The driver glared at his unworthy passengers from under beetled brows, a look reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”. He spoke at me in rapid-fire local dialect, then shouted the same words, several times, in an attempt to break the language barrier. I told him, in my very bestvBahasa Indonesian, that I didn’t understand. He asked me a few questions in Bahasa, then told me my language skills were appalling. This set the tone for the journey from Lubuk Sikaping to Lake Toba, Sumatra, and I was sitting in the front seat, lucky me, the driver’s travelling companion.
Nine other passengers were crushed together in the eight-seater van behind us, our combined luggage forcing those in the back seat to tilt forward in their seats and be constantly rammed in the back of the head by boxes packed to the roof.
The driver lit the first of several hundred cigarettes. When I lowered my window, he overrode my decision and wound my window up electronically from his side. This unpleasant window game continued until he lost interest and I managed to secure an inch of breathing space.
The van hurtled down streets, dodging small children and animals, overtaking other vehicles regardless of space to do so, the horn blaring constantly. Yet still, the driver didn’t have enough to do, with the smoking and speeding and overtaking and horn blaring, so he also made and took calls on his mobile phone.
One hour later, the van popped a tyre. The driver pulled over, flung himself out, slammed the door and stamped up and down the road, beating at himself and emitting short, high-pitched screams. We seemed to be to blame for the mishap and he cast furious glances and threw bitter words at us while replacing the tyre.
We sped off again, slipping round on the spare tyre with no tread, on a treacherous, narrow, winding mountain road. I use the term “road” loosely, it was a conglomeration of rocks, metal and potholes with smatterings of bitumen. The driver considered this to be the perfect track for overtaking at speed, at night, with one headlight, without being able to see what was approaching from the other direction.
Apparently it was music time, so the driver cranked up his music stick and sang along at full volume to cheesy love songs, in both a Metallica-inspired growl and a tuneless falsetto. Those of us who thought we’d be able to sleep were clearly mistaken, we rattled around in the van
like pinballs as the driver swerved wildly to avoid monkeys, singing, smoking and yelling into his phone, one hand on the steering wheel, his foot glued to the accelerator. King of the Road.
He stopped abruptly at a roadside stall and disappeared inside. Left to our own devices, some of us wandered in to the hut. We saw, on a raised platform, bodies in blankets, completely engulfed, cocooned, no heads or feet showing. Our driver was asleep in one of these cocoons, which would have been reasonable if we’d been driving for twelve hours, but we’d only been on the road for four.
A braver passenger than I woke him with an impatient and angry shake after two hours, or he would possibly still be sleeping now. The passenger was given a mouthful of abuse and the driver spent another half-hour drinking coffee and imitating Jack Nicholson.
We stopped countless times, whenever the driver needed to urinate, or eat, or pray, or eat again. The trip, for him, appeared to be a lovely vacation.
Every time we stopped, I got out of the van to stretch my legs, and every time, people stopped whatever they were doing to stare at me, the white person. Small children saw me and either laughed or ran away. Having been laughed at, run away from and stared at for two weeks in Lubuk Sikaping,
I’d had enough. Tears were close. The icing on the cake was being treated to the spectacularly awful sight of a rooster having violent sex with an unwilling chicken, pecking viciously at her neck, almost under my feet, before the conjoined pair were nearly run over by a motorbike.
Sixteen hours later, I arrived at Lake Toba. The driver scowled at me one more time as he banged my suitcase into the dirt. He opened his palm for a tip and waited. I stared at him, laughed hysterically, and ran away.