bis malam

Initial plans had called for a direct flight from Jakarta to Denpasar, but when I heard that the bus might be cheaper, my Jewish side seized the wheel.  Of course I rationalized these penny-pinching instincts with thoughts like “Oh, but I’ll get to see all of Java!” (it is, after all, the world’s 13th-largest island by area) and “Oh, what colorful characters I shall surely meet!” (and the world’s largest island by population)

Spending 24 hours in a bus that advertises, Super Executive Class!  Now with A/C! might not appeal to every traveller.  In addition to the letter in my previous post, I found this review:

With improved roads, the bis malam or night bus from Java to Bali is now faster than the train, although one cannot deny its dangers. Most Indonesians travel this way, but you must be prepared to tolerate cigarette smoke and noise. Non-smoking buses are not available and the volume of videos are usually at their highest. Be sure to specify air-conditioned to avoid inhaling the noxious fumes spewed out by trucks and buses. Look up the Lorena buses, which are suppose to be the best in Bali; it will cost you a little more but deluxe services and a toilet is included.

“Oh no, I never took the bus,” said Oma with a laugh.  “Your Uncle Amir, I think, did, once.”  And in the end it wasn’t even that much cheaper than the plane (Rp 380,000 [US$38] vs. $60-ish to fly). Every sign seemed to warn in earnest, hati-hati! Caution!  Dilarang masuk! Do not enter!

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And yet my first reaction upon climbing aboard was surprise at how nicely the bus was furnished.  Individual reclining seats?  No discarded water bottles littering the aisles?  Big, clear windows?  Smoking area confined to a closed-off room in the back?  Where’s the adventure I was promised, the traffic-dodging, kretek-smoking driver and the high-octane thrills?

So in uncomfortable luxury my journey began.  Crawling through the clogged arteries of Jakarta’s endless gridlock, Indonesia’s ubiquitous motorbikes might be able to weave through traffic, but hardly a bus.  Slowly, though, the scenery melted from glass-and-steel megalopolis to terra-cotta-and-scrap-metal slumburbs, then gradually dissolved into an endless sea of ricefields.

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By the time we arrived in Denpasar (10 hours behind schedule — Indonesians often run on jam karet, rubber clocks), I had:

*received an arm, leg, and scalp massage from my seatmate Benni, a south-Sumatran high school counselor eager to practice his bahasa Inggris (he also gave me a hand-written, signed copy of a poem he had written:

Aku tak bisa bicara tentang bulan sayu di tengan malam

ataupun bicara tentang plangi di musim bunga.

Tuhan, seandainya aku dapat bicara di matahari terik,

aku bicara damaikanlah dunia

ini untuk ku dan semua alam.

… and an invitation to stay at his house in Bali’s Jembrana district.  I politely declined, although such friendliness, apparently “creepy” by American standards, is totally normal among Indonesians, especially towards bule [white folk]).

*completed a crash-course in bis malam driver’s etiquette.  Honk at least once, but probably more if necessary or proper,

  • when about to pass, as a friendly warning
  • while passing, as a friendly reminder
  • after having passed, as a thank you (or, more likely, as a signal to get the hell out of the way so we can get back into our lane)
  • at vehicles moving too slowly
  • at vehicles moving too quickly
  • at vehicles passing us
  • at cyclists, often coming the wrong way down the middle of the lane at a leisurely pace
  • at animals in the street (cats, dogs, chickens, goats, small children)
  • while passing, at smaller oncoming vehicles, to warn them we’re not backing down
  • while passing, at larger oncoming vehicles, to notify them we’re backing down (this happened, I believe, only once)

*and made friends with Arham, a young composer who “want[s] to be Chopin.”  Tonight (and yesterday and tomorrow) he’s performing a piece at the Lotus Cafe in central Ubud.   “It starts at 8pm but i think you should come at 7 to make sure you get the best seat…”

So until then, I’ll be glued to my trusty-rusty laptop (with its CD-ROM drive making disgruntled grinding noises and threatening to fall loose for a third time; with its pathetic wireless card, thanks to which file uploads can take multiple days; with its newly-installed Windows XP, purchased at a pirated-software stall in a Jakarta mall five years ago and threatening to crash in 30, 29, 28 days if I don’t “authenticate”; with its missing “N” key, leaving only a stubby rubber stump between B and M), posting photos.

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bali, at last!

bali, at last!

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One Response to “bis malam”

  1. SJL Says:

    The camera is working nicely!
    Glad you are having a good adventure. Things are not always what they seem…..

    Be safe!

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