hostel dining table.
“Oh yeah?” pipes up someone, probably from behind a beard. “That’s nothing. Once I rode a donkey across a mine field in east Bangladesh for 24 hours, and we only stopped to go to the bathroom twice.”
To which everything else would grin and nod their heads, preparing their own story.
Sure, I’ve had shitty bus rides. They were rough — a sleeper in Laos with beds too short for my legs to ever fully extend, or the one where our tire popped at 3 in the morning and everyone filed out to help or pee or watch others work for an hour, or the time V and I were almost ditched at the Vietnam border.
But, man, this bus. This. Fucking. Bus.
The white rubber seat covers were cracked like shattered ice. Overhead, three spare yellow bulbs — one of which only turned on intermittently — lit up what was otherwise a ride kept in darkness by the top windows painted black and shut. We pried some open at first, but the ticket boy — a lithe and handsome kid with the scrawny frame of an indie drummer and a pen tucked behind his puffy hair — closed them all, perhaps delusionally believing the bus to be air conditioned. Two broken blue water bottles dangled from the pipe nailed into the ceiling with no clear purpose. The floor was pure sheet metal.
I can describe the aspects of this bus, but not the psychological horror V instilled in us by recalling stories of bus rapes in India and the like. Sure, here were families sitting in the front, but also lone strange men in the back who leered at us silently.
We made our first stop at 10:30, when half the bus ran to piss at a gas station, replaced by a parade of vendors selling dried jackfruit and rice chips. A guitarist with well-coiffed hair stood in the front and crooned a traditional-sounding ballad beside his friend who clapped along and collected money.
The second stop came at around 2 in the morning, outside the city of Probolinggo. After a quick announcement, everyone rushed off to get on another bus, which was already half-full, and would carry us the remainder of the way, another three hours.
V and I were not quick enough to get a seat, so much of our ride was spent standing in the aisle, our minds distracted by the frenetic, bouncing, percussion-heavy Indonesian karaoke pop music blared nonstop, perhaps, by a driver afraid that anyone might somehow fall asleep on this ride.
But that was not the worst part. The worst, in twist worthy of M. Night Shamylan, was when the driver somehow ran out of Indonesian karaoke pop hits, and replaced the early morning soundtrack with a sequence of — I cannot make this up — AQUA’s greatest and only hits, from Roses Are Red to My Oh My and Barbie Girl (twice!).
We are, in fact, still humming Doctor Jones even now, two days later, and that, dear readers, has been the real torture.