Salvation in Surabaya

By Joelle Fordham

– “No, no, Surabaya, sit down friends, sit down! “His beaming smile and overt friendliness were frightening. I knew I had to run. 

Up to then, I thought I perhaps should have followed my new Indonesian friend when she grabbed her two young daughters and flew out of the door offering the briefest, most understated warning of an impending robbery for goodbyes. 

But merely an hour into a ten-hour journey, I was quivering over my £8 bus fare and I felt willing to brave opportunistic pick-pocketers, whom I had wrongly assumed were the subjects of her warning. 

As I bent down to grab my rucksack from under my seat, I caught a twinkle of light reflecting from the blade of the hooked machete concealed under the newspaper the man was holding.

Could I run fast enough?

– “No, no, we don’t arrive! Sit down!” The chorus echoed from the back of the bus.

I looked beyond the machete-bearing man in the seat behind me, and my heart sank. Where was everyone? The bus had been full an hour before, but only eight men remained, all standing in scattered seats, arms wavering for us to sit down, too eager to stop the foreigners from leaving the bus. 

My heart, beating to a staccato of fear, entered a panicked crescendo as I considered whether the driver was in on it too, would he open the door and let us escape?

That moment when it dawns on you that you have been ambushed and hunted is a lonesome one. A matrix-like-universe of infinite and parallel possibilities suddenly emerges from the absolute stillness of that finite instant between two heartbeats, and you know one thing for sure: what you do next, will change everything else. Forever.

The bus was not so much stationary, as flirting with first gear in crawling traffic. Turning my back to the hyenas dressed in men’s clothing, I ran for the door whispering a prayer of gratitude to the God of public transportation for picking a front-row seat. 

The door opened and I ran.

In the distance, I spotted my new friend and her daughters sipping fruit juices outside a street kiosk. Her face was weary.

– “Are we safe?” I asked. The bus was now stationary and still too close for comfort.

– “There are people around, we can ask for help,” she answered after an uncomfortably long deliberation. 

– “I call for my brother in Surabaya, he come in 1 hour to pick up. You can come with us if you want?” 

On the drive to Surabaya, my new friend explained that she was on her way to visit her parents and that we were welcome to stay the night with them. We did. Her mother cooked some delicious chicken satay and nasi goreng and we all sat around a generous and convivial table as she explained to her family how the mafia men had boarded the bus at different stops to avoid arousing suspicion, and had soon after started threatening her for talking to us. Local passengers had wasted no time in getting off the bus until there was only us left. She had risked her safety to warn us. 

– “We see the bus mafia on the news,” she explained “but I never see it myself before”.

– “Why did you help us if they were threatening to hurt you and your daughters?” 

– “I feel so bad. You come to our country and this happen to you.” 

We slept soundly and awoke just before dawn to the call to prayers from a nearby mosque. Our new Javanese family drove us to the train station, bought us tickets for Yogyakarta and we hugged a little longer than politeness required, those extra seconds expressing everything we wanted to say but lacked both words and a common language for.

I left Surabaya with my rucksack lighter of a dozen rolls of 35mm film – a currency of memories in the pre-digital age – lost to the robbery, but my heart humbled, filled with hope and gratitude.

I have longed to go back to Java ever since.

When I watch the BBC Bad News at 10, and my heart chills from all the ills of the world, a fathom taste of chicken satay crosses my taste buds and I am instantly back in Surabaya, sitting around a dining table with three generations of the kindest humans, and my heart warms again. There ARE good people out there, they just don’t make the news, I remind myself.

Every time I think of kindness triumphing over hatred, I travel back to Java where 20 years ago, I learned that for every man with a hooked machete, there are 15 others willing to make it right.