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Death on the Trans-Sumatran Highway

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

Our Bus, The Driver, Muhamad and Me.

I wrote this on Kuta Beach in Bali on March 5, 1978. It relates my adventure on the Trans-Sumatran Highway just a week or so earlier. I tend to travel alone and was during this time:

Many things have happened to me since I last took pen to paper in this journal. Mainly, it was the ordeal through Sumatra.

The episode on the first night out from Bukittinggi was the major happening of the trip. The night before I had spent on the bus down from Parapat (on Lake Toba where I’d spent several days on Samosir Island) so I had little sleep. The bus, an old Chevrolet truck with a bus body, seated six across with no center aisle. It was brightly painted and had a lot of chrome but had many dents and was rusty.

The guy assigning seats gave me a window seat that I didn’t even ask for. I was happy because I wouldn’t be jammed between people and I could look out the window. The bad thing was I’d constantly bang against the side of the bus if the road was bumpy. I had to get in first and slide across the bench seat into position next to the window. I watched as the bus filled up with people. I was really happy to have a window seat because I wanted to see as much of Sumatra as possible, even from the bus.

An Indonesian man slid in next to me--I was the only westerner on the bus so this was inevitable—and I smiled at him. He was in his 30’s or 40’s I suppose. He was wearing slacks, a shirt, and carrying a jacket. He also had little rectangles of white adhesive tape stuck to his temples. I didn’t think much more about him and watched as the rest of the bus filled up.

We pulled out and I was surprised at how good the road was out of Bukittinggi. It went on for miles curving through the beautiful Sumatran hill and lake country. Dark and light greens, many shades, and colorful, rice paddies terraced crazy little villages with Muslim temples. I pulled out my camera and took some photos.

The guy next to me seemed somewhat agitated and said some things in Indonesian I couldn’t understand, while gesticulating. I think he wanted to sit next to the window, but I didn’t want to switch with him for several reasons: comfort, scenery/photography, and fresh air. I pointed to my camera and told him that I wanted to take some photos. The guy was complaining to the two Indonesians sitting behind us. They didn’t seem to take him too seriously from what I could gather, and I forgot about him as I was sucked into the scenery passing by our bus.

We stopped at a large village to use the toilet. I got back into the bus and when we pulled out the guy next to me began complaining again. I felt mildly guilty, but I was in the seat I’d been assigned and didn’t want to switch. I had taken an early lunch in Bukittinggi, had not eaten much the day before, so as evening came on, I was getting hungry. I decided to have the meal when we stopped for dinner.

The meals were served Padang style, named after the town of Padang in Western Sumatra, where the food is reputed to be among the spiciest in Indonesia. It works this way: when you enter the food stop the people ask if you want a meal. If you give them the go ahead, they plunk a large plate of white sticky-rice in front of you with a number of small bowls containing chicken in chili sauce, pieces of tough cooked meat (beef or caribaou) in chili sauce, hard boiled eggs in chili sauce, vegetables in hot sauce (the veges are of one sort—like spinach with long stems) and sectioned fried potatoes in chili sauce. You pay for what you eat. I had the vegetables and tried a piece of the meat, thinking that it was something else, perhaps eggplant because it was very dark, almost black. It was very good, but the food is served at room temperature so perhaps a little unpalatable for western tastes if one is used to their food heated.

With the flies and other insects in Sumatra one would think the food would go off very quickly. But it is generally kept in glass cases in the front of the restaurant. The backs of the cases are covered with material of some sort, like cheese cloth. Also, probably the main reason the flies don’t get at the food is the spicy chili sauce that covers it all. Insects don’t even approach the stuff, which supports my belief that chilis are very important in ones diet, particularly when traveling in poor countries noted for dysentery and other stomach ailments.

When I finished my meal I smoked a cigarette and sat in front of the food shop with a couple of other passengers from the bus. They wanted to practice their English on me. We waited while the mechanic (a stocky Indonesian with long hair and a funny cloth hillbilly hat that he wore continually) tinkered with the engine. He acted kind of crazy and laughed a lot.

It didn’t take long before we got back on the road and by dusk I was dozing. I felt the ride getting bumpy as the paving of the trans-Sumatran highway ended, but I was almost asleep. It didn’t really register on mind until I awoke, realizing the bus had stopped moving. Everyone got off the bus and I stepped down. I saw that we had reached the first of several river crossings. A large square raft, built up on three long hulls of hollowed out trees, moved toward our bank of the river. A large kerosine lantern lit the scene, and I could see some of the village dwellings on both sides of the river.

I couldn’t tell immediately how the raft was powered. In fact, it wasn’t until the next morning in the grey light of dawn that I figured out how we moved across. A heavy cable was strung some 15 feet high spanning the river. The raft was connected to this cable by another equally heavy cable that could move freely along the length of the span. The raftsmen used a large rudder to change the position of the raft, the current of the river serving as locomotion. The whole thing was ingeniously simple.

We all trouped onto the raft and the bus rolled onto the raft. While we were waiting to cross I noticed a commotion on the shore. Some people moved back off the raft to see what was going on, so I followed. A crowd formed around the man who’d been next to me on the bus. He sat in the dirt and looked more agitated than ever. He didn’t want to get on the raft or the bus. The driver and his two helpers—the heavy-set mechanic and the engineer (a slender guy wearing white shorts and a brown straw hat)—were trying to get the man to stand.

I moved back towards the raft, not wanting to get involved when the engineer walked towards me. He took me by the arm and led me back to the guy in the dirt. He moved very purposefully as he led me there—it was as though he thought it all quite funny and was putting on a show for the people on the bus.

We reached the man on the ground and the engineer placed my hand on the man’s shoulder. I realized they wanted me to help convince the man to get on the bus, probably because I’d been sitting next to him. It was uncomfortable—something was wrong with the fellow and he acted strangely: lying back and moaning, rolling his eyes and his head around. He really didn’t want to get up.

I gently tugged his shoulder, looked down at him and said, “Come on man, let’s get on the raft.” I could have recited Shakespeare to him for all that he understood. The engineer and mechanic pushed me aside and lifted the struggling man and carried him toward the raft. The driver grabbed my arm and led me to the bus. He pushed me in and pointed towards my seat. I got the idea I was to help quiet the guy once they got him onto the bus. I didn’t particularly like the idea but didn’t know how to object. It was happening too quickly. They had the guy on the raft and were trying to cram him through the door of the bus as the raft left the riverbank into the stream and moved toward the other side.

The guy moaned and yelled, struggling even harder—I said under my breath, “If he doesn’t want to go, he shouldn’t have to go,” but no one understood me. They had him almost completely in the bus and I was ready to grab him when I think he had wet himself from fear or craziness or whatever. And he began to fight with the strength of a crazy man. The men forcing him into the bus had to let go of him and back away because of his flailing. I was out of my seat and moving toward the door when they let go of him. He jumped from the door of the bus onto the raft, took three steps and hurled himself off the raft into the dark water. From the lantern light I saw him bob to the surface as the current moved him away from us in the darkness. For a moment I considered jumping in after him to try to rescue him but didn’t know how swift the current was or what the water was like . . . We were still only 50 feet or so from shore and I saw him turn and look at us on the raft. We lost sight of him quickly, the bright lamp on the raft making the darkness around us impenetrable.

There was a lot of shouting from the shore and I could make out figures with lanterns running down the side of the river toward a point where there was a bend to the left. There was more shouting as they clustered on the point. By now we had reached the other side of the river and got off the raft to look back across at the scene unfolding there. It was difficult to tell what was going on, but I assumed the guy had reached shore and been drug out of the water by the villagers. We could hear yelling and watched the bobbing lanterns in the trees.

We all got back on the raft and floated back across the river. I didn’t know what was going on and asked our bus driver if the guy was okay. The driver misunderstood me and nodded and smiled. I felt relieved but still wasn’t sure what was happening. Then this other guy who I’d spoken with at the food stop said, “Your friend . . . dead.” He was kidding and laughed. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. I didn’t think it was funny and I felt terrible. I felt guilt and responsibility, fear and uncertainty. Was I somehow to blame? Was the guy dead? Why can’t I speak Indonesian? Why can’t these people speak at least a little English? Why can’t I figure out what is happening?

I gathered that the guy hadn’t made it out of the water—he was dead under the steadily moving, muddy waters of that nameless (for me) Sumatran river. I stood there feeling guilty, helpless and generally misinformed while the people around me talked about what to do. Finally, it was decided that the driver take the bus back 25 kilometers to a police outpost in a village. At first the driver’s helpers pushed me into the bus to ride along. But then they brought me out of the bus to listen to them even though I couldn’t understand. When they finally got ready to go the driver motioned for me to wait in the village with the others while he and a couple of passengers went to report the incident.

I followed the people from the bus into a shack that was one of the eating places in the village. There were picnic tables on the dirt floor, and in the left corner a raised platform with sleeping mats for people to lie on if they wanted to sleep. The interior was lit with a kerosine lamp. I sat at a picnic table between the front door and the sleeping platform and faced the outside.

People came and went, and many stood around and stared at me while I drank copi susu (coffee with sweet, condensed milk), and talked with the one guy on the bus who spoke a little English. He had an Indonesian-English dictionary and was a lot of fun. One of the guys had a beat-up guitar and I played a few songs on it.

Over the three or few hours from the time the bus left until it returned, I felt confused and depressed. I didn’t know if I was to be involved with the police investigation or anything else. My weary mind had my imagination all twisted up.

I remember one small, dark young man hanging around while we waited. He had incredibly long fingernails. A strange guy.

Finally, the bus returned, and two official-looking men appeared though neither wore a uniform. They and some of the people from the bus, including the driver and his two assistants, sat in the restaurant and started talking. One of the men who wore a suit and I assumed to be in charge, asked questions and jotted things down in a medium sized notebook. He was heavy set thought not fat and had a pleasant easy-going face—but I felt a strong sense of competence about him. The questioning went on for some time and occasionally he would look at me and smile. Once after he did that the large engineer on the bus looked at me and put his hands together in the air as if handcuffed . . . and then pointed at me. Everyone laughed.

“I’m fucked,” I thought. I figured they’d place the blame on me.

The driver, seeing I was upset, smiled and shook his head, essentially saying, “no, it is only a joke.” And the heavy-set detective also smiled at me in a reassuring way. I laughed nervously and everyone else joined in. Needless to say, I was relieved—the questioning continued for a while more then ended. Soon, everyone found a place to sleep.

My Friends from the Bus and Me at a Food Shack

I lay down on the bench I had been sitting on and noticed it was 5:00 am. People moving around woke me—it was 6:30. We had coffee then the bus left to go back to the police outpost with the witnesses—those people who had known the guy, I guess. One of the men travelling with me on the bus then motioned for me to come with him. The guy who spoke a little English explained to me that we were to help look for the body.

When we got to the river an eerie, loud, deep-pitched gong was being rung. The fellow, named Juli, explained that it was a custom to ring the gong when someone drowned. It was a call for the river spirits to give up the ghost and body of the man it had taken. While the gong rung, several canoes put out with a man with a big net in each. They methodically worked their way downstream, throwing and retrieving and then rethrowing the big circular nets out into the water. One canoe with four people had gone downstream earlier but had returned—they had seen nothing. We watched all of this from the shore.

The bus returned by noon and we had lunch. I ate rice, hard-boiled egg in chili sauce, and vegetables. Then it was time to go.

One of the river crossings. Raft on other side.

During the afternoon we made several more river crossings. The two assistants on the bus had taken me under their wing—leading me around, giving me cigarettes and fruit each time we stopped. They were really friendly and laughed a lot. In fact, it was as if all of the people on the bus had become my friends. We had bonded.

When we stopped for dinner at the last river crossing and then started out again it began to rain very hard and the road was bumpy, slippery, and muddy. I slept as much as I could. I awoke when I sensed the bus had stopped moving and I could see from the piece of canvass over the open window that some of the people from the bus were sitting at a stand up on a bank by the road. A kerosine lantern hung from poles that served as the roof of the stand and upon which was stretched long sheets of plastic that kept the rain off the tables and benches underneath. The assistant driver in white the shorts waved for me to come up, so I crawled (literally) out of the bus and slipped and slid up the embankment.

We laughed and talked, and they bought me a cup of coffee. Then the bus driver yelled something, and I heard the bus engine start. I got up and said, “Time to go now?”

While the others laughed, Juli explained, with the help of his dictionary, that the road was impassable because the rain had turned it to mud—we’d be there all night. So, I relaxed and got into a discussion with the guy with the shorts. His name was Muhamed and we exchanged pictures and addresses. It was fun sitting there “talking” with those guys. Finally, I made my way muddily back to the bus—it was still raining—and tried to go to sleep. I managed to doze off uncomfortable though it was, and I had many strange dreams.

In the morning the rain had stopped, and the sky was partially clear with a thin, high layer of cloud. Now I could see the extent of our problem. We were at the head of a long column of vehicles that stretched back behind us. In front of us were a few trucks and then the road dropped down 20 feet to become 250 meters of muck before rising 20 feet again. On the other side of the muck was a line of vehicles like ours, pointing in the direction we had come. In the middle of the muck a large truck had broken down and some men were trying to repair it.

Our Bus as it's pulled through the mud.

I had coffee at one of the impromptu stalls, set up by nearby villagers, and relaxed. Men were working in the bad stretch of road, digging trenches to drain off the standing water, and placing logs in the mud for vehicles to drive over. Around noon some people were telling me that a friend of mine (another Westerner I supposed) was on the other side of the mud. So, Muhamed and I went looking for him. There was a thin path that led through the muck and when we got to the other side I saw more of the same sort of stands selling hot drinks, food, and fully cooked too, and soft drinks . . . even Japanese beer.

We walked all the way to the end of the line of vehicles but couldn’t find the guy. Then someone said he’d gone down to the river to take a mandi (bath). Muhamed and I sat down at one of the stalls and had a beer. Muhammed bought it for me—I couldn’t believe how nice he was to me. I had just bought us two more beers when we saw the Westerner arrive and sit down near us. He was surrounded by Indonesians. He was preoccupied with his foot; apparently, he had injured it. He sat and bent down, wiping his big toe carefully. We walked up and joined the group of Indonesians surrounding and watching him. Finally, I asked, “How’d you do that?” He looked up startled and said, “Who said that?” Then he saw me and smiled, and we started talking. His name was Tom. We talked for some time and then decided to go over to my side of the mud. Before we went over Muhamed wanted to eat so Tom and I had some rice and various things. Muhammed paid for the three of us, no matter how much we protested. It was there we received word that the authorities had found the drowned man’s body downriver from that fatal crossing.

The road was almost “fixed” by the time we got back, and a vehicle was moving across. It got halfway and then got stuck. A bulldozer rumbled up to it, hitched a cable to it and then pulled it the rest of the way across. Soon, our vehicle was next, so I said goodbye to Tom, and we left. As we drove the people sang songs in Indonesian and pointed at me and we all laughed. I’d made a busload of friends.

We got to Lubbock Lingau and the train station around 11:00pm that night. It was difficult to say goodbye to all of the people on the bus. They patted me on the back and waved and then I watched it drive into the darkness. I sat on a wooden bench to wait for the morning train.

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