Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My life on a bus

Before the countdown: It is 8:30 a.m. at the airport in Jakarta, Indonesia. I arrive a bit blurry-eyed due to my 5:30 a.m. wake-up call, but I have a naïve spring in my step none-the-less.

Hour one: I have taken a $.50 bus ride to the train station in the city center. I spent most of the ride marveling at the overlapping free-ways, sparkling high rise buildings, fancy SUVs, international-class hotels and restaurants, and the man next to me who is typing on three black-berries simultaneously that make this city of 10 million feel more like New York than Indonesia.

Hour one point two-five: It is September 8th. It is 9:45 a.m. The next available train ticket to Yogyakarta, the city which is to be my final destination, is for September 10th at 8 p.m. Plan B.

Hour one point five: I am arguing with a man about whether a cab to the bus station should cost 70,000 rupiah or 50,000 rupiah. I realize I am actually arguing with a man about whether a cab to the bus station should cost $7 or $5. Screw it. I’ll settle on six and a half.

Hour two: I arrive at the bus station, sweaty, breathless, and with much less spring in my step, after risking my life to cross a major bus-filled highway on foot. I paid the man 65,000 rupiah to drive me here and he “cannot pull into the station, cabs not allowed.” I see a cab stop in front of the station. The couple that gets out is neither sweaty nor breathless. I should have paid him 70,000.

Hour two point five: I have managed to find the one person who speaks English in the crowd of thousands lining up to get on tens of buses. She leads me to a bus that she promises will take me to Yogyakarta. The bus is empty. She leaves. It is 11 a.m.

Hour two point seven-five: It is 11:15. I am alone on a bus, which I think is going to Yogyakarta, but I am not really sure. I have no ticket. There is no air-conditioning. I’m not sure if the bus even runs. I think I better find the English-speaking woman.

Hour four: The woman has sold me a ticket. The bus leaves at 2 p.m. In the meantime, I have eaten a box of chocolate-covered strawberry filled cookies and am working on my second course…something called cheese cookies and what looks like a juice box of tea. A very small, very happy graying Indonesian man is telling me that he is an English teacher at a local school and would like to practice conversation. We are standing amidst the exhaust fumes of thirty buses and are surrounded by crowds of sweaty people straining to hear bus numbers which are simply shouted out over the din by young boys in blue button-ups. No one except my bus mistress, my enthusiastic English-teaching friend, and I speak English. I am quite amused.

Hour five: It is 1:30 in the afternoon. I have boarded the bus. Everyone else, including my somewhat large and hairy seatmate, has boarded also. It takes me a good ten minutes to shove my backpack under my seat. I have the window seat. My seatmate doesn’t move when I do this. I finally sit down and heave a sigh of relief. Everyone on the bus is staring at me. I stare back. So do they. So, this is what it feels like to be in a fishbowl.

Hour five and one quarter: A woman's seat is broken. It leans back too far. One of our bus drivers grabs a metal pole from who know where and shoves is through the arm rests at the back of the seat. Problem solved.

Hour five point five: We should be leaving soon. It is 2 p.m. The mother with her seven-year-old child sitting across from me has managed to mime that she likes my nose because it is pointy. She has also “told” me that her son’s is no good. It is too flat. Now everyone is staring at my pointy nose. Some even lean in for a closer look. Thank you Knutson genes.

Hour five and three quarters: I am marking some papers I have brought along with to kill the time. I have a rotating audience looking over my shoulder. They can’t possibly be interested in my student’s English papers, so I blame my pointy nose. People occasionally board the bus to sell things like fresh duck eggs, rice meals, mixed nuts, and sunglasses. One man trades me a bottle of water for a July issue of Time. Now, if he ever sees another person who speaks English, he will have something to sell to them.

Hour six point five: The bus is leaving. We are an hour late. We should arrive in Yogya in twelve hours.

Hour eight and a half: It is 5 p.m. We might still be in the suburbs of Jakarta. I have finished two issues of Time cover to cover…including that small print at the bottom of all the advertisements. We are maybe driving twenty miles per hour. I remember a New York Times article that I casually read last week.

“During the last days of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, tens of millions of Indonesians leave the country’s cities to return to their villages by motorcycle, train, bus and boat. The mass homecoming is both a decidedly Indonesian interpretation of the Muslim holiday and one of the world’s great movements of people. On a road network whose capacity is strained at the best of times, travellers brave enormous jams, exhaustion and bandits to make it back home.”

I am literally a part of the second largest temporary migration of people in the world…thirty million plus one. At least the air conditioning works.

Hour eight point seven-five: The air conditioning has stopped working.

Hour nine point five: The sun is setting. The villages that are passing slowly by become a swirl of sunset oranges and soft yellows. The people are smiling and celebrating in their roadside stalls. They are beautiful. I watch them.

Hour eleven: I am not really sure if I have been sleeping or awake. Probably both.

Hour twelve: We stop for dinner. I avoid the rice and vegetable and chicken mixtures that are swarming with flies. It might be safer to eat packaged food. Besides, I want to avoid that bus bathroom as much as possible. Dried bananas, cashews, and puff pastry it is.

Hour thirteen: I don’t know if you can imagine what it feels like to be on hour seven in a traffic jam that stretches across an entire country, on a bus that is moving twenty miles per hour, with people you can’t even talk to because you don’t speak the same language, but, if you can’t, don’t try it.

Hour fifteen: The bus broke down. We are in the middle of a highway in a massive traffic jam and the bus broke down. We have been in a bus for eight and a half hours and the bus has just broken down. If I was less calm in the face of challenges, I might scream. Instead, I think I’ll hyperventilate.

Hour fifteen plus ten minutes: Our bus driver has calmly reignited the engine. Shadey at best. I have put away my paper bag. The air conditioning is working again.

Hour seventeen: It is 1:30 a.m. I have begun to make up stories about the flickers of light from the oncoming cars that reflect off the bus windows. They are about fireflies. This might be what it feels like to go crazy.

Hour eighteen and a half: The hairy man sitting next to me has been sleeping on my shoulder for the last hour. My arm is asleep. I don’t want to disturb him though, so I let my arm become all tingly, and I make up a story about it.

Hour nineteen: Something more exciting to distract me than my imagination: people have begun to pull off to the side of the road and light fireworks. I am being given my own private show. Little sparks of purple, blue, and red briefly illuminate the night sky. As a bonus, the bus picks up speed. I fall asleep with visions of fireworks dancing in my head and behind my eyelids.

Hour twenty-one point five: I open my eyes to find a smoking volcano appearing in the first purple light of day. We are navigating winding roads on the slopes of a jungle mountain, and the foliage has overgrown the road so that I can actually see the dew drops sliding off the pink and salmon petals of the tropical flowers in the canopy above. The rice patties in the distance are emerald green.

Hour twenty-two point five: The bus driver just told me we are about eight hours from Yogya. I have been on a bus for 16 hours.

Hour twenty three: My butt is completely asleep.

Hour twenty three point seven-five: I am doing yoga in the aisle. If my bus-mates didn’t think I was crazy before, they do now.

Hours twenty four to twenty eight: I finish my marking. I stretch a little. I make faces at the kids in buses we pass and they make faces back at me. I finish my remaining two Time magazines, and I use the Southeast Asia travel guide to plan my entire November/December holiday. We pass through endless plains of brilliant green rice patties. I play games on my phone with the kid whose mom thinks his nose is too flat. I let my seatmate sleep on my shoulder…again. Time passes.

Hour twenty eight and one quarter: People are restless. We have been on a bus for twenty one hours and forty five minutes. The traffic is ridiculous. I feel a bit like I am at the Sturgis motorcycle rally with fewer helmets, more rice fields, and a greater person to bike ratio. I do another round of yoga. People request pictures. I have a photo shoot with every family on the bus. My pointy nose is sure to make mantelpieces all over Java.

Hour twenty nine point five: It is 2 p.m. We are in the suburbs of Yogya. I can tell by the signs. We are starting to drop people off on various corners.

Hour thirty and a half: I arrive at the bus station. I have been on a bus for 24 hours. I have been attempting to get to Yogya for more than that. Nothing else matters now, though, because I am here, I am safe, I was a part of the second largest temporary land migration on the planet, and I had the experience of a lifetime.

Of course, the reminder of my trip was not nearly as much of a physical or emotional roller coaster. In fact, it was wonderful. But “pleasant” does not make for an interesting story. So here, I will simply relay the highlights of the rest of my trip.

Stephanie met me at our adorable bed and breakfast that evening (she had chosen to fly because she got out of school a day later…no comment). We spent our first full day in Yogya together walking along an old lava flow on Gunung Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia, hiking to caves made during the Japanese occupation, exploring the batik markets, and savoring some traditional Javanese beer and cuisine.

The second night was spent in a hostel on a rice patty where we were lulled to sleep underneath our mosquito net by the sound of croaking bull frogs just outside our windows. The highlight of the trip was the sunrise atop Borobudur temple where we watched the sun slowly unveil the volcano in the distance. Borobudur is both a Buddhist temple and a place for pilgrimage. According to Wikipedia, "the journey for pilgrims begins at the base of the monument and follows a path circulating the monument while ascending to the top through the three levels of Buddhist cosmology, namely Kāmadhātu (the world of desire), Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and Arupadhatu (the world of formlessness). During the journey the monument guides the pilgrims through a system of stairways and corridors with 1,460 narrative relief panels on the wall."

Our second afternoon was spent exploring Yogya on foot before we took the night train (a form of transport that actually only took eight hours due to the lack of traffic) back to Jakarta.

On Sunday, we immersed ourselves in the Hari Raya celebrations in Jakarta taking in street performances, enjoying cotton candy in the National Monument’s park, and watching locals “sort of” re-create the old-Dutch feel in the Dutch quarter by riding bicycles while wearing floppy hats within a perimeter. Our last moments in Jakarta were spent sipping coffee and eating gourmet Javanese food in a secret garden-esque restaurant.

Now that the September holidays are over, I have officially begun my final term of teaching in Singapore. For the next several weeks I will be lesson planning, marking final exams, finalizing forms, preparing for my end-of-contract travels, applying for graduate programs, and generally figuring out my future.

I have officially begun tackling my Singapore bucket list. I’ll keep you posted.