Perceptive Spirit: An Unsettling Taxi Ride in Surabaya

Alighting at Bungurasih bus terminal, the traveller heads into Surabaya. The city is a big place – as a point of fact, one of Java’s largest – and dominates the eastern seaboard. Traffic is ever-constant, as is the noise. It’s not a walkable place, but as a metropolis homing an undulating morass of humanity it boasts plenty of transport. The traveller climbs into a taxi, unaware that things more inexplicable reside in the city.

The atmosphere in the vehicle is congenial. Warm smiles and a mutual working knowledge of one another’s language – English and Bahasa – leave both passenger and driver relaxed. ‘Nama saya Thomas,’ the traveller says as the vehicle navigates Surabaya’s long arterial roads. The driver nods and smiles.

It is when the car reaches the city centre that the atmosphere changes. With the taxi stuck in traffic outside the Sampoerna factory, the driver clenches his wheel. He fixes the traveller with a piercing glare and a contented smile. ‘Thomas… William,’ he says, emphasising heavily the second word. His boss eyes gleam for a split second.

The traveller furrows his brow. William is his middle name, and something he didn’t share with the driver. He presses the issue but is repeatedly stonewalled. ‘I don’t speak English,’ the driver smiles as he threads through the traffic, ‘I don’t understand’. Confused, the traveller sprawls in his seat, wondering what other secrets Surabaya will share.

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