I am privately watching and grieving for the families in Indonesia. The plane left from Surabaya bound for Singapore. I listen impatiently as the American news anchor stumbles over the pronunciation of the city’s name. When I first heard the news, I immediately thought, “How many Americans? Was he on that flight?” When I heard no Americans were on board, I felt relieved but then saw a million other faces.
The news was not good; bloated naked bodies floating, bits and pieces of luggage the plane’s route traced on a map, the airport scenes of anguish. I concentrate on the Indonesian Officials, hoping to understand, once again, a language that was once central to my daily communication. I try to erase the cultural boundaries and see through to their emotions.
In May of 1982 I took a solo train trip across the Island of Java to attend a wedding in Surabaya. It was supposed to be a sixteen hour trip. Ultimately, it was over twenty-four hours long and brought me deep into Indonesian’s culture. The music, the food, and the traditions washed over me as I watched the scene unfolding on the news.
I will excerpt the trip here for those who have not read it in my novel, you can skip to the end if you’ve read this before…
Trains Across Java
Journal Entry, 5/18/82 – On the way to Surabaya
So this is to be my seat for the next sixteen-plus hours. I had rather expected something a bit more private, but at least I’m finally on the train. I had a two-day delay when I realized that I would just have to reshoot the photos of the Hotel Indonesia for the postcard job we are working on. The political slogans on the flags and banners were prolific, and there was no way to crop them out.
It’s incredibly hot in here; smells something like a barnyard, and we haven’t even left the station. Already an hour and a half late, and no signs of movement. My hands are sticking to the page as I write and a drop of sweat just trickled into my ear.
It’s now 7:30 p.m. We have been underway for at least a half hour but still haven’t left the city limits. The air conditioning that was advertised seems to be starting up slowly or perhaps I’m just getting used to the heat.
It’s now 10:30 p.m. Air conditioning is working, dinner is over, and most of the other passengers are sleeping. We are supposed to have twelve hours left to go, but I’m betting this will take longer. The lack of privacy was unexpected, as I paid for a “first class” seat. We have eighteen rows of seats in each train car, two on either side of the aisle. I have a window seat, and on my right is a young Indonesian guy who is a bit too attentive. On the other hand, it was nice to have him lead the way to the dining car. Dinner was three train cars back. Th e crossing between cars was a narrow platform as we chugged along in the dark. The menu was typical, traditional fare: sayur asam (Tamarind vegetable soup), rice, and fried tempeh. The only other foreigners on the train are a Dutch couple. They are probably in their late twenties and do not represent their country well. Indonesians are sticklers for cleanliness even under the poorest conditions. These two are scruffy-looking hippies with really bad body odor.
Midnight, and we’ve made it to Cirebon. Our last stop was in the middle of nowhere. I went forward to check out the facilities and struck up a conversation with a steward. He figures we will make Surabaya by noon, give or take an hour. Though the Bima train from Yogyakarta back to Jakarta is more expensive, it doesn’t stop at every village and town along the way, so I may opt for that on the way home.
It’s now 4:00 a.m. Pekanlongan is behind us, and it is on to Semarang where they say we will change locomotives and, hopefully, pick up some time. I have discovered what it is that smells like a rotting pumpkin—the blanket/sheet/cover the stewards passed out to us when we were all dying from the heat. It’s cool now, but I think I’ll forgo use of said cover.
It’s 7:30 a.m. The sun is up, and Semarang is behind us. We are moving slowly through the villages. Kids of every shape and size line the rails, waving, laughing, and pointing as though they’ve never seen a train before although this train passes every day. The houses look so frail—woven, palm-leaf walls supporting orange ceramic tile roofs. One can’t help but wonder what a good, strong wind would do. I marvel at the occupants’ faith in the elements.
Not much sleep last night, but I really can’t complain. This is a magical journey all by myself to the heart of Java. Anto’s sister is to be married in a traditional Javanese ceremony, and I have the honor of photographing it. From Semarang they say it will be anywhere from six to eight hours. I just hope Anto can meet me at the station.
5/20/82 – Surabaya
I had wanted so very much to start writing about my arrival last night, but when I finally got to bed, I was utterly exhausted. Anto met me at the station and brought me back to his parents’ house. I was so tired and confused by a million introductions that I constantly felt left out and on the verge of tears.
His mother had made arrangements for me to stay with family friends down the street. It is heavenly! I have a lovely, large room with a double bed, three mirrors, and a fan. Much to my delight, I even have a guling pillow, better known as a “Dutchman’s wife” (body pillow). I barely had time to bathe before heading back to Anto’s house for the start of the festivities.
The beginning ceremonies were for the bride, a blessing from her parents—the ritualistic bathing followed by cutting her hair into an intricate pattern around her face. It was all a bit confusing to me, and trying to photograph while staying out of everyone’s way was frustrating. Just when I thought things were finishing up, the groom and his entourage appeared to meet with the parents of the bride. Today is the actual wedding ceremony, and the reception will be held tonight.
While I understand that Anto was needed for the ceremony and reception, it was difficult being on my own in all this. There were so many people who not only knew each other, but also knew exactly what was going on. I needed a tour guide. All anyone ever said to me was “Makan, makan—sudah capai?” which loosely translates into “Eat, eat before it is all gone.” It’s as if they all thought I only understood three words.
In truth, the wedding was beautiful and dream-like with all the ceremonies and costumes. I was a bit taken aback by this morning’s proceedings. The bride did not appear until the paperwork was signed between the families formalizing the dowry. An awful dose of chauvinism that I hadn’t expected.
When all this is over, Anto and I are headed to Yogyakarta for a week of shooting temples and such. I can’t get out of here fast enough.
I shut off the news and look at myself in the blank screen on the television, thirty-three years later. I step outside, wrapping my arms around myself in the chill night air and listened. The wind whispers back to me in the pines and in the distance I see first, then hear, a jet headed to Manchester Airport. Amid the stars, a light is moving toward a destination and will arrive as planned.