Grudge Duel in Java, Parent’s Press (March, 1996)

It could not end this way, I thought. Two thirds of the way around the world and our family – my wife and I and our eleven-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter – faced death in a minivan, along with twelve other passengers crammed behind the shill and the driver. Although the Javanese culture encourages a stoic calm and good humor, I noticed the other passengers looked as worried as I felt as they watched the grudge duel develop between our driver and the driver of another crowded minivan. Our driver’s demeanor transformed into obsessive competitiveness as he tried to pass the other van. The other driver shouted insultingly and gesticulated as he veered to cut us off again, ignoring the danger to any of the passengers in the vans and to the surrounding vehicles.

We had begun the day peacefully enough, leaving the Central Javanese city and cultural center of Yogyakarta (referred to as “Jo-jah”) to visit the nearby volcano, Mount Merapi . The children groused as usual about taking a hike, but rejoiced when we discovered that four months before, in December 1994, there had been a major and deadly eruption, closing large portions of the mountain including the trail we intended to take. Instead, we walked through the village and came across one of many unexpected pleasures discovered while traveling in Asia with children. A large playground/park filled with fantastic sculptures of giants, monsters, elephants and strange figures from the vast Javanese mythology, with its grafted branches of Hindu, Islamic and Dutch cultures. Having escaped the city heat in the mountain cool, our children gleefully ran and climbed over the huge constructs. We walked over to the town market, nestled in a misty valley with several waterfalls. In front of one of them a group of local students wanted to have their picture taken with us. We never knew what stories they would tell about these pictures, but it happened often enough in Indonesia for us to develop the habit of always asking for our version of the picture to show our friends back home.

After a spicy lunch at a food stall, we returned to the minibus stand where a series of vans waited for enough passengers to make it worth their while to go to their particular destinations. Eight months into a year-long trip around the world, we were confidant we could handle whatever transportation challenges faced us. We had learned on our journey up that there could be delays while the shill dragooned enough passengers for the trip. We waited to get in to avoid being stuffed into the diminutive back seat, opting for the middle facing seats that they had tucked into the van. Jonah and Sophie were now interested in their surroundings and we enjoyed the beginning of the ride down the mountain, through small towns in which life took place on the front porch or the street when people were not working in the fields. We were confidant we would be safely back in time to catch the puppet show that a good restaurant near our hotel was putting on that night.

Puppet shows, gamelan orchestras, and crafts are everywhere in Central Java . Gamelan music is played not just at the pavilions at the palaces or at shows, but also in the shops and the temples. People working together play the gamelan at their lunch break. Often people invited the children to try their hand at playing the marimba-like instruments. Similarly, puppet shows have a long tradition in Java, usually telling stories of Hindu mythology although the island was converted to Islam in fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries. The children enjoyed the wild gyrations of the puppet masters with their single-voiced narration and dialogue, and we wanted to encourage this cultural exposure.

After we descended about a third of the way down the mountain, the traffic began to thicken and we saw another minibus in front of us picking up passengers. Our van seemed packed. Nevertheless, the driver and the shill obviously were on the lookout to shoehorn a few more bodies, with the additional fares of about a quarter or fifty cents each depending on how far they were going. The van followed a designated route, though this was a private and hopefully for profit operation, not public transit. The other minibus driver seemed equally determined to collect the passengers. He accelerated before our van could pass to cut us off and get the first crack at the people waiting beside the road ahead.

This was a new traffic situation for us so we did not know the etiquette. We had ridden in taxis, bechaks (similar to trishaws with the passengers in front of the bicycle) and hired cars. We knew the fundamental rule of driving: the larger vehicle has the right of way, and had even learned the second law: there are few police, but they will pull over someone to accept bribes. Today we tried somthing different because the minibuses went where we wanted, they were extremely cheap even by Java’s cheap transportation standards where only the longest rides cost more than a dollar or two, and we wanted to see how the local people traveled. None of our experience explained why the two drivers had become so angry at one another.

At one point the two competing vans became stuck near one another behind a light. The driver of our van sent the shill to talk to the driver of the other van. We did not understand any part of the two conversations, but the upshot was clear from the other driver’s voice and gestures. Negotiations had not led to peace. The war continued, except that our driver became much more aggressive, veering into the opposing traffic to try to pass, only to be cut off by the other van equally heedless of the narrowly averted head-on collisions. At a traffic light the other van waited while the light turned from green to yellow and then to red before suddenly accelerating across the intersection, leaving us stuck.

The heat grew oppressive. The windows opened narrowly, and our noses sniffed at the fresh air like dogs’. But we were stuck on the sunny side of the van and felt cooked. Java’s mid-day heat was oppressive even when not sardined in an airless can. We envisioned our hotel and its cool pool, glad to have a room with air conditioning. Traveling with our children led us to choose more comfortable lodging than we were used to on our journeys. But a pool in hot weather became a high priority for the afternoons after sightseeing. The minimal additional cost in Java for air conditioning was clearly worth it, especially because our hotel also provided adjoining rooms with a connecting door that gave us suite-like comforts without the expense. The neighborhood, called Prawirotaman, is not far from the center of Yogya but is quiet with a number of restaurants as well as hotels and some shops. It called to us from our traffic jam.

The light finally changed color and soon the driver had weaved his way through the traffic to catch up with our arch enemy for another attempt at passing. The passengers began to get out, probably as much from the desire to escape the confrontation and the heat as from reaching their individual destination. We discussed climbing out, but could not tell where we were and did not know if we could find other transportation. Walking the pavement with our kids was an even less appealing option than sitting in the baking van.

The driver made one last attempt to pass but had to back down when a bus came in the opposite direction and asserted the natural order of its right of way. The driver could only mumble to himself and complain to his shill, who agreed with everything the boss said while helping the passengers exit.
Finally we reached the bus station at the north end of town. The sweat dripped from our clothes as we rejected the bechak drivers’ pleas for our business and flagged down an air-conditioned taxi, which for four of us was no more expensive than taking two bechaks. Another day of sight seeing done, we returned to the hotel to plot our next adventure.

©Copyright David J. Meadows 1995