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But all in all, we are softies
Kersik Tua (Indonesia), July 1st 2008

Travelling by public transport through Sumatra is great. The landscape is beautiful and diverse, and the people are very friendly. It is a perfect way to experience Sumatra. However, there is also one main disadvantage. The condition of the roads is bad; there are many potholes, they are (too) narrow and often very winding. This means that even the short distances, take almost a day of travelling. And the most important road of Sumatra, the Trans-Sumatran Highway, is by locals called the chicken-road. That tells it all!

We are at the bus station of Parapat, in the northern part of Sumatra. We are waiting for the night bus that will bring us to the town of Bukkittinggi, more than 500 kilometres to the south. The whole journey will take somewhere between the 13 and 18 hours. But is can also be 30 hours, if the rain washes away a part of the road, something that happens quite often here. The departure of our bus is scheduled for 09.00 pm, but also this is subject to change because our bus originates in Medan, a city 5 hours to the north. We have the company of a French girl who is also waiting for a bus. She is waiting for the bus to Jakarta, a journey of more than 60 hours! And it can be worse. Her bus is late and she waits already for more than nine hours. Her bus also has to come from Medan, so it doesn’t look good for us either. But it seems to be our lucky day. Our bus is only 30 minutes late and arrives at 09.30 pm on the already deserted bus station of Parapat. The bus is already jam-packed. The two persons who occupy the by us reserved seats, are competently chased away by the bus personnel. We sink in our seats and are mentally prepared for a long and sleepless night.

Unloading of the bus, just in case

Our luck is not out of stock yet. The bus driver is driving cautiously; he didn’t put the radio on its maximum volume, and adjusted the air conditioning in a way that the local people do not have to make use of their gloves and hats. We are even able to take a nap once in a while. We have a small break at around ten o’clock before we drive into the night. At around five in the morning we are wakened from our once-in-a-while nap by the sound of spinning wheels and a high number of engine revs. Besides that, the bus makes jerky moves. It seems that the bus is got stuck on a muddy slope of the road. This part of the road disappeared already some time ago due to a landslide. And because the ground sinks once in a while, the local authorities decided not to spend more money on this part of the road. The result is that somewhere on the most important road through Sumatra, the Trans-Sumatran Highway, a part of the road is changed in a muddy and slippery slope where the traffic tries to find a safe way up or down. So far, our bus did not manage to go up yet. The assistant of the bus driver already tried to increase the grip by putting stones in front of the wheels. But nothing seems to help. Eventually, the driver sees no other choice than to ask for the help of the wrecker that is set up at the top of the hill and making his money by hoisting up stranded vehicles. After the rope is fixed to the bus, the machine starts to do its job. A few seconds after the bus moved off, the rope breaks and the bus glides tens of metres down on the slippery slope. After the bus came to a halt, we decided to leave the bus. Just to be sure. We clamber through the mud to the top of the hill and wait patiently till the bus also arrived on the top. Everybody is relieved and after more than an hour, we continue our journey to Bukkittinggi.

The wrecker that got our bus on top of the hill
When the sun is already shining again, we get in touch with Irwin, a fellow passenger. Irwin is an Indonesian man in his fifties, on the way to his family in Bukkittinggi. He lives in Medan, but because of a death in his family he is urged to go to his family in Bukkittinggi. Because he bought his ticket only a couple of hours in advance, he is forced to take a seat in the aisle. That means that he got a plastic stool, without back, where he has to spend the entire journey on. And because Irwin started in Medan, this means 20 hours! We talk about all kind of things and before we really realize it, we arrive in Bukkittinggi after a journey of 17 hours. We leave the bus broken and tired and say goodbye to Irwin, who still looks quite fresh after a journey of more than 20 hours on a plastic stool in the aisle. We also think for a moment about the French girl on her way to Jakarta. She is not halfway the journey yet, and has at least more than 45 hours to go. We say to each other “all in all, we are softies”, and leave the bus station in search for a nice hotel.

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