Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Drive in the Country

In the US, I try to avoid traveling on major holiday weekends.  Memorial Day, the kickoff to summer vacation, and Labor Day, traditionally the last day of summer vacation for students, find the roadways packed with frantic families rushing to get away from or get back to their everyday lives.  Drivers stressed by the dual pressures of whining children and clogged freeways take unnecessary risks.  The news broadcasts keep a running account of traffic fatalities.  Every driver other than myself is an idiot who should be shot and dragged from their vehicles, their bodies ripped open so that feral cats might feed on their livers.  I am not one who travels those days.

This past weekend was the last weekend before the end of school holidays in Java.  Not thinking, I traveled.  My wife and I borrowed her cousin’s car, hired a driver, and embarked on a simple, excruciatingly hellish roadtrip.  Drivers and traffic in Indonesia do not bind themselves by the laws or the road.  On a two-lane highway traffic flows in six directions.  Buses, trucks, and cars think nothing of forcing motorcycles and pedestrians off the shoulder so that they might squeeze past a line of vehicles stupid enough to stay on the road.  Motorcyclists use the opposite shoulder to pass, driving into a stream of motorcycles flowing towards them.

Bus drivers in Java have neither souls nor mortal fears of death.  They play chicken and never lose, forcing vehicles and pedestrians to give way to their passage. When I first came to Indonesia in 1983, I bought a Vespa and planned to ride around Java.  Then I was on the bus to Surabaya one day and witnessed the conductor, who collects fares, lean out and push an older woman on a bicycle off the road, causing her to fall on the shoulder.  He and the driver had a good laugh.  I decided I’d just ride the Vespa around town. 

Although private companies have enriched themselves by constructing toll roads on the outskirts of major cities, for the most part the roads in Java have not improved much in the last 27 years.  The road from Bojonegoro to Cepu, an area which should be benefitting from a major oil strike, is possibly even worse than it was in 1983.  It is a patched, roiling pitch of asphalt with no more than 10 meters of even surface at a stretch.  Logging roads in the mountains of Northern California are in better condition after rains and snow than this stretch of roadway.

We spent only a few hours in Cepu, a sleepy town I lived in from 1983 to 1985.  It was in Cepu that I learned Indonesian, and in Cepu that I became a Javaholic.  I was an instructor at the national Oil and Natural Gas Academy (Akamigas), where I was supposed to be helping instructors there prepare to go overseas for advanced studies and training in English.  My teaching load was light; instructors lost pay if they gave up a class to study English.  And since overseas training was not based on language ability or ability to understand the training, but rather was rewarded based on an individual’s length of service and financial need (candidates received $200 per diem while on training--their monthly base salary before teaching classes was $80--some trainings lasted two months or more), there was little demand for my services. 

As a result of my light load, I often had long lunch breaks.  I was entitled to free meals at the government mess (housing) where I lived.  The food there was acceptable, but just so.  I learned that when other staff wanted a good meal they usually ordered from a small rumah makan (literally “eating house”) in town. I soon found my way there.

“Home. Home, I knew it entering.”  So begins Richard Hugo’s “The Only Bar in Dixon.”  That feeling of recognition, of belonging to a place you have never been to before, was what I experienced when I first went to Rumah Makan Murni.  Run by two sisters, it soon became my second home in Cepu.  I ate lunch there (it’s open from 9:00 to 3:00) four or five times a week.  To this day I have never had soto ayam or gado gado that comes close to what they serve there.  Their opor ayam was also delicious, but most days I had either the soto or the gado gado. 

I feared memory had exaggerated how good the soto was, but Ching and I split an order and agreed it was the real deal.  The broth was rich and flavorful, with a liberal sprinkling of fried garlic and shallots.  With the addition of some fresh sambal, kecap manis, and a squeeze of lime it was perfect. If you are ever in the area, you should make the effort to get a taste of it.

Unfortunately, we had to push on to Yogya because we wanted to visit Borobudur early the next day.  The road from Cepu to Ngawi is, as a friend in Cepu said, “100% rusak”--totally fucked (loose translation).  This is the first 45 km of the trip from Cepu to Yogya.  Again it is a rolling, high seas of a road, with vehicles pitching from side to side on tortured shocks.  For several kilometers we were stuck behind a  truck over-filled with branches to make charcoal.  Each dip and crest in the road caused the truck to pitch violently towards one side or the other, just at the edge of its tipping point. 

Then came dusk and the rain.  Darkness doesn’t bother Indonesian drivers.  Many won’t turn on their headlights unless it is pitch black; they want to conserve their lights.  As terrifying as driving during daylight can be in Indonesia, driving at dusk is more so.  This is when atheists pray for a god, or at least that their deaths be quick.  Driving through a teak forest in the rain as the sky surrendered to darkness, shadows of pedestrians and motorcyclists flashed in my peripheral vision.  I flinched for each shadow, sure that we would hit or be hit by someone.  I found the only thing I could do was close my eyes and try to sleep.

As we neared Ngawi, traffic came to a stop.  Something had happened--an accident, a train crossing--and vehicles driving towards Yogya weren’t moving.  A bus in front of us decided to cross into the oncoming lane of traffic.  Our driver thought that was a good idea and he followed.  Several vehicles behind us decided the opposite shoulder was an even better idea.  Soon we had the road totally closed, with no vehicles able to go in either direction. 

An ambulance came from somewhere behind us.  We now knew it was an accident, not a train crossing.  Somehow the ambulance managed to drive off the opposite shoulder and get past the jam.  Its blue light disappeared in the distance. 

After 45 minutes or so of not moving, the crush of vehicles began to shift.  A line of police started walking towards us, blowing whistles and angrily swinging lighted batons towards vehicles, forcing them back into the correct lanes.  Our driver tried to squeeze over, forcing another vehicle onto the near shoulder.  Slowly the traffic began to roll forward. 

Soon we discovered the cause of our delay.  A bus had gone off the shoulder and down an embankment.  It had probably swerved while passing on the rain slick roadway and slid off the road.  Each of us reverently cursed the bus driver for the delay he caused us.

Signage, in terms of showing which road to take to get from one city to another, is sparse in Java.  There is usually a sign some 50 meters or so before an intersection or roundabout, but if you miss that, you are out of luck.  Our driver, originally from Madiun, had never driven to Yogya before.  He had been to Yogya before, but that was by bus.  He did not have a map and and seemed to struggle reading signs.  Although there are a limited number of roads,  several times we found we were on the wrong one, heading towards some unexpected destination.  As a result, we found ourselves stopping frequently to ask how to get back on the road to Yogya.

Six hours after leaving Cepu, we finally reached Yogyakarta.  Yogya is the most popular city for domestic tourists in Indonesia.  The last Friday of school holidays found it overflowing with visitors.  We pulled into a hotel I had stayed at frequently in the past and discovered it was full.  We went down the street and tried another. Penuh.  We tried a big, fancy, Western style hotel with several hundred rooms.  Full.  We followed a sign down a side alley to a small businessman’s hotel.  They were also full, but the clerk at the desk offered to call around to find a hotel for us.  He called five or six hotels and they were all full.

We headed back towards Solo, down the road we had just come from, looking for signs for hotels.  We found one down an alley off a side street.  Hotel UNY, a modest hotel that had one deluxe executive room left.  We took it.  Five minutes later a family came in looking for a room.  Full, they were told.

It was 1:00 a.m. before we were in our room for the night.  The next morning we were headed to Borobodur.

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