Why Do Equatorial Trains Have Antarctic Temperatures?

May 9, 2022 | | | By Aprilia Kumala

Photo: Dias/Unsplash

A train across Java | 600 words | Translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Dan Benjamin

Because it’s such a long trip, my husband and I have bought economy-class train tickets. We didn’t consider what we’d find.

We’re sitting next to each other on hard, straight-backed seats, the type that can’t be adjusted at all. No problem if you’re only sitting for a few minutes. But if you’re on a train travelling all night and you’re trying to sleep, this type of seat is hell for your backbone. You can try valiantly to shift your body left or right, but neither direction is much help.

Our row of seats and the row in front of us face each other. Those seats, too, have the same hardness and implacable uprightness. An old man sits immediately opposite. We go out of our way to make small-talk and offer the snacks we’ve brought along – sweet buns filled with chocolate, already growing cold. But he says he’s full.

The distance between our legs and his isn’t exactly enormous. My legs begin to cramp. The fact of our seats facing each other creates a fair bit of accidental eye contact with other passengers. I keep meeting the eyes of a young woman sitting a couple of seats away. She’s maybe in her early twenties, her appearance a little eccentric – hair cut sharply to the shoulders, sleeveless T-shirt, but then hugging a toy bear. Awk-ward. I didn’t mean to stare, honestly! So quickly these sort of little things can cause disquiet. 

As if my increasingly sore back and legs aren’t enough, soon I start to shiver with cold.

So, since 2013, all trains in Java use air-conditioning – including this train we’re on tonight. Unfortunately the temperatures are not merely cool, but way too cold.

So cold I begin to think: is this how it feels to be some frozen food in a freezer?

Although I’m the kind of person who tends to reject the idea of PDA, Public Displays of Affection, circumstances force me to abandon that tonight. Instead I veritably glue myself to my husband, searching for any trace of warmth.

I see other passengers have their own ways of enduring. The young woman has got out a thick black jacket. The old man is folding his arms tightly across his chest. Another passenger has even taken out a sarong to wrap around their body.

We persist in these conditions for a long time – three and a half hours. Then our train stops at a station – Cirebon Prujakan – at half-past two. Here, an employee enters the carriage with an AC remote control and saves us from the threat of biting-cold-til-dawn. 

Awoken from half-sleep, my eyes bleary, I find I can see something outside the train window now that we’re inside a lit-up station. Near-empty of people, a lot of shuttered kiosks. It’s a big station. Some passengers, though not many, get aboard the train here.

A bitter truth must be acknowledged – while we are now saved from the freezing AC, nobody has saved us from these hard upright seats. I’m awakened three times because of frightful soreness in my back.

I’ve got to give points – the trains in Indonesia have got much better very fast. The carriages’ cleanliness always deserve a big thumbs-up. When I was little, irritatingly, hawkers still entered economy-class carriages in droves so the corridors were always blocked and clamorous. Fortunately they’ve put a stop to that, so we don’t experience it on this trip. 

And always on Indonesian trains the scenery is breathtaking, entirely deserving of keen anticipation. Except if you’re using the night trains. Then it’s all just blackness. Rats.

But none of this stops us – me, and my husband who is also beginning to be struck down by a sore back – to fervently resolve we will never again buy an economy-class ticket for a long-distance train trip.

© Aprilia Kumala

English translation © Dan Benjamin

About The Author

Aprilia Kumala

Aprilia Kumala is a freelance writer with ambitions to write a book soon. She is a fan of skyscrapers, iced tea, cappuccinos, and Detective Conan.

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