Through the blur of the windshield, motorbikes tumble around us as if repulsed by the magnetic charge of the road. I haven’t seen lightning in months, save the single bolt that was followed by your standard English drizzle (and some ferocious sunlight to boot). Outside the car, men who treat the lane dividers as sidewalks dangle bags of fruit at the drivers and glowing signs whir past. Inside the car, the Indonesian driver has chosen to play a video of a live Sting concert with orchestral accompaniment. I am feeling culture shock.
What should be a five hour drive takes eight, three of which are occupied just with getting to the outskirts of Jakarta. We are further delayed by the allure of fried tofu and roadside pancakes and the driver’s sudden announcement that we were stopping to pick up his sister.
Selamat malam! I twist around in the passenger seat to greet her. Evidently she finds my accent hilarious because she has me repeat the phrase to three different friends over the phone.
Arriving anywhere in the middle of the night is always unsettling. We creep up the side of the mountain in slow jerks, maneuvering around disproportionately high speed bumps and dogs with their tails between their legs. Although I am certain people live here, I have only indirect evidence of this fact. Houses with red clay roofs are interspersed with tarped-over food stands, all sleepily closed off like cats with their paws over their eyes. Signs reading Jalur Evakuasi! with icons of a smoking volcano point down as we continue up. Our engine gives out two or three times. We arrive around midnight and I settle into an unfamiliar bed.
The daytime is markedly different. The Indonesians enthusiastically announce their rising between four thirty and five am with the booming Islamic Call to Prayer, which I am initially convinced must be the emergency signal for an aid raid. This is followed by the static babble of a small child who is clearly excited to be speaking to the entire village. (I soon learn it is common for children to get a hold of any of the five megaphones in the area used for the Call to Prayer.) The thunderclap of motorbike engines return, and I am surprised to see hijab-clad women cruising up and down the street. The village is stained by effervescent color – men swing massive bundles of gleaming orange carrots with water; on clotheslines brightly patterned batik are draped alongside polyester soccer jerseys; red-striped koi navigate the agricultural ponds that lie between each house. I am certain I will tumble into these one day.
I am greeted by the volunteers of the Little Fireface Project, who I am excited to see are just as enthusiastic about catching furtive glimpses of sleeping slow lorises as I am. And of course, it is nice to hear some familiar accents. We watch La La Land on a white tarp draped over the windows, and again we straddle the line between home and here. But as I will learn, culture is not defined by divisions; rather, it exists along a continuum. And furthermore, that my cellphone alarm in this country is unnecessary.