*** This is another old piece of writing from my big Asia wander way back in 2001-2003.  I was working as an ESL school in Yogya, Indonesiaat the time I wrote this.  I was a kid just out of school looking for something that I couldn’t properly articulate, and thus couldn’t grasp.  It was on this 2.5 year wander that I eventually picked up a camera for the first time.***

Monday 17 December, 2002

The girl who sat next to me on the bus to Semarang had the aura of one that worked in the fields of Java. It was not the way she dressed, nor anything else she carried that gave me that impression. It was her smell.

The journey from Yogya to Semarang usually takes around 3 hours on the A/C “Executive” bus. I had decided to take the regular bus with the locals, it would take 4.5. I was on my way to meet up with Jay, a teacher borne of Indonesian and American decent, and Andrea, a Brit.  It was the beginning of my “holiday.”

About half an hour into the journey, the girl got on board and sat down next to me. The girl (I call her “girl” but she was no doubt in her early to mid-twenties) fell asleep during the ride and eventually her head rested on my shoulder. She smelled of earth and work.  It is the same smell the world over.

I’ve caught that scent before:

In Ecuador on my way from Guayaquil to Cuenca our bus balanced on the sides of mountains winding though one village to another. I gazed wide-eyed at the ocean of cloud that rolled and tumbled between the Andean valleys below. My seatmate was a farmer coming back from the market.He later got off at one of those random towns…

In Brazil, on a boat to Peru across the Amazon we made stops in small villages on the great river’s banks, the smell was there with her people as well, on those who toil to tame a jungle, to feed a family…

And again in the Philippines, in my motherlands northern mountainous province I shared Jeepneys with local rice farmers who accepted the burden of tending those 2000 year old fields.

Everywhere the same smell.

It is not an unpleasant scent. It’s the aroma of earth, of sun, of labour, and most of all, of years. The girl who sat next to me looked 23-25, but I would not be shocked to hear that she was a teenager. The lines and cracks I’ve seen on the faces and hands of other field-hands just a few years her senior testify to the aging process of her task.

I remember taking a job as a treeplanter in the May-June 2000. I remember that beyond the hope to make some money I had (misguidedly) taken the job with the desire to “experience the lives of the worlds manual labour class.” (A cheese, lame, emo rational I know.)

My fellow planters and I never smelled like that girl.

I am not saying that they all shared a scent merely to make a point, they really did smell the same.

We planters simply stank. And we each stank differently.

That treeplanting summer left me with knees that will forever ache in the cold, and worse, it left me ashamed. Ashamed that I thought that 8 weeks of 10-12 hour workdays could teach me what a lifetime of said work was like. We were just rich kids playing field-hand—no, that was only me doing that, everyone else was just in it for the money. I saw nothing of what they saw, I could only see what my background as a “rich” kid (relatively speaking) let me see. I came in knowing full well that I would step out, that there was a world after the endless backbreaking days.

Back on the bus in Indonesia the girl woke up just in time to get her stop, we were still 30 minutes or so from Semarang.

As the scenery of kamikaze cars weaving through traffic, coconut trees, dilapidated buildings, rice paddies, and small town markets flew past I started to think of where I was now and of the beginning “holiday.”

Everyone at work was really excited about it, about the upcoming break from the day to day.

It’s a shame isn’t it? That we have to “holiday.” I mean, doesn’t it all just imply that regularly life just sucks? And if this is the case, if we holiday to escape “the routine” then a short break changes nothing… things will still suck when you get back.  Shit can be very patient.

“It’s a good thing that for me, this whole trip, this whold ESL teaching thing was just a holiday.  I didn’t have to look forward to the few weeks off at Christmas that we were getting,’ I thought smugly…until the stupidity of the notion caught up with me.

So I began to wonder about the nature of what I was doing and where I was. ‘I am travelling,’ I said to myself. ‘I travel because I am sick of the Western worldview, because I don’t want any part of it,’ pretentiously proclaimed the thoughts of an English (!) teacher.

I’m an idiot.

When I started with this idea of travel it was because I did not know what to do with myself after university. Now that I had “finished” my education the practical part of myself told me that it was time for a job, but the other part said that it wanted no part of the usual crap. Besides, he couldn’t think of anything that he wanted to do. ‘The West sucks,’ he declared, ‘because all it does is accumulate for no good reason. Spend it’s accumulations on things it never needed, let alone wanted (until someone else told it that it REALLY did want it after all). And think about how great it all was and that everyone should do the same.’

I looked out the window to see an old man peddling a becek (bicycle taxi) up a hill.

I looked at the window and saw the reflection of a former treeplanter. Here he was, travelling, accumulating experiences and memories and photos, with the intention to use said items for gloating rights, and wondering why everyone doesn’t do the same…

And at that stomach turning realization the bus stops and our wanderer arrives in Semarang.

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***all images: ©2005 alex felipe / All Rights Reserved***

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