8 lessons learned on Indonesia's public transport

8 lessons learned on Indonesia's public transport

If you want to travel by bus in Indonesia, you need to learn to duck tree branches and sing goats to sleep

Taking a cross-section of transportation options is a surefire method of getting to know a new place, perhaps more intimately than you initially intended.

From breakdowns to stare-downs, cramped spaces and nausea-inducing smells, all complemented by a wide array of farm animals, Indonesia's public transportation options provided me with a serious number of often hard-earned lessons.

1. Reserved seating an alien concept

Reserved seating is a nonexistent concept outside of the large cities. Your ticket guarantees you a place, but it really doesn’t specify whether you’ll be in the bus or on top of it, wedged between boxes and burlap sacks and a variety of farm animals. 

The best part? The ticket collector will climb on the roof to get your ticket even though you’re holding on for dear life and careening over the sides of a mountain.

Minibus ride in Sape, Indonesia“Oh yes, there will be more comfortable seats just over there.” Minibus ride in Sape, Indonesia.

2. Learn to duck ... or else

Tree branches hurt a lot more when they hit you in the head at 60 kilometers per hour. Especially when there are seven of you stuffed on the rooftop and the branches slap you all in a row, like a slapstick comedy gone mad.

Bima, IndonesiaLurching across to Bima, Indonesia (with the shadows of the tourists on the roof).

3. You can sing a goat to sleep

The second time someone put a goat in my lap when I was on the roof, I decided to make him my friend. Instead, he fell asleep. 

Singing to a goat in French while petting him on the head is a surefire way to get a goat to stay calm.

harbour sceneJust a normal harbor scene. One of those goats ended up in my lap.

4. Elbows are the best revenge

The best way to get the stranger sitting next to you to stop fondling your thigh in the middle of the night is to nail him in the ribs with your elbow. Hard. 

5. Double standards abound

As a tourist, you cannot use the toilet on the night bus, even to pee. In fact the attendant will be shocked, shocked! that you dared to ask.

However, the same attendant won’t bat an eye when a local blows his nose on the bus curtains. Standards, people. He has standards.

6. Air conditioning equals frostbite

Bone-chilling cold. If you pay for an air-conditioned bus, you’re getting a freezer. It doesn’t matter that you and every single other passenger are freezing your asses off. 

Complaining to the driver or the attendant will be met with laughter and a rough approximation of the same phrase, “Hey, you pay for expensive cold bus, you get expensive cold bus.” 

7. Stop believin' in "Don't Stop Believin'''

Group renditions of "Total Eclipse of the Heart," "Don’t Stop Believin’" or "Sweet Child o' Mine" go off very well in the Philippines but less so in Indonesia.

You will be kicked off the sleeping platform on your ferry for daring to enjoy the soundtrack, and the rest of the passengers will glare at you indefinitely.

Eventually you will be relegated to the outer deck, where you can sing to your heart’s content.

8. Boat captains sleep at the wheel

It is perfectly normal for your boat captain to fall asleep in the middle of the night.

Less normal? That in doing so he got the boat stuck in a tiny village’s fishing net. Waking up at 5 a.m. to a screaming match between your captain and an entire village doesn’t make you terribly confident about the rest of the trip.


Jodi Ettenberg is a former corporate lawyer and current world traveler with a weakness for marshmallows, volcanoes and street eats.
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