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22 November 2011 / leggypeggy

The view from the front seat of the bus

A glimpse of the people in the front with the driver.

Having had the very back row on the hot and steamy bus from Batam Island to Padang, Poor John and I scored the front row for Padang to Bandar Lampung. Aside from the increased risk of going through the windscreen in case of an accident—there were no seatbelts—the front seats gave us a chance to observe, first-hand, the life of the bus driver.

As I mentioned in On the road again, we had two drivers who swapped every nine hours or so. When not driving, the driver tucked himself into a bed at the very back of the bus and pulled a curtain so he could sleep. Both drivers were excellent and it was amazing to see how they dealt with the many challenges. Sometimes the road surface is just so crap that the main challenge is to navigate the potholes and keep the bus upright.

But most of the problems stem from everyone else wanting some real estate on an already crowded and usually narrow two-lane road—trucks, cars, other buses, motorbikes and scooters, pushbikes, food stalls on wheels, pushcarts, pedestrians of all ages, dogs and cats, chickens and more.

Lots of our previous bus drivers have hardly taken their hands off the horn—hooting continuously at real and imagined people and vehicles, as well as the wind and rice paddies—but these fellows used the horn judiciously and with differing intensities. You could almost hear the horn speak. Pay attention! DON’T step into the road. Don’t pull out of that driveway. DON’T cross the road! Scoot over a bit so I can pass. GET OUTTA THE WAY! You stupid dog! Run chicken, RUN! Fortunately, I never saw anything get splatted.

Drivers also have their own signals to ‘speak’ to one another. Like Australians, Indonesians drive on the left side of the road, so when a truck or bus driver flicks on their right-turn indicator, it conveys one main message, namely, don’t pass me now. They might be about to turn right, but it’s much more likely that they are about to swing out to pass something such as a motorbike in front of them or that they see something ahead that means passing is dangerous.

I’m guessing drivers also have their own perks when it comes to the passenger list. Poor John and I were in Row 1, just behind the driver. There are three seats in his row—his own and two others.  He seems to have two helpers riding with him—not quite conductors, but still people with some responsibility. At the roadhouses, they cleaned out the bus by dumping the contents of the rubbish bin on the ground outside the bus doorway. Sometimes they’d hop off the bus to speak to someone flagging down a ride. That flagging down meant there were often up to seven people sitting with the driver. Poor John reckons the driver can sell that space without having to account for it to the company. A couple with two children boarded early on and held that forward position for the whole trip. The seventh spot rotated among people who got on for an hour, several hours or even a day.

I noticed one especially touching scene in the dark of our second night. One helper, who looked 12 but who chain-smoked and wore what might have been a wedding ring, sat on a box beside the driver. Perhaps he was the driver’s son. Before long he rested his head on the driver’s shoulder and slept for quite some time. The driver never flinched and never brushed him away.

In fact, I think the only thing that phased the driver was the daughter with the couple sitting in his space. She was maybe 3 and had perfected the art of the bloodcurdling scream to ensure that she got exactly what she wanted from her parents.

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