Sunday, October 04, 2009

TRAVEL ... A Haphazard Trip Through Java

TOM SYKES goes on a jaunt into the heartland of Java island

THE FIGURES GREW FAINTER as clouds like Rorschach tests stained the sun. I couldn’t stop looking at the two men down there on the river edges, one of them defecating into the scummy green water, the other washing his face in it. I was a pervert of privation, I can now admit that—a peeping Tom on those less fortunate than myself.

Time wore on. I killed it with more looking. I marvelled at the perilous architecture on the banks, dozens of tire-roofed cabins drooping towards the water like dehydrated vines. A housewife in a hijab emerged to take clothes down from a washing line. She grinned and waved a T-shirt at me in what I guessed was a kind of semaphore greeting. I waved back.

It was clear that the angkot I’d been waiting for wasn’t coming. Perhaps all angkots had stopped now, it had got so late. I wouldn’t miss these cramped minivans where you could find yourself competing for a seat with a squealing toddler and a flea-ridden goat. Rats collide with your feet almost as often as the vehicle pulls over and lets on dozens of buskers and vendors selling drinks, cigarettes, socks, novelty belts, dried tofu snacks, and, for reasons I will never understand, medical supplies such as scalpels and antibiotics.

However, on a practical level, I needed transport. While I tried to formulate a plan, I felt a tap on the shoulder and the tinkle of an old-school Casio keyboard. A teenager in a Manchester United cap sang me Indonesian pop songs with a surprisingly sturdy voice. I was happy to part with my change at the end of it. Time passed into darkness. Along the bridge I’d made my hangout, warung food stalls were being wheeled out for the evening hubbub. In a nation that has the heart of a party animal but the mind of an upright Muslim, there is much ambivalence about alcohol and the social matrix it engenders. So instead many people spend their evenings on the street supping their sop buntut and chowing down on their cap cay while laughing and shouting and opining.

I still hadn’t figured out how to leave. I didn’t have enough money for a long-distance taxi and time constraints meant I couldn’t spend another night in this town. I knew I was inviting mockery when I did it, but I did it anyway. I gestured back through the spirals of time to a looser, hairier age. I asserted my evolutionary advantage over the monkeys. I did what I always hated New Labour politicians and trendy youth workers for doing.

I stuck up my thumb.

Astonishingly, someone did pull over in a decrepit Japanese car from the 1960s. The door handle came off when I seized it. The driver shook his head with Asian equanimity, and I knew I was still welcome. I said my destination calmly and clearly. He pointed for me to get in the back seat, and drove us to join the cavalcade of becak rickshaws, 4x4 road tanks, scooters freighted with huge sacks of rice, and beggars stricken with spastic paripalitis and amputated limbs. From the mirror, I could see my driver was in his forties, bearded in the soul patch style beloved of his countrymen. He was also, like a high proportion of Indonesians male and female, good-looking with bulging, generous lips, and warm oval eyes. He wore a sardonic grin that looked drawn on.

Once the traffic had dispersed into a wider road, we picked up speed—a lot of speed. We overtook motorcyclists wearing T-shirts advertising local beer and cigarette brands. On a tight corner, we came face-toface with an articulated lorry blasting loud 80s Monsters of Rock out of its stereo. The ensuing game of chicken meant we almost careened into the scrubland fringing the road. Shortly after that, we hurtled over a series of speed bumps as if they were ramps.

Far from panicking, I had by now entered a trance zone parallel to but somehow detached from the fearful reality of the here and now. My mind told me that I was watching myself and the car and the madness from some safe vantage point. Looking back, this may have been a symptom of shock.

The driver let out a vague chuckle, so vague that I might have just imagined it.

On the horizon was a pack of dogs, grease-matted and dribbling, who were harrying a smaller dog with only three legs. Suffice to say we didn’t do what we should have done, which was slow down. There was a noise like a shoe being thrown against an oil drum. The next thing I saw were the wipers ejecting a bloody paw from the windscreen.

Over the next 10 minutes, we clipped gas canisters and splintered crates of eggs and narrowly avoided smashing into establishments called Rambo Bar Pub and Gaylord’s Gudeg. My brain concocted strange digressive thoughts for me, perhaps as some emotional palliative to get me through this trauma. I considered Indonesia’s driving culture and how it is the world’s third biggest emitter of carbon gases.

At last there was to be relief when both rear tires blew with shotgun bluster. The car shivered and generally sounded unwell, slowing down despite the man’s repeated stamping on the accelerator. We skidded down a slope that was thankfully free of obstacles.

The man sent his eyes in my direction and muttered something.

“I’m sorry?” I said, my trance giving way to adrenalin tromboning through my system.

“Not far now,” he said in well-practised English. “Please forgive my driving, mister, but I need to get to the hospital.” He rubbed his hand on his thigh and raised it up so I could see that it was covered in blood.

“Have you bandaged that?” I said.


“You have painkillers?”

“Most of my life I have been comfortable, so a little pain I can deal with.”

“What happened?”

“My brother stabbed me during an argument. I told him he was a bad Muslim because he drank beer, didn’t observe the fasting month, ate pork belly while in Malaysia. He didn’t like that.”

“Palpably not,” I said. “Why did you pick me up?”

The man laughed voluptuously and punched the headrest of the passenger seat. “I picked you up because you were going my way. All of us should help one another whenever we can.”

We drifted downhill for some time through the serrated silhouettes of the jungle, until we reached a well-to-do district of banks resembling the palaces of European crown princes. We parked on the roadside, amidst stalls selling mobile phone credit. The man gestured feebly to a Red Cross sign on a building trussed up with barbed wire. A stranger helped me to lift the man who, by now, was losing both consciousness and a lot of blood.

THE NEXT MORNING I was sat in the Kota train station in Jakarta eating all the café had to offer—fried chicken, instant noodles and doughnuts—what back home I’d call student fare. I bought a copy of The Jakarta Post from a vendor, and was shocked to read about a man who was refused hospital treatment because he couldn’t afford it. The doctors had called his family for a guarantee of payment, but they couldn’t provide it. No one knew what had happened to the man after he’d been ejected from the hospital. I wondered if this was my man. Then again, the article was vague on description, and things like this probably happened every day in Indonesia. They happened every day in America and in other societies that claim to be fair and humane.

As I boarded my train alongside plenty of healthy and cheerful middle-class Jakartans off for weekend breaks, I felt a small measure of guilt. What if the man had lost precious time stopping to pick me up and was now lying in a heap somewhere? But that was a moot point, if he’d been unable to get treatment at all.

I slipped into a semi-conscious state—the closest I ever get to sleep while on transport—and my mind began to confuse the crazed events of yesterday with the gentle progress of the present journey. When the train accelerated out of the station, I flinched as if I were back in the injured man’s car. I mistook the horns of passing freight vehicles for those of angry motorcyclists. Babies crying across the aisle became the yells of warung owners, and vice versa.

I saw the man that night in my dreams. He was still grinning, and thanked me for my help. When I asked him if he’d survived, he carried on grinning, but didn’t answer me.

Reproduced from the October-December 2009 issue of Quill magazine


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