“I’m coming for you, Jogja, and this time,” I clinched my fists at my sides, “it’s personal.”
“What are you mumbling about?” Andy yelled over the din of traffic, already hefting her backpack from the taxi’s trunk. An endless stream of Jakarta headlights and blaring horns rumbled between us and the train station. “Are you still mad about last time?”
I didn’t answer—just gritted my teeth, grabbed my pack, and darted into the traffic—the last thing standing between me and the Gambir Train Station, Central Jakarta, and my revenge on Jogja. By the way, have you ever played that old Atari game Frogger? That’s me crossing streets here in Jakarta. Sometimes I even make 8-bit electronic beeps, just for fun.
And she was darn right I hadn’t forgotten about last time.
It was only two weeks ago—another balmy Friday full of good old air pollution and five million people taking two lane roads to malls and movie theaters. Another Friday with backpacks in a taxi’s trunk and weekend planned for Jogjakarta—Java’s wonderland of cultural gemstones, NatGeo worthy landscapes, a world-class world-famous world-renowned Borbudur temple—big as a dozen barns, piled high with hundreds of buddhas and etched deep with thousands of narrative scenes, and an indispensable check mark for any serious Indonesia tourist.
But snagging a weekend escape to old Jogja and its temples had proven trickier than I thought.
To begin with, it’s the most annoying city in the world to book travel to, because no one spells it the same way. Some start it with a J, some with a Y, and most websites alphabetize it under whichever spelling they didn’t go with. The confusion most likely stems from the fact that no one outside of a Javanese chieftain or a pretentious linguist who likes to sneer at Midwestern accents for exotic place-names, can pronounce it as it should be pronounced. The most accurate transcription I’ve seen is probably “Djogdja-karta,” which is nearly always shortened to “Djodgja,” which carries a noticeable inflection on both syllables—think DJOADG-JA, so it truly sounds as if you’ve just invented a horrifying new villain for a sci-fi flick, or you’re performing a vicious kung-fu chop on a rival master who has disgraced your dojo.
Aside from having to pick through drop-down lists with a fine-toothed comb, all the flights—and there are only about two dozen flying daily between the two “-kartas”—were booked solid. Well, at least any flights leaving me reasonable time on the ground and cash in the account. So I said I’d take the train. I love trains. I’d been itching to try one out here on Java.
So after scrolling through list and timetables and endless websites on the issue, I went and didn’t book any train tickets.
Oh, I tried to, all right, but mischievous little rapscallion that Jogja is, she wouldn’t let me. Each time I tried to finalize—either online or at the local convenience store (Indonesia’s railway allows you to book tickets through two of the most mainstream junk-food outlets in the city—about eighteen thousand of each are strewn throughout the metropolis, each no bigger than a hamster’s closet and stocked with nothing you wouldn’t consider handing out to trick-or-treaters), the system was down. The system was down. The system was down. I wasn’t worried, though—I could always buy from the station.
Or so I thought. Sprinting out of the taxi that night—the first night, I mean—that first night two weeks prior when we first attempted the trip, I nearly fell on the floor from leg cramps and peed my jeans from an unexpected double-hour stuck in traffic. It wasn’t a pretty sight. My bladder has nearly forgiven me, but not quite. Oh, did I not mention a traffic jam? Yeah, we were stuck in traffic a full two revolution of the old time piece.
We tried to avoid this too—by insisting the driver take to the supposedly-high-speed-less-traffic-toll roads, at the exorbitant price of approximately 0.70 USD—but to no avail. Each exit was blocked solid with standstill traffic a kilometer upstream. Andy and I alternated yawns and handwringing as the clock and taxi meter rolled ever onward.
Apparently the jam was spawned by a massive number of people insisting on going out and flooding the local malls and restaurants. As far as I can tell, it’s something of a tradition:
“Hey, it’s Friday. Whatcha wanna do?”
“I was kinda thinkin’ of sitting around and doin’ nothing”.
“Huh. Wanna do that in the car? We can look at brake lights, listen to mindless radio banter…”
“Eh. Why not? Beats sitting at home.”
“Yeah. Plus we can stare at buhles in the taxis crawling past.”
I know, I know, tons of cities complain about their traffic woes, and lest you think Jakarta is just another case of a citizen whining about minor annoyances, consider the following figures: (1) Jakarta is the second-largest metropolitan area in the world, according to the most recent population figures available on Wikipedia, and (2) according to a Nat Geo Megacities documentary dating a few years back (I think you can still catch it here), most Western urban sprawls with more consistent traffic flow sport upward of 20% of land area to transportation infrastructure. Jakarta is around 5%. So we got reasons for our beef.
Anyway, that hundred-thousand car pile-up known as a Jakarta weekend is exactly where the trip started to turn bad. The next was when it started raining, but that’s not so awful, I guess. The third was when I sprinted out of the taxi… wait, you already heard that line.
So as soon as I dodged the half-thousand people milling aimlessly around the entrance and putting the ashtrays through their paces, each adding his own special touch to Jakarta’s collective lungs, even before I reached the ticket counter, a seedy-looking guy wearing a triumphant smirk came bearing down on me.
“Train to Jogja finished. Habis. No seat!” He was practically bouncing for joy. He saw a white guy with a backpack and knew exactly where I was headed. I saw exactly where he was going and shouldered my way past.
“No seats!” He yelled after me. “Habis! I driver. I take you there my car!”
I knew it would probably be true, but I confirmed it at the ticket counter anyway: ten minutes to train time, and nothing doing for a seat on any train. Nothing for the later train, either. Or for the trains next weekend. And there were only a few for the weekend after that. Oh, Indonesian railways, why don’t you put a half-dozen more cars on that train and let us all ride in comfort?
Andy and I looked at one another—hotel booked, bags in hands, scheduled sketched, even sandwiches prepped for snacking on the midnight special—and in that moment, just at that time when we realized Jogja has served us one more tricky turn….
He was back.
“See just how I say it. All gone.” He was squirming through a sick little jig. “Habis.” The drizzle outside had turned into a torrent.
We retreated to the war room of a nearby café specializing in sticky floors and scurrying roaches—we needed to get online and plan. Planning is tough, though, when you’re booking a flight, on a weekend, leaving in a matter of hours, stuck in rain and traffic, and no one can agree on how the city’s name should be spelled.
“Habis!” He was back—trailed us right into our war room café. “I have two seat more. Two seat more. For you and mister,” he cried in his shrill voice. Train Haaaabbbiiiiiiiiissss!” He reached a glorious falsetto, palms spread to heaven and the diner’s glow radiating on his straining face…
OK, so maybe that’s an exaggeration—but only a tiny one.
We didn’t take him up on his shady microvan. We shrugged and headed home—another hour and another ten bucks burned in a taxi—, ate our sullen sandwiches as the clock stuck all-zeroes, and called to change the hotel dates. Set it up two weeks from now, please.
That was the scene two weeks ago. “This time, it’s personal.” Fists white-knuckled at my sides.
This time, I’d only spent an hour in gridlocked traffic. This time, I’d gone to a different junk-food mart and booked the travel. This time, I’d show Jogja, or Yogja, or whatever, exactly who the boss might be. This time, it wasn’t just a weekend romp among the cloud-scratching volcanoes of central Java—this time, it was a vendetta.
I ran headlong into the frogger-style street, ready to change the world—or, better yet, to take a weekend off from changing the world. I’d been doing too much of that lately and needed a break.
This time a different driver accosted me at the entrance: “Trains to Jogja—” I slapped my receipt in his face. He scurried away, vanquished. I strutted to the ticket counter and slammed that receipt on the counter. “Two tix to Jogja, my good man!”
“Yes, mister. Right away.”
I never knew vendettas could feel so gratifying. I should try these more often. I could feel Jogja squirming under my boot. But she wasn’t finished yet. Oh no, she recovered nicely, calmly serving up—on 80s-style, perforated-string-of-hole-punches-along-the-margins paper—two tickets in seats about a kilometer apart on the train.
“What! You didn’t get us seats together!” Andy was giving me one of “those looks.”
“And your phone is out of credit.”
Oh, by the way, my phone had just run out of credit, so talking across all those other strangers in all those other cars would be slightly difficult.
“I won’t be able to sleep.”
“This is gonna be the wors—“ I was already on my way back to the ticket booth.
Fortunately, not all Indonesians are the greasy touts with microvans who rejoice in your misfortune. I found a kindly gentleman with a walkie-talky and railway uniform and asked for help in my best broken Bahasa. His laughing eyes drew steely in an instant. He stroked his mustache slowly, asked me again what the problem was, then drew a ten-inch bowie knife from its sheath, slathered on a swath of eye-black, and sprinted into the jungle of passengers already boarding the train.
I fought to keep up. At the train, I found him personally interviewing each of the whirling passengers in a half-dozen different wagons, urgently explaining the situation to each, until together we somehow managed to shame some pour souls into switching seats with us.
Those guys—those are the kind of generous, open-hearted, and resourceful Indonesians that might make my Jogja revenge successful yet. Welcome aboard, comrades. I salute you. It’s a pleasure to serve alongside.
Grateful, relieved, and more than a bit embarrassed, Andy and I were reduced to slinking into our seats, red-faced and with the entire train watching us, and readying for the overnight haul ‘cross Java. Jogja would prove no easy foe for my vendetta, but I wasn’t going to be taken down so easily. As the train clattered out of the station, I closed my eyes and prepared my next move.
To be continued…