If travel has taught me anything, it is that there is ALWAYS a surface in your hotel room that can be used to open a bottle of beer. I’ve cracked cold ones on the edges of dressers, popped cervezas on unfinished brickwork, and prised open brews using bathroom plumbing fixtures (for reference the most reliable of all ersatz openers). As Dave Barry once remarked about college, what you learn, practically, from travel (likewise an ostensibly life-changing experience), is primarily the art of the mundane — making transit connections and doing laundry in sinks, and opening your beer in places where openers are scarce to be found.
Still, arriving into the lush greenness and rude traffic of an unfamiliar tropical city like Jakarta, the possibility at least of something much more seems very real. Walking through a tunnel of bottle-green trees still dripping with the morning’s wet and shedding blossoms the color of orange flame onto the muddy sidewalk as the swarms of motorbikes scream past, it seems possible to me that the experience of difference could change, be transformed, into an experience of opening, the vivid clarity that is half joy and half discomfort, and which brings the traveller to the absolute center of himself. As so many times, in the past, for me it has.
But in arriving here to Indonesia, to the verdant chaos of Java, though I still dance the inchoate jitterbug of a tyro’s explorations, what I feel is neither discomfort nor clarity, but only the abundant touch of the familiar. I feel it getting lost in the alleyways beside a filthy canal, in the ramshackle warung carts frying lumps of greyish dough in rancid oil, and most of all in the traveller cafes of Jalan Jaksa, where backpackers in affected dress sip Bintang beer at two in the afternoon and local girls make eyes and smoke cheap cigarettes, heavy with the scent of cloves. I am once again the man in the corner with his notebook and a rabid coffee high, but what I feel most is how little this experience now touches me.
A day later, at dusk in the hill-town of Bogor, the call of the muezzin echoes at purple dusk from all the mosques of the valley, a great ululating wail filling the air beneath the broad sloping curve of the volcano, its blunted, broken peak wreathed in cloud like a postcard of Mt. Fuji. This,the picture of the romance of travel, would once have brought me to the absolute center of myself, magnified, my being thrown into sharp relief by the totality of difference that surrounds it. What I find in myself instead is a profound sense of the foreign as accommodated, and I wonder: is this then just leisure? If I sit, thoroughly accommodated to difference, what is there in travel but leisure, and the ennui that pure leisure inevitably brings?
At the cusp, at the very beginning of my travels here, in a place that should be foreign but which has been accommodated, the question that begins to define every trip takes place: what is to imbue it all with purpose? what heart shall I find to rescue my transit from the banal motions that turn pilgrimage, pathetically, to entertainment?
Java is ramshackle and feels forgotten, empty guesthouses and cafes, a tourist attraction gone feral. On the road south from Bandung, I see thousands of people living lives in this jungle-place, beneath the palms and banana trees, people at the turning of the 21st century, walking down from homes of bare brick walls to the stalls at roadside for biscuits and sachets of washing powder and single cigarettes. This place is neither Europe nor America, nor even India or China: Java is this other thing, an otherness other to even other otherness. And in this, finally, I think there may be possibility.