Motorbikes pass in front of the governor's house
Motorbikes pass in front of the governor’s house

LARGE BILLBOARDS AND tall buildings tower above the wide highways as the train grinds to a halt at Surabaya’s Gubeng station. A month earlier, I had never known much about Surabaya – that it’s the capital and the largest city of East Java, and that it had played a very significant role in Indonesian independence, so much so that it is now affectionately called “City of Heroes.” Heck, a month earlier I hadn’t figured Surabaya would be in my itinerary. But I didn’t do an overnighter from Yogyakarta to solely explore the city. I’m supposed to meet someone and I can’t see her.

I get down the train and make my way to the exit. A chorus of touts assaults me, vying for my attention, but I ignore them. I look around for my Couchsurfing host whom I will be going with to Mount Bromo. Since my phone’s SIM-based roaming is problematic, I make my way inside the first Internet hotspot I see to use the Wi-Fi and message her through Facebook; using her 3G-supported phone, she’s constantly online.

“I’m here at Gubeng, inside Dunkin’ Donuts. Where are you?”

A minute passes. Two minutes. Five.

I’m about to think that I’m stood up when I get a reply. First, the good news: “I’m almost there.”

And then after a few seconds: “I have bad news. I can’t go with you to Bromo.”

Couchsurfing host Desy Rachmawati
Couchsurfing host Desy Rachmawati
Rawon, a Surabaya specialty
Rawon, a Surabaya specialty

LIKE MANY INDONESIAN cities, Surabaya is loud, polluted, and lacking in enough sights to hold the interest of travelers for more than a night. With a population of 3.6 million, it’s the most crowded in Java’s least densely populated province. And it can be hard to imagine its glass-and-steel structures and bustling highways fitting right in with East Java’s strikingly raw sceneries of smoldering volcanoes, rolling hills and endless fields.

Still, it makes for a convenient transit point for further explorations in the region, especially for a trip to Bromo. Which is, in the first place, why I’m here.

In August, when I first learned that I would be going alone, I knew I had to find a travel companion to Bromo to share expenses with. Indonesia can be a cruel place for solo travelers, with steep single supplementary fees on accommodation and transport. This led me to Couchsurfing and it got me in touch with a few Indonesians who said they were willing to help.

And after a month corresponding on Facebook, I’m about to meet one of them. I’ve been inside the café for half an hour when I see her come in through the door.

Desy Rachmawati, all five-foot-three of her, cuts a graceful impression in her purple jilbab, black long-sleeves and skinny jeans, backpack and tablet in tow. She sits at the chair across my table and, in her soft voice, says, “I’m really sorry I’m late. I took the wrong exit going to the train station so I had to go around.” She says it like I’m familiar with her city’s roads. All I know is that I’m now more comfortable navigating this foreign city and the touts outside will leave me alone.

“I can’t go with you to Bromo because I’ve got this really bad allergy since yesterday,” Desy says. She pulls up her sleeves, revealing rashes on her forearm. “I don’t know how I got it, but my mom doesn’t want me going anywhere with this.”

I nod. “I see.”

Desy, who works at a local travel agency, instead offers to contact one of her friends, a fellow Couchsurfing host in Probolinggo, one of the nearest towns to Bromo. And while she’s busy flipping through phone numbers in her tablet and talking to hotel receptionists on the other end, I check out my travel guide and see how we can spend the rest of my day here in Surabaya.

When she’s done, she turns to me. “I got you a cheap hotel!”

“Great!” I exclaim. “How much?”

“Fifty thousand rupiah. But they’ll probably raise it to sixty.”

“That’s still cheap.”

“Yes,” she says, packing her things up. “Now let’s get you a train ticket to Probolinggo.”

A statue of the shark and the crocodile, the two creatures that lend their name to the city
A statue of the shark and the crocodile, the two creatures that lend their name to the city
The Monumen Kapal Selam, a former Soviet-built submarine that now serves as a museum at the city center
The Monumen Kapal Selam, a former Soviet-built submarine that now serves as a museum at the city center

RIDING HER MOTORBIKE, Desy takes me to the old train station at the back of where I got off. It’s much more crowded than where we were earlier but she weaves her way around the throngs of people with the mastery of a resident. She seems so sure of her surroundings I find it hard to believe when she says, “This is actually my first time here.”

Train tickets sorted, we make our way out of the station and cross the city’s treacherous highways into Monumen Kapal Selam, the nearest landmark from the Gubeng station. A testament to the importance of Surabaya in East Java’s seaport and naval activities, the Kapal Selam is a submarine commissioned by the Soviet Union and used by Indonesia during the Cold War. It’s now used as a museum.

North where the submarine sits is a large sculpture of a shark and a crocodile. “That’s the icon of the city,” Desy says, pointing. “The name Surabaya came from the Javanese words ‘suro’ and ‘boyo,’ which means ‘shark’ and ‘crocodile,’ respectively.” According to legend, these two creatures battled for supremacy in the region around the city.

Much of what’s interesting, at least historically, lies further north, where the crumbling buildings from the Dutch era are. We explore a bit the House of Sampoerna, a Dutch colonial-style compound that houses a cigarette museum and a café, though the former is closed for renovation. Nearby is the Arab Quarter, a labyrinth of narrow alleyways filled with shops selling everything from dates to Muslim clothing. The quarter also contains the Masjid Al Akbar Surabaya, the region’s largest mosque.

It’s noon and the sun is searing down on the city so we head to Plaza Surabaya, where we have lunch at a cheap restaurant. Desy recommends that I have the rawon, a local specialty consisting of beef in a black soup. As I savor my lunch, my host gets back to her tablet, hoping to iron out the details of my trip.

We spend the afternoon in what I think is Surabaya’s central business district, doing banking chores and buying a local SIM for my phone. We walk around the city, past a group of protesters in front of the governor’s house, past abandoned payphones, and past an ice cream store, which, weren’t I pressed for time, would make for a great stop.

Cafe Sampoerna, a dining establishment adjacent to the Sampoerna Museum
Cafe Sampoerna, a dining establishment adjacent to the Sampoerna Museum
The Arab Quarter
The Arab Quarter

Two hours later we’re back at the old train station. The train has yet to arrive but I have to go inside the passengers’ area.

“So,” I sigh, “I better be going.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry I can’t go.”

“It’s okay. I can manage. Hopefully.”

“It will be dark when you arrive there, so take care.”

“I will.”

“Anyway, you look like an Indonesian so maybe the guys at the station won’t bother you as much as other tourists. Just try not to talk.”

“Don’t talk. Got it.”

“If you get lost and have to ask someone, show the name of your hotel and say, ‘Di mana ini?’

“What does that mean?”

“’Where is this?’”

“‘Di mana ini?’” I silently repeat the phrase.

And then I thank her. She nods. I finally disappear into the flood of passengers.

First published in TravelBlog on September 14, 2013.

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