Saturday, November 28, 2009

Turkey / Train

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday I had me a travelin’ adventure. Wednesday was a trippy trippy day. I had no class until 12 o’clock, so I opted to come to school late and work on some lesson plans at home. Upon arriving at school around 11:30 or so, I find that there is a local TV news team there awaiting my arrival. No warning, no “Hey Thom, so we called Channel One, and guess what? They want to make you the most famous Buleh in Semarang!”
“So Thoms, you must tell them about the condition of the students.”
“What do you mean the condition? Like Mint condition….?
“You must tell them about the intelligence of the students…the quality of the school…how much you love Semarang.”
I had to put on my acting hat and tell all of central Java how great my school was. After being interviewed in front of the school sign, the camera guy shot a lot of creepy candid photos of me getting markers out of desk, talking to my counterpart, and digging through my backpack for my explosives, I mean notebook.

This week in class I was teaching different parts of the body with my students, and started my off by doing head, shoulders, knees, and toes. The cameraman took this as an opportunity to get artistic/creepy with his shots, getting low to the floor, close up, and holding the camera at an angle, while I bent forward singing, struggling to touch my toes, all while encouraging my students to join me in looking like an ass on television. After we finished the song, the cameraman left. No actual teaching was going to be filmed, no drawing, no repeat after me, no board-races, just me looking stupid and overly enthusiastic.

Later that night, I played Futsol with the buleh buleh, punched home a few goals, and headed home. At this point I would typically be going to sleep, but on this night there would be no rest. At 1:30 my taxi showed up to take me the train station for my 3:20 train- He was suppose to come at 2:00, but I suppose he wanted to get some z’s as well. Anyway, I get to the station around 2:00, and have an hour and change to kill.

The station was similar to any other sketchy American depot- dimly light, Dunkin Donut-ified, and filled with sketchy types selling food/ drink and sleeping on Cardboard. All but one bench in the entire depot was filled with waiting/sleeping people clutching their bags like babies. Next to me sat a very old women who sat upon her cardboard covered bench as though it were her throne and she was the queen of the train station. She propped her bony misshapen feet up high on the end of the bench, to display the callous’ on the bottom of her feet, sorta like a chopped down elder Oak showing its rings. She talked to me in toothless, mush mouth, Indonesian/ Javanese. She grabbed my arm and squeezed my bicep, asked me if I was married, where I came from. I told her everything I could manage, she stroked a spotted white cat with a knobbed tail and distorted her facial expressions as she tried to make out the stumbling sentences of this clumsy foreigner. She mimed to me to put everything from my pockets into my backpack and to go to sleep. I told her I wasn’t sleepy. After a few minutes she, herself nodded off, pulling her knees to her stomach, lofting a batik cloth over slight frame, and resting her head upon her weary hands. She slept like a semi-active volcano, unleashing periodic coughs of smoker’s lung or tuberculosis.

3:20 AM came and went, as did a plethora of other trains. Trains for Jakarta, Trains full of packages, trains packed with standing people, broken windows and flickering florescent lights. 4:00 A.M., “belum” (not yet, soon) a tea vendor tells me. 4:38, “belum” says the train worker, 5:00 “Belum”. Finally 5:20 AM- my eyes barely able to stay open- my mind barely able to believe that my train bound for Surabaya was finally here. I hopped across two sets of tracks, and into my train car, where a man was occupying my seat. He left without words or shame-just hustling, can’t blame a guy. I watched the sun rise above power lines, fishponds, and smoke stacks. I leaned back in my chair, turned on some tunes, and dreamed about pumpkin pie.

I woke up a couple hours later to find my train among a lot of nothing- rice paddies on flat green plains in every direction. Small women with big pointy straw hats alongside rowdy 11-year-old boys who scream, wave, and throw rocks at the trains as they pass. I suddenly understood where the crack in my window came from.

Sometimes when you listen to music while traveling or doing something active, on occasion without intent, things align perfectly, almost serendipitously. As Casmir Pulaski Day faded away in my headphones, so did the country. The moment my body passed the threshold of Surabaya’s first building, Sufjan’s “Chicago” jangled ecstatic in my ears. I was suddenly rushing through a tunnel of buildings and motorbikes, and I felt as though the city was built to the song, that a groove was pressed into the brick and mortar, and the train was a needle unleashing a long awaited welcome. I felt like a child with their nose against the window, taking the enormity of things flying by. It’s been a long time.

From the train station I caught a taxi to Cassie’s palatial manor, where I caught up with a crew of ETA’s that I hadn’t seen since September. We traded anecdotes, ate Thai food at the mall, and went to a cool Buddhist temple by the ocean, before heading off for the feast.

Around 5:30ish we got to the consulate general’s house for Thanksgiving. I felt I had died and gone to heaven- glasses of wine, beer, and mango juice for the taking. 5 Turkeys! 5 f’ing Turkey’s cooked and cut exquisitely onto silver platters alongside mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, sweet potatoes, salad (didn’t touch it), some tofu thing, ham, cranberry sauce, bread, pumpkin pie and cheese cake. I ate four plates of food. I haven’t been that full since thanksgiving the year before. I was so thankful. So thankful for my incredible family and friends, for the opportunities available to me in life, for laughter, for love, for creativity, and for food, glorious bountiful plates of food paid for by the US Government and its wonderful tax-payers.

I immediately passed out after the meal and woke up early the next morning. I ventured to the train station to see if I could get lucky and catch early train. Unfortunately, the train station I went to had no trains going to Semarang that day, but a “nice” old taxi driver that spoke English directed me to a place where I could buy a ticket for a train out of another station. I bought a ticket and the old guy a cup of coffee. We spoke English for a while- He told me about his life as a hustler in Surabaya, directing traffic, selling papers, and offering private taxi tours. I appreciated his hustling and new that I was no more than another buleh, another job, a little money to him. But listening to his story, his struggle with identity as a man of Chinese origin in Indonesia, his thoughts on the state of country were consuming. Not to mention the unusually large tufts of hair coming out of his dangly, long-lobed ears. I avoided as politely as possible his offers of service and parted with what I thought was good information about the location of the other train station.

After heading back to Cassie’s, seeing a goat get its head chopped off for Idul Adha (essentially Indonesian Thanksgiving with a twist), I headed off and waited at Royale Mall (near the train station) for a couple of hours. After picking up some snacks and getting a really bad massage via shitty massage chair, I headed to the train station with half-an hour to wait for my train.

When I arrived, the ticket man at the gate, informed me that this was not the correct station, and that the one I was suppose to be going to was 17 kilometers away. Fuck Fuck Fuck. The guy rushed me to a cab with no meter, and a nice mulleted guy drove me calmly into traffic jam after traffic jam. I was sure I wasn’t going to make it, almost positive. I would ask how far away the station was and the taxi driver would repeatedly say, “um, maybe 10 km”. I wanted to die. Anything I liked about Surabaya was whisked away with thoughts of its terrible traffic, its misinforming hustlers, and its shitty, shitty, massage chairs.

As quickly as things went bad, things went well again. After a short cut down a few empty streets, the mulleted man delivered me magically at the door of the station. Had the train left yet, “Belum” says the parking attendant. I felt electric. I tossed the driver a 50k and ran through the station ecstatic/alive/still slightly terrified. I hopped across the platforms, over the tracks, onto my car and into my seat with the broken foot stand. I didn’t give a shit, I was going home. I breathed a 5 hour sigh of relief.

Perhaps I was thankful for more than I thought- more than just food, family, and what not. I was thankful for the kindness of strangers and the adventures of their strange land. I was thankful for a sense of place, a home where I made it. I was thankful for Semarang. A shock, a surprise, a blessing.

Sorry this is so long…


PS: If you read this, could you please leave a comment. I'd like an idea of how many people actually look at this.


  1. Thom! I read your blog. I even read the humorous bits out loud to whoever is so lucky as to be in the room with me at the time.

  2. hahahahahaha wonderful...can't wait for more motorbike photos