A very unfamiliar sight greeted me as I entered the hotel lobby. Instead of the usual plastic contraptions full of glittering baubles, there stood a massive conical structure some 5 meter high pieced together by odd bits of waste materials that one could begrudgingly construe as a holiday marker of sorts. Calling it trash wouldn’t be wrong but being mindful that this is the age of political correctness and I was indeed in a not too modern part of the world where earnestness counts for everything, any outward sign of disdain was artfully concealed.
Solo, a city famous for its batik and kris making villages is often overlooked by tourists making an incursion into Java. Most of the cultural attractions on this massive island are monopolised by Yogyakarta, an ancient city just hours away by wheels from Solo. Indonesia’s most famous temples raised from a time largely unknown are within easy reach from Yogya, and unlike Solo, there is a lively night scene there that tourists are attracted to like ants to Fanta. In Solo, life comes to a standstill after dusk, and people abandon the streets for the shadowy confines of their home.
I was fascinated by the lack of modernity in this city. My entire team was quite bemused when I acquainted them with my plans for a visit to Solo before Yogya, with mutters of ‘what is there to report from a place no one wants to visit?’ But I have always liked old places, if only because I know how to dig up ghosts.
The porter of the hotel was as handy as you expect one to be. My luggage was swiftly sent to the room while I lingered in the lobby exchanging pleasantries with the hotel’s marketing team that had assembled to meet and greet the editor from Singapore. An itinerary was reverentially presented and it was determined that I would visit an UNESCO listed kris-making village later this afternoon and an ancient shrine in the mountain tomorrow. For now, I can rest in my suite.
To be completely honest, I had more misgivings about this hotel beyond the ghastly Christmas ornament holding centrestage in the lobby. The owner, who is a formidable, therefore widely respected business woman in Java, has an inexplicable passion for traditional Javanese figurines and masks and had deigned it reasonable to exhibit most of her esteemed collection in this hotel. As such, one wouldn’t be far off to call this place creepy, especially through the dark corridors and foreboding corners that are always, as you have guessed, appointed with a bevy of guarding dolls.
At the entrance, through the lobby, in the lifts, by the landing, all the fucking figurines and masks, watching in perfect stillness. It wasn’t the eeriness that had spooked me, but rather the appallingly clear lack of taste in interior decor.
Expectedly, more visual horrors awaited me in the confines of my room.
Mine was a particularly ample suite with a separate bedroom and living space. I had counted the number of figurines and masks upon room inspection with the accompanying front office lady, 6 in all. If there was a chest in the room I would have asked her to chuck it all in, but there wasn’t and I did not want to be deemed unreasonable or too Singaporean, so I let sleeping dolls lie. I really needed a wink since the afternoon would be spent visiting the sites, so I reverentially removed the smiling pair in full regalia resting on the bed, and gingerly crawled under the sheets desiring slumber. Bad taste or not, a comfortable bed was all I needed. It was 1115am and the day’s excursion would begin at 240pm.
Oh fuck, DOSM had arranged for a lunch at 1230pm so I really only had 1 hour to catch a very quick wink.
It is really amazing how much dream matters one can cram into an hour of sleep sometimes. The very moment I closed my eyes that morning, I had arrived at somewhere unfamiliar. There were plenty of people but none I knew. I may not know a single person in that coterie but I was sure they were not alive like I am. Their presence diffused an unearthly chill. This wasn’t a particularly animated dream, all I could remember was their lifeless gaze. One tried to say something to me at some point, but it was a language I knew nothing about. After what seemed like 2 lifetimes, I had started to rouse in my sleep. I could feel consciousness but not a muscle in my body moved. The speaking one grew more agitated as I became more desperate to wake up. It crescendoed into a wail right before I jolted out myself out of the dream in a cold sweat.
It was 1235 and I was late for lunch.
DOSM turned out to be a jovial man who exhibited all the traits of a sales person. He had, as quickly as we met, enquired after my comfort, the progress of my trip, the well-being of my family and my impending holiday plans in under 5 minutes. He had also apologised for the lack of luxury trappings in this property, and assured me that I would find other charms instead. ‘In Solo we pride ourselves as the only 5 star hotel in operation and we present the full cultural magnificence of the city. In fact, many have called our hotel a museum of Solo culture.’ he had rattled on.
While Mr DOSM moved on from cultural resplendence of the hotel to the glorious food of the region, all masterfully rendered by his chef of course, I began to feel an appetite rising whilst still somewhat haunted by the dream earlier. Was it just a dream like so many I had with unearthly elements, or have I tapped into something unwelcoming in this space?
The culinary art of Solo was a lot less mysterious than my dream as I began to work my way through the lunch buffet stations proffering curries, nasis and other staples of the region. It wasn’t as familiar as the usual beef rendang and nasi goreng, but nothing more exotic than the usual Indonesian lineups. The keropoks were nonetheless outstanding, and a cold Bintang beer was somewhat necessary to wash it all down, even though we had barely worked past mid-day. But as quickly as my appetite was conjured, it was banished by an unfortunate sampling of a fermented bean curd curry which carried into my guts the notes of decaying carcass. More beer, and lunch was over.
In truth, hotels regularly plan excursions for visiting journalists via external guides especially within cultural and historic enclaves. I had in this instance emptied the entire marketing team of the hotel - an online specialist, a graphic designer and a PR lady, who were to play guide and host for all my excursions. There is an idiom in Chinese 受宠若惊 that loosely translates into ‘pampered silly’ which won’t be inappropriate in this case. Comfortably encased in the hotel’s minivan, we embarked for the famous kris and batik making villages of Solo.
My first question to the amiable but overtly respectful team in the car was somewhat pointed and direct. ‘Teman, is the hotel haunted?’
Their response was far from slick. The smiling, chattering trio were instantly deer in the headlights, which they then tried to recover from after a multiple seconds downtime with an awkward laugh.
‘Bapak, I have never stayed in the hotel so I cannot tell you if the hotel ada hantu. But I think if you believe there is then maybe you might see them. If you don’t believe, then how to see any? Maybe you are not used to seeing so many masks and dolls?’ offered the graphic designer nervously.
A sharp stare from the PR lady stopped the lad in his artless forwardness.
‘Bapak, old hotels always have stories about ghosts and all… in all your travels have you seen any?’ asked the PR lady.
What a clever girl who knows a good diversion when one is needed.
‘If I have, but no one believes, then like he said, how to see any?’
A sly smile from the PR lady and discussion on the topic swiftly ended. I had been maneuvered into a cul de sac with my own answer and clearly I wasn't going to get any leads from this lot.
As the excursion progressed, batik printing turned out to be as dull and uninteresting as it sounds but there is an interesting mystique to kris making. I was conveyed to the ‘workshop’ of a master kris maker who showed me the process of making this venerated dagger imbued with much legends and magic. A kris is a ceremonial dagger much entrenched in Southeast Asian cultural consciousness. Sultans and royalties from the region have a grand penchant for them and legends abound on what they can do for their owners. Sukarno was rumoured to possess a powerful kris that greatly aided his rise in politics. Solo is famed for its krises and these blades are shaped and forged in a furnace in a workshop like this before they are sheathed in intricately carved and bejewelled kris holders. The magic is reportedly imbued in the forms of amulets and incantations but no one at the workshop was willing to let on on the mystique. Instead, I was shown a very pointlessly large kris which they divulged might get them into the Guiness book of records. Yet another inexplicable mystique of the orient, this obsession with making records.
Back at the hotel hours later, my game plan was to inundate myself with enough beer and make a quick getaway under the sheets. In adequate amounts, beer helps me get through the night without any reactiveness to anything unpleasant in the dark. Years of living by myself and checking into hotels have numbed my discernment for unseen forces at work. The reasoning is that If you have had more than enough one night stands in life, you tend to forget who you’ve fucked.
But in truth you never forget every brush with those not of this plane. When they decide to show themselves to you, they don’t intend to be forgettable.
How does one describe the feeling one gets when one dashes towards the train but still misses the door by a sliver? It isn’t regret, nor is it entirely frustration. It is resignation ultimately as you watch the train pull out of the platform leaving you stranded behind. When you have accepted that some things are meant to happen, sometimes you get peace. Most of the time, you just wait for the inevitable to happen.
After more than a dozen cans of Bintang that night, I remained as alert as an owl on a night perch. Beer is a strange substance. Often a can can get you tipsy, other times like this it is marginally more intoxicating than water. Nothing on the dozen or less TV channels available was really worth watching and in 2014, the speed of wifi in a city like Solo moved at a slower pace than a Mexican telenovela so there really wasn’t a distraction to lull me to sleep that very first night. I could switch off all the lights and go dark turkey, but that would be like an open invitation to unholy hosts eager to announce themselves. No?
And the ones here felt particularly unfriendly.
Decked out in the hotel’s bathrobe and armed with my trusty hand phone I had deemed it best to leave the room and explore the hotel at 115 am.
It may be a week from Christmas but evidently Solo wasn’t attracting a crowd. I had asked the bell desk earlier what was the occupancy level of the hotel and was surprised that it was in the low 30s. This hotel has over 200 rooms spread out over 15 storeys and every floor there are cabinets and consoles crammed with puppets, dolls and masks. Batik prints of all kinds adorn the walls here and life sized human sculptures litter its grounds.
A thought then crossed my mind that at least 20 people I know intimately would be freaked out just hearing the description of this place, much less stay here as I left my room. Then again, perhaps all I really needed was to take dolls as dolls and dreams as dreams, nothing more, nothing less. With that thought in mind, I began to check out some of the exhibits.
On the floor I was on, there was a large cabinet at the end of the corridor. What I had wanted to avoid in the daylight somehow became irresistible at night. I strode towards it, and looked at its contents intently.
Like a bad cliché, it was expectedly crammed with figurines and masks with the blank expressions of the folks I had seen in my dream in the afternoon. At the top of the cabinet housed a large pair of figurines, a male and a female human replica with the most intent gaze bestowed upon puppetry. They were stylistically fashioned like the pair that was part of my bed set up but made of wood and suffused with age. In the dim lighting, I saw something that summoned an unnatural chill.
An insidious, sinister smile was registering on the female figurine’s face from the corner of my eye. The tips of her eyes were raised and her lips curled upwards.
An occurrence like this is never an invitation to stay. I walked away as defiantly as I could and aborted all plans for any further explorations. It is probably deep in the human psyche to fear inanimate objects more than living threats because while we can deal with what is real and react accordingly, how is one to react to a human figurine that can conjure a smile at night?
That night I did fall asleep in my room after a long hot shower, with the bedside lamps switched on till sunrise. There was no continuation to that initial dream and nothing very strange occurred for the remainder of the stay. I did however go back to check out that cabinet and note with certainty that the female figurine did not bear any smile.
Perhaps it was my eyes playing a trick on me.
Or perhaps, dolls can be full of tricks too.