The Road To Borobudur
“Is this the bus to Blblblbl?”
–Yours truly, in Yogyakarta.
To me, the loneliest feeling in the world isn’t the stomach-kicking void I felt when someone I loved dumped me or when I had to break up with a girlfriend even though I didn’t want to. Nor is it the sense of desolation I experienced when my father died. No, it’s the mind-numbing alienation that hit when I woke up in a dive of a place in the middle of a dive of a city and realized I was thousands of miles away from loved ones. I didn’t know anybody anywhere nearby and the place was such a steaming pit all I really want to do was get the Hell out of Dodge.
Jakarta was that city.
While I was glad to have escaped Bali ahead of the holiday, I was not impressed with Jakarta. Traffic was so bad and the city so large it took the airport shuttle bus more than two hours to reach the central bus station. Once the shuttle arrived, Christian, a guy I met on the bus, and I spent 10 minutes arguing with taxi drivers over whether we should walk to the backpacker district or take a cab. When we finally agreed to a cab, the rate we paid turned out to be triple the going rate. It wasn’t that we didn’t know how to negotiate, it was that the taxi drivers were so loud, persistent and obnoxious in a place where we were already suffering from sensory overload that they wore down our resistance. Once we got to the backpacker district we discovered all of the places were overpriced and filthy. In fact, the hostel room we ended up sharing was so small, stuffy, windowless, and overheated that we wanted to leave the door open so that we could benefit from the electric fan-generated breeze wafting through the hallways, but we knew not using a lock was an invitation to rob us blind. Sleeping with the door closed wasn’t a great solution either because the humidity was unrelenting. Right before he went to bed Christian said he was so disgusted that he was leaving town first thing in the morning.
While my roommate for the night was extremely eager to get to bed, I wanted to eat, call the States and explore even though it was near midnight. I don’t know when I adopted the strategy, but I found the best way to learn a city was to wander without a guidebook or map as soon as I arrived so that I could get the lay of the land. It was a way to see a city on my own terms before I spent the rest of a stay seeking out some of the landmarks guidebooks suggested I should see and the things fellow travelers said I must see. I did it in Christchurch, Sydney, and even tiny Tamworth. This approach, however, was more challenging in Southeast Asia where I didn’t know the language, so I paid more attention to landmarks near the area where I was staying and made a point of taking a guidebook in case I got lost, which happened surprisingly rarely.
My walk through Jakarta was not pleasant, especially once I left the backpacker district. A few blocks east was a street with pricey eateries and clubs. A few blocks west was a business district where businesses were closed and the streets strewn with trash: a few hearty souls slept on sidewalks and the heat gave the mix an odor unlike anything I’d smelled in Indonesia so far. This wasn’t the pleasant melange of essences in Bali. It was the stench of Java.
I had seen enough and it wasn’t even midnight. I was about to return to the hostel when I stumbled across a McDonalds on one side of the street and a telephone office on the other. So, I had a milkshake and burger crossed the street to call my friend Michael just to hear a familiar voice and tell him what a pit the city was, how lonely I felt, how depressed I was and how much I wanted to leave this hellhole. Unfortunately, Mike couldn’t sympathize because it was cold in Baltimore, where he was living.
The conversation was enough to ease my mind when I went to bed, but not enough to keep me from feeling desolate when I awoke. I was suffering from the kind of bottom-scraping depression that I imagined led to suicide if it continued long enough. Christian was already gone by the time I got up and I followed suit shortly thereafter, hauling my entire traveling road show to the nearest train station, where I planned to buy a ticket for Yogyakarta and spend the time until my departure updating my journal.
Then, something unexpected happened. Jakarta became a fun place to be.
Or, at least the train station turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable place to hang out.
The whole bizarre series of circumstances started when I tried to buy a ticket and found out the ticket window wouldn’t accept traveler’s cheques. Rather than haul my backpack with me while I looked for a moneychanger, I checked it at the information desk. The attendant told me to hurry so I could catch the 1:40 p.m. train, but I wasn’t about to rush because I didn’t relish the though of traveling in a hot train during the hottest part of the day. Along the way, I watched exercises at what was either a school or military academy and noticed the U.S. embassy.
On the way back I decided to visit the embassy. Why not? I’m an American citizen, I hadn’t seen an American in a couple of weeks and I thought it would be fun to see what goes on there. The Indonesian guards couldn’t have been friendlier. They looked at my passport, waved me in, asked if I had any recording devices and waved me through the metal detector. Unfortunately, the marine at the security desk wasn’t so accommodating.
“What is your business with the embassy, sir?’ he barked.
Although the question shocked me, I’ve never been one to miss an opportunity to display my sparkling intellect. With all the authority I could muster, I answered, “Huh?”
After he repeated the question I told him I had no business. “I’m an American tourist and I just wanted to come in and see the embassy.”
Apparently, this was not the correct response.
“You can’t come in without an appointment,” he barked and then told me to leave.
I considered appealing his ruling and I would have if not for my policy of not arguing with people who have guns.
When I returned to the train station at 1 p.m. the information desk attendants, Annie and Suroso, said they’d worried about me because I had missed my chance to buy a ticket. I ended up buying a standing room ticket for the 8 p.m. train because there were no seats left. When Annie heard this, she laughed at me because I didn’t understand how truly uncomfortable standing room could be, especially on a nine-hour ride. To my surprise, she said she felt guilty because she hadn’t offered to buy the ticket for me so I could repay her when I returned from the moneychanger.
This was strange to me. After all, it wasn’t part of her job description. She was a volunteer who worked for tips. She felt so bad she did everything she could to get me a seat assignment. What had been so odd to me throughout the trip was how many people wanted to do stuff for me. Maybe it was all the good karma points I had stored up from all the folks I’ve helped over the years, or maybe people were always like this. I found most people to be genuinely friendly when they weren’t hustling me–and even when they were. Of course, it helps that I smiled a lot, maintained a high frustration threshold, and was as nice as I could be, which isn’t easy with a bad phrasebook.
As it turns out, I never had time to update my journal. Instead, I stood around the information desk where I got caught up in a schmoozerama/hangout festival involving Annie, Suroso, and two women who had been learning English and coming down to the train station every day for the last year so they could get practice chatting with English speakers. The Frenchman who taught the two women English was also part of the crowd. Over the next five hours we talked about Indonesian travel, America, foreigners love of Indonesians, Indonesians love of white women, and Indonesians dating foreigners. The fun ended around 6:30 when everyone packed up and went home.
The train ride was an unfortunate return to reality complete with hard seats, poor ventilation and endless noise. Having a seat assignment was far better than standing room, which should have been called laying room because such passengers draped themselves across any spare piece of flooring they could find, making it impossible for other passengers to get up and stretch or even walk to the bathroom. Leaving the window next to my seat open helped cool down the car when it was moving, but also made me a prime target for young hawkers whenever the train stopped, even if it was unscheduled. Some enterprising sellers even snuck on board and divided their time hawking their wares and dodging conductors. Watching these dramas unfold may be amusing at 9, 10 and 11 p.m., but they lose their entertainment value around 2, 3, and 4 a.m. I don’t know how Indonesians feel about it, but I know I could have lived without being woken every half hour early in the morning to be asked if I want cookies, warm Coca Cola, pineapple sections, or nasi goreng (fried rice).
And so it was that a 10-hour train ride that started at 7:40 p.m. arrived in Yogyakarta only 13 hours later. The man who sat beside me, an oil refinery manager from Jakarta who was convinced I was in the wrong seat on the wrong train, had a simple explanation: “It’s Indonesia,” he said, shrugging his shoulders indicating there was nothing that could be done, it’s just the way it was.
I told him many of the people in my ethnic community back in the states had a similar phrase to explain such delays: Jewish Standard Time.
Looking back on it, I’m still not sure how I got to Yogyakarta. The obvious answer is that I went by train, but I’m still surprised I relied on the word of two Dutch tourists I didn’t know who were telling me wonderful things about the temples on the edge of town. Although they liked one called Prambanan, Java’s biggest Hindu temple, they waxed rhapsodic about Borobudur, which they said was an amazing temple with a big-ass bas relief explaining the history of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Howdy Doodyism or some other Eastern religion that I’ve never understood.
What makes my following their advice even stranger is that I’ve never been interested in Asian temples. In fact, my feelings about temples are somewhat akin to those of Mark Twain’s feelings about cathedrals in Europe. Although he didn’t coin the phrase “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” in a book about his travels through Europe, he came pretty close. I know all temples don’t look alike, but they just don’t interest me all that much. It’s not a question of cultural insensitivity, either. Whenever I’ve traveled the U.S. I’ve never needed to see every synagogue, so I generally didn’t go out of my way to gawk at temples or churches. Still, I found myself traveling halfway across the island just to see this place.
On the plus side, it wasn’t Jakarta.
Lonely Planet said the best way to get to Borobudur was to catch a colt or Solo bus to the main bus terminal and go from there. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t say how to identify such buses or how to catch them. I spent 30 minutes in downtown Yogya near my guesthouse looking for what, I wasn’t quite sure. As I was about to give up, one of the many people who invite tourists to attend exhibitions of batik done by student artists (“but you must buy today because it’s the last day”) noticed me and began to spin a yarn about the skills of the local artists (Yogya is known for its batik). Fortunately, I like batik as much as I love tie-dyeing, (which is to say, not at all) so I let him go through his pitch, feigning interest until he stopped to catch a breath and then asked what a colt was and where I could find one. He was so shocked by the question, he told me without thinking about it. So, I ran off before he could drag me to the exhibit. Once I reached the bus station I asked around for the bus to Borobudur (which sounded like “Brdbrdbr” or “Blblblbl”) until a kind, elderly man guided me to what he said was the right bus.
According to my guidebook, the trip was supposed to take an hour. We got there in 45 minutes.
When I reached my destination I heard an American couple asking how to get back to Yogya so I told them, then asked how to get to Brdrbrdr. When they told me I would have to go back to the central bus terminal I was incredulous and started to argue the point, figuring they didn’t know what they were talking about. After all, they couldn’t figure out how to get back. They abruptly ended my arguments to the contrary when they pointed across the street to a sign that said, “Welcome to Parambanan.”
“That’s okay,” one said, “Parambanan is much more impressive than Borobudur.”
I decided to leave Yogya the next day rather than try to find Borobudur again because I was beginning to realize I didn’t like Java all that much, and I really wanted to get to Sumatra.