Throughout our gap year we had some challenging journeys including a 32 hour train trip on hard wooden seats and overnight bus journeys where it was not possible to move due to the amount of people and their associated possessions. However, all of these journeys paled into insignificance compared with one bus journey we took in Sumatra.
Our ordeal started when we got to the travel agent where we had purchased the bus ticket. From the travel agency we first had to get an opelet to the bus station in Bukittinggi. Opelets are a sort of cross between a minibus and a pickup truck that has a set route and picks up and drops off people anywhere along the set route. It took an age to get to the bus station as we ended up going the long way around the town first. Once at the bus station we were instantly pestered to pay money. We couldn’t work out at first what it was for and whether we were getting conned but we eventually realised it was transport tax and as it was only the equivalent of 5p it just didn’t matter. We then had the normal touts trying to sell us tickets even though we had already purchased them. They all seemed willing to help even though it wasn’t with their specific company. The general consensus was that the bus hadn’t arrived yet but it would stop ‘there’, they pointed.
We sat on the edge of the square that made up the bus station and watched. To our left there was a large bus fully laiden with passengers and luggage but with with running repairs going on. In front of us buses would come in at a rate of knots and just stop anywhere – there didn’t seem to be any organisation. Eventually the bus to our left was apparently mended and it disappeared but in a great cloud of smoke.
The whole of the bus station was filthy and covered in litter. Someone was attempting to sweep up all the litter but instead he just swept it all under one of the stationary buses which, soon afterwards, left resulting in all the litter being blown across the bus station again. The scheduled time for the bus to leave came and went and our bus still hadn’t arrived. We asked someone and they suggested 6pm, an hour late – not too bad considering. Soon afterwards a bus with the correct company name came in at great speed, swung around and left by the exit. We hoped that wasn’t our bus! One of my travelling companions decided to go and have a look around just in case we had missed anything. He walked around the block and back into the entrance of the bus station – only to have to pay the transport tax again!
Eventually our bus turned up and we got on with minimal hassle. Once on I knew that this was going to be the journey to hell, due to the fact that the bus was full of cigarette smoke. This was a slight shock as we had specifically asked if there was a non smoking bus and were assured that this one was! Indonesian cigarettes were incredibly strong and foul-smelling and actually made European ones seem pleasant in comparison. Everyone in the country seemed to chain smoke. We saw one old man sitting across the aisle from us smoke four in a row, lighting the next one from the stub of the last. He would then have a five-minute break and then start up again!
No sooner had we got to the outskirts of the town the bus then stopped for a scheduled break. We sat around and then made the discovery that the bus was infested with beetles! After about half an hour the bus journey started and we then had to endure the noise. Music was played at high volume until 10:30pm when they then decided to put a film on. Even though we couldn’t understand the film it appeared to be one of the most pathetic films ever with slap-stick humour which the rest of the bus were heartedly laughing at. After a restless night’s sleep we were woken up to more music and instantly the bus passengers were chain-smoking again. The only way to partially deal with the smoke was to have the air conditioning full on and directed straight at my face.
We then had the misfortune of missing our stop. The bus conductor shouted “Parapet”, the name of our stop and we all thought, great we were soon going to be there. What we didn’t know was that we should have shouted back that we wanted to get off. This was a bit of a surprise given that we he had collected our bus tickets which specifically stated where we were going so really they should have known. Anyway when we realised what had happened it was too late and we then had to head on to the next town which was approximately 45 minutes further along.
We were dropped off at the bus station that only served the specific bus company we had been travelling with. As we didn’t know where the other bus stations were we waited to see if a bus going in the opposite direction turned up. There was a sort of cafe there but when we tried to buy food they indicated that it only served food in the evening and they couldn’t sell us any drinks because they were locked in the fridge!
Eventually after an hour an opelet arrived and we were told to get in: we assumed that this was going to take us back to Parapet, but it started off in the opposite direction and the driver didn’t speak any English! Five minutes later we arrived at the main bus station where we were instantly surrounding by people trying to sell us tickets to anywhere under the sun. We followed one guy to a minibus who instantly put all of our bags in the boot, even thought the door would then not shut, and we squeezed in. There were way to many people in the minibus and on the way we ended up picking up more. At one point we ended up with 17 people in a 10-seater with our luggage and everyone elses shopping including a sack of rice. The only redeeming feature was that the other passengers were all women who did not smoke.
Once back at Parapet we thought we knew where we wanted to get the ferry across the lake to Tuk-Tuk, but the driver of the minibus had other ideas and took us to another harbour – presumably so we could buy tickets from their consortium. We concluded that was also why we had to wait over an hour for the previous opelet. After buying the ticket we were then told that we needed to book onward tickets as we would not be able to do this over at Tuk-Tuk. We concluded that this was unlikely and so ignored them and got on the boat. We wanted to get on the one that already had people on it but were told that this was not possible. The boat with the people on it left soon afterwards and we were left to wait for another hour during which time we were continuously hassled by touts for the hotels at Tuk-Tuk. Eventually we left but it didn’t take long to realise that we were going to go by the extended route and not the directly across the lake, during which time we were still being hassled by one tout to stay at a particular hotel.
We eventually got to Tuk-Tuk, only to be told that this was the only place the boat would stop and therefore we had to get off. This was conveniently at the hotel the tout was promoting. After the boat left we could see that they had been lying to us and that they were going to stop further on. The boat droped us off directly at the hotel and you have no choice but to walk through the hotel. After all the hassle we had received there was no way we were going to stay there and so walked straight through the hotel, onto the small road. The hotel owner was looking at us very puzzled but quite frankly we were exceedingly fed up by this point. It was now 2pm and we should have arrived before 9am. Anyway after walking a short way down the road we found a lovely place with spacious rooms, on-suite bathroom, hot shower and balcony overlooking the lake, all for £1.50.
It may sound from some of the blogs that I have written so far that we ended up with lots of unpleasant experiences while travelling. Travelling on a budget certainly can be challenging at times but these experiences do seem to stick in the memory and become the stories that you tell years after the event has taken place. They are interspersed with many amazing experiences of places seen and people met. But a travel blog based on visiting the main sights of a particular country is likely to be very similar to the next blog. These experiences of life in another country, getting hassled and trying not to be conned is what makes the experience unique to you…