We are sitting in a café in Yogyakarta, Astrid is chatting to our new couch surfing friend and host, Irma. Outside our shaded courtyard I can hear the passing traffic, a cassava seller walks by, his distinctive call advertising his product. Above us clouds are gathering, promising relief from the daily increasing humidity. The weather is encouraging us to go north, over the equator and away from the impending wet season. Still, our hearts have been captured by Indonesia and we are reluctant to leave.
It’s been a little over two weeks since the ferry bought us to the world’s most populated island, Java. I wasn’t sure what to expect, I think both of us were a little apprehensive. Java however has surprised and delighted us. From awe inspiring volcanic valleys, the mystical tradition of the wayang, delicious coffee, street art and hidden vegetarian cafes surrounded by gardens, we love the many faces of this island. So, let me take you on a journey of the last two weeks.
After the relatively quiet streets of west Bali, Banyuwangi on the eastern tip of Java was much busier. We joined the throng of trucks, cars and scooters and headed towards the address of our first Indonesian couch surfing host, Rini. What a wonderful woman Rini is. Not only did she come find us when we got lost, but for the next two days we were treated with such incredible hospitality and kindness, way beyond anything we expected. She took us out for dinner, showed us around her town and assisted us in many logistical tasks that were made so much easier with her help. Rini is a doctor, so we got to see the hospital she worked in and it struck us both, that no matter where you are in the world, instantly familiar characters appear in all emergency departments. It made us smile. I think anyone who works in health will understand what we mean. After just one afternoon with Rini, she had convinced us that we needed to stay another night, so we could visit Ijen Volcano. The following day, thanks to the kindness of one of Rini’s colleagues we had ourselves a scooter and were speeding through the streets of Bunyuwangi towards the beckoning mountains.
We soon left the city behind, the air became cooler and coffee plantations began to appear. It’s always nice leaving the heat of the lowlands behind. Being Indonesia the gradients soon became incredibly steep and even our poor scooter couldn’t cope with both of us on it. We alternated between one of us riding and one of us walking, until we reached the top. From there it was a 3km walk to the crater rim. Ijen is still active and also famous for its sulphur. Many men work at Ijen and it is rather disturbing to witness. They trek into the smoking heart of the volcano to mine the yellow sulphur rock by hand, which they then carry in two heaving baskets on their shoulders. Each man carries up to 100kg for the 6km trek out, earning the equivalent of 7 cents (Australian) per kilogram. It looks indescribably hard. As we hiked up to the rim, we passed many of these men coming down. Once we reached the top, the view was quite astounding. The towering, sheer rim, smoke billowing from below, the wind whipping it around, giving us views of the blue, hot acidic crater lake. Occasionally too, we could see glimpses of the men working amongst it all, far below.
After Ijen we went with Rini and her colleague and relaxed in the town square, drinking es campur (mixed juice with ice) and eating fried treats. All around us were food stalls selling a variety of different fare and locals relaxing on mats and chatting. Something like the equivalent of after work drinks in Australia. It was a glimpse at how culture is fundamentally the same, gathering and socialising at the end of the day, just its context varies. I find couch surfing so valuable because it really gives you a glimpse at how people live and go about their day. Of course you can argue it is usually restricted to the middle class, to those that know English, but it’s ability to facilitate cultural exchange cannot be disputed. We found it fascinating to talk to Rini about Indonesian society, gaining valuable insights and understanding.
We bade farewell to Rini and Banyuwangi the following day to catch the train to Pasuruan, and then to cycle the remaining 60km to the city of Malang. The reason for the train trip, and in fact the visit to Malang was our expiring visa. We needed to extend it because the ferry we want to be on only leaves once a week and the date is either too late or too early for us. Unfortunately it’s just bad timing and we just have to suck it up and deal with Indonesian bureaucracy. The cycle to Malang was long and full of noisy, stinky traffic. Still, at least the traffic is slow moving and I almost never feel unsafe. We arrived just before dark, it was chaotic and busy, we were tired and no one could tell us where the guest house we were looking for was. The GPS on the i phone was telling us somewhere between 13-20km away but it’s not always accurate with addresses and we were skeptical. Astrid’s knee was hurting and there was no way we were going to cycle all that way just to see if it was right. We tried calling the guest house but the lady couldn’t speak English and hung up on us. At the end of a long, hot day our tempers were beginning to fray. All I can say is thank you Tanja for giving me that i phone for my birthday! We were able to google a hotel in the lonely planet, make a few educated guesses about the whereabouts of the guest house we wanted and find out that it was only 2km away. An hour later we had had a hot shower (OMG hot water!) and were eating delicious nasi campur.
The following day we found what may be the best hostel in Indonesia. It was on the roof of a hotel, overlooking the city and the mountains. The buildings were made of breezy bamboo, there were plenty of places to lounge, have a beer, play chess, plus free wifi. We moved in and spent the best part of a week there, in between visits to immigrasi and Bromo volcano. The best times were watching the afternoon thunderstorms roll in over the mountains, while sipping hot Javanese coffee. The visa extension was the beauracratic web we had anticipated. We required a local sponsor and all up 5 visits until we were granted the extra month. Because part of our time fell on the weekend, it took even longer. Not to matter, we had an excellent time in Malang, a city we both liked very much. First of all there was the amazing street food on every corner. We soon established our favirotes and could literally eat dinner and dessert (rice with 4 different kinds of vegies/tempe/tofu, ice tea and a chocolate/banana pancake like treat) for $3 for both of us. As well as this, across the road from the hostel was a small café that sold delicious tea and coffee as well as waffles. It was a little bit of Fitzroy in Indonesia and was frequented by Indonesia’s equivalent of hispters.
Aside from slowly eating our way around Malang we decided to visit one of Java’s greatest attractions; the active Bromo volcano. The done thing from Malang was to take a tour, which left town at 1am or so and returned you around noon the following day. Tours are not really something either of us like much, we find they take away from the sense of adventure. Instead, we hired a scooter, packed a small bag and headed for the mountains on our own. The first thing that happened was getting caught in torrential afternoon rain. A kind lady let us shelter in her shop and served us tea and cupcakes, so it wasn’t all bad. Once the rain ceased, we wound our way slowly upward, through villages, forest and into the clouds. Again it became too steep for the scooter and required bouts of walking until we finally reached the top. From here we dropped into a magnificent valley, along a road littered with huge holes, sand and rocks. It was tough going, but once in the valley it was truly stunning. A wide grassy plain gave way to a sheer volcanic rim on either side of us. It was like something out of Lord of the Rings. As the light began to turn pink, Astrid and I decided that it was too beautiful a place not to camp, even though we only had biscuits with us for dinner (we were initially going to camp somewhere else). We pulled off the track and found a place to put up the tent as the light faded into quiet darkness. Here we were on the world’s most populous island with not a soul around. It was the first time we had experienced such silence since the Australian outback. We fell asleep under the full moon.
At 2.45am our alarm went off. Already we could here scooters heading towards Bromo for sunrise (which is at 5am). It was very cold and we were both glad for the down and fleece jackets we still had with us while we packed up. Now the real challenge began. Navigating a scooter with poor lights through a sandy, barely visible track in the pitch dark. There was much skidding, swearing and walking but with patience we eventually made it to the foot of the road that lead to the look out. Here we left the scooter and began the hike up the road (it was way too steep with both of us on the scooter). Many locals offered us rides on their scooters for the equivalent of $10 – get real! They seemed astounded that we would rather walk. As we walked, the greyness of dawn approached and many jeeps packed full of tourists passed us. We were glad not to be in them. For sunrise we found a spot to ourselves, although not at the top, it was peaceful. We had a view of smoking Bromo and surrounding volcanoes as the sun made it’s first appearance for the day.
Afterwards we trekked with the masses to peer into the smoking mouth of Bromo volcano. One thing we will never get used to is the amount of people that want to have their photo taken with us. Walking back to our scooter we were stopped many times by giggling locals who were delighted to have us in their photos. The ride home showed us stunning vistas of impressively steep, cultivated hills that we had been unable to see due to cloud on the way up. We arrived back in Malang filthy and exhausted but on a whim decided to go to a free punk rock concert with some German travellers we had met.
The concert was a short walk away and a real eye opener. Firstly, everyone stood for the national anthem and secondly the whole event was sponsored by multinational cigarette company. This seemed completely bizarre for a punk concert. The cigarette advertising was rammed down our throats every chance they got. In between all the bands a highly irritating woman and man came out and talked incessantly about the benefits of their product, going as far as trying to get the crowd to chant about it. Coming from somewhere where cigarette advertisement is banned (not to mention having first hand experience of seeing the health impacts of smoking daily at work) this was also very weird. It goes without saying that every man in the crowd of several thousand was smoking (women generally don’t smoke ‘cos it’s ‘bad for the baby’), although it did not appear to be the brand they were promoting (I have blocked out what it was). The four of us were the only foreigners in the crowd and even got singled out by the bands playing and the irritating woman from the cigarette company. Furthermore, Astrid, Sabine and I were the only women anywhere near the front. Sadly, in the whole place of several thousand there would have only been a handful of women. The ones we did see were rockin’. One woman in particular, impeccably dressed, colourful hajib and all, rocking out hardcore to the music. Eventually after the three of us being groped and pick pocketed (poor Sabine got her camera stolen, we had our money in our bra’s and were fine) a very awesome lady (who appeared to have her own body guards) ushered us over to her area where we were more protected. It’s a sad reflection on Indonesian men and society that this needs to happen just for women to go to a concert.
Earlier in our time in Malang we had met some locals, Devi and Oggy who worked at an English school. They had asked us to come and talk to an English class and we had agreed. I have always been a little apprehensive about the ‘teaching English’ thing, but there is nothing like being thrust in front of a class with no preparation to get you going! The kids were great, really enthusiastic and there was much laughing, drawing bad maps of Australia and even some dancing. After the class we posed for endless photos before bidding farewell to everyone. Another great experience in a city we had grown very fond of.
Finally however, our visa extensions were granted and we hit the road again, pedaling west towards the cultural and artistic centre of Yogyakarta. We anticipated it would take us about 4 big days to make it there. However, things don’t always go to plan and after 75km it became clear that Astrid’s knee was still not 100%. We pulled over at a roadside stall in the town of Blitar and discussed our options. To push on, or to give the knee a good rest. As frustrating as it was for both of us, because we really just want to get cycling, we opted to rest the knee till Singapore. There is no point in damaging it so early on, plus Java is relatively well serviced by trains, our second favourite mode of transport. We found a cheap hotel in Blitar, with plans to catch the train to Yogyakarta the following day.
Blitar is the birthplace of Sukarno, or ‘bung karno’ who lead Indonesia to independence from the Dutch in 1945. We decided to embrace a little bit of the character cult surrounding this notorious and in the end, rather mad dictator. It cannot be disputed that uniting a diverse nation such as Indonesia was an incredible feat, and it appeared that Sukarno began with the right intentions. However in later years it was said he spent much time womanizing and building penis like monuments while his people starved. Never the less it was interesting to see the house he grew up in and visit his mausoleum. We were the only foreigners around and many of the local tourists appeared delighted that we were there. We also managed to visit some temples not far away. All in all Blitar was an unexpected quirky stop for us.
The train took us to Yogyakarta in the afternoon, a city full of artists and musicians, and a place we felt an instant connection with. I will let Astrid continue with our time there.
ps apologies for no photo descriptions – i cant get them to work.