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As Long as We Remember...

October 23, 2013

Dirt, Grime and Traffic

Tom McLaughlin

Surabaya, North Java Island – I had often sat on my balcony overlooking the Sarawak River in Kuching wondering about the origins of the two kampungs on the other bank. My wife was from one of them, Gersik; and, because of a quirk of airline time tables and my illness, we were about to find out.


We flew from Singapore, me still in the ravages of food poisoning and now a respiratory infection but thankfully my 2-year-old son Dzul and my wife remained healthy. We had to fly to this Indonesian town to make an air connection to Lombok Island, a favorite place of mine which I wanted to share with my wife. However, we decided to stay about five days in order for me to regain my health.


Surabya is the second largest city in Indonesia; however this city held little interest to Suriani and myself. Known as the Town of Warriors, it has many monuments to the freedom fighters who waged a long battle for independence from the Dutch in the late 1940s. Mature trees lined the major roadways providing shade along the sidewalks. There are many businesses, banking houses and international concerns based here. The place is very clean without a trace of litter. The canals that crisscross the city are also free of debris and the water clear without the stench of sewerage noticeable in most Asian cities. We asked (both my wife and I speak Indonesian) if there were laws against littering like in Singapore, but all assured us there was not. “We just don’t do it” was the reply as if surprised that others engaged in the practice.


Traffic is very heavy most of the time. Motorcycles are ubiquitous because many citizens cannot afford cars. They zip in and out and between autos sometimes rumbling over the sidewalks. When traffic flows to a traffic light, 40 or 50 gather and wait for the light to change. Other motor bikes filter in from side streets filling the voids between cars vacated by the front riders. Seconds before the green they start to drift across the intersection and at the green they all roar ahead. Meanwhile, others have joined in while the cars were stopped. While walking, one is never further than five feet away from a moving bike. Accidents happen very often. We watched three that occurred in front of us. The drivers take it in stride, brush themselves off and continue on.


We often had to cross the street, a dangerous undertaking without help. The security guard at our hotel would take my hand, and my other one in Suriani’s. He held out his other hand which held a wand with red lights blinking up down. Staying perfectly parallel with him we crossed the first lane while motor bikes and cars came dangerously close to my protruding gut. Then when we finished crossing that lane the adventure began again as the cars stopped; but I swear I could feel the bikes brushing my back side. It got to the point where I closed my eyes and walked with him not wanting to even see the terror. Of course, Suriani was used to this and Dzul thought it was great fun and the security guard was amused at my fear.


It had not rained for at least two months, a very unusual occurrence in the tropics. Grime and dust and grit blew around in the air. Traffic wardens wore white surgical masks covering their mouth and nose. The sun sets, from our 11th floor hotel room, revealed a yellow mucous colored glob of air pollution hanging like a sulfur cloud over the city. My already battered respiratory system became worse.


After two days of rest and a bit of antiquing, we began our travels outside the city. I wanted to see where the people had originated that lived in the kampungs across the river from our flat in Kuching. However, it turned into much more than that. Suriani and I began, to quote V.S. Naipul, our own "Islamic Journey.”


…Life is good. . . . .


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