You think travelling solo is fun?
Full of spontaneous love affairs, moving musical soundtracks, full of dancing brown people or white people in baggy harem pants in search of Love, gorging on alcohol and pseudo-spirituality?
It’s 8.10pm on the island of Lombok as the bus drives off the ferry. Ordinarily, one should feel a surge of exhilaration, having forded the five-hour journey across the Lombok Straits separating Bali from Lombok, the Wallace Line bisecting the floral and faunal biodiversity of Asia and transitional Wallacea.
But at 8.10pm in the middle of May 2017, alone and disoriented on the first night of a solo graduation trip in a foreign land, all I see is a terrible, choking darkness, clouded by my anxiety and uncertainty.
The aim was to strike eastward from Bali, island-hopping my way onward. My final destination was Pulau Roti, the southernmost inhabited of Indonesia. My first twelve hours after landing had been spent variously on a public bus, a minibus, and a gargantuan passenger ferry big enough to carry tour buses in its cavernous hold.
Now I was on one of these tour buses, which had finally driven off the ferry. It was headed to the Lombok city of Mataram. From here, I hoped to catch a bus to the town of Bima, in the adjacent island of Sumbawa. Here, this is what i mean:
If you look at the picture, you see MATARAM on the far-left blob that resembles a blob. BIMA is on the far-right end of this picture, with a red-coloured pin dropped on the further tip of the more-elongated blob. According to Wikitravel and Lonely Planet, there was apparently a 12/13-hour bus that would connect these two places along winding, bumpy country roads.
The wonderful thing was, that Bima Bus was on the same ferry I had travelled to Lombok on.
The less wonderful thing was, the Bima Bus was full.
The best i could hope for was to race it to the bus terminal at Mataram, and hope that a space would suddenly free up.
Race to Mataram
And so, I sat in the darkness of the Mataram Bus as it waddled off the ferry. Five hours in the cavernous hold of the Ferry had filled the vehicle with the dank odour of petrol. Outside, all I can see is a thick darkness, adorned with the rich, buttery lights of houses and mosques and eating places settling slowly into the early evening. Unlike its western Hindu-majority neighbour Bali, Lombok’s inhabitants are predominantly Muslim.
Earlier, as the sun fell below the horizon and set the sky on fire, the muezzin’s azzan had blared from the ferry’s loudspeakers, the melodious, meandering tones signalling our crossing from Hindu Bali to Muslim Lombok. The wet smell of foamy soap, the rush of running water as Muslims aboard performed their cleansing wudhu, had further textured our transition across numerous cultural, ecological, historical and geographical boundaries.
But it’s 8pm, and my stomach is growling, and I have no idea if there is a bus waiting for me, or how I am going to pass this first night in Indonesia, with no accommodation nor transport booked. Not for the first time today, I begin to question the wisdom of being so laissez-faire on this solo trip.
It’s been nearly 12 hours since I landed in Denpasar Airport (Bali), in bright sunlight. Now, the sun has gone away, leaving behind a velvety darkness, which, I suppose, is quite representative of how I don’t really know what to do next.
Nearly an hour later, after a series of stops to drop people off at schools and random houses along the way, the bus finally hisses to a stop at a cluster of concrete buildings no more than two-storeys high. It’s about the biggest and most official-looking thing I’ve seen in the past hour. Is this the stop?
Is this the terminal?
Nobody answers me, they’re all just getting off. I heft my backpack up and follow hurriedly, afraid to be left behind, and yet not knowing where in the world I am. Understand: it is a terrifying thing to be the last person on a bus you don’t really know is headed where, full of people speaking in a language you can barely comprehend.
I get off the bus, looking askance at the driver, who nods and grunts with his impressive moustache when I ask, TERMINAL?
Already, there is a clot of ojek motorcycle-taxi drivers clustering around the bus doors, ready to whisk passengers away. Unlike the terrifyingly persistent touts in Bali, these drivers wait patiently for you to approach. If you smile and shake your head, they back away politely.
Unfortunately, and too prematurely, I make the assumption in my head that everyone is thus unconditionally kind, caring and helpful. That’s what I think of the nice man with the toothy grin who comes up and keeps nodding at me.
Mr. Nice Man
“Ohhhh, you want to go to Bima? I know a bus which can take you even further eastward, to Sape! Yes, Sape!”
My eyes bulge, and I am sure he does not miss the look that crosses my face. Sape is the easternmost port of Sumbawa, further than anything that Lonely Planet or Wikitravel had indicated. A direct bus to Sape? That would save me even more time and money!
Yes, yes. SAPE! [pronounced ‘Sah-pey’] he nods, matching my excitement with a laugh and an enthusiastic nod. This man is confident. He seems to know what he’s talking about. And he’s saying what I really want to hear. It’s a nice glimmer of hope after a long day travelling alone.
I hop onto his ojek, and we speed off.
Along the way, as we travel the well-lit road, Mr. Nice Man tells me in a mix of broken English and Bahasa i half-understand that he will deposit me at a roadside stall first, to eat my dinner while he contacts his friend who drives the bus. The bus will stop and pick you up from the roadside stall, he says, don’t worry, don’t worry. Yes, yes, yes.
We stop at a roadside stall run by a formidable-looking woman who sizes me up with an ambivalent look. Mr. Nice Man takes my bag, points me to sit at one of the benches, and tells me not to go anywhere. You can eat dinner here if you want, he signals.
Fair enough. It’s 9pm by this time, and I haven’t eaten since lunch. I buy dinner from the shopkeeper, a packet of nasi, washed down by grainy, hypersweet instant coffee.
By 9.25pm, I have run out of things to say in my halting Bahasa, and the unsmiling shopkeeper is not interested in conversation with this Japanese-looking man with his big backpack.
I ask Mr. Nice Man when the bus is coming. In ten minutes, he’d said. Any time now, he’d smiled, nodding and nodding. You pay me, he says, when bus comes, you pay me money. When bus comes, you pay me, he insists. Bus is coming now. You pay me now.
That had been forty-five minutes ago.
When I ask again, Mr. Nice Man’s face warps in irritation. You pay me, bus come. No Sape. Bima. Bima only. Me no say Sape.
Bus only to Bima, he shouts at me incredulously when I confirm if the bus goes to Sape. Sape? he sneers.
NO SAPE. BIMA. BEE-MAH.
Bima Bus come, you pay me, he reiterates. When I signal my ignorance, the unsmiling shopkeeper turns to me and shrieks.
YOU PAY HIM, she squawks, parroting Mr. Nice Man. You. Pay. HIM!
In my tired, anxious state, a strange, paradoxical calm suddenly descends upon me. The roadside stall has become a dreamy bubble of brightness, punctuated by the occasional rumble of passing vehicles, washed by the hissing white-noise of night crickets. The night beyond our small circle of light chirrups, cheeps and groans. Occasionally, some buses and trucks and cars roar past, rude blasts of sound slapped onto the vivid sussurus silence of the brightly-lit, but quiet road. If you squint hard enough, you can make out the padi fields that sprawl beyond the brightness of the street.
To be fair, Mr. Nice Man has not deserted me. He’s still waiting, making calls and looking out for the bus. He’s still telling me that the bus is on its way, on its way, although his toothy grin has vanished. Irritation clouds his brow, and I learn not to ask any further, until the uncertainty blooms too hard in me again.
Every time we hear the incoming thunder of an approaching vehicle, we crane our necks out, staring down the brightly lit road. Ten minutes turn to fifteen turn to thirty turn to forty-five.
By this time, the formidable shopkeeper lady has started to pack up her store. You can sit here and continue waiting, she signals, I’m going off now. She locks up her things. An ojek comes. The buzzing overhead lantern illuminating her stall clicks off, and Mr. Nice Man and I are left sitting on the bamboo sits, illuminated only by the bright glare of streetlights.
You pay me, okay, he mutters once again to me, bus coming, bus coming.
I look over at him in the half-darkness.
I am too astounded to be irritated; too irritated to be afraid. Twelve hours after flying across oceans and islands from Singapore to Bali, I am sitting in half-darkness at an unlit, unnamed roadside stall on an island in Indonesia, and an ojek driver I barely know is demanding 25 dollars from me, for a bus that has not showed up, and may not even show up. One day, I write in my notebook at 9.45pm on 12 May 2017, I am going to tell this story.
And then, just as I have started wondering what it would be like to sleep by the roadside until morning comes, what I’m going to do if this Mr. Nice Man completes his evolution to Mr. Not-So-Nice Man, there is a furious roar that nears, and doesn’t speed away.
The Night Bus to Bima has actually materialized.
Night Bus to Bima
I climb up the bus, and ask the conductor how much it costs. Rp200,000 he says boredly. Mr. Nice Man had quoted me Rp250,000. After all the yelling and the waiting, I’m in no mood to be eaten up again by a predatory tout who promised too much and then feigned misunderstanding about what was promised when he’d cornered me.
Rp230,000, i say, on top of the fare I’d already paid him for taking me to this deserted roadside stall to wait interminably. I’m in a foul mood by this point, and spitefully apathetic. I get it: the rich Singaporean deserves to have his income redistributed. If he’s rich enough to go on this frivolous adventure, he’s rich enough to have some of his budget trimmed. Yes, yes. But I still had an uncertain number of days ahead, with many people to “share” this budget with. I wasn’t prepared to part with my money so easily just yet.
I’m on the first step of the bus, and everyone is waiting. The bus is growling to go. Mr. Nice Man is not grinning anymore, nor is he as self-assured as he was when he told me this bus went to Sape. His face is a twisted snarl now, lit by the fierce pallor of the streetlights. He stamps his foot almost petulantly, and then takes the money with a scowl.
I climb up the steps of the bus. The bus conductor stares blankly at the mini-drama that has taken place, and points to the back of the dimly-lit bus. The crowded vehicle is packed with somnolent passengers. The bus engines roar angrily, and I have waddle unsteadily to the pack, squeezing in amidst boxes and crates of textiles, fabrics and other assorted cargoes.
Outside, as the bus pulls away, I see Mr. Nice Man stalk off back to his ojek, a figure receding into gloom of the Lombok night.
There’s a hollowness in me, and somewhere in my tired, but ever-critical brain I am wondering if I did the right thing, or if I’ve been too miserly to a man who’d waited with me till the bus showed up, even if he’d yelled at me and over-promised me just to get my business.
But in the hot, acrid darkness of the Bima bus, after more than twelve hours negotiating with grinning, slippery touts alone, I am too exhausted to care.
All i know is that somehow, I’ve made it into a slipstream that will slingshot me at least thirteen hours eastward: out of Lombok, across another body of water, another ferry – and over the horizon to the Sumbawanese town of Bima.
You think travelling solo is fun?
Sure it is. But sometimes the waiting for the night bus to Bima can be dark and full of terrors.
Travelling solo is energizing, exhilarating: the unparalleled, terrible freedom to chart your own course, to make your own decisions. To survive and navigate and negotiate the chaos and uncertainty of a foreign land by your wits and resourcefulness alone.
But that freedom is its own curse and blessing, and you continually learn: to make judgments, to make mistakes, to smile or to react when people are yelling at you, or when the bus doesn’t come. Travelling solo is fun – but nobody will tell you it’s easy.