“I’m originally from Makassar been travel back and forth to bira, as soon as you arrive, take taxi to terminal sungguminasa, from there take SUV or panther it cost around 65.000 idr/person or you can bargain to 55.000, Makassar to bira takes about 7-9 hours depend on the driver :-), the latest car usually 5pm. Hope this help.”
As you can see the instructions I found online were clear enough. I left for Denpasar airport around 4:15 in the morning and got on my flight at 7 am. Not a lot of sleep was had. The flight itself from Bali to south Sulawesi only takes about an hour so the plane didn’t really help either. But, the instructions were clear. Once I arrive at the Sulawesi airport though, the confusion starts. The taxi drivers all tell me that Sungguminasa terminal is not the terminal I should be for cars or buses to Bira, I should go to another one. I ask ten different people the same question, they all give me the same answer: go to the other bus terminal. So I got a cab to the other bus terminal.
After about 25 minutes, the taxi driver stops by the side of the road where about 8 minivans are parked, all looking as if they just came back from some horrible stunt driving competition. The taxi driver himself, who speaks no English, takes out my luggage and waves goodbye. The guys from the ‘bus terminal’ close in on me and ask me where the bule would like to go. I tell them Pantai Bira. One of them asks me if I want to charter, I say I want a panther, a shared taxi. They all seem to instantly lose their interest, except for one guy who has some weird skin condition which makes it look as if half his face has dissolved and as if the other half might at any moment. Not really an option. Nobody speaks English, even simple questions like “Taxi to the other terminal” are greeted with puzzled glances only.
I decide to do what any brave adventurer would do: I dump my bags by the side of the road and wait for the universe to sort itself out while I read a book.
After about ten minutes I see a pair of small feet in front of me and hear a voice: “Hey mister, you really need learn bahasa ok?”
I look up, there’s a cute young girl standing in front of me smiling. And she spoke English. The universe it seemed, had sorted itself out. I smile at her, she talks bahasa with some of the other guys that I had spoken to before and then turns back to me. “Excuse me mister you want Bira?” she asks and I nod.
I show her the name of the other terminal that I need to go to, she talks with a friend and some guys whom I later learn are here brothers. She tells me she wants to go to Bira too but tomorrow, I could come with her. I tell her I want to go now, not tomorrow and that I need to get to this other bus terminal, as stated by the instructions I read online.
She tells me to come and follow her which, at this point, after barely three hours of sleep and a flight, sounds to me like the Terminator telling Sarah Connor “Come with me if you want to live.”
She points at one of the small vans. I should sit in front, because I’m tall. And because I’m bule, I gather from their talk in bahasa. I get in, so does she, her friend and three or four of her brothers. I’m not sure which are actual brothers and which aren’t, they take the ‘brother from another mother’ slogan quite literally here and it is common to refer to people as “my brother from <insert relative here>.” To my surprise, even more people get in, the van’s fully loaded, but it should only be a short ride to the other terminal, so whatever. I doze off.
At some particularly bad hole in the road I wake up. At first glance, everything looks good. The driver’s still driving, the people that got into the van are all still in the van and my luggage still seems to be where it is supposed to be. But something is off. As I glance out the window I feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I don’t think we’re in Makassar anymore. I grab my phone from my pocket and consult Google Maps, which shows me we’re somewhere halfway the yellow brick road between Makassar and Bira. But this minivan isn’t going to Bira, it’s going to some town called Bantaeng. I use Google Translate to try and find out about our destination. “Hey mister, you really need learn bahasa, ok?” she reminds me for the umpteenth time.
I ask her again about Bira, if it is our destination. She shakes her head and tries to point at the map and only then seems to realize she doesn’t really have a clue about how to read one. She leans back and frowns while she thinks, then speaks.
“Mister, first we go my family house then we ask promise you my family for Bira, then we go, yes?” I raise my eyebrows at her and look puzzled. “You like asner?” I shake my head, confused. “Asner, you like anser? Is good asner?” I feel my hands rise slightly as I gesture that I have no idea what she’s talking about. At this point, I’m not even quite sure I’m awake. “You ask question, I give asner, you like?” Ah…
I explain to her that I didn’t quite get her answer and along with the help of Google Translate I begin to grasp what she’s trying to tell me.
The word bule, used for white people, flows freely in the bahasa they speak in the van. When we stop for lunch, everybody asks about the bule and all the bus passengers just kind of shrug. “Hey mister you like food come eat ja,” the girl says. “You look tired mister!”
We get some delicious food and I decide to pay for her, her friend and her brothers who are eyeing me a bit suspiciously while I try to talk a little to their sister in English. Speaking to women directly is frowned upon in some places yet often it are the women that speak English, unlike the men. Sometimes the women look at the men before speaking, to ask permission. When I was in Denpasar with my friend Aleksandra, the girls would always speak to her and I would relay my questions to them through her. Now however, I am alone. There’s a lot of laughing at the bule. Silly bule, traveling without speaking bahasa. And where are his friends? No wife, no family? You believe Mohammed? You know Jesus? Hello, mister!
I try to figure out where it is we’re going to exactly during lunch. Now that I’ve eaten and feel somewhat more awake I slowly start to realize I’m on a bus to somewhere yet I have no idea where on earth I’m going. She reassures me that everything will be fine and all I need to do is follow her. When we get back on the bus the driver and brothers talk in bahasa and then one of the girls asks the trick question: hello mister, you like Indonesian girl? If I say yes, the brothers might think I’m after their 19 year old sister, if I say no, I might offend everyone in the car. Or they might think I’m gay and I have no idea how that’s going to go down in a car full of muslims. I tell them I like girls. The guys nod, the answer seems satisfactory.
Meanwhile, I keep frantically checking Google Maps to see where the hell we’re going. It seems to be in the right direction, so that’s good. I ask how much longer, she says three hours. I raise an eyebrow, she notices. “Hey hello mister, this is not holiday, this is memory yes!” She smiles and I look at the other passengers in the bus. Everybody smiles. I’m not sure what’s going on but decide there’s only one way to find out.
After another three hours in the cramped and full minivan we reach what seems to be our final destination. Everybody gets out. One of the brothers hops on a motorbike and drives off with someone from the local town. “He go get car,” she says. We wait for a while and another van arrives, even smaller than the one we were in before and in a light, sky blue color. There are a lot of these on the road here and they seem to be the local bus network, which also explains why the bus terminal looks the way it does.
The blue minivan is full. There are a lot of ladies inside and when the driver tries to push my big Eastpak duffle bag inside it promptly gets pushed out again by the ladies inside. It’s not going to fit. They throw my bag on top of the bus but the wheels underneath make it slide off. I make it over to the other side of the bus just in time to grab it and keep it in place. The girl tells me to get in the van, front seat again which I will share with her friend this time since, you know, the bus is already holding 5 more people than it should. I ask if the bag’s not going to fall off and two guys signal they will tie it down. At least, that’s what I thought they meant. What they really meant is that one guy was going to sit on top of the bus to hold my bag and another would hang from the side of the bus and hold it. I glance back into the small van from the front seat and snap a picture. It’s the first time I pulled my camera out during this trip, simply because I had no idea what the hell I was getting myself into and showing off you’re carrying expensive equipment is probably the best way to lose it.
The blue minivan drives on for about five minutes, the driver honking his horn every ten seconds for no apparent reason and children in the streets stare at the strange white guy in the van. Suddenly we stop and we get out. The girl gestures to a house in front of which the bus stopped and just as we’re about to make our way into it a car comes running up the street with a screaming exhaust, like one of those tuned race cars you see in bad movies. It’s one of the brothers, he got us a car. The house turns out to belong to family indeed, a very nice older couple. I can’t speak a word with them since they don’t speak English and I don’t speak bahasa. The girls speak English barely enough to communicate basics with. “Is ok?” she asks. I smile and nod, yes, this is ok. She smiles too. “Is ok! You family now!”
The man of the house comes to the living room to drink coffee with the bule. Not much is said as we both sip our coffee and smoke a cigarette. Sounds come from the kitchen where the girls are, the guys are out front doing something with the car. I’m unsure, sleep deprived and still slightly paranoid. My luggage is still somewhere out there and I really have no clue who these people are. The man of the house smiles at me every ten seconds and nods, I do the same. We smoke another cigarette while we awkwardly stare at each other. Sweets are brought out and I must eat them, I am told so repeatedly but I’m still pretty stuffed from lunch. Then I’m guided into the large kitchen. Food is ready. As if I could possibly eat any more after the lunch and all the cakes. Big bowls of nasi, smaller bowls of fish. “We fresh here, then we go!” the girl smiles. “Eat mister, you tired!” the girl tells me again.
We try to have some form of conversation which really proves quite impossible and I am reminded once more by the girl, that I should really learn some bahasa. I smile and nod. The man of the house seems amused at the bule and the weird situation he’s gotten himself into. I pull out the camera and ask if I can take some pictures. When I point the camera at the older couple the woman shakes her head and grabs her dress at the shoulder, smiling somewhat saying no. She doesn’t like the dress she’s wearing. I grin and tell her bagus while I give her the thumbs up. She smiles and shrugs while I snap some shots while she laughs. When I show them to her she starts speaking in bahasa to the girls who translate into English. “After ramadan we marry, you take picture!”
I blink. Am I getting married now? What is going on? After about four minutes with Google translate, it turns out one of the brothers is getting married and the lady of the house wondered if I would be around then and if I could come and take pictures of the wedding. I tell her I’ll be leaving just when ramadan comes to an end and that it will probably not be possible. I leave my number anyway and tell her to text if the wedding takes place before the twentieth of august. After the food and thanking the family, we get into the car. They’re driving me to Bira, I think.
This is another two to three hour drive and we stop at a waterfall somewhere half way. I should really go down there with one of the guys and the two girls, to take pictures they say. Somewhere my mind wonders if this is the place where they will knock me out and steal my stuff but at this point I also pretty much doubt you’d introduce your mugging victims to your family first. I am so completely blown away by the hospitality of the Indonesian people I can hardly believe any of this is really happening at this point. The waterfall is nice, the guys and girls want me to take some more pictures with them in it near the waterfall and ask me to send them via Facebook. After a long, hard drive through beautiful landscapes we finally end up in Bira. We refueled a couple of times. I offered to pay for the gas but they wouldn’t let me. “You pay for car, we petrol, is ok mister?” I nod. It’s absolutely fine, in fact, it’s more than fine, this whole trip has been absolutely perfect so far.
Once in Bira I check in to the Sunshine Guesthouse and take them all to the beach to buy them a drink. They all pull out their phones and start taking pictures. The guys throw their arms around me, the girls throw their arms around me, we’re all getting really intimate all of a sudden while this crazy adventure is being recorded for future reference by both them and me. Photographic evidence goes a long way when you’re telling your friends a crazy story about a bule who wanted to go to Bira without speaking bahasa I suppose. One of the brothers still seems convinced I’m Robin van Persie. He takes four pictures with me. Then we say goodbye and they leave, just like that. The next morning when I wake up I glance around. I am indeed in Bira, and it was not just all a strange dream.