Sulawesi is not the most difficult place in Indonesia to get around (that prize probably goes to Indonesian Borneo, Papua, or one of the jillions of tiny islands flung out in the middle of the ocean), but it sure does take a long time to get from place to place. The bus ride from Makassar to Rantepao was 8 hours and our next destination, the Togean Islands (only about 250km away), require a total of 3 days to get to: two full days on buses plus a 3-ish hour ferry ride to the nearest island. We arranged a bus to what we thought would be a convenient place to stop for the night, Tentena, only to discover upon our late-night arrival that there were no connecting buses in town, rather, we’d have to take a public min-van the next morning about 2 hours to the next major town (which happened to be the final destination of our original bus) where we’d be able to catch the right bus to the tiny port town of Ampana. And at least one transfer within town would require an ojek ride (that’s hitching a ride on the back of a local man’s scooter) with our oversized backpacks- truly tempting fate with the fast speeds, lack of helmets, and precarious balance of an uninitiated passenger. Cue the private chartered car.
We are backpackers. We might have a bigger budget for this trip than we would have had 10 years ago, but we are committed economy-room dwellers and local-food-stall diners. We shun packaged tours and only rarely put out extra money for special amenities (AC, guided tours, pizza…well, sometimes pizza) but there seem to be more and more occasions where I can justify shelling out for better transport. An easy rule of thumb is that the less time and more money you have, the more you’ll pay to get around (flights instead of buses, chartered boats instead of the overcrowded tubs that pass for public ferries) but even though we arguably fall into the opposite category (lots of time, limited funds) I hesitate less than other shoestring travelers to throw my money at comfort and safety to get from one place to another.
Public buses and bus stations are great places to get robbed or swindled. Conventional backpacker wisdom says that if you keep your wits about you and possess a few shreds of street smarts, you’ll get robbed and swindled less often than the other guy. Even though I have never actually had an incident on public transport (if you don’t count break-downs, sea-/car-sickness, and testing the limits of my own sanity stemming from situations like overcrowding, excessive delays, and issues related to livestock, extreme heat, and potholes), I am more conservative with liberties I’m willing to take with my own comfort and safety. In Labuanbajo, a fellow traveler warned us that the buses enroute to the Togean Islands are particularly dicey and may involve fording rivers in the middle of the night due to a washed out bridge. When the proprietress of our hotel in Tentena floated the idea of our taking a private vehicle for about US$10 more than the public bus would cost, I didn’t flinch before saying yes.
In truth, I agonized a little over spending the extra money- on the local scale, it can get you quite far- and also about losing some of my rugged-traveler cred. I am not soft; I can tolerate uncomfortable situations and don’t need to be pampered or have a sanitized experience. But now stakes are higher: we carry more valuables than younger budget travelers and we have had enough experience with theft that I have started to looks at options like ‘first class’ bus rides and even private vehicles as insurance against these kinds of problems, an and affordable luxury. We are not so committed to the cheap that we would let $5 make the difference between a safer, earlier, and hassle-free arrival and a long, hot slog where we have to stay on constant alert. Once we were tucked into the car and zipping along our way, I had no second thoughts about whether we made the better decision. We are, afterall, on vacation and it is so nice to have things go smoothly and safely for a very modest price.
I should not get too comfortable in the safety of these situations, however. On our drive to Ampana we passed a washed out bridge that the SUV we were in was able to manage with only minimal terror, as well as a day-old accident scene: a SUV not unlike ours had gone off the side of the road down a drop of 50 or more feet. The car was literally split in two and it is unimaginable that anyone inside the car at the time of the crash made it out. Of course, accidents happen everywhere, but it was a sobering that comfort can be bought, but safety is relative.
At least the drive was nice
We arrived safe and sound in Ampana where we passed an uneventful night. First thing the next morning, we caught a public boat to the little resort island that was recommended to us by the Canadian in Labuanbajo. The boat looked homemade and the engine sputtered sparks, but was well attended to by a couple of young men with smoldering cigarettes dangling from their lips. With a little rearranging, we got ourselves seated more or less comfortably on the deck of the boat with all of the other passengers- no one would sit in the fire-pit below decks that was intended for seating. No one else flinched at the seaworthiness of our vessel, so we went with the flow and everything turned out fine. Our tickets cost a little over $2 and took about 3.5 hours- by far and away the cheapest and quickest leg of our journey to the Togeans. With plenty of sunlight to spare, we arrived at Poya Lisa Island and all but collapsed on the hammocks in front of our room. We didn’t do much of anything over the past few days but all of that travel is exhausting, so we’re hunkering down for a few days of lounging and staying in one place- especially because we know that leaving this island is going to entail the reverse of what we just did.
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