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Travel Foolishness

Jakarta, Indonesia

We're back to being a little miserable and ready to leave. Strange bumps on our feet and crotches. The feeling that, in the tropics, disease and insects have the upper hand. Or at least there is more equal opportunity here than in the higher latitudes.

We didn't know quite what to do with ourselves today. Just walked around. The usual avoiding huge holes in the sidewalks and ojeks coming from all directions. I think there is no such thing as a beautiful city in Asia. Even picturesque Kyoto is not quite beautiful. It is too busy and big and practical; that is, it's a real city with real people leading lives that are only tangentially related to beauty.

But perhaps we should feel lucky we made it to Jakarta at all. Our plane stopped in Suribaya, and we got off thinking we were already in Jakarta, left the airport and tried to catch the bus to Gambir station. Were told the bus didn't go to Gambir but would take us to the train station where we could catch a train to Gambir. Now that seemed strange to us. The man then said, Or you could take a plane. We gave him a funny look. Obviously he had misunderstood us. We just got off the plane, we explained. It was no use. We couldn't make head or tail of what he was saying. Tried tourist information where we were told the same thing, but in better English. The train...all right... We wondered aloud why we read on the internet there was a direct bus to Gambir from the airport, no mention of a train. The official looked confused. Yes, that's strange, he mused. Gambir is maybe an 18 hour bus ride from here. 18 hours! But...where are we? Suribaya! Mad running. Sweat. Panic. Blooming despair. But we were not too late. There was our flight and the crush of passengers boarding. We had time to laugh at our idiocy, to curse the unintelligible English of the Sriwijaya flight attendants. And so we got to Jakarta after all. Lucky.

Posted by chschen 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Comments (6)


Tangkoko Nature Reserve, Indonesia

Leaving Indonesia soon and feeling suddenly unprepared to go, though just a few weeks ago I was done with Asia and its heat and garbage and mosquitoes and spicy, MSG-riddled food. And not that I've seen much of Indonesia outside its diving spots and the sprawling, ojek-choked cities we only pass through, a night here and a night there at the most.

Most of the time I've had my head in a book, reading in the most mindless way--hungry, stupefied, without pause to contemplate but just a desire to push on and on until my dreams are filled with the characters and I lose the feeling of my own skin.

I needed it. Needed to be stuck at a dive resort so I could say I'd done my "sightseeing" (underwater) that day and could thus throw myself into reading without the guilt that we were wasting our time doing something we could do at home. Even writing I could not make room for. What was there to say? I only wanted to receive and receive and receive--retreat into someone else's normalcy. What has a snowy Boston morning and an icicle-framed window to do with here? And yet it feels blissfully fresh to me.

Even now I am only writing because I've finished a book. Nevertheless, a half-started Coetzee novel awaits, and my mind drifts toward it, to its sparse, melancholic language. I can scarcely keep my eyes on this page; they rove constantly toward the backpack...

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Bunaken, Indonesia

If you didn't like this weather you would call it an ugly day. The sky is low and gray, and the sea has darkened to match. Still, it is blessedly cool, with a tangled breeze chopping the water. I watch boats crisscrossing slowly in front of me.

Despite these peaceful surroundings, I feel troubled. Maybe it's merely a matter of sifting out the unuseful emotions from the useful ones. Nothing that disturbs me right now could possibly be useful since I could not ask for more from Bunaken, or life in general (except perhaps better health). The drizzle is all right. The gritty, trash-strewn beach is all right. The food and our room are much more than all right. Chris has gone off diving, and I have nothing to do all day--exactly how I want it. And yet.

I have been turning inward more and more lately. Perhaps my mind is saturated with new travel experiences, and nothing I see is coming in anymore. I feel, in a way, finished, though with what I cannot say. With Asia? We've exhausted ourselves these past few weeks. No wonder we feel constantly on the verge of sickness. Nothing heals but must always grow into a festering, unhappy wound. Obediently I slather on antibiotic ointment as Chris directs me, but I feel miserable and unsure. Constantly astonished that my body cannot seem to keep up. I shiver. Some breath of mortality blows up my spine.

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Death and Rain

Rain again. Every day it comes an hour earlier and lasts a bit longer.

By the time you get home the earlier part of the day has escaped you and already feels like a lifetime ago. What remains is the 4.5 hours you spent chatting with the Germal girl--you suddenly realize you've forgotten her name. When she told you you never knew it would be anything you had to remember, but of course if you spend the better part of a day with someone and even make plans to meet tomorrow...well, then a name becomes useful.

We have seen much today. As much blood and viscera as I expect to see in a lifetime. The mass butchery was a live lesson in anatomy. Of course that is the notion we tourists come away with, though for the people who mattered, the "real" attendees, it was a funeral ceremony. Sometimes we forgot this amid the bloodshed and laughter, but I had only to catch the grief on one woman's face to recall where we were and our interloper status. The dirges, too, were hauntingly sorrowful and, when coupled with the image of smouldering sow in the distance, strangely cinematic.

Everywhere was mud and meat. Smoking ruin. The glassy-eyed, detached heads of buffalo and pigs. Carcasses in varying stages of butchery. Blood the color and texture of paint. All those hack-'em blood-and-gore movies were accurate after all. How mysterious life seems when you see it fleeing the shuddering body of a slaughtered animal.

Mysterious and cheap. God must watch our deaths as indifferently as these men spitting casually into the mud. Certainly no one but a few startled tourists heeded the screams of the tied-up pigs. In that sense the animals' slaughter was a perfect backdrop for a funeral--a reminder not only of our mortality but also of our insignificance.

I don't deny I take a different perspective than the Toraja people may have intended to provoke with their ceremony. Perhaps I too infrequently encounter death that my thoughts on it are so quotidian--I can't see beyond the frightening fact that one day my own life will be snuffed out and, with me, all my world. Nothing will take me on; nothing will remain. My life, which consisted of nothing, will return to the nothing from whence it came. If someone once cared, he too will be nothing soon, and nothing will go on, not even the echo of an echo's echo.

And so I sit amongst the blood and flesh until the rain threatens and we leave in a daze.

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Mad Rain

Rantepao, Indonesia

The daily downpour has begun. A few warning pings on the corrugated metal roof and, just as you're wondering if you have enough time to get ready and slip out the door, the roar comes--so loud you must shout ridiculously to each other to be heard.

So we're stranded. Yesterday I was happy enough since I still had nearly a quarter of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet to devour, but our afternoon of rest quickly ate those pages up, and now I've only a new book to read, which I always begin reluctantly.

[Thoughts of future and writing, which I've mercifully spared you.]

I could be having these thoughts anywhere. I wouldn't have to be in Indonesia, watching the lightning storm from the little slice of sky our window affords me. But it is not my obligation to always write of traveling, to go dreamy or poetic or defiant or awed as each situation allows. I'm a person who lives mostly in my head, and my head is thick with itself sometimes, as now.

The rain has dropped to a murmur. Our chance to leave?

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