When we left things in the first chapter Neil and I were sitting on our backpacks in Bandur Lumpang station, on the southern tip of Sumatra, considering our options.
If we’d been thinking clearly, we would have gone back into Bandur, stayed overnight at a nice beachside hotel, breakfasted well and then gone to the station in time to catch the lovely coastal train via Bengkulu to Padang, our shimmering, glittering oceanside goal, halfway up the Indian ocean side of Sumatra, Indonesia’s northern most island.
But as you already discerned, clear thinking is not something easily achieved when travelling in Indonesia.
If it’s not the noise, if it’s not the horrendously crowded buses, if it’s not nights spent squatting over a hole in the concrete floor adding your faecal load to the rudimentary Indonesian sewage system, then it’s any one of a thousand other impediments to tranquil thoughts.
So we discussed things and more because we were already there in the station we made the bad decision to catch the night train to Palembang.
This was an inland train, with no coastal views, but I think we just wanted to be on the move.
So we bought our tickets and retired to the corner of the station to wait.
I had thankfully bought a single volume set of all three “Lord of the Rings” books, so got it out and began reading.
Neil had “A Passage to India”, and likewise began perusing its contents.
I was still feeling pretty rocky from the night spent in the prison-like hotel of the night before, and Neil wasn’t too hot either, but we had all day to wait, and he had the toilet nearby, so time passed reasonably smoothly.
Actually, it was an unlooked for benefit of that all afternoon wait.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had simply sat and read for hours before.
Bandur was still in touch with, if not fully on, the tourist trail and so we did catch the eye of the odd local.
They would come over to practise their English and ask the standard questions.
“Where are you going?”, Padang.
“Where have you come from?”, Jakarta.
Where are you from?”, Australia.
And so the afternoon passed.
Around four things began to happen.
More staff appeared and began to do various tasks.
Passengers appeared and began stacking their luggage around and about.
Then a train pulled into the station.
With the best Bahasa I could manage, I gleaned that this was out train, so we found our carriage and boarded.
Backpacks up onto the overhead rack, books out.
We sat and waited.
We were looking forward to this, it was our first train.
So far most of our travel had been by road, crammed into the front seat of death-defying, eight-seater minibuses, then a ferry ride across the Sunda Strait that had been anything but relaxing, so a nice soothing train ride over the mountainous spine of Sumatra would be just what the doctor ordered.
Well that idea lasted for about three seconds.
Unlike the minibuses, whose seat booking system could best be described as anarchic and could really be simplified down to “can-another-square-millimetre-of-human-be-put-anywhere?”, the train was more expensive and so to start with wasn’t as crowded.
We found our assigned seats and sat in them, another first as it was the only time I could remember in Indonesia where a seat was only occupied by one person.
Eventually, diesel smoke blew and the train lumbered out of the station.
The rhythm picked up and the clickety-clack we all know so well began to soothe our ruptured souls.
But if the train wasn’t overcrowded, it had an anarchy of its own.
Although the passengers all had assigned seats they quickly began to bestrew themselves about the cabin.
On the floor, on the luggage rack, you name it.
I was a little bit mystified, the most comfortable places on the train were the padded seats, but the other passengers took the first opportunity to sit or lie on something hard.
Oh, well, perhaps it was just the mind set of the country that had spent a generation under the despotic rule of Soekhano, that they now couldn’t handle comfort, deeming themselves unworthy.
And I’d like to add that if my tone so far has been patronising toward the Indonesians, that is accurate, I was a very dysfunctional person with my western superior mind, but as we are about to see, Sumatra was to change that, and set me on a path to greater compassion.
But all that is ahead, for now, I watched as at least five separate card schools started up on the floor of the train.
It is well known that Asians love to gamble, and here on the floor of the night train to Palembang, that was writ large.
I watched with patronised amusement, but then as ever with this trip, a problem occurred.
The Indonesian in front of me got off his seat and sat on the floor with his legs sticking out into the aisle.
He rested on his arms splayed back behind him and in the two first fingers of his right hand was a clove cigarette.
The smoke from this was sucked, in beautifully efficient fashion, under the seat in front of me, up past my face and out the window which I had partially open to enjoy(?) the night air.
My throat was a little better and had improved from the rusty chainsaw stage, but was still crackly and this acrid smoke, now set it off again.
I wanted to say to this guy, could you put your cigarette in your other hand, but my Bahasa wasn’t up to it, and anyway, now that I looked around, as usual every single person in that carriage, including Neil, was smoking.
With a sigh I resigned myself to my fate and opened the window a little further.
This however, had little or no effect, and soon after I closed it down to a small aperture again.
And I’ll tell you why.
One of the best physics lessons I ever saw, was not at college, but occurred on the school bus one afternoon on my way home from Kelso High.
An older tougher boy, and I can assure you, nearly everyone was tougher and cooler than me, called John Markwick was sitting about halfway along the bus and smoking a cigarette.
He finished his fag and threw the butt out the window.
Due to Bernoulli’s principle the butt travelled down the outside of the bus, level with the smaller upper windows and re-entered via an open window near the rear and hit another older boy, Greg Cole on the side of the neck.
We were all a little astonished, but there you go, physics rules.
And so on this train, everyone who finished a fag, threw the butt out the window, and if it was bad enough taking in the smoke, I deffo didn’t want to take a full butt down the windpipe at train velocity while craning my neck out to get some fresh air.
The conductor began to circulate, and for about half a millisecond I thought he would tell everyone to get up off the floor, stop smoking and possibly to stop gambling as well, but far from that, he stopped and chatted with one group, accepted a cigarette, then stopped and played a few hands.
Neil didn’t help by maintaining a perfectly serene and content demeanour, while I was going out of my tiny mind.
Including our last night in sweaty, smog ridden Jakarta, this had “third-night-without-sleep” written all over it.
So with throat scratching and eyes smarting I sat and tried to meditate in the smoke filled carriage as the train rattled on threw the night.
I’m guessing I must have gotten some sleep, but that was like the night before in the prison like hotel in Bandur, snatched here and there for five and ten minutes, jerking awake as the weight of my head grabbed at my neck ligaments.
The train stopped occasionally and the population of the carriage revolved, the only real sign of this was the numbers at the different card schools went up and down.
I’m guessing that most were regular travellers on this line, as they merged seamlessly with the game as if they had been playing since the train left Bandur.
But eventually the train rumbled down out of the hills into Palembang.
The card games disbanded, people picked up their baggage, chickens included, and disembarked.
Station staff scurried about doing end-of-journey tasks and the station at Palembang slowly emptied.
The passengers began to walk or ride buses into town, the staff completed their duties and returned to their various nooks, probably, to judge from the conductors behaviour on the train, to finish their card games and slowly quiet, then silence fell.
Neil and I humped our backpacks down the train steps and stood on the concourse.
Dawn was breaking over the town and there is something indescribably beautiful in a palm tree dawn.
Additionally, it was the quietest moment I could recall since we had got off the plane at Kuta Beach in Bali, the start of our Indonesian jaunt.
Despite all my troubles and tribulations, I remember thinking that to see this dawn, in the metallic quiet of the Victorian era station in the mountains of Sumatra, made it all worthwhile.
So captivated was I by this that I turned to Neil, stretching beside me, to say words along these lines, when without warning liquid diahorrea burst forth, ran down the inside of my leg and pooled in my left sock and boot.
I should have known that Indonesia wouldn’t provide beauty without a complication.
Too say I was gob smacked is to entirely understate the effect of this faecal visitation had on me.
I stared down at the last dribbles as they oozed over my sock top.
Neil, was rolling then, lighting a cigarette, and had no idea.
Eventually, I stopped staring down and began to think what to do about this.
I didn’t want o move in case that spread my affliction around, and the last thing I wanted was to be standing on train platform in Sumatra with liquid dynamic lifter pooling in ever increasing circles around my feet.
So I turned to Neil, instead of something lyrical about the tropical mountain dawn, I instead had to say, “Neil, could you get some toilet paper please? I’ve just had an accident.”
He turned to me in surprise.
As I say, the whole event had caught me by surprise, so he obviously had no idea.
Even the smell, was no indicator, swallowed as all bad smells are by the background E coli count of Indonesia.
He turned and was about to speak, but I just pointed at my stained sock.
He got the message, moved away with his back pack and then had a quick search, found the paper, handed the roll to me, then stood back.
But having done that, I was now uncertain what to do next.
Undressing seemed the next step, and those who know me well will tell you that although most of my time at uni was spent undressing in public and displaying the broad, panoramic spectre of my arse to the world.
It was less well known that sober I was massively introverted and becoming voluntarily naked in the middle of a, thankfully, deserted train station was not overly desirable.
I asked Neil if he could see a toilet anywhere, he had a quick look, but none was obvious, but a he did rouse a passer-by to my predicament and he, the passer-by, came over and began trying to communicate something to me.
Once again my Bahasa wasn’t really up to it.
And quite frankly, I was hardly in the best physical or mental shape to bring my mind to bear on translation at this point.
But I did my best to focus, “Mandi?”, he kept saying, pointing to me and repeating, in a questioning fashion, “Mandi?”
He said it a few more times, and slowly, a bell began tinkling at the back of my mind, ‘where had I heard that expression before?’, I thought to myself.
Then I remembered, a Balinese man had said it, when we were on the beach there.
He had said it, then gone into the ocean, and began to…, what had he done?, THAT’S RIGHT!, he had washed himself in the waters of the Bali sea.
I realised what our friendly Palembangian, (if that’s the word) was trying to tell/ask me, “did I want to wash?”
“Yes”, I said.
Now I saw that he had been making rubbing motions to along his arms and legs and realised he had been miming having a wash.
“Yes, yes”, I repeated, “Mandi”.
“Where?”, I asked him in Bahasa, motioning around about me, “Where can I Mandi?”
He then led me to a horse trough.
There were still plenty of these about, whether they had been built for horses to drink out of, or were purpose built for humans to wash in, I do not know, but either way, it was my only option.
But as I looked into it, I began a desperate mental search for another, ANY, other option.
Foul trolls had built that thing with the clearly stated goal to spread diphtheria and cholera.
There was water in it, actually, I’m guessing once it had been water, pure, liquid, silver drops that had fallen from the pristine heavens onto the mountain redoubt of Palembang, but now I wasn’t sure if it was water anymore.
Black it was, I could see my reflection clearly in it, oil looked like this.
But I really had no option.
I took off my foetid shorts, socks and boots.
I threw away my shorts and socks, but had to take my boots in and wash them as best I could.
I took my t-shirt off as well, it wasn’t dirty from the accident, but since my nether regions were exposed I decided I might as well go the entire pig, and wash all of me.
Neil handed me some soap with extended fingers, if he had had surgical tongs he would have used them, and I did my best.
I didn’t stay in there long, apart from the colour, the consistency was more like goulage than soup, and I was starting to believe that every drop of whatever lurked at the bottom of this horse trough was increasing my filth load, rather than removing it.
So with a rudimentary clean at best, I declared my Mandi over and got out of the horse trough.
I handed the soap to Neil, but he said “keep it” and so I stuck it in my backpack, got out some clean clothes, put them on and declared myself ready for the next hurdle.
Moving on from Palembang.
We were as ever uncertain and so cast about for some help and found it quickly.
A young boy, ten or twelve years old was passing by the station and we made ourselves sort of clear that we wanted to go north from town.
He grinned the mile-wide smile of happiness that he could help and led us away from the station.
Neil stayed conspicuously upwind of me, and I don’t blame him.
The boy took my hand and we walked like lovers into town.
I should say, this was quite a common site in Indonesia, often fully grown males would walk like this, I was still quite homophobic and struggled whenever I saw it, but since our small guide seemed to know what we wanted and where to get it, I held on quite happily and we hiked into town.
Life was coming onto the streets in the traditional zero-to-a-hundred fashion of Indonesian cities and we were soon encompassed by the full throated roar of Palembang.
Eventually we arrived at a sort of green square and our young guide gestured toward a shop front.
It looked like all the others in the square, but we couldn’t make out from the signs in Bahasa, what it traded in.
Then our young guide gestured that he had to go and left.
And so once again our travels came to a halt while we tried to figure out why he had brought us there.
While we debated a crowd gathered.
I have mentioned previously that we were becoming minor celebrities, particularly Neil with his blonde hair, and now we were well off the tourist trail we began to stand out like certain parts of a male canine’s anatomy.
All the tourists with an ounce of sense and who had done the minorest bit of planning, took the coast train to Bengkulu, then on to Padang, but here in the mountainous heart of Sumatra, we were well away from all that, and in all probability the first tourists that had come there for some time.
So, while we debated, a crowd gathered and when I eventually deigned to notice the commoners, there were nearly a hundred Sumatrans sitting and standing around just staring at us and giggling behind their hands.
So I decided to make use of our notoriety and began to ask if anyone spoke English.
Soon an orderly queue had gathered, almost as if I had advertised a position as guide and translator, fixer, journos call it, and they were all hoping for the job.
But here again being off the tourist trail counted for us and against us.
Although there were many people here staring at us, not many spoke English better than my halting Bahasa.
I didn’t help by saying “Padang?” over and over.
Palembang was nowhere near that city and wasn’t connected to it by any transport link.
But we persevered and eventually we got someone who seemed to understand from my woefully inadequate mumblings what we wanted.
He then gave a great grin and waved his hands and led me by the hand to the shop that our young friend had earlier indicated.
I went in and realised what both friends had been trying to say.
It was a travel agent.
The young man behind the desk again didn’t speak much English, but we got out our guide book and pointed to Padang, and he nodded and went into action.
He shuffled papers, looked up things and then began writing.
I didn’t really know what he was doing, but did what we were doing a lot of these days, hoped for the best.
Eventually, he finished what he was doing and held out two slips of pinkish paper.
He then held out his hand in a world renowned gesture, obviously asking for money, and I said one of the few phrases of Bahasa that I was fluent at, “How much?”
But even then I’d like to provide a travel tip for others.
Learning the local language is a good thing to do, but it’s no good knowing how to ask a question if you cannot understand the answer.
I’d been caught before like this, commonly when asking “where is the nearest backpackers?”, only to have my interlocutor rattle of a stream of Bahasa that left me floundering after the third word.
I scratched my head, we did want the tickets, but was this a situation where we had to haggle?
If so we were in big trouble as my language skills, and Neil’s less so, weren’t up to it.
Or, was this a standard price, as our train and ferry tickets had been?
Either way, we needed a new, non-verbal solution.
I massaged my forehead and then did what I should have done in the first place, looked at the ticket.
I checked closely, but if the price was on it, it wasn’t visible.
I then did have a good idea, I made a gesture toward the travel agent guy like I was asking for the bill in a restaurant, writing in the air with my left hand on my right palm.
He understood, got out a pen and wrote the price down.
Thankfully we fell on it and got our rupiah out and paid.
Then with much bowing and thank yous (“Terimah Kasi”), we backed out of his store.
Having done that we were now faced with a new problem, what were these tickets for?
They were almost certainly not for the train, as Palembang was the end of the mountain line, and the only trains out of town went back to Bandur.
We guessed they were for the bus, but if so where did we get that?
Luckily our crowd was still with us, so I showed the tickets to those in the front row and made what was becoming an incredibly useful, “Where?”, sort of gesture.
The crowd members at the front read our tickets avidly and then made various, “come with us” gestures and we, and about twenty of our followers moved off.
As we walked I remember thinking that we only needed a couple of tumbling acrobats out front and some elephants in gold trim to mimic a procession as of some colonial governor of old arriving to take up his position as ruler of the savage land centred upon Palembang.
Thankfully the walk wasn’t a long one, although as usual within an hour of dawn in that area, carrying a full backpack for three minutes led to the sort of sweating that would task even ten litres of Gatorade to replenish.
As we processed, shopkeepers and stallholders would ask the Indonesian members of our troupe what they were doing and they replied in the local tongue.
What they were actually saying of course we didn’t know, but assumably something along the lines of “we are taking these lost giants where they want to go.”
Eventually we arrived.
The bus station.
Well, that was a reasonable guess, but now we faced another hurdle.
Presumably our tickets were therefore for a bus, but which one?
Neil and I re-examined them and there was no ‘Padang’ on them, but it did say ‘Jambi’.
Our followers gestured inside and then began to move off, we thanked them in Bahasa and then went inside.
I might add that another of my reprehensible character traits at the time was that I was a cheapskate.
And I should have handed out some rupiah to our jolly friends for their help.
But learning not to be tight with money was something else that I sadly wasn’t to even begin learning for another twenty years.
Anyway, inside the bus station it was the usual anarchy, with the additional problem that no one even spoke rudimentary English.
We solved the problem by showing our tickets to anyone who would take an interest and were slowly gestured toward an empty part of the bus station.
This was a facer, why did they send us here?
We put down our backpacks and considered the problem.
Eventually Neil hit on the answer.
“Does it say what time this bus goes?”
I re-examined the ticket.
It didn’t, but then no Indonesian bus, and certainly not one out here off the tourist trail, runs to a timed schedule, when it is crammed full, it goes.
But Neil had come up with the answer, our tickets were for a bus that didn’t leave for some time, and presumably, when it did start to get organised, it would do so from this section of the bus station.
So we sat on our backpacks and waited.
Neil ate some food, but I wasn’t hungry.
After my throat and now with incipient dysentery stalking my moves, food was the last thing I felt like.
A shower, ten beers and a long rest would have top of my list, but since they weren’t on the menu, I dozed while I waited.
Not too long though, which was nice.
Eventually the area around us began to exhibit a quickening of tempo.
Locals came and gathered then a bus arrived and parked nearby.
There was no name on the front that I recall, but when the driver and his offsider got out and began animated conversations with the locals, I shouldered my way through and showed our tickets.
The driver nodded and said something incomprehensible to me, but it was clearly our bus.
I don’t remember that particular bus trip, it was 25 years ago, the next thing I remember is being in Jambi, so I’ll move things along to there.
I’ve checked the mapping website and it lists the road journey from Palembang to Jambi as 4 ½ hours, which tallies with my memory in this way.
We certainly got off the train at dawn, I remember that well, and the horse trough aftermath (likewise, clearly, I’ll never forget that!).
I remember the crowd around us in the square in the morning sunlight, so I’ll conjecture we caught the bus at lunchtime or thereabouts, rode it for six hours and arrived in Jambi near or just after dusk.
This would fit because we stayed the night there.
I might add, I was kind of concerned all day as from the moment we got off the train, through the interaction with the travel agent, followed by the walk through town with our friends, then in the bus station, we didn’t know where we were going.
We certainly weren’t going to Padang.
We were basically hoping that wherever we were going, and however we did it, that we were moving closer to Padang in some form.
Rather like a bad pool player who moves their ball closer to the hole each shot, till eventually they can pot it.
So dusk, and Jambi.
I remember without having to look up the guide book, the description of that town as if I had read it yesterday.
“There’s not much to be said for this pleasant riverine town, it’s just there.”
We had to take this as read as we couldn’t see much as night was falling and we weren’t there to sightsee, it was merely a stopover.
We likewise weren’t in any mood to hotel hunt, and so allowed to most vigorous of the touts at the bus station to guide us to a nearby hotel and checked in.
So since we didn’t do much in Jambi except stay overnight, I’ll report something I read there.
If Jambi has any tourist activities at all it is mountain trekking.
And each trek company has a book that tourists can write down their thoughts about what they experienced and the best (possibly in history) was written by a group of Australians at the end of a five day hike.
They described “bad food, rain that knocked you flat, insects the size of tractors in your tent and a guide who wore an enraging smile for the whole five days having lunged his length into a blonde kraut trollop the night before we left.”
Our hotel for the night was a nice rural domicile, not opulent, but clean and since it ran to three floors, well aerated.
I actually got a good night’s sleep there, which was important because if you include our last night in Jakarta, tossing and turing in the sweaty backpackers there, it would have been my third night with little or no sleep, but even that was obliterated in the end because as we slept war was declared.
When I awoke it was to the sound of artillery going off everywhere in the traditional pre-skirmish barrage.
I arose from my bed as if one of those shells had landed under it and ran to the window.
But the vista wasn’t as I expected, hundreds of Indonesians marching to and fro firing rifles and trying to overthrow the government.
The streets weren’t red with blood of hated oppressors and slogans of revolution weren’t being daubed on walls to urge the populace to revolt.
It was raining.
Many before, and surely many after me, will try to describe rain in the tropics, but nothing can really portray the all-encompassing aural assault.
Our hotel was roofed with gal iron and of course was not insulated with pink bats for heat and noise suppression, and the rain in Jambi fell upon it and made a noise like Satan had given a drum kit to each of his demons and they had all come around to rehearse on the hotel roof.
Well again as I look back from a vantage of 20 years I realize now that I was becoming seriously unhinged.
If you read the first chapter of this tale, you may recall that just two nights ago I had a near death experience in which I nearly drowned off Java, I think the shock went deeper than I realized.
This was followed by virtually no sleep and two ailments, throat and digestive tract, destabilising what little equanimity I had left.
And I’ll tell you this for nuthin’.
I DID NOT WANT TO BE TRAPPED FOR AN INDETERMINATE PERIOD IN JAMBI.
As I’ve written, I had nothing against the town, but I didn’t want to be trapped in the middle of nowhere, with my stomach loosening and not being able to communicate with the doctor (if we could find one).
So I leapt to my pack, packed it in record time, raced out to get Neil, then stopped in my tracks.
He was sitting, smoking a fag, serenely looking out the window at the waterscape that had enveloped the town.
I, in a panicked tone, said “C”MON, WE”VE GOT TO GO!”
And I have to hand it to him, then and now, he has always been able to keep his cool, he turned to me and said, “Why?”
Then blew a slow stream of smoke out his nostrils.
I’ll stop writing in capitals now as it is annoying for the reader, but take it from me, everything I said that morning was in a loud, racing, panicked tone.
“It’s obviously going to flood, we’ve got to get out of town before the river rises, plus we don’t know where to go to next, and we have to find the bus station, then we’ve got to buy our tickets…,” I railed on for some while.
Neil, to his credit, saw what I would take 25 years to see, that I was panicking and becoming deranged, and so agreed to pack and we would head for the bus station and move on.
He then gave me one of his Lomotil’s, a medicine for diahorrea, which was vital for another day being bounced around in the back of a bus, and helped me calm down by getting ready quickly.
He even forwent his breakfast as I recall, which only those who know him well, will realize what a sacrifice this was.
Neil, had, possibly still has, the mightiest appetite that I’ve ever seen.
He has won two eating contests that I know of.
One was at a party late at night after it had began to die down.
Much pot had been smoked and Andrew, another friend from uni, who witnessed it, described things for me.
“What they did”, said Andrew, “was sit down in front of the fridge and had a bet on who could eat the most.
The rules were that they wouldn’t shut the fridge door until there was no food left.
It was pathetic really, the young woman he was eating against was full after 20 minutes.
But Neil was still sitting there when I went to bed.”
So forgoing his breakfast was something I appreciated.
Also, and literally, thanks be to the heavens above, the rain had stopped.
And as we made our way through the streets back to the point where our bus had dropped us the night before, steam rose from the streets and soon the sky was blue and we were sweating again.
Life in the tropics all right.
We then went through the usual rigmarole at the bus station but things were starting to go our way slightly.
From Jambi, although there was no direct connection, the name Padang, was not unknown.
So we paid our rupiah, got our tickets and took our seats in another bus.
And now, get ready, because you are about to read something that I strongly suspect has never been written before, and will possibly never be written again.
We boarded the bus, which we learned was taking us to the town of Solok, a mere hour from Padang.
The driver started her up and headed out onto another mountain road and soon we were switch backing our way over mountain passes along a narrow two lane mountain road.
This was another 18-seater, mid-size tourist coach, and so Neil and I were put on the back bench seat as the only place we would fit.
I was right in the middle and so had no seat back in front of me, and had to hold on to the seat backs on either side of the aisle, one in each hand.
And here it is.
The problem I had was that the bus wasn’t crowded enough.
Never heard that before, huh?
I had too much room, and longed for ten or so Indonesians to be wedged in next to me to stop me sliding around on the slippery, sweat-soaked plastic seat.
Each time we began a climb I would be slid backward and each hillcrest saw the bus pitch forward and I would have to grab the seat backs hard and brace myself to stop me sliding down the aisle all the way to the front.
Additionally, I was already fully clenched in the buttock area as I couldn’t imagine the embarrassment of having another “Palembang-station-incident” on the bus and having…, well you can see what I mean, I won’t describe fully the outcome that would have followed from that.
And so the day wore on, we climbed, then we descended, we climbed, we descended.
This went on for hours.
Once again I’ve checked the mapping software, and it lists Jambi to Solok as four and a half hours.
I can assure you it seemed like forever we were traversing those hills.
But eventually we came to a flatter area and to the delight of my buttocks we began a smoothish run into Solok.
Then things began to go our way at last.
We arrived in Solok and debussed into another diesel-fume-soaked bus station.
We found that we were in the shadows of the post, and not only was the name Padang part of the talk here, but we had reconnected to the tourist trail and so many of the station staff spoke good English.
Not only that, but there was a bus to Padang every hour and the next one was leaving quite soon.
With a relief that I still list as among the greatest of my life we bought our tickets and boarded our last bus.
It was till early afternoon and the next thing I recall was riding through the streets of Padang in the sunlight.
Slowly the bus emptied at various stops and eventually the conductor fellow came back and said, “Dimana turun?” (Where do you want to get off?)
I replied, “Youth Hostel” in a questioning tone, he nodded and went back to speak to the bus driver.
Slowly the bus emptied and then we were the only ones on board.
Finally the bus pulled up outside a tourist hotel and the conductor gestured to us.
We thanked him and the driver, and got off.
I don’t know if the bus was scheduled to stop there, probably not, like having no timetable, Indonesians buses have no set routes, and they had courteously driven us to the nearest suitable hotel.
The bus pulled away, and we went inside.
We checked in and having thrown our packs on the bed, went back out and walked the hundred or so metres to the ocean.
So Neil and I finally stood on the Indian Ocean coast of Sumatra and stared out to sea.
The mapping software listed our journey, all going well, as 26 hours.
It had taken us nearly four days (96 hours) and nearly did for me, physically and mentally.
But now new feelings were beginning to steal over me, like dimmest, reflected starlight revealing a shape in the night.
What was happening?
Well I’ll start with a rather bizarre digression, which I hope will help show what was going on.
I have never watched a lot of Star Trek, indeed most of my interaction with the show has been through secondary spoof sources, sending up the essential ridiculous nature of the show.
A writer to Viz probably put it best when he wrote: “TOP TIP: Star trek captains. Always do the last ditch, million-to-one shot idea to save the Enterprise first, as it is the only one that ever works.”
But enlightenment can be found in the most unlikely places, even in Star Trek, and so here it is.
Whenever the crew of the Enterprise were in deep space and came under attack from the Stillettan Armour Fiends of Stitterax, the hostile aliens would begin to pound the Enterprise with their laser cannons and they crew would put up the deflector shields to reduce the damage of the bombardment.
Sooner, rather than later, the captain, Kirk, would radio down to Mr Scott in the engine room and say, “Mr Scott, stop all non-essentials and divert power to the deflector shields.”
Scotty would then reply, “I’m giving you all I’ve got captain. If you want more you’ll have to stop the engines, or shut down life support.”
Or something of that nature, then they would go on to do the last ditch thing, whatever it was, to reverse thrust fire or something, blow up the Armour Fiends, and move on through space.
Well, like that scenario from science fiction, that four day journey from Jakarta to Padang, threw up the same choice inside my head.
So taxing was the trip with sickness, tiredness and all the rest that eventually my emotional engine room sent the same signal back to the bridge, “Lachlan, we don’t have enough energy to keep up your emotional shields. You have to decide what you want to keep doing, either keep your emotional shields in place, or stop travelling and get some rest, you can’t do both.”
I had come to Indoesia from a very privileged, white bread, comfortable existence in Australia.
I don’t know what I expected from Indoesia, but in retrospect, I wanted to maintain control, and mostly keep up my emotional deflector shields, so that I could present the image I wanted the world to see.
I wanted buses on timetable with set routes.
I wanted taxis to come as the second hand was ticking up to twelve.
I wanted access to 24-hour health care.
I wanted brilliantly lit, sparkling clean bathrooms with crystal clear fresh water taking my waste away to the latest high tech sewage treatment facilities.
I wanted people to speak English on demand.
I wanted everyone to put their cigarette out as courtesy to me because my throat was sore.
This list of wants could go on interminably.
So the question you naturally want to ask is, “Well, why did you go there?”
And that is a good question that I find it hard to answer even now, 20 years later.
I went to “go travelling”.
But what does that mean?
I found the mechanics of travelling in the third world were nothing but painful, so the actual “travelling” part was something I detested.
I don’t like sightseeing much, then as now, so I wasn’t there to see the buildings or experience the culture.
While I was there I was to learn and come to understand the acronym that anyone more self-reflective than I would have told me that it was time to stop travelling, “NAFT”.
I didn’t surf then, and that is the major reason that most Australians go to Indonesia, so I wasn’t doing that.
Thus, why was I there?
The original plan I’d made with Neil was to go to Indo and then across to Malaysia and the Asian mainland, up through Burma to India, across that and off to England, where I was to take up my newly minted teaching career.
But now as I stood in the dusk on the shores of the Indian ocean I realized more third world travelling was the last thing I wanted to do.
And so to the questions asked me by the two dutch nurses at the beginning of this story.
Again, looking back it was the first time I came to understand that psychology, while not a hard science like chemistry and physics, was indeed real, and more real than I could imagine.
My parents attitude to psychologists and psychiatrists was that they were all madder than the people they saw, and that only fools and weaklings go to counselling.
So I had come to a man’s estate thinking I was a strong powerfully-minded individual who didn’t need any help and knew everything.
So it was with some surprise that I found my first encounter with the invisible part of my own mind a disturbing experience.
So to recap, here are the questions and my answers, which even as I contemplate writing down for you all to see, I can hardly help but cry out in anguish at the pretentiousness and arrogance of my 27-year-old self.
What is your favourite animal? Taipan. This animal represents how you interact with other people.
What is your second favourite animal? Dolphin. This animal is how you would like to be seen by other people.
What is your favourite drink? (Cringe) I said the first cold beer you have after winning a rugby match.
This drink represents how you like sex. Sadly, this shows I saw it as a prize, a conquest, something to be grabbed and consumed in rioutous fashion.
Picture a box, what it is made of and what is inside it. (Double, triple cringe), I said a shoe box with a pair of rugby boots in it.
Describe the ocean in three words. I said “Big, scary, waves.” This answer is how you see life.
Clearly, I saw life as pretty frightening, which was directly contraindicated by my answer to the last question, which was:
Describe how you would travel across the ocean from one island to another. Money is no object, and the laws of physics need not apply.
I said, “I would like to windsurf in a straight line on flat calm ocean.”
Indicating that I wanted to travel through life with no hiccups or problems whatever.
These questions are unlikely to be found in any clinical psych text, I feel they would be described as potted psychology at best, but I found them stunningly, blisteringly, accurate.
The two questions related to rugby, embarrassing though it is for me to relate, were perhaps the most.
Before Neil and I had left Australia I had changed from my standard winter sporting fare of soccer to rugby, and had finally broken away from my mother’s stern injunction that I wasn’t allowed to play rugby because only uncouth yobbos played that and had taken up the game with a passion.
And indeed, I realized that I didn’t want to see another temple, I wanted to get to London, open my shoebox, pull on my boots and start flying into tackles and running with an egg shaped ball under my arm on the green sward.
I think the only thing I can lay credit to on that dusk in Padang was recognizing my feelings and giving weight to them.
In retrospect it was the first time in my life that I had understood that my parents were wrong about something, psychology was important, and I did have feelings and desires, and it was time to start looking at them.
I didn’t announce to Neil that our joint travelling was finished there on the beach at Padang, but it was coming.
I might add, Padang was already notorious as one of the few, possibly the only, beach resort on Earth, where swimming was banned.
When we went down to the ocean I had thought ‘how bad could it be?’.
But as soon as we got there I understood why, the shore break, just ten metres from where Neil and I eventually came to a halt to watch, crashed down on the sand from three metres.
The sound and vibration of that murderous shore break was genuinely frightening to behold.
Contemplating that I had thought it would make the most perfect end to my story: “So after four days of travelling hell, we stood on the sand by an ocean you couldn’t swim in. Just fucking perfect.”
But then I changed my mind, that ending continues with my patronising attitude toward Indonesia and the Indonesians.
Now my ending for this stanza is, I’d like to think even better for journalistic irony and pivotal balance.