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Stereo screaming from the back seat
Ketembe (Indonesia), June 14th 2008

Today we are making a long journey through the heart land of Aceh (Indonesia). We arrive at 09.00 am at the bus station of the small town of Takengon, located in the northern part of the Gayo Highlands. We reserved two seats in a minibus of the kind “Mitsubishi from the 80’s”. In the western world, this minibus would already have been retired for many years, but here in Indonesia they still use this kind of minibuses on a daily basis for the long and winding rides over the small mountains roads. After the minibus was put on the jack to get a last lubrication overhaul, everybody is asked to get in the bus for the ride to the small town of Ketembe, ten hours away.

Soon, we leave the town of Takengon and zoom into the mountains. Our minibus is provided with plated windows, extensive striping and huge tyres with shiny rims. In other words, we are driving in some kind of an A-Team van. The result of the huge tyres is that we hear the fender grazing the tyres every time the road bends. This is no problem for the driver; he just increases the volume of the radio. The loudspeakers in the minibus scream out the high and strident voices of Indonesian female singers. This kind of music, often accompanied with the tune of electronic synthesizer music, is very popular in most of the Southeast Asian countries. We gave this sound terror already a name: “Soprano FM”. By the way, we are not the only people that do not like this music. The seat next to us is occupied by a young local man, who regularly put his fingers in his ears when the loudspeakers scream out another “Soprano FM” track.

Motor-rickshaw drivers on the bus station of Takengon

The front seats are occupied by the chauffeur and two other passengers. The three men can easily be put in the category ‘chain smokers’. Within ten minutes after finishing a cigarette, the next one is already lit up. The stench of the smoke is periodically overrun by the penetrating stench of baby pooh, arriving at our nasal organ from the bench behind us. The seats behind us are occupied by a young family with three children, of which the youngest two are a baby twin that are not ‘neat’ yet. After three hours of driving, the chauffeur decides that it is time for a lunch break. We use this time also to stretch our legs and to gasp some fresh air. On the same bus stop, also two other minibuses of the same company take their break. The result is that after the break of half an hour, the three minibuses proceed with the journey at the same time. The first three hours of the journey, where characterized by going up into the mountains. From now on, the road mainly descends. The chauffeurs of the three minibuses have the feeling that they have joined the rally of Aceh. None of the three chauffeurs want to be inferior to one of the others and they descend with the shabby buses as fast as they can. Our minibus has one big disadvantage. The passengers of our bus carry a lot of luggage, which means that a number of heavy rice sacks, carton boxes and of course our backpacks are mounted on the roof of the minibus. This is a drawback that the other minibuses do not have. Initially, our minibus takes the lead. That is explainable because the roads are too small and winding to pass other vehicles safely. The sight in the bends is nil, but our driver assumes for convenience’s sake that if he hits the horn several times before he enters the bend, a possible oncoming vehicle will get out of the way.

Not only our mini bus had vomiting people on board
The drivers do not decrease the speed when they approach a village. With the hand on the horn they enter the village and the chickens and ducks jump away to prevent that they are flattened by the three minibuses. The other two minibuses are increasing the pressure on our driver, by sticking more and more on our rear bumper. The baggage on our roof leads to the situation that our driver allows the other minibuses to pass. But that does not mean that our driver acknowledges his defeat. He hooks on again by driving in the slipstream of the other buses. At the moment that it looks like he is losing ground to the others, he starts using his secret weapon. Every time we approach a bend in the road, he pulls on the hand break. This gives him the possibility to use the gas pedal and the break at the same time. Shrieking and cracking, our A-Team minibus goes through the bend and within a couple of seconds the minibus is filled with the stench of burned brake lining. This kind of driving techniques are not really appreciated by the family on the seats behind us. The mother and the oldest child are starting vomiting loudly. For a moment the driver looks back frightened, because he is afraid that the upholstery of his minibus is puked. When he sees that mother and daughter are hanging with their heads outside the bus, he is relieved and continues the rally. Also we look back once in a while to be sure that our backpacks did not fall off the bus as a result of the driving style of our chauffeur.

While the loudspeakers are still screaming “Soprano FM” songs, also the baby-twins seem to have had enough of this ride. Both of them start weeping. You can call it stereo screaming from the back seat. That is also the moment that Ivonne asks me: “How long do you think that the journey will still take?”. “About six hours …”, is my answer. “Oh! Let’s call this the charm of travelling”.

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