Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Monday, September 5, 2011

Slow Train To Mojokerto

We stood on the platform at Gambir station looking down upon the Immanuel Church, built in 1839 in the heart of the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

Bhinneka Tunggal Ika: “Unity In Diversity”, goes the saying.

I had once lived in ibukota Jakarta, for eight years in what now seems another lifetime. But this was the first time I would ride one of her trains. We were travelling to Mojokerto, in Java’s east. Boarding was less chaotic than expected: I’d previously seen television footage of the platform jostling and all-round railway station mayhem that accompanied the ritual of mudik (or pulang kampung – literally: “return to village”).

During Lebaran, the period that follows Eid ul-Fitr, hundreds of thousands if not millions of city workers return to their villages of origin in order to participate in the annual family reunion. It is here that they seek their parents’ forgiveness for any shortcomings or sins – past, present and future.

Mohon ma’af lahir dan batin (“please forgive me, body and soul”).

Fortunately, we’d managed to precede the peak of the exodus from the capital by a couple of days. As a result, the ritual scrum was nothing more than a brushed shoulder here or there. We settled into our reasonably comfortable seats in what was a clean carriage and awaited the start of our twelve-hour journey. Being someone that always wants to be somewhere else, I was excited at the prospect.

The driver honked the train’s impressive horn with authority and we pulled away on schedule: the first example of Swiss timing I’d ever experienced in this country, which is better known for jam karet (“rubber time”). As we clanked our way over the sleepers, gradually picking up speed, I was reminded from this elevated angle of some of the districts I used to frequent: Menteng, Cikini, Manggarai, Jatinegara, Cakung, Bekasi… In the fading light we were slowly making our way east out of the great traffic-choked metropolis.

Indonesian flags, the merah-putih, were hung from almost every building along route. Already a week after Independence Day, they were still fluttering proudly in the evening breeze, a symbol of national pride. I reflected on whether the same scene would be played out in my own country, were we to hold our own National Day. Having witnessed the scenes of rioting, looting and gratuitous violence that were broadcast to the world from England barely two weeks earlier, I doubted it.

Further east we clattered and rocked, past wall-to-wall housing of irregular height and no planning, interrupted only by the narrow perpendicular roads that were crammed with a thousand revving motorcycles waiting to cross the tracks after our passage. Past corrugated iron shanty whose roofs were held down by loose rocks, in front of which burning piles of rubbish turned the setting sun red. Where still the merah-putih flapped in the occasional waft of smoke-filled wind. Past the wide drainage canals that were clogged with refuse and the occasional open area of red earth, where rabbles of children played makeshift games of football while others lounged on sofas that had once been indoors, as they waited for Maghrib and the breaking of fast. Past the occasional neat square of paddy, watched over by a solitary soul, squatting, and where multicoloured flags had been thrust into the marshland at intervals to ward off marauding emprit (a type of bird). And finally, at dusk, past a single, detached hut constructed of cardboard and wood that was in all likelihood bereft of water or electricity, where a woman was stood bent over a fire outside, poking it, and where still the merah-putih flew.

Not for the first time, I wondered what it took to govern such a country, and how such loyalty was conjured.

Across the plains of Java we rattled, passing Cirebon… It grew dark and the adzan was broadcast over the train’s tannoy. All around came the rustling of plastic and the ping of elastic bands releasing greaseproof paper wrappings as meals that had been prepared at home or purchased at the station were hurriedly disgorged and devoured. The carriage fell silent as everyone took in some much needed sustenance. Within minutes a low hubbub had returned as the weary travellers, bellies full and now lounging like pampered cats, chatted idly about the next instalments in what would prove an overnight feast of which Henry VIII might have boasted. There were several stops along the way, with each offering its own regional speciality as food vendors boarded the end-of-carriage gangways to ply their trade. “Sale pisang! Sale! Sale!” yelled the first of these as we stopped in Purwokerto. (Pronounced “salay”, this is a sweet snack made from dried bananas). “Getuk goreng! Getuk goreng!” called another. (Mashed cassava, deep fried.) On through the night we trundled to a familiar rhythm. “Gudeg!” came the cry in Tugu Yogyakarta (sweet young jackfruit soup). Then past Solobalapan to Madiun… where “Pecel Madiun!”, a selection of vegetables enwrapped in banana leaf, seemed to attract the most custom. Finally, the imsya’ was broadcast, signalling the start of the new day’s fast, when most settled down for a bit of shut-eye.

Nganjuk, Kertosono, Jombang…

Having read Bruce Chatwin’s gem “Why Am I Here” throughout the journey, I was just dropping off when, at around five a.m., we reached our destination. There aren’t many transport options from Mojokerto railway station at this time of the morning, particularly during Ramadan, but fortunately I was in the hands of my capable brother-in-law who quickly organised a fleet of becaks. A becak (the ‘c’ is pronounced ‘ch’) is a variation on a bicycle rickshaw, the difference being that the passenger sits in front while the “grunt” is applied from behind. Push rather than pull, in other words. Normally the passenger seat (there is no compartment as such) is good for two, even three: I had trouble squeezing into mine on my own. Off we set in near darkness in our unlit “vehicles” in convoy. “Aku mati!” (“I’m dying!”) yelled my guy to his comrades in reference, no doubt, to my bulk. But it was a pleasant journey in the pre-dawn breeze of this provincial East Java town. That is until we came to a main thoroughfare where two large trucks crossed quite close in front of us and we had to thread our way into what was, even at this hour, reasonably lively traffic. Before long, however, we’d arrived at the family home to a traditionally warm welcome where I was shown to a room and told to rest while some perfunctory maintenance was carried out on its ageing aircon unit.

I slept all day.

posted by Kirk at 5:06 am  

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress