Thursday, July 12, 2012

Short Story: Traffic Jam

By Ahmad Syam
The Jakarta Post, April 2, 2006

Traffic jams are a distressing and frequent sight where I live, and grew in line with the rapid economic and industrial development that was encouraged by the central government. Inevitably, the development had inspired people to migrate to an urban area, where they would settle permanently after some time, because they thought living in a city meant a better life.
Every afternoon at rush hour, the roads became heavily congested as workers, officials and students went home at the same time. Besides the hundreds of vehicles, cars and motorcycles that stood squeezed together, polluted gas and horns rose up to fill everywhere.
This afternoon, the traffic jam looked very long and severe. Cars drove by infinitely slowly, and the motorcycles, which usually succeeded in finding any loopholes to pass through, seemed stuck in a long queue.
I thought it took 30 minutes just to pass 100 meters.
Had there been an accident? People began to wonder.
"Does anybody get off at the hospital?" a pete-pete driver asked his passengers. But no one answered. He repeated his question firmly, "Answer me! Does anybody get off at the hospital?"
"Y-y-yess, I am! I am going to the hospital," stammered a young woman toward the rear, in the seat in front of me.
I guessed she had just left work, because she was wearing a uniform. Her trouble must be serious, if she had to delay taking a rest and instead had to go to the hospital right after work.
"If so, it's better to turn back and take the alternative route," the driver said calmly.
The right-hand side of the street admittedly didn't look as congested as the left, where I sat in the pete-pete. The vehicles were moving quicker over there. Nevertheless, it would take much longer to reach downtown by the alternative route. But the driver said this was still better than being caught in the traffic jam.
Several passengers rejected the idea, because some of them were going to get off at the hospital and the traditional market -- neither of which the pete-pete would pass if the driver followed the alternative route.
Riding public transportation was very hot, since it wasn't rigged for an air conditioner. Furthermore, the pete-pete was almost full of passengers. There was only one free seat, right behind the driver's seat, and four people sat in the left-hand seat, including me, whereas the right-hand seat held six people, including the young woman.
The main cause of traffic jam was not an accident, according to the grapevine, which spread fast. It was just a long queue at a gasoline station.
Every person expressed a different reaction upon having learned the reason.
A young man in a university coat sitting beside me commented, "This shouldn't be happening! We live in an oil-exporting country but we lack gasoline for ourselves?"
I didn't make any comment at all. I just smiled. I admitted that people had to know when the oil ran out. Nevertheless, the most important thing was motivating people to burn fuel economically.
Talking about the country's gasoline shortage didn't draw the other passenger's attention, as they didn't seem to care about giving a response. They just kept silent and tried to kill their loneliness in their own ways.
An old man sitting beside the young woman lit a cigarette. Another passenger read the newspaper. In the meantime, a teenager played a game on his cell phone while I enjoyed the dangdut music coming from the pete-pete's tape player.
Evening had arrived and the dark descended fast. Some vehicles turned on their headlights, so they shone like sparkling stars.
Suddenly, the young woman's cell phone rang shrilly, the waking dosing passengers. The driver turned down the tape player.
"I'm on the way!" she yelled into her phone. "I don't know when I'll get there, I'm stuck in a traffic jam!" she explained to whoever was on the other end.
That short conversation made me gloomy. She looked very desperate.
It remained silent in the pete-pete I was riding. Only dangdut music played softly. The old man stubbed out his cigarette. He seemed very sleepy, whereas the others continued the same activities as before, killing the silence.
It was a nice evening, with the wind blowing in the dark so that it chilled the bone. I closed the window.
Again, the young woman's phone rang.
I intended to warn her to lower the volume, but I was afraid I might offend her. It would be better if she activated the vibration mode instead of the ring tone, which had disturbed others in an already very noisy circumstance, cutting through the sound of engines, horns, music and shouting among drivers.
"I will! It's a really long and severe traffic jam! How is Dad?" asked the young woman, her face serious. She was engaged in a longer conversation, but she seemed to be the listener. A minute later, she burst into tears.
She wiped her tears away with a tissue after the conversation ended. The atmosphere had grown more silent; moreover, there was no more dangdut, as the driver had turned off the player. Perhaps he felt guilty about playing such lively music in front of a tearful woman. The young woman had captured the other passengers' attention. They stopped what they were doing.
A moment later, there was only the sound of keypad tones from the young woman's cell phone, informing us of a message received and a message delivered.
I noticed that as the tears brimmed faster in her eyes, she dialed the keypad faster.
"What's wrong?" I asked her carefully.
She said nothing, only looked at me.
"Excuse me, let me know what's happening with you?" I asked her again, showing her that I wanted to lend a hand. The other passengers' attention switched to me. They stared at me, mulling over what I had done.
"My father is in a deep coma at the hospital. My brother told me just now, my father had wanted to apologize for not being a good father. But my father was wrong. It was me who should apologize!" she cried.
I tried to find some way to console her, but I don't have any idea how.
"I am sorry to hear that," was all I could think of saying in response to her story, and the other passengers expressed their empathy.
"My father and I didn't have a harmonious relationship. I didn't know whose fault it was. We had different opinions and held onto them firmly. Neither my father nor I were willing to accept the other's idea. It's almost ten years we haven't seen each other since then," the young woman told us.
"It started when my father wanted to get remarried a year after my mom died. My brother and sister agreed, but I didn't. Basically, I only let him get married because I knew he needed to.
"It's hard for him to go through life without a spouse. Even though he had children who loved him very much. This just wasn't enough to replace a wife's love. I thought it was too soon for him to get remarried. I was afraid he had forgotten my mother and removed mother from his heart!" she continued.
"We argued fiercely the night before he got married. I had always obeyed my father before. My parents taught me to be an obedient and well-behaved child since I was a little girl. That night was the first time I disobeyed my father. I said harsh things to him, even shouted at him and pointed at his face. I didn't know how I could do that. I hurtled abuse at him. I lost control of my anger at him that night," she cried and stopped speaking for a moment.
"That night, my brothers and sisters cried. They thought my father didn't deserve it. As the eldest child, I should have been a role model for them. But I didn't care about that. I believed my father had humiliated my mother. It would have been better if he had waited until the second year after my mom had died.
"Are all men the same?" she seemed to ask us, then wiped her tears.
"I left home, although my father never asked me to go. My brother and my sister wanted me to stay, but I didn't care about anything. Since then, I've never visited my father's house. I called my brother and sister if I missed them and asked them to come to my dorm. And if I missed my mother, I passed by the house on the way home from work. I didn't know why I didn't miss my father at all," she said.
It was eight now, and I still sat in the traffic jam. While waiting in the queue to get gasoline, several drivers and motorcyclists stopped at a nearby food stall to have dinner. In the meantime, other vehicles had stopped because they had run out of fuel. Those vehicles had to be pushed close to the curb and out of the street.
The hospital was only two kilometers from the place where the pete-pete was stuck in traffic. I heard from a passerby that the most congested area was the kilometer ahead. We were now at the starting point of this; the second kilometer was not as slow.
It had been quite a long time since I had heard the young woman's cell phone ring. She, in contrast, seemed to be not concerned about calling her brother back. She looked very desperate.
Traffic jams could make people lose their hope. People who waited for us would cease to wait, and people who want to get to their destination would doubt if they would ever arrive.
The young woman, however, couldn't hide her anxiousness. I could tell from her body language as she sat back down uncomfortably. She lay down once as she looked out the front of the pete-pete. Other times, she stared out the back.
It was all same: vehicles, cars, motorcycles, all congested.
The gasoline station was about 200 meters to go, where this car would be released from the severe traffic jam. It would be only a few minutes -- we were relieved to know that, including the young woman.

Suddenly, an ambulance wailed from the other side of street. The young woman became very restless. The siren's scream grew louder and louder, inescapably forcing other vehicles to give way to the ambulance. A second later, the siren was in view, its rooftop bubble flashing fluorescent. When the ambulance reached our pete-pete, the young woman's face crumpled and she began to weep bitterly.

Makassar, October 7, 2005

* pete-pete: a public transport in Makassar, like a minibus
* dangdut: popular music with Hindi and Arabic influences

No comments: