5 Emotional Stages of Long Distance Bus Travel in Sumatra

Stage One: Optimism

You arrive at a ‘bus station’, which in Sumatra is a generalised term for ‘large expanse of muddy wasteland strewn with dead animals and burning garbage’. Your bus may or may not turn up within four hours of the allotted time. Various people will try and convince you to buy a dried squid, an unidentifiable fried substance or a dead fish wrapped in a banana leaf as a delicious snack for your journey. The puddle that the energetically unpleasant mini-van driver threw your backpack into smells like it may contain something more sinister than water. Still, you are optimistic, clinging to the belief that it will all be ok once the bus comes. You are wrong.

Stage Two: Bewilderment

It begins shortly after your departure, catching you unawares as you sip naively on a bottle of green tea and stare out of the window at an idyllic passing landscape of rolling emerald hills and drifting clouds. You quickly realise that the bus driver has only a passable understanding of how to operate a vehicle, and rather than focusing on the road is simultaneously chain smoking and shouting down each of his three mobile phones in turn whilst playing Indonesian rock music at decibels intended to create earth tremors in nearby villages. Meanwhile, the person in front of you reclines their seat fully until they are lying with their head in your crotch, gazing vacantly up your nostrils and ignoring the crunching sound of your kneecaps breaking. A family of 16 take their seats around you, slamming their luggage into your head and dropping bits of fried chicken copiously into your hair. Someone plays their ringtone repeatedly, possibly chiming in with a wailing vocal. You glance around and notice that no-one else seems remotely perturbed by this behaviour, in fact several people are vigorously snoring through it. Bewilderment sets in.

13. Disco bus
Karaoke on a bus? Why not!

Stage Three: Rage

After around 5 hours of being flung against the window / roof / wheel arch at every corner, you start to become angry. The rage burns like battery acid in your stomach, heightened exponentially with each new annoyance inflicted on you by your fellow passengers. The degenerate behind you who sticks his revolting feet through the gap in the seat so that his crusty toenails rake your arm each time you move. The guy lying on top of you, who by this point is also eating a fish head and picking his nose. The driver, who clearly hasn’t grasped the intended function of a steering wheel and is rotating his collection of terrible music on a half hourly schedule. Your searing hatred is directed at each of these people in turn with an intensity you didn’t know it was possible to feel for complete strangers. You want to confiscate ringtone-guy’s phone and bludgeon him to death with it, but of course you don’t. You just sit there, seething. For hours.

Stage Four: Resigned Despair

Eventually, after maybe 9 or 10 hours, your rage burns down to the soggy embers of resignation. You slump in your seat, your head lolling against the window in a state of abject torment. There is new pain and hard fought wisdom in your deadened eyes. At this point, the bus inevitably breaks down and you spend the next three hours sitting in the dirt watching the driver and a couple of his friends attempt to replace a snapped suspension shaft by hand. After scavenging a couple of bolts from an abandoned vehicle and strapping the underside of the bus back together with a piece of rope, they announce that the bus is fixed – it clearly isn’t – and you actually get back on it, because you are way past the point of caring whether you live or die.

Buses Sumatra
Bus break downs are not uncommon.

Stage Five: Denial

After what feels like aeons, the bus pulls into a darkened scrapyard somewhere on the outskirts of the town you wanted to visit and turfs you unceremoniously to the curb. You fall out of the door, reduced to a jellied, trembling mass of nervous exhaustion from 20+ hours of thumping bass line, neon strip lighting and bone crumbling roads. Unable to move, you lie prone across your backpack, trying to ignore the durian peelings and fish bones that are now stuck to it, and feel the blood start to return to your mangled legs. You regard your fellow passengers genially, almost fondly; like survivors who have bonded through a shared traumatic experience. The apocalyptic rage you experienced just hours ago is forgotten, lost in the relief of finally getting OFF THE BUS. You breathe in the early morning air and begin to think about food as your stomach finally stops churning. ‘That wasn’t so bad’ you think. Shouldering your backpack you head off down the road, buoyed by the denial that will allow you to board a bus out of there in a weeks time and endure the whole sorry ordeal all over again.

Sumatra intro photo
It’s been worth the journey for views like this!

Written by Clare Absolon – Clare is a writer, designer, travel blogger and constant wanderer. She spent a year travelling solo in South East Asia in 2014, during which she trekked to Everest base camp, slept in the desert in India, got dengue fever in Thailand and met a boy in Bali. Currently she is travelling in Central and South America, setting up a business, planning a wedding to the boy from Bali, and moving to New Zealand at the end of the year. She shares stories about this madness at The Wayfarer Diaries.

11 thoughts on “5 Emotional Stages of Long Distance Bus Travel in Sumatra”

  1. I took a bus on a market day and the locals had bought lloads of live chickens all tied to pieces of wood or in laundry bags…
    They was under seats on the seats in the walkway, hanging out of the windows on the roof…
    They was everywhere wot a mad experience that was we called it…

  2. Haha yep we’ve done this!!!! As u van see Wayne English was well and truly over it I think they must have had a vip bus tho as ours was way worse worth it tho to get to the jungle!!! ❤

    1. Bloody crooks !!! But now i look at it as having the best time of my life …
      And I’m thinking our bus probably wasn’t the worsed bus getting around on those flogged out roads Em Ryall

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top