Greetings from Surabaya,
In my last postcard from Bali I mentioned the over night bus to Surabaya. Our powerful bus could outrun almost anything else on the road... and the driver seemed determined to demonstrate its capability every time anything at all slowed its progress. He passed with clearly inadequate time to avoid the oncoming traffic... and with impunity. Somehow that narrow two lane road miraculously became three lanes as all three vehicles squeezed to the extremes of the available clear road and shoulder space. During the early morning hours traffic thinned and for long stretches we had the whole road to ourselves... as did oncoming traffic. Everyone straddles the middle line during these times and when two behemoths meet, they play chicken... waiting until the very last microsecond to move over to their half of the road and avoid disaster. After a while I assumed my most fatalistic trusting attitude and joined the other sixty passengers in futile attempts to get a few moments of fitful sleep. Our "luxury" reclining seats were comfortable enough for resting, but will never replace a king-size Easyrest mattress. Every couple hours the steward shook us awake to deliver cakes, bottled water, sandwiches, tarts and to inform us of our 01:30 dinner stop... all included in the $8.40 fare.
Ten sleepless hours later we arrived before sunrise to an already bustling terminal some distance from the city center. No one seemed to understand my request for bus schedule information, always suggesting a taxi (which at about $2 really would have been the logical choice for a rich guy like me). But, I remained determined to mingle with the real people and finally got confirming gestures from two different people and boarded the bus for town. During the half hour wait before the 05:00 departure time a guitar playing troubadour entertained us with Indonesian folk music that sounded an awful like the music we heard in the U.S. during the 60's. Finishing, he walked down the isle collecting tribute from his captive audience. I chipped in with some small change; but even that amounted to about an hour's pay for an unskilled laborer. Minutes later another guy with the same idea boarded and repeated his predecessor's behavior this time delivering an unusual rendition of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town... in English... presumably for my benefit! . All my change gone to the previous guy, I gave him nothing and he lingered much too long at my seat scowling all the while and shaking his plastic bag proffered for payment. Others on the bus obviously were annoyed by his presence as well. The problem may have been that I gave the first guy too much (maybe the equivalent of thirty cents) in a country where many people work for nearly an hour to earn that much.
Once the bus started its run I began my effort to learn which stop would get me close to "the" main train station in the center of the city. Several passengers and the conductor tried to be helpful, but there were some problems: nothing could be seen outside the bus for the predawn darkness and there are about six "main" train stations! So, when the conductor pointed down what looked like a dark ally jabbering something in Indonesian, the other passengers nodding in agreement adding a few English words like "walk," "short way," etc. I changed my mind and stuck with the bus to the end of the line where the eastern sky finally began making silhouettes out of the surrounding buildings.
This time a few people spoke enough English to get me on the right bus... which turned out to be the return route of the same one I had taken in. When we again passed the "dark ally," it looked more promising and I jumped off and walked in the indicated direction... but no train station... no train tracks... just tri-wheel Pedi cabs every twenty feet urging me to climb aboard. At last I discovered the first class New Grand Park Hotel and inquired about room rates ($27) and the location of the presumably close by train station ("yes, close by"). The room looked great, so tired and sweaty I took it, showered, washed clothes, rested for an hour and then left to explore and find the train station: "a 100 meters that way, then turn right another 100 meters, and then it is right around the corner." An hour and a half later I began to wonder if the receptionist had said right or left and started asking people on the street for more directions. The darned station had been carefully hidden among shopping centers, industrial buildings, one-way streets and parking lots. When I found it, I learned few trains stop at this minor station and that the main station would be found near the city center some five kilometers distance. So, I made lemonade and learned what I could about the virtues of the area in which fate had dropped me.
The important Mesjid Ampel, a mosque dedicated to one of the nine "saints" who brought Islam to the islands of Indonesia is described as an important place of pilgrimage for devout Muslims. So, rousting one of the pedicab drivers from his nap, off we went the seven blocks to a cluster of shopping arcades surrounding the shrine. Every stall offered the little beanie caps men are required to wear on the grounds of the shrine. Mine is white silk with embroidered flowers and cost 2000 Rupeeas, about twenty-four cents. Once inside the compound a number of "church ladies" tried their best to make me feel welcome... not unlike what a visitor might experience in any neighborhood church in America. Some spoke English and explained a service in progress produced the choral singing we could hear; that the people sitting quietly around the grave site were meditating on the spirit of the "saint." Except for the beanie caps worn by the men and the Jilbab scarves worn by the women, there were no extreme religious costumes... people clearly came from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Quiet filled the spaces between the angelic voices chanting pleasant melodic sounds. This is not the religious chanting of Turkey, music that drones on and on as it tells one epic tale or another. I took a cab (about $2) back to the hotel before beginning a more careful exploration of the city center where I found the main train station and the Hotel Sahid literally next door; very convenient for the daily 07:30 train to Yogyakarta.
Within two blocks of the hotel I found ultramodern shopping malls full of people anxious to talk to Americans. The Mc Donald's featured a unisex toilet with an adjoining prayer room full of women taking their "coffee breaks." Like America, many (most?) Indonesians take their religion rather casually. I never did hear the muezzins call faithful to prayer even once while in the city proper; I never saw a single minaret or anything that looked like an important mosque in the city. No one appended "Insh Allah" to every other sentence uttered. Religion is not a prominent physical feature of this country where ninety percent claim Islam as their religion. Hotel rooms do feature an arrow stuck up on the ceiling labeled Kiblat and pointing toward Mecca, but no prayer rugs and no bedside copy of the Koran. Most people, I am convinced are Muslim in name only, not unlike a majority of "religious people" in western cultures. Attitudes among people with whom I spoke about terrorism and religious extremists mirrored their American counterparts. In fact, city people are indistinguishable from Americans in their range of dress, mannerisms, music preferences, mix of ethnicities, and entertainment preferences. Get rid of the ubiquitous pedicabs and their persistent operators and you could be in any one of a hundred western cities.
The zoo I learned featured Komodo Dragons as well as some Sumatra Tigers so I squeezed in a visit during my short two day stay in Surabaya. They feed the dragons only twice a month and the day I went was feeding day unbeknownst to me. The monsters got their fortnightly banquet at 12:00; I arrived at 14:00. One of the keepers attempted to get the beasts' attention, but all any of the three specimens wanted to do was lay in the sun digesting their last meal. I expected fearsome giants; all I saw were small lazy lizards. The tigers obviously did not appreciate being caged and paced menacing around their separate cages, growling at a small boy teasing them. It is a nicely landscaped park with an excellent selection of animals found in the Indonesian archipelago.
While in the area of the zoo located a few kilometers out of town I did hear a lethargic slightly amplified muezzin gently urging the faithful to pray, though no one seemed to pay him any attention. Everyone smiles at me, often saying "hello" and sometimes adding "where you from?" Everyone who learns I'm an American is most gracious. There are very few of us here since the U.S. State Department travel warning issued last year. Of course terrorists don't walk around with signs identifying them as dangerous characters, but I've seen nothing to suggest Surabaya is any more dangerous than Los Angeles. People here are more concerned about American reactions to news reports of religious extremists than of the threat extremists pose to the country. No one gave me any reason to suspect they might secretly approve of the violent behavior of the fanatics. Quite the contrary; government crackdowns to the point of impinging on the human rights of everyone are seen in a positive light as best I can tell.
Still no place to process the pictures languishing in my camera. Cyber cafes in Indonesia don't seem to have the latest hardware and Windows 98 is the most recent operating system I've seen. On the other hand I've seen no illegal software. I'm off to Yogyakarta on up the island toward Jakarta tomorrow. More in the next postcard, probably from Yogyakarta.
Fred L Bellomy