Sunday, January 03, 2010

27-hour bus ride

“Why you take bus, take plain. It is more safe please take train” my Indonesian friends told me when I shared my decision to take a bus from Denpasar, Bali to Bogor, Java on my way to the Vipassana. None of them ever took the bus they told me, flight or motorbikes is the way to travel in Indonesia.
The journey is a little over a thousand kilometers but it takes 27 hours if there are no delays. From what I've heard and read, a delay is to be expected in the rainy season because roads around Jakarta tend to flood. I don't know if it was the difference of cost or if I was overtaken by a sudden sense of adventure but flight option did not appeal to me. I was kind of scared of the unknown; a 1000km distance to take 27 hours? Either the roads were horrible or the buses or both. But I had time; disposable amounts of it. So I booked my ticket and tried to gather more info. I met 2 foreigners who took the buses and they were both very positive about it, interestingly it was Indonesians who were more pessimistic about their own transportation network. That gave me a little more confidence and I set out Monday morning 5am from Ubud by taxi to Denpasar bus terminal.

I chose the Lorena bus company, which is supposed to be the most comfortable and safest between Bali and Java. When I saw the bus parked in the terminal, it looked much better than I expected. There were blankets, pillows, lots of leg space, a smoking room and a toilet. Travelers were mostly families as it was the semester break for schools on Indonesia now. The first 3.5 hours on the bus was in Bali, with a beautiful green scenery and reggae music. We were stopping often to pick up passengers and it was part of the fun. About 3.5 hours into the ride, we embarked on the ferry to cross to the Java island. Then the real fun began. Along with everyone else, I got off the bus to get some fresh air in the deck. The minute I was out, guys started approaching and trying to talk. I was not in a talkative mood, especially not when I know that the guys were hitting on. Still trying to be polite, I was answering with single-syllable words to all questions. Convinced that I am not interested, the guy would leave in 5 minutes, only to be followed by another Romeo who thinks maybe he can do a better job. After 30 minutes and a variety of Romeos, I got really tired and went back to the bus.

After the illusion of fun of a bus ride is replaced by a more realistic sense of boredom, I started randomly texting my friends. I figured out that Ino the photog was in a town just 5 minutes from my meditation center visiting his friends. He offered to pick me up from the bus terminal and take me to the meditation center. Not only that, he added his plan was to leave that day back to Bali but he would stay another night just so that he can meet me. This was too good to be true; firstly the meditation center is so remote and I had no idea how to get there except for taxi which would cost a small fortune. Secondly, Ino the photog is hot. He is beautiful, sweet, willing to wait for me for a day in a god forsaken town, a photographer and travels on his motorbike wherever and whenever he feels like it. Such a dangerous combination for me at an even more dangerous time; I am going into Vipassana. Well at least the rest of the journey went easy as I had something to obsess over.

At the end of a 30 hour journey, I finally reached Bogor and saw Ino waiting with his friend. They picked me up and we headed to his friend's place for a cup of tea and to figure out the map to the meditation center. As they were discussing heatedly, I figured that there's something wrong. Ino said that the map and the address don't seem to be of the same location. Puzzled, I called the meditation center to get directions. Since I spoke to her in English, the lady on the phone asked my name and after keeping me on hold for a few minutes told me that I am registered for the Vipassana in Klaten, not in Bogor! What was more fun is that Klaten is about 8 hours far from Bogor, towards Bali. If I were to take a direct bus there, the journey would be about 16 hours. The misunderstanding is totally due to a difference in how we interpreted information: Back in November, I opened the confirmation email and there was a link for a map along with an address. Then I looked up the address in the google maps and saw that it matched with the map in the link and proceeded to get transportation there. However the lady on the phone said it was the map to the Java Center, not Klaten. I asked her why she would send me the map of a place that I am not supposed to go to and she asked me why I didn't call before coming. I told her that I generally call if I see that there's something missing or wrong and for me in this case everything looked clear. Realizing that the discussion was getting to a dead end, she suggested that I fly to Klaten and I said no way. About to burst in tears, I tried to tell her I registered month ago and came all the way from Bali by bus. “Bus” turns out to be the magic word again! She said “By bus? Well then come here and we'll see what can be done” On the way to the center I really tried to hold myself not to cry. Ino said “Well if they don't have a space for you, maybe we go back to Bali togther with my bike ? Tonight we reach Jogjakarta and by tomorrow we will be in Bali” Hmm, I am so afraid to be on a motorbike but this is such a temping offer in all the ways. Ino, Jogjakarta, motorbike... Suddenly the idea of not having a space in Vipassana stopped feeling like the end of the world.

As we reached the meditation center, I am somewhat alarmed by the sight of the big iron doors and the security guards. I was told to wait for half hour, don't know for what. Inside is full with people trying to register, drag their bags in, chatter chatter. I wasn't expecting such a lively scene. Well it makes sense as the silence meditation did not start yet. Half hour later, I was invited in to meet with the teacher. The teacher asked me to tell the story of the mess up again and made sure that I will not practice yoga or any other sort of meditation while in Vipassana. By this time I am ready to commit to whatever he asks for anyways... Then he says that I got a space in! Yippeeee, I went out, took my bag from the car and thanked Ino a million times. I must admit though, as I hugged him goodbye, something inside said “Just grab your bag and run out! There are Vipassana courses every month, how often do you get the chance to jump on a motorbike with a hot photog?” If I was 25, I would have been impulsive enough to grab my bag and run out. At 35, I walked in congratulating myself for being very mature, at the same time determined to create another opportunity where Ino would offer me a similar journey again.

Inside, I am asked to fill in more forms where even my relationship with my parents is questioned. Then I am given two canvas bags, I hand in my mobiles, laptop, ipod, passport, wallet, all my money, food items, books, any piece of paper that I can write on and my pen. Feeling sufficiently naked, I am directed to my room. It is a 2.7x5.2 meter room with 3 beds, 3 plastic hangers on the wall and nothing else. There's not even enough room to put my bag so I am a bit puzzled how to manage the space.

The bathrooms and toilets are in another block and they are shared. The rest of the grounds are pretty small; I was kind of expecting a large forest at the back where we can take long and slow walks under the shade of the trees between meditation sessions. I headed back to the registration area and see another non-Indonesian girl. She is Natalia from Spain and doing the exact reverse route; she came from Chiang Mai where she was doing massage courses and after Vipassana she is heading to Bali. Then she told me how she was registered for Klaten but ended up here because she was sent the map of this place! Unbelievable how similar our stories were. It relieved me a little though, I was just about to feel stupid for mixing up two entirely different cities. She gave me lots of tips on Chiang Mai and I tried to fill her in about Bali before silence started.

At 6pm, we had a dinner followed by a tape recording on why one should leave now if he/she doesn't feel ready or committed for Vipassana. Iron doors, security guards, forms and now this? I am getting scared. After dinner we head to the meditation hall for the first time and our wow of 10-day silence starts. Not only silence in words but we are not supposed to touch or make eye contact with other meditators. We are however free to speak to the management and to the teacher anytime we have a question or problem.

The meditation hall is big, spacious and beautiful. We have cushions allocated to us, so we know where we will sit for the rest of the sessions. Sit, meditate and do nothing else. I have ten days to figure out if it will feel as difficult as it sounds.

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