In Surabaya I shot straight through from the ferry terminal to the train station, bought my ticket and settled in for the Indonesian train experience. I think it's safe to say that it's not quite British Rail.
Some things are the same: the 'bing-bong-bing-bong' over the loudspeaker is based on Big Ben's chime, the station sells overpriced snack foods, and there's a Dunkin' Donut in every corner. But in England you would never have men working right above the heads of the crowd, painting the tin roof a silver hue, hanging on by nothing more safety-conscious than a toe curled round a rafter. And in a major station with six platforms, you would definitely have bridges between the platforms; here you just plonk across the tracks, making sure you don't step in front of an express train. So it goes; when life is cheap, protective measures are expensive.
The train itself was like something from another world. I had an economy ticket – a bargain at 4500rp (about 80p) for a seven-hour journey right across the island – and luckily I managed to get a seat, as the train was originating in Surabaya. This proved fortunate; later on in the journey there would be no seats free, and people would have to stand, or sit on the floor, not unlike the commuter run at home but with much longer travel times. I had worried that seven hours on a train would be boring, but I was wrong, very wrong.
A continuous stream of people wandered down the central aisle, some of them selling food, some of them beggars with bowls and no legs, others busking, but all of them trying to turn a buck, with more joining the train at every station. One young man with his string box and tambourine was so awful at singing that he made a fortune; aware of how infuriating his singing was, he serenaded each booth until he got some money, safe in the knowledge that everyone would pay up, eventually. Then there was the guy with the portable karaoke machine, who was intent on letting the public get their own back on the busker, and there were even some beggars who had expensive clothes and no obvious physical ailments. And talking of clothes, one guy got on with a whole rack of dresses and shirts; he probably had a changing room and a full-length mirror tucked away somewhere, too.
But top of the pile of surreal hawkers was the dictionary man. He wandered along the aisle, selling dictionaries for English into Indonesia. Who on earth is going to buy a dictionary on a train? Imagine my amazement when he walked back down the aisle with an almost empty box; perhaps he'd come across a bunch of people with Bali belly who desperately needed paper. I couldn't think of any other explanation...