I walked down the highway chatting with my friend as the sun shone down on our shoulders. The street was lined with trees and the mountains rose behind us, creating a backdrop that re-demanded attention and remarks about its beauty every few moments.
And, as we walked, we inhaled the fumes of hours of stand-still traffic and did our best to ignore the constant catcalls that were sadly misplaced due to a lack of control of the English language.
Really, this dichotomy of beauty and frustration is quite symbolic of my life here in SouthEast Asia. I live in one of the most stunning countries on earth. From the coral nestled deep in the seas to the cauldrons of the looming volcanos, there is no denying that Indonesia is naturally fascinating. However, at the same time, life here can be endlessly disheartening. Things don’t go as planned, people don’t show up on time, and no one will give you a straight answer.
This was one of those days which started off with the highest of hopes but quickly morphed into issue after issue. At the time, I was definitely not enjoying myself, but looking back it is undeniably ridiculous to the point of laughing at the sequence of events.
Having spent the long weekend a few hours south of our current abode, my friends and I woke up early to beat the traffic in the area. We had plans to go hang gliding and spend the afternoon at a tea plantation, and our driver was scheduled to arrive at 8:00.
I’ve lived here for two years now, resulting in (more of) an understanding of the way that things work, so I checked with the hotel staff to make sure our driver had actually showed up. “Yes,” they assured me, “he’s ready when you are!” So the six of us brought our various bags out to load of the van, only to find that he was, in fact, not there.
I spent a good while explaining to the hotel manager that we had somewhere we needed to be and time was important (this is counter-cultural). After determining that driver #1 was in traffic (read: never called and/or not in the mood to show up), she called another driver.
Driver #2 arrived and was quite eccentric. The entire car was covered in trash, and #2 was very excited to practice his broken English by asking me barely coherent questions throughout the entire journey.
After about an hour and a half of driving, we had successfully covered the 20 miles to the tea plantation. Leaving one friend there to read, we continued the final 2 miles to the hang gliding location. When we reached the top of the hill, we inquired with the people behind the hang gliding company’s desk. They knew nothing, and seemed quite frustrated that we would consult them; it turned out they had simply been looking for a seat. We located a random restaurant owner who called a random man who told us that maybe we could hang glide.
Though his logic was faulty on many levels, I managed to work out in some mix of English and Indonesian that we would wait until 12:00 to see if we could hang glide, but that we would need to return to Jakarta after that to avoid traffic.
The hang gliding random man told me to wait 10 more minutes, or maybe until tomorrow. I re-informed him that waiting longer was not an option and danced through a circular conversation* only to arrive at the fact that we would not be hang gliding that afternoon.
We started back down the hill, only to immediately stop in traffic that was not moving. At all. Apparently, the system set up to help with traffic in Bogor is having a one-way road that alternates back and forth. Without a schedule.
We sat for an hour, and all rejoiced as traffic started moving… and then our driver pulled over to the side of the road. “Sorry, sorry! I buy gas!”
Groaning, we waited and watched our sliver of hope disappear. By the time he was back, traffic had grid-locked again.
“It’s okay, ya?” he asked. “No,” I told him,”please buy gas while we are stopped instead of the one time traffic is moving.”
Sick of sitting in an overcrowded car on an overcrowded road, several of us decided to walk down to the tea plantation and wait there for our driver.** Which brings us back to where we started: the sun, the mountains, the exhaust, the catcalls. We finish our trek in all of ten minutes, and go in to buy some tea before returning to the entrance of the plantation to wait for our driver.
Traffic speeds up significantly, and all of the cars that had been in front of and behind ours have passed us. Our driver still has not showed up.
Now, let me set the scene for you. We are six white people sitting on the side of a road very full of people that think all white people are celebrities worth harassing. There are three policeman, a news anchor with her camera man, and a handful of ojeks (or motorcycle taxis) at the same entrance.
Our driver has all of our things, and we are becoming increasingly concerned that he has driven off with them. The longer we wait, the more significant items I realize I would lose – my credit cards, passport, laptop, camera, student tests (God forbid).
Working together, we mentally and verbally flip through our slim options.
1. Ask the police for help.
This idea is immediately rejected since police here only take your money, not find it. However, they did seem quite amused by watching our helplessness.
2. Call the driver.
We call the hotel for the driver’s number, and are given the wrong one. We call back and are given the right one. We call him six times and he does not answer. This increases our anxiety.
This almost happened.
4. Count down the days until I move back to America.
This definitely happened.***
5. Take motorcycle taxis to search for our lost driver.
At our wit’s end, we sent two members of our party on ojeks to search for our long lost driver – and valuables. While they are gone, we begin planning an alternate way to get back to Jakarta.
Our friends call us, telling us that they have found the driver. He had stopped for gas (again) as soon as the traffic had started moving (again) and was apparently just hanging out up there. Needless to say, they climbed into the car and accompanied him toward us.
As we continue waiting at our perch for him to make his way to us, we hear an enormous crack of thunder and the rain begins. Let me remind you, dear friends, that Indonesia is a tropical country. This means major rain storms.
We begin to trek our way back up the hill, seeking the cover of the vehicle. As we trudge up the side of the hill, through the pollution, in the rain, all of the people in the cars along the way roll down their windows.
Many take pictures, many try to hit on me by calling me “mister,” and others simply state “hujan***.”
Needless to say, I was not in a good mood when we finally arrived at the car and the driver stuck out his hand and said, smiling, “It’s okay, ya?”
After stopping twice more for gas (the second time I gave him money and told him to fill up the car, that we would not be stopping again), major car sickness, multiple requests to please roll up his window to keep the pollution in the car to a minimum, and endless stop-and-go traffic we arrived at our apartment.****
Over sushi and Starbucks with a friend, I thank God that we made it back home before work the next morning and with all of our things in tow. And really, it is home. After two years here in my little corner of a little suburb outside of Jakarta, I feel at home. There is that relief of return and the reality that I’m starting to figure out how to do life here. Here, where the beauty and frustration have become so interconnected that one cannot really separate them from one another, I have been challenged and have made mistakes and have grown and have become sad about leaving.
But let’s end on an honest note (I was still born and raised an American, after all): I’m so, so glad that that journey is over, and am very much looking forward to the “bad traffic” in the States.
*In order to save face, people here will not tell you no. They simply avoid saying yes until you give up.
**This is one of the nice thing about Indonesia! Maids, drivers, nannies – they’re a fixture in the life of normal people!
***Recently, I have been quite sad to leave Indonesia. I absolutely adore my students, and our lifestyle here is pretty cool. This was not one of the moments in which I was upset to be leaving.
****Hujan = rain. Yes, thank you, I do realize that it is pouring.
*****Our apartment was approximately 60 miles away from the starting point, which we had left more than 8 hours before.