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Love at first ride: Tourist on a commuter train

Evi Mariani,  Oct 21, 2008

The day I took a trip on an economy-class train, I was a tourist in my own city; I was an outsider looking in. Like a child, sometimes wide-eyed, I watched vendors, beggars and buskers passing by from car to car.

During the 40-minute ride from Depok to Tanah Abang, I got my heart broken and fell in love.

The carriage where I sat was not very crowded. All the seats were taken but not many people were standing. The aisle was wide enough for it to be a "street" where beggars and hawkers tried to convince us to shell out some money and spacious enough to be a "stage" where street musicians could play.

A mother strode through my car, occasionally begging for money. In front of her, a toddler missing a leg and a forearm moved forward like a running cat and his mother had to call his name to make him slow down. Some people looked at the toddler and then looked away. I did the same. He broke my heart.

A newspaper boy, or man to be exact, offered passengers some old editions of tabloids on house interior design. I bought three copies for Rp 1,000 each (10 US cents). It was a good deal.

He left, only to have his spot taken by a hawker selling a myriad of hairpins, bands, brooches, necklaces and bracelets. He had arranged them neatly on both sides of a two-by-1.5 meter board. The board was a colorful display of bling-bling.

He had a rope on the board and a hook at the end of the rope. The hawker attached the hook to a railing above my head. He did not do or say anything, and I thought he was relieving his arms of the weight of the board.

Apparently, though, he was giving me time to take in the display. After about half a minute, he flipped the board: another display of bling-bling and colorful accessories.

But I gave no response so he moved to another spot where there were women sitting. He did not bother to put on an accessory show for the male passengers. Creative marketing, I thought. All things considered.

Next, a young man with no legs. He held a broom, sweeping trash from the carriage floor and tugging at my pants, asking for money. Again, my heart broke a little.

In about 10 minutes the carriage had had visits from two fruit sellers, three toy sellers, three beggars (toddler included), one newspaper boy (or man), several snack and beverage vendors and no train conductor to check our tickets.

As we reached the fourth station from Depok, a group of young men entered the car, carrying drums, an acoustic guitar and a violin. The musicians played two pop songs, while their partner walked from end to end to collect money. They were OK, so I gave Rp 1,000 for their performance.

Later, a man dressed in Islamic attire and carrying a speaker and microphone showed up. He treated us to a speech about the virtue of giving, especially during Ramadan.

Some passengers continued sleeping, others were lost in their own thoughts. I was still wide-eyed, watching the people who turned this simple trip into a presentation of their tenacious struggle for a decent life.

Another accessory hawker stood in front of me, joking with yet another accessory hawker. While offering the goods, they chatted and laughed loudly. Life seemed joyful.

A group of people walked in carrying two electric guitars, a bass guitar, a set of drums, a tambourine, three fuchsia boxes (speakers and amplifier), a 1.5-meter keyboard synthesizer, a microphone, two small lead-acid batteries and some cables. One of the group carried a backpack that turned out to hold perhaps a dozen bamboo flutes of various kinds.

I could not tear my eyes away from this group. They moved efficiently, setting down the pink boxes, setting up the large keyboard and drums in the center of the carriage. One guy expertly plugged the colorful cables into an amplifier. The guitarists, the bassist and a female vocalist did a sound test.

The keyboard made a few introductory notes and the ensemble struck up a full-blown dangdut song. The vocalist started to croon in that undulating voice so typical of dangdut singers. Sometimes she passed the one and only microphone to the man who played bamboo flute.

Near the end of the first song, one of them approached passengers with a silver pouch of money made from a candy bag. I quickly took a Rp 5,000 note from my purse. No kidding, I fell in love with them.

I counted there were 13 of them, four of them women, one of them pregnant. They swiftly packed up their stuff and moved to the next carriage, where they just as quickly set up the equipment and played again.

By the time they got to their third song, the train was reaching Tanah Abang station, my destination. It was not as crowded anymore.

The carriage where the dangdut ensemble, Bahtera Nada (Ark of Notes), was playing was almost empty, leaving the band with several fans who asked for more songs. It seemed they took over the carriage.

I got off and breathed the fresher air outside the train; the air inside was damp and a bit foul.

It was an exciting ride but I felt relief that I didn't have to ride that train everyday because then the magic would be gone.

If I were to take that train everyday, I would no longer be a romantic tourist but a mere worn and weary commuter.

Love at first ride: Tourist on a commuter train
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