This is story #6 in my Short Stories from the Road series. Introduction found here
Central Sulawesi, Indonesia
Aaron was gone, his minibus rounding the bend and heading South. My travel companion of the last few weeks continued on his own journey and I found myself alone, again. Every minute that passed created more space between myself and everyone I’d ever known. When I’d talk to another English speaker again, I did not know. I’d seen this moment coming for weeks, but it was now reality. Time to proceed on my own.
I’d booked a bus to the coastal city of Palu, a place rarely frequented by western travelers, but a necessary stepping stone to the passenger ships embarking on the 16 hour float to Borneo. My departure time arrived and I loaded into the drab grey minibus. It had the usual 1980s VW bus look with three rows of shabby seating and wheels that appeared much too skinny and worn for the weight it carried. Only one other passenger accompanied me, a silent local man who didn’t offer much in the way of conversation, so I was left largely to my own thoughts, a few hours of watching the impossibly green rice paddies race by as I hurtled into my future.
Suddenly, we stop. The driver summons me out of the bus and I oblige. Perhaps it’s another rest stop where I stand around eating banana chips, never knowing when we’ll resume the trip. Nope, this time is different. He hands me my backpack and encourages me to get on a waiting motorbike. This is a first. I repeat “Palu” to him several times in different pronunciations and he gives me all his assurances that that is in fact the correct course to my destination. I, on the other hand, am not entirely convinced and ill at ease, but seeing no alternate choice, I jump aboard. Less than a kilometer from the bus, my driver swerves off onto a bumpy and winding one lane dirt path. WTF. Where are we going? I hold on tight, senses alert, waiting for whatever comes next.
People begin emerging from all around me. Not in a menacing, walking dead fashion, but something big appears to be on everyone’s mind. The crowds increase and the motorbike comes to a halt. Once I dismount and remove my helmet, people begin to notice my light skin tone and the smiles begin creeping onto their faces. Not too unusual for these back parts of Indonesia as this is far from the tourist hoards of Bali, however, what is unusual is the rushing river looming before us and the once proud bridge, now collapsed and washed downstream. As I assess my surroundings and return smiles all around, my driver eagerly directs me to a rope hanging across the width of the river. A few brave souls are already pulling themselves along toward the other side, water rushing past waist deep, belongings on their shoulders.
It dawns on me. He wants me to ford the damn river.
In the US, the trip would be canceled and you’d get a refund. In Indonesia, you get a little encouragement to get your feet wet. What choice did I really have? This was a one way type of trip and I wasn’t turning back now. I grabbed ahold of that rope and pulled myself through the murky water, full backpack and all. My shorts were completely soaked through as I emerged on the other side with a bewildered smile on my face. Not missing a beat, another local Indo appears to take me to another run-down minibus with too-thin tires. This one ready to take me further into the unknown.
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