Thursday, 13 January 2011

Christmas and New Year Dashing Around Central and Eastern Java

So Christmas time in the tropics isn't that 'Christmassy' really. The heat and the lack of crap adverts starting from the end of halloween are also amiss in Indonesia. I downloaded some Christmas music and played it at school for my last few classes and played some games and found some Christmas activities to replicate some kind of festivities but come midnight Christmas Eve I'd kind of given up. I did receive some presents from some colleagues and a card in the shape of a bouquet of flowers from one of my cool little students so it wasn't all lacking but my Christmas dinner was a Lebanese schwarma – I have no idea how to spell it correctly – in other words... a kebab... but a very good kebab with a shit-load of hummus! I enjoyed that part actually and to be fair it wasn't all bad but the vibes of Christmas were somewhat lacking... I did have some fun with my Santa hat and built in beard though. My colleague Laura was teaching a class of toddlers and as she turned her back I kept peeking through the window and waving at the children – in other contexts I could get arrested for that! - she wasn't sure why the kids were shouting "Santa!... Santa!..." with awe on their faces, may be she just attributed it to the magic of Christmas...

That was pretty much the extent to my Christmas as I was flying to Yogyakarta in Central Java for the holidays. I arrived in Yogyakarta at around 7am and found a cheap hotel room pretty much instantly. Unfortunately I hadn't managed to get much sleep and was pretty tired. After a couple of hours lying down and not even managing to power nap due to the heat I thought that I may as well get out and see some of the sights. I arranged an ojek and off I went – or so I thought – before the guy that had organised the transport for me introduced me to the bloke that would be driving it he decided that I should 'meet some of his students' who sell art to support child victims of the recent Mt Merapi eruption... with that in mind I reasoned that it must be some kind of charitable effort. I was wrong. This guy was full of shit and not one of the blokes in the place mentioned how the children suffering with the aftermath of the eruption benefits from the sale of this art. I'm quite open to charity work – especially in a third world country where people have so little – but using it as a con to sell trinkets to tourists is low. After the bullshit I got the bike and headed to my first stop of the day Borobudur Temple. It was really cool and had lots of old statues and things I don't know a huge deal about the history behind it but I know it dates from the 9th Century. It's a Buddhist temple and the first I've ever visited. The only thing that annoyed me was the casual disrespect/unawareness that some of the local tourists showed for the temple, adults were happily letting there children ride statues that are over a thousand years old, causing who knows what kind of wear and tear for the sake of a cheesy photo... in some cases the adults themselves were doing it! After Borobudur I headed to Prambanan – a set of hindu temples of a very similar age – which were no less spectacular!... I had a great time looking around Prambanan as it was a bit quieter and had less bellends getting in my way! =p ... One thing I've enjoyed about Indonesia is that a lot of attractions are remote and 'off the beaten track' as a lot of guidebooks describe. Unfortunately Central Java is pretty accessible and these temples are some of biggest attractions in Indonesia... and are therefore very busy and a little hard to really take in... there are just too many people.
The temples were certainly the highlight of Central Java for me and my second day in Yogyakarta was spent in a little more relaxed fashion. On the way to Prambanan I was really tired and had fallen asleep on the back of the motorbike! Keen to avoid this and hindered from doing anything considered active by the rain I decided that I'd take it easy before taking a night train to Malang. I essentially hired a Becak for the afternoon – this is a chair with three wheels a seat for the passenger and a saddle and peddles for the driver – he took me to the Kraton and the Bird Market and some other places inbetween. It was pretty cool – although I was duped by another prick trying to sell shit, puppets this time "wayang kulit" puppets made from buffalo skin – I managed to make it out without buying a puppet and headed for the bird market. The bird market was described by Lonely Planet as "squawking", I'm not sure if it was as busy or as noisy, or in fact as much of an experience as its' write up in there suggests but it was pretty cool nonetheless. I made sure that I tried the local delicacy of Nasi Gudeg – once in a car park and the other in a run down street "restaurant" – it was awesome. It's essentially some kind of jackfruit stew served with rice and usually a boiled egg and a chicken thigh. Really nice and pretty damn sweet! After I'd seen the Kraton and the market I just wanted to relax so I holed-up at an internet cafe close to the train station and relaxed for a couple of hours. I was waiting for quite a while as my train was at 1am. This was the most comfortable option to take to Malang from Yogya without flying as the firstclass trains here are pretty cheap and very comfortable... unfortunately, after waiting for about 7 hours I managed to catch the wrong train!... This is probably the first incident where public transport in this country has really pissed me off!... I had asked numerous Indonesians – staff and other patrons – whether I was waiting on the right platform... turns out that's not enough. Train stations in Indonesia are yet to adopt the latest in modern information technology "The Information Screen!"... I guess that would just make life too easy! It turns out that I was waiting on the right platform. It turns out that I got on the right service. It even turns out that I took reassurance from a member of staff on the train who after checking my ticket confirmed I was in fact heading to Malang. I was catching the Gajayana service which runs through a few major cities here but essentially between Jakarta and Surabaya I think by way of Yogya and Malang. While waiting on platform three about 10 minutes before my train was due to depart I saw the Gajayana pull into the station. After asking the ticket inspectors and having my ticket verified it turned out that I was on the Gajayana heading to Jakarta – the opposite direction – and I was pretty pissed off. When would it ever make sense to put two trains with the same name departing the station within 10 minutes of each other on the same platform?!... After a tough time of trying to explain myself the conductor was pretty helpful... unfortunately I had to take an economy service via Surabaya and arrived at my destination Malang at 4pm the next day, I was supposed to arrive at 9am... so as you may have guessed I wasn't amused...

After arriving in Malang I met up with my colleague and flatmate Alex. I managed to get a couple of hours sleep before heading to Mt. Pananjakan to see the Bromo Caldera at sunrise. This is a highly touted tourist activity in Indonesia and one of those things you have to do as a tourist in Indonesia. We got up at 1am and headed to the mountain. Unfortunately by about 5.30am it was quite clear that we weren't going to see sunrise. There was too much fog and we couldn't even see the crater from inside the caldera itself. It would have been a pretty cool experience as well because the crater was still in a mild state of eruption at the time at spitting out volcanic ash. Next stop was Kawah Ijen or the Ijen crater which is about an 8 hour drive from Bromo... I was pretty annoyed by this point as not much had worked out well for me during this trip, especially after all my other trips working out so smoothly!...

After the 8 hour drive we arrived at the Blawan Coffee Plantation in the eastern extremities of Java. A pretty nice spot. I didn't really take any time to explore it however as I was pretty tired and had to be up at 4.30 to walk the path that leads to the 2,400m or so high Kawah Ijen. After not seeing anything but an ash cloud at Bromo I was hoping for big things at Ijen... and, finally, it delivered! It was quite a nice walk with a really nice path that leads to the crater. When you're walking there are plenty of miners collecting sulphur from the crater. They are really friendly and pretty happy to pose for photos and have a laugh. We became friendly with two of them, they were quite funny and were making jokes about my weight – I look like King Kong apparently – but in all fairness they were pretty cool... they went by the names of Harry and Arsono. The miners at Kawah Ijen are part of what makes it so incredible. They carry between 75-80kg on average of sulfur up a rocky ascent and down the side of a mountain twice a day – some of them even do it in flip-flops! I had a go at lifting one for a moment and it was quite a lot of pressure with the weight and balance concentrated on the neck. Of course the huge turqoise lake – the largest crater lake in Java – and the endless cloud of sulphur bellowing from the crater all add to the dramatic and picturesque view from the top. I was also pretty happy on the way up when we caught a troop of local monkeys – not the ubiquitous macaques – going about their daily business and swinging frantically out of the way to try and avoid us. I was finally happy to have done something so rewarding after the ballache of the previous couple of days. The trip to Kawah Ijen was followed by a further eight hour drive back to Malang. The drive was a pain in the arse but at least it was comfortable and I arrived on time – for that I can be grateful!... When we arrived in Malang we quickly ate lunch and then I decided I'd have a little walk around the town as I wouldn't have time the next day as I planned to head to a small city called Blitar. As soon as I'd started to walk it started to rain and I didn't really want to hang around. At the mall I used as shelter I was approached by some girls who were students looking for someone to practise their English with... it's pretty common here and I didn't mind at all, in fact I'm rather accustomed to talking to Indonesian strangers now, in fact it's hard to walk past people in some places without looking and smiling while politely greeting practically everyone you happen to walk by, that and I got a free donut and coffee!...

The next day held a short 2 hour bus ride to the next destination Blitar. I visited Blitar just to see a volcano there that is supposed to be one of the most active lava volcanos in Indonesia. It was nice, but in the back of my mind I was hoping to see a lava flow. There was a pretty easy climb to the summit from where you could see a panoramic view of the crater. I was mildly annoyed that I wasn't able to get a decent shot of the entire crater in one photo but nevermind it was a great spot nonetheless. I was accosted by about 4 sets of Indonesian tourists wanting a photo but I didn't mind as I'd managed to sleep pretty well. In the crater of Mt. Kelud there was a large mound of smouldering rock – presumably lava in it's rock form – described as a 'lava dome' where a crater lake once lay. One thing I have been enlightened to since arriving in Indonesia is the temporary nature of what I can only describe as the physical geographical makeup of terrain (not sure if that's correct so geography geeks can shoot me now!)... Volcanos erupt relatively frequently here and blast new craters, dry up lakes and all sorts of things that don't really happen back home. I also managed to stop by at a hindu temple called Candi Panataran which was in good condition and very quiet – a welcome change to the bustle of the other temples near Yogya – I was happy with that as a day out and decided to head home so that I could get an early rise the next day to head to Solo.

Now I know there are direct buses to Solo from Blitar – and that was my last destination – but after arguing with the locals at the bus stop and a distinct lack of regular buses heading in that direction I reached the conclusion that I may be wrong. This meant that I took a bus to a place known whose name doesn't remain in my head; after convincing the conductor that I didn't fancy chartering the entire bus to take me all the way to Solo and was happy to change at the intermediary destination – the bus broke down – so I'm rather glad I didn't!... The tyre burst and we had to get it pumped up every kilometre or so for about 10km until we could break down and rest it on the side of a major road where other buses were heading in the direction we wanted to go. Fortunately, they charter another bus practically instantly and pay the rest of your fare to the operators of that 'service' to take you the rest of the way. I finally got to the terminal that linked to Solo and after missing the first bus that was rammed and fighting off a load of hawkers convincing them with my rather awful Indonesian that I can speak their language and don't want to buy a punnet of strawberries for my journey I managed to catch the connection to Solo. Things were starting to look up – this bus had aircon! - and I even managed to find a seat! There are a plethora of military bases in Central Java around Madion which fell on the bus route somewhere and once I'd managed to force my way onto a seat, no mean feat on public transport in Indonesia there was some prick of a sergeant who decided that he needed to sit with his legs as wide apart as his scrawny ass could spread. This annoyed me as I was already quite tetchy after being on public transport for so long that every time we hit a pot hole – and believe me there are loads – I accidently crashed into him... He also decided that he would endlessly smoke his shitty kretek clove cigarettes one after the other which meant that when he got up I extended my legs and then sat there with them as wide apart as I could – and trust me I'm a lot fatter than this goon – when he returned he looked at me with an authoritative glance as if to motion me aside so that he could resume the luxury of his massive seat... I returned with a smile that gestured something along the lines of "fuck you"... ;) I realise that I sound mean but after an hour and a half of someone else's smoke in my face gripping the edge of a seat to prevent myself falling into the isle and onto some unsuspecting Indonesian mother the tosser can go and fuck himself!... that's how bitter I am! ;)... Shortly after that my rather brazen attitude came round to bite me in the ass as the airconditioning on this bus broke meaning that they kicked everybody off and found another couple of buses to take us on the rest of the journey to Solo. During the melee of letting all the Indonesians cram onto the first bus that picked us up from the side of the road I was approached by a very clean cut bloke that asked me if he could help me. He spoke fantastic English and introduced himself as Tommy. Within about an hour and a half we were in Solo and I asked if he knew a good comfortable hotel that I could stay in – by this point in my holiday I'd been up two mountains and travelled a large distance – and he said that he'll call his friend who did. After not understanding any of the conversation, possibly because it was in Javanese or very fast Indonesian, he gestured for us to get into a taxi. After a short taxi journey we were at his friends house albeit in a military base! I was a little concerned until his friend introduced himself to me as the Major in charge of a squadron of military police in the Indonesian Airforce! Tommy then informed me that he was a fighter pilot and they were friends from the academy. After a round of tea and local bread I was dropped off at my hotel in the back of an Indonesian Airforce 4x4... They were really cool and went out of their way to help me while brushing off my gratitude as if it was no big deal... All in all a surreal day and I managed to sleep in a two-star hotel – pretty luxurious here unless you plan to stay at the Hilton – I managed to get a pretty good sleep!

The last day of my holiday was spent travelling to an area near Solo called Tawangmanggu it's not the prettiest of towns but it has a nice waterfall. I spent an age getting to the waterfall however but did manage to catch a peek at some macaques picking the fleas out of each others' fur while I was waiting. The waterfall is about 82 metres high and is called Grojogan Sewu, it was a pleasant sight but considering it was a public holiday too busy with the flock of local tourists picnicking and generally littering up the surrounding area. It was okay though I managed to see it and then clambered away to a local warung where I bought some highly recommended sate kelinci. I'm actually sure what sate kelinci is but it was a lovely, very sweet dish served with rice cakes (lontong) and a very sweet sauce. After eating I headed to the temple of an Indonesian fertility cult. While not having the age or grandeur of some of the temples that I visited it certainly was my favourite. Particular highlights for me were a headless statue grasping it's penis and a mural that appeared to be pooing while picking something out of it's teeth!...

That pretty much sums up my trip and attempts at seeing a lot of the highlights of Central and Eastern Java in just 8 days. I think I tried to do a little too much in the time I had but it was cool. During my time in traffic travelling through Java, one thing I have noticed is the Indonesians' inherent skill to get almost anything done with a motorbike so in descending numerical order I'm going to leave you with my top 5 most baffling observations:

5) The 'Egg Man' – this guy manages to deliver eggs on the back of a 50cc scooter and when I say deliver I mean he straps about 20 or so dozen eggs to a shelf on the back of his scooter with string and effortlessly glide through the manic traffic of Jakarta!
4) The family of 5 - All in the name five family members on a 125cc motorbike, granted one of them is a baby and another a toddler but I'm still impressed that the bike can even move!
3) Two goats: I've seen a guy heading through traffic with two baskets on the back of his bike. In each basket was a goat with it's four legs tied together delicately. Contrary to what you might believe these things seemed perfectly happy and relatively sedate... almost as if they were used to it!
2) The Horse: A few months back I saw a two guys on a motorbike. As I looked out the car I wondered why one of them was facing backwards... in my semi-conscious state I saw that he had reigns in his hand and was guiding a horse down a main road!... Surely it would have been better to just ride it?...
1) Breastfeeding: without doubt the most impressive thing I've seen someone do while travelling on a motorbike is a young mother feeding her baby the natural way. While incredibly dangerous and particularly dumb: why wouldn't you stop and let the wee nipper have a suckle on terra firma?...