We waited at the lights until they turned red and then stepped out into the traffic asking each car in turn if we could join them.
“Turpan,” we’d mouth, pointing at our sign.
It wasn’t long before our actions roused the curiosity of some local children, who, once they understood our intentions, geared up to try to help. We had no idea what was about to happen as we waited for the lights to turn. The kids looked like relay sprinters about to receive the baton.
The light turned red and, well, it must have looked like some kind of riot. We looked on, jaws open, as the 8 or 9 kids ran through the traffic, knocking on car windows pointing at us, squawking, “TUBAN! TUBAN! TUBAN!” like hysterical banshees.
Considering the attention Michael and I get when we’re just being normal, the scene we were now apparently instigating, like a pair of moronic Fagins, predictably led to police intervention.
We heard a whistle from across the road and a policeman waved us over into a small police office, which happened to be nearby, and our passports were politely demanded. Not this time, I thought, as I contemplated the tedious game of charades that was about to ensue, and I handed them the letter from the Situbondo police.
Not more than five minutes later, after they’d bought us some bottles of water, they set up a road block and practically forced any passing trucks, on their way to Tuban, to let us join them. We jumped in the back of a truck collared by the police.
It was exactly the same kind of vehicle as the one we were in the day before, an empty wagon, except this one was dirtier and more exposed to the sun. The drivers, however, were less amenable and they stopped about half an hour later at a bus station and demanded we give them some money. After an argument regarding the extortionate amount they’d asked for, we eventually paid them a sum we felt was fair, and the driver marched into a police station, presumably to report us, and we were ushered inside by an officer.
We knew our routine by now though, and when the police asked us if we needed a bus, we just handed them our ‘golden ticket’ and, after a few obligatory refreshments, the third police force in two days set up a road block for us.
The fact that we were at a bus station, with most of the buses heading to Tuban, didn’t deter them in the slightest. Our eventual ride was with a small man in a round pair of glasses.
He initially seemed reluctant to have us in his cab but, as we later discovered, the Indonesian’s are rather fearful of the police and so he must have felt obliged to cooperate. We sat in the cab next to him and introduced ourselves.
“Suwarnooo” he boomed with a voice that contradicted his unimposing appearance. He was one of those people who look thin but have actually got a bit of a belly. Despite the fact that he spoke very little English, we still managed to have a non-stop conversation with him for the first three hours of the journey.
He didn’t shout, but his voice always seemed to be raised. He spoke in a slow, methodical manner, always rolling his ‘Rs’ to an exaggerated extent. He like to repeat words and sentences a lot, despite the fact that we rarely understood them.
“Baaaliii!” he rumbled, when we asked him where he had driven from and we both cracked up with laughter as he performed a little dance whist fluttering his eyelashes, as he was driving, in imitation of Balinese Hinduism. He had driven his huge lorry full of motorbikes from Jakarta to Bali. As this was his return journey, his trailer was empty.
Suwarno was always pulling over his lorry to buy us things to ease our journey: water, tofu, fresh fruit juice and several meals. He refused to let us pay for anything and forcibly made sure everything was on him. At one point he pulled over to buy us some fruit juice neither of us had ever seen before.
I sniffed it tentatively. It was pale yellow in colour and had a curious, unenticing smell. Michael insisted it tasted a bit like sweet mouthwash whereas I thought it had a slightly nutty flavour. Whatever it was, we decided to finish it, not just in gratitude, but for the vitamins as well. (We later found out the juice was made from durian).
The traffic on the road between Surabaya and Jakarta was always busy. At times it felt like we cruising down a river teaming with life: the foliage that bordered the road had a tropical, almost aquatic feel. Suwarno’s lorry was constantly flanked by a gang of scooters, like pilot fish around a shark. Though the scooters seemed to be darting around the huge lorries and each other with a natural ease, the numerous accidents we saw on our journey suggested the dangers the road users were exposing themselves to.
In Suwarno’s lorry though, the biggest beast on the road, we felt invincible; we felt safe. We drove past many flooded rice farms, as is the method of irrigation in this part of the world, and we contemplated how much rice must have to be produced to feed Java, the world’s most populated island.
Whenever we passed another lorry from the same company, Suwarno would inevitably stick his head out the window and yell “Touristas!!” in reference to Michael and me, much to the delight of the passing driver.
“Brrrro-ther!” he said, as he pointed at a lorry passing us on the other side of the road. “Indonesia brrrro-ther! No Warrrrr.”
Suwarno always seemed keen to make us understand that, in Indonesia, Muslims are a peaceful people. He pointed to himself and with wide, intense eyes said, “Su-warrrrr-no”. He then pointed outside, “Warrrr-no! Indonesia: no warrrr! Su-warrrr-no! No Warrrr. Su -Warrrr-noooooo!”
He loved the irony that his name contained the words “no” and “war”, and that this mirrors Indonesia’s peaceful culture.
I tentatively tried to bring up the subject of the 1965 uprising and the massacres that followed, but Suwarno didn’t seem willing to acknowledge the event. The mere mention of the topic made him nervous and so I didn’t persist.
After a lot of gesturing and misunderstanding we made it known to him that our preferred destination was in fact Jakarta, 800 km away, not Tuban, which was only 100 km. To our delight, Suwarno agreed to take us all the way and our course was set. We’d get to Jakata a few days early and, even better, we’d get to sleep on the back of his lorry as it drove through the night. It felt slightly strange to feel so ecstatic about the prospect of spending 20 hours straight in a lorry.
On the route we passed The Sangiran Early Man Site, on the World Heritage List, in central Java. It is estimated to have been inhabited one and a half million years ago and half of the world´s hominid fossils have been unearthed at this very spot. If Africa is known as “The Cradle of Civilization”, then surely this place could make a fair claim to be its nursery. We longed to take a few days out of our journey to check out such a historical site but, of course, we could not. We merely added another place to our bucket list of things to see the next time we would be passing through.
When it got to about 11pm, we left the comfort of Suwarno’s cab and got into the trailer with a couple of mango dealers who’d paid Suwarno to deliver them and their cargo.
Suwarno tapped the pocket of my shorts containing my wallet, then the pocket containing my phone, before pointing at his eyes. I nodded.
The noise and motion of our sleeping quarters was incredible. The clunking and screeching of the metal frame, the constant beeping of horns, the roar of the mighty engine as the lorry lurched forwards or backwards, if it slammed on the brakes, which it often did, to avoid the swarms of scooters darting in and out of the traffic.
This combined with the glare of the passing street lamps, flashing past us like paparazzi cameras, and the loose mangos flying about, like ping-pong balls on a bouncy castle, made the prospect of sleep unlikely.
What kind of demented maniac could sleep in these conditions, I thought to myself, just as Michael started snoring next to me.