Every budget traveler, from every geographical location, has a local bus horror story to share. Sometimes several. We’ve all done our time. The stories are so ubiquitous that no one wants to hear them anymore. I’ve personally sat on boxes of onions for 10 hours (Laos), watched kids poop in the aisle between the seats (China), and even did my best to stifle a laugh as someone’s expensive pet bird broke out on a long ride and flew around the bus causing a panic (Thailand).
So, it didn’t surprise me when my 12 hour minibus from East Timor back to Kupang in Indonesia was about as much fun as getting your teeth filed to points. The $20 bus ticket had a seat number, but sure enough we stopped only 30 minutes into the bumpy ride to pick up a man who had the same seat number as me – which means of course that we got to share one bucket seat for the duration.
There are no big people in Indonesia. I don’t know what remote corner of Papua they scoured to round up my new seatmate, but he was broader than the average Samoan and smelled like a garbage truck. Lucky me. After exchanging snorts and grunts as pleasantries, the next thing I knew a big meaty arm about the diameter of my thigh came around my shoulders so that he would take up less room on the seat.
In this culture, its quite normal for friends of the same sex (especially men) to hold hands or walk arm in arm. I have had Indonesian men lead me down the street by the hand even, and I accept the cultural difference. However, culture or no culture, the prospect of sharing love and sweat with Mr. Banana fingers for the next 12 hours frankly scared the life out of me. I’m not getting paid enough for this crap. I gave it a few minutes then lifted his arm (which weighed as much as a sandbag) off my shoulders. He sulked and contented himself to hanging one meat bag out of the bus window so that at least my cramped torso could expand a little with each breath.
It was a long ride.
I never thought I’d be so happy rolling back into Kupang and I found myself getting a room at the L’Avalon Homestay, just across the street from the cafe. The Lonely Planet mentions L’Avalon as a bar on the water, but was printed before the comfortable place across the street opened. Wish I would have known about the place on my first visit to Kupang. They have dorms for $3 a night but after hostel life in Dili, I opted to pay the extra $1 for a private room which was very basic but clean.
Indonesia is so large (wider than the United States) and spread out across so many islands, you don’t have a prayer of going anywhere fast – especially in a remote corner like Timor. Planes and boats are never guaranteed and I pity tourists that have an aggressive agenda for their two week stay. If you fall into that category, either plan a few buffer days for cancellations or bring lots of Valium. I found out the boat I wanted to take away from Timor wasn’t running until Tuesday, so with no other options I settled in to wait, burning precious time on my brand new 30 day visa.
I spent the next 3 days hanging out across the street with the crazy and amiable Indonesian owner Edwin, who is both artist and actor (11 movies) turned business owner. They offer free internet to travelers (its the fastest in town), a book exchange, and have a nice open air place right on the water. I helped Edwin clean up his 3 websites and do some technical work and in exchange he gave me free food (including an excellent steak sandwich) and drinks for the duration of my stay. The guy is a wealth of information, speaks fantastic English, and is very cool to spend time with – one of his busy but very informative websites is http://www.kupangtouristinfo.com.
Amidst the smattering of crusty Australian expats and residents, I made some great new local friends who helped tune up my Indonesian and taught me even more about their culture. With no comparison, I have had more interaction with locals in Indonesia than in every other country combined. The few people that don’t stick hands into your wallet truly are welcoming and willing to share a glimpse of their tough life with you. I’ve given up entirely on meeting other travelers here and have embraced it, sometimes going a couple days without speaking more than a few words of English!
A conversation with Edwin yielded an interesting place to visit. He told me about Alor, which is a group of tiny islands at the far end of Flores, and showed me pictures of sublime snorkeling around a French owned bungalow operation there. No electricity, no hassles, just me and the sea – which sounded like the perfect way to spend my birthday (which is in 2 days). Not that birthdays are a big deal anymore, but the thoughts of pushing deeper into my thirties on some bus or waiting in a no-name town alone was pretty depressing.
As I sat around with a few new friends on my last night eating sticky fish and rice with my messy hands, I realized that I’m actually going to miss this place. Rather than follow my own advice and keep an open mind, I considered coming back to Kupang a necessary evil and was even dreading it. Now, after once again finding the flow and going with it, I wish I had a few more days here.
Tomorrow I take a boat to an island that I didn’t even know existed until a few hours ago. I still can’t find it on my map. What’s waiting for me there? A new lifelong friend….or my first shark attack? Whatever it is, its better not to keep destiny waiting. That is the magic in vagabonding and what makes my little world go around. Everyone has both hands on the steering wheel trying to drive their life through the universe, but what we don’t realize sometimes is that it isn’t attached to the tires!
Life is good.