Hours after hours, we sat on different buses which brought us back to Bogor in the midst of the perpetual traffic jam. The sky was already dark, but we wanted to reach Gunung Halimum Salak on the same day so that we didn’t have to spend the next day on yet another few buses. Luckily, the bus driver who picked us up from Bogor happened to live very close to the entrance of the park and told us that he could bring us there directly, so unbelievable!
As the evening unfolded, the traffic worsened. I felt like a chunk of food being swallowed to a full digestive tract which was also connected to many other mouths with vehicles trying to push in. In order to overtake some slow-moving heavy vehicles in front of us, our driver took every opportunity to cut into the opposite lane, which had less traffic probably because most people going back home stayed on the outskirt of Bogor. Somehow he was always able to squeeze his way back just before we would get hit by the incoming vehicles. Toni and I had to constantly stretch our neck muscles to look out as if it could enhance the vision of our young and adept driver.
Gradually, all the other passengers alighted the bus. Our driver invited Toni to the passenger seat, leaving me alone behind with two huge backpacks. He took a turn from the main road and drove into a narrow, darkly lit and hilly lane with small houses on both sides. Even though we were relieved that the jam was finally over, a sudden bump jolted us to a new source of anxiety – our reckless driver. He had leaned his skinny body forward with some boyish frenzy and pressed fully against the accelerator, only braking suddenly before the huge holes on the ill maintained road. I had to grab our backpacks tightly and fix myself securely on the bench so that I would not fall out since the back door was wide open. Then something strange happened as our driver became distracted by the pile of bus fare he collected during the day. Instead of focusing fully on the road condition, he gathered the money into his hands and started counting them with a fierce joyfulness, only leaving the edges of his palms on the steering wheel. After smoothing out the huge pile with lots of small changes, he placed it in front of him and started counting again after five seconds. He repeated this action for at least another 20 times, ignorant of how pale his passengers had become. At the same time he would wave and shout to some small gang groups gathered at the road side and laugh uncontrollably. I was pretty sure that he talked about us because his friends stared at us with some sinister smiles. Then he stopped at a small store and passed almost the entire money pile to the owner, who emerged with some packets of cigarettes and a bottle of drink which looked like grape juice. Our driver chuckled coarsely, started the engine again and gulped down a huge mouthful of the purple juice. He then passed the bottle to Toni and urged us to try as well. I did not want to drink at all, but felt obliged to take a sip from the obscure bottle. The moment the sweet juice went down my throat, I felt a burning sensation and realised that it contained alcohol. I passed the bottle reluctantly back to our driver, who placed it between his laps and drank greedily. I almost cried when he asked Toni to drink more but Toni shook his head and refused. I would have emptied the bottle if he asked me! But he didn’t.
When we finally reached the entrance to Gunung Halumum Salak, I jumped out of the bus and felt the solid ground with an unspeakable gratitude. Unfortunately, since we were too stunned by our driver’s behaviour to replenish ourselves with any food or money on the way, we were left with no choice but to go back to the village on the next day! Our driver observed the whole situation shrewdly and told us that we could spend the night at his house where he would charge us a minimum price compared to other guest houses. It was a painful decision to get back to his bus, but the idea of camping (without showering for the past two days, excluding the cold dip at the waterfall and the hot dip at the hot spring) and returning to the village the next day without any available transport daunted us even more. Therefore we climbed back to the bus and followed the driver to his house, which appeared pretty decent against our expectations. He introduced us to his parents and siblings, and surrendered the rest of his earning (which became really meager after the splash on cigarettes and alcohol) to his mom. Toni followed suit by paying for our accommodation. We were offered some tea by the friendly sister, but an awkward silence soon followed because we couldn’t speak each other’s language. We were thinking of resting earlier when a middle aged lady came in and started talking to us. It turned out that she was the driver’s aunt and taught Malay in a local school. The family had called her for help because she could speak some English. We talked happily for a while before another guy came in, who claimed to be the brother of the driver’s dad and spoke some English as well. After some more amiable chitchat, the aunt, being an observant lady, asked our driver to bring back two packets of Nasi Goreng (fried rice). To our pleasant surprise, they were so understanding that once the food arrived, they retreated back to the kitchen and left us alone to savour our belated dinner.
We swept down the heavily seasoned rice and waited for the kind relatives to join us again in the sitting room, but they stayed at the kitchen and discussed incessantly. When they finally came out, both Toni and I felt sleepy and wanted to excuse ourselves. Before we could get up, the aunt came up to us with a sheet of paper. She had written down a long list of activities and their corresponding prices. Toni and I felt a bit puzzled, but it seemed that she had planned for our trip in the next two days, that the driver would be our guide in the national park and we would follow him back to overnight the next day etc. The price for the accommodation was also different from our earlier agreement and everything was charged on a per person basis. It was destined to be a long night, as we explained to her that we had our own tent and didn’t want to trouble them with anything other than one night’s stay at the house. She was incredulous that we didn’t want to hire the driver as our guide and pretended that she couldn’t understand us. After a long negotiation she finally agreed that we only wanted to stay at the house for one night, and we would just pay for the accommodation and dinner (we skipped breakfast after looking at her price list). At first they would not even admit that Toni already paid for the accommodation in the beginning, but after they failed to intrigue our memories the aunt decided to charge us an astronomical price for the Nasi Goreng (approx. SGD15). The atmosphere at this time had turned upside down, and only our driver had a crooked smile on his face. The friendliness evaporated, and before we could sleep, the dad asked us if we were married and insisted that we should sleep in different rooms. We took a very quick shower in the bathroom, which had a spoiled door and little water from the tap. During our military style wash up, Toni and I looked at each other silently. In the midst of the fright, betrayal and disbelief, I detected a sense of humour in his eyes. Once again, we had ventured into an exciting journey, and there was no way back.
Figure 1: a happy photo shoot with the not so happy ending