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Traveling in Java and Sumatra.

Coming And Going

A journey through Java and Sumatra

By Dominic Light

I had been in Bali for two weeks amid a strange mix of close and loose friends. It had been a pleasant fortnight; mostly spent relaxing, drinking and exploring Bali’s coastline on dangerously temperamental motorbikes. The time had come however where each of our disjointed group was heading for a different road and each in their way had become listless and congested in the last few days. In an unnecessarily impulsive way, we drank ourselves bored in Paddy’s Bar, our group thinning as the night progressed. Sunrise found three of us standing on Kuta beach whispering still-drunk promises that in a few weeks we would meet on Gilli Trawangan – a small island between Bali and Lombok.

And to an extent this was where the problem lay. My younger sister Fiona was arriving at Singapore airport in only a matter of days and some weeks earlier I had agreed to meet her from the plane. This problem was somewhat exarcebated however, by the fact that I had insufficient money to fly and therefore had to cover most of Bali, the length of Java and much of Sumatra - a distance approaching four thousand kilometres - overland and cheaply, but more importantly quickly.

Realising my departure coincided with the Balinese Galungan Festival, I left Denpasar in a furious blaze, first spending a hot afternoon haggling for, or rather pleading for one of the few remaining free seats on the already overcrowded buses heading north to the port of Gilimanuk. The bus station lay beneath an afternoon sky of deep blue and rippled with colour as throngs of people came and went, laden with their lives and their belongings, each struggling to get somewhere else. Patience saw me on the last bus as it clattered out of the station and leant north-west to where I would catch the ferry to Ketapang in south-east Java. From there two lengthy bus and train journeys would take me approximately two thousand kilometres through Java to Jakarta.

rice fields

The fifteen-hour bus ride took me through central and southern Bali, across a patchwork of rice fields that cover almost a quarter of Bali’s interior. We weaved our way through a lush green landscape and picked our way through small quiet towns as we headed west into evening. It was in most a landscape unseen. Aside from excursions on motorbikes - where my attention was already over-stretched – my horizons had stretched little further than the bars and beaches of Kuta and to a degree, much of what comprised my first two-weeks in Indonesia was forgettable, or worse, already forgotten.

Along the road we stopped intermittently to pick up and drop off passengers and luggage, each exchange providing a new object of curiosity, a new set of friends. Together we gasped onwards into night, reaching Gilimanuk in the small hours where we shuffled together in a dishevelled manner onto the waiting ferry.

The first splashes of colour were spilling across the sky as the boat crawled into Ketapang, an unpromising looking town, but not one I had to spend long in. As though against the clock, I wrestled my way to the bus station, where I again performed the ritual of seat procurement, a skill I was fast becoming proficient at. Without too much difficulty I secured a seat on a bus that would carry me several hundred kilometres closer to Singapore, in fact to Yogyakarta in central Java from where I could catch a connecting train to Jakarta.

street vendor of jakarta

I arrived in Jakarta on a hot and humid afternoon after an impossibly uncomfortable train journey. In defence of the Indonesian Railway Authorities however, I must stress that as I fought for my corner of seat in an overcrowded, airless carriage, I had only an hour before peeled myself from a fourteen-hour test of endurance on a bus from Ketapang to Yogyakarta.

Yogyakarta is a lively and vibrant city popular with both Indonesians and tourists. It has a rich culture and heritage that are supported by the many prominent academic institutions for which the city is famous. I promised myself as I raced across town in a bajaj that I would spend more than twenty minutes on my next visit, but on this occasion I had a train to catch. So it was that as I took my seat and prepared for a consecutive fourteen-hour journey that would take me north-west towards Jakarta, my tether was not so much wearing thin, but becoming seriously frayed.

We crawled endlessly through rice-covered plains stopping, it seemed, every hundred metres. As we did so I tried to remind myself that often it was experiences ‘in transit’ that were remembered most fondly and most frequently reminisced over. It didn’t work, it never does - I’ve tried it before - so I just sat back and smiled at the man sitting on my lap.

The train, against the odds, continued in a generally forwards direction, it’s rhythmical chatter moving most of it’s overheated occupants to sleep. The broken fans hanging limply from the windows appeared themselves to have found the heat too much and given up. An open window likewise offered no respite; it simply allowed dust and insects to share our carriage. Besides the train rarely gathered sufficient momentum to generate what might be referred to as a breeze. In fact any effort to alleviate the heat that lay like heavy blankets, smothering and choking, proved taxing and futile.

Jakarta did not so much appear as grew and evolved as the train rattled slowly through endless shantytowns and dishevelled suburbs that seemed to have been thrown together carelessly or at least in apathy. We finally limped into Jakarta’s Kota railway station and I stumbled with my luggage, tiredness and sweats into the nearest bajaj while gesturing vaguely in the direction I wanted to go.

I checked into the first and quite possibly the cheapest guesthouse I found and fell thankfully onto the bed without removing my rucksack. I lay there for a few minutes, then got up, put the two legs I had just broken back on to the bed, removed my rucksack and sat back down enjoying the sensation of not moving. The afternoon was fast becoming evening outside and a dusty orange stained the sky. On the street beneath my window the first of the food-carts staked their pitches for the evening hunger; their hawking startling a lizard, that ran across my ceiling chased by an odd shadow. I decided to find some music.

kids in jakarta port

With the evening had come a reprieve from the heat. The air had lifted making the walk down to the Jaya pub pleasant. I had it on sound advice that good jazz was to be found at Jaya and after my journey I felt worthy of a few beers and what I hoped would be good live music. Inside, the bar was dark and filled with cigarette smoke – it was a good start. On stage a saxophonist was blowing long sad notes while his taller, darker-skinned friend picked languidly at his double bass. The tune was ambling to a brooding end as I tripped my way through a room full of low tables, each one full of men with beers, wearing broad smiles. I sank into a corner and ordered a beer and fried chicken.

From where I sat the stage appeared to protect its performers with a thick blue blanket of cigarette smoke that hung in the air like cobwebs. The two musicians were joined on stage by a female vocalist, who with a subtle intensity grabbed the microphone and with it the attention of every person in the bar. The girl, with beauty and grace, took us with her into the night, capturing our thoughts while releasing our inhibitions. Her songs and melodies were at once familiar yet ancient and unknown, her style confident, while at the same time, reserved. The evening slipped away and in the end I did as well. The hour was late and tomorrow my journey continued; the road was already waiting.

I awoke late the next day; the sun and the temperature side by side were steadily rising and the air already felt thick and heavy. Outside a cacophony of engines and horns shook the window and rattled through my head, shaking me from the bed and into the bathroom. After a long shower I sat under the fan still wet enjoying the cool sluggish air being pushed slowly around the room while mildly pondering on what it was I had been so desperate to find last night that had left my room in such disarray.

I quickly threw on some clothes and raced out with thankyous and smiles for the family as they sat animatedly discussing the fate of two chickens the youngest daughter held proudly in her hands. Outside, the heat and my hangover met head-on; the humidity adds weight to your rucksack, wraps itself around you, holding you back like an errant child. I was heading for the bank; an exercise I seldom enjoyed in Asia, yet on this occasion the idea of an hour or more in what I hoped would be an air-conditioned building was temptation manifest.

With marginally increased funds I presented myself at the travel office requesting a ticket for Bukittinggi, only to have these funds substantially reduced by a considerably over-priced ticket. I momentarily toyed with the idea of taking my chances at the bus depot and buying a spare seat on, or in something going vaguely in my direction. In the time it had taken me to ponder this I had subconsciously found a seat beneath a large fan, so I vanquished that thought and idly watched a small boy outside the window of the office.

He turns,
Performs the ritual once again,
Devoid of knowledge:
He rises.

The bus came to a shuddering halt outside one of Indonesia’s countless twenty-four hour road kitchens, bringing with it a ballooning cloud of dust that had mothers shield their babies and men cover their beers. I had left Jakarta twenty-six hours ago and had spent much of that time in an exhausted stupor. I had made the short ferry crossing from Merak in north-west Java to Bakauheni in southern Sumatra as if in a daze, a surreal experience that had left me with a feeling of detachment that still hung in the air now. By my reckoning I was now somewhere between Bangko and Muarabungo in central Sumatra, or more importantly over half way through this journey. It’s end was the small town of Bukittinggi, once a stronghold of the Dutch during the Padri Wars (1821 – 1837), and now a relaxed hill town that at a height of nine hundred and thirty metres promised cool evenings and a temporary restbite from the heat.

I stumbled from the bus, blinking into neon lights that illuminated the kitchens like fairground rides. As the dust settled and my eyes accustomed themselves to this visual assault I took stock and by instinct walked towards a small kitchen set away from the main throng, in a dark corner of the pitch. I have through trial and error learnt that on most occasions the food served in these smaller, less frequented kitchens is far superior to that served in those larger kitchens in cahoots with the bus companies. The food is often fresher and with far fewer customers is invariably cooked in front of you. I ate well on a steaming bowl of pink ribbon and rice noodles with chicken, spring onion, fresh coriander and soy, served with lime wedges and prawn crackers. This had been amiably cooked by a young boy of fourteen and who I took to be his younger sister. They had served the food with small bows and smiles and between them were party to one of my more memorable Asian meals.

The journey onwards seemed interminable; I was too exhausted to sleep, the music blaring from the front of the bus would have rendered it impossible anyway. We crawled endlessly on, the road throwing little at us by way of diversion. In the small hours we entered Solok, a town that was clearly that ‘somewhere else’ for a good proportion of the bus. Fellow passengers carried their lives from the bus and disappeared into the inky blackness; for many it was home, for others just another stop on another road.

Bukittinggi appeared from the darkness as a congenial looking town. Dawn was spreading from the horizon as we drove up the main street towards the bus station. The air, though early morning, was decidedly cooler and felt pleasant as I stepped from the bus. I gathered up my rucksack and headed for a nearby losmen, blinkered by the need to find a bed and in doing so met every need I had.

The following morning I strolled up to the outdoor market, pleased to find my legs remembering their role. The market was a riot of colour, a shambolic mix of stalls where one could find everything they may need, regardless of their requirements. I bought bagfuls of fruit and ambled out along Jalan St Shahrir to nowhere inparticular, just enjoying the clearer air and the freedom, albeit short-lived, to stretch my legs.

I may have been slowing down but time was not and as such the afternoon found me on familiar territory and without too much trouble I booked myself onto a bus departing early the following morning to Pekanbaru. It was from this bustling oil town that I would catch a ferry along the Siak River into the Straits of Malaka, where I would swing east to Pulau Batam in the Riau Archipelago.

The road out from Bukittinggi was slow and torturous. Heavy rains overnight had turned the roads to quicksand and we quickly ground to a halt, the wheels spinning showers of mud as the driver tried in vain to defy the weather and better judgement. We filed from the bus, holding the most impractical objects above our heads in a lame attempt to keep dry. A few among us were rallied upon to add our weight behind the bus; others placed sticks beneath the wheels. The bus let out a shriek and lunged suddenly forward, peppering us with mud and gravel and narrowly missing the opposite ditch. Back on board we toiled onwards, through rain that fell in ribbons, bouncing like bullets from the thin metal roof of the bus. On two further occasions we were required to sombrely take our positions behind the bus, our thanks only that on each occasion we had at least managed to keep us all on the road.

Prior to the discovery of oil after the Second World War, Pekanbaru was a small port on the river Siak. Even now, with the prosperity that inevitably followed, the city still has an air of intransience, a feeling that people and things are just passing through. The ferry I was to catch left early the following morning and in the meantime I needed to sleep. I quickly managed to find the dirtiest and dampest losmen in Pekanbaru and spent an unpleasant night with unwelcome guests. It didn’t matter though, I was almost there - in twenty-four hours I would be in Singapore.

The ferry reached the Indonesian Island of Batam sometime late afternoon; Singapore was throwing out its lights in the distance. Time was running out; the connecting ferry took a further forty minutes and then there was the taxi to the airport and the plane I was trying to meet landed in half an hour.

I was late by three-quarters of an hour, which pleased me. I had just travelled four thousand kilometres in a little over five days and had strolled in and found Fiona within one hour of her plane landing from London. It was wonderful to see such a familiar and welcome face and my exhaustion lifted giving way to a long and drunken night drinking Singapore Slings and just catching up. In twelve hours we would board the ferry back to Indonesia, then head north to Danau Toba in Northern Sumatra, before doubling back and heading south on roads I had only days before raced along in the other direction. We would again, by bus and train, travel the length of Sumatra, Java and Bali and from there a ferry to Gilli Trawangan. It seemed such an awfully long way, but as I ordered two more drinks, I quietly smiled at the prospect.

Article Copyright 2004 Dominic Light, All Rights Reserved

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