The Trans-Sumatran Highway Part Two

Travelling through Indonesia's mountainous interior

Travelling through Indonesia’s mountainous interior

With some apprehension after my previous journey, I went in search of a good bus to take me down the escarpment to the coastal city of Padang in Sumatra.
Breakfast was a large ripe papaya that I still had left over from a visit to the market two days before and then it was time to carry my bags around the block to the bus station.
Compared to my previous bus ride on the Trans Sumatran Highway, this looked like it was going to be a piece of cake. The coach was not overloaded and everyone had his or her own assigned place. I got a window seat and I settled in to take in the scenery as the driver pulled out of the bus station at exactly the right time. I was impressed. We moved slowly with the morning traffic until we came to the outskirts of Bukittinggi. In the distance, Mount Marapi was looming over the paddy fields, its summit enveloped in cloud as usual. Just when I expected the bus to start moving faster, we slowed down and turned off onto a gravel road leading up the mountain slopes. Soon it became a narrow track and we started bouncing over bumps and through potholes until we arrived at a little house where a woman collected some cash from the driver. I suppose he used part of the morning’s fare to pay for something. Now that his personal affairs had been taken care of, I looked forward to the journey to Padang. But the bus did not turn back to the coast road. First we carried on up the muddy track to another house where a bag of carrots and some onions were handed to the driver. Next stop was at what looked suspiciously like a Muslim shebeen, where some boxes with bottles were loaded onto the seat next to the driver. After some inventive manoeuvring on the steep slope, with spinning wheels and lots of blue smoke, the coach was turned around and we headed back to the main route, stopping along the way to pick up some more groceries and a few plastic dolls. An hour after our departure time we were at last on our way again, the bus thoroughly covered in mud. It was around this time that I started feeling the effects of the papaya.
My digestive system made it clear to me that it was not happy with my choice of breakfast and that it was going to expel it shortly. Some nasty cramps started to take hold of my lower abdomen. Thankfully, I was on board a luxury coach and it had a toilet. I squeezed past the two other passengers in my row and hurried to the front of the bus, asking the driver’s permission to use the loo (he had the key to the door). He wasn’t happy to oblige, indicating that I would make a mess, ignorant Westerner that I was. But I knew that there was no way I could hold out until we reached Padang and I suppose he saw it in my eyes, because he gave me the key reluctantly.
Toilet cubicles on a bus are always cramped, but this being Indonesia, there had to be adequate washing facilities and so a large plastic container (almost a meter in diameter and filled to the brim with water) was placed in the only space available: right in front of the toilet where your legs normally go. If you wanted to sit down, you had to squeeze in next to the bucket, contort yourself to close the door behind your back and then climb over the sloshing water to get onto the seat, sitting with your legs in the air, as if you are at the gynaecologist. This is most undignified, especially when you have to do it all at very high speed because of the urgency of the situation. I made it just in time and as the relief of not having to clench for all I was worth came over me, I let my legs drop down ever so slightly. Just then the bus turned a corner and the water in the bucket splashed upwards, soaking my trousers completely. I sat there on the loo, leaning back with my legs in the air, dripping water everywhere and I wondered how far we still had to go and whether I could just stay in that cubicle until we arrived. The thought of squeezing past everybody with wet trousers was just too much for me. But there was no choice; someone was already knocking on the door. Now that the driver had allowed me in, everybody wanted to go.
The walk down the centre isle of the bus was awkward, to put it mildly. As I have said before, Indonesians are the most curious people that I have met and they all craned their necks to see exactly what was wrong with me, inspecting me critically and then having a general discussion about the state of my wet trousers and the possible causes. I sat down on my velvet seat without making eye contact with anybody and I watched the water soaking slowly into the plush cushioning. Not for long though. The papaya had not finished with me yet and soon I was squeezing past my fellow passengers again, on my way to the front of the bus, my ears blood red and my stomach contracting with an urgency that made me push to the front of the queue at the loo without even considering the outraged looks that I was getting. This time I didn’t have to dip my legs to wet my trousers. The bus had started its descent of the mountain slopes and we were going through some tight switchbacks. The driver was not slowing down; he had a new coach and he was pushing it as fast as it could go around those bends, leaning on the hooter every time he neared one. As I sat on the loo, the water splashed onto my lap, over my shirt and ran down my legs. I emerged even wetter than before. The lady in the seat next to me looked at me as if to ask whether I was all right, but luckily she spoke no English and I just gave her a stupid smile and stared out of the window without noticing the scenery.
A few more visits to the toilet later we arrived in Padang. I never got off a bus so fast!

This is another extract from Island Explorer.

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