Monday, August 8, 2011

Packed, and Indonesia Stories Part 1

So I've gone through all my stuff, I've given a lot of it away, thrown a lot out, recycled what I could, and at the end of it all, I have some stuff in boxes in my fathers garage and the rest has been packed into four boxes and a suitcase that will make their way to Chicago. It's kind of freaky, but there it is.

On the downside, my bed is now a mess, as is the room I'm currently occupying, so tomorrow will be spent cleaning.

Part of what I wanted to do here, though, is to post the first chapter of the memoir I'm writing from Indonesia. Sadly, I think most of those pictures have been lost because my computer died in the Philippines and, while I thought I had them backed up, I didn't. But here's one photo that did survive, along with the first chapter from my Indonesian semester in 2008:

About two and a half years ago, I lived in a white cement house down the half-paved street from the soccer field in a small suburb just north of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Most people thought I was crazy. They were right.
That fall I was studying abroad with the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS). I was attending Gadjah Mada University and living with a host family in Kentungan, just north of the road that marks the boundary of Yogyakarta. I biked about four kilometers downhill into school every morning, and four kilometers uphill every afternoon in the worst driving situations I have ever seen. I had a building nearly collapse on me and have watched entire trees careening down the street at about 40 miles per hour. I ate things most people wouldn’t and lived to tell the tale. Actually, it wasn’t all that daring, but people still thought I was crazy.

Despite my supposed mental state, going to Indonesia was one of the best things I’ve done in my life. It’s cliché, but it’s true. But that’s not the point of this book. I’m not going to tell you how Indonesia changed my life. There are plenty of stories like that out there somewhere, and my story would make a sorry addition to that collection. Instead, I want to show you Indonesia as I have come to know her. She isn’t always pretty, and she’s rarely the garden of Eden, as many have said. I’m writing this to show you the country, not the paradise. Two years ago I lived in Indonesia, and I am proud to call it my home. So here’s my attempt to give you a glimpse of Yogyakarta, Indonesia in the fall of 2008.

I got into Bali at about 10:30 at night on Tuesday, August 19th, 2008. I had just traveled for about 30 hours, and I was still another flight away from my final destination. I was tired, sore, and grimy. I had just been in a plane for twelve hours and was wearing the same clothes that I left my house in thirty hours before. I’m not huge on looks, but when you’ve worn the same clothes for thirty hours and you haven’t stood up for the past twelve, it doesn’t feel very nice.

But I was here. Indonesia at last. I maneuvered my backpack from under my seat, hoisted my carry-on luggage out of the bin, and followed the train of people making their way off the plane. The humidity hit me like a brick as I exited the aircraft. It wasn’t oppressive humidity, though, more like when you sit outside on a warm summer night and a sudden cool breeze blows by, chilling you so that you’re both hot and cold at the same time. I pulled on a light jacket I had brought with me and made my way to customs. There was no line, since Indonesians didn’t have to go through customs. Or maybe I was just slow. Either way, there were only three people in line, and there were three customs agents on duty. I went up to the middle one, who was a young man in his twenties wearing a blue uniform and looking much more alert than I was.

“Hello, Miss, may I please see your passport?” he asked in perfect English. I handed him my documents and he marked them in that secret code that customs agents use. He then asked to see the inside of my bags. They passed the test and he asked me what I was doing in Indonesia. There was still no one in line.

“I’m studying at Gadjah Mada University,” I said. It wasn’t the most eloquent of speeches, but I was very groggy.

“Oh, UGM! You know, you should think about studying Javanese if you’re going to be there. That’s the language everyone really speaks on Java.”

“Really? I’m not even that great at Indonesian, I don’t know that I would be any good at Javanese,” I replied, still groggy.

“No, I’m sure you’d do fine! Anyway, think about it, you might like it!” And with that he handed back my passport, gave me a smile, and waved me through. I was too tired to do anything but obey the gesture.

I then made my way to the hotel counter to get a room for the night, since my flight to Yogyakarta wasn’t until early the next morning. As I was handing over some bills to pay for the room, I heard an American couple making their way through customs. They were young, possibly in their twenties. The man was somewhat short and rather thin, with disheveled light brown hair. The woman was of average height and fairly muscular, with bleach blond hair tied up in a ponytail that looked a little like she was trying to turn it into dreads. They both carried travel packs.

“… traveling around Indonesia for a few weeks. Can you tell us how to say ‘thank you’ in Indonesian?” I heard the man ask. I was surprised. Asking how to say something like ‘thank you’ meant that they didn’t have a phrasebook. It seemed like they were planning to backpack through Indonesia for a few weeks, why wouldn’t they bring a phrasebook?

“Thank you is terima kasih,” the agent replied with a smile. She seemed to be wondering the same thing I was, but I may have been imagining it. The couple then asked her where the best place to get a travel guide would be and she gave them the name of a local bookstore. So they didn’t have a phrasebook or a travel guide and they were planning to backpack through the country. I had felt unprepared going to Indonesia, but at least I had brought those few essentials.

I gave up trying to understand the situation and went outside to claim a taxi. I needed a bed, and I needed it quickly.

“Taxi, Miss?” a man asked, motioning to me from the taxi counter. I approached him and was paired with a taxi driver, who took my luggage and led me to his cab. To be honest, everything was going much easier than I thought it would.

I gave the taxi driver the address for the hotel and he started the engine. I tried to see Bali through the darkness, but it was now 11:00 at night and seeing anything in the dark was impossible. After about fifteen minutes, the driver pulled up to the end of a dark alleyway and got out of the taxi. I thought he was checking directions or something, since there was no sign of a hotel, so I stayed in the cab. The driver went around back, opened the trunk, and began removing my luggage. I then realized we must have arrived at our destination, though I wasn’t so sure that our destination was exactly where I had wanted to go.

“The hotel is down there,” he said as I got out of the cab, pointing to a solitary light about halfway down the alley. I could see five men gathered in the glow of the light, some of whom were clearly intoxicated.

Wait a minute, I was supposed to go where? Before I could process what he had said and long before I could ask any questions, the driver got into his taxi and drove off.

I was terrified.

Here I was, a single, young, American woman traveling alone in Bali late at night and I had just been instructed to walk down a dark alleyway with several intoxicated men at the end of it. I looked around to see if I might be able to find someone else, perhaps another taxi that could take me to the correct destination. The street was completely deserted.

So what could I do? My options were to stay where I was with very little hope of seeing anyone pass by or to walk down that dark alleyway towards the five men under the street light. How had I gotten into this situation, again?

It took everything I had to ignore my flight instincts and walk down that alley. Given the alternatives, I didn’t have much choice. I grabbed my suitcase and started walking towards the only humans in sight. What else could I do? They had already seen me, and if I stayed on the street, I wouldn’t find anyone to help me anyway. My only chance lay in those five men. I didn’t like my odds.

As I approached, I noticed that all of the men were smoking, and three of them held bottles of some alcohol or another. One appeared to be in his early fifties, with graying hair and a slowness about his movements that led me to believe he had joint pain. Another looked to be in his late thirties, and the rest were in their twenties. All of them, aside from the older man, had black hair and wore t-shirts, shorts, and sandals.

As I got closer, the man in his thirties looked at me and said, “Hello, Miss.”

The younger men started jeering a bit, then the older man scolded them sharply and they fell silent. He then turned to me.

“What are you looking for, Miss?” he asked.

“Uh, the AA Hotel… my taxi driver said it was down here…” I managed in broken Indonesian. I showed him the brochure that I had gotten at the airport when I reserved the room.

“Ah, yes, you are in the right place,” he said. “The hotel is right here.” He pointed to the source of the light and, sure enough, it was the AA Hotel. The front wall of the building had been cut away, and I could see the reception counter just inside.

Just then, one of the younger men asked to take my bags, and proceeded to lead me into the hotel where I could check in.

“You check in here, I will bring your bags up,” he said, and then disappeared down the hall. I checked in, paid for the room, and got my key.

“If you would follow me, Miss,” the young man said, having returned from delivering my bags. He led me up a flight of stairs and down a hallway to a little room off the main hall.

“Here you go. Breakfast is served between 6 and 11, and the airport shuttle leaves every half hour. If you need anything, dial 0 on the phone for the front desk.” And with that he turned around and made his way back downstairs. I unlocked the door and collapsed onto the bed in utter disbelief. I don’t think that my experience would have gone so well, had I been in the States.

I don’t remember much of the rest of that night. I know I tried to call my parents, but my phone didn’t work. I also know that I managed to find pajamas and crawl into bed, but I don’t really remember it. Mostly, I remember waking up to the alarm on my watch at about 5 am. My flight was at 8:00. Since the shuttle left on the half-hour, I needed to be on the 6:30 shuttle if I wanted to get to the airport on time. I took a shower, put on fresh clothes, packed my bags, and went downstairs. It felt wonderful.

They had just begun serving breakfast when I got to the lobby. I handed in my room key and sat down. A man in his forties was sitting next to me, already eating his breakfast. He was somewhat heavy-set, but not really overweight, and he wore glasses. He had short black hair and brown eyes, and was sipping a cup of coffee as if it were liquid gold. He smiled at me and turned back to his coffee.

Breakfast came on a silver tea tray and consisted of two pieces of toast, a cup of tea (which I prefer to coffee), some “citrus jam,” and a small pat of butter. It was easily the best food I had seen in at least two days.

“Where are you from?” the man next to me asked. He had finished his coffee and seemed to be feeling more alert than before.

“The US,” I said, spreading some of the citrus jam on my toast. “I’m going to Yogyakarta to study at Gajah Mada University.”

“Ah, UGM,” he said, still smiling. “That’s the best university in the country. What are you going to study there?”

“Indonesian,” I replied. I hadn’t known Gadjah Mada was the best in the country.

“But your Indonesian is already very good!” he said in astonishment.

“No, not really.” I appreciated the compliment, but my Indonesian was really mediocre at the absolute best. I was just lucky he was asking questions I could answer. We continued chatting as I ate my breakfast.

“Are you catching a flight to Yogya this morning?” he asked after a while.

“Yes,” I said, “at 8 o’clock.”

“You know,” he said, smiling again, “I am also catching a flight at 8 o’clock. I’m going to Jakarta for business. I have a rental car and could give you a ride to the airport if you want.”

I wasn’t too keen on getting in the car with a man I met not ten minutes before. A few red flags went off as lessons from elementary school entered my brain.

“Oh, you don’t have to,” I said, trying to be polite. “I can just take the hotel shuttle; I don’t want to inconvenience you.”

“Actually, Miss,” the receptionist said from the counter, “the shuttle has a flat tire and will be late. We just got a call from the driver. You should go with this man if you want to get there in time for your flight.”

Once again, I was in a position that I didn’t really want to be in. But the receptionist was right; if I wanted to make my flight, I had to go with the man who had the car.

“Ok,” I said, hoping that I wouldn’t regret my decision.

“Great,” the man said. “They’re just bringing the car around now; we can leave in a few minutes.”

Sure enough, a bright orange SUV came out from the back of the hotel and parked right where the five men had been loitering the night before. We got up and my newest acquaintance led the way to the car. He opened the front door for me, then put my suitcase in the back and climbed in the driver’s seat. We were off.

“This is a rental,” the businessman exclaimed after a few moments of silence. “A rental! Can you imagine? This must be a brand new car, a year old at most, and it’s a rental!”

It was a fairly nice car, I had to agree, and since I didn’t really want to give the wrong impression to the man who controlled my fate that morning, I smiled and nodded that yes, it was astonishing.

“And such a good color!” he continued. The car was an orangey-red color, a bit like a not quite ripe tomato. It wasn’t exactly my favorite color in the world, especially for a car, but again, not wanting to be disrespectful, I mumbled something in agreement.

The businessman was completely satisfied with my answers, it seemed, for he continued to exclaim about his steal of a rental car all the way to the airport.

“I’m going to drop you off first,” he said as we turned in the gate. “I want you to be able to get to your flight, and dropping the car off might take some time.”

I could do nothing but agree, since the man was already giving me a ride to the airport. We pulled into departures and climbed out. He took my bags out and handed them to me, then said goodbye and drove off to deliver the car. I went into the airport, astonished that everything had gone smoothly for a second time in twelve hours. I checked in and went to my gate to wait for the flight. About ten minutes after sitting down, the businessman rounded a bend in the hallway and came towards me.

“Everything go ok?” he asked, still smiling.

“Yes, thank you,” I replied. “Everything was really easy. I think my flight leaves in about half an hour.”

“Good!” he said. An announcement crackled over the loudspeaker. “Oh, that’s my flight,” said the man. “It’s boarding; I had better go.”

“Oh, ok. Thank you again for the ride,” I said.

“No worries,” he replied. “Once I realized you were alone, I kept thinking about how I would feel if my daughter were travelling to the other side of the world by herself. I would want someone to help her, and so now I am helping you. It’s part of being human!”

Another announcement crackled over the loudspeaker. “I really must be going. Welcome to Indonesia, and safe journey.” He smiled at me, shook my hand, and wished me the best of luck, whether we met up again or not. And with that, he turned around and walked off to find his gate.

That was the first thing I learned about Indonesia, that there was more to it than meets the eye.

It was then that I realized I had forgotten to ask the man’s name.

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