I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers

This happened about a month ago, but it so deserved a blog.

So I arrived back in Palembang from Australia, a little bummed at leaving my brother and family…BUT, I had something spectacular to look forward to: Starbucks had arrived in Palembang while I was gone!! So needless to say, I was pretty thrilled to get to my nearby mall and chill out with a frappuccino in a city where I sometimes feel like there are very few Western treats.

I went on a Friday, when I had lots of things to get done on my computer–taxes, emails, flights to book, and I was super excited to do it in a coffee shop nearby.

As usual, to get to this mall, I took a becak (pedi-cab) to the mall. Usually I have to walk a ways to an area where a bunch of them hang out, but occasionally I’ll catch one pedaling by near my house that I can catch. Apparently it was my lucky day, because there were a few right outside the entrance to my road. They weren’t the super eager becak drivers you usually get though, who look at you and ask, “Becak?! Becak?!” These two dudes were pretty lethargic; one didn’t even acknowledge my request. The other–a very old man, who looked like he was slightly drugged, with a few scraggly white hairs popping out on his face, slowly agreed to drive me to the mall. Usually you haggle with becak drivers for a cheaper price, but I just named mine–15,000rp ($1.50) and he agreed without haggling back–a first!! This was probably my slowest becak experience ever. I honestly was a little concerned he might fall off his bicycle in the middle of the road and leave me to oncoming traffic.

So we arrived at the mall, and I headed in with my bag, laptop and supplies for a day in Starbucks (how sad that this was so exciting), went in and ordered a coffee and muffin (another rare treat!).

I sit down, open my bag, arrange all my stuff and get myself situated, and start looking for my phone. That all familiar dread of thinking you have lost your phone overcomes me (we’ve all been there, right?). I unpack everything, thinking it is just lost in my enormous bag…but nothing. Unless I left it at home (unlikely), there is only one place it can be: in the becak. So I call my phone from Skype on my computer. Someone picks up. I say hello, try to get a response: nothing. I try to call again, and the same thing happens. I turned to two Indonesian girls sitting next to me, and asked if they spoke English. I explained the situation and they called the number, and tried again while speaking Indonesian. Still no response.

So my phone had been stolen. Although I had to admit that he didn’t technically steal it, as it must have fallen out of my stupid pocket. Blast those pants! The girls were probably in college and they looked more well-to-do. We started talking and I was trying to figure out how to rescue my phone. I had heard about these smart phone apps that help you locate your missing or lost phone, but I didn’t have them. The girls had two other friends come join, a couple–a boy and a girl, and the two girls quickly explained the poor foreigner’s situation to their friends. The guy looked like he might know how to find it, because he started doing something important looking on his fancy smartphone.

After about 20 minutes of us all searching and trying to figure out how to track my phone, he figured it out! It is actually kind of scary, cause that means stalking me would be easy, so I’m not going to tell you how he did it, but he ended up with a tracker on my phone that showed exactly where it was in Palembang–near the pond by my house (where the becaks hang out). I thought I could find the becak driver. But obviously I was not looking forward to it. My new friends seemed concerned, and the guy asked if I had “someone to accompany me”? And of course I said no, and they agreed to take me to confront the becak driver. We walked out to the parking garage and got into this guy’s fancy car–all five of us.

We drove toward the pond, and they asked me if I remember what he looked like. I thought about it and was relieved to recall that I kind of did. Now, I have told people for ages, I would be the worst I witness of a crime EVER. I am so unobservant I feel quite guilty sometimes. I don’t notice what people are wearing, I probably don’t even know what color eyes some of my closest friends have. My neighbor in Palembang, Daniela, rearranged her whole living room and I had no idea. So usually, I have no idea what my becak driver looks like. However, because this guy was so different–reallyyyy old, white hairs poppin it of his chin, slightly drugged looking, and about the slowest driver I have ever had, I really did remember him.

I was looking out for him as we passed the becak hang out spot, but didn’t see him. My new friends in the car were obviously excited, I’m sure it isn’t everyday that they drive a foreigner around to find her ‘stolen’ phone. So when we didn’t see the becak driver, the guy in our group refreshed his tracking of my phone and we discovered it was across town, closer to the river! I don’t know how this driver got his burst of energy considering he was kind of out of it when I had seen him, but he was in a different part of town now.

At this point, I was sitting in the middle in the backseat just taking it all in and kind of laughing to myself. My phone is super important to me, it was $100 and is my connection to friends and family back in the US, and I have lots of photos and all the Indonesian contact numbers and information I had gathered so far. So I was feeling really dumb for losing it and wasn’t exactly sure we would end up finding it after all. BUT, it was also kind of hilarious to look around at the situation I had found myself in.

We weren’t that talented reading our google maps, and drove around in circles for a bit, but ended up going the right way after a while. The others were kind of excited about the prospect of finding this guy and one of the girls said to me, “I feel like we are in the FBI!” I guess they get all the good car chasing FBI movies here.. And at one point we drove down the wrong road and we had to back up, so we were basically driving down a road backwards, and the guy driving said, “I feel like Vinn Diesel!”

So we get closer, and you can see our dot (on the phone) getting closer to our target dot (becak driver) as if we are about to run smack into him! It was very strange because I kept expecting to see him, but then we passed the dot and I still didn’t see a becak anywhere. So we turned around and parked and I got out of the car and started walking around. A man who lived nearby came over to us to figure out what these four very well-dressed Indonesians (obviously not from this neighborhood) and a white girl were doing there. My new friends explained to him, and the man and I exchanged some basic sentences in Indonesian, about where I work, a description of the becak driver, etc. Of course the whole neighborhood has come it to see this spectacle, and kids are peering out from behind doors, and men are sitting in their squat position watching from a distance. Now, in case I am not painting an accurate picture–this was not a threatening or at all scary situation, just talking to some people and tracking a phone down–no big deal!

So the man we met thought he knew what becak driver I was talking about (disproving my theory that I would be a terrible witness!) He started walking across the road, and towards a collection of shacks on stilts over this sewage-like marsh. We had to walk across wooden planks, and along rickety bridges made of wood that crossed the marsh and linked the several tiny one-room shacks. He called out, and I saw my becak driver standing in the doorway of a shack, looking as feeble as ever. We started walking across another bridge; the neighborhood man, the guy from my new friends, and me.

We stepped up into the house and I was struck by the extreme poverty this man lived in. I know there are poor people across this country; unbelievably poor with no access to clean water, no hospital nearby, etc. but I have been pretty sheltered from it. My neighborhood is fairly well to do, and although you drive by tiny shacks without electricity sometimes, I had never been in one. So the neighborhood man asked the old becak driver if he had my phone, and the driver stared blankly for a moment, and then slowly pulled it out of his pocket (after I pulled my wallet out of mine). I couldn’t believe it was there in his hand, and I took it from him, so happy. I think he must have never held a phone like that (or maybe any kind of phone), and if he had had a real intention of stealing it, he would have turned it off I suppose. Anyway, I gave him 50,000rp ($5) and we thanked him and left. He was kind of in a daze…maybe senile, maybe drugged, maybe just down on his luck? But I came back from over the scary foot bridges and held my phone up in triumph for the three girls who were waiting on the other side. I gave the man who had helped us find the driver 50,000rp as well and we went on our way! But of course, not before I snapped a photo of my saviors! They dropped me back off at the mall after exchanging Facebook information and taking a group photo with me in it this time. These four college kids were so kind to help me out, and it was absolutely an afternoon I will always remember from my strange days in Indonesia.

4 new friends and the bapak who helped us find the becak driver. (Sorry for messed up pic)

4 new friends and the bapak who helped us find the becak driver. (Sorry for messed up pic)


About Deirdre Hand

"To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted." Bill Bryson
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3 Responses to I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers

  1. Molly Cox says:

    Deirdre only you can make complete strangers into friends, and have an adventure at the same time.

  2. Ann Hauser says:

    I second what your Mom said! I also love the way you write, I can almost feel like I am on your adventure with you. Think about putting this all in a book some day. Perhaps write a travel guide for the adveturesome folks of this world. Too many are about finding a 5 star hotel and a western meal. People deserve more if they go out into this big world. Glad you are experiencing life.

  3. Elizabeth Williams says:

    Hate cliff hangers..How was the coffee? 🙂 Love you, Deirdre and thanks for sharing.

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