I love the train.
I love it because it not only gets you to your destination but also connects you to the reality of local transportation, provides a real sense of a country's scale, immerses you into a culture and offers sights that are otherwise unavailable.
This is my second trip with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) and both times they have included a train journey as part of it. While train travel in Asia is not a luxurious experience it is comfortable and I think OAT has it right. It is an essential experience.
Java by train
I'm guessing that this train is about sixty years old. It will take us seven hours to go through the mountains of Java between Bandung and Yogyakarta. The ride is not smooth but the views are amazing.
The terraced rice fields seem endless and are endlessly fascinating. They follow the form of even the most unforgiving landscape and the vivid greens virtually vibrate. Occasionally, just one person can be seen working alone in the fields or sometimes just a few.
The houses in the small villages are clustered, again following the natural design of the landscape. Most are of grey cement with red-tiled roofs but some are brightly colored in yellow, pink or turquoise. Sometimes there are only a few homes together suggesting an extended family compound rather than a village.
Between the rice fields and villages are dense forests of palms, bamboo and other plants. As we make our way through the countryside we often pass children and adults standing close to the railway tracks which are also used as pedestrian roadways from villages to markets towns. Some of them may simply be watching the train as people do in every country but some have likely just jumped off the track to let the train go by.
That's what I see outside. It looks quiet. Peaceful.
Inside is a noisy quiet. The train itself is loud between the sound of steel wheels against the steel of the track, the strain of an air conditioner (that is making a difference I think), and the engine itself. Otherwise there is only quiet conversation as most people are entranced by the scenery.
Every once in a while a man dressed in a uniform that defies the age and quality of the train arrives to take orders for food and coffee. Overseas Adventure Travel has arranged box lunches for us as they can't be sure of the sanitary quality of train food. I suspect it would be fine as I ate train food in India but then, I too would rather be safe than sorry.
Despite the quality of the train, the bouncing around, and the noise, I love it. Train travel offers a behind the scenes view of a society that car and plane travel can't – an opportunity to see more of the details of daily life. In this case, it also gives us the chance to ask Manik, our tour guide, about these details, from who owns the rice fields (plots are typically owned individually but things such as irrigation are coordinated communally) to why so many houses have ponds (because they raise fish as part of their diets). There is much to see and learn while jostling through a country by train.
My trip to Indonesia is sponsored by Overseas Adventure Travel. They are committed to providing excellent single-supplement-free options for solo travelers and opportunities to connect with local communities in unique ways. So far, I have been to a local home for dinner, met veterans who fought for Indonesia's independence and walked through villages and into people's homes to learn how tofu and other food staples are made. I have much to share and will do so over the coming weeks.