Among the various things that first go up and later must come down, the first, in our case, was a certain aforementioned 10-hour bus ride between Tana Toraja and Makassar. A year ago, when I first got this job and my boss at PiA was regaling me with the wonders of Indonesian transport ("Some of the airlines aren't the greatest, so you should just exercise good judgement -- like, if you see them duct-taping the door of the plane closed, you should probably get off"), she advised that I avoid overnight buses in Indonesia, since apparently many of the drivers have an unfortunate tendency to fall asleep at the wheel. This piece of information, coupled with our knowledge of the width of the winding mountain road that connected Toraja and Makassar (not very wide) as well as with the fact that it had been tending to pour rain in Rantepao starting into the afternoon and continuing late into the night, led us to elect the day bus, rather than the night bus, back to the big Mak. Feeling very responsible and safe, we boarded the bus at 9AM and, waving to Tata through the window, rolled out of Rantepao.
Most of the first hour and a half of the ride was spent getting to, and then stopped at, Makale (20 km south of Rantepao), waiting for the rest of the passengers to finish buying their oleh-oleh and board the bus. At around 10:30 we finally got on our way, and at around 11, the bus broke down. Something had happened to the front right tire, but Megan and I did not know what the problem was, nor was it ever explained to us. Over the course of the next 3 hours, we sat in the bus on the side of the road (the driver would occasionally turn it on for 10 minutes at a time so we could get a little AC), amusing ourselves by eating crackers, telling each other riddles, speculating about what might be wrong with the tire, and reminiscing about the days when we actually knew what was going on in our immediate environment. At around 1:30, one of the porters came onboard to tell us that we were waiting for another bus to pick us up (receiving a piece information was never so sweet), and miraculously, half an hour later, one did. So, around 2PM, about 1 hour into our journey and running only 5 hours late, we finally hit the road.
Before the bus broke down, we had been slated to arrive back in Makassar between 6 and 7 in the evening, and had originally planned on meeting up for dinner with my friend Jenny (who is teaching English in Makassar on a Fulbright fellowship), crashing at her place, and getting an early start the next morning for Pantai Bira, a beach at the southern tip of Sulawesi about 5 hours away. After we rolled in shortly before midnight, though, and finally found poor Jenny who was waiting up for us at her house, we decided the early start probably wasn't going to happen. But no matter -- we would just aim to leave mid-morning, be at Bira by late afternoon, find a hostel, settle in, and maybe even catch the sunset over a Bintang. No problemo.
There aren't actually any buses to Pantai Bira, and we knew from both the LP and Jenny that the only way to go was to catch a Kijang (sort of like a jeep/minivan, but used as a minibus in many parts of Indonesia). It seems to me this vehicle was built to seat a maximum of 8 people (3 in the back row, 3 in the middle row, 1 in the front, plus the driver -- and even then it would be cozy), but we also knew that Kijangs don't leave unless they are full, and full means 10 passengers (4 in the back, 4 in the middle, 2 in the front, plus the driver -- very cozy). We got to the station around 11 or 11:30, and were immediately bombarded with offers to charter a vehicle for $50 -- 5 times what it would cost both of us to get to Bira in a regular Kijang. My conversation with one of the drivers, roughly translated to English, went something like this:
DRIVER: Where are you going?
ME: We want to go to Pantai Bira.
DRIVER: Oh, to Bira. Would you like to charter a car? Charter is only Rp. 500,000.
ME: No, we want cheapest transport. Kijang. How much?
DRIVER: Oh, you want a Kijang. That's Rp. 50,000 [about $5] per person. You don't want a charter? It's faster.
ME: No. We want Kijang. 50,000 from here to Bira?
DRIVER: Yeah. You can take that one over there. :: motions to red vehicle nearby ::
ME: We take that one, from here to Bira, 50,000?
DRIVER: Well, first you stop in Bulukumba [a town about 40km before Bira], but from there you can catch a pete-pete [a different type of minibus] to Bira. It's 40,000 to Bulukumba, and then 10,000 to Bira by pete-pete. No problem.
ME: From here to Bulukumba, 40,000. Then from Bulukumba to Bira we get pete-pete, 10,000. Yeah?
ME: Okay, we take this one to Bulukumba, 40,000. Then we get pete-pete, 10,000, to Bira. Yeah?
DRIVER: Yes, that's right.
ME: Okay, we take this one now, to Bulukumba? 40,000? Later, get pete-pete?
DRIVER: Uh ... yeah.
You know, I just wanted to be sure. As we climbed into the Kijang, along with another young woman and an old man, Megan said, "Maybe it will just be us four?" with a note of doubt in her voice. I think we were both holding out that this 5-hours-in-a-jeep-with-10-people-and-no-AC thing might be better than we had been led to believe, but it was not to be. Just as with the bus ride from Toraja, we did not get on the road immediately, but rather spent the first hour and a half of the journey weaving through the backstreets of Makassar picking people up at their homes and along the side of the road (yet another feature of Indo transport that continues to baffle me: did they arrange that beforehand, or is the bus driver just telepathic?). Getting on the road was not much better, though, as I spent the next 4 hours -- coincidentally the hottest hours of the day -- bumping up and down on the crack between 2 seats of what was probably a 15-year-old vehicle, sweating down every surface of my body and occasionally moving my legs 2 inches forward or back as if that would alleviate the pain in my tailbone. At one point I fell asleep, but we were hitting a pothole about every 50 meters so that didn't last long. At one point one of the women in the back row got out along the way, which brought our grand total down to 11 human beings inside the vehicle (as the 12th, she had been an extra, I guess since she wasn't riding the whole way). At one point, I remembered that the bus from Toraja, even though it had broken down for 3 hours on the side of the road, had had air conditioning. Then I stopped thinking about it.
We rolled into Bulukumba around 5:30, but even before we got out of the Kijang, I could tell something was wrong. We had dropped everyone else off along the way, so it was only me and Megan by the time we got to the station and the parking lot was looking pretty deserted. It took about 4.5 seconds for a circle of men to form around us once we exited the vehicle (I remembered this from Rantepao), and the ensuing conversation went something like this:
THEM: Where are you going?
US: We want to go to Pantai Bira. The man in Makassar say we get pete-pete from here to Bira, 10,000.
THEM: You want to go to Bira? Oh, no. There are no more pete-petes tonight.
US: Yeah, but the man in Makassar say we get pete-pete from here.
THEM: No, all the pete-petes are finished. It's very far to Bira from here! Hm. But you can charter a car to take you there, you know. We can take you, maybe for 200,000?
US: No, very expensive. The man in Makassar say we get pete-pete from here, for 10,000.
THEM: There are no more pete-petes. It's too late.
US: But the man in Makassar say to us we get pete-pete from here to Bira.
THEM: You can't do that, because there are no more pete-petes tonight.
US: But the man in Makassar say we can. He say!
Obviously, our hands were tied. There was no way to get a pete-pete to Bira at that hour (which, we decided later, the guy in Makassar had of course known beforehand, though he had failed to mention that his suggestion was in fact impossible) and there was no place to stay in Bulukumba (it being not exactly a hopping tourist destination). Finally, one guy said that he and his wife had to go that way anyway, and would take both of us for 100,000 -- the same price we'd paid to get from Makassar to Bulukumba, which was four times the distance from Bulukumba to Bira. Not having very many options to choose from, we had to accept. The vehicle we'd be taking, however, was somewhere else and would be about another hour, so we heaved off our packs and sat down on a wooden bench to wait. A new circle formed around us, comprised of men, women and children, but this one seemed purely observatory. For about five very surreal minutes, a circle of Indonesians squatted around our bench and stared at us in silence, while Megan and I just looked at each other thinking, "Is this real life?" After a few minutes, though, someone started a conversation, I think to ask me about my tattoo, and that broke the spell. Good to know we hadn't accidentally slipped into a parallel universe after all.
It was dark by the time the minibus we'd be taking arrived. We piled ourselves and our packs into the back, along with a couple crates of fish, while the man and his wife and his wife's friend got in the front. Finally on our way to Bira, and with the beach almost within our grasp, we settled back against our packs for the jolty one-hour trip, figuring we were in the clear. I mean, at this point, how much worse could things get? Not worse, maybe -- but within the first ten minutes of the drive, our now 33-hour journey from Tana Toraja tipped from the category of "amusing and mildly painful" into the realm of the truly absurd. Our extortionist-turned-chauffeur flipped down a brand-new DVD screen from the ceiling of the van, and my first thought was, "Wouldn't it have made more sense to have put a door on this vehicle before installing a DVD player?" He then proceeded to put on a soft-core Asian porn video (for the record, his wife seemed into it also -- it was more bizarre than creepy), and I had no more thoughts. Megan and I just looked at each other thinking, "This is not real life," and then went back to looking out the window and pretending that nothing out-of-the-ordinary was occurring. Good to know we actually had accidentally slipped into a parallel universe after all.
They turned off the video after about ten minutes but left the accompanying music on, so we completed the last leg of our odyssey to the soundtrack of blasting porn-worthy techno. We got dropped off in the center of Bira, paid up, bid the crazies goodbye, and for a few minutes just basked in the realization that we had finally made it. It was almost 8PM by then, so we got some food and found a place to crash for the night, deciding we would evaluate our state of affairs in the morning. Our state of affairs being, of course, whether this Bira joint was worth all that grief -- and all I could think about as I fell asleep was the answer better be yes. But as we know by now, what comes down must also go up. And luckily for us, that answer ended up being yes indeed. A big fatty yes.