In the middle of Magelang

(1,061 words)

It was a cold, dark and rainy night. Dressed only in a pair of denim shorts, a white mid-riff on top a dark blue singlet and a pair of black Havaianas, I cowered under a huge tree. I hugged the trunk that was three times the length of my arms, as the rain drops dripped continually down my back.

The leaves above were barely able to shade me from the downpour. I picked up a middle-sized leaf, about the size of my palm. I tried to wear it on top of my head, hoping it would shield me from the waters, but it looked like nothing more than a decorative hair pin on my wet head.

25 May 2013, in the middle of nowhere in Magelang. We were 200,000 people, and I was cold, hungry and wet. As I buried my head in the tree trunk I muttered under my breath: God, please let this rain stop. Please make it stop, please, please, please.

I wasn’t going to go until the lanterns were released. I had planned this moment for months now, and here with me was even a trusty friend from high school. She was crouched on the tree roots, the ones so big you can actually sit on them. There she was, trying to steal a bit of shade from the next person’s umbrella.

Kami mencoba untuk menunggu dalam waktu 30 menit ke depan apabila hujan masih tetap turun… came the booming voice on the PA system. The back of the stage was to my far right, and I could hardly make out the forms on the podium. The blinding white lights that flashed against the dark night hurt my eyes.

The moon looked eerily down at us from the candi, as though it was a spectator watching safely from afar. The candi stood like a piece of crumbled layered cake; its brown jagged texture made up of centuries-old stones. Everywhere around us, young Indonesians my age huddled in groups. Umbrellas, ponchos, boyfriends, Blackberries.

Maka ritual perlepasan lampion di candi Borobudur ini tidak dapat kami laksanakan. No sound came from the audience, not even a sigh of disappointment nor relief after the four-hour wait. As the rain poured heavier, the feet shuffled faster out their way of the temple grounds.

What’s happened? I looked around. What’s happening? Sambil menunggu 30 minit maka kami sampaikan seluruh rangkaian seremonial dan menyampaikan ucapan terima kasih atas kehadiran… the voice trailed off as the rain continued to disperse the crowd.

Lampion? I asked the couple behind me. My voice shook. It came out desperate, as though it did not wish to acknowledge the reality of the words from the PA system. They shook their heads and replied in Indonesian. I knew what they had said.

The lanterns would not be released this year. 200,000 of us are going home disappointed, our dreams dampened by the rain, if not our bodies, our wishes never to be released into the Javanese skies. The photographers are going back without their pictures, the journalists are going back to the newsdesks with a different story angle.

We should leave now, I told my best friend. They’re not releasing the lanterns. And as I uttered those words, I imagined how the images would turn out on my camera, the flickering lights in warm orange, enclosed in little squares and rectangles, much like the ones I had seen of Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai.

I saw the photographers packing up. They were lined up by the candi, ready for the moment of the release. They had come all the way for this, and nothing but this. Prepared even for the rain, I saw them remove their waterproof camera cases and tuck their lenses back into their camera bags.

Theirs would be a heartbreak far deeper than mine. They had editors to report to, I had none. All I had to do was write a story about my Yogyakarta trip, and it didn’t necessarily have to include the Borobudur visit. But I could always log onto Google images and right click on the –

This way! My friend tugged at my hand. There’s a man selling an umbrella and we need one.
How much? I shouted at him over the rain. He was a short Indonesian man wearing a pair of knee-length khakis and a big maroon T-shirt.

100,000 rupiah for a beat up old umbrella. It was expensive, but tonight, I didn’t just have myself to think about. Google images had sold me a dream months ago that didn’t come true. And here I was in Magelang, with my best friend innocently in tow thinking she had come on holiday with me.

And even in the refuge of our parasol, the rain started to drip through the holes of the broken umbrella. We huddled closer and sloshed our way down the steep steps of the temple. A female festival attendant signalled for me to return the umbrella as we approached the gates.

–  No, I shouted over the rain. It’s mine, I paid for this.
–  OK, she nodded. With her hand she waved us out of the temple complex and into the main street.

Our driver, Pak Adi from the Hotel Tentrem was waiting for us at the end of the road. He had probably foreseen this fiasco of wet pilgrims and tour buses frantically trying to leave town. Our journey here had taken three hours instead of the usual one hour, and who knew how long it would take to get us back.

My best friend didn’t say a word. We drove in the darkness and in silence, except for the hum of the engine and the background noise from Pak Adi’s radio station. I removed my flip flops in the back of the black Toyota Alphard. The promise of our king-sized bedroom, with its air-conditioning turned off, would suffice for now.

And food. Yes, food! Back in Room 332, we turned on the TV and scrolled through the room service menu. Mee soto, nasi uduk, you shower first, hurry up! Twenty minutes, and we ate noisily like recently-freed prisoners. But it was one in the morning and there was no energy left for decency. The food was our revenge for the day, before we passed out in bed with full and happy stomachs.

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