Grab a cup of tea, a chocolate bikkie or two and take a seat, this post is a biggie.
Its all about our very long, seemingly continuous journey from Lovina in Bali to Probolinggo in Java, to Mount Bromo, back to Probolinggo, to Surabaya, to Yogyakarta. Throw in an overnight bus, a scamming tourist office, two stinking hot public busses, an overpriced taxi ride, brushing my teeth into an asian squatter toilet with visible feaces, combined with approximately zero hours of sleep and you have our 31 hour journey that I would prefer to not ever have to complete again.
But there were some good things in there too! We saw a steaming, live volcano, a beautiful sunrise, and hey, at least I had the chance to brush my teeth at all, right?
Curious? Let me start from the beginning.
It really did all begin quite well. As our overnight bus pulled up to our stop in Lovina, Bali, we jumped on eagerly, excited to be venturing across to the main island of Java in Indonesia. We were headed for Probolinggo, which is the jumping off point for the popular Mount Bromo. The bus was perfectly comfortable, the seats reclined and foot rests came right up so those of us who were short enough (sorry, Alan) could essentially lie flat. With the pillow and blanket provided I curled up and wished for a peaceful sleep.
Unfortunately, as I should know by now after taking plenty of overnight busses in Vietnam, this type of travelling is not conducive to sleep. The roads were bumpy and windy, the driver honking his horn constantly - sleep did not happen.
Perhaps I dozed off for 10 minutes or so as the bus boarded the ferry to take us from Bali to Java, however I’m unsure of this as I was more than mildly concerned about the boat situation - and I’ll explain exactly why.
You see, we stayed on the bus, the bus drove onto the ferry, and we remained in our seats on the bus for the entire ferry ride - it was essentially a bus ferry rather than a people ferry. Thoughts rushed through my mind as we bobbed across the water for 30 or 40 minutes or so, I’m not exactly sure how long, as to how we would get out of this situation if the boat were to sink. Our bus was jammed between two other busses, and there was another row of three in front of us. We had no way out!
Thankfully, we made it across. Relief swept over my mind (HA! Little did I know there was much worse to come!). Perhaps now that was over I could sleep?
No such luck. I nearly managed to doze off again before we abruptly stopped at what seemed to be the middle of nowhere and the passengers all rises from their seats to disembark from the bus. I rubbed my eyes and looked around again. Surely we couldn’t be there yet? I looked over at one of the passengers walking down the aisle past us and he looked back at Alan and I with an almost confused look as to why we weren’t getting off too. “Breakfast”, he said.
“Breakfast?” I said to Alan. “Its 1am in the morning and I haven’t even had five minutes sleep yet? It’s not time for breakfast!”
Regardless, we didn’t have much choice over the situation. We hopped off the bus, were issued our meal token and entered the restaurant, which was essentially a restaurant for overnight busses to stop at for “breakfast” at 1am in the morning.
We filled our plates with what was on offer - Nasi Campur style array of rice, cold chicken, some sort of cold vegetable and something else that my sleepy mind couldn’t stomach, washed down by an unsweetened iced tea. In the beauty of hindsight if I knew that was the last meal I was going to be eating for the next 32 hours then I’m sure I would have loaded my plate a little higher.
After a couple more hours of bumpy roads, honking horns and still no sleep, the bus pulled over to the side of the road and announced this was where we were to get off, we had arrived in Probolinggo. Sleepily, we gathered our belongings and got off the bus.
It was 2.30am in the morning (3.30am our time as we gained an hour between Bali and Java) and we had arrived in Probolinggo. The bus driver knew we wanted to go to Mount Bromo, so conveniently (or so we thought at the time) had dropped us off by a tourist office, which was also conveniently (or not?) open at this ungodly hour of the morning.
The man in the tourist office helped us with our bags and guided us into his office. I told him we wanted to go to Bromo, where we had planned to stay a night or two up near the mountain before we headed to our next destination of Yogyakarta in a couple of days time.
We had perked up a little now, the food we had eaten earlier was settling in and some fresh air had helped. Perhaps we were overtired and starting to run a little on adrenaline.
As a bit of background, the key attractions at Mount Bromo is watching the sun rise over the sand plains, and viewing the mountain itself.
Our tourist office man suggested that we were early enough that we could catch the sunrise this morning if we wanted to, as we could be picked up in 15 minutes and would make it to the sunrise on time. We had planned to get to Cemoro Lawang for a night or two and do a self-guided Mount Bromo tour and sunrise from there, as many blogs and recommendations I had read suggested this as a cheaper and far more independent option. Somehow though, in our overtired state, the tour seemed like a good and simple idea. Then we could get it ticked off this morning, we could easily manage another few hours of being awake.
The man went on to suggest that perhaps after doing his tour of the sunrise and seeing Bromo this morning, we come back to Probolinggo and then can get an aircon tourist minibus today at midday to Yogyakarta. It was an eight hour journey, he told us.
We were definitely overtired, because somehow this seemed like a brilliant idea (it wasn’t). We were keen to get to Yogaykarta as we had heard many good things about it. So we foolishly parted with our money for the Bromo tour and Yogyakarta transport which cost us WAY, WAY more than we should have paid but unfortunately the nature of hindsight, lack of internet to do research and lack of mental clarity at 2.30 in the morning. We paid (gulp!) $75 NZD each. This is a lot of money for a backpacker living on less than $50 a day. Up until then I think we had barely had a day where we spent more than $75 between us in a day, let alone each!
Can you tell it brings back all of my frustrations writing this?!
15 minutes later we were in a shuttle, luggage and all, and having picked up another three passengers were on our way to Mount Bromo. We were in the shuttle for about an hour, winding our way up into the hills before we stopped on the side of the road and switched over to a jeep (well technically a Toyota Land Cruiser that looked like a jeep but you get the gist). We grabbed our luggage but were told to leave it there, it would not fit in the jeep and we were told the shuttle would be waiting here for us when we were on our way back down. I made the driver promise that our bags would be safe, we made sure all our valuables, cash and passports were in our backpacks we were bringing with us, and hastily piled into the jeep.
We winded up the hill further and further, stopping only to pick up another couple who somehow managed to squeeze into the jeep which was bursting at the seams. We drove for about an hour, eventually ending up in a traffic jam of hundreds of jeeps.
Tiredness was beginning to hit now, but all the bumping over the potholes and speeding around the corners in the jeep had rattled my brain enough to keep me from dozing off.
Our jeep parked up in the middle of the road and we were directed to the viewpoint for seeing the sunrise. Slowly the viewing platform filled up with people and cameras, and the sun began to peek up from behind the mountains.
I’ve got a separate post coming up specifically on Bromo as I feel it deserves more than a semi-angry, bad travel experience story surrounding it! (Edited to add: I've written this post now! You can check it out here.)
However I will say, the sunrise was beautiful, Mount Bromo was spectacular and despite being enormously tired I am very glad we made the effort to climb to the top - it was the first time I had looked inside a live volcano!
The morning was cold as we were at a higher altitude, however it warmed up as the sun rose. It was very, very dusty around Mount Bromo, and rather breezy, which certainly didn’t help with the whole every-inch-of-me-is-covered-in-dust situation.
By 8am I was at boiling point in my puffer jacket and trousers but didn’t want to take them off as it was covered in dust, and taking them off would only mean my next layer underneath would then become covered in dust!
I was a sweaty, dusty mess and was dying for a shower. Oh but wait, hadn’t we agreed to catch an eight-hour tourist minibus to Yogyakarta and wouldn’t have a shower until we got there? Dammit, thats right.
After all of the passengers made it back to the jeep, we took off back towards Probollingo. We then swtiched into another shuttle, which happened to be NOT the shuttle that we had got into earlier, the one that had our luggage in it. Uh-oh. The strange thing was that I was unusually too tired to worry too much.
One of the girls wanted to use the loo, so we made a pitstop at a house on the side of the road in the village. I don’t know if its meant to be or what, but I’m sure glad she had to go. Because next minute a car turns up next to us with our bags, asking if they are our bags. Um, yes, they're ours! How on earth? That mystery remains unsolved but I felt an immense sense of relief once they were safely back with us.
We arrived back in Probolinggo around 10.00 am. And this is when we made our next naive mistake.
Everyone else in our shuttle was getting out at the tourist office we had parked in front of, which was not the office we had left from at 3am that morning. We waited to be taken by our driver to the office we had been picked up from, where we had booked our onwards tickets to Yogyakarta (which we were now regretting!).
He insisted that we get out here, this is the same office, he told us. We knew it wasn’t, we told him it wasn’t. We showed him our receipt for our tickets to Yogyakarta that had the name and address of the tour office we had booked from. “Ah, yes but all the same”, he told us. “Here is okay!”
Too tired to argue, and not having had a bad experience in Indonesia yet (so thinking that we wouldn’t!), Alan and I gave each other a look of uncertain agreement, grabbed our luggage and hopped out of the car. The man at this tourist office said yes, no worries, the minibus is coming at 11am, you can wait here.
We took advantage of the tourist office’s deathly slow internet to book some accommodation in Yogyakarta as we would be arriving at 7pm that night (or so we thought) it would be much better to book it in advance.
I used his DISGUSTING bathroom to splash my face, scrub my feet (dust got through my shoes and sweaty socks to literally cover my feet in mud!), and brush my teeth, and even though I dry wretched my entire way through it, having to spit into a squatter toilet literally smeared with clumps of brown, I emerged feeling ever so slightly human again. Besides, our minibus was coming soon, it was just a few more hours on a minibus and I would have a hot shower and a bed at my fingertips. HA! Yeah, right.
11am passed, no minibus. 11.30 am passed, no minibus. We were reassured by the man at the tourist office it was coming soon. 12 o clock, he said. We waited to worry, as our other tourist office who we had booked it through had said midday so perhaps it was the same one after all.
Midday came and went. 12.15, still so sign. I was starting to get rather frustrated by now. I asked the man at the tourist office again when the minibus would be here. He had a feeble excuse. “It is late because I want all my bus to be good quality and if it is not good quality it get fixed first and then it is late.” Haha, yeah right. I was definitely concerned now.
12.30pm came and went. 12.45 came and went. I put on my assertive voice and told him we were promised the minibus was coming at 11am, why is it two hours late.
All of a sudden he looked rather panicked. He looked up at the clock and then signalled his friend to bring the car over and ushered us in. I was too tired to worry (Alan later told me he worried that we were going to be kidnapped and have all our stuff stolen, thankfully he didn’t divulge this until afterwards!). They drove us 5 minutes up the street to what was obviously the local bus station.
The man from the tourist office leapt out and ran over to a bus and started talking to the driver. Then he pulled out a cigarette and just stood around. I was fuming. I got out and started walking towards him to ask what was going on when he signalled us to grab our luggage and come over to the bus. He pointed up to the tatty, public bus and said, “This is your bus.” I was floored.
I have no problem catching local busses, however when I have paid through the roof for an aircon tourist minibus the last thing I expect is to be ushered onto a rundown local bus, especially not without a refund.
I raised my voice, trying my hardest to remain assertive rather than come across aggressively. “We paid for an aircon minibus, not a public bus,” I told him. He told us that we had to go on this bus because there were no tourist minibusses today. I tried not to shout. “But we have been waiting at your office for more than two hours for a minibus you told us was coming, and we have paid for that!!” He told us this was our only option if we wanted to go today and we needed to get on right now as it was about to leave. I asked him, knowing full well the answer already, if this bus would be dropping us off at our accommodation as we had paid for, and been promised. No, he said, the bus would end at the bus station in Yogyakarta and we would have to get a taxi.
So on top of the exorbitant amount we had already paid, we were now going to be travelling on a local bus which was less than one tenth of the money we'd forked over, and were going to have to pay a taxi fare on top of that? Not in my books!
I had very little calmness left in my body by now. “If this bus does not drop us off at our accommodation then you will need to give us the money for the taxi in Yogyakarta because we have paid a lot and we are not getting the service we paid for. This is very bad service!” I told him. For a man who earlier had told us how much he cared about his service I thought he ought to know this was very poor service and he had two very unhappy customers.
He looked down for a moment then thrust 50,000 rupiah at me (about $5). It was a small win. I looked at Alan and we gave each other a knowing look and knew there was nothing else we could do.
We climbed on board the bus.
Somehow in my state of frustration, I hadn’t noticed the sign on the bus as to its destination. Once I sat down onto my sticky, plastic covered seat at the back of the hot bus, I looked up at the ticket prices above our window and noticed that it was just a couple of dollars for a ticket to Surabaya.
Hang on a minute, my mind raced. Surabaya? We want to go to Yogayakarta, not Surabaya!
By this time the bus had left the station and was on its way down the main street of Probolinggo. I ran to the front of the bus and questioned the conductor. Is this bus going to Yogyakarta? I asked. He looked confused. “Yogyakarta? No. Surabaya!” He said with a smile on his face (yeah, a giant smile because he was probably being paid some giant tip to take us off the travel office man’s hands). I could tell he didn’t speak a lick of english or perhaps that was because he was choosing not to, I’m unsure. “Surabaya, no!” I said. “Yogyakarta, YES! We go Yogyakarta!” I tried to explain simply as possible, actions included. “No, Yogyakarta, no. Surabaya. We go Surabaya,” he insisted.
I could tell we were just about screwed. I panicked and asked for the bus to be stopped. After I asked about three times and began to raise my voice the bus pulled over, conveniently right outside the tourist office. The tourist office man came over and after lots of Bahasa Indonesia that I didn’t understand, he said we go to Surabaya first, then we change and get on a bus to Yogyakarta from there.
There was nothing we could do but sit back and try to relax and enjoy the two and a half hour journey to Surabaya.
When we arrived in Surabaya we were ushered by the conductor onto an even more cramped, rundown, hot and sticky bus that, thankfully, was definitely headed for Yogyakarta. It was now nearly 4pm in the afternoon, and I pointed to my watch in order to try and get an arrival time estimate from our new conductor. He pointed at the 12 on my watch. A four letter word beginning with F, was the only word that came to mind.
The bus was packed, every seat was full and so was the entire aisle with people standing, for the entire eight hour bus journey. The bus stopped often, perhaps every ten minutes or so to drop off passengers and pick up new ones. At each stop touts would climb on board selling snacks and drinks, which was the first opportunity we had to eat since our 1am “breakfast stop” much earlier in the day. All we could stomach was a few sips of lukewarm Sprite.
Despite Alan having a man’s crotch hovering by his shoulder for eight hours straight, it was an enormous relief when we pulled into the bus station in Yogyakarta at about half past midnight. We piled off the bus, grabbed our luggage and booked it to the closest taxi. I’d called our hotel while on the bus to let them know we would be arriving later than we had stated in our reservation, and while on the phone I’d asked what we should be paying for a taxi to the hotel from the bus station. I’d been told 40,000 rupiah, which I was pleased to hear as it would mean the 50,000 we had been given by the evil tour office man would be able to cover it.
Naturally, our taxi driver outright refused to use his meter or take us for less than 70,000 rupiah (we did manage to get it down from 80,000!). However, like a little sign from the universe, Alan had found a lone 20,000 on the footpath the day before, so combined with the 50,000 we’d been given at least we didn’t have to fork out any of our own money for the taxi.
When we pulled up to our hotel at 1am in the morning and checked in to a lovely room at our lovely hotel, I was beyond relieved. I’ve never been so thankful for a hot shower and air conditioning in my life! We’d finally made it to Yogyakarta, which turned out to be on of my most favourite places we have visited to date (and also quite possibly where the best Pasta Carbonara I’ve ever eaten is served, but we’ll get to that in another blog post!).
We certainly learnt a thing or two the hard way through this experience, but it could have been a lot worse. We made it to our final destination only a few hours later than anticipated, and with a lot less money in our wallets. Next time, we will just take the public bus from the beginning, rather than be ripped off by a scamming tourist office. We will go back to the tourist office we booked at. And never again will we hand over money in a thoroughly sleep-deprived state!
Have you ever been totally ripped off while travelling? Please, share your stories!