11 August 2013

Flirtation in an Indonesian minibus

Little did I expect a connection with a local woman who spoke little English to happen so quickly. Less than an hour after leaving her, I was typing this story to make sure I'd remember it. Here it is.

I had woken up at 5.30am that morning, a few moments before dawn, in my cheap "hotel" in Cipanas, a touristy place (for Indonesians mostly) in the hillside. "Cheap" in all meanings of the term: $10 a night for a bed that didn't smell quite right, a hole for a toilet, but – supreme luxury – a bath with constantly warm water fed into it, thanks to the natural geothermal water. I knew I wanted to have ample time to reach Tasikmalaya, a mere 40 kilometres away, in order to buy a train ticket and board a comfortable train five hours later. Well, despite my preparation and being used to having to be patient when it comes to taking local public transportation (which sometimes only departs when full), I managed to catch the train literally at the very last minute, even after having had to ask an elderly man if I could jump ahead of him in the queue!

Thing is, it took about two hours to gradually fill the first minibus – and the project manager that I am couldn't resist identifying all the little things that could optimise the lives of the drivers and passengers (mobile/SMS app indicating live how many seats are yet to be filled, identification of the minibus’s current location, payment with magnetic cards instead of cash – I saw at least one of those top-up cards in a local supermarket –, and so many little inexpensive things that could make the journeys more enjoyable and efficient).

I was almost ready to give up and pay for the remaining empty seats. But then, I was not in any specific hurry, I could always catch another bus instead of the train and I had planned all day to travel anyway, trying to take things easy. After an hour of waiting at that road intersection, a lady showed up with her load of various products to sell on the market. She was wearing a light flowery, slightly transparent, slightly loose headscarf, not really a veil – I actually expected the proportion of veiled women to be higher in Indonesia; I’d say about two thirds were either wearing the hijab or that transparent headscarf.

Indonesian women at Prambanan, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

She tried to help me, acting as my interpreter, as I was trying to get the minibus started, explaining we could always randomly pick up people on the way (which is what we did anyway and which is what is usually done everywhere in the world). Her English was rudimentary: she could understand it much better than she could speak it, which is I think usually the case for anyone speaking a foreign language.

I guess my blue-eyed foreigner and youngish backpacker non-shaven look (some ask me if I'm still a student) make people curious as to why I travel alone (and inevitably I get asked why I'm not married). I'm generally met with friendly faces, people who want to help. In fact, almost every other day did I bump into teenage girls or women my age speaking no English but managing to tell me "you're handsome" and then giggle a "I like you". It would make me smile because when I asked if I could take a picture of one of them, they’d sometimes refuse and keep giggling with their friends. Oh well, I'm not going to complain if they “like” me – although I am pretty sure they say the same thing to any foreign-looking solo guy traveling in places that few foreigners go to; in any case, I wasn’t looking for a wife so I wasn’t too worried of being trapped.

The first sign revealing my bus companion was happy to travel with me was when she decided to stay next to me in the minibus, once the endless palaver with the driver about getting on our way had been over – she asked him to hand her the bags she had left on the front seat where she had intended to sit (I did notice in many countries that most people have a preference to sit next to the driver, perhaps because it's less crammed than in the back seats? Or one gets a better view of the road?).

That was just the beginning.

She then shyly started asking the typical questions about my name, my age, whether I was married (she had a pretty face, so I was wondering if there was anything implied). I learned she had divorced, that she was now scared of marrying anyone again, had three sons (ouch, that complicated things a bit for me :-), and that she was just a year older than me. I wondered if she was accessing the Internet on her BlackBerry but alas no, she had never used the Internet (I of course wanted her to connect to Google+) and she didn't have a really good reason not to try it out: calling, text messaging, sometimes "BBM-ing" and taking photos (she showed me some) were her main activities on a BlackBerry which was co-branded AT&T (it got me thinking about the grey reseller market all the way from the US). I'm not sure to have understood what she was selling on the market nor why she traveled all the way from Bandung, two hours away, where she was living with her mother and son.

She wasn't sad, nor particularly happy, she was simply living her life. She was neither extrovert nor outgoing – it was just serene shyness mixed with an interest in someone else, someone obviously different even I had absolutely no external signs of wealth, although I guess the “white” European that I am could by default be considered rich(er). In fact, I was wearing a dirty, stinking shirt with a few holes (yes, Mum, that same old $5 non-branded T-shirt I’ve had for fifteen years, please don’t yell at me), a pair of shorts, and muddy hiking shoes... not exactly the 50-year old "rich" white guy. Again, maybe I was naive, I don't know, I also think or hope that simple interactions, even if unusual, can exist.

Some time through the journey, we were asked to pay the fare. She unexpectedly paid it for me, despite me insisting to pay her back. It made me feel sad: here was this woman trying to make a living by taking a bus to some town not particularly close to her home, and paying the bus fare for a random foreigner... it was not the first time that this happened to me in my wanderings around the world (I think, for example, of those bus drivers in Mexico City or in Thailand who let me ride scott-free although I didn’t ask for anything), almost as if traveling alone and being thanked to visit their country were enough of a reason to get such free rides. The amount of money we're talking about was meaningless to me but not necessarily to them. Their generosity warms my heart.

She softly said she'd gladly invite me to her home, extending her hand so I could shake it. It made me a bit more sad: I would have visited her family but I was going East, not West, and I knew I wouldn't be back in Indonesia for any time soon. I handed her my notepad so I could actually get her address (I also landed her digits, yay – hahaha) and I gave her mine on a shiny personal non-business card I had with me.

The road was windy and the driver – like all drivers in those dingy minibuses – was carelessly driving foot down on the accelerator. That's when I don’t exactly know what got into my head. I offered my lady companion to hold her so she wouldn't have to constantly grab on to the seat in front of her, also suggesting she could rest on my shoulder. I insisted I didn't want to make her uncomfortable though, but she timidly accepted my offer. So here I was, resting my own head on hers, and circling her in my arms so she'd be more comfortably seated.

Now, as a reader, you are expected to mutter "awww". Or maybe you are thinking I got tricked in some kind of elaborate scam. But the story is not over yet (but no, I don't get married nor live happily ever after at the end, sorry for the spoiler).

These instants were simple. They were also unexpected, for I had decided only a few hours earlier to change my travel plans – and she had taken a wrong minibus earlier herself.

The road started to be straighter. I stopped holding her since I think she started to feel a little uneasy, I wasn't sure why since I had remained very accurate in the placement of my arms and hands (if you start imagining more sensual things than what I wrote, that's only in your head – but if you want something in the same vein, read my previous twisting of a story dating back to the fourth century BC.

Our arms then remained on top of one another – I made sure mine was underneath so she could have easily adjusted her own arm if I did make her feel uneasy. What followed did not answer all my interrogations but at least confirmed I was not causing her discomfort as such, but perhaps she was simply shy of the public expression of affection, especially in a crammed 20-people minibus... and in Muslim, rural Indonesia. Maybe resting my own head on hers, although natural, went a tad too far (smiling at my own boldness – okay, call it craziness).

My fingers touched her warm hand. We had remained silent for a while. She was checking her phone but unlike before, she was not using her hand that was touching mine. I gradually extended my fingers further into her hand, gently caressing her palm. Our hands were hidden from view, which I believe made her more comfortable. I could feel her thumb slowly bend to touch my own fingers.

We had soon arrived to our destination. I clutched her hand into mine and we continued to sit quietly, looking straight ahead of us. I don't know what was going through her head at that moment. This was just a simple, generous, tender encounter with someone I would most certainly never see again. At least that’s the way I experienced it.

In the hussle and bussle of the arrival, I forgot to take a picture of her. She extended her hand again to say goodbye, as I was frantically getting a bank note from my wallet to pay her back the bus fare, and a little bit more. She refused my money again, but I literally forced it into her hand (and that wasn't easy), saying it was for her son or for her upcoming birthday a week later. And then I darted off across the highway to catch a connecting minibus.

I looked across the window of the minibus once I managed to settle in. But I couldn't find her. She was gone, she had caught her own minibus. I felt a little pang in my heart.

PS: the photo was taken a few days later, at Prambanan. I thought the joy of those colourful women jumping in the air brought a happy note to my text which is perhaps a bit melancholic?