Saturday, February 27, 2010

Danny, Our Charming Rent-a-Friend

This is Danny. He is as charming as he looks. We met Danny one day as we were trying to find our way to the public market in Yogyakarta (or Jogya, as it is affectionately called by the locals), in eastern Java. We were just leisurely walking down the street, not too concerned about finding the market, when I looked next to me and was greeted by his huge smile. I said to him, "We're looking for the market," because he seemed to be the kind of guy who would be interested in knowing.

He laughed. "I am heading there right now. My mother sells spices there and I am going to help her. You can come with me."

So Danny ended up walking us through the huge market for about an hour. We met his grandmother at the spice section (his mother had already left) and asked him all kinds of questions about Java. Even though he was a transplant from Sumatra about ten years earlier, he knew his stuff. Little did he know, we were actually interviewing him as a potential "rent-a-friend" for the day. This is a technique that Sue employs on all of her trips: she seeks out a local and pays him/her to show her around. This practice has resulted in some of her best overseas experiences.

After an hour with Danny, I turned to Sue and said, "Is Danny our Rent-a-Friend?"

"I think so," she said.

When we brought up the idea to Danny, he laughed. "Yes, I would be happy to take you around. To be honest, I am a tour guide in my spare time..."

One of the things Sue and I wanted to do was to climb Mt. Merapi - an active volcano about a two-hour drive from Jogya - but we had heard what a strenuous hike it was, and that most booked tours began at one a.m. in order to make it to the top by sunrise. Danny told us he knew of an alternative route where we could drive most of the way, walk a few miles (leisurely), camp at the crater, and just wake up to the sunrise. He told us he would take care of all of the food, too. Perfect.

So we met him at his place of work at 8 p.m. - he is a musician at a nightly museum performance of a shadow puppet play depicting the Hindu epic story of The Ramayana - and left for the mountain after the show, at 10 pm, in his friend, Andy's, car. They drove us the magic back way. We set up camp, cooked over an open fire, set up tents under the stars, and woke up to a magnificent sunrise with a view of the entire island of Java. We got this amazing experience for the SAME price as the guided tours we had read about...

OK, well, that is not exactly how it happened. Actually, it happend considerbly different than that. It is a little embarrassing to actually read over what I just wrote down...the promise of a "special back way" - "no strenuous hiking involved" -"sleeping next to the crater" and "for the same price as the tour..." I mean, really... if this was all actually possible, why didn't every tour package offer this same thing?

No, what happened was that when we arrived at the puppet performance, Danny told us that he had made some phone calls and that the road he spoke of had been closed. We couldn't go the back way.

But he could take us the other way.

"You mean, the way with the difficult hike?" I asked.

"No, it's not difficult," he answered.

"What about sleeping at the crater?"

Well, that wasn't possible, either, since we couldn't go "the back way."

"If we leave at 10 and get there at 1, when will we sleep?" I asked.

Danny just looked at me, a bit sheepishly.

"We won't sleep? I clarified.

Danny nodded.

Sue and I pulled away for a private meeting. We should cancel, we said. We couldn't pull an all-nighter, especially if it required us to hike for a good eight hours in the middle of the night. I knew that I, for one, would turn into a monster the next day. And now we were wary of our charming rent-a-friend. But the thing was, we had booked a flight to Bali for that next night, so if we didn't go that night, we would miss out on Mt. Merapi altogether.

We had read that what many people do is stay in the village below Mt. Merapi and sleep in a room in a house, wake up early and hike from there. We asked Danny about this, and he said, "Sure, we can do that. We don't have to start hiking until 3 am anyway, we can get to a good lookout by sunrise."

So we decided to go anyway. We could sleep in the car on the way up, we thought.

When Danny's friend came with his car, they had set up pillows n the back seat for us, and it was actually almost comfortable. A few hours later, we were somewhat aware of making many hairpin, steep turns with a lot of stopping and then hushed yet stressed conversations that, of course, we could not understand.

"Danny has no idea what he is doing. He is making this all up as he goes," Sue said.

And all I could think was, "Crap."

Finally, Danny was waking us up. "OK, you're going to stay in this house and sleep for a few hours." He had found a villager on the road and had secured a room for us. We dragged ourselves out of the car and up into a little room where Sue and I would share a pretty small bed. Sue laid out her rain coat over the sheets, in response to a very bad experience with bed bugs somewhere in Central America a year ago.

Our host showed us to the toilet. We had to take our flashlights and walk over what seemed to be a concrete balance beam to a very rustic squat toilet. Back in bed preparing for three hours of sleep, we were just settling into sleep when a bright light went on outside the door, followed by much loud conversation.

"I can't believe this," I said to Sue. The talking continued for about ten precious minutes that were eating into our three hours of pre-hike sleep. Finally, it stopped. About one minute later, a muted cell phone began to play Celine Dion's "Titanic" song. "I am drawing the line at Celine Dion," I declared, and I was up and out the door. The cell phone music was Andy's, our driver's, who was just wasting time out on the couch in the living area. I guess he wasn't sleepy or something. But when he saw the look on my face, off went his cell phone, and I motioned for him to turn off the bright lights.

Finally, we went to sleep. But I swear it was only ten minutes later that Danny knocked on the door to get us up. Back across the concrete balance beam we went to perform the morning squat exercise. And then we finally started up the mountain - Sue, Me, Danny, and the guide that we were required to hire from the village, Mauri. Straight up. Straight. Up.

"Danny, this is pretty straight up," I said. "Is it like this all the way?"

"No," he said.

But we continued to go: Straight. Up.

About 45 minutes into the hike, Danny let out a little yelp. He was behind (and below) us, and it seemed he had hurt his foot. He continued on for ten more minutes and then said, "I am sorry, I cannot finish. I think I twisted my foot."

So he headed back down, to where we presume he took those comfortable pillows in the car and had himself a nice, long sleep. And we... well, we headed up and up and up behind our gentle mountain guide. We got to the first lookout at about 6 am, after hiking straight up for three hours. It was stunning, and did allow us a view of a string of volcanoes. To get to the crater would take about two more hours. We were pretty sure that Katherine and Alyssa were on the mountain this morning (through email correspondence), and I knew Katherine well enough to know that she would reach the top. So we wanted to see the crater and we wanted to see them, but I was done. Sue talked about going on, but after the stop and some extremely weak coffee made by Mauri, she decided it wasn't in her, either. So we headed back down Mt. Merapi.

Danny and Andy were waiting for us at the bottom. I must admit, I was pretty disgusted by Danny at this point. He was walking with a limp, but it wasn't a consistent limp. And he did not meet us with food at the bottom, either. I asked him about it and he said, "Oh, I thought Mauri had food for you in his backpack." He promised us food and did not deliver; in my book, that is extremely disgusting behavior.

So we ordered the best fried rice on the trip from the woman at a stand at the bottom of the mountain - it had a garlicky fried egg on top - and then asked Danny what was next. He had, after all, told us he would show us around all day (part of how "his trip was better than the booked tours"). But he stammered and made lame suggestions, and didn't come up with anything good. Finally, Mauri suggested that we come to his house in the village. This turned out to be a highlight for us. His wife fixed us ginger lemon tea and we sat in his sparsely furnished house - with only two pictures on the wall, one of his older son and one of his younger son - and then got a tour of his little farm out back. Sue gave him her Seattle Firefighter hat when we left him. He was a true, gentle mountain soul.

But then we were back in the car with Danny and Andy, tired as anything. I'm going to shorten this part of the story and say that, in the end, Sue and I can truly say that we ended up liking Danny. He took us to a local fire department so that Sue could have a look around, took us to eat an amazing lunch at a place where you catch your own fish and they grill it to perfection, and then took us to a hotel near the airport where we could shower and sleep for four hours before heading to Bali.

And we got to hear his story over lunch: Danny had grown up in Sumatra in a very strict Muslim family. At sixteen, he decided to head out on his own to escape the harsh requirements of his father, and he came to Java. He got himself schooled and learned English. He met a down and out traveler from Spain who had all of his money stolen, and since Danny helped him in his time of need, this friend made good on a promise to buy him a ticket to Spain. Danny went to Spain and stayed for six months in order to learn Spanish, and had come back to Java with the intention of becoming a tour guide. He was a natural at it, and earned money quickly. He earned enough money to buy a house.

One May morning in 2006, Danny woke up early. He got up, made breakfast and went outside. That is when the earthquake, measuring 6.3 on the Richter Scale, struck. Danny's house crumbled, along with every other house in his neighborhood. Almost 6,000 died, and an estimated 1.5 people were homeless.

Of course, the government promised to pay 75% of the damage, but Danny has yet to see the money. He still owns the property, and is slowly buying bricks to rebuild his house, so that he and his girlfriend of four years can get married and live there. When we suggested that he was welcome in Seattle any time, he said, "A plane ticket equals many bricks!"

Sue and I had decided that we needed to be really honest with Danny, so near the end of the conversation, we told him that we had really enjoyed meeting him. That he was very charming and gracious, and that he had a lot to offer as a guide. However, we said, he needed to present things acurately to people, not sugarcoat things... no one likes that, we said. People need to know that they will be hiking straight up, then straight down (my leg muscles hurt for three days).

When Danny dropped us off at our napping hotel, he gave us both a hug. "I'm sorry for any mistake I made," he said. And this charmed us...'cuz we're easy.

And, as a post-script, when we met up with Katherine and Alyssa in Bali our last night and were trading a hundred stories between us, we told them about our day and night with Danny.

Katherine got a funny look on her face. "Does he work as a musician for a museum puppet show every night?" she asked.

They had met him, too. He had walked through the market with them as well, and had told them he was heading to Mt. Merapi that night with two foreigners. Of course, that was me and Sue. And he had charmed them. Actually, Danny had confessed to me that the day I asked him where the market was, he was not in the mood to "meet" tourists. "I saw you, but decided it wasn't a good day for me. Then you talked to me!"

So, yeah, we fell for something. But, sometimes, it's not all bad to fall for something. We were looking for a different experience, and we surely got one.

p.s. I turned into a monster the next day, anyway.


Brian Bowker said...

Another one of your tricky-start blogs! Fooled me again!

In the end, I think you ended up with a way better story than most of the other tourists on the mountain that day.

Angie said...

I couldn't help but laughing as I finished reading about your trip. I love it that you admit to "turning into a monster." After little sleep and sore muscles I would, too! I'm glad it turned out in the end. What wonderful people you've met, mistakes and all.
Also, the picture of the grilled fish and (I'm guessing) water spinach looks so good!

Rita Ireland said...

I am now having trouble getting on our district email...where all your blog info is.
All week-end....I sort of recall that they were going to do some updates. Dang.
So, I'm ready...want to contact me at with the info?
Or, I'll probably be back on when school starts tomorrow.
Just had some great Vietnamese food at a little Pho 99 shop on Hwy 99 , so nearby!