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The Medan Bus
My first post in the "hisstory" category, this article discusses the road hazards one might come across in the Aceh Province of northern Sumatra, in Indonesia. I supervised two remote jungle seismic crews (over 1000 men on each crew) for two years, from 1985-1987, while working for Mobil Oil Indonesia. I kept a journal of my experience and am finally getting around to getting some of it posted.
Driving Hazards of Northern Sumatra
Both Real & Imagined
About This Article
For two years, from 1985 to 1987, Scott worked for the Field Operations Group for Mobil Oil, based out of Jakarta, Indonesia. He was the company geophysicist, working in the remote jungle region of the Aceh Province, at the northern tip of Sumatra, supervising two helicopter-supported, remote-jungle seismic crews. Each crew was made up of over 1,000 men. During this time, a National Geographic photographer visited and some of those photos are included in the August, 1989 National Geographic article "The Quest for Oil".
This journal entry was made during Scott's first 2-month tour (Scott worked a 2-month "on", 1-month "off" schedule and when he was "on" he worked from 6 AM till 6 PM, 7 days a week.
The journal topic for tonight is "Driving Hazards".
There are many driving hazards in northern Sumatra (Note: I am only talking about the driving hazards in the countryside. So far, I have little experience driving on the roadways of Indonesian cities, but from the little bit I have experienced - it's a constant hazard! Avoid city driving if you can!).
We have paid drivers that do all our driving for us. This is mostly keep us foreigners out of trouble. If an accident occurs, no matter who is at fault, all fingers (by mutual agreement) point to the "orang puti" (white man). He is the one with the most money! The police will back-up this policy. (Graft is alive and well).
Sometimes it's nice to have drivers, but it is hard to be a passenger in a car when you're sitting in the drivers seat! (Indonesians drive on the left-hand side of the road and because of this, most steering wheels are on the right side of the vehicle. "On the passenger's side," is where I describe the location of the steering wheel, to all those that will listen.) As a passenger, I am always - out of habit - trying to sit on the passenger's side of the vehicle, which is the driver's seat in Indonesia. All of our drivers think this is really funny.
Let's summarize, because I know all of this can be confusing. I can't drive, for my own safety, so I'm a passenger riding in what is normally the driver's seat for me. Knowing that I'm a passenger, however, I always try to sit on the passengers side of the car, where the driver's seat is actually located. This confusion happens because Indonesia is a country where everyone drives on the wrong side of the road, while steering from the passenger side of the automobile. OKAY, now add to this scenario the typical driving hazards encountered in North Sumatra, which I'll detail later and you've got a very panicky passenger who feels like he should be driving and is constantly looking into a rear-view mirror - that's aimed in the wrong direction - and is applying imaginary brake pedals. It's hard for me to relax when we drive anywhere!
Driving hazards in Sumatra fall into two categories: Real hazards and imaginary hazards. Both are just as scary to the newcomer! Real hazards include: bicyclists, motorcyclists, goats, chickens and the Medan Bus. Imaginary hazards include: people, cows, bridges and coconut trees (which were just added today).
Real Driving Hazards
Nearly everyone in Sumatra lives near or on a primary or secondary roadway. Roads may be paved or one lane dirt tracks in remote jungle regions. These roads are the main transportation route and the best way to get from point A to point B in Sumatra - everyone uses them. People walk on them, bicyclists ride on them, motorcyclists ride on them, cars drive on them and the Medan Bus uses them.
Bicyclists comprise much of the roadway traffic, and thus, constitute a real roadway hazard. Most Sumatrans cannot afford a motorcycle or car, so bicycles are a very common method of transportation. Most bicycles are single-person, single-speed bikes of an older era (i.e., old, rusty, slow-moving and unattractive). The people riding these bikes generally hugs the extreme edge of the road or rides on the shoulder, if there is one. Such riders don't present much of a hazard, except when crossing the road or - if its an elderly rider - when they weave his bicycle on and off the roadway. They're on the road for awhile, then off the road for awhile ... and so on.
Becaks (pronounced "bay-chaks") are a different bicycle animal and are a real roadway hazard. Becaks are three-wheeled bikes that are designed to carry passengers. They are generally quite wide and very unpredictable, starting, stopping, turning and passing, without warning. They generally move very slowly, which means if two becaks try to pass each other, they will generally fill the roadway, making slow-moving obstructions for motorcycles, cars and the Medan Bus.
Motorcycles are hazard because they are quick and also many in number. They are like little buzzing flies that zip in and out of traffic; noisy little creatures that one is tempted to squash under a tire. People who want to move faster than a bicycle, but can't afford a car, own motorcycles - which translates to most everyone who doesn't have a bike. There are a lot of motorcycles. Most are powered by small, noisy, smoke-belching 2-cycle engines, usually less than 125cc, but with enough power to dart in and out of traffic. One never knows from which direction a motorcycle might come from. Indonesians ride them on he road, on the shoulder of the road, around becaks, bicycles and between cars. They ride them laden with bananas, fish in wicker baskets, with flat-cars attached (three-wheelers)or with three or more passengers. (I was in Medan not too long ago, the largest city in Sumatra with three million people. There, I saw a record six people, all riding on one small motorcycle! Amazing.)
The best defense for all of the aforementioned real hazards is the horn. Our drivers are constantly beeping their horns, as they make their way around becaks, motorcycles, bicycles and people. A drive anywhere is accompanied by intermittent, unflagging use of this "early warning device". For the most part, the noisy system appears to work surprisingly well. Zipping along at 40-50 kilometers per hour (it's not like highways speeds in the U.S., thank God) traffic seems to magically part ahead of us. There are times, however, when the horn is of limited use. When we pass two motorcycles (who are passing each other) and a car is heading toward us from the other direction, Agus (A-goose, one of our drivers) beeps the horn several times and pulls into the right lane to pass. The motorcycles ignore the warning, continue to pass one another, taking up more than half of the available roadway. We are now three abreast, the two motorcycles and us, with an oncoming car, rapidly approaching! (Sitting in what would normally be the drivers seat, I frantically apply imaginary brakes and look into the rear-view mirror - which is turned the wrong way - to see if there's anything behind us, trying desperately to pull back behind the two motorcycles). In a split second, the two motorcycles pass each other and then we pass them, narrowly avoiding collision with the opposing car, which whooshes past us! My heart races, as the whole event is timed like we're in a circus daredevil act!
There are other real hazards upon which the horn has no effect. These hazards include goats, chickens, and the Medan Bus. Of the three, goats and chickens are the least important. If worse comes to worse, you can flatten the goat or chicken and end up with only minimal damage to the car (of course, there is the small detail of paying the owner for the dead animal, though squashed chickens are generally gratis. I guess the idea is that if the chicken can't get out of the way, then it deserves its fate and the owners simply make hasty plans for chicken stew or chicken and rice for dinner). So far, our kill record is zero, as our drivers appear to be among the quickest, although I am constantly holding my breath, certain we're going to hit something. Goats are extremely unpredictable and chickens are just plain dumb. Many chickens get that "fight or flight" adrenalin pumping and (rather than flying, which seems like the most effective escape mechanism) they run like hell, trying to outrun the car, to keep from getting flattened. Not too bright! This behavior provides a visual demonstration of what ‘bird brain’ is all about.
Of all of the real road hazards, the most frightful and tangible is the Medan Bus. (This is a nick-name we have given to any and all large buses). The city of Medan (8 hours away) is a common destination for these large buses and let me just say that the drivers do not get paid by the hour ... they get paid by the number of passengers they cart to Medan (and the other towns and cities along the way) during their day. This certainly isn't the most safety-minded approach one might take to public transport, as each driver is determined to haul as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. Buses provide the only form of public transport between towns and (since most people don't own cars) they are used quite heavily. Drivers vie for passengers, which are not in short supply (indeed, it appears that seating is the commodity in short supply on these buses). Of course, there are many destinations and towns besides Medan, which means that buses - large and small - are always coming and going, often fully laden (including livestock and other goods all lashed to the roof). The main thoroughfare is filled with overcrowded, heavily laden buses, all of which are battling for speed on roads already filled with people, livestock, bicycles, motorcycles, becaks and cars! It is a scary mess!
The Medan Bus does not toot its horn like everyone else. It operates under its own rules! Instead, it blares its horn at anything that is in its way and believe me when I say, everyone takes heed, as the Medan Bus is hell-bent on making time down the roadway. There is no mistaking the arrival of the Medan Bus. Everything (goats, chickens, people, bicycles, becaks, motorcycles, and - fortunately - our drivers) rush to get the hell off of the road! The Medan Bus is big and doesn't ride on one side of the road, it rides right down the middle. There's no pretense of defensive driving with the Medan Bus. The only moves the Medan bus makes are purely offensive in nature! These buses are commonly crammed to the gills with humanity and the belonging of such. Bags, chairs, tables - even cows - are strapped to the rooftops of the Medan Bus. People stand in the open rear doorway of the Medan Bus, unable to enter because of the crowding, hanging on for dear life as the Medan Bus zooms down the road, hell bent for leather! The Medan Bus seldom stops. It blasts its way though town, bringing noise and a disturbance that lasts merely seconds. The Medan Bus stops for only two reasons: to take on more passengers, or because it has crashed. Not surprisingly, there are many bus accidents. I've witnessed two bus accidents already, and I've not even been here for two months yet. One involved a bus hitting a car and the other one involved two buses. I have also heard of two children being run over by a bus. I have seen a bus after it has flipped off of the roadway and into the jungle, because it was too top heavy with luggage and rounded a curve too rapidly! The Medan Bus is not to be trifled with and represents the most dangerous driving hazard throughout the land!
Imaginary Driving Hazards
The other driving hazards I deem imaginary driving hazards. This group includes people, cows, bridges, and (added today) coconut trees.
The intensity of the equatorial sun keeps most people indoors during the day, but as evening approaches, people come out from their wooden and straw houses, concrete city dwellings and other abodes. During the late afternoon and nighttime hours, the roadways and city streets are teeming with people. They are shopping, talking and generally just milling about. It is always a fear of mine, as we make our way through villages and towns, after a day of seismic work, that some-one will pop out of the crowd and step in front of our swiftly moving car. POW. (This hasn’t happened and it is important to remember two things: First, these people have lived here a long time and are very familiar with the Indonesian ‘rules of the road’. They acknowledge the honks of cars, the ring-ring of bicycle horns, the beeps of motorcycles and, most importantly, the blare of the Medan Bus. Second, anyone that doesn't honor these rules was probably mowed down by the Medan Bus and swiftly weeded out of the gene pool. I haven't seen many deaf Indonesians!)
Northern Sumatran cows can also be classified as an imaginary hazard. (This is in stark contrast to American cows, which are classified as real hazards). The Indonesian species of cow (typically a very skinny, tan-colored Brahma) are used to chewing their cud on the roadway, as cars, motorcycles, bicycles and the Medan Bus speed by. They react in a very predictable fashion. They are either too hot, too tired or too lazy to move. They remain unaffected by the comings and goings along the roadways. Our drivers do not give cows a second glance. They do not slow down and instead, race right by these creatures, which stand unflinchingly close - only a few inches - from the passing vehicle.
Cows in the United States are not used to chewing their cud while standing along roadways filled with rapidly moving cars, buses, motorcycles and the hell-bent-for-leather Medan Bus. As a consequence, which you likely understand if you’ve ever driven past a U.S. cow, they react in a completely unpredictable manner, which can be hazardous to their health and the beauty of your automobile.
The real problem with Indonesian cows then, are not the cows themselves, but rather my American perception of them. Of course, my greatest fear is that a herd of cows, visiting from the United States, will find their way to northern Sumatra! (While I know that U.S. cows seldom vacation in this part of the world, my heart still races as we go by a herd of cows, standing in the middle of the road, at 50 kilometers per hour). To top it all off, cows are very expensive, compared to goats and would do extensive damage to our field vehicles if one were to ever hit a cow.
Bridges also scare me, but I've added them to my list of imaginary road hazards. Bridges constructed of cement aren't that bad. It’s more the ones made of logs and those that are visibly falling apart that bother me. While I can rationalize that the odds of a bridge actually collapsing under the weight of our Toyota Land Cruiser is small (our vehicles are certainly not as heavy as the Medan Bus or other trucks), I still close my eyes tightly, whenever we cross one and instinctively pray for our safe passage.
Coconut trees were added to the list of imaginary hazards just today. The addition was, in part, due to the heavy rain that occurred this afternoon. When it rains heavily, coconuts begin to drop from their roosts, which can be quite high up. Also, coconut trees rarely grow straight and there are many leaning over the roadway. A coconut came crashing down not twenty feet in front of our vehicle this afternoon. The odds are stacked against the timing required for such a projectile to hit our jeep the exact instant it was under the tree, but just the mental image of such an event is unnerving. Especially because many of the roads are lined by coconut trees.
So these are the roadway hazards of northern Indonesia, real and imagined. Combine them with the normally rutted, pitted, pot-holed & muddy condition of the various roadways, you can now see why I’m a white-knuckled, wide-eyed basket-case of a passenger. On a relative scale of pleasure from one to ten, with ten being the most pleasurable, I would rate driving through the countryside of Indonesia a solid two. I try to stick to our helicopter as my preferred method of transport whenever I can. Hey, I know the score since I've been here! Medan Bus - two, Scott and Agus - zero.