On the long, long road again

We had a great two weeks at HODR, but life as a volunteer wasn’t always a picnic. Showers were of the cold-bucket variety, food varied in look more than in taste, and cleanliness and restfulness were very hard to come by. We worked hard for those two short weeks, without much luxury to come home to at the end of the day. Kudos to all those long-term volunteers who are there for months. It can really take it out of you.

We felt that we deserved a bit of a treat on our first night on the road alone again, so we splurged for a fancier hotel in Bukittinggi. To be honest, fancy is a very relative term here, but in our case it meant hot water and a double mattress. To top it off, we decided to be really touristy and eat at Pizza Hut. After some delicious cheesy garlic bread, a Super Supreme pizza (sans pork of course — Sumatra is very Muslim) and a pitcher of Coca-Cola, we felt happy and sluggish, and were asleep by 8:00pm. At this point, we didn’t know for sure where we were headed next, and we definitely didn’t know that our next journey would be our worst so far…

We awoke feeling refreshed and still a little sore, and had a nice lazy morning thinking about what to do next. We finally decided to start making our way back across Sumatra towards Medan, where we will eventually catch a ferry to Malaysia. The first leg of that journey was a bus trip from Bukittinggi to Danau Toba, a massive inland lake that promised relaxing times. We were excited. Visions of afternoons spent in hammocks and swimming in cool waters danced in our mind’s eyes. To make things even more exciting, we met a very helpful guide who arranged our bus tickets for us, and shuttled us out to the station. Smooth sailing so far.

The journey itself was rumoured to be between 14 and 22 hours long. Obviously we hoped it would be closer to 14 than 22, but we tried to prepare ourselves mentally anyways. Many things had gone right so far, and many other things seemed to indicate that the trip would be much more pleasant than some of our past Indonesian bus experiences. Things that seemed to indicate this were as follows:

1. The trip would be entirely on the trans-Sumatran highway. Hopefully this meant good, wide, safe roads.

2. The seats reclined, and only when you wanted them to.

3. Our bags were stored inside the bus, not on the roof, not below us. Peace of mind.

4. The bus was air conditioned, with no smoking signs on the front window.

5. I had a garbage can conveniently located right beside the arm of my aisle seat, so I wouldn’t even have to get up to throw things away. Bonus.

Even with a trip of such length ahead of us, these things all boosted our spirits as we set off.

The good news: the trip lasted a mere 14.5 hrs. The bad news: that’s the only good news. What follows is an account of how all of the “positives” we’d been so excited about turned out to be negatives, in an awfully big way.

1. The trip was indeed on the trans-Sumatran highway, but it turns out that this highway is narrower, windier, and less paved than most of the roads we’d seen to date. We were often off-roading through mud and rocks, narrowly missing oncoming trucks, and swerving wildly around mountain corners.

2. Even though the seats reclined as promised, there was nearly no point in laying back to relax. The swerving and bumping of the ride was so constant that your head would simply bounce from side to side like a ping-pong ball. Sleep was nearly impossible to come by.

3. Even though our bags were inside the bus, I had to turn to watch them at every stop we made to ensure that they weren’t thrown out the back door with all of the other baggage being unloaded. It seemed that every time I did manage to sleep for a few minutes, we’d stop again, and my vigilance would be required.

4. Air conditioning. There is a serious misunderstanding of the application of air conditioning in this part of the world. People seem to think that if some air conditioning is good, more must be better. It was freezing on the bus, and there was no way to shut off the stream of air coming from the vents above our heads. Eventually I managed to rig up something with a plastic bag and some shoelaces to keep the air off us directly, but this led to other problems. The constant stream of cold air was initially helping to keep the smell of cigarette smoke down. That’s right — the no smoking signs were only for show. The man two seats up from us must have chain smoked for 80% of the ride. Once in a while the smell would be cut by a whiff of durian fruit. It was suffocating.

5. The garbage can. This proved to be the worst part of it all. The combination of eccentric driving, windy roads and cigarette smoke proved to be too much for most people’s stomachs to hold. It started with the woman in front of us retching quietly into a plastic back several times, along with the woman across the aisle. These bags were gently deposited into the garbage bin at my side. Eventually the bags became a nuisance, and people just started heaving themselves down in the aisle to puke directly into the can. One guy in particular spent a significant portion of the ride with his elbow in my ribs, throwing up and spitting not 12 inches away from where I was sitting. The icing on the proverbial cake came when, suddenly, Meg was overcome by nausea and threw herself over my lap to contribute to the can. By this point there were enough people on board sleeping that the number of cigarettes being smoked was reduced, allowing the smell of vomit to be the most present odor. It took all of my willpower to make it through that. It was likely the most hellish bus ride I’ve ever been on, along with the longest. Talk about a bad combination.

Our ferry at last

We eventually did arrive in Parapat on Lake Toba, at 4:00am. The first ferry to the island we were headed for didn’t leave until 9:00am, so we killed a few hours in an all-night restaurant. We made it to the ferry, and safely across without incident, where we discovered that the place we would be staying was, thankfully, awesome. What a relief. We dropped our bags in our private room, ate some breakfast, had hot showers, and went to sleep. It will take a few days to recover from all that we’ve been through to get here, but this seems like a great place to do it.

That was a long day.


  1. Debbie Rosen

  2. Oh my, how awful! I sure hope these next few days help you to forget about that!

    So good to hear from you!

    Love and hugs!

  3. Mother Goose

  4. Yeah! So happy to hear from you again. What a TRIP! It must make you long for good old Canadian GREY HOUND – for that matter even OCTranspo sounds good – well maybe NOT afterall. Enjoy your most deserved ‘holiday’ at Lake Toba. Sending you lots of hugs and kisses…MG

  5. Robert J. Rosen

  6. Your world has become a bigger place. Keep pursuing your dreams and helping everyone on the way. I aided elderly people as I worked about the city today. The smiles on the faces warms the heart each time. Keep going you two.

    Love Dad

    OMG what a horrible experience. I could just feel my dinner welling up when I read your blog. Enjoy your well-deserved and well-needed rest. Let’s hope the next leg of your trip is a lot better:-)
    Lots of Love, B xox

    Well I’m glad you can make light of that situation Mark! I guess now that it’s over you will enjoy this next stop in your journey even more. Well done, you guys deserve some hard earned R&R!

    That sounds like a horrible bus ride. Hopefully it will be something you will laugh about for years to come….even if you can’t do it yet. The throwing up beside you, Mark, was the cherry on the cake!

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