Thursday, 7 June 2012

Indonesia- highlights and harder times

Indonesia is big. It's really more like a group of separate countries - an island chain stretching across three time zones and with diverse culture, religion, and scenery. We began our explorations back at the end of April in Java, a place Karl visited on his last big trip over ten years ago and had fond memories of. Time had faded his recollection of the distances involved, so it was a surprise to both of us quite how far apart everything was. There were three places Karl especially wanted to revisit, and on the map it looked straightforward. In reality it took at least ten hours on cramped and bumpy buses or hot, crowded trains to get between each of these spots, and travel here quickly became draining.

Noodles for breakfast!
These are the parts of backpacking so often ignored in accounts, blurred by nostalgia or even forgotten. It's natural to focus on the highlights, but there are also days which aren't actually that enjoyable! Between every picture of a beautiful waterfall, surf break or national park are the unrecorded hours of uncomfortable travel. The hot and sweaty waits in bus and train stations; the lugging of a backpack around a traffic filled and stressful town to find a dirty room to stay in for the night; the enforced alarm clock of the 5 am call to prayer; the boredom of a noodle and rice based diet (it's hard work being vegetarian here); the frustration when travel plans fall through and you get stranded somewhere you really don't want to be; and the disappointment when all the effort to get to somewhere doesn't pay off. This is how we are choosing to spend our lives at the moment, and most of the time the rewards are well worth the effort, but sometimes days can go by between these highlights. We try to embrace the experience whatever happens, but it can be a little trying at times!

Smiles in Java
In Java and Sulawesi, what made everything worthwhile were the people. Everywhere anybody travels in the world there's the cliché of 'the people are so friendly', but it often really is the case, and nowhere we've been in Asia more so than here. In every village there'd be an enthusiastic welcome; workers in the rice paddies would stop to wave, children run over to greet us, and generally we'd feel a bit like celebrities. When our rented motorbike died people stopped what they were doing, phoned friends, gathered tools, and generally went out of their way to come to our aid. It's comforting to know you can't go far wrong before someone here will help you out. We've had some less positive encounters too, but for every person who tries to rip you off or mislead you, there are dozens more who are kind and genuine.

You never have to wait long for a bemo!
Our travel in Indonesia has involved a lot more time in towns and cities than we would ideally like. Although often hot, tiring and dirty, they give a more realistic view of what life is like here for most people than beauty spots ever could, and the markets and street food are particularly interesting. Negotiating a public transport system that consists of hundreds of identical blue bemos (small minibuses), each blaring hip hop music and covered in Britney Spears transfers and 'Jesus inside' stickers, is surprisingly fun. You don't really want to be a pedestrian here, where gaping holes in what pavements there are drop into stinking drains full of rubbish. We've got to know the towns and cities by jumping from one bemo to another, no-one minding our rucksacks taking up a whole space and pushing against them, our fellow passengers helping us with language tips and ensuring we get off at the right point.

Posing for family portraits
Many days in Indonesia we haven't seen any other foreigners, which is really refreshing after some of our travels in India and Thailand. Sometimes the most memorable experiences are in the least likely places- like the shopping mall in Makassar where we went to look for an umbrella, but ended up in the midst of a throng of people all keen to shake hands and practice their English. When we got in the lift we had about twenty people cram in with us just for the ride! Being slightly further off the South East Asia backpacker trail, we've felt more immersed in the country and have been trying hard with our Bahasa Indonesian. People here make it easy to have a go at their language- they don't laugh at our pronunciation or lack of sentence structure and it's amazing how much you can communicate with a very small vocabulary.

Catching a wave in Batu Karas
We're now six weeks into our two months in Indonesia, and have still only scraped the surface really. In Java , the best few days were spent at Batu Karas, a little fishing village with a black sand beach and famed surf. The point break was small enough for me but still good enough for Karl. Surfing here was much easier (not to mention warmer) than it is in England, with a consistent, relatively gentle wave peeling away from the headland. A highlight of the trip for me was surfing the wave all the way in to the beach- a ride of maybe twenty seconds (a long time in surfing!). Arriving at the beach, already feeling pretty chuffed, I couldn't stop smiling when I got a round of applause from a group of muslim ladies, wading in the shallows in their hijabs.
Gunung Bromo National Park in East Java was a complete change of scene- high up, cloudy and really cold! Here there are thick woolly socks for sale, cabbages growing instead of bananas, and, even under two blankets, it's chilly at night. The attraction is a massive volcano crater, 10 km across, with 3 newer volcanoes inside. The crater has wildflower filled savannah grasslands and the atmospheric 'sea of sands' where mist swirls around beneath the steaming summit of Gunung Bromo. A unique scene, especially when viewed from above a cloud inversion at sunrise.

Watching sunrise at Gunung Bromo

The amazing coral reef at Pulau Bunaken
We left Java to fly to Sulawesi, a bizarre shaped island east of Borneo. After exploring the interior (see the last blog on the Tana Toraja), we travelled to Pulau Bunaken off the northern tip of Sulawesi to snorkel and dive on probably the best coral reef I've ever seen. Every square inch covered in hard and soft corals, the reef swarming with colourful fish and, as the divemaster said, 'so many turtles you'll be kicking them out the way'. The coral reef rings the island just 100m offshore before dropping far into the blue at a vertical wall with excellent drift dives. We had to drag ourselves out of the sea here!

Tarsiers- always surprised!
Away from the water the wildlife of Sulawesi was plentiful too. We visited a national park where on guided walks we saw huge hornbills in the trees, a playful troop of macaques, the rare bear cus-cus and, best of all, the extremely cute tarsiers, whose huge eyes give them an appearance of constant surprise.

Leaving Sulawesi, we journeyed to West Timor. The people here resemble aboriginals in appearance, and we haven't found all of them to be quite as welcoming- or maybe that's just our experience, mainly based on an aggressive public transport mafia. Kupang in West Timor is just another town we keep getting stuck in en-route to places we actually want to be! It does have a fantastic street market at night where you pick your fish for the grill, alongside fresh avocado juice to drink.

Alluring waters of Alor
From Kupang we flew to Alor at the eastern end of the Indonesian island chain. We loved it here, staying on a tiny rocky islet with white sand beaches, in a fantastic guest house run by a French couple. In the morning our dive boat would motor along channels between undeveloped, forested islands, passing tidal races and whirlpools. There was an exciting moment when we spotted a whale surfacing, his shiny back reflecting the sun and the vapour cloud lingering long after he'd returned to the deep. The diving was unlike anything either of us had experienced, with challenging currents making it more like an adrenaline sport than the usual relaxed scuba chill-out session. It was really interesting though, speeding along underwater cliffs and spotting quite a few new marine creatures. We slept in a traditional thatched Alorese house with the sound of waves lapping on the shore. Delicious meals were eaten together, family style, the couple's two sweet little girls running around, and evenings spent chatting to the other guests.                
One evening there was a party for the islanders to celebrate the completion of a new boat. They danced around a banyan tree to the beat of a drum (accompanied by the local palm wine home brew), singing a traditional melody about being far from home. On our last night we swam under the stars, the water so clear that you could see the fish by moonlight. A real haven, and just the break we needed from harder travels in Indonesia!

Our Alorese house

Lion fish at Alor

Karl heading off to surf at T-Land
 Now we're in a very different sort of place, on the island of Rote off West Timor. Closer to Darwin in Northern Australia than Jakarta, the scenery is much drier, with golden grasses, scrubland and long windy beaches. We're staying at a spot called Nemberela with big surf, but not a lot else. There's an odd mix of seaweed farming locals living in ramshackle thatched huts on the beach, and luxury foreign owned 'surf resorts' for holidaying Australians. It's not got a lot of character but, like all the tourists here, we came for the surf. Unlike Java the break is not for beginners, so I'm reluctantly playing the 'girlfriend holding the towel' role, watching the head-high wave breaking on the reef beyond the beach with binoculars, while Karl takes a boat or does the long paddle out for three sessions a day on a break called 'T-land'. It's a shame most surfers here don't tear themselves away from the water long enough to look around. We explored the coast by bike and the scenery was amazing; limestone headlands, caves and arches, turquoise lagoons, mangroves, deserted beaches and fishing villages with seaweed drying on racks in the sun.

Looking out to sea on Rote
From here we'll travel to the island of Flores, where we hope to unpack our tent for the first time in Indonesia, ideally on a desert island, visit the dragons of Komodo national park, dive with manta rays (fingers crossed), and, of course, seek out some more surf!

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