We Ate Food that Wasn't Ours and Spent Christmas Eve In a Dungeon

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

christmas eve abroad
Storytime is a series of  stories about my most memorable travel experiences. Read more here.

Yogyakarta holds such a tender spot in my heart that even when we had to wait six more hours after the 13-hour train ride from Banyuwangi, I was still in good spirits. Last time I was in its folds, it taught me a lesson on beginnings and endings. Now, it seemed to be testing my resolve.

We arrived just a little past midnight in Lempuyangan station. It was the day before Christmas.

We could've went straight to our accommodation, but I insisted we stayed at the station until there was daylight. Besides, the inn's policies explicitly said check-ins were at 2PM.

So, we tried to sneak in some sleep. At first, we sat sprawling, attempting to sleep while sitting up. I was having none of it, eventually saying fuck it and laying myself across the cold, hard metal seats.
how to sleep in train stations

It was not easy to get some shuteye. The trains came and went. And people shuffled nonstop. So when I felt a bit of warmth and light behind my closed eyelids, I was relieved.

To hell with check-in times. I was going to go lie down on a real bed.

At 6AM, we were comparing fairs on a couple of ride-hailing apps. We booked the cheapest one at Grab, but the driver was being difficult.

"Can't come. You cancel," said a text message. It was from the Grab driver.

Dennis, sleep-deprived and miffed at having nothing else to eat but chicken, lost all his chill.

"No. You cancel!" He responded, proceeding to close the app altogether.

Ultimately, we found another driver through Uber, but had to walk out quite a long way from the station. When we finally got in, our driver explained that cab drivers would harass drivers like him if the latter picked up passengers right at the station's entrance. True enough, we witnessed such an incident as we circled back to the gate.

At any rate, the ride took us to a dusty, gravel-strewn road. In retrospect, I should have taken that as a red flag. We stopped at a compound of low yellow structures, cordoned by barbed wire fences and a rusty iron gate.

It was only 8AM.

Fortunately, the man in-charge allowed us to get into our room. Perked at the thought of getting proper rest, we paid and thanked our Uber. Hauling our bags, we followed the man in-charge.

We turned into a corner, narrow and somewhat desolate. It reminded me of where I lived. Place some chicken coops in there and it's basically home. But the similarities ended there.

When we finally got to our room, I was stunned.

The room, our room, was a dungeon. When we opened the door, it greeted us with a dank, warm breath, reeking of sewage. There was no way for light to come in except through the 12-inch strip of jalousie by the door. A sad-looking mattress was lain directly on the floor – the only furniture in there. I knew there was no air-conditioning but we were promised a fan. There was indeed a fan, but it was a teeny, tiny, pathetic toy no bigger than my palm. My dismayed sighs were stronger than the "wind" it supposedly generated.
worst room in yogyakarta

Too tired and too shy to complain, we just shrugged it off and crash on the mattress. As I slid to slumber, I remember thinking, "I'm gonna wake up with fleas and a severe rash."

Fortunately, and to my surprise, I did not.

We slept 'til late in the afternoon. By that time, I could feel my scalp crawl, my skin icky with sweat. Never mind noche buena, I wanted nothing more than to bathe. (Bet you couldn't believe I just wrote that. Well, me neither.) Thank goodness the bathroom was right next door.

I spent a good long while in the bathroom. Immediately after cleaning up, I felt better. Dennis washed some of our clothes, trying to rid them of the smell of Ijen's sulfur. The barbed wires turned out to be the perfect clothesline. Meanwhile, I tidied up our room, trying to make it look a little less depressing. When we did all we could, we got hungry.

A mall was nearby, and wanting to dive into the comfort of capitalism, however false and temporary, we walked to it to get some supplies.

It was Christmas Eve. We were adamant that, for dinner, we eat anything other than fowl. But alas, we were once again short on rupiahs, and again the money changers were closed. After doing some googling on international transactions, we resorted to using the good ol' credit card.

Like the star the three wise men followed to get to Jesus, I then saw a sign for Burger King, and everything seemed proper again.

Buoyed by the possibility of having a decent Christmas Eve dinner, our mood lightened. There was a line at the Burger King, but the photos of grilled beef on the overhead menu were enough to keep us entertained.

Our turn finally arrived. We placed our orders and were asked to wait on the side for our take-out. The counter proceeded to take the orders of a man with his teenage son. As we waited, the man took his seat and left his son to continue ordering. Dennis and I, meanwhile, got into a conversation. Nothing in particular – just random stuff. At some point, a tray of fries was placed in front of us. Mid-sentence, without taking his eyes off me, Dennis grabbed a fry. The conversation continued as is and, soon, I got some fries myself. This went on for a few minutes, Dennis and I taking turns for some quality starch. Because that's what you do when you're waiting for the rest of your order, yes? Then, a young man appeared behind the counter, carrying a pair of take-out paper bags. With a deadpan look, he handed the bags to us. Dennis and I froze.

"Oh my god," I gasped, horrified beyond belief. "I'm so sorry. I thought these were ours."

I snatched the bags from him and dug for my real fries, offering to exchange it for the one we devoured. By then, the ridiculousness of it all had me chuckling. Dennis, too. The counter and the other staff both nodded at us, as if to say "no worries". They were trying real hard not to laugh. I insisted, but the man gently pushed my hand away.

"Ookaaay," I said, still giggling.

While I put my fries back to the bag, the teenage boy behind us took the tray and carried it right past us as if nothing happened.

"He's so gonna tell his father," Dennis said, suddenly serious.

I snorted, and started power-walking out of the Burger King. Dennis right on my heels.

Back at our dungeon of a room, I was still laughing at the incident. It was already dark and the scent of grilled beef wasn't enough to mask the sewer smell, but we were in a bright, light mood.

Munching on burgers and Chitato, we logged into Facebook and sent our greetings to our families and friends. We saw pictures of tables brimming with food – spaghetti, barbecue, hamon, fruit salad, the works.

I suddenly felt homesick.

This wasn't exactly how we envisioned our first noche buena as husband-and-wife to be. But then again, not everyone can say they spent Christmas eve in a foreign land. We could've had a better room (don't worry, we will), but we had a roof over our heads. We didn't have a full noche buena spread but we had just enough food to get us by. We weren't sharing laughter with our family but, here we were, fortunate enough to be able to laugh off our not-so-ideal circumstance and to know that this was temporary. There was so much to be grateful for. The stories, especially...we'd have so much to look back on and laugh about.

In the words of Of Monsters and Men, "We are far from home, but we are so happy."

After all, home is wherever you make it to be.

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