Had an incredibly wonderful flight from Bangkok to Kuala Lampur, Malaysia and then on to Jakarta. Love the Malaysian Airlines! The day does not start out that way, however. The sign at the concierge desk at my hotel says that a new policy is in place that states bags can only be left for a week without a charge! The manager of the desk is nice enough to have me fill out two tickets and he’s going to switch them after day 6, so I will get back in time and not pay. Next, the very moment that I leave my hotel it starts to pour rain. I manage to finally get a cab for the airport, but still make it with time to spare though not much!
Getting through immigration in Jakarta is an easy enough task– $25 and you get a nice new visa for 30 days. Next many stamps must be chopped before you make your way to the baggage carrousel. Like every other place from train stations to hotels and airports, I blow past the taxi drivers congregating to fleece you dry. Get a metered cab and arrive at my hotel quickly enough. Security in this country is tight. Before the taxi can actually pull up to the hotel, it must have its trunk and undercarriage checked. All bags are screened as well. I love the place, however. The location is terrific and the room I just want to wrap up and send home! Lots of dark panels of wood and mirrors– very rich looking. There is even a separate bath and shower. OK so I’m a hick when it comes to being impressed with some of this stuff!
My first task the next day was to change traveler’s checks. Now some people wonder why I’m still using them when ATM’s are everywhere. Well, the fact is that in most places you can cash them everywhere and the charge for cashing them is about $1.00 as opposed to the tariffs and “foreign transaction” fees from VISA that total about $8.00 a pop. Also, in Thailand, you get a better exchange rate for traveler’s checks than you do for cash. And with the dollar down against most currencies you want every baht, rial, or rupiah you can get! The fact is, however, that it is nearly impossible to cash traveler’s checks here! Finally found a bank and got it done, but decided it was worth using the ATM card after that. Not that I used it that much.
Flush with about two and a half million rupiahs, I headed to Gambir train station to get my ongoing rail tickets for Yogyakarta and the return through Bandung. It took me a while, but when she told me it would be 451,000 rupiah, my initial reaction was to freak! Then I quickly figured out that is about $51.00 US! Tickets secured, I crossed the street– like Vietnam there is no other way than just to wait till there is somewhat of a break in the traffic and then hold your breath the cross. Every time I do this I see my obituary flash in front of my face! Anyway, the National Monument is a trip and a half. It is the afternoon so the hawkers are too tired to bother you too much. They shill every sort of tacky invention— monument statuary, post cards, batik writing paper, water, you name it! The lift going to the top is down– as I find out this is a frequent occurrence. Indonesians and tourists alike are sprawled out resting in the cool breeze on the upper deck of the monument. Indonesians are enjoying food and beverage. The tourists just keep slugging back the water. Indonesians are the most engaging people I have met. Untypically for Asians, they will give you prolonged eye-contact. They are sizing you up. All you need do is smile and say hello and you have a new best friend. The whole family talks all at once and has a million questions. This leads to a lot of photos and exchanges of thanks and farewells. You see these women in their Muslim scarves and you think that they are very conservative. Far from it! They will come right up and grab you for a photo with themselves and their family or friends. This scenario is played out again and again all through the trip no matter where I go. You know, as much as I would love to be traveling with someone else who likes to walk all day in 90+ heat, I think it is precisely because I travel alone that I get approached so much!
The next day I went to the National Museum– a stunner of a place with a phenomenal collection of Javanese artifacts and a gold mine in ceramics from the Yuan, Song, and Ming Chinese dynasties. There has been extensive trade with China for centuries. I ended up spending much more time than I expected to, but so glad I did. I took a cab up to the Kota Station where the old Dutch town of Batavia was centered. As in Savanakhet, Laos a lot of the colonial structures centered around a cobblestone square called Taman Fatahillal, have collapsed into decay due to neglect. One old museum, the old town hall from the 1600’s, now houses a great deal of the old Dutch furniture from that era. The sad thing is that the items are not maintained and there are few guards to protect them. As a result, people walk around opening drawers and slamming chest lids at their pleasure. It is a horrifying sight! I met a Dutch guy, whose name was similar to Walter, who was going to the old seaport— a three kilometer hike– in actuality much longer by the time we get to the end of the wharf. The schooners are loading on water, sand and many other materials to take to other islands in the archipelago. As with the rest of Java, the workers there are friendly and playful. I’m constantly asked if I am Dutch! Lots of laughs- Indonesians love to laugh! Again lots of photos! The sun was setting fast, so we walked back into town before night fell. The neighborhoods we travel through are not the safest- looking even in the daytime! Garbage, and rodents living and deceased everywhere. When we reach the square again, Walter leaves to catch a bus back to his hotel and I repair to the Batavia Cafe for something to drink. This overpriced place is well worth it however just by its atmosphere. They have reconstructed it to a “T” in a 1940’s ambiance— I expected Rick from “Casablanca” to enter the door in the company of some spy or another! Even the music and pictures that cover nearly every wall space add to the mystique.
The Taksaka train bound for Yogyakarta eight hours down the track pulls in to Gambir Station about 8:40. In the opposite direction another train literally filled to the rooftops with passengers passes us by. People wave to us from the tops of the train cars as if they are on some fun adventure. The platform is teaming with people ready to board the train as soon as it stops at the station. The first three hours of the trip are spent traversing through broad rice fields picturesque with farmers doing a multitude of chores associated with harvesting the grain–cutting and bundling the light brown shafts of rice; thrashing by hand to separate the grains from the shaft; to bagging the rice after it is scooped up off the mat where it has fallen after the threshing.
At about this three-hour mark, the scenery begins to change as we move into the hills. Rice fields give way to terraced crops. At every station we are greeted by the thick crowd of hawkers selling whatever it is that they can scrounge together for that day— nuts to juices to toys for the kids. The sellers are not allowed to go down the aisles of the train, so they scream out their items in a constant drone till the train starts to depart. Begging children and hawkers caught in negotiation by the jolt of the train complete their transactions quickly and jump for the ground. As I came out the restroom at the end of the car, I was confronted by a youth no older than 12 who stood there talking to me in that tone of voice that made the conversation seem so matter-of-fact. I tried to explain to him that I did not understand what he was talking about. Then it dawned on me that he needed no translation. I knew exactly what his story was, told a million times, of poverty and dreams that will probably never be fulfilled. As the train moved away, I quickly took out a 50,000 rupiah note (about $6.00) crumpled it and tossed it in his direction. I looked back and saw him and another boy with eyes sharp as the seagulls at the beach that dive for every small crust of bread that hits the ground, track the bill and run to fetch it. Happily the boy who was meant to receive it got to it first and held it up to his opponent in triumph. And there they will be for the next train and the one following that playing out the same fight for survival.
The train continues on its progress weaving among the hills and valleys passing over precarious bridges that make you feel like the train has suddenly taken flight. We go through an endless number of villages and towns populated by people living under the rounded red tiled roofs of the houses. Banana, rubber, teak, palm and coconut trees in abundance. Thin goats and scrawnier sheep shepherded by young and old alike with their sticks to prod the animals in this direction then that.
We begin our approach to Yogyakarta at long last about 4:30. The sun is already low in the sky. Its intense light at this time of the day tints everything with a coat of yellow hue. The soiled shirt of the farmer, the orange plastic covering his conical hat, the browning shafts of the rice in the fields, and the red brick of the houses all touched with the same glow. I can’t help but feel that everything is somehow connected by this radiant, late afternoon light. Some still work in the fields finishing up one more task before calling it a day. Large groups of workers stand or sit in groups on the sides of the fields to relax and converse a bit before heading off to home.
The train enters the station and I gird myself for the expected crush of taxi drivers,porters, pedicab men and passengers. But surprisingly there is none of that. People seem to amble off the train in their own way and depart in all directions. I negotiate for a taxi that takes me to my hotel for a long, refreshing shower.