It was 2011 and I was on a bus to Bali from Surabaya. I had started travelling alone the previous year and had been to several places in South East Asia on my own. As with most Indonesian public buses, the seats were cramped. There were chain smokers who puffed continuously throughout the journey, sending smoke right to your face if they were sitting in the seat in front of you. You’d smell like an ashtray by the end of the ride.
The driver drove in the classic suicidal-style that I’ve often seen in Indonesia. There were only locals on the bus. I hugged my backpack tightly and tried to look as inconspicuous as I could as I tried to catch up on my sleep.
Soon the day grew dark. There were only two other passengers left, a man and a woman. They didn’t seem to know each other in the beginning but were now chatting excitedly, and sometimes the driver joined them. The language they spoke was different from the Indonesian I was used to, I could only catch a few words. I assumed it was the local dialect of Surabaya; it could even be Balinese.
The woman began to talk to me, thinking I was a local. I told her that I was from Malaysia and on my way to meet a friend in Bali. I really did have a friend waiting for me in Bali, but even if I didn’t, I would have said the same thing anyway. It always made me feel safer to let people know that someone was expecting me. That way, they would know that should anything untoward happen to me, somebody would come looking.
I had been on the bus for close to 8 hours and my back ached from sitting too long. The highway weaved through dark forests on both sides, and there were no streetlights. Cool wind blew from the open windows, providing respite from the cigarette smoke blowing towards my face.
The man and woman, who seemed to be in their late 30s or early 40s, were engrossed in their loud banter. The man had moved to the woman’s seat. She giggled when he rested his hand on her thigh. Although they were speaking in a tongue that I barely understood, it needed no translating that they were openly flirting with each other. It was no big deal to me but I worried that they would start making out on the bus, because that would make it horribly awkward, with me being the only other passenger on board.
The bus driver exchanged a few words with them. The woman translated to me that it was getting late, and there would be no more ferries to Bali by the time we reached the jetty. They could still drop me off at the jetty if I wanted to, but it would be a long wait till the next ferry in the morning. Since I was alone, they suggested that I go with them to the driver’s quarters and spend the night there. We would cross Bali together first thing the next morning.
I began to weigh my options. I didn’t know what the jetty would be like. Judging from everything else I had seen so far, I doubted there’d be proper seats to sleep on and even if there was, would there be any lights? Would there be anybody else around? I didn’t want to wait for hours in the dark where I would be an easy prey to predators, be it human or non-human.
Going with these three people sounded like a better option, where I might have a more comfortable place to sleep, and perhaps some food too; I hadn’t eaten since I boarded the bus in Probolinggo. Because there was a woman present, especially one much older than me, I felt less worried. We girls look out for each other. Perhaps her maternal instinct would kick in and she would feel the desire to mother me. After some time away from mommy, I could do with some mothering.
We stopped at a small café for some food, but there wasn’t much left. We had some spring rolls before making our way to the quarters. It turned out to be a rundown, haunted-looking building in the middle of nowhere. Actually, in the middle of a jungle, that’s where. There was no other building to be seen. All around us was complete darkness. The toilets were outside and had no lights. I had to do my business in the dark.
The woman had gone into a room with her new beau, and I was left with the driver, who took me to his room on the second floor. The building was two-storey high, with a row of 5 rooms on each floor, and a narrow corridor. The room was tiny. There was a mattress on the floor, and a small shelf where he put his toiletries and what little belongings he had. Loose newspaper pages littered the rest of the dusty floor.
He said he needed to pray. He asked me if I was Muslim and if so, why I wasn’t praying? I mumbled some excuse about not having the right attire. He shook his head and reminded me that no matter how far I travelled, I should never neglect my prayers. I smiled and watched as he arranged some newspaper on the floor to be used as a praying mat.
Done with his prayers, he retired to his bed. I had been planning to stay awake throughout the night, or at least for as long as I could. Seemingly aware of this, he told me that I’d better not. There had been times when someone spotted a headless body hovering by the window, he told me. I had a feeling this was just a cruel ploy to scare me into sleeping with him and I hated to admit it, but his trick worked. I often heard stories of Indonesia being purported as a sinister land full of superstitions, black magic rituals and mystical beings, and having watched several Indonesian horror flicks, I couldn’t get the image of the headless body out of my mind. Slowly, I lay down on the floor next to him. He offered to let me sleep on the other half of the mattress but I declined.
“You’ll get sick if you sleep on that cold cement,” he insisted.
I adamantly shook my head.
“Can I put my arms around you then?” he asked. I said no, and inched myself away. I wrapped myself as well as I could with my sarong. I closed my eyes, silently admonishing myself for getting into this mess. I hated myself for being a woman then, a weak and stupid one at that, at the mercy of some man.
I don’t know how long it took before I fell asleep but when I woke up, it was bright outside. The driver had prepared two cups of hot tea for us. He had already showered and dressed. I just stared groggily at my tea.
“So do you trust me now?” he asked suddenly. “You see, I could have done something to you last night, but I didn’t,” he paused and looked at me.
I realised he wanted me to thank him. I remained silent. I didn’t think any woman should ever have to thank a man for not raping her, as though it was his right to rape and she should be grateful he gave up that right! Well, if he thought he had a right to sexually assault me, then I had every right to slice up his testicles when he was asleep, didn’t I? Shouldn’t he be thanking me they were still intact?
We walked to the bus and saw that the happy couple was already there. They looked jovial. The man playfully punched the driver on his shoulder and asked if he had had a good night last night. The driver whispered something and they both roared with laughter, surreptitiously casting glances at me. To my surprise and absolute disgust, the woman actually laughed along with them. So she was in on it all along!
She might even have been pimping me last night, because wasn’t she the one who had talked me into going with them in the first place? I swallowed my anger and kept quiet for the rest of the journey. It was, hands down, my worst bus ride ever.
I have had several other similarly dangerous incidents because I trusted people too easily. But sometimes, wisdom only comes with hindsight. Sometimes, I still find myself making the same mistake, because there is really a fine line between wanting to protect yourself and missing out on the best things humanity has to offer.
I have also met many wonderful people by trusting in the good in them, and have made countless good friends whom I wouldn’t have known had I not given them a chance.
However, I am by no means trying to advocate anyone to travel recklessly.
A useful piece of advice that everyone else has been tirelessly preaching and one that I should start listening to, is that you must always, always put your safety first, no matter what the circumstances are.
Read our last Travel Tale: 4 Indian Festivals With Unique Rituals
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