Thursday, 7 July 2011

A little bit of Indonesia

The ash cloud from Krakatoa.
I knew that Indonesia is big and has a lot of islands, but I hadn’t realised quite how long it would take me to traverse just a few of those islands, and how long I would be sitting on hot buses chugging their way through mounds of volcanic ash.

I landed in Medan and stayed long enough only to whizz around the city in a becak, a motorbike with a sidecar covered in a bit of plastic. Before long I was on my way north and into the jungle squeezed into the back of a minibus, next to a very nice man who insisted I explain the theory of evolution to him and why monkeys still live in trees. Bukit Lawang is a sleepy little village on the banks of the Sungai Bohorok, where everybody smiles at you and the locals huddle in groups at night playing guitar, but there’s one main reason to visit: there be orang-utans in that there jungle!

Yep, Bukit Lawang is one of only two places where one can see orang-utans in the wild (the other being Borneo), and what an experience it was. Two moments from within the dense, humid forest will stick in my mind forever. One is having our path blocked by an angry, violent female who has learnt that her behaviour will earn her food from the guides (I suggested to the guides that maybe they should be the ones to break the vicious cycle). Another is being followed by a mother and baby along a river – apparently she just wanted a hug, but I wasn’t going to be the one to satisfy her inter-species desires. We rafted back along the river, though the term ‘rafting’ is used very loosely here because two rubber rings tied together doesn’t really cut it.

Crossing Lake Toba to Samosir at dusk.
Just eight hours south is Lake Toba, but not just your average water-filled bowl; a huge, volcanic lake. With an island in it. Once you’ve found your way across the water on a boat seemingly populated by hippies who all work for hotels, you can’t help but settle down on the island of Samosir next to the gentle, lapping shore, or explore the sights on a motorbike. I chose the latter (amidst several days of the former) and rode around the distinctive Batak houses with their curved, pointy roofs (imagine an upturned boat) and the strange, tiny temples dotted around, which, with their little crosses on top of Buddhist-like stone foundations, seem to be confused as to which religion they’re designed for. (Northern Sumatra is, in fact, mostly Christian, whilst the southern half is more Islamic.) I got very sunburnt riding around there, forgetting how close to the equator I was.

Batak housing on Samosir, Sumatra.
And the next day I crossed it! Not that I noticed, cramped as I was into a local bus. Although it was old and falling apart, by some miracle the AC was working and the seat reclined fully (though this was in no small part due to the falling-apartness of the bus). When they’re working reasonably properly, Indonesian buses are wonderful experiences: people are polite and friendly, food at the stops is cheap and tasty (a lot of soup and noodles) and cheap entertainment is provided by way of buskers who jump on and off as they speed through the towns. It strikes me as rather strange very how good their folky-rocky guitar music invariably is, given that the pop music blasting out of televisions is utter tripe.

I didn’t see the equator as we crossed in the middle of the night, though I may well have walked over it during one of the periods where all the passengers had to disembark in order for the bus to make it up another slope, knee-deep in ash.

I arrived in Padang, western Sumatra and was picked up by my latest CouchSurfing host, Ilham, on his moped. As we zipped in and of traffic he turned around to me and shouted apologetically, “My house is not very nice.” He needn’t have been concerned: the hospitality he extended towards me more than made up for the night spent sharing a tiny, hot room with him and his brother; ‘The Sauna’, as he called it. He showed me around his city, fed me plenty of mouth watering nasi goreng (fried rice), saté (skewers of meat laden with peanut sauce), and mie (noodles), and introduced me to his bewilderingly large family. He made full use of me to help teach his English class, with whom we then watched the sun set into the Indian Ocean. My experience made the bus journeys either side of it worth it.

Saté in Padang.
And the following 32-hour one was particularly painful. It started off perfectly: a modern bus with cold AC, an actual toilet and large, comfortable seats. I was happily settling into the trip, watching a film on my laptop. (Rather embarrassingly, the film I was watching contained a soft sex-scene, but even the lightest pornography is banned in Indonesia. Far from being offended, however, the lady next to me simply used a blanket to shield the screen from the view of the other passengers and continued watching it with me.) But then disaster struck: the AC broke. It’s difficult to imagine a worse event on a bus with sealed windows: it became hotter and unbearably humid to the point where even the locals were sweating and complaining. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t do anything except pray it would be over soon. My porno-friend looked at me with pity and continually passed me tissues to wipe myself down.

Somehow I made it to a dingy little hotel in Karianda, a small town just a short distance from the southern tip of Sumatra. It’s not a tourist destination, but it’s a good point from which to charter a fishing boat to take you out to that most famous of volcanoes: Karakatoa. Technically Krakatoa doesn’t exist anymore, having blown itself and most of its surroundings apart in 1883. When it did so, molten lava boiled its way through the sea and engulfed villages on the mainland some 40km away. Ash turned day into night and it must have seemed as if the world was coming to an end. All that was left was half of Rakata, one of the three volcanoes in the chain. But then in the 1920s a new island started emerging out of the sea, rising from the dead like a zombie. The locals call it Anak Krakatau – meaning ‘Child of Krakatoa’ – and it’s now over 400m in height and constantly smoking. Myself and three fishermen sailed out across the rocky seas in a worryingly rickety old boat and landed on the dark shores of this young island. We walked halfway up to say hello, then took the hot ash as a sign to leave. We’d been gone only an hour or so when one of them shouted, “Look!” I turned to see a huge plume of ash spewing into the sky, rocks falling on to its slopes. They must be used to such sights but to me it was one of the most breathtaking visions of my life. As the sun sank into the sea, the ash cloud was lit up in hues of red, yellow and orange: one can only imagine what it must have been like when those colours came from red hot magma.

View from Anak Krakatau towards Rakata, the original Krakatoa.
Jakarta, the capital, is not far away from Kalianda as the crow flies, but getting from one to the other is slow. Very slow. First, you have to flag down some public transport to the Bakauheni ferry terminal at the bottom of Sumatra. This is easy, but trying to pay the right price isn’t. Fortunately a young girl in the car told me in English what I should insist on paying; no-one else could understand English. Then you have to wait for and take a ferry to Merak – probably a slow ferry because the fast ones won’t run in rough seas. Jakarta is still another four hours away through the traffic, and then you have to get from the bus station to the centre, often many kilometres. A strange thing happened on the way to Jakarta: I was having a great conversation with a local man, really enjoying talking about our cultures, politics, everything, when he suddenly grabbed my crotch. Clasped his fingers right around by privates. I was, needless to say, shocked. I pushed him away to the other side of the bus where he sat their looking sheepish and apologetic. I sat there more confused than ever.

Jakarta has a traffic problem. Unfortunately, the powers that be have decided that the best way to tackle it is not to invest in, say, trams or an underground system, but to put aside lanes for express buses called TransJakarta. It’s crap. The buses still have to wait at traffic lights, there are sections where the road isn’t wide enough to have a separate lane (creating bottlenecks) and motorbikes use the lane whenever no-one’s looking. I made it to the station just in time to get a comfortable overnight train out to Yogyakarta.

Colourful Yogyakarta
Yogyakarta (pronounced as if all the y’s were j’s) has an air about it unlike anywhere else in Indonesia. It’s in the middle of the southern coast of Java (which is mostly Islamic) and is apparently populated entirely by artists. Everywhere you go there are shops workshops or shops selling quite superb, colourful batik paintings. Instead of graffiti, people have painted wonderful murals on the walls. A sultan still lives in own, but his place isn’t all that. His swimming pools are not bad though. (In fact, a previous sultan apparently had the architect executed so he wouldn’t tell anyone about them.) I had a thoroughly pleasant time wandering the streets, eating gado-gado (vegetables and peanut sauce) with the locals at the myriad stalls, and speaking an amusing Dutch-English with the older generation. Nearby are the temples of Prambanan (excellent) and Borobudur (not all it’s cracked up to be). The latter is supposed to look great from the air but unless you’ve got use of a helicopter all you’re going to see is a stupa of layer-upon-layer of grey stones. Prambanan, however, is Angkor-like, with strange statues of fat men holding clubs.

Prambanan, Java
It was an all-day drive through never ending towns and a murky dark drive through the night to get to Cemoro Lawang. Against my better judgement, I’d taken a ‘tourist’ minibus to get there, and predictably it stopped in Probolinggo, a nearby town, to feed us the touts’ spiel. We were greeted by a tiny, fat Oddjob character who then led us into a smelly room with a drunk festering in one corner and a one-eyed ‘guide’ in the other. The Cyclops man then told us how we would have to get a jeep in the morning. I ignored him, and eventually I was dropped off with one other in the pitch black, somewhere high up. It was late but we found a hotel; my bed was not conducive to sleep, damp with suspicious stains. We got up at 3.45am having slept very little, but it mattered not: we were going to climb up a volcano. To look at another volcano. Breathing ash into the dawn sky.

The volcanic scene around Cemoro Lawang, dominated by Gunung Bromo.
The area surrounding Gunung Bromo is not unlike the moon. Everywhere is grey, covered in dust (ash) and eerily quiet. A huge valley formed by impossibly huge lava flows lies in between several perfect volcanic cones, while ash spews out over the landscape. It’s truly an awe-inspiring sight.

I took another longer-than-should-be bus to Bali, where I and a fellow traveller were dumped in the middle of the night. It took an hour or so of knocking on doors in Sanur before a lovely old lady with no vocal chords showed us to a room. It’s often said that Bali is the worst place in the world for hassle from touts and shopkeepers and on the south west coast of Bali that may well be true, but here in the southeast the people were extremely laidback. Tourists were thin on the ground and proprietors made only half-attempts at procuring my custom, preferring instead to chat as if we’d been friends for years.

Peace on Nusa Lembongan.
I had planned on spending the last few days on the beach, but across the water to the east I could see more land beckoning me, so I ferried my way to Nusa Lembongan, a far more peaceful place. It was here, on an isolated beach amongst the mangroves, that I had one of my best meals of the trip: freshly caught tuna, grilled right in front of me and served with moist rice, lush vegetables and spicy sambal. Delicious.

Best meal in Indonesia.
I must have spent most of my time in Indonesia trying to get from one place to another, but I caught a glimpse of a rich and diverse culture spanning myriad religions, customs and ways of life. I saw but six of its islands; there are some 17,500 left to explore. But for now, it’s on to Australia.

1 comment:

  1. This brings back sweet memories of some 15 ears ago! Love, Esther