Amy on the Road is a travel fiction series following Amy, a young Aussie on her first forays into backpacking. Follow her misadventures from the beginning at www.annkaddley.com
After the slowest ferry ride in the history of the world, I made it to Java and my bus west, I had overcome my fist solo traveller hurdle and was feeling cautiously optimistic about handling this travel business. This was the first time I encountered a strange phenomenon that was to continue through all of my travels.
Sitting on the bus I got talking to a few local university kids heading home for the holidays, they couldn’t believe that I was out there travelling on my own.” Aren’t you scared?”, “Wow you’re so brave” I was momentarily taken back, did I have something to worry about? Was I really this awesome, daring person they thought I was? As flattering as it was the answer was no, I was not brave, mostly I was scared silly, this trip was never meant to be a daring adventure, more of an extended holiday, an excuse not to face up to my responsibilities. The only difference between me and these eager kids was culture and a whole lot of privilege.
It was a funny feeling knowing that these locals didn’t seem to understand my urge to explore any more than my disapproving father back home, plantations and markets swept past the bus windows and I floated through someone else’s world feeling more than a little homesick.
The bus ride was long and hot with wind weeping through the open windows and thighs sticking to seats. The bus would stop every few hours for bathroom, or fuel but often this stop was so fleeting that I soon followed the local example, hanging out the open windows to buy food from the vendors on the side of the rd. Little skewers of chicken hearts, bags of peanuts, bunches of a spiky, sweet lychee like fruit and my favorite little bags of tofu square packages with a single green chili. You took a tiny bit of the chili and quickly downed a tofu square to cool the burn.
Time seems to stand still in transit, it takes forever but is also over in a flash, there is a rhythm to the wheels, the stop and start that is quite hypnotic. Strange smells wash over you through open windows as little glimpses of exotic lives pass by. Eventually the bus spat me out at my destination and I trudged sort of shell shocked, feeling like I had lived a hundred lives, exhausted by my day of sitting still. My lonely planet suggested a single budget hostel and budget it was. I collapsed into an empty three bed room whose only windows opened into a concrete open ended hallway between two buildings.
I opened my pack to discover my hastily packed shampoo had exploded covering every item in my toilet bag. Scooping water from the bucket in my tiny shower/toilet room, I painstakingly rinsed all the items resigned to the fact teeth brushing would taste of soap for the next month.
Cautious of my unfamiliar surroundings and lack of Indonesian, I crept down the concrete hallway, my hostel seemed to be in a slightly more industrial part of town and the friendly tourist catering and ready English availability of Bali seemed a world away, I crossed the unpaved road and managed to convince a cart vendor to create me some nasi gorang. Crouched along-side a few older locals at the side of a dirt road, with the taste of spicy rice in my mouth, windblown from my bus ride, I felt like a completely different person than the carefree Aussie tourist I had been talking to the uni student only 14 hours ago. The carefree whims of exploration seemed naïve. I crouched there for all the world like a local, feeling isolated, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis into a land more different than it imagined possible.
That night I slept fitfully waking to the roar of a motorcycle echoing of the concrete hallway, not quite sure if I trusted this new reality. I missed my bus the next morning, I had over slept after a restless night, several hours of exploration indicated that my next best bet was to continue by train the following day, at least in theory a train should make it harder to get lost.
At first Bandung had me down, the unpaved street seemed less charming against the backdrop of industry instead of Bali’s natural beauty and as I had somehow ended up on the opposite side of town from the tourist quarter I felt suddenly cast adrift.
I was determined not to let it sour my trip, I was a real backpacker now, one little city wasn’t going to put me off that easily. I could spend my trip afraid of my own shadow or use it to drive me to explore.
I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at the local zoo and gamely battled a series of small local angkot buses to reach it. I arrived late in the day which gave me blessed relief from the local holiday tourists. When you travel you tend to discount a country’s local holiday makers, a cultural experience in its own right.
The zoo was peace full and surprisingly sophisticated with stone walled enclosures and lots of green though like most undeveloped country’s there was still plenty of bars. I was fascinated by proboscis monkeys with their bulbous noses and the tiny Spectral tarsier with its huge anime eyes and sticky up ears like a mouse on acid. The thing that I most wanted to see however was the tigers the zoo had both Sumatran and white tigers and I’d heard they had six month old cubs. I hurried through the quickly emptying complex and after several wrong turns found the tiger enclosure and a beautiful white tiger sunning herself. I only had time to snap a quick photo before a keeper banged twice somewhere behind the scenes and a hatch was opened calling the tiger away to be fed.
Another keeper heading towards the tiger cages saw my crestfallen expression. “Where you from?” he asked, I told him I was from Melbourne and that I liked his zoo but it was a shame that I had missed the tigers. In one of the few examples of positive discrimination I have ever experienced the keeper grinned at me “you want see feed?” “come, come” he beckoned me through a locked door and through a concrete courtyard surrounded by enclosures.
Back stage the tiger pens were nothing fancy, bare concrete and barred cages were being scrubbed down while an older man in a khaki uniform tossed hunks of meat into cages, laughing and talking to his charges. He rolled his eyes as he saw me the proverbial white girl agape at the beautiful cats so close to me. The big cubs rubbed up against the bars begging for attention and head pats from my keeper, “you touch” he instructed, to be honest I wasn’t sure I was supposed to be there at all but the opportunity was too much for me and I petted my very first tiger.
I stayed while they were fed snapping a series of awful blurry photos of the ever moving cats. Though the environment was austere the cats showed no sign of misuse, they clearly adored their keepers the bringers of food. Eventually I excused myself thanking the friendly keeper exhaustively. I was half surprised that he didn’t demand money from me after the fact, a practice I was becoming accustom to. But he didn’t, he was just a guy who wanted to share his love of the big cats he cared for.
Bandung was just as bleak outside the zoo walls but I now saw it in another light, the simple kindness of one stranger sharing his passion had changed my outlook of the town and when I climbed onto the train the next day it was with a smile on my face a feeling that I understood a little more about what it meant to be a traveller not a tourist.