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Hard class across Sumatra Add to ...

I usually love bus rides in developing countries, the bumpy joy of rattling along, the strangeness around every corner, the excitement of the passengers at the pure joy of living -- we're off! -- the cacophony of music, the occasional goat onboard, the narrow jungle roads. As I boarded, and found myself in the exact same spot as on the last bus -- the back corner on the bench, this time next to five teenage boys -- I reminisced about my bus rides in Morocco through the Atlas Mountains where the passengers clapped and sang for the entire journey, or the bus rides in Fiji where I watched big hairy men dressed as women, or a bus ride in Malaysia where a woman next to me cooked an entire meal at her feet on a little stove, or another bus ride in Malaysia where the woman next to me vomited into her sari and held the contents there for the rest of the trip. Perhaps not all bus rides were ideal. But this Sumatra bus had potential because we'd be hurtling over spectacular steep mountains of tropical forest as we made our way west.

Our bus was the usual ramshackle collection of rusty metal filled with people and their various cargoes of bundles, boxes and babies. As we drove through the outskirts of the city, fumes billowing beneath us, and headed into the mountains, it became obvious that much of the road was under repair, and the unrepaired stretches were in atrocious condition, perhaps impassable in places. The bus had no suspension and the back of the bus, where I was, suffered the worst of this bone-jarring journey. The driver must have thought he was in a race, flying around corners on what was often just a single-lane road, his only concession to safe driving being an occasional honk of his horn. I was relieved to note, however, that despite the bumpy ride over treacherous terrain, none of the passengers nearby was vomiting, a practice Indonesians are known for on buses. To accompany the entertainment feature of being thrown around as if on an amusement park ride, a speaker directly over my head began to blare whining and nasal Eastern music at full distorted volume. Occasionally, an old Lionel Ritchie hit was thrown in for variety.

As the hours passed we cut a swath backwards through time into the roughest country imaginable: jungle-covered mountains, mud houses with crumbling walls clinging to cliffs, and deep steamy canyons. With every mile the trappings of the 20th century lessened as the surroundings became wilder. On a torn piece of paper, the teenage boy next to me sketched a tiger, leaned across my lap to hold the picture up to the window, and shouted something like, "Roar!" I laughed with him and his friends, hoping we'd glimpse a tiger lurking in the jungle beyond. I was in wild Sumatra, where gruesome traffic deaths were an hourly occurrence and where pigs charged out of the bush. Some neglected part of my brain stirred from the exhilaration of being a stranger in a faraway land and I realized this must be what I came for, to cross over to the unknown.

It grew dark as we penetrated deeper into the jungle and I felt as if I were leaving my old life further and further behind, that I was as secluded from the world as I'd ever be. We jolted over the mud road, the bus raging through the night like a big clumsy animal. As the road became rougher, so the driver's attack on it became more zealous as he charged headlong into the potholes. I'm sure I spent as much time airborne as in my seat. Next to me, the boys chain smoked clove cigarettes, talking amongst themselves, and often watching me and giggling. They spoke a little English, and, thinking I'd try to save their young lungs and mine, I told them that in North America, it was no longer cool to smoke. They seemed to find this fact fascinating and I think actually believed me because--coolness being the reason teenagers smoke in the first place--they didn't smoke for some time after that. Later, down the road, we all jumped in fright when a loud bang fired beneath us. This could only mean that bandits were shooting at us, or, we had a flat tire. It took over an hour to fix the tire. All the men got off the bus to see the flat tire for themselves, leaving me, by this time the only female passenger, alone and finally with enough room on the bench to sleep. Eventually the men and teenagers returned, a heightened sense of gusto and camaraderie surrounding them after what I assumed was a group effort in the repair, and the bus resumed its mad course.

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