3 June 2011

A Virginial Indo Travelling Experience

The sweet scent of urine washes over my nostrils as soon as I enter the cabin; the seats have bits of mould on them and are peppered with holes where the foam has been ripped out; the aisles are littered with families fighting for whatever space they can find; and to top it all off my window – the only respite from the searing heat as, naturally, the air-conditioning is broken –doesn’t close resulting in the dirty curtain flapping in my face for the entire journey. Welcome to train travel in Indonesia, “Business Class”.

My original intention had been to write an article about a short trip I recently made to the town of Yogyakarta in Central Java, but on beginning the article I became aware that it would be much more interesting to write about – and therefore read about – my attempts to make it there from my home on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city.

You see, in my four months so far in the country I have learnt a number of things, things I will not dwell on here but I’m sure will take up future posts/rants. The most frustrating issue is how difficult it is to get around. Indonesia has not caught up with its nearby SE Asian neighbours on the tourist front and, admittedly this is a good thing in many ways, but it has meant that for those of us that would like to move around the country every now and then, there is very little transport infrastructure in place.

To make matters worse I had, completely unknowingly, decided to travel to one of Indonesia’s most Buddhist areas for the most popular Buddhism holiday of the year, Wesak. Meaning that my efforts to get to Yogya, and back, would be made even more difficult than usual.

Saturday morning I awoke early and took a taxi to Jakarta’s Gambir train station, a rather bustling place, as one is to expect in these parts, and joined the throngs of people looking to get out of the capital for the weekend. I am not the most alert of people at the best of times, particularly not at 7am, so thought nothing of the long queues.

40 minutes I waited in-line, happily in my own bubble, when finally I got to the solitary ticket window.

(My Indonesian is comically pathetic, so I have kept the dialogue as genuine as possible, purely for entertainment purposes)

“Uh, halo. Satu (one) ticket di Yogya please”

“Habis” said the lady behind the counter without looking up.

“Apa?”

She looked to her colleague for the word in English.

“Full” still not looking at me.

I grabbed a coffee in one of the coffee places in the station to think over my options and quickly came to the conclusion that things weren’t so bad. There was a night train to Yogya which left at 8.30 in the evening, I would catch that and spend the day exploring the capital instead.

Again I joined the queue, waiting perhaps 20 minutes this time.

“Satu, er, night train di Yogya please”

“Full” if she recognised me from 30 minutes before, she didn’t show it.

“No, er, night train.” I searched for the word in my limited vocabulary. “Malam.”

“Full. All full.”

“To Cirebon?”

“Full”

“Bandung?”

Finally she looked up from whatever important task she was doing, giving me an exasperated look and mouthing, very clearly, “Full.”

It is at this point that I would normally fall into a full-blown shit-fit about the lack of respect I had just been shown, mumbling grumpily to myself about what I would have said to her if I actually owned a pair of testicles. But maybe I had been in this country long enough not to expect any courtesy when being dealt with by people apparently working in “customer care” (it is anorther of the many strange things about this country, for a nation of people that are so incredibly friendly and welcoming, their customer service record is woeful) but I remained in a positive frame of mind as I made my way from the queue to think about what I would do next, when a shifty-looking man scuttled towards me.

“Yogya?” I was surprised, yet impressed, how he had gathered this information considering I had not encountered him all morning.

“Yeah. Trains habis.”

“I take you. 300,000 (20 pounds)”

In hindsight it certainly would have been an adventure and perhaps I should have taken the mildly shady man up on his offer, but there was something not completely trustworthy about him. A few minutes later it was my turn to approach a stranger.

“Permissi. Er, Yogya? Saya mau (I want)” I thought for a minute, trying to find the word, finally settling on “How?”

The man looked at me, smiled and then replied in perfect English. “Trains full yes? You can take the bus.”

“Oh really. How long does it take?”

“Maybe 12 hours. Not great, but it’s ok.”

“Ok, great. Where is the station?”

“Oh, I take you. Come with me.”

Unlike with my previous offer I instantly trusted this guy and followed him. It was only when we got to his motorbike that he remembered. “Oh, shoot “ he really said that “only one helmet. I’m so sorry sir. So, so sorry.”

“Please don’t apologise. It’s fine. I’ll catch the bus.”

“Yes, yes. From here.” As he pointed towards the nearest bus stop “Very sorry.”

“Please. Don’t. Thank you again.”

And with that I jumped aboard Jakarta’s only public transport system and made my way to the bus station in the south of the city.

As I stepped from the air-conditioned, relative calm, sanctity of the bus I immediately regretted my decision. I have been harassed before by people trying to get you to come to their business, but few of the experiences were as unpleasant at this. As soon as I stepped off the bus, being the only white face in the whole place, I was swamped by aggressive sellers, some physically pulling me by the arm toward their counter which, for only the second time in my travels, led me to physically threaten someone (me! Imagine that). I enquired about bus times , learning that they were leaving early evening, and went away promising to come back later.

So that was the plan. It was now 10.30am and I planned to return to the bus station early evening to catch the night bus to Yogya. I had half a day in Indonesia’s capital city to myself. What to do?

In truth the nation’s capital doesn’t have a great deal to offer, particularly to those on a relative time constraint. You see, Jakarta is a mess. A big, sprawling mess. Jakarta’s few notable landmarks are spread right across the city and with relatively little transport system in place it can take far too long to get from one place to another.

I decided to play it relatively safe and my first port of call was the Monas Monument right alongside the Gambir train station that I had spent the majority of my morning in. The monument is Jakarta’s key landmark, a fairly impressive 132 metre high statue that I had originally thought was there to celebrate Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch in the mid-20th century (thank you, Wikipedia), but having spoken to a few Indonesians since then it appears that it was just an extravagant showing-off gesture (fuck you, Wikipedia) from the country’s former president Sukarno. Whatever the reasons for its existence, the monument sits in the pleasantly relaxing Merdeka Square, an enjoyable contrast to the general bedlam of Central Jakarta.

Seeing the park next to the station I made my way towards it, but wasn’t sure how to get past the secure looking gates that surrounded it. Outside Gambir station I approached a waiting Taxi driver.

“Hello mister.”

“Halo. Er, mau Monas. How?” This basically means “I want Monas” but he seemed to understand what I meant.

“Oh yes. Here.”

“But how do I get in?”

“Oh easy.” And he made an action to burrow underground.

“Burrow? Under that?”

“Yes. Very easy.”

So I crossed the street and made my toward the gate nervously. To my relief I wouldn’t need to burrow underground hippy-Glastonbury-style at all, luckily there was a hole in the fence wide enough, just about, for both me and my backpack and I was into the complex.

Being stared at everywhere you go is something you become used to here but, foolishly, I had assumed that being that being in the most touristy site in the city- and therefore with the highest density of tourists- would give me some respite from the stares. Not one bit. Not one fucking bit.

I made my way through the fence and out of some light woodland that protected them and within seconds, 10 no more, I was swarmed by a small group of Muslimy women.

“Mr, mr Photo?”

I did the usual polite nod and posed quickly for my photo and moved on. 2 minutes later another call from a nearby group of schoolkids.

“Mr, Mr, Photo?”

“Sure” I replied and posed again. This happened twice more before I had even reached the monument itself and by now by patience, and politeness, were wearing thin.

Finally I made my way, unmolested, to the monument and inside to a small but informative museum about Monas and then ventured back outside. Once again I was swarmed, first by a group of schoolboys who I posed with and then, seconds later, by some giggly teenage girls. I posed for the usual photo and went to walk away.

“Mr” they called me back. One of the girls, the leader obviously, held her phone out to me. “Pone?” (when Indonesians say “phone” they usually pronounce the ‘p’ hard, so it usually sounds like ‘porn.’ Not once have I managed to stifle a giggle at this).

“Sorry?”

“Phone. You. Number.”

“You want my phone number?”

She nodded and the rest of the group gleefully agreed.

Clearly I wasn’t going to give my real phone number to a group of small girls I had just met, so punched in any random collection of numbers that came into my head and walked away fairly swiftly towards the exit, aware that the “message rejection” notification was only seconds away.It was quicker than I thought and they followed.
“Mr, Mr. Number. False. You give false number.”

I picked up my pace, just short of what was an obvious run, and soon enough they realised what I was doing and stopped following. I was away, cowardly, and back outside the gates I had earlier sneaked in through.

The rest of the day was spent just generally pottering around the city, grabbing some lunch in the seedy area of Jalan Jaksa before making my way back to Gambir station where I would, once again, catch the TransJakarta train to the bus station.
I took a shortcut along a grimey back alley when I was approached by yet another well-wisher.


“Hello Sir. Where do you go?”
“Ah Jalan-Jalan” The usual response so people leave you alone. But this guy was good and eventually I got talking to him and learnt his name, Agus, before finally admitting that I was making my way to the bus station to catch the bus to Yogya.

“Bus?” was his response “Bus very dangerous. Go by train, much better.”

“No, they’re all full. I’ve already tried.”

“No. Go to Senen station, other trains go to Yogya later. I show you way.”

There was a chance this was a ploy to rip me off, but I had some time to kill so I trusted this smiley man.

“You know Yogya has many gays.” He made a disgusted face as he said this as we walked to the road I would need to take to get to the train station.

“Ah, well. I think I’ll cope.”

“I think you like gay”

“Haha” I nervously answered “too many beautiful women here for that. I think you like them.”

“I do. I like you.”

“Oh ok. So it’s this way right? Thank you.”

“Yes, yes. I take you.”

“No, no. It’s fine. Terima Kasih.” And with that I ran across the road, leaving a disappointed looking Agus on the other side of the road.

Despite Agus’s intentions not being entirely honest he was right, there were trains going to Yogya and, aware that this was a second class train, I paid a little more to get a “Business Class” ticket.

As I have explained, the train was not of the highest of standards but once I sank into my seat I quite enjoyed the trip and managed to catch flits of sleep for the majority of the journey, arriving in Yogya early Sunday morning in a good frame of mind considering the stressful day previous.

With the difficulty I had had in making it down I realised it would probably a good idea to book my journey back to Jakarta so that I could make it back to work on time on Wednesday. However, the trains were all full until Wednesday night so I booked a relatively expensive flight that would land in Jakarta a full 90 minutes before I was to start work. Just to ensure that the chances of being delayed were less likely I booked with the most reputable airline, Air Asia. Now, finally it was time to enjoy Yogya.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, my time in Yogya wasn’t overly exciting from an entertainment point of view, so I will only touch on it briefly. The town itself is a touch underwhelming, but perhaps that is because I expected so much. The a main street, Marlioboro, runs north to south from the main train station at the top to the Kraton at the very bottom of the town – a community of the local sultan with its own population of about 25,000 people. The main sultan’s building here is a rather uninspiring one- story building with a small collection of fairly bland things to present, but the narrow streets around the Kraton itself are an interesting, bustling place where locals go about their business and greet any followers they see with a friendly smile and, just occasionally, offers of drinks and hospitality.

But Yogya is less about what downtown offers and more useful as a base for some of the nearby sights. First off there is the world-famous Borobudur Temple, a Buddhist, well, temple in the north of the city. It is a remarkably striking temple that descends out of the ground, high above the surrounding landscape and it is hard to believe that this sat covered by volcanic ash from nearby Mount Merapi for 800 years before it was uncovered by a British expedition in the 19th century.

That mountain itself, Merapi, sits on the northern outskirts of the town; you may have heard of the name as it had a fairly devastating eruption last year killing more than 300 people and leading to an evacuation of much of the city, also closing the airport 150km away in Jakarta and the ash-remains from that explosion were still evident when I visited. Finally there is Prambanan Temple in the east, an impressive complex of a mix of temples both Hindu and Buddhist and it was during my visit that the Wesak festival (Buddhists celebrating Buddha’s day of birth and death – much like Elvis) was happening, which included a colourful array of dances and costumes.
After 3 busy days in the city, on Wednesday it was time to return to Jakarta and the real world. I had still not forgotten the stresses of my journey down so was not completely confident of making it to work on time.

Sure enough, as soon as I checked into my flight, “Er, sir. Flight delayed. One hour.” Of course it wasn’t one hour, if it had been one hour I might, just might, have made it into work on time. It was almost 2 hours later before I made it onto my flight and after further stresses of trying to pick up a taxi and almost being remarkably ripped off I finally found my way onto an Ojek (motorbike taxi) and made it into work highly stressed and highly exhausted, just like the end to any holiday should be.