After Labuan Bajo, our next stop was seven stops in 24 hours. A schedule fit for the Amazing Race – but, there were no yellow cards or a smiling New Zealander to greet us on our route. This was voluntary. The only possible incentive was to write about it afterwards. Aside from that, the question was why?
First, I have to clear up that map. It’s a liar. We followed A-G in order, but didn’t follow that long arc across the water from C to G. For some reason Google Maps wanted me to take this route, as much as I tried to disagree. In reality, we preferred this kind of path. There’s a freighter that leaves Labuan Bajo once every two weeks with a sleeper class, which would have been an even clearer line from A to G. Unfortunately, our timing didn’t work out.
We wanted to fly back to Lombok – but learned that no airlines want to despite how many times we agreed they should. That left us on the water.
We read various reports of some sketchy ferry companies that operate runs from Labuan Bajo to Lombok. One had sunk. And others also looked like they were ready to go overboard. In my eyes, these boats just seemed a little too dependent on Nature for their own success. In dead calm, things looked possible – but a little turbulence and the ship, in my estimation, would shrink in confidence to resemble an empty teacup, waiting for a top up.
Ironically, before we started our trip, we’d emphatically agreed not to take any local ferries. Like clockwork, we’d hear at least one report or more a year of a ferry sinking in Philippines or other Southeast Asian country. Often the cause was overcrowding on a shoddy vessel.
Revising our agreement in haste (we had one day to sort it out), we decided that to counter this problem we’d seek out a behemoth. A ship that was so big, waves massaged, rather than menaced it. We wanted a bully – a ship that could cut through waves, plough through swells, and break through currents. After a false start with one ferry company that folded on the day we wanted to take it, we found our Mothership.
Although it was a local ferry – it ran everyday between Labuan Bajo (A) and Sape (B) – and we hadn’t heard any bad news. It also carried passengers, cars, trucks, and bananas. A whole lot of bananas. While I didn’t automatically feel safer that bananas were on board, (though they are tasty) what did give me comfort was that they were packed full within big dump trucks that, like a Russian doll, were themselves in something bigger: the ferry.
The boat left at around nine that morning and Rose and I were securely in the middle of what, two months ago, I would have considered anarchy, but now accepted as life in Indonesia.
Some families were sitting on the ground of the passenger deck, picking through food they had brought on board, ignoring the oil stains their barefeet scraped across on the floor’s metal surface. Others threw down a handful of sarongs, nestled between their bundles of bags, and drifted off to sleep, seemingly oblivious to the high pitched squeals and screams rushing out from stacks of speakers channelling an Indonesian slapstick show on a TV – followed two beats later by laughter and howls from the enthusiastic audience watching.
A statistic: 68% of Indonesian men smoke. I’d say it was a conservative estimate that 90% of them were on board, making passionate love with their addiction. Rose found out that one of the biggest employers in Indonesia is the cigarette company, Gudang Garam. And with higher and higher taxes on cigarettes in North America and anti-smoking health campaigns, and in other parts of the world (New Zealand is increasing prices on a pack of smokes, 10% ever year – the latest price: $23 a pack) Asia has become a big focus for marketing. Case in point – (imagine the reaction if this were in Canada):
Though, you’ll notice they had included one of those visual warnings to say smoking kills, albeit a mild one – exhaling a skull of smoke.
It’ll probably be a while before their government has enough strength to bend Marlboro and others to sign up for the North American poster gallery of horrors which we’ve plastered over our cigarette packages: tongues, gums, brains and lungs blackened and eviscerated by the disease that, in the cigarette companies extensive research and legal detentes, is only ALLEGED to have an effect on health.
I no longer smoke, and rarely see a pack anymore. But when I’m in a gas station waiting to pay and see the clerk lift up the faceless wall behind him to show a smoker what he or she can achieve if they really put their lungs to it, I imagine it’s not a smoker asking for a pack of cigarettes, but a medical student, interested in a specific autopsy – that he/she wants a sample of to take home and study.
In any case, on board our ferry, the air is a fog. And Rose is distressed. I’m not much better – but I think I have more tolerance, since I still like the smell, and sometimes get cravings, even though I quit eight years ago. Now, unfortunately, there’s little chance to catch oxygen in between smoke, so we decided to move into another room, labelled VIP, which really stands for Very Important Price. Anyone can sit there – in a smoke free room with reclining seats, and a Western toilet, as long as you pay an additional $2.50 each.
Done. And so were the remaining hours on this leg, as we sat back, read, wrote and chatted (pretty much the normal ingredients of any of our given days). Poof. 7 hours down.
B. Sape to Bima
We disembarked at this ferry terminal to a squall of vendors. Guys would approach asking us where we were going, then lead us one way, while another guy would ask the same thing and lead us in another direction, only for the two of them to end up in a fight. Complete mayhem.
Amazingly we got on the right bus with our luggage tied down on the roof, which had the dual function of offering a pillow or back rest to other passengers who were also riding up there in the open-air.
The bus took off as if it was a subway. We careened around corners, passed bikes and cars ripping along as if the driver was late for a first date. The backdoor was wide open the whole time with one guy ushering people on the bus who were waiting on the side of the road. He’d make sure they had one foot in the bus, then yell at the driver to take off again. Usually, this meant new people would choose their seats by falling into them.
At one point, I looked out the window at some passing scenery and I jumped. The hanging guy was outside my window, giving me a thumbs up with a huge smile – as he flapped in the wind at 80km/h. It was an odd sight, but also startling – because, I couldn’t see much of anything out of the bus – I was too tall and the windows were made for Rose. The effect was that I had to bend down, stick my knees up high on my seat and peer out the window with my chin on my chest. I returned a thumbs up – which, given my folded, knees up position, might have looked like I had also just been sucking it. Eventually after two hours, I unfolded out of my kid’s pose, and Rose and I were steered along to our next relay – the bus station.
c. Bima to Ferry2
We’d arrived in what was essentially a holding tank. A group of buses were all lined up, heading to various destinations with some buses competing for the same ones. All the bus owners were waiting for buses like ours – minis – to drop off their passengers, who would then fill up their big, proper touring buses. This meant negotiating a new price. And, Rose wouldn’t miss it, arranging a decent price based on prices we’d read from other travellers.
We were on a bus with the promise of air conditioning and a good pedigree based on the words “NEW” splashed across the front of the windshield, and a big Mercedes symbol.
It was a six hour bus ride to our ferry stop, and the promise began to fade at around the one hour mark, when Rose and I realized – the humid cool coming from the air conditioner was as good as we were going to get.
After drifting off to sleep, I woke up three hours later, sticky from sweat, and groggy. It was then I noticed the promise was really on the ropes – the bus had stopped with engine trouble.
I have no engine know-how. I normally have to get a second opinion when I’m looking at an oil dipstick. However, after looking over the shoulders of the guys tinkering with the engine, I was pretty sure they were replacing the fan belt. Or it could have been a calliper. Or, it could have been anything else entirely. I don’t know what a calliper is, only that it seems come up in movies or TV shows featuring cars.
Regardless, the problem was solved in 10 minutes and we were on our way.
D. Ferry to Labuhan Lombok
The bus arrived at the ferry dock, and drove right onto another behemoth. This time the setting was a bit different: it was now two in the morning, Rose and I were completely out of it from sleeping, waking and napping again, yet there was one thing that stayed true: a pack of guys each smoking a pack of cigarettes.
There was no TV as entertainment. Instead, there was a man with a dream and a microphone. He walked up in front of the seated audience, plugged a microphone into a speaker and started to sing a popular Indonesian song, which I guessed was popular because guys in the audience also sang, but then when he’d get to the chorus he’d screech out an improvised howl, which the guys in the audience reacted to with huge laughter.
Teetering between choruses, he was drunk and kept getting more excited at his improvised howl as he saw the reception it got. So, he would keep it up – adding more and more howls, until the song eventually descended into what was nearest to death metal, alternating between grunts and screams. His audience stayed with him for a while, though I could tell their interest was waning. I wasn’t into it and Rose had never even switched on.
At that moment we spotted another VIP room, and walked in. This time around, it wouldn’t be so cushy. No reclining seats. No seats at all. It was filled with benches, which were all filled with people lying down across them. We had the option to curl up on the floor on what looked like kids’ squishy mats, but Rose refused on germophobe grounds, which was reasonable, but I was so tired I was giving it consideration.
Instead, we both sat at the foot of a sleeping woman, heads in our laps, trying our best to stay asleep, despite still hearing the muffled yelps of the metal god from behind the door.
E. Labuhan to Mataram
We stirred at 4am, made our way back on the bus – and steering between consciousness and exhaustion we finally landed in our last stop, Senggigi, Lombok a few hours afterwards.
In total, that added up to 24 hours, and time for bed. We finally emerged, later that day, only after we confirmed that we could form full sentences.