To travel with your eyes and ears open leads to safety. However, sometimes, barefaced stupidity and ignorance does the trick. Here is my story:
I was on my way to Cipanas in central Java, some 100km south of Jakarta. My flying pals and me had done our homework — the best way was by plane to Jakarta, then train to Bogor, then a taxi the last few kms in the shadow of the extinct Gunung Gede volcano. We hoped it was extinct; we were due to fly off it as part of the Indonesian Paragliding Championships later that week.
However, due to a variety of issues, I arrived a bit late into Jakarta. By the time my taxi had escaped the jams round the airport, fought the jams into the city and hooted its way through more jams back out to the railway station, the train had gone. With all my mates on it.
I asked at the ticket office — berikutya tren (next train)? The pyjama-wearing official laughed. “Tidak tren” (no train). Oh dear. By this time my heavy paraglider pack, the heat and noise and humidity plus a pressing crowd of onlookers delighting at a foreigner not getting exactly what they wanted, when they wanted, were all wearing me down a touch.
After feeling sorry for myself for a while, and not having a freaking clue of what to do in the middle of a surging, chattering, smoking and barging crowd which took as much delight spitting bright red betel juice at my feet as they did in staring at me, I found a man who offered a solution. The answer, he said, was the bus. It would be slower than the train, but it would get me to Cipanas by morning. As it was late afternoon by then, that didn’t seem terribly attractive. But I had no option, so agreed and bought a one way ticket at a booth outside the station.
After an hour or so of sitting waiting, sweating gently, the bus arrived. About 20 people climbed on board, throwing their bags randomly into the lockers and opening and spreading newspaper-sized food packs all across their neighbouring seats. I opted for a seat at the back of the bus out of range of the food blizzard, took out a book and settled in for the journey. The seat wasn’t that bad, the windows were all jammed open so there was a cooling breeze once we got going, and the road (to begin with) was reasonably surfaced. My alternative travel plan seemed to be going well. Then darkness fell; it was as though somebody had switched the lights off.
By this time we were well outside the city and into a full-on blackout. Out in rice paddy country there were no lights at all, anywhere; the bus chugged onwards into an unknowable horizon. The road had deteriorated into a suspension-battering obstacle course. The open windows allowed gigantic buzzing insects by the thousand to dive in and batter everybody around the head. I had no idea where we were going. My positive attitude began to evaporate. I knew that by now the rest of our team would be sipping chilled beers and tucking into tangy tropical fingerfood as they lounged in Cipanas’s famously envigorating thermal springs.
Then the extra stops began. In the absolute middle of nowhere, far away from houses, villages, even minor-road turn-offs, the bus would judder to a stop. A couple of grubby looking guys would climb on board, holding bags of very sad looking, almost rotten fruit and food. Oranges, bananas, sometimes rice in a banana leaf. All disgusting.
But the weird thing was, everybody on the bus would buy some stuff from the boarders, despite them having a full larder already spread over the nearby seats. The grubby team — it was never just one guy — would then get off the bus and we would grind back into motion. This happened multiple times; probably about half a dozen. By this time I was getting grumpy; I felt a wave of irritation at the repeated rotten fruit interruptions. Every time, the guys came down the aisle offloading their rubbish bags in return for a few notes from each of the (literally) fed up passengers. They then looked at me, the only non-local on the bus, gesturing I should do the same. I refused, and did so every time the bus stopped.
At the next roadside stop, actual sit-down passengers materialised. A small group of rugged-booted students got on, carrying hiking packs and wearing David Attenborough shirts covered with bulging pockets, dangling penknives and compasses. They waded through the crusty carpet of cast-off peelings, paper, and rejected fruit bags that by now almost blocked the aisle. I obviously stuck out like a sore thumb at the back, because they came straight up and sat next to me, asked me if I spoke English.
They said they wanted to improve their language skills, and were keen to find out where I came from, what my name was, where I was going, and why. It was a welcome relief from the stop-start tedium of our slow journey. Before long, we were interrupted once again by the bus grinding to a halt in the middle of nowhere. A trio of scruffy bag-carriers came on, and as usual, started offloading crap onto the other passengers. They came up to the back of the bus, and after a brief conversation sold suppurating bags of organic matter to my new student pals. I, as per normal, refused, shaking my head and using mime to intimate their products were so far below my trading standards expectations I might vomit.
The scruffies got off the bus, we restarted our journey and the students looked at each other without speaking for a while, before asking me “Do you know who those men were?” I told them I had no idea, but their produce was always utter crap, and I’d never buy any of it. “They are very bad men,” blanched the students. “They can hurt you if you do not buy.”
It turned out the rotten food dudes were modern-day highwaymen. They would lie in wait for a suitably wealthy looking vehicle, then flag it down (they probably had accomplices on motorbikes that would chase anything that didn’t stop) and “sold” rubbish to the frightened occupants in pursuit of their own dark-hours income stream. The ruse to “sell” stuff was apparently so the police couldn’t accuse them of stealing if they were caught in the act — and the terrified passengers wouldn’t shop them for doing a shakedown, that was for sure.
In my ignorance, I casually faced being knifed or cut by these footpads, but possibly because I was so open about it, and definitely not frightened, they must have thought I either had a powerful concealed weapon or was some kind of a fearless ju-jitsu warrior.
Whatever, all I got was a hard look or two, despite some heavyweight dissing of both them and their products in front of a bus load of shit-scared fellow passengers.
We arrived at Cipanas in time for breakfast and a brief yet refreshing spa bath before jumping in the back of a truck and heading up the volcano. On the road up, the track was festooned with gigantic spider webs that hung like sparkling dew-spattered banners across the road. As we passed under them, we had to duck to avoid dislodging great big spiders into our laps, with all the locals gaily shouting “Awas! Awas!” as we did so.
Awas means look out. I wish somebody had told me that before I took the night bus . . . but luckily, I didn’t have a clue.