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Published: January 17th 2012
Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they're counting the miles, they're thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they'll get there - and all the time they'll get there anyway, you see. But they need to worry and betray time with urgencies false and otherwise, purely anxious and whiny, their souls really won't be at peace unless they can latch on to an established and proven worry and having once found it they assume facial expressions to fit and go with it, which is, you see, unhappiness, and all the time it all flies by them and they know it and that too worries them no end.
- Jack Kerouac, On The Road
------------------------------------------------------------------------ The Indonesia Trip
Part 1: Resa and the Bataks
Part 2: Satu, Dua, Tiga...
Part 3: Happiness Is Within
Part 4: Las Buenas Duran Poco
Satu, Dua, Tiga, Empat, Lima, Enam. Tuju, Lapan, Simbilan, Sebulu.
Resa taught me how to count to ten in Bahasa Indonesia. I was doing just that as my rickety Indonesian plane blundered though storm cloud after turbulent storm cloud. The plane jumped then dove and dove again. The inner cabin darkened ominously as we hurtled through the thick, antagonizing clouds. My stomach rose up into my throat. I was tense.
I had always read about the abominable state of domestic air travel in Indonesia. Only a couple of days before, I had seen news on the television about a plane - of the same company I was currently using, and making the same flight that I was currently on - that had crashed somewhere in Java.
And if that wasn't unsettling enough, now it seemed like the pilot was intentionally trying to fly the plane through the darkest, most punishing clouds he could find.
I think the only thing keeping
that plane in the air was the sheer willful power of my internal pleas and my vigilant encouragement.
"Fly, plane, fly!"
"You can do it! I believe in you!"
"Almost there, plane! Just a little bit farther!"
Using my constant coaxing as a much needed boost, that cognizant plane eventually skidded to a halt on a small Indonesian island called Batam. However, this was not my final destination. A week before, when I was looking to book a flight from Medan to Yogyakarta, this company - Batavia - had been the only one that offered an option that didn't involve connecting through Jakarta. But even then, this flight was only semi-direct. The flight included a brief stop in Batam to exchange some passengers before continuing on to Yogya. I didn't even have to leave my seat. This seemed like a good choice at the time.
Once in Batam, most of the passengers departed, and the new ones boarded. Things appeared to be progressing smoothly. Everyone was buckled in, and the flight attendants had completed their usual pre-flight preparations. The minutes slowly ticked by. We still hadn't moved. After about 40 minutes of sitting on the
ground in Batam, the pilot's voice came on through the speakers saying something in Bahasa that I didn't understand, and suddenly people were standing up, moving around, and heading for the exits. I sought out a flight attendant who communicated to me that all passengers had to leave the plane and return to the waiting area at the gate because there was a mechanical problem that required attention.
Okay... Nice to find this out after having just flown for an hour through rocking turbulence.
A bit frustrated with the delay, I made my way into the airport to wait with the rest of the commuters. Roughly every half hour the airline personnel working the gate would come on with a status update which always seemed to be along the lines of "Good news! Only about 20 more minutes now." This continued for hours.
It was now approaching 9 o'clock pm. We had been waiting at the gate for almost five hours. Another updated chimed on, but this time it was longer and more detailed than the previous ones. The gist of it was that if they could not get the problem with the plane fixed in the
next hour, we would all be spending the night in Batam because the Yogyakarta airport closes at 10pm.
Belligerence erupted. There was suddenly a circle of angry men huddled around the gate counter waving their fists and demanding an explanation. I usually consider myself a cool customer, but even my temperature was rising. I had plans after all. I wanted to get an early start the next day - in Yogya, not in Batam.
I didn't even know where Batam was. I couldn't even had found it on a map, and now I was going to spend a long, frustrated night here, losing valuable travel time.
"Keep cool, Travis. These things happen," I told myself. "You've just gotta go with the flow. Count to ten."
Satu, dua, tiga, empat, lima, enam, tuju...
The minutes passed with the urgency of chilled molasses as everyone in the room awaited the verdict. Just as the last shreds of hope for good news fell away, the announcement came that the problem was corrected and we could board the airplane. Thank God. That was the fastest boarding of a full sized plane I've ever experienced. Six hours after landing in
Batam - under the expectation of an immediate turn around - I was back in the air and finally on my way to Yogya.
Just when you start to think all Indonesian cities are horrendous, chaotic sprawls, Yogyakarta offers a refreshing exception. The city has clean and smooth roads, abundant public transportation, occasional greenery, and a wonderful variety of restaurants and bars. However, probably the best thing about Yogya is its location. With less than an hour drive from the touristic downtown, one can visit beaches, volcanoes, national parks, and two of the most important ancient temple sites in Indonesia.
This was my reason for visiting Yogya. I wanted to see Prambanan and Borobudur.
I woke up in a barebones guesthouse. A bed - no sheets. A fan. A western toilet with no flushing mechanism. How does that work? I'm still not sure.
It was Christmas Eve, and I needed to reevaluate my plans. I knew Prambanan was much closer and a much easier trip than Borobudur. I also knew Borobudur was a very popular trip to do in the morning for the sunrise. So that could wait until tomorrow. Today I
would visit Prambanan in the afternoon, after taking some time to get my bearings on this new city.
And that's just what I did. After a quiet morning and lunch, I located the appropriate bus stop and rode a city bus all the way to Prambanan (about 45 minutes) for the equivalent of $0.30 USD.
Prambanan is less like an ancient temple site of immeasurable historical importance and more like a city park with a few huge temples in the middle built out of rock. The place is nice. The grass and vegetation is manicured, the paved walkways are straight and flat and perfect, there are clean public toilets everywhere. Is this Indonesia?
Peaceful music played over loud speakers arranged throughout the park, and there were Indonesian families lounging in the grass for an afternoon picnic. Packs of teenagers marauded around the park. There was even a large playground for the youngsters to entertain themselves.
It was nice, but not what I expected.
I walked around, passing from one temple to the next. Inside the park there is actually a collection of temples. Prambanan Temple is the main event and by far the largest, but
there are a number of others scattered around within a short walk. I particularly enjoyed Sewu Temple - which is actually a Buddhist temple and was created in similar fashion to Borobudur. Sewu was all the way in the back of the park, and so was only really explored by those intrepid site-seers who rode the little trolley around the park perimeter. I climbed through the inside of the temple and immerged onto a top-level precipice and decided to take a moment to relish my temporary isolation. The call to prayer started, and my mind began to wonder.
I was sitting on top of an ancient Buddhist temple within a park famous for its ancient Hindu temple within the most populous Muslim country in the world.
And let the word 'populous' ring out and sink in. Indonesia is massive, and in particular, the island of Java is unimaginably crowded. 135 million people live on the island of Java. That's more than double the population of Thailand packed into one quarter of its area. That's more than a third of the population of the US packed into a place half the size of the UK. The livable area of
Java (read: not on a volcano) is just one long, flowing, writhing mass of urban humanity. It's no wonder that in a place like this, something so epically beautiful and important as Prambanan temple had been turned into a modern city park.
I hung around for sunset, then legged it home.
It rained on Christmas day when I went to Borobudur. It was hot and sunny the day before and the day after, but on the 25th it rained hard and long, as if I needed a reminder that I was a world away from my all my friends and family on the most genial day of the year.
Even if it hadn't rained, and even if it hadn't been a lonely Christmas morning, I still would've found Borobudur to be an immense disappointment.
I suppose I should start from the beginning.
I woke up at 4 am because I had booked the 'sunrise tour' of Borobudur. The morning was too gray to actually tell when the sun rose, but I'm pretty sure we would've missed it had there been clear weather.
Upon arriving at the place, I instantly noticed a distinct
Disney-Worldish atmosphere about it. Tour buses were lined up around the parking lot. Groups of school children were gathered here and there awaiting instructions from their leaders.
All the foreign tourists were ushered towards a separate entrance where we were charged a fee of about twenty times the amount Indonesians pay. Then they handed each of us a flamboyant and ridiculously colored sarong and told to put it on. If anyone's face flashed a look expressing something like "Why?" they quickly walked over and helped you tie the sarong around. It was too early in the morning to voice much of a protest.
The approach to the temple of Borobudur was actually pretty memorable, despite the gray hazy environment. I was about five minutes ahead of the horde, so I managed to ascend to the top of the temple and enjoy a brief moment of solitude. I imagine there would have been quite a view from that pinnacle, had I not been standing in a cloud.
Then the field-trippers arrived. Bus load after bus load of Indonesian teenagers, all wielding camera phones, charged up to the top of the temple. These kids had no interest whatsoever in
seeing Borobudur. They only wanted to take pictures with the foreigners.
I suspect they may have been playing a game to see how many foreigners they could take a photo with. Suddenly I was being stalked by large groups of 14-year-olds. If the white skin and blonde hair didn't make it easy enough to spot me, that stupid sarong caught everyone's eye like a beacon, announcing "Hey kids! Foreigner over here!" I left the top of the temple and walked through the hallways of Borobudur's lower levels just to be left alone. But it was no use - they followed me everywhere I went.
It was around this time that it began to rain. Thinking that I could wait it out, I huddled under a tree around the perimeter, about thirty meters from the base of the temple. Still, the kids would spot me from the temple and walk the distance through the pouring rain to take a photo with me. I sat there, silent and unmoving, like a dripping statue, as group after group of kids came in for pictures, then left. I tried to reason with myself:
"It's not a big deal. They are probably
just excited to see a foreigner. Its probably a rare occurrence for them."
This I could believe easily enough in Sumatra, but in Yogya it was hard to stomach that excuse.
"Whatever. Just don't let it ruin the experience. Count to ten."
Satu, dua, tiga, empat, lima...
I was back in my guesthouse in Yogya by 10 am, still damp and disappointed. I spent the rest of the day relaxing and catching up on chores like laundry and email. I was leaving the next day for Bali on an overnight bus, but for the time being I had a chance to reflect on the events and trials of the past couple days.
Traveling seems so flashy, so ideal. But frequently it's quite the opposite. Behind every beautiful sunset silhouette, every picturesque vista or deserted beach, there are weeks of preparation, days of movement, hours and hours of waiting, and such a plethora of problems and hiccups that it makes your head spin.
But it's all of that stuff that makes the good times so good. All those tribulations really help you appreciate the splendid outcome. Understanding how miserable and low things can
actually get makes finally living those incredible moments all the more special. I'd like readers to remember that as they continue with this story and the ones to follow.
I know this entry seems to be uncharacteristically negative. That's because it should. These few days were hard, lonely times. Nothing was going as planned. The world was being a pain in the ass.
And I haven't even got to the worst part yet. This entry is not even finished.
I boarded the bus around noon on the 26th. I was the first person to take a seat. We were leaving Yogyakarta, and our destination was Denpasar - the capital of Bali. The trip was supposed to take something like 17 hours. We were scheduled to arrive in Bali around 6 or 7 am the next day.
We inched along, and the hours passed. I don't think we ever reached a speed over 40 miles per hour. There was traffic every second of the way.
We only had about a 20 minute stop for dinner around 9 pm. But then at some random time in the middle of the night, the bus
stopped on the side of the road and stayed there for over an hour. I'm still not sure why we stopped. Many of the passengers left the bus while we waited and waited. Eventually everyone came back and we started again as if the halt had never occurred.
Around 3 in the morning I woke up to see that we were stuck in a stand-still traffic jam. There was no wreck, no accident or mishap. We were in the middle of nowhere Java, and there were simply too many people driving on the road - at 3 am. Hours passed without gaining a single inch of forward progress. I watched the sun rise from that spot.
At some point the next day - I was losing track of the hours, but the sun was high in the sky - the bus driver went to overtake a large dump truck, but cut it too close and crumpled the left side mirror against the back of the other vehicle. We continued on without even a moment's consideration.
About an hour later we stopped on the side of the road so that a man could climb up and weld a
new mirror in place where the old one had snapped off. All the passengers simply sat and observed as the man hoisted up his blow torch and operated on the parked bus - engine still running. The affair took about 20 minutes.
By the time we reached the ferry, my brain had turned to mush from sitting in the same spot for so long and anguishing through every sad second that bus was stealing from me.
After reaching Bali, it was still two more hours to Denpasar - most of which involved bumper-to-bumper traffic. I started to truly believe that we would never arrive. My world had shrunken down to the cramped confines of one uncomfortable seat on a bus. I could barely remember what it was like outside. It had been so long since I had consumed something that wasn't bread or water. I checked to see if I was still sane.
"Where am I?" ... Travis?
"What's my name?" ... Bali, I think.
"What day is today?" ... Saturmonday of course.
"Count to ten." ... Satu, dua, tiga... I forgot the rest.
And then we came to a final stop -
in Bali, in Denpasar. I looked at a clock, and it took a long moment to comprehend what I saw. It was 7 pm. Indeed, the sun was setting. It had to be true. I did the math. I had been on the bus for 31 hours.
My original plan was to head straight to Ubud, but I had lost an entire day. Tomorrow would be the 28th. So yet again, I was forced to completely rearrange my schedule. I wanted to be still, to relax. I wanted beaches and breezes. I wanted Gili.
Maybe I'd get to see Ubud later. Maybe I wouldn't. I guess that's up to Indonesia.
I learned a lesson in Indonesia - or rather a lesson was reiterated to me. Plans are overrated. Traveling is not about cramming impractical amounts of action into a short period of time. It's not about expectations. No matter how much preparation you've done or how much control you think you have, you're always at the mercy of nature and a thousand other unpredictable variables.
The world is a cruel and beautiful place. If it feels like you're falling behind - if it feels
like everything is crumbling and disaster has struck - remember it's not hard to see the world. Just open your eyes and look out the window. It's there, even if it's not what you presumed to see.
You'll get where you're going eventually. In the meantime, relax, breathe, and take it all in. You're here now, and whether you like it or not, you're going along for the ride.
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