Under the shadow of Mount Merapi

No reality bustin’ today folks. Just the news and a memory:

(Come back tomorrow… really!)


age of volcanoes action news flash: For the past week, a volcano has been erupting on the island of Java, Indonesia. It’s name is Mount Merapi, and it just had another major eruption yesterday, adding six more to the previous death toll of thirty.

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Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated in the surrounding towns and villages.

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The eruption of Mount Merapi, located in the center of the island of Java, comes on the heels of an undersea earthquake and resultant tsunami which affected another island of Indonesia, Sumatra. Many of the tsunami warning signals that were put in place after the devastating 2004 tsunami did not work this time because they were broken.

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October 31, 2002: the living tiki finds himself traveling on an early morning train from the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta to the capital, Jakarta. A girl is sleeping at his side.

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Map courtesy of Hobotraveler.com

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The city of Yogyakarta. A view which could easily have been the one from my hotel room.

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It was Halloween day, nineteen days after a bomb ripped apart a nightclub in Bali, and eleven days after I had arrived in Indonesia. I still wasn’t sure what the hell I was doing there, I just knew I needed to get away from my current reality so much I picked the opposite side of the planet as a destination. And no two week vacation BS – I took a month (and wished I had a year.)

Family, friends, co-workers… they all thought I was nuts. But I wasn’t about to let  Jemaah Islamiya  the CIA  Mossad  psychopaths ruin something I had been planning for months.

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The girl was named Yanti, and I had met her in Jakarta just five days earlier. Actually, she introduced herself to me and already knew my name (the few weeks after the bombing, western tourism was virtually nil. I stood out.) Yanti had a less than a week left before she was planning to fly to France “to study”. At least that’s what she told me. Truth was, Yanti was one of many girls I started calling the desperate ones: Girls who frequented the bars along the (budget) Western hotel street, Jalan Jaksa.

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These girls weren’t prostitutes (although you could find those there too, despite the country being predominately Muslim). They were girls who were so desperate for a better life that they positioned themselves where Western men would arrive first. Considering at that time there were extremely few Western men, and most all of the ones from England were complete assholes, I was approached frequently. Yanti made a number of other girls really pissed at her for “stealing” me away. But she was bold. And a damn fine pool player.

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After about 40 minutes of riding on the train, I was anxious for a smoke break and eased myself away from Yanti’s sleeping body pressed against mine. I went into the juncture passageway between the cars, where there were side doors which people could open to exit the train if necessary. One could literally jump off the train through one of these doorways when the sliding door was open, which both were. The breeze coming into the juncture was refreshing, and  I sat on the floor near one open door and lit up a cigarette.

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Although I avoided the other girls, Yanti intrigued me simply because she wasn’t desperate. I put two and two together and realized it was because she had already found her man, who had left just before I arrived. That’s why she was going to France, but not yet. Since I was planning to travel to the interior of the island soon, and since she had grown up in that area and also spoke almost fluent English, I saw the perfect opportunity to “hire” her on a tour guide. I told her I would pay all her accommodations if she would help me with trains, hotels, and sightseeing – and that’s all I require (I meant it too. I’m kind of cautious like that. Plus it left the option open for me to hit on women in the city I would be going to 🙂 ) – which elicited a chuckle and a smile from her upon agreeing. Yet something still bugged me… Why was this 25 year old unemployed single mom (whose 8 year old son was being taken care of by her sister living in Singapore with an American husband) still hanging out at Jalan Jaksa when she was going to be with her potential husband in less than a week? Was it because this had been the only life she had known for awhile, was she out of money, or was there something else?

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I stared out the side door, watching the blur of green foliage and farmland go by. Suddenly the train whistle blared and I leaned to look outside at what might be the cause. The train began to slow, and was now making a different “clickety-clack” noise than before. We were on a bridge spanning a small gorge with a river at the bottom.

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At the train station in Jakarta, Yanti revealed her sometimes subtle clever wit:

Me: OK, Yanti, I’m seeing a bunch of words and numbers on this billboard – are these the ticket prices?

Yanti: Yes.

Me: What’s the first one?

Yanti: Coach. It’s $8 US.

Me: Nice! But what do I get?

Yanti: No assigned seating. No air conditioning. I’d watch your luggage.

Me: Next.

Yanti: Business class: It’s $12 US. Assigned seating. Air conditioning is fans. I’d still watch your luggage.

Me: Let’s live like royalty, what’s the last one?

Yanti: First class: $20 US. Assigned seating. Air conditioning. Meal service…. hmm, I’d still watch your luggage.

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I leaned slightly out the side opening to see the gorge below. There were a number of women from a local village washing their clothes in the river. Naked children played in the water. When the train was close overhead, the women and children all stopped and waved. I waved back, wondering if they could even see me. All at once the world slowed for me. It was if a brief moment of perfect serenity, happiness, and contentment washed over me. I can’t explain it better than that except that it had happened to me once before the previous night.

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Upon arrival in Yogyakarta, I would live more passionately in the next three days than I had ever lived before. I would see some amazing things:

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Boroburdur, an 8th century Buddhist monument.

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Prambanam, A 9th century Hindu monument.

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The Sultan’s Palace.

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The marketplace of Jalan Marioboro

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Swimming, dining, drinking, singing, dancing, sex. I was alive. The second night we ate in a restaurant where the pest control was geckos (!) who would scamper up your table to eat the flies, but leave your dinner plate (and you) untouched. The last night we dined in a second floor restaurant along Jalan Marioboro. Due to the extreme drop in tourism, we were the only ones there. The open air windows overlooked the bustling street below, and the noise from the stream of traffic and people became like the sound of crashing ocean waves with an occasional seagull flying by. The dimly lit interior, interspersed with white Christmas lights decorating the windows gave a roofless, starry night ambiance to the warm summer evening. I can’t remember a single word of the conversation I and Yanti had in that restaurant, but I can remember absolutely everything else. It was the most magical experience of my life.

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After just three days of traveling together, we had become like an old married couple [one where they still loved each other], and both of us silently suspected that fate may not have randomly placed us together. But I came to realize she did have a desperation: The best man she could find was a possessive, jealous, abuse French asshole. I was like an angel flying by she grabbed and didn’t want to let go with one hand, while a plane ticket and French visa were in the other.

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As the train finished crossing the gorge, the view opened up and in the distance I saw my first ever active volcano. I must have missed it coming into Yogyakarta because our train arrived very late at night. It’s very surreal to see smoke billowing out the top of a mountain. A sound made me turn , and I saw that an Indonesian man was having a cigarette as well at the other side door.  “Maaf! Apa anda berbicara bahasa Inggris?” [Excuse me, do you speak English?] I asked. “Yes,” he nodded. “What’s the name of the volcano?” I inquired. “Merapi,” he replied.

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After saying our goodbyes when we got back to Jakarta, that would be the last time I would ever see Yanti although we communicated by e-mail for months afterward. Every letter from her weighed heavy on my heart detailing emotional and verbal abuse from a man named Yves. I tried to be as supportive as I could, which resulted in the one sentence from her that I can remember word for word: “Your words are like medicine to me.” After four months, I received an e-mail from Yves himself. Apparently the ass-clown had obtained Yanti’s password and my address. He told me how he had gotten Yanti pregnant and was sending her back to Indonesia.

I ignored him and attempted to contact Yanti again. After a few days she replied with a message telling me she was OK and just needed to work some things out. It would be the last time I would ever hear from her.

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I went back to my seat. Yanti immediately cuddled up to me and snaked her arm around my torso. I didn’t know if she was awake, or was doing this instinctively in her sleep as she murmured a groan of protest at my absence.

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If Yanti did go back to Indonesia…. If she was pregnant…. The only option available to her would have been to move back in with her mother, who lived in a village just outside of Yogyakarta and under the shadow of Mount Merapi.

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I leaned closer to the window to find the volcano I was watching moments before. Sensing a disturbance, Yanti’s arm coiled tighter around me, signaling that further breaks are not permitted unless authorized. It didn’t matter. I found it. As alive as ever. I whispered it’s name to myself, hoping to remember:

“Merapi.”

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Make a hole with a gun perpendicular

To the name of this town on a desktop globe

Exit wound through a foreign nation

Showing the home of the one this was written for

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My apartment looks upside down from there

Water spirals the wrong way out the sink

And her voice is a backwards record

It’s like a whirlpool and it never ends

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Ana Ng and I are getting old

And we still haven’t walked in the glow of each others’ majestic presence

Listen, Ana, hear my words

They’re the ones you would think I would say if there was a me for you

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“Ana Ng”

They Might Be Giants

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Listen, Yanti, hear my words:  Be safe, be happy, and be alive.

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~ by the living tiki on November 1, 2010.

4 Responses to “Under the shadow of Mount Merapi”

  1. Wow – this is a really touching post – I wish all those people in the shadow of Merapi to be safe and well.

    • Thanks, Marty! I tried to make the post short because I didn’t want it to be preachy or turn into a “everybody read about my interesting vacation” post. Just a snippet in the life of two lost souls and a volcano. (Although it doesn’t hurt to take a moment to wish relief and serenity upon a country of very loving and friendly people.)

  2. GO find her you fool! 😉

  3. Damn, this broke my heart!

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