The last time I wrote while on a train, I was on a too familiar ride going a sliver of the way up the East coast of the US from Washington, DC to Philadelphia. Today, I am on an unfamiliar train on the island of Java, going from Jakarta to Yogyakarta. There is no justifiable way to compare that familiar American train with this Indonesian one. All I can do is keep my eyes open, to observe and describe. Today I am leaving behind the hectic buzz of the city of Jakarta. It is a city that has to keep moving, it cannot look back. Buses in varying sizes from large official ones to just a guy that drives an unmarked baby blue van crowd the streets while cars and taxies honk their way through. All the motorbikes carrying everything from people to bundles of hay to a tall stack of boxed lunches, have to weave in and out between these buses and cars because that is the pace at which it all must operate. Every man pushing along a street food cart must dodge these vehicles on the road and carry on, each with their own unique call, a stick hitting a metal pan or a happy little tune playing from a home-made music box. Each pedestrian walking along the road that severely lacks a sidewalk must do so with the confidence that these vehicles will all steer clear. They all must beat on together to formulate the rhythm of this city. It is a rhythm that is at first shocking and frenetic, one that is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum compared to say, John Cage using no rhythm as rhythm. But, it is in actuality, a rhythm that becomes comforting and normal, once one realizes that everyone in this part of the world is simply trying to get from here to there just like everyone else in the other parts of the world. The manner and mode in which it all happens only appears to be different on the surface.
On the surface, in just the past hour on this train, on this island, flanked by the Java Sea to the North and the Indian Ocean to the South, I have passed terse reminders that a reality outside of regulated cross-walks and culs-de-sac exists throughout most of the world. As the train slows down, I can peak inside homes built out of found metal scraps, lines of laundry lining the open doorways. There were heavy thunderstorms throughout the night, some closer to the water have been flooded. I can see families sitting around a small stand selling food, children climbing trees and playing in the road, chickens pecking, everything carrying on, because it has to. The cityscape is now changing to loosely organized rectangular blocks of rice paddies. There are people working in the fields, barefoot and bent, shielded from the sun with wide brim straw hats. The dirt roads are bright clay orange along the train tracks, as they stretch further out into the fields, they become muddy and brown, then disappear into gooey lime green marshland. The pace out here has slowed, the sky is clearer with less hazy smog, the sun beating down brighter.
As I look out at these rice paddies, I think about my father working in similar fields in the countryside of China during the Cultural Revolution. Planting, fertilizing, harvesting, knee deep in mud. This is why I know this plant, its history, and its place in this part of the world. Each green sprig sprouting out of the ground is one grain of rice. The roots of each are small. They do not extend far beneath the surface of the bed of water in which they are first planted in. They are individual green pods, floating in soft mud and a shallow pond, easily plucked-up and moved into solid soil once they have sprouted. As I go forward on this train, they represent a story that I have known my entire life and am now able to live out as I have chosen to pull up my own roots before they have firmly planted into the mud.
I am moving forward on this train, in the next 7 hours or so, about to traverse half of this North Carolina-sized, most densely populated island in the world. Now begins new places that I have never seen before. Even though the passing landscape appears to be just as flat as the passing landscape I had become familiar with in the Netherlands, as I look further, beyond these rice fields, I can see a faint row of mountains off in the distance. Upon first look, it appears as if they might be a row of lower clouds, a prolonged blink and they might be gone. But gradually they are becoming more pronounced. It gives me comfort to know that these mountains are just off in the distance—tall and dominant, solid silhouettes, asserting themselves with a certain presence. I plucked up my roots so I could find mountains like these and many more.