In the end it was the ultimate change from the sublime to the ridiculous that destroyed what even emotional keel I had.
Just a week before these events take place I was camping on a beach at the southern end of the island of Java in Indo, with my friend Neil, and two beautiful Dutch nurses.
These nurses, Hanika and Marayka, seemed to have an aversion to clothing and spent the daylight hours topless.
We had met these two in a backpackers in the south javan town of Banyuwangi and they had told us they were heading down to the south-western coast to a turtle beach with the hope of seeing baby turtles running.
They asked us if we would like to come and we said an emphatic ‘Yes.’
Fully clothed they would have made a trappist monk start talking, so the idea of a couple of days with them in swim suits, or as events were to show, mostly out of them, was a no brainer.
Additionally, Neil and I were both biologists, he already worked with turtles in Australia, and so there was even a quasi-professional reason to go.
But make no mistake, it was the lure of the bikini that was all important.
We rented a truck, well, a motor vehicle that very loosely answered the term, and bounced our way down there.
There was no real accommodation in the area, but we were all fired up to sleep on the beach.
But as ever with travel in the third world, planning anything is at best a fifty per cent return on thought.
Firstly, none of us had tents.
But Neil and I in an attempt to be hairy-chested Australian macho men who were phased by nothing, said “We’ll just sleep on the sand, we’re in the tropics, how bad can it be?”
So we tied our boots to our packs, put the packs on and then, as Peter Mayle put it best, headed out “like two-legged snails”.
We had no real destination in mind, so we headed up the beach looking for a) turtles, b) a nice spot to sleep and c) Hanika and Marayka’s breasts to appear.
At one point we came across a small trickle of fresh water coming down the beach from the green undergrowth fringing the sand.
We stepped over and through it and continued on.
Eventually we found a spot we thought serviceable, threw down our packs and generally lazed about.
For the two women, lazing about meant divesting themselves of all but bikini bottoms and rolling around in the black sand.
For Neil and I, lazing about meant staring as if hypnotized at the breastual feast being paraded before us.
Then the sun began to set with its usual tropic speed and I just want to say this, a piece of philosophy I have developed over the years is: “You haven’t lived till you’ve been slapped in the face, had a drink thrown over you and someone has said, ‘Who the fuck are you?!’”
All of which has happened to me, of course from my drinking days, but I would like to add this to it.
You haven’t lived till you have seen two beautiful, topless Dutch nurses, rolling in black sand, on a beach in south Java, while the tropic sun sets over the western headland and the shadows grow long.
The natural setting itself was enough to start rhapsodic descriptions, but the beauty of these two girls even put that in the shade.
Anyway, just so you know, no romance developed.
Neil was ready to propose to Hanika, but they both had boyfriends and we had to content(?) ourselves with walking around bent double with sexual frustration and lying stomach down in the sand to keep the physical manifestations of our ardour hidden.
Night fell and thankfully Neil smoked so we used his lighter to start a fire.
From this point, though we didn’t realise it at the time, it was all going downhill.
Firstly it was night and so the girls put their tops on, so that pleasure was now denied us.
Then we began to learn something about the tropical night, viz: it’s cold, or it certainly was where we were.
Slowly as the evening moved on we pulled more and more clothing from our packs and put them on our increasingly chilly bodies.
Then we began to creep closer and closer to the fire.
THEN, we realised that we were running out of firewood, and this realisation was closely shadowed by the realisation that apart from having no tents, none of us had brought a flashlight.
Another stroke of brilliance.
We at first used Neil’s lighter to try to find more driftwood, but that proved ineffectual, and further that lighter was now integral.
We had to conserve its fuel in case the little fire we did have went out and we needed to relight it.
FURTHER, to our outdoor ineptitude was a lack of paper to use as a fire starter.
All of us had toilet paper, but in Indonesia toilet paper is even more crucial to one’s well-being than a working lighter.
What’s more, using it as fire paper is very ineffective as it turned to ash in the blink of an eye.
So the night wore on and eventually we decided to get some sleep.
We lay, as I recall, with the two girls next to either side of the fire, with Neil on the windward side of Hanika, and myself on the leeward side of Marayka.
We huddled up as close as possible against the cold, and so cold was it that thoughts of sex had long gone from my mind at least, I can’t speak for Neil, but am guessing he likewise was now only trying to stay warm.
But our efforts were to nought.
After an hour or so, Neil with his back to the wind realised it wasn’t going to happen.
He sighed and gave up and went to his pack to have a cigarette.
This created a knock on effect.
Without his shielding presence Hanika was now fully exposed to the stiffish night wind and a short time later she gave up, stood up and went to her pack and began ferreting around to see if there was any other clothing she had missed to put on.
Then, without Hanika and Neil to shield it, the fire went out.
Thus, Marayka was now taking the brunt of the wind and so she lay there fitfully for a small while then she gave up.
I think I had drifted into a lightish doze, because I recall waking with a start due to the wind now full into my face.
I sat up and felt, rather than saw, the other three moving about in the pitch black night, and so I got up and we began discussing our predicament.
We faced the choice of sitting there all night freezing, or going somewhere else.
We vaguely considered moving into the undergrowth behind the beach, but if it was dark on the beach, clearly it was blacker than hell’s midnight in there and so we scrubbed that idea.
Eventually we decided that the only sensible course of action was to walk back up the beach to the road where our truck had dropped us, then at least we would be out of the wind, and we might even be able to find a village on the road where we could spend the rest of the night.
So we put our packs on once more and then began a truly perilous walk back.
I say perilous for a few reasons.
The only passible light was a glimmer from the sliver thin moon, and the only area this lit was the ocean, and little enough of that.
The sand as I say was black, and so obviously no aid, and of course the undergrowth even less.
However, the oceans on the south western side of Indonesia have been famous through history for their ferocity, and this beach was no exception.
So we had to walk close enough to the water to be able to see, but not close enough to get caught up in it.
I might add, if you think that sounds like a small danger, later in this tale we will come to a beach resort in Sumatra that famously doesn’t allow swimming.
The reason: you can’t even walk into the ocean there.
So ferocious is the shore break that six-foot waves crash down from above head height while you stand watching.
And likewise this shore break was not to be trifled with.
Actually, now that I remember it, the sound of the ocean crash was more useful than the moon to find our way with.
So staggering slightly under the weight of our packs we picked our way through the Javan night toward the road and some semblance of safety.
Then we came to the little stream I mentioned on the outward journey.
Thankfully was saw its vague outline in the glimmer of the moon as we pitch up onto its shore.
We all stopped, more from fatigue than caution and tried to discern a crossing point.
It looked more or less the same as it had done in the day, though we all agreed it looked a little broader.
I decided to cross first, and with pack on I put my left leg into the middle of the stream and disappeared from view.
I have had some shocks in my life I can tell you, but that was one of the most severe.
The tide had changed while we were up the beach and the ankle deep trickle had changed too.
The retreating tide had combined with the little stream to scour out a two metre deep trench in the sand and with the weight of my pack, combined with the shocking, savage, unexpected cold of the water, put me a) underwater and b) into a catatonic shock.
Thankfully for me the currents and the morphology of the beach came to my aid.
Close by the point I took my plunge the stream curved sharply and I was flung up against the sand forming the outer wall of the bend.
Never, I mean, NEVER, have I been so thankful for my feet to register contact with something solid.
If the stream had been a little deeper, or if it ran in a straight line out to sea, you may not be reading this today.
But with desperate energy I scrabbled in the sand of the stream bank, found some traction and went up the wall of the stream, wresting collapsing sand out in big handfuls, until like a goanna going up a palm tree I shot over the lip of the stream and re-entered the view of my friends staring horrified into the dark.
The water glimmering of my shivering hide gave them a small glimpse of me.
Neil said, “Are you all right, man?”
I then replied with the stupidest overstatement since Stanley met Livingstone, “Yeah, I’m Ok, but the stream is really deep now.”
We conferred across the metre wide stream and then in parallel headed back up beach till we got to the sand dunes at the head of the beach, here we could tell that the stream was once again shallow, and the other three crossed over and we went on.
At this remove of 21 years I can’t recall the exact sequence of events, in retrospect I was still in mild shock.
What I do remember next is being on the back of an open backed truck, riding through the jungle in daylight.
Neil, Hanika, Marayka and I perched on our backpacks among the locals carrying chickens, rice , vegetables and various goods, who were headed for the local markets.
I was still damp and coated with sand and salt, but the day was as warm as the night had been frigid, and as we are about to see, that was as pleasant a ride as I had for some time.
But before we move on, I want to report something that was to change my life.
Whilst I was hung up on reporting Hanika and Marayka going about topless, I forgot to mention that as evening fell and we sat around the dieing camp fire, Marayka asked Neil and I some psychological questions.
They may not be found in any text book, but as events will show, I found them valuable beyond belief.
These were the questions:
- What is your favourite animal?
- What is your second favourite animal?
- What is your favourite drink? Alcoholic or non, anything goes.)
- Picture a box, made of anything with anything or nothing in it.
- Describe the ocean in three words.
- Disregarding the last answer, how would you travel across the ocean from one atoll to another. Fantasy rules here, you can go on a truffle bike, or fly in a gravity box, it doesn’t matter.
Later on I will say what these questions and answers represent, it is a tool for finding out about yourself, and Boy, did I learn something.
So back to our open topped truck.
We headed from the isolated coast, back onto the central spine of Java, and reconnected with the main north-south tourist trail of Indonesia.
We than travelled north to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and man, that place is a maelstrom.
Smog like LA, traffic like you cannot believe and 24-7 freneticism that would have been hard to take if you had just come from another capital city.
For us, basically straight off the beach, it was like being thrown into a blender.
Among the things I remember of Jakarta was the bicak.
A bicak is a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi and I’ve always felt the Jamar Islamia never needed bombs, it only had to get all the hated western tourists in the country into one of these devices and send it out into Jakarta’s perpetual peak hour traffic and job done.
Neil and I got in one of these death bringers for the journey to our backpackers.
They were/are built for Indonesians and so Neil and I, and our backpacks, filled the rear and left us with little or no room to manoeuvre.
The drive chain to the back wheels was exposed beneath us and ran perilously close to our socks and we spent the journey in perpetual dread of a) our socks getting caught in the chain and our legs ripped off, and b) the other vehicles on the road ripping our head and shoulders off.
I have a picture, still burned in my brain twenty years later of a truck tyre moving menacingly toward my face as I sat trapped, unable to move.
In the end it was so close that if I could have moved my arms I could have undone the wheel nuts with ease from where I sat.
The exhaust fumes of our vehicle and the traffic in general made our heads light and when we eventually pitched up at the backpackers, we got out and fell to the ground and kissed it like the pope arriving in a new country, so thankful were we to be alive.
With nerves jangling we checked in.
That backpackers was an interior analogue of the city itself.
After a shower we went to have dinner with Hanika and Marayka.
And if there was any slight chance of dalliance, it was snuffed out then and there, for Marayka’s boyfriend, Pieter, had flown out to join her.
He was currently doing his national service as a submariner in the Dutch navy, and was on two weeks leave.
He was everything I wished to be, young, handsome, fit and in bed with Marayka every night.
However, he was a lovely man, and we had a nice evening.
Later on we said good bye to the three dutch travellers, they were heading for a different part of the island, and repaired to our stuffy dorm for what was becoming the norm, not a very good night’s sleep.
The next morning we examined our guide book sand maps and figured out what to do.
I was very happy as there was an English language book store and so was the first port of call.
I was then, maybe still am, a horrendous cheapskate, and so went there and browsed every shelf of the place, examining stock and comparing prices, without purchase, I was going to make that decision at my leisure.
That night we went to the movies, and the next morning we had a conference and made a decision that would change my life.
Over coffee, Neil pointed out that so far in Jakarta we had shopped in an English Language bookstore, had dinner at a nice restaurant, gone to the movies and sat in rush hour traffic.
“We might as well be back in Sydney”, he said.
I heartily agreed and so we decided to go to Padang, a coastal resort a long way from Jakarta.
So far the rhythm of our trip had been to stay in one place for three days, then travel for a day.
A day’s travel in Indonesia then, probably still, could be 50 kilometres, or 500, mostly the former.
This had been sustainable and we had had a generally good, if not overly, relaxing time.
Why we made this decision I cannot now recall, but I think it was largely due to the unpleasantness of Jakarta.
There were plenty of nice beach resorts close by, but we somehow thought that the further we got from Jakarta, the nicer things would be.
Anyway, the internet maps give the laughably optimistic time for the journey to the mid-west coast of Sumatra where Padang sat centrally as the capital of the region as 26 hours.
So we made the decision and went to bed planning to check out and move on the next day.
Morning came and we packed our gear for the trip.
I was ready earlier then Neil and was ready to go while he was still smoking his first fag of the day.
So I said, “Ok, I’ll take my gear and walk around to the bookstore to buy something for the trip. When you’re checked out, come and join me there. If I buy something and am ready to leave I’ll walk back and meet you on the way, then we’ll head to the bus station, how’s that sound?”
He said, “Ok”, and I headed off.
Like everything else in Jakarta, walking was not pleasant.
I had my whole pack on and within metres of leaving Neil’s table I had sweat rolling down my body.
The smog caught my throat, and my shoulders already felt the bite of my straps.
The book store was about a kilometre away and when I arrived I felt like I had beaten Tenzing to the top of Everest.
I had pretty much made up my mind what I was going to buy.
It had to be a long book, as I wasn’t sure when I would next find a bookstore, and it had to keep me engaged, or I knew I would throw it aside in boredom.
So I purchased Lord of the Rings.
I had already read it twice, but knew it could stand a third pass-through.
I carried my book and bag out to the footpath and looked down the road for Neil.
I waited a few minutes, and then with a long-suffering sigh, hoisted my pack and began the walk back to find him.
I got all the way back to discover him still at the desk of the backpackers arguing over some sundry expenses.
I was exasperated, but he was doing the right thing, haggling is a way of life in Indo, and you want to pay a fair price, but not be regularly ripped off.
Not that the money matters to us phenomenally rich westerners, but even the Indonesians gave you greater respect if you haggled to a mutually acceptable middling price.
That over we loaded up and headed for the bus station.
Another kilometre walk in the smog and heat.
We got there and tracked down a bus going to the ferry port of Cilegon on the northern coast of Java.
Our vehicle was a standard Indonesian eight-seater mini bus.
I say eight seater, though I am not sure if these vehicles ever travelled with eight people in them.
30 was common, 40 not unknown.
Additionally, there are no timetables in Indonesia, you simply get on the bus, and when there are so many people on board that the driver can’t reach the gear stick without asking someone to move, you go.
And go we did.
Another characteristic of these trips is that any westerners sit up front, with, as it happened, full nerve jangling view of the carnage to follow.
I should say, Neil and I aren’t giants, but best described as medium large westerners.
Both being just under 180cm (just under six feet tall) and weighing in at 90k (190lbs).
I mention this because the only place we would fit in these mini-buses was on the front bench seat next to the driver.
20 odd Indonesians of smaller stature were crammed in the rear.
The journey to Cilegon took about three hours and the first hour of that was through Jakarta.
I thought we were going to die a few times and already my eyebrows were becoming permanently fixed to my hairline.
In my massive, massive naiveté, I thought once we get onto the highway through the countryside, things will calm down, surely?
Wrong again, Lachlan.
We eventually left the outskirts of the capital and my eyebrows began to return to their more customary position above my eyelids when we passed our first fatal accident of the morning.
Glass everywhere, two bent and savagely twisted vehicles.
I don’t know for sure if someone died, but there was blood on the roadway and knowing the Indonesian predilection for overcrowding any vehicle, it was almost certain.
My eyebrows once again took off like the space shuttle and we watched with the standard appalled fascination as we inched through the traffic around the accident.
That passed we returned to cruising speed and continued northwards.
At the time I was enjoying learning Bahasa, the official language of the archipelago.
I had some “See-Spot-Run” level primers and it was something I genuinely enjoyed.
I was reading from one of these in a vain attempt not to watch the road, when Neil, who likewise wished to learn a little bit, asked me, “How do you say, ‘What is your name?’”.
I replied, “Siapa nama anda”, and the bus driver, naturally thinking we were addressing him, replied, “Rambo”.
Like absorbed spectators at a tennis match, our eyes swivelled in unison to look at him.
I don’t know to this day if Rambo is a common name in Indonesia, or if he took it, or was given it, for the Sylvester Stallone movies, but as we were to learn over the next two hours, it was almost certainly the latter.
If he had been born in first world, he would have been dedicated driver of V-8 gruntmeister vehicles.
I guess we were lucky that his minibus was hopelessly underpowered, but then that created problems of its own.
I’ll just digress to say that many have written about the traffic and driving in the third world, but none better than P.J.O’Rourke in his book “Holidays In Hell”.
His story, “Third World Driving Tips” is best remembered for its description of driving maniacally up hills, down mountains, through walls and over people.
I’ll just put in this little extract for those of you who wish to read it.
“When to honk your horn in the third world.
- When starting the car.
- When stopping the car.
- When someone is coming.
- When no one is coming.
- And at all other times.”
So with my eyebrows already starting to go over the top of my head and return under my chin we entered the mountains and we became unwilling close up spectators to Rambo’s overtaking technique.
What he did was this, you drove the accelerator venomously into the floor and spurred the minibus up to its max speed of 90k.
When you came upon another vehicle and decided to overtake you pressed both feet onto the speed pedal and moved out into the oncoming traffic lane.
Then you encouraged the passengers to throw anything not essential out of the window to gain that extra few clicks.
Then you inched your way up to the overtaken vehicle and raced them for the next few kilometres trying frantically to get ahead.
If another car came in the other direction, you either gave up and slipped back in behind the vehicle you were trying to get beyond, if another vehicle had not come up and was filling the space behind already, or you gritted your teeth and continued to go for it.
Rambo, apparently living up to his name, almost never gave up.
With a full panoramic view of this Neil and I became suddenly religious and began praying for the first time in years.
We went through three or four of these heart-stopping overtakes and were already commending our souls to god when we rounded a corner and nearly added to the carnage of the second fatal accident of the morning.
Another cluster of mangled vehicles, another swathe of broken glass.
Rambo in a split second moved both his feet from the accelerator to the brake and we came to a shuddering halt within metres of the last car in the queue trying to get around the accident.
I didn’t wear underpants at the time, but was beginning to heartily long for a pair.
Once again we inched through and moved back up to travel speed.
The next hour was a copy of the first two with the requisite fatal accident to buoy(?) our spirits.
Eventually we pulled into Cilegon and Rambo dropped us at the ferry port.
Once again we emerged from an Indonesian hired vehicle and fell to the Earth and gave thanks for our deliverance from death.
The next step of the journey was a ferry ride across the Sunda Strait.
We were really, really looking forward to this as the first relaxing piece of travel we had undertaken.
However I now had a new problem.
It might have been the dip into the stream on the beach in Java, combined with the stress of the recent travel, compounded by the smog of Jakarta, but I was developing a really sore throat.
I negotiated the tickets for the ferry, noticing I was already starting to sound croaky, and feeling the flames beginning to lick around the back of my mouth.
There were three classes on the ferry, first, second and third.
I couldn’t quite understand the differences using my smattering of Bahasa.
But we eventually plumped for first, figuring after our ride with Rambo we needed the most luxury possible, and so tickets in hand we boarded the ferry.
If I had been smart, I would have quickly found a pharmacy and bought some throat lozenges, but I didn’t, and have rarely regretted a decision more.
On the ferry it turned out that first class differed from second only in that first class was inside with an appalling Asian smash-up movie to watch, while second was upstairs and outside.
So we decided to sit outside and enjoy the calming waters and lovely sea air of Sunda while we unwound.
However, it was not to be.
For on this ferry ride we were to be afflicted, if that’s the word, by a new phenomena that would become an increasing part of our lives as we moved further away from the touristed areas.
In short, Neil and I were now (very) minor celebrities.
In the more rural areas tourists were less known and the locals would stare fascinated at us.
Neil, being blonde, particularly attracted attention.
And this first exhibited on the upstairs outside deck of the ferry.
We put our packs down and we enjoying the view when we became aware of an increasing crowd of locals, mainly young men, gathering around us.
They weren’t rude, they were genuinely interested in us, and asked us the standard questions of the travellers.
“Where are you from?”, “Australia”, we would reply.
“Where are you going?”, “Padang”.
“Where have you come from?”, “Jakarta”.
The problem for me was, they all smoked.
So the beautiful night air was not sampled by me, only the vapours of twenty or so clove cigarettes, heating my already chainsaw painful throat.
At first I tried to answer their polite questions but it quickly became clear that my throat wasn’t up to it.
Additionally, the crowd was a revolving number and once someone had asked their questions they would leave and another polite young man would come up and want to practise their English with us.
So I gave up trying to answer and left it to Neil.
However, the smoke continued to fill my airways, and my relaxing ride across the strait was not to be.
Eventually we arrived at the Sumatran side and pulled into the port of Bakauheni.
We disembarked and were wondering what to do.
Night had fallen and we needed somewhere to stay.
We couldn’t find anyone obvious to ask, but it was clear that Bakauheni was a ferry port and nothing else.
We then noticed that everyone else from the ferry was marching in line toward a large car park and boarding buses.
We decided to join them, figuring that the buses were going to the nearest town and we did not want to be left hanging around the ferry terminal all night.
Unlike Rambo’s death machine, these were genuine tourist coaches, 36 seaters, or thereabouts, and as I hauled my flaming throat on board I hoped for a safe comfortable ride.
However, it was not to be.
36 seats there may have been, but as ever on an Indonesian bus, this meant ninety people would be crammed in there.
When I took my seat I then discovered that the original seats had been removed and replaced with smaller seats and these were closer together.
Their were two nice young Indonesians between me and the window, seated so my left buttock stuck out into the aisle.
My knees were not just touching the seat back in front, but were positioned as though they were trying to scour out a hole in it.
So with my knees nearly touching my chin, my bum hanging out, my elbow regularly stopping my travelling companion from breathing and my throat aflame we began out journey.
If I wasn’t uncomfortable enough, I quickly realised that I had ANOTHER problem.
As a young man I was a keen cricketer and played for hours on Saturday afternoon wearing cricket boots that were designed by someone who had never heard the term “orthopaedic”.
The soles were sliver thin and eight spikes emerged to grip the turf as I ran about.
My home town in country NSW was undergoing prolonged drought and the fields on which I played were hard as concrete.
Thus, after some hours on my feet in these unsuitable shoes, my lower back would start to complain.
Not a sharp pain, but a dull, uncomfortable throbbing feeling of unease.
Of course I had not been playing cricket before boarding this bus, but something, possibly sitting awkwardly on the steel deck of the ferry had set off my lower back discomfort.
When playing cricket, I could always stretch, hop or run on the spot, or do things to ease this problem, but now, locked into my seat by the seat back in front and the two travellers next to me, I couldn’t do anything.
I tried to shift my position, but that only aggravated my companions and didn’t help my back at all.
Within twenty minutes I was gritting my teeth from the twin pains of my throat and lower back.
Within an hour I was ready to convert to Islam if that would get rid of the pain.
Adding to my already unmanageable discomfort was we didn’t know where we were going, and thus didn’t know how long it would be.
I’ve been able to use the internet mapping tools as I write this to figure that out, which was: the journey took 90 minutes from the ferry port to the regional capital of Bandur Lampung.
I can assure you that time dilation was in effect and if I had learned I was on that bus in screaming discomfort for twelve hours, I would have believed it.
Eventually, thankfully, mercifully, lights began to appear through the windows of the bus and we entered Bandur Lampung.
We pulled into the bus station and quite frankly if we had rolled up at a sulphurous pit with red flame emerging around a sign that said ‘Hell’, I would still have got off that bus.
The above description of the christian netherworld is however almost prescient, as we were about to discover.
As we stood in the bus terminal, with me going into a frenetic stretching routine to ease my back, a young man came up to us and began talking in Bahasa, I brought my mind to bear on him and eventually realised that he was offering to lead us to some accommodation.
We were very thankful.
We still didn’t even know what town we were in, and the thought of getting out the guide book and trying to find somewhere on our own was not to be borne, and so we loaded up and followed our guide to the hotel.
Well I say hotel, but military barracks would be closer, a prison more accurate yet.
We were still, just marginally, on the tourist trail, but we quickly realised why this hotel sent people to the bus station to get custom, if you saw it with your own eyes, you wouldn’t stay there believe me.
However it was dark and we weren’t able to discern what awaited us inside, and as stated we were in no position to argue.
We entered the lobby and began a dialogue with the young man behind the desk.
This tête-à-tête was another first, as he was the first hotel staff member we met who spoke no English at all.
Not a word.
My fractured Bahasa wasn’t up to it, and though we both knew what we wanted, a room, we didn’t have the spoken word tools to achieve it.
We both fell silent and then the young man had an idea, he waved his arms a bit in a, “Wait-here-for-a-moment-gesture”, and left the room.
He returned ten minutes later with another man, and he spoke enough English to get everyone sorted out.
He translated the check-in card for us, and Neil and I filled ours in.
Then, with much thanking and some tipping in rupiah, the English speaker left, and our desk clerk led us to our room.
As soon as we opened the door, I realised I had ANOTHER problem.
Another digression, so bear with me.
When at primary school I went on an excursion of some of the historical points of interest in our area, well, interesting to someone, but not any primary school student.
Anyway, one was a jail at the historical village of Hartley in the Blue Mountains.
It wasn’t a full prison, more a pair of holding cells for the Hartley courthouse, which at the time, the early nineteenth century, was the entire structure of the law in the area.
These cells were concrete with the requisite steel bars on the windows and a plate steel roof.
We visited in summer, and the heat inside these places was truly hell-like.
Winter was no better, Hartley, in the mountains regularly records winter temperatures below zero and for any unfortunate spending a night there, winter or summer, death was a real option.
It was as if they had been built to provide torture more than just containment.
And so when Neil and I stepped into our room that night, I was immediately transported back to those cells behind the Hartley courthouse.
If I were to learn that our room had been designed by the same architect I would not have batted an eyelid.
The floor was concrete, and the “beds” were raised biers of concrete with a single sheet on them.
The walls and roof were corrugated iron.
Bandur was in on the coast, but we were far from any sea breeze here and we once more began sweating great rivulets.
With sinking heart I threw my pack on my “bed” and then we had a conference.
Neil wanted some food, but with my throat, and the remnants of my back pain still in force, I was not up for anything but being recumbent for the next ten hours.
So while he headed out to find some food, I laid out my things and began planning for sleep.
Even I who claim to be a writer can’t hope to adequately describe the heat in that room, suffice it to say that it the slightest movement, breathing for instance, induced great waves of sweat to roll down my body.
With a sigh I got my rubber roll mat, laid it out on my “bed” then sat on it, ferreting in my bag for this and that.
Whilst I was doing that, I became aware I had ANOTHER problem.
I slapped one on my arm and was aghast at the inch long swathe of blood it left.
These were tropical mosquitoes I might add, they were the size of house bricks and had stingers that could go through the corrugated iron walls of the room, or so it seemed to me.
I slapped the back of my hand, and realised I had killed two, covering my hand with blood, but then to my horror, four or five moved in to take their place.
Needless to say a quick ferret in my pack told me I was out of mozzie repellent.
But I did have a mozzie net.
So I quickly unpacked it and found to my delight, the one “luxury” appointment of my room.
A rusty nail stuck out of the tin above my head.
I was able to get my mozzie net fixed to this, and then lay it out around my sleeping area.
With alacrity I got under it and was happier for about a millisecond, till I realised I had ANOTHER problem.
This may be hard to believe, and I understand, I really couldn’t believe it myself, but the mozzie net, thin and diaphanous though it was stopped what little cooling air there was moving about my body.
I crouched under it and considered my problem.
Eventually I lifted the tiniest, tiniest segment of the net and poked my nose out like a polar bear cub emerging from its snow den for the first time.
The mosquitoes were ready and whined down to intercept.
I took as big a noseful of air as I my long-suffering throat could stand and retreated back inside.
And so it went for the next little time, nose out, breathe, net down with a slam.
I readied my self for bed and then realised, of course, that I needed the toilet.
With a sigh of resignation and then a few deep breaths for courage, I lifted the net, emerged like a racehorse when the gates fling back and stampeded down the corridor.
I urinated into the hole in the floor that is the standard Indonesian toilet. (The luxury ones have footprints painted next to them, showing you where to squat.)
Then as I made my way back to my room, I realised I had ANOTHER problem.
I’ll just regress here for a moment.
Remember I said that I had a few mental images of Jakarta burned forever into my brain?
One was the wheel nuts of a truck looming as I sat in the back of the bicak, well the other was scatological.
Not far from our backpackers was a full-scale, five-star modern skyscraper, with revolving doors, air-conditioning, bronze marble steps leading up to it, the lot.
It was the head office of the Negara (Country, or Rural) Bank of Indonesia, and was a centre of commerce and the hub for movements of millions of rupiah.
That’s fine, but what I most remember, and always will, was that these bronze marble steps arched an open sewer and a young boy was defecating into the open drain beneath from one of these steps.
Bank workers in their suits passed by without breaking stride, and the young boy waved to passers by in the least self-conscious manner imaginable.
To me that will always stand as the image that best summed Indonesia at the time.
Horrendous wealth, cheek-by-jowl with enormous poverty.
Thus, after a short time you became inured to the open sewers and public defecation, and the smell dimmed to a dull background olfactory roar.
However, this toilet in my concrete hotel in Bandur was as fearful as they came, and as I leapt, rather than walked out of there, I was longing for my room(!) and a diminution of the smell.
I was to be sorely, sorely disappointed.
Now that I noticed it, the smell didn’t diminish one iota as I repaired to my cell.
In fact, if anything, it was worse, or at the least, just as bad.
I, with great reluctance, followed my nose around the room while beating off the squadrons of mozzies and found, to my horror, that the sewer ran directly past our room, I could see it through the gap between the bottom of the tin wall and the concrete floor.
I’m guessing it had been dry in Bandur for a while, as the sewer contained raw, randomly scattered pieces of shit, and feculent pools of raw sewage.
Of course if it was the rainy season, that would have been worse, I guess, the sewer would have had liquid to move the stuff on, but that would have risen up and entered our room under the tin walls.
And now that I was aware of it, the choking sewer smell was raking my throat and sending that into new paroxysms of pain.
So I got under my mozzie net, got into the most comfortable position that my back would allow, grabbed my mozzie net and made my nasal lunges for breathable air, and waited for Neil to get back.
As I waited, I realised I had ANOTHER problem.
I had had a lot on my mind so far, so the noise hadn’t really impinged, but now that I lay there taking my shallow breaths I heard the murmur of voices from the room next door.
It wasn’t loud and I was just thinking that things were pretty quiet, all things considered for an Indonesian town, when it all changed.
The door opened and suddenly the murmur became a full-scale party.
Glasses clinked, bottles were opened, cigarettes were lit and, from the sounds of it, raucous jokes were being told.
In the recording industry it is a well known trick for accentuating a singer with a weak voice to record them in a bathroom or some other hard walled room.
Something just like the room I was in.
The room next door was exactly the same and it worked a treat to accentuate the voices.
What’s more, with the traditional Indonesian overcrowding, there seemed to be thirty people next door.
I began doing what I would do for longish periods that night, staring at the ceiling and begging for death.
The next morning we would see the denizens of the party next door and counted nine people.
Turned out it was six oil rig workers, off the rig for their week long break onshore and ready to party, and three prostitutes.
The three women were the voices I first heard quietly murmuring, but as the bottles were drained there shrieks of laughter joined those of the rig workers to create a real hubbub.
Then Neil returned and announced, “I could die in next few days.”
“Why is that?”, I replied.
“The only food I could find was one of those street carts set up next to a sewer with flies all over it and bats with their wings cut off, bleeding out.”
I should say this was a common practise for food animals.
Because refrigeration was largely unknown, particularly in the poorer areas, a food vendor would cut the throat of an animal and let it slowly die to allow the bodies natural immune system to preserve it for some valued hours till it was ready to be thrown in the pan.
Well that was all I really needed.
So far Neil had been a great strength to me, in my pained state, if he went down with illness we would really be in trouble.
And so the long night began.
I don’t know how much I slept that night, but it was certainly not longer than a half hour at a time.
If I drifted off and rolled onto my dorsal surface my back would hurt and wake me up.
If I slept a half hour under the net, my lungs would cry out, and I would have to wake and muzzily grab a few nosefuls of air.
If neither of these things occurred, the noise next door would reach a crescendo, and we would jerk awake on our concrete beds.
The smell raged on and the mozzies massed at the fringes of our beds.
Finally dawn came and we emerged from our cell to face our NEXT problem.
We had by now at least learned what town we were in, Bandur Lampur, but weren’t quite sure how to move onward to Padang.
Padang was sufficiently far away to have no direct connection, and so we had to come up with a town midway, and hope to get a connection to that.
We consulted our maps and came up with the town of Bengkulu.
On the coast nicely midway, and just the job.
We lunged our gear onto our wracked bodies and went to the bus station.
Now we faced ANOTHER problem.
We quartered about and found a bus that said “Bengkulu” on the front in the destination window.
I went up to the front of the bus and asked the driver of he was going to Bengkulu, “Yes”, he replied.
Double great, we would soon be moving again.
I went to confer with Neil and said, “OK, this is the one, the driver says he is going to Bengkulu”.
Neil raised his eyebrows and said, “well I just spoke with the ticket guy and he says they’re not.”
Just to clarify, most of the larger buses in Indonesia, and a few of the small ones on popular routes, have two staffers.
The driver and a “conductor” who haggles with passengers over fares, takes the money and runs things on board.
My driver versus Neil’s conductor, who was telling the truth?
I turned toward the bus, which already had twenty or so passengers on board and said “Does this bus go to Bengkulu?”
“Yes”, said some.
“NO”, said others.
We repaired to the shade, sat on our packs and conferred.
Neil, who I should say was more phlegmatic than me and considerably more adventurous, wanted to just get on there and see where we ended up.
I, increasingly strung out, somehow wanted things to go smoothly and mentally demanded to know where we were going before we boarded.
I really, really, didn’t want to wind up in the middle of zarking nowhere in another hotel like last night.
So we bickered in the shade and whilst doing so had our problem solved for us.
The bus driver started his engine and the bus pulled out of the station.
We then further conferred.
There was really no point staying here if even buses with the place we want to go written on them can’t help us, so what are we going to do?
Neil consulted his guide book and came up with an answer.
There was a station in town and since trains ran on rails, there was no way we could go wrong.
We grabbed a taxi across town to the train station and discovered, or course, that the daily train for Bengkulu had just left.
Our options were therefore, return to our hotel and come back tomorrow.
You know what I thought of that plan.
Or catch a different line north.
In retrospect, one plan we didn’t consider was to go back to Bandur, find a nice hotel on the coastal side of town, enjoy a night’s rest then catch the Bengkulu train in the morning.
Why? I can only think we were sleep deprived and not thinking clearly, or, we were a just a pair of idiots.
I think also somehow the goal of Padang had become like some trophy, some major feat of third world travel to be achieved and then spoken about in tourist bars to the boredom of all others.
Anyway, our choices were, the Bengkulu train which was well touristed as it ran along the southern coast of Sumatra and was considered beautifully relaxing.
The other option, to Palembang, ran across the mountainous central spine of Sumatra, and though picturesque in its own way, was well off the beaten track, and, I had no doubt, contained more places to stay like the prison of the night before.
At least we had plenty of time to make up our minds, this Palembang train didn’t leave for some hours.
We once again retired to a quiet(?) corner of an Indonesian transport hub and considered our options.
And there we will leave it for this chapter, with Neil and I sitting on our backpacks in the corner of Bandur Lampung station.
And I can already hear you say, this is third world travel, why has there been no mention of galloping diarrhea?
Well it’s coming, believe me.