Encounters with Strangers on the Road: Part III: Indonesia

A trip taken years ago: Part III: Indonesia

My guide book said that it was possible to save a lot of money by taking a bus instead of taxi from Jakarta Airport into the city. It said to get off at the last stop, but that left me quite far away from my destination, so of course I had to take a taxi from there.

The Dutch called the city the “Grave of the East”, and it had not changed much since they held it as a colony. The worst part were the open sewers that really stunk. It would be hard to find more noisome, fulsome canals. The heat and the humidity were also terrible, although the infinite number of rats and mosquitos seemed to find it quite pleasant.

I met some French people in the guest house that I checked into and went with them to dinner. The meals cost a bit more than one dollar each, but they started complaining about how expensive Jakarta was. Back at the guest house, there was a local bemoaning the good old days. He claimed that years before all travelers had and used drugs.

“Those were the real travelers: marijuana, LSD, speed, heroin!”

I interjected, “You can do yourself a lot of harm with heroin.”

“That’s a fairy tale, not with the good stuff.”

“But I know people who ruined their lives with it.”

“Then they didn’t know how to use it; I do.”

“Yeah, that’s what they all say,” I replied sadly thinking of former friends who had also thought that.

He went on to brag that he knew Bill Dalton and Tony Wheeler, two writers of popular budget travel guides. “Yeah, I stayed with them right here, in one of the rooms upstairs. We smoked a lot of dope together.”

A new type of groupie, but I do not believe that he knew either of them.

From him, I first heard a rumor that I was to hear many times again during my stay in Indonesia; anyone and everyone with a tattoo was being shot on sight, since they indicated that a person belonged to a criminal gang. He also claimed that 100 pickpockets were going to have their hands cut off the next month.

I took the train the next day to Yogyakarta, and after I arrived, I was followed around by push-bike drivers even though I was only going around the corner from the train station. It was past midnight, and many were already sleeping in their bikes.

I went out the next evening for frogs’ legs that the French in Jakarta had recommended, since I was a dish I had never tried before. The price was a lot higher than average for food there, but still less than five dollars. I had met some people on the train who also wanted to try them, but they left as soon as they saw the price. The meal was good, but no something I had to repeat, since restaurants were locals ate also had quite good food. Most foreigners are in restaurants designed exclusively for them with delicacies such as banana pancakes.

There were some people who had just arrived from Sri Lanka where they had been caught in the riots that ravaged that country in the summer of 1983, and I though how lucky we had been that we had been there the previous year and were not there now. They had left to drive to Colombo on the day the riots started. They saw 23 dead bodies along the way, rows of burned stores and house, soldiers firing into an open car, and from a hilltop saw soldiers leaving a town so that a mob could attack it. There were many frantic people at the airport trying to get out of the country.

I thought the movie The Year of Living Dangerously, which depicted similar scenes in Indonesia. The events were not that long ago in the past.

On the way to a shadow puppet show, I discovered that Yogyakarta was much bigger that I had thought. I was going to be late and feared that I would be considered impolite or not let in at all. However, it turned out that people came and left during the whole performance. The man who manipulated the puppets, who was also the music director, spoke the parts of the various characters in Indonesian, which made the story a bit difficult to follow. I left after an hour, just in time to avoid a group of frantic, camera-clutching Japanese who also feared missing the show due to late arrival.

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I decided to try food at a corner stand. For 35 cents, I had meat, four vegetables, sauce, salad, rice, a peanut mixture and tea. It was one of the best meals I had in Indonesia. I looked for other restaurants the next few nights, but always wound up back at the corner stand after I had examined their menus.

Not far from Yogyakarta is the famous Buddhist monument Borobudur, which was originally built in the 9th century. A 10-year renovation had just been completed earlier that year. It is best to go early in the morning before the tour groups arrive, so I struggled to get up at 6 a.m. and was fortunate to get the last seat on a bus that was just about to depart, a ride that was more than worth it.

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Then it was on to Prambanan, ruins of Hindu Temple, which was also quite impressive although its reconstruction was not started until approx. 10 years later.

Back in Yogyakarta, it was impossible to roam the streets without being accosted by touts trying to take me to a batik factory or showroom. However, there were quite a lot of beautiful batiks, and I took the opportunity to buy a couple myself.

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Another long train ride as I headed to Mount Bromo, a volcano at an altitude of 2,329 meters. I was glad not to have to get out in Surabaya, which had a less than optimum reputation. The train arrived at Probolingo at nine in the evening and I went straight to the mini-bus station to obtain transportation to Ngadisari, which is a little less than an hour’s walk to the volcano. I walked around the bus station for 15 minutes, but it was too late and there would be no regular bus service until the next day. I decided to accept my fate and look for a hotel. My guide book neglected to write where any were located, so I was forced to take a push-bike even though I was sure there would be one a couple of blocks away. And indeed, the driver took me to a guest house three blocks away. Oh well, the ride only costs 20 cents.

I deposited my meager belongings and went to look for a restaurant. On the street, I was greeted by half-naked young Indonesians every half meter: “Hello Mister!” I got the impression that not many foreigners spent much time there. I finally found a restaurant at the back of the bus station. While I was eating, a group of three foreigners arrived and then a group of four. There had not been any previously. They had no inclination to linger in Probolingo and set about negotiating to charter a minibus. I had already paid for my room, but I decided that the pathetic furnishings would not miss me. I quickly fetched my belongings, left the key, and since there was no one to be seen, departed without saying goodbye.

When I arrived back at the mini-bus station, the others were arguing with the driver. I took out my money to pay only to have the others scream that I should put it away. “If we give him all the money now, he’ll leave us in the middle of nowhere! We pay half now and half when we get there!”

I did not really believe that the driver was so malicious, but I dutily put my dollar back in my wallet and waited. I had only been in the country for one week, so I reasoned that these people know the situation better than I. After some more palavering — made more difficult by the language barrier — the driver said forget it, he was not going anywhere.

The tourist then gave in, but then one German began insisting that he drive us farther then Ngadisari. He maintained that it was possible to drive several kilometers farther toward our destination. However, the driver refused to drive us past the police checkpoint in Ngadisari where all tourists must register, and — we discovered later — for good reason, for the regular road ended after the checkpoint and was replaced by a steep path. But the German was obstinate: “For us (sic!), Ngadisari is Gudung Bromo (the volcano). We go to police (i.e., checkpoint), and if they don’t stop us, you drive farther!”

The German was making a real asshole of himself. I felt like getting out and walking back to my hotel. The whole atmosphere became very tense. The German kept talking about the police checkpoint, and the driver understood that he was threatening to take him to the police. He again said he would not drive us and when started to get out of the van, the German finally shut up.

I asked the people the next day why they had been so distrustful, if they had had bad experiences.

“No.”

“Why were you so worried this time?”

“Well, you never know. They’re always trying to cheat you.”

A young Englishman sat next to me in the van. When I told him that I had spent three dollars for a room in Yogyakarta, he laughed hysterically. “That’s Americans for you!” He had only paid one dollar fifty.

When we arrived in Ngadisari, a local was offering a room for four people. The four Germans went with him, and I waited to see what the three English people were going to do. Although it was 11 p.m., they planned to walk up the side of the mountain for 45 minutes, because there was supposed to be a room for 25 cents instead of one dollar. I left them and started off on my own. When I got to the place where the Germans were, they said there were more beds, so I joined them. It was quite cold, since we were at a rather high altitude. We asked the hotel manager for more blankets, but unfortunately, “Blankets finish.” I put on all the clothes I had, but I was still freezing.

To fully appreciate the volcano, it is necessary to be there at sunrise. When it is still dark, you can see the red-hot lava in the crater. As the sun rises, it changes colors, turning yellow, green and orange (perhaps not in that order). The air is very dry in the morning, allowing a good view of the landscape that resembles that which you see in pictures of the moon. Mt. Bromo is in the middle of plain called the “Sea of Sand”. Clouds in the afternoon often obstruct visibility.

I woke up at 3 a.m. shivering from the cold. It was a rather easy walk uphill, and I was glad that I had not given in to the temptation to rent a horse, which hordes of locals were trying to convince me to do. There was a large group of Japanese tourists, each one on a horse led on a rope by an Indonesian.

Sunrise on the crater was fantastic. One of the Germans and I decided to walk around the crater rim. It took less than one hour, but when we arrived back at our starting point, all the other tourists were gone. We heard that one man had walked up, took one picture and then immediately went back down.

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The Sea of Sand

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On the way back, we met the English people from the night before. They had not found a place to stay and spent the night outside. They said it had been very cold, but they did not mind because they had saved money for a room.

Back on the road, the bus stopped for an hour in some nondescript town for unfathomable reasons. A young man approached me, said hello, asked where I was from, if I liked Indonesian, how long I had been there, if I was married and if I had any children. He wanted to practice his English and came to the bus station every day looking for tourists. Our conversation unfortunately did not get much further, since his English ability was rather limited. Then a middle-aged man came and asked me the same questions. He was followed by a third. I climbed back on the bus before the next could arrive, but he was already there and followed me in. He took the seat next to me and asked the same questions. After he left, someone who was riding in the bus asked me the same questions again. He wanted me to write down my address for him, and he gave me his business card.

I got off the bus to take the ferry to Bali where I again had to listen to the same questions. The young man was wearing a shirt with a Hindu swastika, but he was a Muslim. When I asked him about it, he said it was because he had “good memories of Hitler.” He seemed to take no notice that I found that despicable.

I resolved to get away from him, but when I left the ferry, he followed me regardless of how much I zigzagged. I jumped on a horse cart for a ride to the bus station, which I thought was full, but he managed to find a space. When I went to pay, I discovered that he had already paid for me. After I took my seat in the mini-bus, the woman next to me got out and said something to the driver and conductor. They then told me to move to the back of the bus. The young guy squeezed in next to me. Fortunately, he had a plane to catch the next day and could not follow me to Legian Beach.

I had run into people who had been to Bali throughout my trip. Some claimed that tourism had destroyed Kuta and Legian Beach and said Lovina Beach in the north was the place to go. Others maintained that Lovina was dirty and Kuta/Legian was still worth the trip.

When I arrived at Kuta Beach, I could not believe my eyes. I thought I had landed in Florida during spring break. Swarms of young Australians were prowling the streets and crowding the bars. Most of them were on package tors of three weeks: three weeks of lying on the beach, surfing drinking to excess, shopping and pursuing sex.

I finally got a ride to Legian Beach at three times the normal price in the back of a pickup. There was a flakey female passenger, who was having difficulty forming sentences. You had to tap the glass behind the driver’s seat to let him know you wanted to get off. The women was unsuccessful in getting his attention with her first attempts and began to panic. “He won’t let me out! He’s trying to kidnap me! How do you get this thing to stop?”

I wondered whether she thought that he also wanted to kidnap me and the other five foreigners in the back of the pickup. I tried telling her to knock harder, but she wasn’t listening. He soon stopped anyway, since it was the end of the line. She left mumbling to herself and stumbled into the next bar.

It had been dangerous to go out at night and Legian several years previously due to frequent muggings. However, tourism is too profitable to have allowed that to continue, and the streets had been made safe for the hordes of tourists roaming them every night. One Balinese, whom I spoke to, claimed that it had been people from Java who had been responsible for all the crime. And how they solved the problem? “Simple. We kill all Javanese we see.”

There was another story floating around that Javanese pirates had attacked the island several years before, but had been killed in hand-to-hand combat in the streets.

The beach at Kuta/Legian (they had merged into one) was filled with friendly local women offering massages, drinks, fruit, t-shirts, batiks and all sorts of clothing and handicrafts. There were mostly older and extremely friendly. Even if I did not buy anything, there would sit down and talk to me, laugh and joke. They did not seem disturbed by the topless bathing, although there were signs forbidding it. But the women were probably used to it, because most women went topless when they were young. You can see such in the paintings of village life sold on the island, but there were also bar-chested old women in the countryside who had not made the change to “modern” life.

Many people go to Bali to surf, and the waves off Kuta are ideal for it. The only trouble is the undertow and the current. There were numerous stories of drowned tourist despite the highly competent Balinese lifeguards. They are sent to Australia for six months of training.

On my second (and last) day at Legian, I noticed some people with surfboards heading out and I looked forward to the prospect of watching them surf. But the next thing I knew, they were hauling seven tourists, who had almost drowned, back to the shore. Normally you are supposed to swim between two posted flags, but many tourists think this is an unnecessary caution. Most of the drownings occur when people disregard these flags. The seven swimmers had been in the proper area when a wave swept them out of it. They came to an area where there was a depression and it was a lot deeper. The force of the waves, current and undertow prevented them from swimming back to land.

The lifeguards’ swiftness in swimming out there was amazing. Another minute or two and the tourists would have drowned. Those who could held onto the surfboards as they were dragged in, but a couple did not have the strength. One lay on the beach afterward for a long time, too exhausted to move. Another vomited, either out of fear or because he had swallowed sea water. A third lay on the beach turning a ghastly gray color, his pulse diminishing. They rushed him to the hospital, leaving me only to speculate whether he survived.

One Balinese man whom I met talked about how important it was to present Balinese culture and customs. He was dressed in a sport shirt, slacks, sneakers and socks.

“But why don’t you dress in your traditional clothes?”

“Ah, but we are modern people all the same,” he replied keeping a straight face.

“Do you think tourism is destroying your culture?”

“Oh no, people are still giving offerings and practicing their customs.”

“Still, the young people only seen to like Western music.”

“Yes, this music is destroying their heads, but the government is making a new law, only little Western music, 90% gamelan music in restaurants,” he said proudly

“For Kuta too?”

“Oh no, Kuta special. In Kuta, many hippies,” he said disparagingly and made a sweeping gesture with his arm

“But I only saw crew-cut Australians.”

“Yes, now better. Before many drugs coming from Thailand: mushrooms, ganja, LSD.”

“But the mushrooms come from Bali; they grow here.”

“Yes, that is true.”

“Didn’t people use mushrooms here long before the hippies arrived?”

“We never used drugs,” he insisted.

I sought refuge in Ubud, a small town in central Bali noted for its artists. The main street was lined with souvenir shops and restaurants with English menus. The guest houses were almost all very beautiful. I had a room for two dollars with private bath, veranda and situated in a traditional Balinese compound with courtyard and garden. A few hundred meters away from town, there were peaceful rice paddies with beautiful hues of green.

I took a walk outside of town and got lost trying to take a shortcut through rice paddies. After getting very sweaty and slipping a few times on muddy paths, I finally made my way back to road, swearing henceforth only to admire the rice paddies from a distance.

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Stopping in a small restaurant for a drink, an old Chinese man came out to greet me. That was Harry, the 80-year-old proprietor of the restaurant. Harry told me that he like tourists and asked if he could be of help. He like to give “free informations.” He claimed that everyone else was just trying to make money, but he was an old man and therefore knew that money was not worth anything. Whether I would like to see a Legong dance performance that evening? He knew where the best one was and would sell me a ticket for 2,800 rupies (approx. $3). In the tourist office later, they told me that the tickets costs $2.

Any foreigner who winds up in Harry’s get shown the article that made him famous(!). The article was from the Miami Herald and about Ubud. Among other things, it described an encounter with Harry. Harry had said to the writer (as to me), “Don’t go for money. Life is more important!” The writer was obviously impressed.

After his article, Harry always brought out a notebook, in which he requests that everyone write his name and address in it. He claimed that someday after his death the book would fetch a lot of money in a London auction.

Besides Harry, there were a couple of relatively well-known artists in Ubud: Hans Snell and Antonio Blanco. Snell had opened a restaurant and bungalow complex, so I decided to visit Blanco’s house. For a 20 cent admission fee, it was possible to visit his house and gallery as well as perhaps meet him.

When I was led into the courtyard of his house, an elegant elderly woman introduced herself as his wife. Understandably bored with another tourist, she showed me a couple of rooms with his paintings, made some small talk in impeccable English, and after my negative reply as to whether I were an artist, she returned to reading a magazine. I could hear her husband in the next room talking enthusiastically to some woman traveler. Every couple of minutes, he called out to his wife. When she answered, he responded, “I just wanted to check that you are there.”

I walked around and tried to get interested in his paintings and poetry. I lingered, hope to meet him too while his wife sat bored waiting for me to leave. I finally left having only seen pictures of him, and there were quite a few of them among his paintings.

A long-legged French lady later described to me what a fascinating person he was – and so sensual! And his paintings and poetry were so erotic! I guess I must have missed something. She loved his beret, just like the Paris artists in the 1920s. Maybe it was a coincidence, but none of the men who went there alone met him, but all the women did.

Elephant Cave near Ubud, which was thought to be place for meditation

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I went to a traditional dance performance, which was fascinating. The costumes, graceful movements of hands and eyes, the music, etc. were all incredibly good. There were three each week at that time, but when I returned years later, there were three every night. Tourism was promoting local culture!

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I went to the tourist office to ask about a festival that I had heard of. “No,” they claimed, “there is no festival.”

“But the people in my guest house told me that there was going to be a big celebration.”

The man reflected for a minute and then said, “No, nothing.”

“But won’t there be a parade, a big procession?2

He reflected again. “Maybe little something.”

The “little something” was a big celebration, since Ubud had won a prize as the village with the best and most authentic appearance on Bali. There was a huge parade with many floats, and dignitaries arrived from Jakarta to present the award. Monk marriages, cremation and other ceremonies were performed. I felt quite lucky to be there at the time, because it could be difficult to see the real thing.

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One woman I met said she had been at a cremation ceremony the previous week and that the tour agency she went with had such tours every Thursday. Do they kill a Balinese once a week to stage a cremation festival for tourists?!

My next destination was Kintamani, a small village in the mountains in southern central Bali. The village of Penelokan, eight kilometers away, would have been more convenient. It overlooks Lake Batur, Bali’s largest lake and also a crater lake, and the path up to Mount Batur, an active volcano, was easier to find from there. However, all guide books advised against this, and when I went to Penelokan in the afternoon to savor the view, I found out why. I was immediately set upon by a horde of local women hawking fruit, drinks and sundry souvenirs. Since I did not intend to buy anything, prices came down rather quickly, but their persistence did not diminish. They had me surrounded and kept putting things in my hands. Although I was trying to push the articles away, the women had mastered a technique whereby they stayed in my hands. I finally said to one woman that I would pay $3 for two bone carvings. I never thought she would agree, but after trying to raise the price for another 10 minutes, she did. As soon as I had paid for them, another woman offered two almost identical carvings for $1.

My most persistent saleswoman was determined to sell me a couple of fans with “Bali” written on them. She kept on pointing to herself and screaming, “No money!” I was near a cliff overlooking the lake, and every time I tried to walk away, she blocked my path, thrusting fans in my hands that I passed on to the other women around me. Finally, I feigned a lunge to the right, dodged left and ran until I was out of her grasp. She let out a cry of lament when she realized that I had escaped. I rushed to catch a minibus back to Kintamani.

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I woke up early the next morning to climb the Mount Batur before the temperature rose too much. I first had to descend to the foot of the volcano before the trail up started. Locals passed us going in the opposite direction going up the steep incline with 30 kilo loads on their backs. I was already tired going downhill.

The view from the top was stupendous, and another treat was awaiting me after I descended to the lake. There are hot springs bordering the lake where I relaxed and then jumped into the cool water of the lake. Then back to the hot springs and then back to the lake: a perfect outing.

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Ulun Danu Batur temple

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I neglected to go to the other side of the lake where the original people of Bali live: Bali Agra. Their main distinction lies in the fact that they leave their dead lying out in the open to rot. Tourists are treated with about the same amount of respect.

In town and back on the road (it was a bit crowded in transport at times)

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On the northern coast of Bali in Lovina, I finally found what I had sought in vain in Kuta/Legian. There were few tourists, and the beach was fairly empty. There were cheap rooms near the beach and an unimposing bar a few strides from the water where many people spent much of the day. The atmosphere was relaxed, and there was no one trying to hawk anything.

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Duck herder

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Suckling pig barbecue

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Cock fight

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The long days passed all too quickly, and it became harder to leave with each passing day. It was common to hear someone say that he was leaving the next day several days in a row. There were a couple of people who had given up all such pretensions. An American diver spent all of his non-working life in Lovina. He worked alternative months for an oil company (and had a big salary for his dangerous work) and was in Lovina every second month. He was friendly with travelers, but rarely associated with them. Although he spoke no Indonesian and most of the locals little English, he had fully integrated himself into their society. At first, I thought the locals were simply impressed by his wealth. He had paid $1,000 to have a small sailboat built and was having a house built nearby. (He remarked that he had better not tell his female friends back in the States that Balinese women were doing hard, manual construction work on his house. He laughed when I said that was really progressive: “Women construction workers!”)

However, I discovered there was quite a different reason was he was so well liked by the locals. He would sit with six or seven Balinese men aged 20 to 70 late in the evening and talked on and on, telling them stories while his friends listened in rapt attention. It was especially surprising, since the Balinese knew almost no English. From a third party, I learned that he had taken two of the local children, who had physical defects, to a hospital and was paying for their treatment. He drank a lot of beer, each bottle of which cost as much as many people earned there in a day, but he also bought a lot of beers for other people, tourists and locals, just as friendly gestures.

There were many friendly travelers there of sundry European and North American nationalities. I enjoyed talking to a good-looking French couple in their early 40s, the kind I expect to see in certain good French movies: elegant, cultures and cosmopolitan. He was very successful in business and spoke three foreign languages – English, Italian and Spanish – and could get by in German and Arabic. He was at home discussing African poetry, the customs of the Berbers or German soccer. He had worked for American companies for 10 years before getting his job at the time. He said that American businessmen were the best in the world in their specialties, but once other topics were discussed, they were like naïve children. I was impressed that despite being obvious very well off, they were staying in a simple bungalow that cost $3/night. The Frenchman was simply enjoying talking to people whom he normally did not meet in his everyday work life. He mused why he could not quit his job and travel for a year or two. But his specialty, the time when he was most gregarious and entertaining, was when he talked to women. He often had three or four young ladies gathered around him. He amused them with his stories, flattered, teased and flirted. His conversation was then very sexual, but not in a crass way. He was fond of women without the need to “conquer” them. And women understood the non-threatening character of his attention.

His traveling companion was much quieter. She listened amused as he flirted, secure in the solidity of their relationship. She even joined in his chiding two young Swiss women whom they called “les petites Suisses”, which is also the brand name of a cheese sold in France.

The Swiss women were 19 years old, which made them seem quite young, although at 19 I never would have admitted to such. However, it was quite comical to hear this expressed by a 24 year old Englishman who had just passed his law boards. The Swiss women were to enter the university in the fall.

“Just beginning the university!” the Englishman exclaimed. “Why, you have your whole life in front of you!”

I wondered whether he had everything behind him.

A German heard me speaking French with the elegant couple and thought I was French, so he tried speaking French with me. His French was very limited, so I answered him in German, but he persisted trying to speak French. Finally, I told him that I was an American, but he did not believe me. “No Americans speak French and German!”

He eye me distrustfully and began to question me about politics, probably assuming that I worked for the CIA. “Did I know who Angela Davis was?”

Of course I knew and I had read her book. “Yes, and she’s and American who speaks French and German.”

He did not trust me and said that all Americans whom he had met – with the exception of Angela Davis whom he had met the year before – were naïve and/or reactionary.

An American or Canadian woman came to our table in the bar and asked whether she could join us. Although she had a smile on her face, she did not look happy. She looked as if she had experienced a lot in her life, most of it bad. Soon she began to talk about drugs and giggled each time she mentioned one. Then she started to speak about accidents: “I don’t believe in accidents,” she said nervously. When I was in Ubud, I heard a bad crash behind me. An Indonesian boy and an Australian girl had driven off the road into a ditch.”

“Were they hurt?”

“I think so, yes. They were bleeding, and she was unconscious.” But then she hastened to add, “I don’t think is an accident.”

“You mean they did it on purpose!?”

“Not exactly, but had to want to crash.”

The rest of us all looked puzzled as she tried to explain: “If a really beautiful woman with a really beautiful face, if she cuts her face, it’s because she doesn’t want to be beautiful anymore.”

She looked at us with a serious expression. Did she mean herself? Her face did not look cut.

“That’s a rather strange theory,” someone at our table suggested.

She shrugged her shoulders and continued, “Injuries and diseases are willed by those involved.”

I excused myself and said I wanted to take a dip in the water. It was just too strange for me.

I walked into the restaurant one morning and asked a German if I could join him. He was the picture of health: well over six feet tall with blond hair and blue yes, his shoulders as broad as the side of a barn, and extremely muscular without an ounce of fat. He wore a t-shirt advertising a body-building clinic in California. He grunted when I sat down, and my feeble attempts at conversation faltered, so we sat in silence. Suddendly, after 10 minutes, he began to talk. He worked as a plumber for the US army in Germany, but his preferred profession – which I only learned from another German – was a professional soccer player. He played for a team in the second division in Germany and was considering switching to another team. However, he did not want to travel very far, because pay for players in his division was minimal and he was dependent on his income as a plumber.

He was staying in the guest house next to mine and was rather discontent, since his room was the size of a matchbox. He asked about my room and how much I was paying, and when I disclosed that my room had two beds and plenty of space, he immediately suggested that he share it with me. That way we could both save money (very little; about 30 cents a day), and he would be spared his claustrophobia. I accepted his offer, but for different reasons: he was extremely lonely and shy.

We often swam out to the American diver’s boat to lie in the sun. Once, while the soccer player was lying there, the Frenchman swam out to talk to him, interested in his experience in sports. The Frenchman climbed up on the boat and said something innocuous to him. No answer. He repeated it, thinking the other had not heard. Again no answer. And I am certain, it was not from arrogance, but from timidness. Later, the Frenchman talked about how awkward he had felt out there, both of them together on that small boat, but no exchanging a word.

I got the opposite impression from a blond and beautiful 25 year old Canadian woman, who also happened to be a professor of law. She had been a long-distance runner until she had torn some ligaments, but still retained the slender, well-taunt physique of an athlete. She seemed so self-assured and confident and to have everything going for her. But then one evening, she became so obnoxious in a restaurant that she left early the next morning before she had to face anyone. I guess nobody is perfect.

If I had not booked a bus ticket several days in advance, I surely would have stayed another couple of days in Lovina. I felt obligated to visit a couple of other places in Java, since I did not expect to return soon. I booked a seat on a night bus to Surabaya. I imagined that I could then take buses along the coast to my destination, Cirebon, also know as the “city of shrimps.” My guide book praised the various shrimp dishes that could be savored there. Another incentive was that I had not met any travelers who had visited it and I wanted to go somewhere where there were few tourists.

The afternoon before I left, I was talking to a North American couple who had just spent six years teaching English in Japan and China. They told me the story of a man they had met who had arrived at four in the morning in Surabaya. An Indonesian offered to drive him on his motorcycle to a hotel, but instead took him down a dark alley were several of his acquaintances were waiting with knives. I was not encouraged, since I was scheduled to arrive at the same time. Transportation in Indonesia was so arranged that every city had several bus stations. Depending on which direction you are headed, you have to go to a different station. That meant that when I arrived in Surabaya in the dark, I would be several kilometers away from the station where I had to catch my next bus.

As the time grew near to depart, I felt more like going to dinner and then to bed. I hate spending the night in a bus. When I arrived at the appointed place to wait for the bus, there was also an Englishman waiting for it. Three of his friends were waiting farther up the road, because they were not sure where the bus was supposed to stop. I was relieved that I was not going to be alone and totally at the mercy of criminal elements, but it turned out that he and his friends had tickets for a different bus. My bus picked up two Australian women and a sickly-looking male companion of theirs. I despaired of finding protection in their midst. At least I had two seats and was able to doze.

Around 3 a.m., the bus stopped in what looked like a huge, empty parking lot. The Indonesians got off, but I wanted to believe that it was not the last stop. Then the bus driver said to me and the other foreigners, “Here Surabaya, bus finish.”

Reluctantly, we gather our belongings and descended into the uncertain night. We were immediately surrounded by taxi and becak drivers, their assistants and interested onlookers, all trying to lure us into their vehicles (becaks are similar to rickshaws, but pulled by a man on a bicycle). They are sometimes called pedicabs for trishaws. Althou9gh they have three wheels, “trishaw” is a minomer; the real name for rickshaw is “jinrikisha” from the Japanese. “Jin” menas man, “riki” power and “sha” vehicle.

I had also made the other three foreigners in my bus nervous by stories of hold-ups, so they also turned down all offers of transportation until we could better assess the situation. Then the four English lads from the other bus arrived, and I felt safe for a few minutes. However, all the others were headed for Solo in central Java, so I had go alone to a different bus station. We had several guide books among us, but none of them informed us as to the distances to the various station. The Englishmen wanted to take a train 12 hours later, so they hastily arranged transportation to the station and threatened the driver that if the it was not as far as he said, he would no receive a penny. I did not want to stay there alone, so I picked out an old man and rode off on his becak. Days later, when I met the man and woman from my bus, they told me that they had stayed at the “terminal” two more hours until daybreak when they felt sufficiently safe to venture out.

The streets were dark and almost completely deserted except for solitary figures walking or crouching over small fires. The driver turned down street after street, and the journey seemed interminable. I tried to ask how much farther it was, but the language barrier prevented this. It was hard to believe that it was so far when the fare was so small. When I handed him his small pittance at the station plus a tip, he smiled warmly and thanked me. There would be food for him and his family that day.

In contract to the terminal where I had arrived from Bali, the situation at this station was chaotic. Although only 4:30 a.m., there were people everywhere and buses leaving every couple of minutes. I tried to get information about buses along the coast, but the attempt was in vain. I sat on a bench among hordes of Indonesian travelers, most of whom were sleeping, and thought that if I waited long enough, they would call out my destination. Ten minutes passed with only buses leaving for Solo, and I feared I was dozing off with the certainty that if I did, I could say goodbye to my pack. I again tried to find a bus going in my direction, and when I realized that my efforts were useless, I looked again at my map. I decided that I could first travel to Solo where I was assured there were plenty of buses to north coast only two hours from there. Better to be on a bus where I could sleep than in Surabaya for another few hours.

Our bus driver was not shy with the gas pedal, but the frequent stops to pick up or discharge passengers slowed us down considerably. Shortly before Solo, the bus stopped for an hour break. I sat on the bus in the parking lot cursing to myself. I had to close the window frequently despite the heat to prevent one of the numerous importunate beggars from reaching in and grabbing me or my things.

If I had not been so stubborn, I would have accepted my fate and looked for a hotel room in Solo. My guide book recommended it as a pleasant city with few tourists, some interesting sites and plenty of batik. I was probably just too tired to consider the situation logically, for I was soon on a bus to Semerang on the north coast. We passed through a magnificent mountain landscape as the driver displayed his suicidal tendancies: pass whenever possible notwithstanding hills, curves or whether a passenger is to be picked up or discharged several seconds later. The stops for passengers became increasingly frequently, and the bus became uncomfortably full. That did not prevent the numerous hawkers who got on the bus each time it stopped. They fought their way through the crowd in the aisles and screamed the names of their wares. Eventually, they would get off and then catch a bus in the other direction to do the same.

I arrived in Semerang at 3 p.m. and immediately jumped on a bus to Cirebon. It was obvious that the five-hour drive would take seven hours, but I accepted this meekly. Two hours before I reached Cirebon, I learned that I had to change buses. In a bus station, the name of which I did not know, the conductor motioned me to hasten. Outside he first pointed to one bus, held a brief exchange with the conductor there, then point to another bus that just about to pull out.

The conductor on that bus was a woman, and I wondered how she would deal with the sneers that Indonesian male passengers greeted her with. However, it was soon obvious that she could hold her own. She had such a peremptory manner that the men were soon meekly answering her questions. Her poorly paid job was one that she had struggled to get, and she was not about to let some ill-mannered yokels intimidate her. In broken English, she told me that she had left her husband and had three children to support who were staying with her parents. She had left her husband because he was, “Bad man, much …” and then she gestured that he had beat her.

Since Cirebon is off the traveler track, my guide book neglected to provide a map or state how far it was from the bus station to the city center and/or hotels. I hied a trishaw to take me to one of the hotels mentioned in the book and negotiated a price. Upon arriving at my destination, the river demanded triple what we had agreed upon. I gave him double, which he accepted reluctantly.

Several Indonesians of Chinese descent were sitting in front of the hotel. I greeted them and asked if any rooms were available. When they did not respond, I repeated my question to no avail. I walked through the hotel searching for someone who worked there. I finally found an employee after 10 minutes, but the price was so outrageously high, approx. 5 dollars, that I let him give me directions to something more economical I was actually so tired that I was ready to pay their price, but they had had so much experience with budget travelers that they had me outside pointing down the road before I had time to consider. I walked down the road and did not find any of the hotels that they had suggested, but another which was in my guide book. It was pretty much a dump, but the people were friendly and I was exhausted. After I checked in, the owner’s son showed me the way to a restaurant where I had some delicious jumbo shrimp.

I attempted to walk around a bit the next day, but the city was too big and I did not know what to look for anyway. I wanted to continue my journey by train, but was told there was only one in the afternoon, so it was back to the bus station. When I arrived, several different people greeted me and tried to pull me onto their respective buses. Since they were laughing at the same time, I assumed it was more a game that a fight to survive. Lacking precise information, I thought it was a two-hour ride to Jakarta, but it took five hours.

I did not want to stay in Jakarta, so I went directly to the train station for a ride on a commuter train Bogur. That was where Dutch colonialists used to go to escape the heat, stink and mosquitoes of Jakarta. After I arrived, I began meandering around looking for one of the hotels that my guide book had recommended. I could not find my way, and no one seemed to know the street I was looking for although I had walked right by it. I saw a group of foreigners and asked them if they knew where the hotel that I was searching for was. They looked at each other questioningly and seemed to be pondering whether they should answer. Finally, one of them started to explain something when another cried out, “He’s German!”

The one who had started to talk immediately shut up. I protested stating my nationality, whereupon they all broke into grins and became very friendly. They tried to help me, but they did not know their way around either. I continued my search, and an Indonesian I met told me that the hotel was very far away, but we could go to his house and smoke some grass. I turned down his offer, but incredulous he repeated, “Marijuana!”

I reiterated my refusal, and then he flagged down a mini-bus, which he said would pass by the hotel, It did, but first after a roundabout route of about one kilometer to get the three blocks to where the hotel was and approx. one block from the train station.

That night I got little sleep, since my ear wax was no match for the radio in the next room. I was up early and switch to another room on the other side of the hallway. Then I cashed my last $20 traveler’s check and headed to Bogur’s famous botanical gardens. What I wanted to see most was its famous orchard house. After taking wrong turns and circling for an hour, I finally found it. A sign stated that it was closed, although I had rushed to get there early in the morning when my guide book said it was open. I located the office and asked when it would open. The reply: “Never.”

So much for that. Still, the gardens were pleasant, cool and – above all – quiet. I found a bench where I made myself comfortable and took out a book, only to discover that it was lunch time for the mosquitoes. I had no choice to return to my hotel, stopping on the way to have a beer, which I hoped would help me sleep.

I took my time getting up the next day, because I did not want to catch a rush hour train to Jakarta. When I arrived there, the first hotel I went to only had dormitory beds left, but I took it anyway since I had no desire to trudge around in the heat. Then it was to the sailing ship harbor, Gigantic sailboats from all over Indonesia docked there to unload their cargos of raw materials, mostly wood it seemed. They took back motorbikes and bicycles, foodstuffs and televisions. Each load of wood or flour that they men were loading and unloading was more than I would ever attempt to lift.

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My last evening in Indonesia! I was sitting in the small garden in front of my hotel when botanist from New Zealand joined me. He had been in Jakarta for several days, because he had been robbed of his traveler’s checks on a bus. He pointed to a small sign in our hotel, which I had previously overlooked: “Warning! Hotel Personal (sic!) Stealt (sic!)!” The night before, a traveler’s Nikon camera had been stolen from his room while he slept.

We were soon joined by a Canadian who claimed that he had been held by four me on a city bus the day before while another attempted to go through his pockets. He was able to squirm free on the crowded bus and jumped off. Then an English woman joined us and told us that she had been in Jakarta for several days, because someone had stolen her passport, traveler’s checks, plane ticket and diary on a night train to Jakarta. They had all been in a bag that she had kept under her arm the whole night, but toward morning she had put it down next to her for a second, the lights mysteriously went out, and then someone ran down the aisle and snatched it. She screamed and ran after the thief, but the other passengers either too drowsy or asleep to help. Inches from her outstretched hand, the perpetrator reached the end of the car and jumped off. The police later told her that she was lucky she did not catch him.

An Indonesian man on the train went with her to the police station to help her make a report. Since the police spoke no English, he spent several hours helping her, paid for all her transportation cost, bought her food and drink, and did not leave her until she was assured at the British Consulate that they would lend her money.

The airline told her that they could not issue a new ticket until six months after the stolen one was reported missing. She would have to buy a new one, which would have been a lot more expensive than the discounted one she had bought. The price for a new ticket was more than she would have once her checks were reimbursed. She spent several frightful days scampering between the airlines and her consulate before a new ticket was unexpectedly issued to her.

I got the impression that half of the travelers, who were in Jakarta, were there trying to get stolen passports and/or traveler’s checks reimbursed. It was time for me to leave.

I wen to bed early, placing my belongings between myself and the all. Then I lit a mosquito coil, even though there were already several burning. Usually one did the trick, but in Jakarta five coils could not stop the beast from feasting on me and constantly waking me. I was up early, exhausted after the unpleasant night.

I had plenty of time until my flight departed, so I decided to visit the excellent National Museum. As I was there, a group of Japanese tourists crossed my path activating their cameras. I thought it would be a good opportunity to use the rest of my film, but a guard came running up and gestured that taking pictures was not permitted. I tried to discover why the Japanese were allowed to take photos while I was not, but to no avail.

Museum Courtyard

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Back at my hotel, I still had six hours until my plane departed. However, the stories of the night before were still vivid in my mind, so I decided it would be best to get out while I still had my possessions. This time I took a taxi to the airport. I did not feel calm and safe until I was on the plane. I was also looking forward to the flight for other reasons: clean bathrooms and free drinks!

It was really time to go home, because I was suffering from peripatetic pathos, the wayfarer’s woes, or – as we say today – traveling blues.

 

Although I described strange, unfriendly characters whom I encountered on my trip, I have many fond memories of the friendly and helpful foreigners, Thais, Malaysians and Indonesians whom I met. Thanks to them, it was a great trip despite the hardships!

3 thoughts on “Encounters with Strangers on the Road: Part III: Indonesia

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