The last couple of days have been weird, wacky and exhilarating — the best kind of travel days.
Crone in the hostel
Yesterday started with breakfast at the hostel. I’m in love with the spicy, sticky Ramen-like noodles with a fried egg on top. Yum! Then I chatted in the lobby with a kid from Holland who is on a seven-month Asian adventure, and a man from Texas who is just beginning his travels. They were friendly and talkative, as most hostel folk are. Once in a while I get dirty looks from guests or staff members, but I don’t let it bother me. It’s not personal. Hostel kids are relishing a special freedom and independence, far from the adults in their lives, and I look like someone’s mom. They’re Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, and I’m a pirate. Their feelings would probably be hurt if they knew how little I care what they smoke, drink, or hook up with. Still, the majority of hostelers are super friendly and happy to hang out with me.
I found a cozy spot to work for a while, but when the wi-fi went out I went for a walk. I didn’t have any destination in mind. Lots of rickshaw drivers and guys on scooters and motorcycles offered me rides (any guy on a scooter is a taxi here) but I waved them off and kept walking.
There aren’t a lot of pedestrians in Jogja (the locals call Yogyakarta Jogja). Scooters and street food carts block the sidewalk every few feet, and you’re forced to swerve deep into the street to pass parked cars. These are frightening forays, because the streets are a chaos of cars, scooters, motorbikes, rickshaws, and horse-drawn carts, all going at different speeds. Lanes mean nothing here; even staying on the left half of the road is a guideline, not an imperative.
Indonesia is a nation of extroverts with warm, open smiles that reach all the way into their eyes, and they enjoy making small talk with strangers. That would be a special version of hell to some of my introverted friends, but I love it. At first I was suspicious; it was hard to tell who was being friendly, who was coming on to me, and who wanted to sell me something. A polite ‘no thank you’ does the trick here, though, and I’m learning to let my guard down.
So I wasn’t surprised when an older gentleman walking nearby introduced himself. He told me he works at an apotek (pharmacy) and walks to work every day. I told him I love to walk, and he said “Ah, same like me!” He told me about some things I should see in Jogja, including music at the Sultan’s Palace at 10am tomorrow, cockfighting at the bird market at 5pm, and a festival of live music happening as we spoke. At this point he sat down and marked the festival, and a nearby artist event, on my little map of Yogya. But, he said, the art event was 5 Km from here and ended in an hour; I’d never make it in time on foot.
I was worried that this man would be late to work, but he just kept smiling and chatting with me. Maybe chitchat is a legit excuse for tardiness here? He told me that I could get a becak (bicycle rickshaw,) for 20,000 rupees, but he recommended a moto for 10,000 and said he would help me get one.
In Peru, a moto taxi is like an Indian tuktuk, a motorcycle rickshaw. But here, like in Colombia, it pretty much means any random guy with a motorcycle or scooter who will give you a ride for cash. Motos are unmarked and unregulated, and you don’t get a helmet. I told my new friend thank you for the offer, but I’d like to keep walking for a while. (Did you know that traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for overseas tourists?)
Moments later, we came to another man on a scooter who said “Hello. Ride?” and pointed to the back of his seat. I’m pretty sure this was one of the guys I said “no” to a few blocks ago, but my new friend seemed to think it was a sign from the heavens. “See?” He pointed me toward the empty seat space and said “Thank you!” to the random moto driver and good bye to me, assuming he’d just granted me my dearest wish.
A smart woman with good boundary-setting skills would have declined. I am not that woman. I let myself be swept right onto that scooter in the energy of the moment, and soon I was tooling down the wrong side of the street with no helmet, trying to keep my boobs off the guy’s back and thinking “I wonder if this is what those tarot cards were trying to warn me about?”
People in third world countries, like poor people in the US (and I can say this, because I have been the latter), lead lives filled with unavoidable pain, disease, suffering, death, and loss. Privileged people don’t realize they are protected by a force field of problem-solving money, but poor people know they are not. This makes third-world people and the poor very fatalistic. They accept that bad things are going to happen sometimes, and they don’t feel like there’s much they can do about it. Hence the increased tendency among poor and third-world folks to take risks, use drugs, drink and drive, have unprotected sex — and to careen around like a maniac in the face of oncoming traffic on a scooter.
After a few minutes, I forced myself to relax into that fatalism. If it’s my time to go, I’ll go willingly. Death is inevitable, and I’m just as curious to explore whatever comes next as I am to explore this world. I’m not in a hurry, but I’m not afraid either. Besides, I’d rather die riding to a festival on a scooter in Indonesia than live a long, boring life of safety. That’s a choice I’ve made, and I’m committed to it. Of course, I’m more likely to be stuck with a painful, expensive broken leg than death, but still… I was once in awe of tourists who were bold enough to have these “authentic” spur-of-the-moment local experiences. I never thought I’d have the ovaries to do it; now that I’m here I might as well enjoy it!
****please note that I don’t recommend jumping on the back of a moto — it’s a terrible idea. I’m only recommending that you chill out about it if you find yourself on one.****
Eventually we pulled into a small side street and stopped in front of a batik shop. My driver, Yono, waved me inside. This was not the art festival I’d been promised — in fact, there were spiffier batik shops and galleries near my hostel. But I know how these guys operate. A tuktuk driver in Goa once got honest with me when I balked at entering yet another store. “I know you don’t want to buy. But please, will you just go inside? They give me money if you just go inside.” Yono wasn’t as straightforward as my Goan tuktuk driver but I know the drill. I could be righteously angry that I wasn’t taken directly where I asked to go, or I could stay happy and enjoy whatever the “tourist bum’s rush” brings me. I try to choose joy, so I went in the shop with an open heart.
The place was an explosion of colors and shapes, with batiks in frames stacked everywhere. My mother loved batik, and it’s an art form I’ve personally mangled more than once, so I know how challenging it is. I met the owner of the shop, Harry (Hari?), and let myself be led to the back, where one of his students painstakingly applying tiny wax beads to her fabric. Harry explained the process, showed me the waxes and dyes used, then offered a cup of mineral water for my diesel-raw throat while I looked through the racks. One stack of student pieces reminded me so much of my mother that my knees nearly buckled. If you’ve lost a loved one, I don’t have to tell you how it feels to be taken off guard like that. She would have loved this journey so much. I was glad I had stumbled here by mistake, just to have that emotional moment with her memory.
I don’t buy souvenirs as a rule, because anything I buy I have to carry around the world on my back. But batik is lightweight, and can fold up and fit in a baggie. I made a game of recognizing Harry’s work; he has a knack for capturing movement and energy in his designs. Harry and I negotiated a special rate for two pieces, so I picked up some Javanese dancers for myself and one of the student works in memory of my mom.
Yono and his Scooter Of Doom were waiting for me when I came out of the shop. I had no idea where I was at this point, so I jumped on the back and asked him to take me back where he found me. When he dropped me off, we arranged for him to pick me up the next morning at 9:30 so I could see the music at the Sultan’s Palace. We’ll see if I actually wind up where I asked to go.
to be continued…