Sunday 8th November, Bogor
The prospect of an entire day without work gets me up early, and I’m making plans over breakfast while I still have internet access. Google recommends I walk to Gambir, the closest station, but a travel wiki advises against it on security grounds, so I grab a taxi to Monas and walk to Juanda station instead. It’s early but already hellishly hot, so I don’t hang around long taking pictures. The ticket machines are easy to work out, and after paying Rp 10k deposit for a rechargeable travel card I load it with a Rp 5k return to Bogor – about £0.24.
What should have been a 10 minute wait for the next train turns into 40 minutes, during which I notice that there’s not only a dedicated carriage for women at the front of each train, but also a corresponding space on the platform. Immediately I think of my girlfriend’s adventures earlier this week, boarding with a little slice of homesickness when my train finally arrives. At least there’s air conditioning.
The journey takes forever because we stop at each station on the line (except Gambir – don’t tell Google) but I enjoy watching the locals on their day off. Most of the other passengers are families, kids with toys and parents with picnics, probably all heading for the same place. My guess turns out to be correct, and although there’s a melee at the exit gates I’m glad of having somebody to follow since there’s no official signs pointing the way. My luck runs out when it becomes clear that most of the rail passengers are just after a minibus or a taxi-jek, even though the botanical garden / rainforest park is just a few blocks away. Does nobody walk, even here?
I set out on foot and soon find the attraction, but there’s a wall around it and no gate in sight. Naturally I go the wrong way, and spend the best part of an hour on a near perfect circumnavigation. Maybe a taxi would have been better after all. Once I locate the entrance and ticket booth there’s nobody inside, just a cop with a machete talking to a taxi driver. They’re the first people to notice me today without openly staring, but as they’re clearly not interested I just walk past and am immediately impressed by the garden’s scale and grandeur, which reminds me of the kind of formal landscaping that normally accompanies an English country manor. Researching only the transport options for today and leaving everything else to chance turned out to be a good move, and besides, nothing could have prepared me for what would happed next.
I’m just finishing the apple I pilfered from my hotel, casting about in search of a bin for the core, when I’m approached by a group of children who want to practice their English. We chat for a while and take mutual selfies, my apple core pocketed for now. After a few minutes they’ve had enough of me and start to wander off, which is taken as some kind of signal by a second group of kids that had been sheepishly hanging around on the periphery near some bushes. As I’m approached by the second group the first lot come back, introducing me proprietorially to the new arrivals. More conversation, more selfies, and this time I’m asked to sign their school books too. Not wishing to paint British children as inferior I don’t ask why they have their school books with them in a park on Sunday, of course that’s normal, doesn’t everyone carry their homework about all weekend? I’m asked about my job and who I’m visiting in Jakarta, and when I mention the client the kids are mightily impressed, insisting that they too want to work there. I’m not able to figure out if this is a standard line that’s kept for tourist encounters (damn my cynicism) or if it’s really true, in the same way that people really wanted to work for Microsoft and Google when they were hip and new.
We speak for a few more minutes and bid each other farewell, having bonded as strangers while that apple core’s bonded with my pocket. There’s maybe 150 yards between where we’ve been chatting and a public toilet (bin, there has to be a bin) but I only make it halfway before being stopped by – you guessed it – another couple of kids with school books and a desperate need of selfies with sweaty sunburnt strangers. The apple core goes back into its trouser pocket and I’m sure my new friends pretend to not notice the stain that’s spreading there, but I refuse to add my rubbish to that under the nearest tree, even if the gesture is lost on everyone.
Do I want to come and join their group for a BBQ, just over there? Why of course! I get to sign more homework books, feature in many, many more selfies, and meet their English teacher, Mr. T, who serves me rice and chicken. That’s when the penny drops. Turns out that Indonesian schoolchildren are actively encouraged to improve their English skills in real life situations whenever possible, and have to show evidence for it when they’re back in class. So they ambush foreigners, take photos, get signatures. I’m absolutely blown away by this, not just the concept but the enthusiasm with which it’s embraced. Can you imagine what Indonesia will be like when these kids are old enough to make decisions, to take their part in shaping society? Let’s hope they put up a few more bins.
For a moment it looks as though we might get a real cross-cultural picnic going when the group’s lookouts notice two other white tourists nearby and try to reel them in, but they just cling tighter to each other and hurry on. Was that a case of being less receptive to new experiences when you’re not travelling alone? Or maybe they’ve already spent all morning in ‘captivity’ and can’t take any more. Speaking of which, I insist I’ve got time for only one more photo and, because Mr T. is a professional, he unfurls a large banner which we all stand behind for the final shot. I laugh out loud when I notice the ’Tourist Hunting’ reference later at the hotel – pretty much all that was missing from this trip so far.
Now that I know their game I’m on the lookout for other groups of children, and decide to hide amongst some giant Kapok trees, grabbing the first photos of the day which don’t feature grinning school kids. It starts to rain again. Soon people are running for cover everywhere while trying to find intermediate shelter beneath picnic rugs, handbags, even discarded palm fronds, and before long I find myself lodged under a bush with a damp but cheerful family of seven. By the time I’ve fished out my waterproof jacket I’m already wet, so I decide to check out the town instead. Maybe they have an indoor market, or an indoor anything.
Bogor town is understandably less pristine than the botanical gardens, just narrow lanes filled with people dashing between regular everyday businesses. The heavy rain seems to somehow suit the place, battering roofs and streaming off awnings to paint multicoloured puddles in oily streets. The enterprising boys with golf umbrellas find me too late and besides, an umbrella in this wet mass of humanity feels about as appropriate as a deckchair on an escalator. I do find a covered market, but the roof is a patchwork of frayed tarpaulins, the floor a mixture of mud, guts, and vegetable peel, and … why the shuddering fuck are you sitting down there in all that shit, tugging at my legs? Oh. Because you have none of your own. In my haste to get out of the rain I’d almost run into the kid, shuffling his way from A to B on two ragged stumps, pulling me out of my photogenic daydream and down into his world. An hour ago the worst thing in my life was a free BBQ and an apple core I couldn’t get rid of, so how’s this for contrast? His hand was open so I put some money in it, not because I was trying to buy off my guilt, but because it felt like all I could do.
I haven’t felt such sensory overload, such colour and emotion at every turn since a tour of Northern India eleven years go, and decided that my Bogor experience was complete. The homeward train is packed and steamy; bedraggled picnickers on their way back to the suburbs in their dripping clothes, already back in Monday’s offices in their distant thoughts. As is sometimes the way, the landscape two miles down the track hasn’t seen a drop of rain, and we rattle northwards in our freezing carriage, staring like surreal sardines at the parched landscape outside.