I was in a beach city on the southern coast of Java called Pangandaran. I had decided to come here almost on a whim after spending a very strange week volunteering in a small town, followed by four days in the traffic of big city, Yogyakarta.
This place was not at all how it looked in the pictures. The beach was covered in trash and it rained for most of the evening the day I got there. It is out of the way for tourists. I had to take a three hour train from Yogya, then take a bike rickshaw from the train station to an insane bus that stopped about 10,000 times and took another four or five hours to get to Pangandaran. Most public intercity buses in Java stop and let people on/off anywhere they want to along the route, not just at set stops or stations. This was one of those. The train was about $16, the bike taxi was $4 (he overcharged me), the other bus was $5 and the bike taxi to the hotel from the “bus terminal” (generous) in Pangandaran was $2. So all told, this journey took me about eight hours and cost $27 one way. Not exactly cheap or convenient, but I wanted to relax on the beach, and this was supposedly the best one in Java.
While in most ways this beach town feel short of my expectations, it was really nice to be somewhere where traffic wasn’t a huge problem. Where I could cross the street without having to trust that the never-ending torrent of cars and motorcycles was NOT going run over me. One day in Pangandaran, I rented a bike and just rode all over. It was nice.
The second day I was there, I met an Indonesian dude who said his name was Joe (“you know, American name?”) because he likes Jimi Hendrix (???) He asked me a lot of questions like where I’m from and where I’d been in Indonesia, etc. Loads of random Indonesians do this kind of half-way interrogation when they see foreigners because they see so few of them. Or they have ulterior motives? Hard to say.
Anyway, I was a little bit anxious about my journey from Pangandaran to Jakarta, as I would have to take a four hour bus to a city called Bandung, then a three hour train from Bandung to Jakarta. This was completely different from how I got there. It would have been more straightforward if I could have gone back to the same train station (Banjar) that I had come to on the way there, but that wasn’t an option.
The main thing I was worried about was the bus to Bandung (where I had to get on the train) because 1) it was quite far away, 2) Pangandaran was small, with few foreign tourists, so I wasn’t sure whether there would be too many options available. So my second or third day, I went to what in Indonesia is generously referred to as a travel agent. No one was there. Joe calls to me from across the street asking what I wanted. I told him I wanted to book a bus to Bandung for Wednesday. I walk across the street to talk to him better and also because I was headed there anyway to get dinner.
He tells me about the bus: what time it leaves, how much it costs, how long it takes, etc. I ask him if he works there. He says his cousin does.
Now, I’ll stop here and just say that while I am wary of people trying to scam me, it is very hard to tell who to trust when someone is really nice and just seems like they’re trying to be helpful. I’m not saying he was trying to scam me or knowingly give me a bad deal, because I’ll have no way of ever knowing that for sure …but suffice it to say, this story does not end without more than a few hitches in the plan. Also, I needed to book a bus anyway, and he had a connection to someone who could do that, so I decided to go with it.
According to Joe, the bus was worth its price tag of $16 compared to the $5 public bus because it didn’t stop to let people on and off, it was air conditioned and nice comfortable seats. But one of the main draws for me was that they’d pick me up at my hotel in Pangandaran and drop me anywhere in Bandung, so I wouldn’t have to get off and then take a taxi to the train station. Plus, I sort just wanted to book it so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.
Joe takes me on his motorbike to a different travel agent by the same name as the first one I went to: Din’s. He like, “Let me look for my cousin. He might be out back.” So I sit down and wait at the desk. After a minute or so, I notice a guy sleeping on the floor behind the desk. Joe comes in and sees him and wakes him up. They bring out the form to book the bus for me. They say the bus will take 5 hours, or 6 if there’s bad traffic. Remember those numbers, now. 5 hours or 6 for bad traffic. The bus leaves at 9AM.
Booked. I gave him the money. Paid for. Done. Time to relax on the beach.
I was on a bit of a tight time table with my last few days in Indonesia because I’d left only two nights to spend in Jakarta before my flight out. Nevertheless, I made arrangements to couch surf for those two nights. I booked my train for Bandung to Jakarta online. It left Bandung at 4PM. That left 7 hours to get from Pangandaran to Bandung. It was supposed to take 5 or 6 with bad traffic. It was a little tighter than I would have preferred, but I figured an hour would be an alright cushion.
Over the next few days, I felt a tiny bit nervous about whether the bus would actually pick me up considering how “laid back” they were, but then everything in Indonesia is kind of like that.
On Wednesday morning I had my bags packed and I was ready to go at 9AM. The guy from the “travel agency” was maybe 20 minutes or so late. Now the cushion was down to 40 minutes if the traffic was bad. Still totally doable, right? I was relieved to see him… until he opened his mouth.
He says, “I will come back for you at 11. We need to fix the air conditioning in the van. It’s broken.” I’m like, “I don’t care about the air conditioning, I have a train to make. I have a train from Bandung at 4 o’clock.” He calls someone on his phone. He goes, “Okay, you can come with me. We change the van.” I had no idea how “changing the van” would solve the problem even though a few minutes earlier, I was going to have to wait two more hours before leaving. Anyway, I thought I’d go with it since there was no way I would make the train if I didn’t leave until 11.
Next we picked up a bunch of Indonesian people, and set off. Since I didn’t really know what was going on, I kept an eye on the road sings. We were indeed headed in the right direction and actually making good time, though he was driving like a maniac and I had to ask him not to text while he was driving. After about 3 hours, we stopped and dropped off the Indonesian people. I was thinking, “Okay, it’s a little weird that I’m the only passenger left, but maybe they are having this guy drive me the rest of the way even though he wasn’t supposed to, so as to accommodate my time constraint.
Once Driver has me alone, he starts asking me questions like where I’m from and telling me I’m beautiful. He asks if he can get a picture with me. His English is really bad and he keeps trying to talk to me in Indonesian. And I just keep saying, “I don’t understand.” He takes us to the bus terminal in the same city where he dropped off the other passengers. He stops the van and gets my backpack out.
Here’s where photo shoot number one takes place. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with the bus, but Driver is much more concerned with getting the PERFECT photo with me. First he asked another guy to take pictures of us. He keeps having him do it over like 15 times. Then he looks at the photos. Apparently, they don’t cut it. Then he starts trying to take selfies. I mean, taking a photo is one thing, but this was getting excessive. Also it was really awkward because he was holding my hand, not like how people normally do, but sort of like we were shaking hands.
No communication as to what’s going on. I kept asking, “What are we doing? Are we going to Bandung? Why did we stop?” There are a bunch of guys sitting around that apparently work for this “travel agency” but none of them speak any English. Driver just tells me “wait.” But the longer we “wait” the slimmer my chances of making the train are. I’m thinking, “If we leave NOW, like RIGHT NOW I can still make it.”
Driver talks to a dude who he informs me is the “agent.” He tells me about 7 times that that guy was the “agent..” The Agent looks pissed off after (I’m assuming) Driver explained the situation to him. You know, about how I paid $16 for a nice van to take me door to door? In 5 or 6 hours? That situation?
After we were sitting there for 10-15 minutes, Driver puts my backpack back in the van and tells me to get in. I still have no idea what’s going on, but I’m hoping that he is taking me to Bandung after all. We drive another hour or so then stop in the middle of nowhere. We wait at a bus stop for 20-25 minutes. I’m thinking maybe another bus from the “travel agency” is supposed to pick me up. While we are waiting, it’s time for photo shoot number 2. He starts trying to take selfies again. Then he stops some teenaged girls and gets them to take pictures of us. Again, it goes on WAY too long, to the point where I think I can detect the girls getting annoyed with it.
It seems like forever that we’re sitting there. Finally, a shitty public bus pulls up and Driver hails it. He puts my backpack in the back, pays the dude and tells him where I’m going. On buses in Indonesia, there is a dude whose job it is to collect money, help people with their bags and stuff like that. I’ll talk more about him in a minute. So basically, what happened was the “travel agency” didn’t AT ALL provide the service they offered, but just put me on a cheap public bus which I could have done anyway and saved a ton of money! But I didn’t fully have time to process this until after I’d already gotten on the bus.
Anyway, the bus was cramped, but I was lucky enough to get a seat in the back. It was one of the buses that stop a million times to pick up and drop off people, but I was happy to be moving again. I thought I could still make the train, though it would be really tight.
More on the bus dude. This guy was insane. There must be some kind of poles on the outside of the van, because to let people on/off, he would sort of swing outside the door, and swing back in. When we stopped to pick people up, the dude did everything he could to get them on as fast as possible. There were times were he was fully outside of the bus while we were driving fast. He didn’t give a shit.
While we are making pretty good time, I’m beginning to fear it’s not quite good enough, and the further we drive, the more I consider my possible “Plan Bs.” If I don’t make my train, I’ll either have to hang out at the train station for like 4 hours, or stay the night in Bandung. Neither one seems particularly great because I have people waiting for me and I’m already planning on getting into Jakarta kind of late at 7pm. It would be rude to come to someone’s house to couch surf arriving several hours late, so if I took the later train, I’d have to go to hostels near the train station in Jakarta hoping they had a free bed. Not to mention I’d have the added expense of paying for another train ticket if I couldn’t get the ticket transferred.
I start seeing signs that say “Bandung” so I’m hopeful we’re almost there. Then we drive another 45 minutes or so… it’s pouring rain. We stop somewhere nondescript on the side of the road. The Dude lets me know it’s time for me to get off the van. I get up to get out, the driver hasn’t even come to a complete stop, but I’ve been watching people play this game the past three hours, and I knew I just had to jump because the Dude had already gotten by big backpack out of the back and put it into another bus. So I jump out while the bus is still moving and run over to the other bus. Still completely in the dark as to what was going on, but I heard the Dude tell the driver of the other bus that I’m going to the train station.
The new bus was brilliant. I sat next to the door, which didn’t close… keeping in mind there is currently a full-on torrential downpour going on. I’m just holding both my backpacks so they don’t fly out the open door and hoping I myself don’t either; all while periodically being doused by rain puddles splashed up by other cars. You know, basically just livin’ the dream. Also, it’s freezing cold and I can’t get to my warmer clothes because I’m afraid to let go of the seat in front of me since the driver is driving pretty crazy and fast down a highway.
I’m looking at the clock and by this point I’ve all but given up hope of making the 4 o’clock train. I’m thinking we probably won’t make it there on time, but if we’re late I’ll just check and hopefully the train won’t have left yet. Another train I took in Java didn’t leave the station until about 45 minutes after it was scheduled to. At this point, my main hope was that the train would leave late.
We are really down to the wire now. Like 10 minutes left. I’m asking the other people if we are close to the train station. One guy was like, “It’s up there,” so it seemed like it was close but not clear how close. I got my confirmation number ready on my ipod so I could print my ticket asap as soon as I got to the station. I put on both my bags. Ready to run.
We stop. They’re all like, “Here we are. Train station.” No train station in sight, but I have 8 minutes. I’m like, “Where is it?” They point to something that is not a train station. All I can see are little shops and food stalls. So I start asking people every couple feet, “Station?” I get pointed back and forth a bit, then finally I see it. I’m sprinting.
I get in, find the ticket printing machine. Thankfully, there’s no queue to use it. I go up, print my ticket. Again, thankfully, no problems. Get my passport out, go through the ticket check. “Jakarta?” “There.” It’s on the nearest track. Get on the train. Four minutes to spare.
I feel like the luckiest person on the planet. It’s 4 PM. For the first time since 9 AM, I have an opportunity to use the bathroom… and get something to eat. Literally 7 hours. But I made it.