Indonesia - volcanoes, nicotine and surf
Medan - the first impressions
As we stepped out of Medan airport and started walking towards the city centre, we couldn’t help thinking that quite contrary to our expectations Indonesia at the very first glance gave us a very peaceful feeling. Curiously this feeling never left during the next month and we felt exactly the same way in every single place we visited in Indonesia, including its two Javanese capitals – Jakarta and Jogjakarta, both labelled by LP as “chaotic, busy, congested” etc. etc. Yes, there was all the traffic, and the fumes, and the busy look, but somehow the vibe of all the cities we visited was very peaceful, as if the whole country had some kind of happy quiet heartbeat beneath the surface of all the usual city action. Actually, the only thing that was disrupting that peaceful rhythm in Medan was the sound of the landing planes (once we reached the city centre after half an hour walk, the real price of having the airport within walking distance to the city finally dawned on us).
Now that we’ve spent a year travelling, the very first day we spend in any country is the day that we establish what it’s going to be about in terms of basic travelling conditions – locals’ friendliness and their English- and/or body language ability, public transport, the hotel standards, access to money and the food. Indonesia’s checklist was filled with: (1) very friendly locals, easy to communicate with, (2) relatively easy transport, (3) quite low standards for budget hotels, (4) very low commercial exchange rates compared to the bank rate and quite low amount per each ATM withdrawal (so quite a bad average for all the money-related things), and (5) cheap but not very diverse food (on the shelves of the local eateries, or warungs, you can usually find 5-10 vegetable, fish and meat dishes that somehow all taste more or less the same due to the same omnipresent sauce). But one thing we also noticed after all the countries we visited, that somehow the first criterion in the list has a weight much higher than all the remaining ones put together, so Indonesia was a really great country to travel :) !
Medan was basically just an entry point to the country and after a couple of days there which we dedicated to the above field research and planning our trip (as well as soaking in every colourful detail about the local life and culture as they were unfolding themselves around the main mosque of the city which was located right next to our hotel), we left for our first real adventure – climbing an active volcano. I don’t know if it’s just us, or anybody trying to plan their stay in Indonesia gets the same impression, but somehow browsing through LP’s highlights we had a feeling that Indonesia would be all about volcanoes – climbing them, looking at them, listening to their raucous howling, and hopefully not running away from an erupting one :). We did end up climbing two really impressive volcanoes and getting very close to another one, but had to skip the biggest ones due to difficult and/or too expensive access.
Sibayak - ghosts, fumaroles and hot springs
17-04-2011 – we arrived at the picturesque village of Berastagi after 4-5 torturous hours on a super uncomfortable local bus and after checking into a hotel started checking around whether we could complete tomorrow’s ascent on our own. As usual, the people who run agencies and therefore are very anxious to sell you a guided tour where trying to convince us not to undertake the hike without an experienced local guide, and the manager of our hotel was even telling us very sweet horror stories to make his point even more convincing. One was about some Dutch tourist who climbed the mountain, then had to leave his wife behind since she wasn’t fit enough and later came back to her as a ghost, and the second one was about a French tourist who got lost in Sibayak for over a week and they had to send a search party for him (unlike the first story which didn’t come with any documentary proof, for the latter one the guy proudly displayed a collection of newspaper articles in which we could see him and his sister - among other rescuers - happily “reunited” with the poor French chap). As scary as these stories sounded, we decided to take our chances and climb Sibayak on our own.
Next morning we set out early and after a really easy 2-hour hike up reached the crater. The only really memorable thing about the ascent was running into a group of locals who go to Sibayak on Sundays to do a meditation inside the crater (it struck us as a really nice habit). As we were approaching the top, we had our first glimpse at the so-called fumaroles – smoke-emitting holes on the surface of the crater with poisonous-looking green taint around the edge - which looked both ominous and enigmatic, like a secret passage to the centre of the Earth. At the crater we found quite a lot of local people – some picnicking inside it, others - just looking like us in wondrous awe at this unusually alive natural wonder.
For our descent we picked a route different from the one up, in order to be able to stop at a village with hot springs. Going down was a bit more difficult than the path up due to the very deteriorated condition of the stone stairs, but luckily it was still sunny and dry and we reached the village in about two hours. The hot spring spots were scattered all around the village: we picked one with good loudspeakers (and nice music) and stayed for about an hour until the huge black cloud that had been stalking us since we started the descent finally caught up with us and released all its rain. We hurried to the opelet (pick-up) stop and after half an hour waiting, climbed inside its small space together with a few more locals. Then we spent another hour watching our driver “glean” more locals in order to make the trip worthwhile – it was especially curious to see him load their bulky merchandise which they were bringing to the wholesale market located just outside Berastagi (we felt really lucky our route included this detour as this was one of the most colourful and authentic markets we had seen in the whole of Asia). Later that day we caught the same super uncomfortable bus back to Medan and hours later reached the mosque, checked into the same hotel and could finally rest in the simple room that somehow felt more comfortable this time, now that we had experienced the Indonesian buses.
Danau Toba - motorbike trip around the Samosir island
18-04-2011 – we left for Danau Toba, the biggest lake in the SEA. We arrived at the city of Parapat after dark but just in time to catch the last ferry to the village of Tomok at the Samosir Island, from where two motorbike taxies took us to the village of Tuk-Tuk – the one with all the hotels. Next day we rented a motorbike and had an unforgettable day of driving the road that circles this whole island (which is actually the size of Singapore). Perfectly in line with all our motorbike adventures, this trip also brought some surprises which once solved, crystallized into really striking memories: somewhere half through the journey we had to make a decision whether to cross the island directly to the western side or go all the way down and explore the South. Unwilling to miss any bit of the really picturesque scenery and colourful villages with their unique Batak houses, we went south and very soon hit a road that was really bad – this slowed us down drastically and we ended up racing against the sun almost with the same fervour like the British gentlemen in the Dracula movie, but we were sufficiently rewarded for all the extra driving effort by the really beautiful views over the lake, curious encounters with the locals and sights of some really virgin-looking places at the last stretch of that winding road.
Nicotine obsession vs the Categorical Imperative
20-04-2011 – a boat to Parapat conveniently picked us up directly from our hotel pier and a couple of hours later we were sitting in our first night bus that would take us all the way down to the middle of Sumatra to the market town of Bukittingi. To say that this bus trip was painful would be an understatement: despite the proud “VIP” sticker and the powerful air-con, this bus specimen was an unfortunate example of how the system is never a mere sum of its parts but based on the interactions of its elements can potentially turn into much less (this was our case) or much more. Here is what happened.
Ever since our first bus in Indonesia we noticed that the smoking culture in this country was totally different from what we had gotten used to in the smoke-free Europe: first, an awful lot of people smoke; second, they smoke wherever and whenever they feel like it; third, they feel like it most of the time; fourth, the whole habit of smoking seems to stem from the need to hold onto an object rather than to inhale the nicotine which in its turn results in a very slow consumption of a cigarette (we timed a few and it takes much longer than their average western counterparts); fifth, they smoke exclusively strong cigarettes which creates a really potent cloud of fume; sixth, the smokers in this country seem to light a new cigarette almost before the current one is finished; seventh, as they are smoking they would sometimes forget about it for minutes in a row and floating in some dreamy smoky world of theirs are pointing the cigarette directly at you; eighth... well, the thing is I could go on for another page about smoking and smokers in Indonesia, but the point is that it really struck us how oblivious the smokers in this country are to the existence of other people around them, including pregnant women and babies, and how much suffering public places can cause to non-smokers due to the absence of non-smoking laws in this country.
The VIP air-con bus that we took to Bukittingi was one of the worst examples of such public places: sealed from the oxygen outside by thick glass meant to trap the air-conned air inside it turned into some kind of nicotine gas chamber. After a futile attempt to point the “No smoking” sign to the man just in front of us whose cigarette almost burnt us a few times during his “dreamy” sessions and who would smoke inside even during the bus stops, on an impulse I tried to make him understand the Kant’s categorical imperative by explaining that if I, together with the rest of the people, have to inhale his smoke, he would have to inhale the result of my being sick due to the affect of nicotine (by that time we were so intoxicated by the nicotine and other poisonous stuff dissolved in the thick fumes engulfing our bus that I was getting sick all the time). To our genuine surprise (we didn’t expect much from this encounter), he never smoke another cigarette till the end of the trip.
Bukittingi - charming market town
Next morning we woke up in Bukittingi – a charming town located at the base of one of the multiple Indonesian Merapi volcanoes. There wasn’t much to do there, but somehow this town had such a happy vibe that we ended up spending a couple of days there. We would “join” the locals in their 4:30 prayer as we would listen to the singing through our sleep, then on waking up at a much later (non-Muslim) hour we would spend time just wandering around the market and the town centre, both of which were very busy since it was some public holiday. We would try all sorts of local foods and fruits in the market (this was the only place in the whole of Indonesia where we found a lot of variety, with some really wholesome vegetable curries, delicious pancakes and durian as top of our gourmet picks) and then go to the main square and just sit there looking at the respectful Merapi (we would have loved to climb it but like many other volcanoes, this one doesn’t welcome guests).
Since there are very few tourists who stop at Bukittingi, we became very “popular” with the local students who very soon were almost queuing to get their shot at interviewing us for their English-language course homework. Groups of them kept approaching us during the whole two days: they would diligently read out their questions about where we are from, and what we had visited in Indonesia, and whether we liked their town, and what our favourite foods are etc. etc., then they would all take pictures with us (also part of their assignment) and finally ask us to sign the forms they had been filling in with our answers. We would tell all of them that they were doing a great job with their English; we would shake hands and part, only to find the next group anxiously waiting for their turn :).
Jakarta - boring sightseeing, Philippines visa and awesome puthu
23-04-2011 – having decided that spending 30 painful hours on another “VIP” bus to cross half Sumatra and quite a bit of Java is not worth the difference in price, we bought a flight from the nearby Padang to Jakarta and after a couple of hours on a van and another smoke-free hour on the plane (they do respect the “No smoking” sign on the plane), we landed in the capital of Indonesia. As I’ve mentioned before, we didn’t find the promised chaos – quite to the contrary, the city felt really quiet, I would even say too quiet to have some really energetic vibe, like the one you find in Bangkok or many other Asian capitals. In general, it had a really eclectic look and feel, like a city with no personality (not in the same way and degree like the gruesome soviet creations all over the former USSR but definitely lacking any remarkable features). Unfortunately for us, we were stuck in Jakarta for a few days as I needed to apply for the Philippines visa so we filled those days with slow-tempo and rather boring sightseeing of all the LP highlighted parts.
24-04 – we walked to the Merdeka square and spent some time there watching with envy huge groups of kids and teenagers practising kung fu. Then we walked all the long way to the “Chinatown” Glodok – essentially, nothing more than one street with Chinese shops a couple of which are decorated with lanterns. On our long way to Chinatown we found a local sweet (puthu) which in all justice is the best in the whole of Indonesia (we tried the same sweet in other places and cities and none of them came close to that delicious duet of coconut and palm sugar we tried that day). For the sake of this sweet delight we even made a long busway trip to that puthu stall a couple of times during our stay in Jakarta but to our bitter disappointment found it empty both times :(.
25-04-2011 - I applied for the really expensive Philippines visa in a really fancy consulate (in the sense that you had to be really properly dressed in order to be able to get inside – no sandals, no shorts, no sleeveless shirts, like they would give you a chance to meet the Consul himself... it was lucky Jordi didn’t need a visa as they didn’t let him in in his shabby backpacker outfit, and lucky for me I happened to have long trousers on that day). Later that day we caught a bus to the district of Kota – another disappointing sightseeing highlight where we saw the Chicken Bridge (built by the Dutch and therefore nothing striking to anybody who had ever visited or lived in Holland), a square with a lot of bikes for rent and a really stinky canal (another relic of the Dutch era totally deteriorated in absence of those who built it). Officially “done” with sightseeing, we went to Pasar Senen train station to get our tickets to Jogjakarta.
26-04-2011 – having exhausted the supply and most importantly zeal for more sightseeing we spent a quiet day around our hotel, walking for the hundredth time the circle around Jalan Jaksa – Jakarta’s backpacker area. I used the idle time to make the previous post on Vietnam.
27-04-2011 – after an exhausting walk through torrential rain that made the streets of Jakarta really slippery, we picked my Philippines visa (or rather I waited for them to put their “visa” stamp there and then, which is yet another – and sadly very common – example of how “efficient and customer-friendly” the embassies are). The same day we caught the train to Jogjakarta, which turned out to be the best value trip we had in our whole Asia travel – for only 35000 Indonesian rupiahs (which is about 4 dollar) we crossed almost the whole of Java on comfortable padded seats, first contentedly watching cigarette smoke disappearing through the open windows and then comfortably sleeping on the 3-seat births that got empty after a few stations.
Jogjakarta and around - sight-not-seeing phase
28-04-2011 – we arrived in Jogja, the historic and artistic capital of Java. This city did have the charm and character we didn’t find in Jakarta and we did enjoy the three days we spent here although for some mysterious reason we ended up sight-not-seeing the highlighted places of interest. It all started with Kraton – the sultan’s palace where they wouldn’t let Jordi in since his T-shirt lacked a few centimetres in the sleeve area. We tried to appease the people at the gate by wrapping a scarf around his shoulders but to no avail. At the same time we could see women confidently walking into the Kraton premises in something as outrageous as spaghetti or tube tops (apparently, the sultan was ok with women wearing sleeveless apparel, but could not tolerate even the idea of men’s shoulders covered by anything else rather than the original shirt’s sleeves :) ). Since it was too far and too late to try to get Jordi those sleeves, we decided to skip the Kraton and went to see the nearby water castle - a picturesque collection of ruins which seemed to be the favourite hangout spot for local teenagers.
29-04-2011 – the mysterious sight-not-seeing phase continues as we arrive after a long motorbike trip at the temple of Borobudur only to find out that the prices are higher than what we thought and if you don’t have the dollar on you they use a monstrous exchange rate for the rupiahs equivalent. We decide to pass and instead have a long ride around the temple grounds and manage to get very decent views of its beautiful “mandala-like” structure from a couple of spots. Next we head for the Merapi (one of the many in Indonesia but this one is the real thing, erupting regularly and viciously and each time coursing a lot of trouble), only to find a thick huge cloud wrapping its conical top and effectively making it yet another sight in our sight-not-seeing procession. It’s the end of the second day – we have seen nothing but have been really enjoying our time in and around Jogja.
30-04-2011 – we have just a few morning hours before we leave for the bus station to catch a night bus to Probbolingo, the gateway to yet another notorious volcano – Bromo. We spend our last morning in Yogja wandering around its main street filled with batik shops and shopping locals, and the market with just as much batik and just as many shopping locals. Sight-not-seeing phase completed :).
The incredible Bromo
01-05-2011 – at about 4 am we arrived at Probbolingo and slept at its station for a couple of hours waiting for the opelets to start going to Cemoro Lawang, the village at the base of Bromo. But despite our expectations no locals were heading to the volcano that day (or maybe any day), so in the end we shared an opelet with three more backpackers and after one hour of beautiful drive to the top of the mountain reached Cemoro Lawang. A quick check of the two lonely hotels available at the village revealed that as always in such remote places the prices were too high and the standards too low. In the meantime we overheard a conversation between one of the backpackers – Mark from England – and our opelet driver in which they were discussing the return trip for the same day. Since we needed only a couple of hours for the trip to the crater we decided that it would not be a bad idea to do the same as Mark. We teamed up for the trip to the crater and had really fun time for the next few hours.
After about half-an-hour walk through a valley that looked like a wet moon-like desert we reached the base of the crater. In the meantime it had started to rain and our colourful umbrellas were the only splashes of colour in the vast grey space around us. At the base of the crater when we found deep mud instead of stone stairs to the top we had our moment of hesitation regarding whether to climb up or not, but all three of us knew that we wouldn’t go back without having a glimpse into that howling smoke-spitting monster, so we started our ascent. In about 10 minutes, completely covered in mud but safe and sound, we reached the top.
What we saw is beyond words but I will try to give you an idea: thick huge clouds of white hot smoke gashing out of some mysterious hole in the body of the Earth that we would never be able to see (which only enhanced the scary image we drew in our imagination), all of it accompanied by such a violent roar that it really felt that the volcano was threatening us, the uninvited and unwelcome guests. Now and then as if to give us an extra reminder that its patience was running up, it would spit out a huge cloud of smoke and command the wind to carry it our way so that the burning heat and the horrifying look of it would hurry us to take leave. After about half an hour of breathless looking and frantic picture-taking, we did take heed of one of those threatening clouds unmistakably heading our way as we decided it was time to stop trying the volcano’s patience and started our trip back.
On the way back we had another streak of entertainment as we ran into a group of local bikers doing all sorts of maneuvers on their cross-country bikes. Grabbing the opportunity to try driving one of those huge metal beasts, Jordi asked for a trial ride (check out the photos of him proudly ‘taming’ a cross-country bike :)). Despite the absence of sunshine, and the continuous drizzle of rain, it was without doubt one of the most memorable of all our Asia experiences. And on top of all that we met Mark, who we wish all the best of luck in his 4-month SEA trip.
Bali - our story of love at first sight
Same day we caught a night bus to Bali, which was meant to be just another stop in our Indonesia trip but proved to be a trap too good to escape. We were arriving in Denpasar at sunrise, as the first gentle rays were lighting up the gorgeous Hindu temples, volcanoes and rice paddies. Opening my eyes now and then I would see the views so magical that it all looked like a dream.
By then we had carefully studied the LP section on Bali and planned our first stop in Kuta, the most touristic part of Bali. Our intention was to just hang out there for a couple of days, soaking in the happy vibe of consumption, party and beach. But as they say God is laughing when humans make plans, and ours must have caused quite a few chuckles, as we ended up staying in Kuta for the remaining 11 days. Our first labels for Kuta were “too touristy”, “too consumption-oriented”, “this beach is not beautiful”, “all the hotels are too far from the beach” etc. etc. In general, we didn’t really like it... And then we saw the surfers! Crowds and crowds of them. With their slick sexy boards. Riding those waves... Well, it’s a typical story of love at first sight :)!
The very first day we rented two boards – not slick and not sexy, on the contrary, huge and sturdy, as befits the beginner boards – and went out there to learn to catch our first white waves. The story that follows is that of all beginner surfers: it’s about struggling hard to peddle out, peddling even harder to catch our first waves, trying and trying to stand up but falling and falling and more falling, swallowing gallons of salty water, getting bruises, scratches, blisters and occasionally even small injuries. And like all learners stories, it’s also a story of triumphs and disappointments: our first very short but truly thrilling rides on white waves ; having to deal with unscrupulous rental place Mango whose assistants abused our lack of experience and made us pay some “ransom money” for an ancient board that had been glued and patched many times and therefore cracked in half in our second day in the same place where it had been broken before (we did point all of this out but we were too naive to know that we should have just walked away leaving them with the piece of rubbish that no longer deserved to be called a surfing board and which they themselves admitted had to be removed from the rental and sold only as decoration) ; and then our first longer rides and learning to turn and trim the board ; coming to the beach full of expectations for another surfing day only to find the sea too calm and sleepy to surf ; progressing a little bit more day after day ; having to deal with the surf too mild or too strong for our level ; finally stepping over to trying to catch the first “real”, green waves . So far the story ends with this last triumph, as we did manage to ride the first few very small green waves. But this is not the end and we will be back with a sequel, as we are looking more at some kind of “happily ever after” ending in which we confidently surf huge green waves or even tubes in our eternal surfing bliss .
Of course there was more to Bali than just surfing and we used the days with no sufficient break to explore this gorgeous unique island. We had two great motorbike trips: one to the artistic heart of Bali – Ubud, and the other one – a motorbike drive through some mountain scenery of beautiful rice paddies, colourful villages and temples (that was the day we took a road to Sidemen and a national highway which passes all along the eastern coast of Bali). And of course there was all that going out in the cool disco of Sky Garden – several floors of great music and shows, free cocktails and snacks before midnight, and a really nice vibe of the surfing “crew” hanging out after a day of intensive surfing.
After a day of surfing we would come to this warung for a meal of typical Indonesian food:
Some photos from our trip to Ubud (in the first one there is a guard from a parking lot in a typical Bali uniform which always includes a sarong; in the second one tourists trying the local specialty of roasted piglet and dogs wishing they were the ones trying it):
Photos from our trip to Sidemen road:
That day was some kind of "vehicle holiday" as everybody in the street had there bikes and cars decorated with those Hindu charms:
There is an overwhelming number of surfing shops in Bali, too overwhelming for people who just got hooked :-)... Maybe that's why you can see so many beginners walking the streets with tiny sexy boards they just bought, too small to be able to really learn surfing :-) :
50+ SPF re-applied regularly all day long and yet burnt, really burnt...
We did sacrifice the time we planned for travelling Sulawesi for Bali, but we loved Indonesia so much that we are definitely coming back. So as far as Indonesia is concerned, this “chapter” is to be continued...