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Lost Christmas

“You get the best stories when shit happens to you”, a traveller once said to me. I had agreed. I could tell and retell stories of some of the worst things that I had endured. When everything went according to plan, there was usually not much to talk about.

It was December 24, 2009. I did not have much leave but a long weekend was coming up. Plans for a road trip with a couple of friends had been cancelled that day. Having recently become a travel junkie, I desperately wanted to get out. At work, I checked the budget airlines pages and found that the only tolerable prices for flights on that day were to Jakarta. 

On my way to the airport, I got myself a Lonely Planet Indonesia and looked up Jakarta. I had never been to Indonesia before and I knew that the country had plenty to interest me. Early in the flight I realised one thing: Jakarta had next to nothing that I cared about; the interesting stuff was elsewhere. Yogyakarta, 500Km away, looked interesting for a couple of days. It had the largest Buddhist monument in the world and active volcano that I might want to climb. I’d head to Yogyakarta from Jakarta, I figured. 

It was 10 PM when I arrived at Jakarta. I walked out to the arrivals area and was accosted by a taxi driver. The man greeted me and said he was an driver with a taxi company. He had an ID card to prove it.

“How do I get to Yogyakarta?”, I asked him.

“Sir, there are no more buses to Yogyakarta tonight. I can take you to Jalan Jaksa where you can rest the night. All the tourists go there. You can take a bus to Yogyakarta tomorrow.”

I told him that I’d come back to him.

There might still be buses.

I took a look at my guidebook to see if it had any bus information. The guidebook recommended ensuring that long-distance busrides were taken in buses with reclining seats and air-conditioning. Another taxi driver approached me. He was not with any taxi company. I told him that I wanted to get to Yogyakarta.

“There is bus at 11 PM. I always wait here till late for people who take that bus.”

“Is it airconditioned? Does it have reclining seats?”

“Yes.”

“I was told by another driver that there is no bus this late.”

“There is a bus.”

The fact that he was not right in front of the arrivals and that he had no taxi company affiliation had made this man a riskier bet than the first. But he had offered what I wanted.

“OK. I’ll pay you only if I do get the bus. And it has to have air-conditioning and reclining seats.”

“OK.”

And so we took off. A friend of the guy got into the taxi at the airport entrance and we were away. We drove for about forty five minutes. My danger warnings started sounding. It was fine to be full of bluster at the airport, but we were now many kilometres away from there. For all I knew, the people around would not speak English. What would happen if these guys did intend to cheat me somehow? I was on their turf.

The driver parked the car on the side of a road. His friend got out and walked away.

“Bus station is nearby. We wait here till the bus comes”, said the driver.

I was not very relieved. A bus station would have lights. And places for buses to park. Why was I here? The road was poorly lit. 

The man who had gone out returned and talked to the driver in Bahasa Indonesia. We took off to another location a few hundred metres away. This place was better lit. There was shops with lights. People were sitting around. The driver led me to a storefront and helped me buy the bus ticket. The ticket had the amount written on it. It seemed in order. Assuming that the amount and the signature on the ticket meant anything, at least I wasn’t overpaying. I gave the driver the taxi fare. The bus arrived shortly.

I got into a crowded bus with open windows. I walked to a seat. It reclined a bit, but it did not look comfortable enough to sleep on. I walked to the door where the taxi driver stood.

“Air-conditioning? Reclining seats?”

The man got on and led me to a seat at the back. A current of stale, cool air was coming from a vent above it. It could be felt if one put his fingers close enough to the vent.

The time was 11.30 PM. I sat down. I did not want to argue with the driver on the technicalities of reclining seats. He may even have been right. The air-conditioning was absurd. The vehicle had open windows. Did I want to argue with people who might not understand English to return me my ticket money, get the driver to somehow take me to a hotel in Jalan Jaksa, pay only what the other driver had asked for? It would be tiring, physically and emotionally, if even possible. I’d of course need to find a hotel in the middle of the night.

Defeat.

There were distinct advantages, though. I was getting the long journey finished at night, so I’d be free during the day. A more comfortable bus would surely cost more. The amount I’d paid did not seem very high on conversion to Singapore dollars.

Practicality dictated that taking the journey was better than waiting till morning. So I did not complain.

The driver came up to me to provide some last pieces of advice: “Small things keep with you.”

I processed this statement for a few seconds before churning out the translation: “Hold on to your valuables.”

Then he dropped the bomb: “Don’t sleep!”

Bad start.

My appearance and my interaction with the taxi driver had interested my fellow passengers. They started speaking to each other and I realised that I couldn’t hear a word in English. Well, there was one word; it was ‘American’. It was stated multiple times and by people sitting all around me. It was stated with more and more confidence and with head-nods accompanying it and some of them looked at me as they nodded. I reassured myself that I did not know the language and consequently I did not know what they were talking about.

I attempted to settle into my seat. There were three seats to the right of the aisle, ostensibly for three people. I pushed my right leg in, next to the man to my right. My backpack had to have some space next. My left leg was well on the aisle. My left buttock was half in the air, over the aisle. At merely 177cm in height, I felt like a giant among my puny neighbours. I could barely fit into the seats. Then again, my neighbour was spilling out of his seat – and he was a small man. The seats on that bus had to be designed for Indonesian schoolchildren and I was going to spend the night on them.

Merry Christmas.

We were supposed to arrive at Yogyakarta at 9AM. 9AM came and went. At lunch time the bus was still ‘three hours’ from Jogja – I had learned to use the colloquial ‘Jogja’ (short for Jogjakarta). I used whatever Bahasa Indonesia words I could learn from my guidebook to make short, painful communication with the locals.

The bus stopped at cheap local eating places and at bus stations. I found something new to add to my irritation: the beggars. They would get on board with their ukuleles and start singing. Half of them would sing a variation of just one or two local pop songs that got tiring long before the end. The half that played other tunes caused me unbearable torture. So much so that I took to looking out of the window and covering my ears when they came in. At one point, on looking out, I saw the edifying sight of children, not even in their teens, being given cigarettes to smoke and ukuleles to play.

Preparation for the future.

The engine of the bus started smoking. We made a few unscheduled stops including a long lunch stop. At some point in the afternoon, on an upward slope, the bus stopped.

Not the best of Christmases.

The passengers were split into two other buses.

‘Jogja?’ I asked the conductor as I got into the vehicle. He nodded his head.

We were on our way. I found that a man sitting next to me spoke decent English. He told me that I’d have to change buses at a station.

A couple of hours later, I got off and found my third bus of the increasingly exhausting journey. This one would take me to the Jogja main station. I managed to find another English-speaker.

“To get to the area with hotels, you’ll need to take a shuttle bus”, the man told me.

I was growing tired of buses.

Towards 6.30PM, I got off the Jogja main station and got into the shuttle bus. The man had told me how many stops I’d need to wait before I got down. I found the stop and got down. It had been a short ride. Then I asked the attendant at the stop. I was told that I’d need to take another shuttle bus to another stop and then one final shuttle would take me to my destination, a street called Malioboro.

If I had any energy remaining, I might have blown up; I had not any. I found a becak – a local human-powered tricycle – and told the rider my destination and collapsed onto the seat. A gentle rain started pouring. I felt some relief from having cool, clean air to breathe after the heat and smoke of the buses. Forty five minutes later, I was at Malioboro.

I had not booked a hotel. I walked around for half an hour with no luck. The rooms were filled with Christmas travellers. I had to check with some hotels to see if they had rooms. Some had signs that clearly said “No vacancy”.

At one point, a man saw my backpack and enquired whether I wanted a room. He “knew a place”.  I watched him as he walked into a hotel that I had just verified as having no vacancies. I left before he got back to me.

I started checking out some of the narrower alleys. Even there the hotels were booked. Then a woman beckoned to me.

“You want a room?”

“You have one? Let’s see it.”

She led me to a dingy place with low walls and a thin mattress on the floor. The room was tiny and there was just a dim, 10-Watt bulb. I was starving and desperate, but I declined. Maybe I’d have to pay a nasty price for an expensive room somewhere but not this.

As I started walking away, the woman asked me, “You want messa?”

“Messa?”

“Yea, messa.”

“Massage?”

She nodded.

“No.”

I got out of the gate.

She called after me, “You want pom pom?”

I shook my head and left.

I walked around and came to a guesthouse. “Bladok Losmen”, said the signboard, ‘losmen’ meaning guesthouse. “No vacancy”, another sign said. There were dining tables on the patio. I sat down and ordered a meal.

“Where do you think I can find a room?” I asked the waitress. “The entire Malioboro area seems booked out.”

“We have one free room, sir”, she said. The most delightful words I would hear in a long time. And just like that it was over. In a matter of minutes, the issues of hunger and rest were solved.

In twenty four hours, I had travelled: by train to the Singapore airport, by plane from Singapore to Jakarta, on three buses from Jakarta to Yogyakarta and on another bus and a becak to Malioboro. I had walked for more than half an hour to find a room and found one purely by chance when I was hardly expecting it.

I was exhausted but I could not rest too much. There were sights to see the next day.

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