Jess D. Taylor
Jess D. Taylor teaches English at Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College. A former food writer for the Bay Area alt-weekly The Bohemian, her writing has appeared in Fractured West, Prick of the Spindle, Recess Magazine, Cobalt Review, Brain Child online, Mutha Magazine, Gloom Cupboard, Hobo Camp Review, Hip Mama online, and others. Her essay “Cuba Libre” received a Solas Award for Best Travel Writing from Travelers’ Tales. She lives in Santa Rosa, California, with her guitar-picking husband and her three year-old daughter, Mallory.
Six Hundred Dollars
When I think about the six hundred dollars I gave Indar, I calculate what that money could do for me now. Half a month’s rent. Six months of car insurance, an entire year of my Credo Mobile cell phone. A plane ticket out of the country, almost.
No doubt it went much further for him. I spent one night on a thin mattress on his concrete floor, in a room he rented for fifty bucks a month. We could hear the neighbor's boyfriend farting in the night, and fleeing (as I had to do too) before the sun came up.
Indar spent most of his time on his motorcycle, expertly weaving through the clog of Jogjakarta's horses, bicycles, rickshaws, and buses. He lived a half-hour outside the city, on a street alive with trash fires and stricken animals. When I climbed on his bike, I bowed my calf to avoid the hot metal, and stuck my sweaty head into the helmet he gave me. I never got tired of the blur of pavement beneath me.
The first place he took me was to a crowded beach. What I remember are the small things: the lukewarm coconut water that I pretended to like, the tiniest sips I could manage, the cool brown of his eyes that matched the tobacco stains of his teeth, the way I felt chilly, impossibly, so near the equator in July.
Back at my hotel, a sign at the front desk stated very plainly: No local people allow in rooms. Ever. “Don't worry about it,” I said. “That's just to keep the prostitutes out, right? No one’s even around.”
He refused. I didn't know it at the time, but with a bike like his, Indar was known around town.
My Lonely Planet Indonesia guidebook warned that a woman traveling alone might as well be wearing a giant hot-dog suit—that’s how conspicuous she is. The men were nothing like the mild-mannered Thais who demurely looked down at their feet. “Hello Miss,” these Javanese men shouted at me. “Where you from? Where you go? Miss? Miss! You need taxi? You want to make sex?”
I stared straight ahead and marched to my earphones, heart thudding. This is what Indar saw when he first sidled up next to me, the day after I'd arrived in Jogjakarta, still stunned by the urban attention. “I like your sunglasses,” he said. His English was smooth and confident.
“Thanks.” I kept walking.
“Where did you get them?”
“America.” He smiled. “I knew it!”
I slowed my pace. “What does that mean?”
“I notice your teeth. They are so nice. Americans have nice teeth, no?”
I flushed and said, “I guess so. Thanks.”
His jeans were slim and a little tight; there was sadness in those playful eyes. When he held his pack of cigarettes out to me, I took one and let him light it up. We walked past greasy open-aired shops selling plastic baskets and small cages, chatting.
But why was he so nonplussed, so cool? “Aren't you wondering why I'm traveling alone?” I finally asked. Did he know that I’d brought only five outfits and one pair of shoes, the worn-out Tevas on my feet? Did he realize how hard-core that was?
He shrugged. “I am used to this by now. I have dated a Spanish girl one time.”
After he gave me a ride back to my hotel, we agreed, as would become our custom for the week, to meet up the next day. “I will show you what the tourists do not see,” he promised.
It had never been my style, to get overly involved with the local folks, to obsess over how authentic my experience was. I just loved wandering new streets, letting a foreign geography imprint itself on me, another memory map. I’d trusted my fair of local guys, with very mixed results. There was the sweet Costa Rican river guide who took me out to Chinese and the stunningly competent Laotian dude who guided me through neck-high water inside a black cave. And then there was that Turkish guy who walked me into a carpet-buying scam and, like so many men, had a hard time taking no for an answer.
Something seemed different about Indar. He was aware, as all tourists and locals are, of the vast economic disparity between us. And yet he wasn’t trying to ingratiate himself. He wasn’t trying, as far as I could tell, to schmooze me.
It was the summer of 2008, and some of the men on the streets shouted “Obama!” to me and the other Westerners walking past. I turned my thumbs up. Anything more and the entreaties began: “You want to buy batik? I take you to my friend, veddy good price. Miss?”
But when I was with Indar, the men spoke to him.
“What are they saying?” I asked one day. We were sitting, as all locals do, on a straw mat on the sidewalk of Jogja's busiest street, drinking tea and smoking. His bike was parked nearby.
“They ask if you are my girlfriend, of course.” Indar casually brushed away a large cockroach as though it were a leaf.
“And what do you say?”
“Yes. Of course, I say yes.”
We both chuckled, as though we were getting away with something wicked. In the summer of 2008, I, too, felt the stirring promise of newness. My two and a half year relationship had been fizzling like a forgotten bottle of Sprite. Even our fights had gone flat. Wandering around Southeast Asia for six weeks without much of a plan, felt, so far, like a huge relief. I didn't have to hide my journal or wrestle the sheets.
I told Indar that I still technically lived with my boyfriend. “But he is not here with you,” he said. “So I think he is not really your boyfriend.”
The week I spent with Indar felt much longer. At night we'd ride around on his bike, past the Rasta bars and karaoke clubs full of dread-locked tourists, into the heart of Jogja, where young hipsters skateboarded in the streets and sneaked sips of alcohol. On the straw mats of the tea stalls, he'd pat the space between his legs and I'd snuggle up to him, wary of the roaches, enjoying the smell of his tobacco breath and the easy strength of his arms.
He taught me how to eat the Indonesian way, forming sticky rice into balls with my right hand, dipping them into gooey brown sauce with flecks of fried fish. If I tried to sneak my left hand in to help, he'd playfully slap it away. “Jesseeca, the left hand is for other business,” he'd say mock solemnly, which cracked me up.
Sometimes he let me pay, when I insisted. But what did he do to earn money?
“I practice my English,” he said slowly, “talking to tourists all the day long.”
“And they just give you money to listen to your cute accent?” I joked.
His face clouded over. “Actually I earn money like many people in Jogja. You will see when you visit my home.”
I felt a sting of fear. It hadn't occurred to me to see where he lived. There was a safety to our arrangement: after riding around town for a while, never getting too far from one throng or another, he'd drop me back at my gated hotel, each time lingering a bit longer. He was too dignified to break the rules and come up to my room, and after that first night, I never asked.
As much as I loved peering into Jogja's underbelly—Indar pointing out the hustlers and the hos, many of them selling fried tempeh and hot tea to the tourists by day—I also felt trapped. I was used to traveling alone, me and my Lonely Planet tearing up the pavement, stubbornly refusing all public transportation in an effort to learn the terrain and lean my thighs.
I'd tuck a water bottle and a book into my backpack and set off for hours, sometimes walking, sometimes sitting and watching the locals blend into what was, for them, just another day. Or sometimes I'd be the total tourist with my Dunkin Donuts iced coffee, snapping photos of raggedy kids and heaps of dried spices in the market.
It’s true that I loved flying solo—the exact term I always used with my fellow back-packers, most of whom were coupled—but I’d been looking forward to something different this summer. My boyfriend was, in fact, supposed to be with me, sharing banana pancakes and bus seats. We’d been planning to travel together for months, grasping for the change that would leak its way into our hearts.
But I was tired of making all the hard decisions, coercing him into doing what I thought we should be doing. So when I bought my ticket without him, he did exactly what I predicted he would. “Whatevs,” he’d said, shrugging. “I’ll probably have more fun here.” We both knew it was true.
One afternoon I told Indar I needed some time to myself to lounge by the hotel pool. Less than an hour later, I was walking at a fevered clip, pumped up on solitude and Led Zeppelin, when I heard the unmistakable roar of his bike. As he pulled over to the side of the road, I felt myself redden, ashamed of being caught in a lie. Through the visor of his helmet, I could see his wounded, confused gaze. I took out my earphones to apologize, but he waved me on, suddenly smiling. As he rode off, I realized that as long as I was in Jogja, Indar would know how to find me.
In addition to buying a batik (mine has every color of a tropical sunset, or a bruise), tourists cannot escape Jogja without experiencing gamelan, the traditional music that involves all sorts of gongs and drums and strings. Indar took me to an evening performance, where locals, mostly men, stayed up all night long smoking and listening to the discordant chiming.
Sweaty and bored, I tried to close my eyes, like Indar, and sink into a spiritual reverie. Mostly I thought about what would happen when I went back home. I felt lonely sitting there amongst all these Javanese men, and yet I also felt relieved that, thanks to Indar, they would not bother me at all.
When he handed me my helmet outside, I shook my head. “Let's walk a little while instead,” I said. I'd been in Jogja for almost a week, and though neither of us said it, it was clear that I would be moving on soon. He asked if I missed my boyfriend.
When I said, “I feel guilty because I don't really miss him at all,” I wondered how much that was actually true.
Later that night, in Indar's room, the truth elbowed me sharply. I might have felt liberated from my relationship, but I surely wasn't ready to give myself over to another one. He actually understood. “So we just cuddle,” he said nicely.
I slept badly all night, startled awake by the rustling of sheets from the room next door, which, in my dreams, were the sounds of cockroaches scurrying across the floor. Indar had explained that he would wake me up early, before the sun, because his landlord did not allow any overnight guests. But he was still snoring softly when I woke to the sound of a rooster crowing just outside the door.
“This is how I make some money,” he whispered. I slid my sandals and helmet on. In the dim light I could just make out the shape of a small, wiry cage.
“This is your rooster?”
“He is hurt right now, and cannot fight. He will win again, though. He must.”
The morning air was cool and dense. I held on tight to Indar's waist and thought about all that he had told me over the past few days. How he'd fled Sumatra, and his strict father, when he was just sixteen, because he refused to observe one more Ramadan. How his Spanish girlfriend had begged him to move to Madrid with her, but he just couldn't leave Jogja, and his bike, behind.
When we stopped for tea, the sun was just poking through the purple clouds, warming my chilly hands and face. I had so many questions, did the roosters actually kill each other, did they live in those tiny cages all day and night, did he think I was judging him? Because I wasn't.
But he spoke first. “Jesseeca, you know how much I love my bike.”
I nodded quickly. “Hey, I totally understand. If that's how you can afford to have your bike, I see why you do it.”
He shook his head. I didn't get it. His rooster was sick, could not fight, and he was really late on his bike payments. The bank was going to take it away from him if he didn't pay them right away. How much did he owe? A lot. How much was a lot?
He answered quicker than I expected. “Six hundred dollars.” He paused. “That is so much money.”
I whispered something like yes, my insides tingling. It actually didn't seem like all that much money to me then. I didn't yet have a husband or a daughter or a deteriorating Volkswagen to sink cash into. Six hundred dollars was what I made every week, teaching, more than enough to take the summers off to gallivant around the globe.
All these years later, I try hard to remember how I felt as I stood there with my back to the street, to Indar and his bike, withdrawing the maximum allowance of money from the ATM. It took three transactions. Likely there was guilt, something I saw other travelers wearing often, like ill-fitting gypsy pants. I definitely felt a stab of anxiety, my head interrogating my guts like a strict father to his idealistic mess of a daughter: What are you doing? You have no savings to speak of!
We’d talked briefly about how it could be a long-term loan; he could pay me back someday, somehow. Even as I swiped my card in that stuffy ATM booth, I knew that was about as likely as ever seeing Indar again, another thing we’d vowed in the loose pink morning light.
Mostly, I remember feeling sad. I didn’t really want to leave, but that wasn’t a reason to stay. Briefly, I thought of how that applied to my relationship, too. Instead of a clean break, it was a slow, painful unraveling.
I hugged him hard outside of my hotel, deflecting his repeated thank yous, our eyes wet. Only once I was alone in my room did I let loose and cry like a heart-torn teenager. Even now, I can conjure the heaviness of that morning, a letdown like the first Monday back at school after spring break. As I finished packing, I let any regrets slip away. I thought of how happy and relieved he must’ve felt. How free of rooster worries.
On the bus ride out of town an hour later, I plugged my ears with music and stretched my legs into the adjoining empty seat. I stared out the window, scanning the busy streets for his bike until, eventually, we left the snarl of the city behind.