Good Energy

The guys at Good Energy have been really supportive and excited about the expedition, so much so that they have made a contribution which allows me to keep the blog regularly updated during the expedition, so they and everyone else can follow the journey. Good Energy supplies 100% renewable electricity sourced from wind, water, sun and sustainable biomass. CO2 from coal-fired electricity generation is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Switch your electricity supply to Good Energy using this link and not only will you be supporting the pioneering community of independent green generators, but for every sign up they get they’ll make another donation to help get the bus around the world. It helps you cut your personal CO2 emissions, helps them grow a great business, and helps me get round the world.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Road to Jakarta

I’ve had a religious moment. In fact I’ve decided that the whole journey from KL to Jakarta has been a religious moment.

Right from the start it seemed unclear if travelling overland and sea from KL to Jakarta was even possible. From the start the only certainty was the flying “You should take the plane.” the ticket girl told me as I bought a one way ferry ticket to Batam “For less than 50 euro” pressing her point.

“I don’t like to fly” I tried to explain, hearing the voice of the A-Team’s BA Baracus finishing the sentence in my head “ fool!” His meaty finger pointing at me, reminding me of what an idiot I must seem.

Why would any sane person not like to fly? The single serving sterile meals, the unique feel of the seat reclining button, the reassuring softness of the hostess call tone, the sexual allure of the cabin crew uniforms, and the glossy aspirations of the in flight magazine. Like a retarded Luddite the flyphobes must be afraid of technology. Afraid of crashing? That’s such an 80’s fear. In the age of budget airlines, where as Air Asia’s tag line puts it, “Now everyone can fly”, no one is afraid to fly anymore, and if they are, they get over it. My fear is that everyone will.

Batam is a small island 45minutes from Singapore by high speed ferry. It’s part of Indonesia, and as I clear immigration, I ask if there is a ferry to Sumatra. There is, it leaves at 7am. It’s already 9pm. I see a taxi, a cheap hotel, a food court, fend off a prostitute that follows me up to the door of my room, sleep, then I see another taxi and another high speed ferry.

In that short time I already know that I like Indonesians. They laugh hysterically at me because of my towering height. The laughter is so infectious that I can’t get upset or defensive. And I am twice the height of most of the people I meet. It is funny. I joke back about how short they are, and the laughter triples.

The ferry takes four hours, I’m told. Eight hours later it lands in Sumatra. “Is this Canburu?” I ask. The town I’m looking for is actually called Pekan Boru, but I still haven’t seen it written and my phonetic mimicking is accurate enough to be understood. It’s a bus ride away. The bus is full. My pack is loaded onto the roof, and I stand in the open doorway feeling the cool air and sporting a congratulatory smile on how gritty I must look. After 20minutes bouncing over potholes, avoiding the vomiting passenger to my right, the whipping long grass to my left and the chain smoking drivers-mate who darts urgently through the non-existent gaps between bodies collecting baggage money, I try to ask how long the journey to Canburu will take. It’s a question that requires some miming, pointing at my watch, up and down the road, but with both hands tightly wrapped in a death grip around parts of the bus framework that I think can hold my weight during the violent veering it takes another 10 minutes before I’m understood.

The answer comes much faster than the question. “Three”.

We arrive at 3? No, that was when we left. Three more minutes? I muse optimistically. But it sinks in that the missing word is “hours” and sure enough four hours later I un-curl my fingers from the rusted door frame and relearn the use of my legs as the bus pulls up in Pekan Boru.

“Where are you going?” asks the drivers-mate.
“Jakarta” I reply.
“Taxi, airport, fly” he instructs.
“No I don’t like to fly” I’m a fool.

There is a bus to Jakarta I learn. How long does it take? Two. Two? That’s not so bad. I just did Three and survived, what’s another Two? But the ticket costs more than the flight from Singapore. I shop around and find a cheaper ticket and in the process decipher that the Two in this case is days. I sink.

There’s a lot of moving and fuss to get me into a seat. People are dislodged from seats with more leg room by the ticket agent. Interfering seatbacks are rightended, there’s is much laughing at my height and inability to fit in the first few seats I try. But eventually I wedge myself into the window seat next to Irfan who offers me a clove cigarette as he lights one up for himself. A small celebration goes around the bus that I’ve been able to fit.

After asking my name Irfan second question is about my religion. I ponder my predicament and as if to explain why I’m 20 minutes in to a 48 hour bus ride which could have been over in 75 minutes 2 days ago, for less money, I tell him “I’m a Rationalist, and quite extreme.” My arms are waving frenetically trying not to drown in the irony.
“Like Christian?” he asks confused.
“No Rationalist. It’s very different” I declare sternly. He accepts it and later when he asks why I didn't fly from Pekan Boru to Jakarta I tell him that it’s against my religion. Another passenger asks for my favourite number so he can buy a lottery ticket. He asks me if I want to buy one. “No thanks, my religion prevents me” I declare proudly. I then try to explain that only gambling where the odds are against you is forbidden, but the language barrier is too much and I admit defeat leaving the impression of Rationalism must be a pious joyless religion.

By now Irfan has adjourned everyone on the bus about me. At a rest-stop, while the waiter lays out 10 dishes in front of me to choose from in the pay-as-you-eat and I finally understand the pay-as-you-eat system, I hear Irfan at the table behind me saying “Inglis” and “London”, and turn to find him and eight other men staring at me nodding. I make out other words “Switz” about my Taiwanese Rolex and “nokia” about my phone accompanied by more nodding, before one cracks a quick quip and laughter erupts as they point at my long legs coiled up by the low seat. I’m all elbows and knees, and I can’t help laughing too.

Irfan has also told everyone I’m running out of rupees, a feat made easier by being charmingly stiffed every time I have to pay for something. The other passengers buy me tea and water bottles, pass me biscuits and dried fish. The only way I feel I can return their generosity is by accepting and ingesting all gifts. By the time I wake to dawn for the second time on the bus my feet are swollen like my grandmothers, and my arse is numb, but religiously clenched.

Perched on stools in the aisle, a woman is sleeping against my legs, while her husband’s head rests on my shoulder, his long hair tickling my neck, as their baby’s legs rest motionless on my lap. My seat back has broken so we are all four reclined into the lap of the mother and child in the seat behind me.

I wrestle my way to the front of the bus to sit with the driver and drivers-mate hoping this first change in posture for 10 hours might stem the Deep Vein Thrombosis and atrophy which must by now surely be inevitable. They take turns to touch my legs and discuss how they are more solid than expected. More jokes are thrown forward from the first four rows. In return, they offer me donuts for breakfast. I relish the stomach blocking carbohydrates as payment for the entertainment my freakish body provides.

The driver and mate light up simultaneously, their nicotine craving synched like menstrual cycles. The mate assiduously watches the road for mopeds and trucks, as well as potential passengers to cram on to the full bus, calling out “Java Java Java” to the most disinterested bystanders before waving the driver on or urgently calling a stop. The driver in the meantime is developing an unhealthy obsession with my legs. Between them and the comedy video playing above his head the road ahead is becoming an irritating distraction.

I use my distracting legs to clamber over the aisle passengers back to seat 18 and recline into the bosom of the mother behind me to discover she is breast feeding. She smiles down at me.

At the next road stop an old man and I have a amiable conversation, me in English, him in Indonesian, which concludes abruptly when I say that I’d prefer to walk off my swollen feet than have a massage, and only as we both nod thoughtfully at this am I filled with the suspicion that we’ve almost certainly been talking on two totally divergent topics.

Later with Irfan’s translating help, another man tells me that the Police at a previous stop had asked him if I was from Pakistan, but he’d told them I was from England and a religion other than Muslim. Perhaps the beard or the cricketers build raised suspicion? I suddenly appreciated the value of surrendering my privacy to this group of travellers, while a twinge of suspicion descended over the easiness of Indonesia.

The bus rolls on to the ferry for Java eight hours ahead of schedule, and for the first time in days the pathetic air conditioning vent above my head is replaced with the feel of a real breeze on my skin, Sun fills the horizon and my eyes. I’m sleepless but feel reborn as I stare at blue sea. For a few seconds I seriously entertain jumping into the water from the 3rd storey of the ferry. I’m already such a physical freak, that eccentric behaviour would surprise no one.

It was almost a teary goodbye at Jakarta, with most of the passengers staying on for the following 36 hours to the east of Java. I waved to everyone and again laughter erupted as I clouted my head on the DVD player above the door.

But I stepped off the bus with more than just a bruise on my head. I stepped off, not quite with God in my heart, but a sense of purpose and cohesion which I’ve been struggling to find for a while. The God in my religion would be Truth, a concept just as confused and indefinable as it is in any other religion. On my road to Damascus, via Jakarta, I’ve realised that I’ve been developing practices of worship, rules and creeds during the last 12 months on the road, and even longer before that. By thinking of my Rationalist, Reductionist ideology as a religion, I can justify my strange extremist behaviour; Eco busses, anti-consumerism, social justice, fear of flying. It’s all becomes unified under the banner of a religion. It’s what I believe, my faith. Best of all, if I err from my ideology, then I’m an inexcusable hypocrite, whereas erring from my religion makes me a sinner, forgivable and human.

1 comment:

  1. I think I need a hip replacement after that bus ride. It reminded me of one I had in Thailand...


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