Indonesia: Getting lost
I have a good sense of direction. And I’m really good at reading maps (thanks Dad!). But I still get lost. Maybe I don’t have a map for where I’m going. Or it’s out of my control where I end up. Or the directions I had where misleading, the distances longer than I anticipated, something has changed… There are any number of reasons why I get lost quite frequently and the truth is: it’s great.
No, I’m lying. It’s scary. It’s hot and exhausting and bothersome, sometimes it merely feels unsafe and sometimes it actually puts my life in danger and I usually don’t know if the blisters on my feet or the heatstroke will do me in first.
And yet… Every time I get lost, I end up making surprising connections and I experience the true and deep kindness of people, and that somehow makes it all seem worthwhile. Let me tell you about the time I got lost last week, to show you what I mean:
I’m at Lake Toba, in an almost pastoral setting. It is beautiful. I’m enjoying every minute. At the back of my mind, however, I know that I have not got enough cash with me and I’ve found out that all of the five ATMs on the island only take MasterCard – and guess what card I don’t possess… There are several things I try, none of which work out, before I realize that I will have to go to the next big city, about an hour away on the mainland, because I won’t be able to pay my bill. I look up a bank online that is supposed to carry Visa, write down the address, hop on the ferry and into the minibus on the other side and off we go.
When the driver recognizes neither the address nor the name of the bank, I get the premonition that it’s not going to be as straightforward as I thought it would be. He drops all other passengers at their various destination, then cruises – to my clueless eye completely randomly – through the city. After a while he just cannot be bothered anymore (I assume) and lets me off at an intersection where he assures me this bank can be found. I cannot see a bank anywhere, but at this point I’m just glad to get off. He rushes off into the mad traffic (the traffic is mad everywhere here to my West European sensibilities) and I look around. I’m in the rather poor, completely non-touristy part of a big city without any clue where I am in relation to anywhere else. I buy some water from a street vendor and set off in the direction I assume we came from – we did pass a big street with big buildings a while back, if only I can find that again…
I end up walking through a market where flip-flops are sold next to fresh fish and heaps of fruit, with ladies’ underwear on the other side, between mounds of cheap plastic toys, all sold from plastic sheets on the muddy ground (it’s been raining every afternoon). I wend my way between the sheets, the buyers and the motorbikes zig-zagging through the milling throng. I stick out like a sore thumb and everybody is aware of it. And while every self-proclaimed traveller (because the word “tourist” is soooo last century!) professes to want to go where no other tourists are, the disadvantages of being in an area that has no touristic infrastructures while you have a specific goal are pretty obvious. With every step I take, half a dozen people call out to me. It’s all completely harmless, the usual “Hello Miss!” – or “Hello Mister!” from the ones who then get laughed at by their friends for getting it wrong. Some ask where I come from, some my name. It’s just a patter, a way to show off their English. I know that most of them would be quite alarmed if I actually stopped and answered and asked them something. As I get out of the market, the sides of the street are filled with motorbike repair shops and I suddenly feel uncomfortable with the looks of my now predominantly male audience, who still keep up the patter, but are much more insistent. I keep up my best friendly-but-not-encouraging smile, nod, don’t make real eye contact and keep on moving, although at this point I could really do with some friendly shade and a place to sit down.
Just when I’m sure that this time it will be the heatstroke that will fell me and I’m starting to feel woozy, I come out into a huge intersection and I spot a large restaurant with three hostesses standing in front of it, dressed in gorgeous hijabs of gold print on blue. They look about fifteen, but smile encouragingly as I stumble up to them to ask if it is okay to just order a drink, or is this for eating only…? They usher me in, place me in front of the fan, bring me cold water and a fruit juice and giggle at me and each other with every sip I take. One of them slips me a piece of papaya from a large platter of desert dishes that she is serving to a private party in a separate room. When I start to feel human again, I remember that I have a map on my phone, and I get it out and try to identify where I should go. I ask if any of them speaks English. The cashier, a young, rotund lady with a forceful voice and dressed all in wonderfully bright red is brought to my table. I ask her how I can get to the main street (which, so Google assures me, has a bus station as well, because remember that I still need to get back even if I manage to find an ATM that will dispense cash to me? I certainly do).
She looks shocked. “Oh, is far!”
“How long to walk?”
“No walk! Is very far!”
“Is it possible to get a taxi to go there?”
“Taxi? No. Bus!”
“Where can I get the bus?”
“I show you.”
I pay my bill (without the papaya, which seems to have really been a gift). She strides out of the restaurant, yelling instructions over her shoulder at someone. I follow in her powerful wake. We cross the busy, bustling, four-laned road by the death-defying power of her hand, which she holds up in an almost careless gesture to the oncoming traffic while just walking right out into it. I hold my breath and try to stick as close to her as possible, and try to ignore the drafts of air in my back where the motorbikes pass directly behind me with inches to spare. She makes conversation all the time, with the bluntness and the disarming rolling ‘R’ I have come to expect from Indonesians.
“Where you come from?”
That I can say in her language: “Saya Jerman.”
“Ah! Jerman!” She nods wisely as if I have just made the whole situation clear to her. I wonder what she thinks of Germany and what expectations she has of Germans.
“Where your friend?” she asks, and I have to admit that I have no friends. I mean, I have no friends travelling with me (sorry everyone). She stops in her tracks. Or maybe it’s because we have reached the other side of the street. She looks up at me with a very earnest expression.
“Travel alone? That is beautiful.”
I’m utterly charmed by this response, which is not the one I expected nor one I have heard before. I wish fervently that I spoke her language so that I could ask her why she said this, what makes her think so, if maybe she longs to travel as well. Just then, she flags down a minibus, tells the driver where he is to let me off, admonishes him to take good care of me – at least that is what I’m inferring from her gestures and tone of voice – and we are off before I can even properly thank her.
The minibus is full of schoolgirls returning home from school. Different schools though. (They wear different uniforms, d’oh!) The inevitable happens: a lot of giggling, then two of them are pushed forward by their friends to ask me the usual questions – what is my name, where am I from, what is my purpose in visiting and it suddenly occurs to me to wonder if their English teachers are training them all up to be border officials. What is my favourite Indonesian food (vegetable curry), do I like Indonesia (yes, very much), what do I think of Indonesian people (everybody is very helpful and kind). All of that is interspersed with bouts of more giggling and intense discussions about how to say one or the other word in English. I can’t help but smile and laugh along with them. At some point they are all getting off.
My new fellow passengers are a middle-aged man in a smart shirt and a young woman in high-heels, who smile at me and nod and the man enters immediately into conversation. His English is not as good as that of the girls and when he asks me where I want to go, things are starting to become difficult, because I cannot give him an address. He starts consulting with the young woman and the driver and they make a number of suggestions of places that I might want to go to – the hospital? The police? A hotel? I try to explain, but the language barrier is insurmountable in this instance and they finally suggest – which is rather in the category of being forced – that I alight and go to the police, because they will be able to help me. Since I can see that the street has a definitely more urban look now, and they seem quite distressed by not being able to help me, I agree, nod, smile, thank everyone and walk into the police station.
At the police station they speak some English, but are rather nonplussed by my problem. There is an ATM right across the road. It doesn’t accept Visa, I can see that from here, but they must think me rather stupid in asking for a bank. They summon a small boy who is to escort me across the street to the ATM. I go along with it, smiling and thanking everyone, put the card into the machine, which spits it out again straight away, and I start walking along the street in the direction that looks marginally more promising. Neither do, to be honest, but I have to go somewhere. The street is big enough to have a sidewalk, even though half of the time I walk through people’s shops. I appreciate the shade from the awnings. I do not appreciate the growing awareness that I’m hungry and really hot and almost without cash and that I have no clue how to get back to my hotel, even if I can find a bank that will dispense me money. I fantasize for a moment about my luxurious double bed that looks right out through the huge windows onto the lake and the cool, fresh breezes that spring up in the late afternoon and ripple the surface of the water. But that delightful vision is one hour on the road and another on the ferry away.
Finally I see another bank. It also does not accept Visacards. But it has a security guy sitting out front, and two uniformed hosts opening the doors for the customers and organizing the parking for them. In short, it looks proper posh and I assume that someone in there will be able to speak English. The guardian of the door almost falls over himself as he ushers me to the counter. I address the young lady in the uniform on the other side of the counter in English and a ripple runs through her many colleagues, most of which are not with customers at the moment. A few seconds later I am looking at a gaggle of six or seven young women, all dressed in uniforms and listening to me very earnestly. When I have explained what I’m looking for, they go into a huddle and confer with each other for some minutes. Other employees call over suggestions from the other side of the room and then they seem to have a discussion about whether the information they are about to give me really is the best solution. I’m waiting with baited breath and a glimmer of hope in my chest. Another young woman, wearing a similar uniform but with different colours and who is standing on my side of the counter, offers her help. Her English is wonderful, even if she immediately apologizes for the fact that it’s not very good. She speaks to my helpers and they finally seem to agree. One of them writes down the name of a bank and the street where it can be found. I thank them a million times, and it’s coming from the bottom of my soul. The young woman who can speak English suggests that the doorman will find a minibus for me to bring me there. She and another colleague go out as well, they get into a car with a driver, but before they can pull out into the traffic, she gets out of the car again and approaches me to ask me if I would like her to drive me there. My knees almost go weak from relief. I reply that I would love that, and get in next to the driver and we are off.
The rest of the story is quickly told: the tip of the bank clerks was spot on, I felt like I was reunited with life itself, the lady from the bank had her driver go to a taxi service that she uses to go to Lake Toba, got out, negotiated a prize with the clerk, told me how much it was (exorbitant, but at that point I just really, really didn’t care), we exchanged phone numbers and facebook names, I thanked her about a hundred times but could have gladly done it another hundred times more, got in the car and was deposited at the ferry port an hour later. The ferry ride became a very wet venture as the afternoon storm broke while we were in the middle of the lake, but I didn’t care one bit. I was deposited at my hotel ten hours after I had left it, jumped off and felt like I was coming home.
And you know, I look back on this day and it seems interesting and colourful and full of good people and aplenty with human connection, but I also remember the helplessness, the thoughts of blaming myself for being so stupid and always ending up in these kind of situations where I need to be rescued, the headaches, the footaches, the thirst, the fear. It wasn’t fun while it happened. But I was rescued, and by a whole range of people – those who saw me as a person and not just an exotic stranger, those that gave me nourishment as an act of kindness, who made me laugh, who entered into my distress, who tried to help me at the expense of their own time, who conferred with friends to give me the best possible help, who gave up their own immediate plans to be of assistance to me. And that experience I would never, ever want to miss.