Indecipherable Indonesia.

By Brianna    31/May/17    Indonesia

It's almost time for us to leave Indonesia, and as much as we are craving readily available bread, beer and trains, there are many things we are seriously going to miss. While here, we have conquered the mighty sambal, learnt enough Bahasa Indonesia to convince people we understand them and made many delightful new friends. There were a few things, however, that completely went over our heads...

Let me first clarify by saying we love you, Indonesia. We love your diversity, your positivity, your kind and generous spirit, your friendly, always smiling population, your food, your awe-inspiring landscape, your wildlife; just, everything, really. But you do baffle the bejesus out of us bules (common Indonesian slang for 'foreigner', similar to 'gringo') from time to time. Why, for instance, in a tiny, peaceful, mountain village are you blasting dangdut music out of a sound system equipt for Wembley stadium? At 5 o'clock in the morning?!?!?!? Why, on your 16,000+ islands is your port infrastructure so bad that land locked countries boast better access to the sea than you? And why, dear god why, do you make poor drivers reverse 10m from where the last person got dropped off the bus, down the most convoluted of alleyways, all so you have exactly 0 walking time between you and your front door?

It's truly mind-boggling for an outsider to witness. Clearly, we're just not getting something. A typical Indonesian's capacity for tolerance is unparalleled. A typical European's is not. So we have chosen to vent some of our regular frustrations here, partly to better understand and learn from our differences, partly because the infrastructure (minus Java) is so frustrating for travellers relying on public transport we need to make it entertaining to cope with the pain. That's literal pot-hole induced pain, as well as emotional turmoil. Here are few conversations to illustrate what we mean:



This is a fictitious but (we think) highly plausible conversation between two bus drivers at an arbitrary bus terminal anywhere except Java.


Two men in their 30s are sat on the pavement opposite their respective minibuses having a morning coffee and smoke.

Bus driver #1: Morning man, nice Arsenal shirt.
Bus driver #2: Cheers man, I couldn't find the perfect one so I crossed out the name on the back and wrote Ronaldo in permanent marker instead.
#1: Sick. Ronaldo is awesome, man.
#2: Yeah. Hey listen, what time are you leaving for *small town roughly 40km/1hr away*?
#1: Hmm, think I'm supposed to go about 10:30
#2: Won't the traffic be pretty bad then with people going to market?
#1: Yeah, it'll only be an extra hour or so though, no big deal.
#2: Fair point, in that case I might go to *small ton roughly 45km away in basically the same direction* at 11.
#1: Nice one. Anybody else heading our way today?
#2: Nah, think it's just us mate. Got any passengers yet?
#1: Yeah, 6.
#2: Ah, you're beating me, I've only got 4.
#1: What, even though your bus leaves after mine?
#2: Don't get me started, some people just have too much time on their hands. Your bus has 10 seats right?
#1: Yeah.
#2: Cool, mine too.
#1: Cool.

Both bus drivers are sat in exactly the sane position. One has just offered the other another cigarette.

#2:So, are you going to head off soon.
#1:I guess. First, I'm going to turn the engine on and move a few metres forward.
#2: How come?
#1: I still have an empty space between those 4 people on squashed on the back row. Someone might want it, and if I turn the engine on they'll know to act quickly. I can't be hanging around all day.
#2: Genius. How long do you think the drive will take you today?
#1: Not sure, mate, these bloody pot holes are wrecking my tyres. Besides, first I've got to go to *name of family member/friend who lives 10km away on the other side of town*'s house to pick up a *very large wooden item of furniture/100kg of fresh produce*.
#2: Could you not have picked that up this morning?
#1: Hmm, I guess. But the bus doesn't leave until 10:30 so what am I going to do?
#2: True that. It's about 10:30 now you know...
#1: Great, order me another coffee, I'll roll the bus forward and get the engine on ready to leave in about 30 minutes.
#2: You know, I think I'll do the same, like you said, can't be waiting around here all day!
#1: Alright, you go move your bus, I'll order the coffees.
#2: Could you get me a Nasi Goreng while you're at it?
#1: Mate, it's not even lunch time.
#2: You're right, I'll wait til I'm at *place frustratingly close to said 45km away town but not close enough to walk so all the passengers must wait* and stop the bus for lunch instead. There's a great little warung (low-key restaurant) there.
#1: Epic stuff, maybe i'll see you there.
#2: Awesome.

We are currently waiting for a half full bus to leave, while another half-full bus is set to go to the same destination an hour later. Often, we get directed to a bus that leaves 3 hours, rather than the bus that leaves in 2. Nothing to do with touting, it's just not a point of concern that maybe we want to minimise the amount of time we spent hanging around bus terminals. We have witnessed drivers add hours to their workload by the sheer volume of favours they do for passengers and friends (and, to be fair, themselves) too many times. Buses in Indonesia are quite simply the worst we have come across in the 50 or so countries we have used public transport. Even in Bangladesh, where buses are painfully slow due to bad roads and congestion, there is still some sort of schedule and regular links between both nearby towns and long distance cities. Here, it's a free fall. Buses depart at awkward times in quick succession, meaning you can waste an entire day making a journey that should only take a couple of hours. The problem? Time is worthless. Bus drivers hang around their vehicles waiting for instruction for hours. Passengers get to their seats far in advance and wait patiently, not appearing at all bothered by unnecessary detours and delays. No one seems to care that the bus could have made three return trips in the time it takes to make one, and at no point would the bus be empty. No one that is, except us. We care a little too much:




It's just gone dark. A man is reading a newspaper at his food stall in a petrol station a little way out of town. His neighbour/ person from his town strikes up a business conversation.

#1: Brother, I love the stall you've got going here.
#2: Thanks dude, my cousin told me these were all the rage in Jakarta so I thought I'd give it a go here, you know.
#1: How's business going?
#2: To be honest, it's been pretty slow. No one comes this way in the evening.
#1: When are you open?
#2: That's the thing man, this is evening food. Selling this before dark would be like selling nasi campur (Indonesian meal of the day most prevalent on Eastern Islands) after 11am.
#1: Oh yeah, you don't want to be doing that. There'll be uproar. Say, why don't you wheel your stall somewhere else?
#2: Hmm, I don't know. This is close to my house and besides, in order to make this food I have to buy rice.
#1: Ah, so you have to go to *rice selling town 2-3km down the road*?
#2: Yeah, I wish we had rice here.
#1: Me too. Look at it this way though, *rice selling town* have to come here everytime they want bananas.
#2: That's true. Hey, maybe you should start a business selling bananas to the other town?
#1: Actually, I was thinking your business looks so good I might do the same thing.
#2: Cool! Although it would probably be better if you made something using bananas. Then you wouldn't have to go to the next town over every day like me...
#1: Come on, you can't make the food you're selling with bananas!
#2: Yeah, I guess that's true...
#1: Actually, do you mind if I just plonk my stall right next to yours?
#2: Not at all man! It'll be good to have some company when it's a bit quiet.
#1: Brilliant, where did you get that sign from?
#2: To be honest I just nicked it from my cousin in Jakarta.
#1: Cool, can I have one?
#2: Sure!
#1: Pleasure doing business with you.
#2: The pleasure is all mine, friend!

This conversation is based on two identical stalls I saw at a petrol station in the middle of nowhere in Sumatra. The stalls were both selling some kind of coconutty desert I hadn't ever seen before, in all our overlanding from Timor to here, in West Sumatra. Business in Indonesia is a strange thing: firstly, the concept of market saturation doesn't exist. One stall does well, and suddenly everyone sells the exact same thing. Some towns just don't sell rice, that's how it goes. You have to walk a few km to the next town. But no-one in that town seems to want to sell their rice in the other town for a bit more cash etc. etc. All the rice is in one place and therefore prices have to be competitive. The second issue is that not only is everyone selling the exact same thing, they're selling it at the exact same time. If you want food on Sumba between 11am and 5pm it's going to be slim pickings. And even then, after 5pm there's only noodles and soups to choose from. On Java, you can get a gado gado (delicious peanut saucy salad) between 11 and 3ish but that's your lot. This is just what we have observed of course, but for people that eat as much as we do it's clear to see there are multiple gaps in the small business food markets alone.



Every time we would really appreciate/ need some directions:

Main station in Jakarta (Gambir)

We arrive at the station. We have read online that there is a bus terminal here for 'Damri' buses, which go to Sumatra. We would like to buy a ticket for one of these buses. We go to the information desk inside the station.

Us (in very broken Indonesian): Excuse me, where is the bus station? Information desk: No bus, only train.
Us: There is no bus terminal at this station?
ID: No, no bus.
Us: No Damri bus? To Bandarlampung? To Sumatra?
ID: Just train .
Us: Is there a bus terminal nearby?
ID: You have to go to *bus terminal far outside the centre of town.*
Us: We just want to buy a ticket. Is there a ticket office?
ID: No.
Us: OK, thank you.
5 minutes later:

After walking around the station looking lost for a bit, we find a row of Damri buses outside. There is a driver on one of them. We go to interrogate him. Us (in very broken Indonesian): Excuse me, do you go to Sumatra? Bus Driver: No, airport bus.
Us: Is there Damri bus from here to Bandarlampung.
BD: ... No
Us: Is there somewhere to buy tickets for Damri bus?
BD: Yes *points to a ticket booth back towards the station*
At the ticket counter:

Us: Damri bus ticket office?
Person selling tickets: Hello Mister! Yes this is ticket office.
Us: Can we buy a ticket to Bandarlampung? Sumatra?
PST: No, just airport.
Us: No buses to Sumatra?
PST: No.
Us:Ok, thank you.

We were on the brink of giving up. Clearly we had got something wrong. We walked back towards the station, around the other side of THE SAME TICKET COUNTER and saw there was another window advertising multiple buses to Banderlampung, leaving every morning and evening in a variety of classes from this very station. The same ticket office. Just from a window around the other side. Why, Indonesia. Just why do you make it so difficult?

Every time we don't want/need directions:

Arbitrary Local: HELLO MISTER! MISTER BULE! Mau ke mana? ('where are you going?', the Indonesian conversation opener of choice)
Us: Hello!! We are going to the bus terminal!
AL:... Hotel? Hotel is this way! (in a completely non-toutish, trying to be helpful way)
Us: No we have stayed here 2 days! Now we go to bus terminal.
AL: Bus? This way! *gestures towards the wrong way*
Us: Ah, no we are going to *says name of town in hope friendly person realises we are going to the other bus terminal*
AL: Ah ok! This way! *gestures towards the other wrong way*

Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god. That is not the way. We know the way. It's the other way. Normally we are strong advocates of relying on local knowledge to get around but we are so so sure that you are gesturing us towards the arse end of nowhere. Why are you putting us through this, don't you know we're British?! We have to go follow your instructions otherwise we appear rude and we can't be rude we're British! Our flimsy grasp of Bahasa Indonesia is not advanced enough to politely decline your advice! Why are you doing this to us? I have 18kgs weighing me down! We didn't even want directions in the first place! *Breakdown ensues*...

We kid, of course. One of our favourite things about Indonesia is the genuine hospitality and openness which greets us wherever we go. You truly are a collective nation, ready to embrace anyone who comes your way. But my god, do you not know where things are. Navigation is not your strong point. We love you for trying, but in future please just tell us you don't know where the bus/accommodation/place of interest is. We won't mind, promise. We'll still pose for a selfie.

Cultural difference make travel complicated, frustrating and messy. Thank god. Keep up the good work, Indonesia, hopefully we never completely understand your ways. The world doesn't need easy. If that's what you want, there's Bali for that.

Until next time, friends!