If I were forced to pick my all-time favourite travel experience, it would probably be my trip to Bandung (Java, Indonesia). I had been in Yogyakarta with a few friends and wanted to swing by Bandung on my way to Jakarta to visit the grave of my great grandfather who had died in a Japanese prisoner camp during the Second World War. My Oma (Dutch Grandmother) had told me that he was buried in a war graves cemetery near Bandung and gave me his name. Armed with these fragments of information I boarded a train to Bandung with no plan other than the hope that I would somehow miraculously find this war graves cemetery despite the fact that I could find no mention of it on the internet.
As I get off the train in Bandung it is quite late at night and I'm mobbed by the usual mob of taxi drivers who know I’ll pay more than the local clientele. As I mentally prepare to haggle the extortionate fares down to an inflated tourist fare, a small woman grabs my hand and pulls me out of the crowd. She’s wearing a Muslim headscarf and has a round, smiling face. She says to me in English ‘I have car, you come with me.’
I follow her out into the carpark; my mind is racing a million miles an hour. Who was this woman? Should I trust her? Why does she want to help me?
She has with her a small boy and says her friend is picking her up in her car. I’m not too sure about jumping in a car with a bunch of strangers, but something about this woman makes me want to trust her. She asks me where I’m staying and I show her the name and address of a hostel; she says she will take me there.
We chat a bit in the car, she tells me that she attends English classes and wants to improve her English, and for her son to grow up speaking English too. She explains to me that she has an arrangement with a friend from her English class where they only speak English to each other to improve their skills. She then whips out her cell phone and calls him. She explains to him that she has a girl from New Zealand with her and asks if he would like to talk me. This is followed by me having an awkward conversation on the phone with him, but I finally understand that I’m a bit of a novelty to her; she wants to know all about my country and our culture.
She asks me if I have made a reservation at the hostel and I say that I have not. ‘Okay’ she announces ‘you will stay with me.’ I panic a little. Part of me is excited at the idea of staying in a local family’s home, but the rational part of me is screaming ‘stranger danger’. She sees I am a little torn and tells me, ‘don’t worry, it is just my son and I at home. My husband is away working.’ Caution is thrown to the wind and I accept her generous offer.
I’m a little nervous as I’ve never stayed in a Muslim household before and I don’t want to offend my host. I ask her if she would like me to cover my hair whilst I am in her house. She looks a little confused and mumbles a little ‘how do I say this…?’ Then she looks me straight in the face and announces ‘I am Muslim; you are not. This is okay.’
Once at the house she puts her son to bed and we talk for a while. I am surprised that the house is very new. It is bursting at the seams with stuff: board games, books and clothes fill every available space. It has two bedrooms, a living room with kitchen and a bathroom. One of the bedrooms is filled with children’s toys and a foam mattress on the floor. The other bedroom is crammed full of junk and there is no sign of a bed in the entire house. She tells me that she and her husband sleep on a large rug on the floor in the living room.
I tell her that my Oma grew up in Indonesia and that her father is buried in a Prisoner of War cemetery near the city. She says that she will help me and makes a few phone calls. I’m tired after a long day and head to bed which is a little spot on a rug on the floor in her son’s room. Before I lay down I check that the windows are not locked or lockable and pack my money belt with my cash, cards and passport so that if I feel uncomfortable at any point I can jump out the window and run off into the night. I also sleep right behind the door so that no one can open it without waking me. Despite taking these precautions, I feel surprisingly comfortable in her house.
I lie down and try to get some sleep. After a few minutes I feel something graze my shoulder, at first I think it’s my hair, but then see a big cockroach scuttling along the floor. I sleep lightly most of the night and am awakened by the morning call to prayer crackling on loud speakers throughout the town.
She offers me some sort of sweet cakes for breakfast and tells me that her friends have told her there is a war cemetery right here in Cimahi, the area in which she lives, which is a little out of the city. She drives me to the cemetery and speaks with the caretaker, asking him to find the grave of my great grandfather.
The cemetery is huge and the graves are packed in, each marked with a simple white cross bearing the name, year of birth and year of death of the buried person. He leads us to the grave of Joop Keijman and I ask them if I can have a moment alone.
The red hot sun shines on my face as a flood of tears run down my cheeks. I am incredibly moved by this whole experience. I think about the pain of my Oma, her sisters and her mother, having been separated from their husband and father for such a long time, only to find out after the war that he had not survived. The idea of my great grandfather dying without loved ones in a prisoner of war camp fills me with sadness. I am also overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of a complete stranger who helped me to come here and pay my respects to my relative whom I never got the chance to meet, but have heard so many wonderful stories about.
Once we are finished at the cemetery she asks me where I would like to go next, I feel that my business in Bandung is now complete and ask her to drop me at the train station where I will catch the train to Jakarta. As a parting gift she hands me a hand stitched pillow cover. I’m embarrassed that I cannot give her something in return. I try to offer her some money explaining that I would like to give her a gift for the kindness that she has shown me, but I don’t have anything to give her so I would like her to buy herself something with this money. She refuses it and I feel like I may have met genuinely, the nicest woman in Bandung.
This entire experience moved me beyond belief, this stranger opened her home to me, trusted me around her child and helped me to fulfil one of my dreams, and wanted nothing in return except to practice her English and learn about my life.
I’m wary not to let this experience make me overly trusting of strangers, but it does show that if we are overly untrusting then we miss out on some wonderful experiences too.