We stepped out of Surabaya airport on a rain-washed afternoon, all geared up in our backpacks and jackets, all revved up for a back-to-back adventure. We were the first passengers to walk out to the arrival hall, and it was a sight to behold. Hordes of family members, relatives, friends, colleagues, were waiting patiently with signs awkwardly propped up in their hands. So this is how a celebrity feels like, walking out of the airport to thousands of adoring fans screaming your name. Except, of course, they weren’t fans, and they weren’t screaming. They were pin-drop silent, staring us up and down like we were aliens being transported into a lab. Sindhu and I immediately spotted our driver who was surprised to discover that we are females. “Ah, I see your name Jamil at the end, I thought oh, I am meeting Mr Jamil… suddenly you two walk to me, eh, ladies!” laughed Juned.
Juned was our driver and guide for the trip. He’s an easy-going, genial fella who has an affinity with tigers (read on to find out more) occasionally bursts into a Hindi song when he feels like it.
He introduced us to our programme for the 3 days that we were going to be there, in fairly decent English. We also found out that the languages spoken on this side of Indonesia (East Java) are aplenty – Madurese, Java, Malay, & Bahasa Indonesia. That definitely got the inner linguistics nerd in me excited. Indonesia is a large country, boasting thousands of dialects in one state alone. I told Juned that he’s even cooler than us, seeing that he could speak 5 languages, including English, and he humbly apologised for his ‘teruk’ (broken) English, to which I brushed it off and said, “We can still understand you, that’s good enough!”
So off we went on a grueling 8-hour car ride to our first destination – Ijen.
While we were dangerously meandering around the bumpy roads of Surabaya, Juned told stories about his country and his experiences as a driver cum guide to entertain us (and to keep himself awake). He has funny pet names for us which made us feel like royalty throughout the trip. He called me ‘Datin’ (just because I’m a Malay and I must have looked like I belong to some high class family to him), while Sindhu, on the other hand, was called Rani (Rani Mukherjee) because, “Oh, you white Indian! Do you watch Hindi films? Kuch Kuch Hota Hai? My favourite!” gushed Juned, excitedly humming a broken Hindi tune, as we laughed along at his antics in the backseat.
Our conversations gradually subsided after what seemed like hours. Juned told us that it would take another 4 more hours or so, and we were getting impatient.
“Oh, but I must tell you, in 2 hours time, we will be driving through a jungle full of wild animals. There is no other way for us to go to the guesthouse without passing by the jungle. Be careful. There are tigers and snakes… and ghosts. But don’t worry. We are friends.”
Sindhu and I looked at each other. We both shrugged it off, but a tiny part of me was whispering “Surely he can’t be serious?” I couldn’t shake off the possibility that there are tigers and snakes and other wild, unidentified creatures in such places. But we were too tired to even feel anything. So I plugged my ears into my music player while Sindhu continued the conversation with him.
The sky grew darker. There were fewer cars around us as we move to a narrow, one-way lane, into a thick, graveled pathway that led up to ‘the jungle’.
“Ah, okay, we are going inside the jungle now,” Juned said cheekily. I tried to take a peek from the rear view mirror to see his smirking face but it was too dark to see.
The drive through the jungle was the longest and most unforgettable journey I’ve ever had. It was intensely quiet, save for the crunch of the gravel and the faint sound of a 60s singer crooning through the radio. The only light illuminating our way was the headlights from our jeep. There were terrifying situations running through my wildly imaginative mind, one of which was the very possible event that Juned might just throw us out in the middle of the jungle and leave us alone to the tigers and snakes as he drove away and faded into the distance.
I closed my eyes and prayed that both of us would arrive at our destination in one piece.
It was close to midnight when arrived at our guesthouse in Ijen.