Economy Train

Featured at Latitudes, June 6, 2011

I live in Yogyakarta. Not long ago, Nick, an Australian friend of mine who stayed in the city for several months, told me he was going to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, 786 miles away in the northeast part of Java island. That he was leaving did not shock me—he travels a lot—but his insistence on taking an economy-class train did.

I asked him why. “I heard it would be interesting,” Nick said. And by ‘interesting’ he was referring to the usual picture of this train: crowded couch, busy hawkers hustling all the time, and all. “What do you think, man?” he asked me. I frowned, then gave him a smile.

The economy train in Indonesia is designed for and used by the country’s not so well to do citizens. Most of its passengers are blue-collar workers coming from Klaten, Yogyakarta, Kutoarjo, Purwakarta, and places in between. Calculating the government-subsidized ticket price (from Yogyakarta it’s only Rp 35,000 or about 3 euros) and efficiency (we’re talking about a 9-hour trip), this train is the best option for these people. Thus, the crowded couch. That is, if you sit on a couch. Some economy trains are so overcrowded people climb the train and ride the roof. The question is whether the ticket inspector also makes it to the roof to complete his rounds.

“Economy trainsets are always overfilled and ‘rough’,” I said being no stranger to this kind of train and knowing this public transportation is indeed uncomfortable given the crowd, noises, room and modest facilities. “Yet,” I continued, “I think you may be right about that ‘interesting’ part.” I mean, meeting and having interractions with unfamiliar characters are fun, right?

I told him some of my own stories. Five years ago, I went to Jakarta with three fellows. It was in holiday season and we unfortunately managed to book only two seats. Two seats for four people…Tell me about it. We had to sit in turn. While two of us were seated, the others had to perch upon the back of the seats, crouching on the deck mole-style, or walking around the flocked couch to get some air (there should have been plenty as some of the window shields couldn’t be closed properly).

But it was not just that. While I took my turn sitting above my friends’ heads, I witnessed a sad irony. Behind me, a group of young people wearing long-sleeved shirts that read “Pandu Keadilan” (“The Guard of Justice”) looked very comfy occupying one or even two seats a person. Some of them were asleep with their bodies stretched upon two seats while around them, old people and kids had to park themselves on the deck in the narrow passageway, forced to stay up all night because of people constantly going to and fro.

These guards of justice, I learned after seeing their badges, were young members of a big Indonesian political party whose name includes the words “keadilan” (“justice”) and “sejahtera” (“prosperous”). That scene of selfishness is surely not a good impression for their organization I suppose.

Sometimes, when I am in an economy train, I feel like a bazaar is running in there. You run into hawkers selling food, drinks, cigarettes, tissue, toys, books, cellphone paraphernalia, newspapers, and what not. There are also people offering services like massage, phone battery charging, deck cleaning, and even perfume spray. Despite the commodity diversification, a lot of them have similar kinds of goods or services and much the same methods of selling making their competition chiefly based on luck.

Observing these hawkers can be fun. They will often shout funny selling phrases. I remember an old man selling old newspapers crying, “Luna Maya, artis dari Bandung! Tidur sama Luna Maya cuma gopek!” (“Luna Maya, an actress from Bandung! Sleep with Luna Maya for five hundred!”). He was kidding. What he meant was that the passageway passengers could get a sheet of newspapers that had a picture of Luna Maya—who is in fact from Bali—to sleep on and the price was a mere Rp 500. The papers might not sell well, but the old man certainly managed to make us all laugh.

As Nick looked a bit excited, I told him about how I met a widow and a frustrated young musician one time in 2009 when I was heading to Yogyakarta from Jakarta.

Unlike the seats of business and executive trains which are arranged like cars’, facing into one direction, those of economy trains are arranged like chairs at a dinning table: a cluster of seats consists of two rows facing one another, separated by a narrow half-meter space. It is not easy to move your legs and it is not easy to not have a chat with people who are face to face with you for hours. This widow sitting before me was alone. Next to her was an empty seat, on which a young man would get seated later.

That night was memorable as I met these two characters. A while after the train began moving, the widow stroke up a conversation with me. She spoke a lot about herself and I quickly learned that she raised her daughter alone in downtown Semarang after her husband passed away and that she had concerns about the girl’s boyfriend. I responded to her story mostly with nods for I didn’t know what to say. She must have been a tough woman. But I concluded that she might be lonely and not have many people to talk to at home, so that she would consciously reveal her personal matters to a complete stranger like me. It felt a bit like the odd conversation in Edward Albee’s absurd play “The Zoo Story”.

However, after few hours, she suddenly changed the subject to a horror experience of her hitching a ride in a ghost bus to Surabaya. This time I did not buy it. Thanks to the young man who just came and disrupted us, she cut the story and fell asleep. The ones left awake were me and this dude, who sat beside the widow and turned out to be an amateur guitarist whose dream was making it big.

He was a student at a university in Yogya. He actually told me that a nationally famous pop group called Lyla had stolen his song and that he deserved to be succesful. I said to him that I didn’t really listen to Lyla so I wouldn’t be able to judge the plagiarism, if any. Then he made me hear his song through his mp3 player, trying to convince me.

He might be right–I don’t know. I tried to shift the chat into other things like the musical gears he used, etc. I failed to cheer him up, though. As time went by, he looked more and more dejected. He had a typical emo haircut so I thought he was just being emotional.

Nick was listening to me enthusiastically. Sadly, he something else to do so I had to end my story abruptly. “Well, you should give it a go,” I said to him. “Yeah, man,” he answered.

When Nick left, I was just about to tell him a story of how I had to sit in front of a smelly toilet on my way to Jakarta last February, next to a sweet couple who ran away from their husband and wife in Klaten.

A few days after that conversation, a text message was sent to my phone. It was from Nick, who apparently was already on his way to Jakarta. He said, “Hey! This train is really cool!” It was then that I realized I hadn’t told him to beware of the pickpockets.

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