English teacher Daniel Pope recalls his 1997 nightmare journey from Bintan to Jakarta.
It began with a motorcycle accident. I lost control of my rented bike while negotiating a cliff-top bend and landed in the roadside gravel, just short of a steep drop into the sea. That near miss was merely a portent of coming catastrophes.
The coastal roads of Bintan Island, lesser known neighbour of that sinful playground for Singaporean weekenders, Batam, were deserted and shouldn’t have posed a problem for even the most unskilled of riders. I put my accident down to being unaccustomed to carrying heavy baggage on the back of a bike. I also discovered how nastily gravel can shred a bare knee.
It was that shredded knee that led me the next day to be hobbling onto a ferry operated by state-owned shipping firm Pelni for the three-day journey back to Jakarta, where I worked as an English Language instructor. My occupation should serve as an indication of why I wasn’t flying. Back in the mid-1990s, in the days before budget airlines flew to other cities and occasionally into the sea or the side of a mountain, ships were the cheapest form of inter-island transportation. And teaching didn’t pay much. Especially not to those new to the game. This also explains why I was travelling economy class.
The prospect of spending three days on a narrow bunk in the innards of a Pelni ferry, crammed together with a crowd of staring fellow passengers, is bleak at the best of times. While I was luckier than those spreading out their blankets in cramped corridors or stairways, I was constantly swatting flies away from my festering knee, and crushing cockroaches underfoot. My legs were not as sound against the lurching of the deck as I had supposed. I had soon had enough. I abandoned ship at Batam, a mere three hours later, just as the gangplank was being hauled in.
I decided it would be more comfortable to return home overland. This necessitated getting to Sumatra via a mere nine-hour journey on a small air-conditioned ferry. As I limped off that boat, I caught a touch of the sun. Being a newcomer to the tropics, I had never before experienced such scorching sunlight. The complete absence of shaded shelter was unbearable and caused me to panic. Being British, I should have waited patiently in the queue, which was more of a shoving mob, to board one of the minibuses that had arrived to pick us up. To say that I jumped the queue would be incorrect. In my desperation, I totally obliterated it, leaving people to pick up themselves and their strewn belongings.
Roads to the city of Pekanbaru, capital of Riau province, were not the best in Indonesia in those days. The bus ride was even choppier than the seagoing vessels I’d been on. As our convoy lurched, swayed and bucked onward, I perspired heavily while clinging to the seat in front of me. Then I encountered some good fortune. I say this because it was the bus ahead that tipped over onto its side, not ours. No such luck for the boy standing in the dust next to the wreckage with blood dripping off him, or the bloodied girl clambering from a shattered window, or the injured soldier helping a distraught old woman to her feet. But we didn’t stop. We extended no assistance. Our bus just lurched on by. It appeared that the fallen on this trail were left where they dropped.
A stopover in Pekanbaru seemed sensible and The Lonely Planet Indonesia guidebook directed me to a backpacker hotel that promised comfort, cheer and cold beer. To get there, I boarded a public minivan. The vehicle was cramped and crowded but the passengers were enormously helpful, bundling my bags on for me, squeezing themselves further back to give me room, and providing conflicting but altogether useful directions to the hotel. I found it heart-warming that people could be so helpful to a stranger. I thanked them heartily, shaking a clutch of proffered hands as I reached my stop, hopping from the vehicle with my bags. It seemed appropriate to wave as the vehicle sped off. Such splendid people. It took me a few seconds to discover that I had been waving goodbye to my wallet.
After spending an hour on a public phone cancelling credit cards, reporting a stolen ID, and getting a friend to wire me money (I had some cash stashed separately, but not enough to get me back), I finally reached the hotel selling the cold beer. Time to relax. Among the assortment of backpackers and skinflint holiday-makers, invariably Dutch, I got talking to a German who was riding his motorbike across Sumatra. Just why he was doing this, I never did find out, but he had some fascinating tales, none of which there are room for in this tale. During the night, for reasons unknown, he fell through my door as I slept, trod on my scabbing knee, apologised for intruding, and staggered out again. I didn’t really hear his apology. I was distracted by the agony of all that healing undone by the dirt-encrusted sole of a German motorcycle boot.
My next night’s sleep was aboard a bus heading for Jakarta, a 36-hour journey. Reclining in my seat, with the lights out, I began to drift off to the gentle sound of crunching gear changes. But this was not a regular bus. This was an ‘executive’ one. And as such, it had certain dues. Unpaid in this case. Had I known that the bus company had not paid the thugs who ruled the territory we were passing through, and consequently that our safe passage could not be guaranteed, I would not have been so relaxed. The abrupt sight of an asteroid shooting just inches past by my left ear was accompanied by the sound of shattering glass and screeching brakes as the driver halted the bus, then thought better of it and proceeded to the next village. There was a hole where the window had been and a bloodied empty seat where the unlucky passenger had been sitting. A brick chucked at a speeding bus will do that. We spent two hours at the village police station.
I reached Jakarta without further incident. Perhaps my sudden return to prayer had helped. I was a week late back to work from my Bintan holiday. I soon had trouble remembering the actual holiday but not the homeward journey. My injured knee began to heal nicely, though for many weeks I had to contend with a scab resembling an elephant’s kneecap.
And what did I learn from this succession of mishaps and near misses? Nothing. As far as I’m concerned, I didn’t put a foot wrong. I made it through those slings and arrows. And I’d still recommend travelling around Indonesia on a budget. You just have to learn how to rough it and be lucky. Seriously.