By: Zen RS
The world is nothing more than congestion after congestion. If everything went well, where would be the fun in that?
Cities in medieval Europe were always built resembling a fortress with manned gates. Oftentimes I take note of the welcome gates in the cities I visited, they constantly sport the greeting “Welcome to the City of X”. Yet, I think they aren’t gates, more like a display of pleasantry serving unclear purposes. Perhaps the city planners receive too many wedding invitations that are both frivolous and full of nonsense. But, isn’t it true that a wedding invitation is never read anyway; at best, only the date and venue are noted? In a way, it’s like the welcome gates built by municipalities, right? Who gives a damn about it?
And yet, this city doesn’t play the pleasantry card with itself. The city offers traffic jam as its entrance. Whoever manages to get through the traffic on a daily basis has the chance to lead a little more sensible life here. More sensible? Yeah, something wrong with that?
Yeah, what’s wrong with that? That was also what Arahata asked me when we first met two years ago. I was sitting inside a bus, stuck in severe congestion. It rained cats and dogs since an hour ago. Several roads began to be waterlogged. It was unfortunate that such events unfolded at 5:00 pm. Even more so, it was Friday. Heavy rain at five o’clock on a Friday evening is the most damning revelation for anyone on the streets. Severe congestion proves that every metropolitan knows how to return the favor to its population for its haphazard behavior on the streets.
At the time, the city bus I got on wasn’t full yet, in the sense that there was no one standing inside the bus. Here in this city a public transport is only deemed full when it holds 1.5 times its seating capacity. As far as I could recall, there was an empty seat, and it was beside me. I took a seat near the back door. Then, someone whose name I later learned is Arahata got onto the bus and immediately sat next to me. Back then the traffic jam had just gone on for 10 minutes, people still sat calmly on their seats, no one had gone agitated and set out on a rant. And then it went on and on: 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes were gone yet the bus didn’t even move for an inch. People were getting anxious. A girl in front of me began raving on her mobile phone; maybe she was giving a talking to her boyfriend who had not showed his face to pick her up. One or two passengers began to poke their heads out the window, hoping to see what was going on ahead. In the 35th minute, a man got off the bus, sneaked his way between vehicles and stepped into a coffee shop on the roadside. Five minutes later, two people also got off the bus. Five minutes before the hour mark, the bus was left with half of the initial passengers. In the 70th minute, only seven people, bar the driver and his conductor, remained on the bus. Going into the 80th minute, only five people were left: I, Arahata, another passenger sitting in the front, the driver and the conductor.
Actually, I was desperate to get off the bus, take a shelter on the roadside or sip a cup of hot coffee at the coffee shop located just a few meters from where I was sitting. But, on that particular afternoon my luck had perfectly run out: I just brought Rp 7,000 in cash, and didn’t know my ATM’s whereabouts. Sitting here, on the bus, was my sole option then. Moreover, changing bus would be of no use. It was really bad and a few minutes earlier the conductor told me that nearby streets were soaked with water up to the calf of an adult. I also knew, via my mobile phone, that many people were fuming about the traffic jam on Facebook and Twitter.
Then, in the 85th minute Arahata pulled something out of his bag right when the bus driver shut down the engine. A mini DVD player. I had one, but it was damaged thanks to a cup of really hot coffee being spilled on it. He played something that looked like a music video. With the corner of my right eye, I took a peek. I thought I had watched that clip, but I forget what it was all about exactly. He then removed his headphones and turned to me saying, “Wanna watch too?”
He moved the mini DVD player on his hands closer to me so it became easier for me to watch. He just did it, without waiting for me giving the green light. At first I’d like to refuse, but since the mini DVD player was already put before me, I thought it didn’t hurt watching. I was correct; it was a music video. That clip showed people sitting restively in their car. There was a traffic jam. The camera went close up from one face to another. Everything was showed in slow motion. Then, a man with a pierced left ear and wearing a cowboy hat got out of his car and stepped onto a high median strip. Afterward, it showed an image of someone laying down on the roof of a car. A man was standing on the overpass throwing down some sort of paper or cloth. After that, other people got out of their own cars. Before long everyone walked out of their car. Someone was seen sitting in cross-legged position on a car’s roof. Then the song came to an end and was replaced by a female voiceover accompanied by the sound of a roaring helicopter. The camera took aerial views of the scene. The images shown were swaying unsteadily; it seemed they were taken from the helicopter. The female voice was a bit mixed up. Then, the clip finished.
Arahata turned off his mini DVD player. He moved to the seat next to us. “Hey, what do you think?” he asked me.
“The video clip.”
I told him I saw it once, but that was long ago. He asked me whether I knew the song and who perform it. I nodded and mentioned that it was “Everybody Hurts” from the band R.E.M. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes while I took a can of beer from my bag. He took one and lit it while I opened my beer. A hiss came out of his cigarette lighter as the foaming beer that just got out of the opened can was making a hissing sound. He drew on his cigarette and blew the smoke through his nose, and I drank the beer. He studied the cigarette in his hand, I gazed at the beer can in my right hand. He asked me and I replied:
“You’ve been in a worse traffic jam?”
“No. This is the worst I’ve had in this city.”
“I’ve been in one, two months ago, for 2.5 hours. I hope today’s congestion breaks that record.”
“What you wish for is contrary to the prayers of all being stuck in this traffic.”
“Who gives a shit about these people? Prayer alone cannot put this to bed. Rather than praying, it’s better to shoot down those corrupt city officials, that’s a more reasonable thing to do. Make no mistake, my father is also an official, but I don’t know if he’s corrupt or not. I don’t really care.”
“I’m not too concerned either with your father being an official. It has nothing to do with the traffic, and also cannot put an end to it.”
He descended into laughter and said that he liked my being outspoken, then asked me how long the traffic jam could possibly go on. I shook my head. I said I don’t know, but I want the traffic to move smoothly as soon as possible. He said that my wish conflicted with his. I replied that he should have wished for better things other than the congestion. Again he laughed, and offered a wager.
“Whatever money you have in your pocket right now, I’d bet my DVD player on it. If the traffic goes smoothly within half an hour, this DVD player is yours; but if it lasts longer than that, the money you carry now is mine. Dare to take it?”
“Do you know how much cash I bring with me?”
“That’s not important. Making a bet on traffic jam while being stuck in one is all that matters. Besides, I could buy a new DVD player. What say you?”
I nodded. I only got Rp 7,000 left, losing it wouldn’t be a problem, at worst I just had to find a way to pay for the bus fare. That DVD player was worth multiple times the Rp 7,000 I had.
“Have a cigar?” he asked me. I shook my head. I offered him a beer as I happened to bring two cans. He accepted that. So there were us, together drinking beers on the almost empty bus amidst a severe traffic jam with the heavy rain seemingly not subsiding for one bit. Many times the bus driver was seen yawning. The conductor was dozing while reading a yellow paper with a headline about a discotheque worker raped by three motorcycle taxi drivers.
Again he asked, and again I replied:
“You like that video clip?”
“It’s quite to my liking.”
“I always watch it each time I get stuck in traffic. It feels like it makes traffic congestion more bearable. Sometimes I think of attempting to get out of the car, then climbed onto and walked from one roof of a car to another, just as shown in the clip. One day I’ll do it. Don’t you wanna do that?”
“I prefer to drink beer and sit in the vehicle when stuck in traffic.”
“What about smoking weed?”
I turned to him. He had a grin on his face. “Hey, it’s a traffic jam with heavy rain outside. Smoking weed in this kind of situation would do no harm. The police couldn’t possibly come at us. The aroma isn’t going anywhere so people in other cars can smell it. You can quickly suck it in. Five minutes are enough. Then, you’ll fly away, and probably end up climbing onto the roof of that sedan in front of us.”
“I don’t have a pot, it’s been a long while since the last time I had one; also I never bought it myself, had a joint or two after a friend gave it to me.”
The next thing he did was taking a smoke from the pack. He lit it, the roll was lit up, and he drew in; smoke came out of his nose. He blew it at me. It smelled nice; ganja. He chuckled. He drew another one, blew it again, but this time he caught a whiff off the smoke floating in front of his face. His eyes were closed. I looked at the driver and the conductor who were still dozing in their own seats. It still rained heavily, vehicles were still planted in their respective positions, the traffic remained the same.
He handed me the pot. I accepted it with a slight hesitation. For a while I made an observation of it. It was just an ordinary cigar, the joint was not rolled up using a special paper, the grass was just crammed into it. He told me to drew into the smoke. What took you so long, the smoke would go wasted if not inhaled, he said. While entertaining doubt I put the joint between my lips, still in doubt I drew the smoke in, still in doubt I breathed that out. He told me to suck it on once again. Still in doubt I stuck it to my lips again, still in doubt I took the smoke in again, still in doubt I blew it again, but there wasn’t any doubt when I sniffed at the smoke hanging around my face.
He asked for the pot I held in my hand. I returned it to him. He drew in, and then gave off the smoke again. Twice he did it, and again he handed it over to me. I inhaled, then exhaled the smoke from that pot again. Twice I did it, and afterward I passed it over to him again. Three rounds later it ran out. I leaned my body backward, and he did the same. The bus I was on still didn’t move, as with other vehicles. The rain was still pouring down, and it was past 30 minutes since we made the bet. I won it. I looked at my watch, and he looked at his. I burst into laughter, so did he. He handed his mini DVD player to me while having a laugh. I accepted it, while laughing too. Again he asked questions, to which I replied again.
“It seems the traffic will stay this way for some time. I like it. How ‘bout you?”
“Feeling better about it than before, but not really into it.”
“How long have you been in Jakarta?”
“Often caught in a traffic jam?”
“I seldom go out during the day or in the evening. Only occasionally. I go out more often at night.”
“I sleep more by day. I don’t like being stuck in traffic. It sucks.”
“You’ve gotta deal with it. In this city you can’t just live by night. The day is there, and traffic jam is real too. Only by being able to face it you’ll turn out fine in this city. Only by receiving the daily dose of congestion you can have a more sensible life here.”
“Yeah, what’s wrong with that?”
“You know what, I was born amid a traffic jam.”
“When my mother was about to give birth, there was congestion due to a horrible accident. My father’s car couldn’t move at all. So, I was born there in my father’s car. My mother gave birth by herself. I was born just like that, with her pushing as hard as she could during delivery. And just as my father’s car arrived at the parking lot of the hospital my first cry was heard. Funny, isn’t it?”
“So, you feel that congestion is your friend, huh?”
“No, I see it as the gate to this city.”
“Why is that?”
“Traffic jam exists, it’s real. You can’t afford to live here if you turn a blind eye to it.”
“So, hold on, hold on.”
“It was an excerpt from the song lyrics of the clip we watched.”
“Oh, right, yeah… hold on. Just like us, holding on here to suffer this traffic.”
I drank my beer again. My head was a little heavy, but not too heavy anyway. The weed wasn’t of high quality. My eyes were a bit heavy, but not too heavy either, anyway. The rain was still heavy, but not too heavy like before, anyway. The smell of the pot smoke could no longer be sensed. Everything was fine. But, he asked me questions yet again, and again I answered them:
“Why did you just agree to smoking weed?”
“I don’t always do things for a reason. I just did that.”
“Weren’t you afraid of me being an undercover cop?”
“I didn’t think of it.”
“Or, what if there’s a police officer smelling the smoke from that pot?”
“That also didn’t occur to me. All that was there is I just did it. If I had those thoughts, maybe I wouldn’t smoke your joint.”
I said nothing. I asked what his name is. Arahata. Why it sounds something Buddhism, I asked him. Who said it sounds Buddhism-ish, he said. I said, I did. He broke out into laughter and told me his father wanted to become a Buddhist when he was born. Is your father a Buddhist now, I raised another question to him. He shook his head and said that his father went on a hajj pilgrimage three years ago. Does it mean he no longer wanted to be a Buddhist, I asked him. It seems he still harbors that wish, he answered. Then why he made that pilgrimage, I asked him again. I don’t know, he said. How come you don’t know about that, another question from me. Because I didn’t ask him, he replied. Why you didn’t ask him, I posed another question. It’s not important to me, he responded. Good answer was my comment.
“Don’t you know there was a Japanese figure whose name was like yours?”
“Oh, really? What was his name?”
“Kanson Arahata or Arahata Katsuzo.”
“Who was he? A Buddhist too?”
“I don’t think so. He was a member of the socialist party; once a communist, he even became a member of the first central committee of the Japan Communist Party. He had also been an adherent of anarchy.”
“Do you think my name suits me more if I were a Buddhist or a communist?”
“That depends. In severe congestion like this, I wish you were a communist, all the better an anarch.”
“For what reason?”
“It’s good to envisage you’re getting so mad that you blow up cars stuck in this traffic with grenades that you throw manually, one by one.”
He had a laugh, and I had one too. I told him the image of an anarch suits the name Arahata better than that of a communist. He asked me why. I replied that was because Arahata literally means “the wasted land”. I went on saying communists would never leave soil to go wasted, soil was always a lure for the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). He was perplexed and wondered where I found out all of that. I said I wrote a paper on communism in Japan back in my college days.
So, it went that way, I asked questions and he answered them until he started asking questions again, and again I gave him my replies:
“Do you think I’m a gay?”
“Hahahaha … never crossed my mind.”
“I don’t even think of you as a man or a woman.”
“That sounds strange.”
“Are you still drunk because of that weed?”
“Nothing. That was just a token of courtesy coming out of my mouth automatically.”
Two hours and ten minutes were gone and the traffic jam wasn’t over yet. But, I didn’t complain. I was more at ease than before. Not because I had a friend to chat with, not because I now unexpectedly had a DVD player, not because I smoked a pot. It was, first of all, because maybe I wasn’t in a hurry. Secondly, I also didn’t bring enough money to do other things in other places than accepting the fact that I got stuck in traffic while taking a city bus. Thirdly, I wasn’t going to do something important when I got home. Fourthly, the combination of these three reasons gave rise to the fourth. I can’t deny that Arahata’s observation on congestion hits home. Maybe, in times to come I will go out more by day or in the evening and will find myself stuck in traffic more frequently.
“You wanna hear another song? There’s a good song stored in that DVD player.”
“What is it?”
He asked me to hand him the DVD player that had changed hands. He fiddled with it briefly, then gave it back to me. I immediately put the headphones in my ears. Then, the song was playing. The mini DVD player displayed the lyrics:
Did we get too tight or let the mystery puzzle reveal itself?
Now that you have other plans we were even closer than I could tell
But I’m not crying
Familiar with these strange realities
How does the moon shine?
How does the wind howl?
I can’t defy it
It’s nothing to do with me
It’s just another dead end mystery
I’m not crying
I’m not crying
When the late, last caustic days approach somebody so immaculate
Rain will pour and violins may sound from rooftops that touch the sky
But I’m not crying
To terms with such a trying destiny
How does the moon shine?
How does the wind howl?
I can’t defy it
Now everyone suggests getting some sleep
As if that’s gonna solve a dead end mystery
I’m not sleeping
I’m not sleeping
I’m not sleeping
“What do you think about that ‘Dead End Mystery’ song?” asked he.
“Not too shabby. But, the rhythm is too slow, maybe it’s better to listen to The Doors or Crash Test Dummies when stuck in traffic.”
“What about the lyrics?”
“Better, that’s to say, more fitting to the situations of a traffic jam like this.”
“How come? Isn’t talking about shimmering moonlight or how the wind howls less appropriate in this kind of circumstance?”
“Then, why did you say the lyrics are more suitable?”
“They hint at the fact that ‘I’m not sleeping’, right? It was mentioned several times in the lyrics.”
“That simple? The lyrics aren’t just about ‘I’m not sleeping’, are they?”
“Yes, it’s that simple, especially if you think that sleeping or not sleeping in this city is trivial. But, to me it’s not. Sleeping or not in this city could lead to intricate issues. But, that’s just me. Or, maybe you want a more complicated reason?”
“Good, I don’t have a more complicated reason anyway.”
The driver ignited the bus engine. Slowly the bus started creeping forward. I looked at my watch. The congestion had lasted two hours and 45 minutes. The bus was running, but still at a snail’s pace. I re-played the “Dead End Mystery” once again, the song was playing slowly too. Arahata sucked on his cigarette, I forgot how many he had had now. I dropped the empty beer can to the floor. The can rolled forward, like the bus tires moving forward. I glanced over at directions ahead. The streets remained crowded by crawling vehicles. The rain still poured heavily. A thought about traffic jam and the city flashed through my head, but this traffic jam wasn’t over yet, it will never end.
- The part about the wager is a bit confusing as at first it said if the traffic jam only lasts for half an hour the mini DVD player will change hands to the main character. If longer, then the protagonist will have to give his money to Arahata. It turns out to last more than half an hour, and yet the mini DVD player is given to the main character.
- I’m not sure what the 2.45 hours means in the Indonesian version; so yes, it’s a guesswork that I translated it to two hours and 45 mins. Please take a look at the source text.)