Love letter

Dear Man in Seat 61,

I don’t remember when I learned about you, but it didn’t take long for me to love you. I assume you must have started your eponymous website by reporting on train travel in the UK and Europe — time tables for the major routes, how the system worked in each country, how to buy tickets, and so on. Pretty soon you had expanded to cover the whole world (as far as I can tell). Thanks to you, I’ve been able to plan train trips that took Steve and me from Singapore up the Malay peninsula (2016); from Tibet across China to Beijing; from Kars to Cappadocia in Turkey; and many others. Your wise words guided me in 2018 when I was figuring out how to get us around India, a country whose railway system contains countless traps for the innocent. Thanks to your passionate recommendation, we rode the World Heritage Bernina Express from Switzerland to Italy in the fall of 2021. (That was the ride on which Steve actually GOT Seat 61! Talk about channeling your spirit!)

And thanks yet again to you, on this trip I figured out how we could travel from Yogyakarta to Bali by train and ferry.

Whenever I follow your guidance I’m astonished by how detailed and accurate the information is. All the photos (and often videos) help manage my expectations. For example, I knew that the Argo Willis, which would carry us from Yogyakarta to Surabaya (Indonesia’s second-largest city, on the eastern coast of Central Java), was a premium (“Eksekutif-class”) train.Its comfortable reclining seats, clean toilets, and functioning power made that ride a pleasure. I knew that to continue on from Surabaya to Ketapang on Java’s eastern tip our only option was an “Ekonomi-class” line but those trains were “perfectly safe and comfortable,” you assured us readers.The bench seats on the one we took were plain, and it was all but impossible to avoid playing kneesies with the plump young woman who faced me for the first four and a half hours of the ride. But any train that posts a photo of its conductor has to make you feel you’re in competent hands.We left Surabaya just three seconds after 5:30 a.m. and pulled into Ketapang six hours and 59 minutes later — a minute ahead of schedule.

I had printed out your instructions for what to do when we got off the train and they enabled us to roll our suitcases to the Bali ferry (a few blocks away) as nonchalantly as if we were regular commuters.

More recently I’ve noticed that in addition to all the train info, you sometimes have interesting opinions about hotels. I don’t always follow your advice, but I was thrilled with the result of doing so in Surabaya. The cleanest city in Indonesia and an important commercial and industrial center, it alas offers little in the way of tourist attractions. We only spent two nights there to break up the long overland (and sea) journey to Bali. You had written that the Majapahit Hotel was THE place and stay and added,, “Don’t argue, trust me on this.”

Built in 1911 by the son of the man who co-founded Singapore’s legendary Raffles Hotel, the Majapahit today remains an oasis of glorious gardens, murmuring fountains, and gleaming hard wood.In 1945 it also was the setting for a key event in the birth of Indonesia as an independent country. So when you declared, “Even if you’re on a budget, splurge here,” I complied. What a bargain splurge it turned out to be: $89 a day for a lovely suite in a setting that enticed us to abandon our normal hyper-driven sightseeing and spend a whole day chilling out.

We took dips in the pool and lounged next to it, napping and writing. We marveled at the enormous variety of choices at the breakfast buffet. In that elegant room, we ate all our other meals, and I enjoyed a superb massage in the hotel’s spa. We went to bed early and awoke feeling refreshed and ready to face Monday’s long journey.

From the ferry dock in Bali, sadly, we had to take a Gojek car, All our Indonesian train rides are now behind us. As long as I can ride the rails, I can only hope you will carry on, continuing to serve those of us who still love this transportation niche; who still think it’s one of the most interesting ways to move through the world.

Sincerely yours,