She was certainly not going to get on the back of a motorcycle and hold tightly to a stranger, as he negotiated through the traffic. The experience of riding the ojek was something she was more than eager to pass up. Riding the train, on the other hand, was something she was seriously taking into consideration. She was curious to see how Indonesia’s rail system functioned. Was it anything like Singapore’s Metro Rail transit that arrived every three minutes on the dot at each station, she wondered. Or was it anything like the train stations in Tokyo, Japan, where the conductors helped passengers get into the train by shoving them in, she mused further on.
It was a Friday morning, the day of Idul Adha for the Moslems hence a holiday in Indonesia, when she set out with her two friends to Jakarta. First stop was Carrefour for an errand –the heels of her Nine West stiletto boots needed repairing. Carrefour was teeming with shoppers packing their trolley with every imaginable item on sale or not on sale. The shoe repair shoe was not idle either. The four attendants in the tiny kiosk were busily sewing straps, buffing shoes, measuring and gluing soles.
“Total bill will be Rupiah63, 000,” said one of the attendants. “You can pay when you collect the shoes later.”
The train station was just next to the French hypermart, she was told. The trek to the train station, which she imagined would be orderly and nicely laid out, was a short walk on the uneven pavement parallel to the highway. Every now and then a gaping hole would open up from below; the entire slab of concrete apparently had collapsed into the sewer underneath. They passed an abandoned building and an ornamental twin-engine airplane. Where was the train station, she wondered.
Down the steep staircase they went and deeper under the highway. An elderly Moslem lady sat on the narrow walkway separated by a high wire railing from the canal, her tiny plastic cup waiting for kind souls to drop in a few coins. Deeper down into the tunnel, she imagined herself walking into the underground lair of a triad or the den of Hades. The sun streamed through the other end of the underground tunnel, which opened up, on their side, to a nondescript ticket office and, across, the train stop with passengers travelling the opposite way.
The station was far from what she was used to in Singapore, which was well-lit, air-conditioned and fitted with signboards. The signboards and directory maps were nowhere to be found or the timing board telling the traveler how long before the train arrives. It was as if you had to negotiate through your senses, like your gut would tell you this is the train you’re to board. Or, when all else fails, you simply follow your companions who have done it before.
She was heading to Kota Jakarta and the 30-minute ride was a bargain at Rupiah1, 000 for a one-way ticket.
“A friend of ours used to go take the train so she could just buy cheap oranges,” he narrated with a chuckle. “You can buy a lot of things of the train! Just you wait and see.”
“Remember the people holding a concert in the bus?” the other asked her. “Well, this time it’s almost like a choral group inside the train!”
That would be a sight indeed, she reflected. Hardly anything surreal happens inside the trains in Singapore except perhaps for the vulgar seduction games of teenagers who destroy the sensual nature of seduction games. No one sings inside the train. No one even smiles so count out singing and, most certainly, no selling of food stuff. You can’t even bring a bottle of water inside the train station.
The far-from-rickety train pulls up. She hopped onboard the car, distinctly an old Japanese train model shipped elsewhere for a second run. It was a hot Friday so the air conditioning was more than welcomed as well as the orange cushion seats.
“Err, this is new,” he uttered, looking completely puzzled. “Where are the vendors?”
He looked at him who was equally baffled. No modern day minstrels, no food-and-drink vendors and definitely no oranges on sale.
“They must be upgrading their trains. This wasn’t what we got onboard before,” he speculated, as uniformed employees walked up and down the cars.
Buildings, vast areas of lands and Jakarta’s monuments whizzed past the tinted windows. There were neither overhead announcements of the next train stop nor any sign at the train stop so alighting was tricky. Fortunately, they were heading towards the end of the line. The station was brimming with a throng of people when it pulled up at Kota Jakarta. Most were heading towards the exit cordoned off by two ticket attendees collecting stubs from arriving passengers. The rest were sitting on the benches waiting for their trains to pull up.
There was something different in the mien of the people at the station, she thought to herself. How would she describe it? Exhausted? Dazed? Reconciled to life’s trials and tribulations? The manner of dressing was different as well – nothing fancy, just something thrown together without thought of color co-ordination, occasion and whatever a fashionista would take note of.
She loved the metal cathedral-like ceiling of Kota Jakarta, reminding her of the architecture of King’s Cross Station in London. Outside, amidst the angkot-criers’ booming voices, there was a mad rush to board the angkot to various destinations.
It was back to the train station around mid-afternoon after walking around Mangga Dua, the Indonesian counterpart of Thailand’s weekend Chatuchak market. The ticket price was slightly higher. This time it was Rupiah1, 500 for the way back. And that’s when she finally experienced the train ride the two had been talking about after being told by the ticket conductor that they boarded the wrong train – they were on the Rupiah3, 000-train ride. No histrionics – just matter-of-fact admonition to get off at the next stop and get on the next train.
She had a feeling of being stranded while waiting for their train to arrive. There was nowhere to go; the train was the only way out of the place. A train was berthed at the other side of the tracks, which had been turned into a lounge with a man moving up and down the train aisle with his plastic container-pushcart of neatly arranged fried tofu. Outside, on the platform, some peddled cold juice, water, and chocolate drinks while some hawked oranges. No singers inside and outside of the train though.
Our train finally arrived jam-packed with people. No air conditioning and still no singers. No poles to hold on to either, and the straps too high for her to reach, she had to find her balance against the motion of the train.
“We need to stay close to the exit or we’d never get out,” he advised her, steering her towards the door.
“That was what happened to him,” he continued. “He got stuck in the middle so we had to pull at his hand to get him out of the train. If we hadn’t, he’d have had to get off at the next stop.”