Matt is the first to see the ocean as we start a slow descent along the shoulder of the mountains. “Look Chas, the sea!” he calls and stretches out against the window, as if to smell the salt and feel the cold water on his skin.
The train screeches and bites at the rails as we circle down and down to a plateau of sparkling padi fields cut by wide rivers which snake though the valley basin. The bright green fields dissolve into a dark mass of mangroves; their marshy roots slurp the thick soup of dark lagoons which bleed mud slowly into the brilliant blue water of the Indian Ocean.
On the outskirts of Cilacap the train groans and halts with a great heave. We feel the momentum dissipate through us in a long wave and finally we too are still.
“Is there something wrong?” Mum asks as Johnny takes the stationary train as a cue to jump up and dance about and Bart is woken and alert with the change of rhythm.
“Shunting,” says Tony in a satisfied tone.
After a time, the train revives and judders as her rear engine collects up the carriages and moves back along the mainline and then drops down to the south west. A jumble of pretty rail-side houses, set out in coastal blues and greens like china cups on a dresser, make way for us on either side of the track. Here and there long colourful boats wait for tar and paint while nets play over the trees and fence posts.
Our short diversion brings us into Cilacap station where the sharp taste of the sea soon mixes with smoke, dust and diesel to rasp at my throat and sting my eyes.
“Tiga puluh minet sajah,” Dad says and checks his watch against the train timetable. A mass of porters and food sellers press along the platform as travellers push to get on the train while others try to get off.
Dad beats a retreat and returns us to our seats. “I’ll get something for you to eat and drink – you’ll need to stay here or you’ll get lost.”
“How can we get lost Dad?” Matt reasons, “This is a pretty big train.”
“The crowd is too big outside Matt – you need to stay here,” Dad says firmly.
Mum tries to distract Matt but two minutes later Tony, Dad and I are off the train with Matt at our heels and in a moment we plunge and disappear into a mass of bodies.
A stop of thirty minutes seems impossibly short to succeed in the frenzy of buying and selling as clumps of people beset the food vendors all along the platform . Arms fly in the air to exchange rupiah for sticks of sate, cones of peanuts, banana leaf wrapped treats of rice and meat, flasks are handed over to be filled with ice and syrup. With moments to spare before the train is due to leave we come away with a meagre meal and thread our way back onto the train.
We find Mum still in her seat with the boys, happily tucking into small bowls of rice and chicken and cups of hot tea. There is a halo of calm about them in the be-stilled carriage while outside the crowd also thins and soon we hear the whistle and the irresistible crank and pull of the wheels as they press – metal on metal – against the track.
“Once everyone sat down there was a trolley service,” Mum says benignly raising one eyebrow.
With the promise of food we all feel a new rush of excitement to be moving again. “Now,” says Dad, “After you’ve had some tea you all need to get some rest, next stop Yogya!”
With full bellies and the sun taking its short bow at the far end of the train as we head due east – now on and over the plains of southern Java – I roll into a warm sleep and dream of the palaces of the Hindu princes and their magical world.
The train draws quietly into Stasiun Tugu five hours later like a young girl coming home late and hoping not to wake her parents. But of course, despite the inky black night, the parents are awake and quickly buzz to life as we clamber off the train. Porters thicken around Dad as he tries to assemble our bags with little success. One by one a string of men take command and we follow in a fine procession over the tracks and across platforms, through the station house and out into a sea of waiting becaks.
Bart sleeps heavily on Mum’s arm and Johnny dozes against her hip. Matt is groggy and Tony is seedy from hours on the rolling train. Dad enlists me to help load the bags with the porters while he gets the becak drivers to agree a price. This is all done with a gentle grace and soon we are on Jalan Malioboro with the becak drivers riding abreast and calling and laughing like cowboys coming into town in a gunslinging movie. Dad tries to stir his dozing family, “We’ll come back tomorrow for a proper look at all the shops and restaurants.”
We arrive at a small guest house just off the main street and with no more than a few soft words and nods from our host we climb the steep stairs to the second floor where we topple into beds set along the floor in the dark. Fans whir above us but otherwise the world is as still as the geckos we can just trace on the ceiling.
Early in the morning we wake to a strange sound – as if the whirring fan is now twice its size and resounding back through the window – a whooshing sound and another comes up from the street and every now and then a high laugh or a light yell reaches above the sound.
“Come and look Chas,” Dad calls back as he opens the shutters wide. Below us a great fluid mass weaves through the narrow lane and out into the sunlight of the main road. From above broad woven hats are punctuated here and there by black pecis or bare dark hair as the sea of cyclists head to market or work. Most of the bicycles are loaded with produce; vegetables, fruit, fabric, (even chickens in bamboo cages enjoy their short ride to market) or else a family of children array themselves on a single bike to school.
Soon the boys are all leaning out the window to see the brief spectacle of Yogya’s silent morning traffic jam.
“Well, they say Yogya is the city of bicycles so that’s definite. Come on kids,” Dad says as he shuffles us away from the window and the two storey drop to the street below, “let’s have some breakfast and then we can menjelajah Jalan Malioboro.”
Yogyakarta – or Yogya as it affectionately known (Y is pronounced ‘J’) – is sadly no longer the city of bicycles. Like many Asian cities the rise of the motorbike and other motorised transport has thoroughly supplanted the bicycle. While it’s unlikely that travel times have changed much for those within the town limits, for those in rural areas, motorisation for bringing goods to market will have meant a great change to their livelihoods.
A 2009 report by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) indicated Indonesia would continue to expand its annual motorbike ownership by 9% a year. Rising wealth and a young population have fuelled this demand and by any measure exceeded it.
Policy changes by the Jokowi government to remove the fuel subsidy for gasoline coupled with the rapid rise of Gojek as a bike sharing service may have stemmed some rise in motorbike ownership in Indonesia. But – as Melissa Choek pointed out in mid 2016 – the removal of fuel subsidy came when global fuel prices dropped so consumers weren’t overly impacted. And informal bike sharing was commonly practiced in Indonesia’s cities before Gojek gave the service a brand.
However with increased affluence Indonesian citizens too are looking to reclaim their streets and car free days are now regular. See @. Also issues of air pollution and the growing interest in health may lead, one day, to the great return of the bicycle.