The Diplomat was off to Jakarta for a meeting involving the Canadian Ambassadors of the ASEAN region so I decided it would be a good idea for Isla and I to tag along and go see Dad as he had recently moved to a village about 35km east of Bandung. Now, under no circumstances would I be induced to take a car there after the hellish journey last time. A 3 hour train ride seemed the best bet as I knew it rolled through some stunning scenery as it entered the lowland hills of central Java, then towards the mountains and the super-caldera that houses an underground lake that Bandung itself sits on. Fresh mountain water is in abundant supply in this army town; there’s a saying that water flows into Bandung and never leaves. So, after a pleasant evening at the Hotel Mulia the Diplomat and I parted ways – she off to save the world as usual (or do spy stuff probably), Isla and I to Gambir train station to get two tickets for the Argo Parahyangan (train 26).
Getting tickets was simple enough – you have to produce your passport – and cost us 80,000rupiah each (no discount for kids, you pay per seat). 10,000rupiah : 1USD$ (roughly). So, $8 for a three hour train ride? British Rail needs kick in its derriere given what they charge for a 20min ride. No “leaves on line” bleating excuses in this part of the world, either.
We hopped on the train, having got the elevator to the second floor (check out those lift doors on the left…possibly the most ornate I’ve ever seen), wandered the length of the platform trying to figure out which carriage was the “Executive Class” (hint: always go Executive so you get air conditioning), and settled back in two old, yet vast chairs that had enough legroom for any Dutchman you’d care to name. The window next to us was cracked, but there was a flat screen TV at the other end which proceeded to play that dire Gerard Butler film where he’s an ex-football player-turned kids soccer coach. At 10:50 exactly, with a creak, a groan, and a spine jarring shudder we pulled out and chuff-chuffed our way south-east.
It was a fabulous ride; even Isla enjoyed staring out the window as houses and trees flashed past. We were on the vast plain that is Jakarta, then gradually moved into cuttings, then into steep climbs as we entered the hills. The track is single narrow gauge, double in places for timed passing of other trains, and hugs the left side of a vast valley. At times we clung like limpets to a rock face, at others we juddered out over vast spans of bridges, several hundred feet up over the valley floors. Gorges sliced beneath us, small rivers cutting through the rich, deep earth that covers this land. Indonesia is one of the richest arable lands in the world; three harvests a year and you can see why; the volcanic soil is perfect for growing everything. I took well over a hundred photos – here’s a small subsection…
At one point Isla succumbed to that which all two year old children do (needing a nappy change) and we struggled our way to the train toilet; I peered down through the hole at the track flashing beneath us, maneuvered myself and her into some semblance of contortion and sorted her out. If you click on the photo to see it full size you can see the track through the eye of the ablution (so to speak). We returned to our seats and Java flashed by. It is a mixture of red roofs, verdant green trees, neat patterns of rice paddies, exquisite lines of arable terraces. There is an order here, in this place where the people live by the seasons. Houses line the railway, yet we found ourselves trundling through tracts of jungle, punctured with farming…each plot tended by a single person. For these people, life is hard – but then again, life is hard for most people. Virgil’s Georgics and Eclogues sanctified both the agricultural and the pastoral life as the perfect attainment of peace; it is something that pervades the consciousness of all those who have fought in the rat race of city living – the desire of a country life utopia. The grass does look greener…yet for those born and immersed in that life, the exotic…nay, quixotic, allure of a city is just as potent a desire.
“Gods have dwelt in woods,
Dardanian Paris too. Pallas can keep her cities,
But let the woods beyond all else please you and me.” Virgil, Eclogue II, l60-62
As we went by in the cocoon of this crumbling train, the romance of Java is plainly there to soak into hungry eyes; yet when you step from the train you can see the hardship of life is here just as it is everywhere else.
We arrived in Bandung three hours later…I managed to haul the pushchair, car seat and small bag down some metal block steps. Isla and I walked, blinking in the sunlight, smilingly brushing off the clamour for “taxi for the bule?” By the entrance was the man we had traveled six hours from Bangkok for…my father. Isla had done well so far…now it was just a two hour drive into the depths of a volanic mountain region to his village. As the only bule in the place, I was about to double that population and Isla…well Isla was an exotic child, stared at, touched, photographed. But that’s a story for another blog….
If you ever have to travel in Indonesia into its heartlands….take the train, don’t drive….there’s a beauty that might just inspire you out of those windows…take a look:
Is this what diplomacy is all about?