The International Steam Pages

200 Stops to Solo

David Longman exalts in travelling by bus through Java in 2004. It can't have been too bad as 2 years later he came back for even more....:

To travel by bus, ‘Ekonomi’ style, in Java is less about undertaking a journey and more about being an opportunity to join, and become an integral part of, a small travelling community. The first thing to realise is that whatever journey you plan to undertake, it is going to take far longer than you ever imagined possible to cover a relatively short distance. For the faint of heart it may be best to commence the journey at the main bus terminal. Here a small army of helpful locals will seek to ensure that you locate the correct vehicle in the hope of earning some small token of the traveller’s gratitude. Some semblance of order appears to exist and indeed examples of a timetable are not unknown. However out on the streets it is a different matter. Here it is necessary to locate the bus which will enable you to achieve your objective, from amidst the swirling fleet of coaches and minibuses which sweep down the streets – drivers blaring their horns whilst their fare-taker hangs out of the door yelling the destination for those presumably unable to read. Not that his calls seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to the place you are headed for – ‘Alang, alang, alang’ he calls to denote the Semarang bus and ‘Anggu, anggu, anggu’ for all points to Tawangmanggu!!

Once aboard it is time to find a seat – patiently easing over the two passengers occupying the seat designed for three and gradually creating enough space to sit comfortably. On the hot, crowded buses it is worth fighting to sit next to the open rear door or alongside one of the sliding windows. No air-conditioning on these buses – just the rush of air as the bus heads along the highway. A quick glance around reveals the sheer diversity of one’s fellow passengers. Old men, their faces weather beaten and wrinkled pull on clove-flavoured cigarettes, youngsters wearing t-shirts and blue denim jeans listen to their Walkmans, soldiers dressed in fatigues catch up on their sleep, a Muslim wife dressed all in black peeps out at the world from the narrow eye slit of her burka whilst those less fundamental nevertheless wear their headscarves and trousers to maintain their modesty. 

And now the show will begin. The bus weaves in and out of the traffic in an apparently death defying series of manoeuvres designed to terrify other road users into submission – a admirable tactic were it not for the fact that half the other road users are also driving buses and employing similar tactics. This is survival of the biggest and those driving motorbikes and other smaller vehicles are forced to slow down, give way or take avoiding action. Bags and sacks of chillis and beans and every other form of vegetable slide across the floor of the bus at every twist and turn and those closest to the door threaten to roll off and fall into the road. The horn is a constant weapon, designed to intimidate and threaten, and forms a constant tuneless accompaniment throughout the journey. 

A tap on the shoulder indicates that it is time to negotiate the fare. Fingers are held aloft to indicate the amount of the fare – each finger standing for a thousand rupiahs. For this journey of some 50 or 60 miles, a total of six fingers are held aloft – the equivalent of 50 pence or 75 cents. 

During all of this time the bus has managed to travel just a few miles and has stopped five or six times, maybe more. Bus stops are non-existent. Potential passengers merely indicate their desire to travel and the bus will gather them up from the roadside. Sometimes this may occur every 50 yards or so, on a good day as much as half a mile or even more may be covered between passengers. For the young and fit the bus merely slows, for the elderly or those burdened with packages a complete halt may be deemed appropriate. Should this be the case the driver will assume the position of the terminally deaf – ignoring the cacophony of horns from the traffic piled up behind – the self same vehicles passed just seconds beforehand with the bus’s own horn demanding right of passage. This time it is a group of schoolgirls heading for home after their morning at school, each identically dressed, with her name embroidered on one breast pocket and the name of her school upon the other. They noisily invade the bus and stand in the aisle for the short journey home openly staring at the foreign traveller in their midst. They look at one another and mouth the sentences of English learned that morning and collapse giggling as I answer them. 

The cast of the travelling circus continues to grow. Leaping aboard the bus, boxes and trays in hand, come the salesmen. They move down the aisle handing out their wares to the uncomplaining passengers. Soon one’s lap is covered by unsolicited books, nail clippers, leather wallets and bags of nuts and snacks. Then, with the bus still on the move they come around again, this time taking back the unwanted items and collecting money from those unable to resist their charms before leaping off to await the arrival of the next bus. Lest one should be weary of the journey further diversions are at hand. This time it is a small band of itinerant musicians carrying guitars and drums with which to serenade the passengers in the hope of earning a few small coins and notes. They move down the bus playing and singing with differing degrees of competence and harmony before disappearing again to stand by the roadside. A sheep in a basket bleats for its freedom and young mothers breastfeed their babies whilst engaged in animated conversations with their neighbours.

And so into the bus terminal found in each major town along the route, its proximity proclaimed by the next group to invade the bus – the purveyors of refreshments. Every kind of food and beverage is available for a few thousand rupiahs – water, iced tea, milk shake, Sprite and Coca-Cola to slake the thirst and pancakes, rice sticks, fried vegetable parcels with eye-watering raw chillis, nuts and bags of grapes to ward off the pangs of hunger. The buses pauses a while and the cast changes as passengers leave the bus only to be replaced by fresh faces and new sacks and bags. Eventually, in a cloud of diesel fumes, the bus readies itself for the next leg of its journey. The last few food sellers stay aboard and then alight some distance from the terminal ready to pounce upon the next bus heading in the opposite direction. 

Gradually we leave behind the outer suburbs of Salatiga and head into the lush green landscape of rice fields and palm trees. An hour has already passed by and we have managed maybe only 20 or 30 miles of our journey - but who could possibly be bored when there are still two hundred stops to Solo?

On the Ungaran to Solo bus 12 August 2004:

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson