The Bus Across Java That Tortured Us Mentally, Physically and Somehow Culturally

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.

44 thoughts on “The Bus Across Java That Tortured Us Mentally, Physically and Somehow Culturally

  1. Wow!!!! I can only imagine this taking place. Thank you for sharing your horror. If I ever get to travel to that part of the world I will definitely check on the quality of my transportation.

  2. LOL! Well, I am Indonesian, and if you want a comfortable ride, my only suggestion is : choose executive bus instead of economy bus. ๐Ÿ˜€

  3. Love the description of the seat covers being “cracked like shattered ice.” At least you were travelling with someone!

    I could truly feel the trauma but it seems you’re already seeing a Doctor so I wish you a speedy rehabilitation ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. as an indonesian, i often feel pity seeing a foreign tourist in a public bus in indonesia. and embarrassed at the same time cause a foreigner witnesses how lousy our buses are. i never suggest anyone, especially foreigners, pick the cheapest bus. even the best bus available is still considered cheap if converted in US$. so why some people pick the worst one, i sometimes don’t get it.

    not all buses are that bad, you just need to be careful pick which one. and ask anyone with better knowledge prior to the trip which company you can count on. or you can choose a “travel mini bus” instead from a reputable company whose condition is definitely much better than the unknown or cheapest public bus.

    i assume the “frenetic, bouncing, percussion-heavy Indonesian karaoke pop music” you mentioned is called “dangdut”. haha! somehow i prefer aqua, as long as it’s not played repeatedly…..

  5. Ahh bus rides… they are crazy all over the world. In California I once sat next to an ex-convict who explained the process of using Etch-A-Sketches to steal debit card numbers. Then he told me I could rest my head on his shoulder.

  6. Ha, ha. That was an enjoying read. I was expecting something else but not something as torturous as ‘Dr Jones, Dr Jones, get up now’. Ha ha ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Guatemala’s city buses are donated American school buses that have been refurbished (really they just get a new coat of spray paint). The drivers aren’t given an hourly wage but are rather paid per person that they carry transport throughout the day. One time, I waited and waited and waited for a bus that wasn’t crammed full of people and it just wasn’t going to happen. I resigned myself to take the next bus, regardless of the “seating arrangement.” Next thing I knew, I was literally hanging off the back of the bus for dear life as we bounced and jostled through the city.

  8. Travel stories are the best! And if everything went smoothly and according to plan, you wouldn’t have any great stories to tell! All part of the adventure. ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. It’s odd to think of complaining about a sleeper bus; I’ve never even seen one in the countries where I’ve lived. In junior high I made the overnight trip from Cali to Medellรญn in the ‘corriente’ bus (much like a school bus) instead of the ‘de lujo’ one with the headrests. I was over 6 feet tall at that point. I folded myself up to try to sleep and got a permanent crease on my shins from the back of the seat in front of me.

    On the other hand… the bus stopped in Buga for the best pandequeso I’ve ever had.

    In the summer of 1979, I spent two months traveling Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, mostly by bus. I tallied up over 100 hours. At one point I fell asleep standing on a bus with my head leaning on my hands which held the bar along the ceiling.

    Interestingly, it was Trailways that made me swear off bus travel. in 1983 I was to meet a friend in Aspen and we were going to ride his motorcycle to Miami, fly to Colombia, and spend the fall semester there. However, he ran into a truck and was killed instantly on his way to Aspen.I took Trailways to Lawrence, KS; then over to Chapel Hill to visit a friend; then down to Miami. 124 hours. The stench of diesel exhaust and the horrible disinfectant in those buses and the rudeness of some of the drivers was worse than anything I ever encountered in Latin America. (Well, maybe the smell of the restroom at the back of the 24-hour bus from Peru to Ecuador came close…)

  10. sadly, that’s the only cheapest option exist. You could call a travel agent to get a better trip. But it’s quite expensive for a backpack traveling.
    enjoy Indonesia however ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. As an Indonesian living in Jakarta, I took that kind of bus almost everyday in rush hour, now that’s torture!
    I’ve took a over load bus and have to hang in the door, with only a foot stepping the bus floor while its speeding at 60-80km/h.

  12. I’d almost forgot Aqua existed until you reminded me.

    Great post. I’m going to follow your blog because I can’t travel like this anymore.

  13. In 1992, I took a bus ride from Kolkata to Nepal. The bus ride was on for 16 days. We travelled every day – either day time or the whole night on bus. The bus that you travelled in looks at least more comfortable than that one…but now, I cherish them. Good old crazy days…

  14. Our people wanted the ride to be cheap, our bus operator wanted to make the most out of the cheap tickets, and our government doesnt give a damn…

    Gotta fight the corruption first to get out of this mess my country is in.

    I really hope we can serve you better the next time you visit us.

  15. Love this post. I’m an air hostess and so when I travel the buses are pretty well sorted. I’ve actually never had an experience like this but deep down I think it’d be a pretty great. Something you can tell your family about when your older, looking back and laughing at it all.

  16. This is what I love about traveling. Being miserable at the time but having a great story later. When I was 17 I was in Georgia (like the country, not the state) and our van was driving up into the mountains through the snow; narrow winding roads that I was positive wouldn’t hold us.

    1. “This is what I love about traveling. Being miserable at the time but having a great story later” – one of the best comments I have ever read. I cant agree more.

  17. I’m Indonesian, so I clearly understand this kind of torture. I hate those busses too. But you have to try to ride the Kopaja or Metro Mini, now that’s more than a torture!
    Anyways, welcome to Indonesia

  18. I think Laos was the worst bus experience I’ve had here in Asia, talk about ridiculous techno on a night bus. Somehow the other tourists on the bus got them to turn it off…at least until about 6am the next morning. Last time in Indonesia I just spent a morning on a longboat with the worst case of food poisoning I have ever had–thank god no techno.

  19. Want a reason not to open bus windows? I was sitting near the back of a bus on the road to Axum many years ago. Normally, buses in that part of Africa stop periodically, guys step to one side and women to other, and when bathroom break is over, the bus ride continues. But this driver was intent on getting to Axum. No stops. Hours rolled by. A very elderly gentleman in the seat in front of me began commenting in words I couldn’t understand…and then fidgeting. I had the window open beside me, a window like the drop down windows on the old yellow school buses. Suddenly the old man couldn’t take it anymore. He stood upon the seat, dropped his window, and let whizzzzz. Desperately, I grabbed at my open window, but I wasn’t fast enough. The bus sped along, the old man whizzed out his window, and the slip-stream carried his whiz in my window, all over me. The rest of that bus ride was…well, awful.

      1. “Gross” only begins to describe it. There’s a lot more to traveling than silk scarves and fast cars. But I got to visit huge portions of the world before jet travel opened up every nook and cranny to tourism, and so I’ll live with the occasional “gross” memory.

  20. I have only been slightly frightened by a bus ride. It was going through the mountains of Mexico through the Andes. The turns were huge and the mountains steep. The arms of the bus driver were wide with muscles from doing this route. I thought if the weather turned bad this would be my last ride and i envisioned sliding down the mountain to my doom. I was lucky just a slight case of sea sickness in the mountains from the turns. What a ride.

  21. Buses are the worst. I live in Ecuador and have taken an overnight bus ride to the coast a few times. During one of these trips, we were pulled over, and it turned out that our bus driver wasn’t actually licensed by the bus company to be driving for them yet. We had to switch to another bus that was already half full. We lost our seats and I ended up sitting next to a smelly weirdo and in front of a guy that decided it was a good idea to listen to his music through the speakers of his phone instead of using headphones, subjecting everyone else on the bus to his horrible reggaeton all night long.

    Just saying, I feel your pain.

    1. Buses can be a nightmare, but also a great way to see your city. During my stays in Latin American countries, I used to get up very early on Sunday mornings and hop on a city bus, carefully noting where I got on. Early Sundays the buses are deserted. I’d ride the bus its full loop ;and get off when I got back to the starting point. The loop will generally get you into parts of the city you won’t venture to otherwise. Take along something to write notes on for when you spot something interesting. For example, I found the zoo in Lima this way. After a few Sunday mornings, you’ll know lots about the city where you’re living. If there’s a street boy available, hire him to guide you and tell you about things along the way. Find a kid in your neighborhood you like and hire him each Sunday. Your kindness will get you in good with the whole local group of street kids…and believe me, they know who’s who in the neighborhood. If they like you, they’ll protect you (to a limited degree of course) because you’re a source of income and survival for them.

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