Wednesday, January 9, 2008

December 20 Dispatch

It was a long break between my first and second dispatch home. Here's the second one that we sent on December 20:

Well, it’s been a bit since my last trip update. My apologies to family who were expecting to hear from me a bit more often, but we’ve been in non-Internet friendly areas ever since my last dispatch. We hear a lot in North America about how the Internet is changing the world, democratizing far away places, etc. But the truth is that, at least here in Indonesia, it is still a luxury that very few have access to. It’s not just the lack of access to a computer, it’s the lack of access to a reliable phone line that can transmit at any speed at all.

As usual, I'll apologize in advance for the completely ridiculous length of this note. It has actually taken me a couple of days to write. I'm sure very few have interest in this level of detail, but as I'm writing off the top of my head I'm just putting down the elements that were of interest or importance to me and not editing. If you don't want that level of detail, stop reading right about here. We're safe and having fun. That's all that really matters.

When I last posted Colleen and I were still in the tropical paradise of Gili Air. The next day we were off on a three day adventure via bus and boat arranged by local transport company Perama. This little adventure came highly recommended by our guidebook (LP) and by the hotel owner with whom we were staying. It was pricey, but we hoped it would be worth it.

The first day started with us being picked up on our island and taken across the water to the island of Lombok. From there we caught another bus to Sengigi where I was able to make my first ATM withdrawal since arriving here. That doesn’t sound very impressive or exciting, I know, but it was getting a little stressful not being able to access money. From Sengigi we bused to Mataram, where we met up with the rest of the group that was to be traveling with us. Then, from Mataram, we bussed it west across Lombok. Not a great start to our adventure, but we were open to things. On the trek across we stopped in the requisite “traditional village making pottery”. This was our third time to just such a “village” on our vacations, so it wasn’t particularly engaging. At the end of the trek across Lombok we stopped by Perama’s shipyards. This was a pretty bizarre destination, where we got to see the team building one of Perama’s other boats. I’m not sure why this was included, unless it was to give us confidence in the seaworthiness of Perama’s ships, which wasn’t a bad idea when we finally got to see our boat. Of course, when we got to the shipyard there was no one around, as they were all off having their afternoon nap. Very reassuring.

When we finally got to the boat we were taken to our cabin. There were about 14 of us doing the trip, but only 5 of us had rooms. The rest were to sleep on the decks. So, while our cabin was small, cramped, smelly and hot, I wasn’t going to complain.

We got underway and made our first stop at Perama’s “resort”, an island that they had leased along our route. Total time to circumnavigate the island by foot – 10 minutes. We went snorkeling there, which was a little sad since about half the coral was dead, and played volleyball on the beach for hours. The sand was beautiful, but full of washed up coral, making volleyball a very painful activity. I started clearing off four pieces of coral per point, and really made no dent at all. Then the rain rolled in, but we kept playing until it got stupid wet. (Oh yeah, forgot to mention, we decided to come to Indonesia during the rainy season. Real smart.)

Next, the Perama folks enlisted us to assist them in the replanting of coral in the water around their island. You see, the reason why the corral around their island is all dead is that prior tenants had been fishing with dynamite and cyanide for years. Not only does it do a great job in killing the fish, but it kills everything else under the water. So they had “appropriated” some live coral from other islands in the neighborhood where people were supposedly still bombing for fish and were replanting it on their island. Frankly, the whole thing seemed a little fishy (pun not intended) but what the hell. We attached live coral pieces to cement blocks and dove around the dead coral placing the blocks.

Our good deed done we went back to the beach for a little party and BBQ. Dinner was tuna horribly overcooked over the fire and rice. Of course, the landlocked Slovak with us was thrilled, but the rest of us were disappointed. After the party it was back to the boat. We slept while the boat chugged eastward.

After an overheated sleepless night we woke to a breakfast of white bread, peanut butter, jam, bananas and hardboiled eggs. Mmmmm. We felt like hell, but didn't complain, because everyone who had slept on the decks felt a lot worse. Overnight we had made our way to Satonda Island, where we went ashore for a short hike to an inland crater lake. Of course, Colleen went right in swimming, as usual, while most of the rest of us sat on shore. It was a pretty spectacular lake in the crater of a very old volcano that had just passed sea level when it had erupted. Sadly, even though it was very remote, it was terribly littered with the waste of previous visitors. Indonesians seem to think nothing of dumping their garbage wherever they are. We've seen it again and again in buses, boats and trains along our trip. Someone will have some waste to dispose of and will just roll down their window and toss it out. In this case there was no thought from anyone from Perama that it might improve their future trips if they were to take a little garbage out with them every time they came to this island (as we did). I just don't think it registers on the Indonesian mind.

Next we loaded onto the boat for the journey to our next destination, Donggo Beach on Sumbawa Island. The joke was that we were going to go to Donggo. (Say it out loud.) When we arrived Colleen immediately jumped off of the boat to go snorkeling. (Recurring theme.) Everyone else took a boat into shore. We were in the middle of nowhere and it looked like a pretty inhospitable place. In fact, just a few weeks before we got here a decent sized earthquake had hit near here, knocking over a few villages and creating a decent wave that killed a few more people. An odd place for us to make a stop. But I took off along the shore to investigate, wading into the waters and making my way around the volcanic cliffs, over the rocks and around them through the water. It was beautiful but desolate. Along the way I discovered incredible fossils in the volcanic cliffs. Most were just of coral that the lava had gone around but I also came across the echo of a giant clam. I wussed out after spotting a black snake in the water and retreated back to where the rest of the group was relaxing on the beach, roasting under the sun and playing coral throwing games.

After Donggo we reboarded the boat, had a little dinner, and set sail for the evening. The ocean was calm and the skies clear. It was a beautiful night to be out on deck watching the stars.

The next morning we awoke to another great pbj breakfast. 'Nuff said. But overnight we had made our way to the place that was a large reason why we were doing this trip, Komodo Island. Upon our arrival we took a boat into shore and found the weapons rack for dragon protection. It was a very nicely set up rack full of sticks about 4 feel long with a V at the end. Perhaps not the best weapon, but we all selected what we felt were good sturdy sticks to protect ourselves. Next we got a guide, who immediately told us to put our sticks back. Apparently they were reserved for guide use only. His stick was tiny, and so was he, so we hoped that we didn't run into any ferocious beasts on the prowl. Over the past couple of years a couple of villagers have been taken by the dragons, but the last time one got a tourist was 1974, when a Swiss guy disappeared. All they found was his glasses and wallet. I'm dubious, since it seems like too good of a marketing story.

After much milling about we finally started our hike to find dragons. Of course, 14 people plus a guide out hunting Komodo dragons isn't terribly quiet or stealthy, but we did our best. First we spotted a wild boar on our path, which is some of the dragon's favourite food. (Mine too.) Then. off in the bushes, we (OK, the guide) spotted a mid-sized dragon. We all jostled for position, photographing the dragon every way possible. It's funny how a decade ago you would have heard clicking, whirring and the winding of cameras, and now all you hear is a chorus of beeps. We got a few good shots of the dragon, but to be perfectly honest it was a little disappointing. He wasn't that big, and not terribly ferocious looking. After a while he wandered off into the bush looking bored and unimpressed. The rest of the hike we saw nothing.

I would have been very disappointed in our Komodo hunt if our guide hadn't next taken us to where he knew we were 100% guaranteed to find more Komodos - right outside of the camp cookhouse just around the corner from where we started. Maybe we didn't discover them out in the wild, but the were very impressive all the same. There were 4 of them there, all between 30 and 50 years old. From head to tail probably about 7 to 8 feet. And weighing up to 100 kilos. They're big nasty beasties with huge claws, sharp teeth and bacterial saliva that will kill you if you get a bite and it goes untreated.They look slow, but can run at up to 20 kmh. In fact, one of their favourite foods is deer. We took lots of photos, taking care not to get too close when we posed in front of them. Frankly, they looked bored, but who could blame them. Yet another group of tourists. The guides used to feed them live goats in the area where we were in order to get them to come out and put on a show for the tourists, but they stopped doing that in the late '80s. I suspect that that's a good thing.

Cliff Claven moment - The Komodo Dragon is actually the largest member of the Monitor Lizard family.

Post dragon hunt we all headed back to the boat and headed off on one last leg of our trip to Red Beach, on another part of Komodo Island. There was some pretty good snorkeling here and Colleen got right in again. Apparently Komodo dragons can swim pretty well, and have been known to make it over 400M from shore. We didn't see any, but it was always in the backs of our minds. The beach was lovely and we relaxed and played frisbee for a few hours.

After Red Beach we made our way over to the end of our boat journey - Labuan Bajo on Flores island. Lonely Planet calls Labuan Bajo a charming little fishing village that is worth staying at for a few days. Lonely Planet lies. However, Komodo island, which is close to Labuan Bajo, is part of an Indonesian national park that also includes Rinca Island and the surrounding waters, which are apparently a diving mecca. Upon arriving at Labuan Bajo, taking a cab 1/2 a block to our hotel, (we thought it was farther, and the cab driver got a good laugh at making a decent fair for going such a short distance) we immediately booked a dive trip for the following day. We then joined the rest of our trek crew at the local pub, where we had a few pints and one of the group took orders to go to the local liquor store. (A rarity in a Muslim country.) I placed my order for some of the very fine local whiskey, I think it was called Dragon's Fire and cost $2.50 a bottle. We went back to the boat for our farewell party, then returned to shore to rest prior to our dive.

The next morning, after a God-awful hotel breakfast, we headed out with Reefseekers for a day of diving. It was about a 2 hour boat ride to the park during which our divemaster gave us an interesting lecture on the challenges of conservation in the region and the need for education and alternatives for local fishers. We were accompanied on the trip by two accomplished German divers and a Swiss girl. Our first dive went pretty poorly. Colleen couldn't get her mask to fit right and couldn't get her ears to equalize the whole time. I descended too quickly at the start and didn't equalize enough, which caused an increase in pressure on me (lungs, mask & ears) so I couldn't breathe properly, which caused me to get a bit panicky. I resurfaced, which I'd never done before, got my wits about me, and went down again to join the others. Unfortunately, after a bad start for the both of us, and some very strong currents in the water once we finally got down, we had a hard time enjoying the dive. It was beautiful with some very interesting fish, a few white tipped sharks and a turtle or two, but not much fun.

After our first dive they served us a terrible lunch on the boat and we motored over to our next dive site. On the way we passed an area called The Launching Pad, which is where Manta's frequently make appearances. When we got there our divemaster spotted movement in the water and Colleen, as usual, was quick to don her mask and snorkle and jump right in. She snorkled with the mantas for 10 to 15 minutes, then came out. Next she talked me into going. I got back into my flippers, wetsuit, snorkle and mask and went in, with Coll right behind me of course. For about 10 minutes there were manta rays everywhere around us, close enough to touch. You'd be watching one off to your right and then you'd look to your left and there'd be one coming right at you. It was amazing. They're incredibly graceful beautiful creatures with alien-like faces. They float through the ocean collecting plankton looking just like some prehistoric bird. It was a fantastic experience.

After our manta show we got back on board and went over to our next dive. This dive went much better than the first. Our equipment issues were fixed and while there was still a very strong current we essentially just drifted with it along a long coral wall. The skills was to simply float motionless and watch the coral and sea life go past your eyes as you went past. Easier said than done, but still an interesting way to dive.

One final note about my diving - Apparently I breath about twice as heavily as Colleen. Rookie mistake. Every time I run out of air, she's still got about half left. She always surfaces with me to keep me company though, which I appreciate.

After our diving we headed back to port. I had hoped to head over to the triple coloured volcanic lakes of Kelimutu, half way across Flores, the next day. It only looked like a few hours drive. After all, it's probably less than 300 km. It was then that we found out that the roads are a little challenging, and that distances are not what they appear. It was to either be a 15 hour bus ride, or a two day drive with a personal driver. When someone pointed out that now, during rainy season, there was a good chance that we could make the trip and still not get to see anything due to cloud cover, we decided to pull the plug on Kelimutu and get the hell out of Flores. I headed over to the travel agent and bought a plane ticket for the next day.

That evening we decided to have dinner in our hotel. Despite the terrible service we'd received to date the restaurant came highly recommended so we thought we'd give it a shot. Colleen and I both decided to set our stopwatches when we sat down to dinner to see how long it would take. Little did we know that that was just bad karma. After 20 minutes we finally got menus. After 40 minutes some friends from our Perama trip came into the restaurant and joined us. After over 50 minutes someone came by to take our order. After an hour and a half my food arrived, as did the food for our two friends, but not for Colleen. She was told that it was on its way. After an hour and 45 minutes Colleen asked where her food was again. She was told that curry took longer to cook and to keep waiting. After over two hours and 15 minutes the rest of us had finished dinner and were still waiting for Colleen's food. After two and a half hours we asked again where Colleens food was and let them know that we were leaving. (Normally we'd have left long before, but our options were limited.) At that point there was a bit of discussion and the serving staff let us know that they had never placed the order for Colleen's food. No apology. Amazing. We're still not sure what happened, but our emergency supply of potato chips sure did come in handy that night.

The next day we woke up and, after discovering that no other restaurants served breakfast, ate at our hotel restaurant again. (Terrible and slow of course.) We headed for the airport and, after a painful wait in a roasting terminal with A/C that they had decided not to turn on, and surrounded by Russian tourists (a klassy bunch), we got on our flight back to Denpassar, where I had vowed not to return just the week before. Upon arriving back in Bali we checked into our not entirely clean accommodations and I set out to sign up for surfing lessons for the next day. The Ripcurl School of Surfing it was to be. We went back to our hotel and crashed in our beds, trying not to think about the bedbugs that we were sure were chewing away on us.

The next morning I made my way over to the surf school while Colleen checked us out of our hotel and into a new cleaner one. Now, I've never been a particularly gifted athlete. I've always made up for a lack of natural skill with perseverance and stubborn hardheadedness. Surfing was no different. We had a beautiful day on Kuta beach, with nice mid-sized waves. There were just 3 students in my class, whereas during much of the rest of the year there will be over 30. And the instructor was great. The last time I took a surfing lesson it was on Fernando de Neronha in Brazil. That time the waves had been punishing and my instructor, while being a super hot surf babe, only spoke Portuguese, which I'm a little rusty with. So, while I may have covered some of the same things this time, the lesson was great. As I alluded to before, I'm not a natural, but I did catch a few waves and rode them into shore, which made it all worth while.

After the lesson Colleen, who had joined me post hotel move, and I had lunch on the beach. Then we went back to the school and got a board for the afternoon. I headed back into the water for a few more hours of trying to surf. I wasn't as good in the afternoon, but it was still a great day.

That evening, after dinner, we went to try to book our trip for the next day. I had read about a volcano called Kawah Ijen on Java and wanted to see if we could get there. After that we wanted to go to another volcano, Gunung Bromo, just to the West of Kawah Ijen. And from there we wanted to carry on to Yogyakarta. The folks at the travel agency seemed rather bewildered by our request and suggested we come back in the morning to work it out. When we went back first thing the next morning there were different people in the travel agency who suggested that the best thing for us to do was to make our way to the bus station and work it from there. We were game for giving it a shot. And not wanting to waste another day in Kuta we set off.

We caught a cab to the bus station where we were immediately mobbed by people trying to direct us to one bus or another. Not being exactly sure where we wanted to go didn't help us much either. (You'd think we were new to this traveling thing.) I knew that the town we wanted to end up in that evening was called Sempol, so I just started saying "Sempol, Sempol" to the mob, and amazingly enough everything changed and they all just directed us toward a bus heading for Java. Of course, this is no Greyhound. No, this is cheap Indonesian public transit. Everyone is jammed in and if the bus is full you get put on a plastic stool in the aisle. Fortunately, we got there in just enough time to get a couple of seats on the back bench, where Colleen could be appropriately seated between another woman and I. As you can guess, in a predominantly Muslim country such as this there is a whole protocol as to where a woman can sit on a bus. We had the same issue when we traveled around Turkey.

The first leg of the bus trip was painful, but an adventure. Hot, sweaty, smelly. It was exhausting. But it was great to be with the locals who I find very friendly. The man in front of me kept flashing me big smiles and the woman beside Colleen seemed to want to take care of her. Every few kilometers the bus would stop and let some new people on, and usually a singer or guitar player would board as well. They'd play a few songs, pass the hat, and get off. Food sellers would also board at each stop, although we were pretty cautious, knowing that it was a very long way until we'd have the chance to use a bathroom with a western toilet and toilet paper.

(Sidenote - Indonesians use the squat toilet. There is no toilet paper. There is a bucket beside the toilet full of water. There is a good reason why you don't use your left hand to do anything here; it's your dirty hand. At the risk of getting into too much detail, as much as I love to absorb as much of the local culture as I can, and as much as I have needed to from time to time, I have still never been able to bring myself to having a poo Indonesian style. Nor do I ever plan to.)

At some point along the first leg of our bus trip three soldiers from the Indonesian army also got on our bus. They seemed very nice, kidding around with one another and giving up their seats for other passengers. It was interesting to watch how they would never sit if someone else was standing. I think it was a matter of pride with them.

After three hours on the bus we made it to the ferry terminal for the short ride across to Java. The ferry was ancient and a little scary, but it was fine. Hawkers were everywhere, selling Nasi wrapped in banana leaves and assorted baked things and fruit. The ferry ran according to a very exacting schedule; it would leave when it was full and not a moment before. And at the other end of the crossing we just floated for about 20 minutes, in hopes that a berth would open up at some point. Not quite BC Ferries, but it seems to work. You just can't be in a hurry.

Now we were on Java. Our bus carried on, heading to its eventual destination of Surabaya. While Sempol was actually pretty close to the ferry terminal we were heading around it, as our maps didn't show a direct route to Sempol and no one else seemed to know a good way to get there. They seemed to agree that the best way would be to go to Jember or Sempolan, then head North to Bondowoso, then in to Sempol. This became the source of much discussion on the bus, none of which we understood of course, as it was all in Indonesian. Eventually the other passengers deferred to the military men, and the senior person decided that yes, the Jember/Bondowoso/Sempol route would be best, and that we should continue riding for the next 5 hours until we got to Jember. But that there would be no buses going from Jember to Bondowoso tonight so we'd have to stay in Jember. We were terribly disappointed in this and planned to ignore his advice and see if we could find a late bus. After further discussion with his fellow soldier (it may have been more "instructions" than "discussion") they came upon what they thought was a pretty good plan. The junior soldier, a Sergeant, invited us to spend the night with his family in his house just past Jember. Then, in the morning he'd put us on the bus to Bondowoso. Of course, we immediately thanked him for his generosity and declined. He insisted, we declined, he and his boss discussed local hotels that they thought would be OK for us, then he offered again, we declined, he suggested a hotel, then he offered again, and we asked if he'd checked with his wife. He smiled and made a couple of phone calls. He told us that it was fine with his wife and with his mother. We accepted.

After we got to Jember we got off our bus with our new friend to get on another bus to his home. We were immediately mobbed by "bus people" who wanted to know where we were going. I just pointed ahead and said I was with the sergeant and they backed off pretty quickly. Colleen got a few steps behind and was accosted by bus sellers. (I know. I know. Very very bad Stefan. I thought she was right behind me.) Eventually she forced her way through, caught up and joined us on our next bus.

On this new bus our host paid our bus fair. I expect he makes less than $50 a month, so this was uncomfortably generous. While he had told us that he lived in Jember, we actually rode this new bus for 45 minutes out of Jember before we got to his town. From there we took a becak, a bike with passenger seats in front, to his house.

The house was an old Dutch house built in the '20s. It probably hadn't been properly taken care of since WWII, but it was a wonderful treat for us. We were brought into the living space, introduced to his family (mother, father, wife and brothers) and shown our room. We were given towels and shown to the shower, which was wonderful after a very long day. It was a traditional Indonesian shower, which is essentially a big vat of cold water and a bucket. A little shocking for the first few bucketfuls, but refreshing after that.

Our host's name was Eko (pronounced Echo). After the showers we sat on the carpet in the main living area and watched the closing ceremonies of the South East Asian (SEA) Games, sort of a regional mini-Olympics. Very sweet but pleasant tea was served and then takeout nasi goreng was brought in. We tried to pay for our food, but again this was unacceptable. In fact, I'm pretty sure Eko's parents paid for the food. Again, in a country where I normally have more in my pockets than the average person earns in a month, this was extremely generous. The nasi was delicious. The conversation was challenging due to the language barrier, but we had a great time. Knowing we had to be up early the next day to catch the bus back to Jember then to Bondowoso Colleen and I headed to bed early.

At 6:00 the next morning we woke up to get going. As I left our room I discovered that Eko and his wife had slept of the floor of the living room the previous night. That's right, after not having seen his wife in weeks they'd given us their bed. When Eko had shown us our room the night before I'd asked him where he was going to be sleeping and he'd pointed to another room. Turns out that was his brother's room.

As it also turned out it wasn't 6:00 at all. We'd crossed a time zone during the ferry ride from Bali to Java and it was only 5:00. I actually don't think we woke up the whole family that early, I think they were getting up anyway, but we felt amazed by their hospitality.

Now it was time to move on. But Eko wasn't done taking care of us. He was going to come back to Jember with us, to make sure that we found our way to the Bondowoso bus. We took becaks to the local bus station, then rode to Jember, where Eko once again took charge and put us on a mini-bus that would take us to another bus station in Jember, from which we could catch another bus to Bondowoso. At that point Eko was going to turn around and travel the hour back to his house. We said our thank yous to Eko for his incredible hospitality and parted ways. As we left I gave him a little something to say thank you for what he had done. He seemed embarassed to take it, but there was no way that we were going to let him off without it. For not only had he taken care of us, but he had sacrificed the majority of his two day leave for us. You see, he only got a couple of days a month off from the army and the day before he had traveled 8 hours to get home, and that afternoon he was going to travel 8 hours to get back to base. He'd spent the majority of his time that he was going to have with his family taking care of some strangers from Canada, who didn't even speak his language, and he was embarassed to be thanked for it. I hope I remember his hospitality the next time I find a tourist in Vancouver looking lost.

On the mini bus in Jember Colleen and I were very confused as to where we were going. Was this going to go all the way to Bondowoso, or just to another bus station. Well of course the woman sitting next to me was a nurse who was dying to practice her English, and was herself traveling to Bondowoso. (Very good karma again.) Apparently, in their time off, she and the other nurses get together to teach one another English. When we arrived at the appropriate Jember bus terminal she took us under her wing and got us on the right bus. Then, when that bus was cancelled she got us on the next right bus. Then, when that bus was also cancelled she got us on the next right bus. We would have been so confused without our Nightingale.

When it finally left, the bus from Jember to Bondowoso was pretty standard, and I was actually getting optimistic that we'd be able to get to Sempol by noon. Silly me. Silly silly me.

When we got to Bondowoso our nurse left us and it was time to get a minibus to Sempol. We were, as usual, surrounded by bus people, and picked one that seemed to have a decent looking minivan that was going our way. They loaded our luggage on top and we got in. Here the suffering started. After an hour sitting in the van, waiting for it to be loaded, we were dripping with sweat. Then we got moving. Yay! That wasn't so bad. Then we stopped and picked some people up. Then we stopped and picked up rice. Then we stopped and loaded gasoline onto the top of the van. Then we stopped and added more people. Then we stopped and added open buckets of tofu. Then more people. More rice. A muffler. A tire. People. Tofu. Then we stopped so the drivers wife could do some shopping. Stop after stop after stop, hour after hour, with more and more people, in the 35 degree heat, windows up, with most of our fellow passengers smoking. I'll never be able to truly explain how painful this was, but I can say that by the time we officially got going I truly hated every single person in that van. (Colleen excluded.) In the end, in a mid sized minivan, we had 23 people inside and 2 on the top, plus supplies for what turned out to be the whole village on the Ijen plateau.

The road up was amazing. Beautiful scenery, and I never thought that this insane van would make it. The road was washed out, potholed and scary. But we made it.

And of course when we got to Ijen plateau and Sempol, the whole loading process happened in reverse. This was more tolerable, since it was finite, and all the local children came out to see, wave to, and try their English on the funny white folks who had ridden up with the supplies.

Eventually everything was unloaded and we got our driver to take us to our destination, a coffee plantation with a homestay. Everyone in the van had told us to go to Arabika homestay, but our guidebook had said nice things about another one and we insisted on being taken there. When we arrived, after 10 minutes on an even worse road than before, it felt like we'd gone to some sort of Soviet factory commune with tiny dirty little rooms that we definitely infested with something. We immediately asked to be taken to the one they'd recommended in the first place. After much yelling and grumbling, they got back in the van to take us to Arabika. On our way we passed the same security checkpoint we'd passed on our way in. The driver seemed to tell the security guard (military? police?) what was happening and he started to yell at us too, which caused everyone else in the van except us to laugh.

When we eventually arrived at Arabika it was lovely. We got a VIP room, since we'd earned it that day, and it was still less than $20. We asked if we could get some food, as it was now after 4:00 and we had had no breakfast or lunch that day, just some cookies and ice cream on the road. Unfortunately dinner was not until 5:30. With no options, we dined on Pringles and Coke and tried not to kill each other before dinner.

Manning the homestay that evening was a very nice Indonesian woman who was doing her English homework. She was surprised that we'd taken public transit up, as most people arranged for private transport to get there. (Oy!) She enquired as to how long we were planning to stay. We told her two days - one to see Kawah Ijen and another to do a tour of the plantation. She informed us that the plantation didn't have much of a tour at this time of the year, as it wasn't harvesting season, and that we might be best served if we left the next day. This wasn't a lack of hospitality, this was actually a very kind recommendation, ensuring that we didn't regret being there. We agreed that we would only spend the one night, going up to Kawah Ijen the next morning and then heading back to Bondowoso that afternoon, in order to get to Gunung Bromo the day after. We asked her if she could set up some private transportation for us, as we'd rather not have a repeat performance of that afternoon.

Dinner that evening was not particularly spectacular, as only 3 of the 15 dishes on the menu seemed to be available, somewhat negating the purpose of said menu. But we did meet some fellow travelers, Hans and Peter from the Netherlands. Hans was retired and Peter was a school textbook salesman / Italian wine importer. They were both planning on going up Kawah Ijen the next morning at the same time as us, being driven by their hired driver. (The right way to do things) So they invited us to join them. The hotel woman would arrange for our transport to meet us at a rendezvous point after our hike to bring us back so we could shower and then head on to Bondowoso. Another perfect plan.

We woke up the next morning to dry toast and a hard boiled egg. The perfect breakfast for volcano climbing. We climbed into Hans and Peter's truck and their driver took us up to the starting point. We checked in, paid our government fee to hike the volcano, and set off. We hadn't seen any other tourists, and since we had been the only people in our "hotel", one of two in the region, we had the hill pretty much to ourselves.

The hike was 3 km uphill. At the start the going was easy and we couldn't understand why this walk was supposed to take an hour and a half. We'd be done in half that time. As usual, silly optimistic me. The hill got steeper and we got slower. I was in decent shape before we left, but that was several weeks and many many Bintang ago. Retired Hans and middle aged Peter went on ahead and Colleen and I struggled to keep up. Going the other way down the hill, passing us every minute or two, were Indonesian men carrying bamboo baskets full of hunks of sulphur. They walked under the weight as though it was heavy, but it squeaked like styrofoam. I had read that there were sulphur vents down the other side of the crater, and that was where these guys were coming from.

The hike was beautiful. It was hard work, but the area around us was lush. There were gibbons in the trees, although we didn't see them until the end on our way down. After about 50 minutes it started to level out to a moderate climb and we all caught our breath a bit. One of the sulphur carriers fell in with us on his way back up the hill and started chatting with Peter and Colleen. Yes, even this hardest working of manual labourers was able to speak a bit of English. He said that the baskets he was carrying weighted about 80kg, and that they were paid 400 rupiah/kg to bring it from the base of the lake up to the top of the mountain and then down again. This worked out to 32,000 rupiah per trip, which around here is very good money. Of course, we didn't believe that the basket could weight 80kg. After all, these guys couldn't weigh more than 50kg themselves, and I don't know if your average North American linebacker could carry 80kg up a mountain and down again several times a day. We carried on.

When we reached the top of the hike I decided that the buses and the van from hell had all been worth it. We stood on the lip of the crater. On one side was the hill that we had just hiked up full of lush trees and vegetation. On the other was a desolate wasteland completely barren of any sort of flora, with deep gouges running like veins down the slope, leading to a beautiful blue lake at the bottom. This was also the peak for the sulphur carriers, where they completed their summit and began their descent down the hill. We also ran into the only other foreigners we saw that day, a Dutch couple who, after discussing with Peter and Hans, all decided that this view far and away put Gunung Bromo, our next destination, to shame.

I had read that you could continue part way down the crater to get a closer look at the lake. What I had read also warned me to be careful, as it could be slippery on the scree and a French tourist had recently died when he'd slipped. I asked one of the sulphur carriers if it was OK to go down and he replied "pas de problem", which I took to be some sort of foreshadowing. I carried on down the hill, finding my way by following the path of sulphur droppings that the carriers had left behind. About half way down I stopped beside a carrier who had paused on his way up. His basket was sitting on a ledge in the cliff beside us and I asked him if I could try to lift it. He just smiled and indicated for me to go ahead. I got my back under it and tried to pick it up. I think maybe it might have moved the tiniest bit, but that may just be wishful thinking. They weren't lying about the 80kg. It was that, if not more. I probably outweighed this carrier by 50lbs, but there was no way I could even get the thing off the ground, let alone move it 5 feet or carry it up a mountian. At this point Colleen and Peter, who were following me down the hill, caught up. Peter decided to also give it a shot, being about 40lbs bigger than me. He got better position and went for the lift. Nothing doing. We paid the carrier for letting us try, then Colleen gave me the camera and headed back up the hill. Peter and I continued down.

As we got closer to the sulphur vents the smell got more powerful and the climb got tougher, but the view got even more amazing. The sulphur fumes were billowing out of holes in the rock. I doubt that our cameras will pick up on the beauty of this, and I'm sure I can't describe it, but the entire hill seemed to be exhaling great plumes of smoke. It was spectacular.

We had been told that we couldn't go all the way down to the bottom. But no one seemed to be stopping us, so we continued. When we got closer to the sulphur vents, where a crew was loading the baskets, one of them spotted us and started to yell. We thought he was telling us to go away, but then realized that he was giving us directions. The path was lost here and he was telling us how to get further down. We scrambled the rest of the way to the bottom, where the natural process of sulphur venting had become a semi-industrial operation, with men with picks and face masks breaking up the deposits. They were happy to see us and wanted to show us their operation. This was not a factory, this was plucking the sulphur off the hill as it poured out of steaming vents, and Peter and I both felt a little uneasy hanging around this clearly dangerous operation. We took a few photos, I posed with the crew, then we paid the crew and went to make our exit. Apparently I didn't pay enough, (cheap bastard that I am) so Peter gave them a bigger bill, which got them arguing amongst themselves about how to divide it. We hightailed it away.

We asked one of the nearby "miners" if it was OK to go the rest of the way down to the lake, only about 100 feet away and a little further down the hill. He said no problem, but that it was hot and that we shouldn't go swimming in it. Good advice. We walked down and stuck our fingers in. Pretty warm. We took a few more photos and decided that it was time to get out of this alien world. It was at that point that the wind shifted. It had been blowing nicely away from us the whole time, taking the sulphur fumes up the hillside and away. Now the fumes were coming out of the vent, downward and right into Peter and I. The miners had gas masks. We didn't. It didn't take long for this to become a slightly terrifying experience. We couldn't see. We couldn't breath. And we didn't really know where we were going. We started moving quickly up the hill, back the way we came, hoping that we'd get out of the noxious gas as soon as possible. Then, as quickly as it had descended on us, the wind shifted a bit again and we were out. A miner appeared on the hill above us and pointed us n the direction of a path out of the area and back up the hill. We moved pretty fast out of there, gasping for the relatively clean air. I don't think we were in any real danger, and I do think that if it had gotten worse the miners would have gotten us out of the fumes, but this was not an experience I would like to repeat.

Peter and I made our way up the hill following the sulphur trails. We'd get lost on the way up, then refind the trail. When we got to the top Colleen and Hans were waiting for us and we made our way back down the other side of the volcano. At the bottom we all sat down to a big warm Bintang and thought about the next part of our journey.

Our driver to take us to Bondowoso arrived and we said goodbye to Hans and Peter. At this point they asked us to hang on for a moment. Their driver had become ill and needed to return to his hometown with their rental car. He was going to drop them off at the ferry that we'd originally arrived on, as they were going to Bali next, then head back in the direction that we were going. After the great experience at Kawah Ijen, we had decided that we no longer needed to go to Gunung Bromo and its accompanying town, Probolinggo, as it would just be a disappointment, and now wanted to make our way over to Yogyakarta. Their driver would take us half the way, to a town where we could catch a train, and he thought that he could get us there by 6:00. Terrific we thought. We were in. We paid the driver that we were originally going to go with for the work that he hadn't done and climbed in with Peter and Hans for the ride to the ferry.

Remember how it had taken us about a day and a half to get from the ferry to Sempol by bus? Well with this driver, taking another more direct route, it took less than two hours. We wanted to cry. We had lunch with Peter and Hans, then got ready to go. At this point our driver said that there was no way he could get us to our destination by 6:00. It would be 11:00 by the time we arrived. And he was hungry and tired. Hans, who spoke Indonesian due to growing up in the country until he was 11, talked the driver into doing the drive, and so we set out.

After an hour it started to rain. One of those drenching Indonesian rains that soaks everything and reduces visibility to nothing. After another hour or so it started to get dark. I haven't talked in these dispatches about Indonesian traffic, roads and driving habits, but on a clear sunny day it is a terrifying thing. Two lanes at the most. Bikes. Scooters. Vans. Buses. Carts. Pedestrians. All passing one another at all times. Oncoming traffic is not a reason not to pass a slower vehicle, nor are blind corners. And now we discovered that weather conditions did not necessarily mean that traffic would slow, or be more conservative, or even that bikes and carts with no lights would get off of the roads. Our nice car and driver ride had now turned into another terrifying ordeal. We had been on the road for 4 hours and had another 4 or 5 to go before our destination. At this rate, with a tired driver, we were sure it was only a matter of time before something bad happened. Most likely us killing a cyclist. It was at this point that Colleen and I decided to throw in the towel. We'd stop at the next big town where we could get a hotel - Probolinggo - our orignal destination for the day. Our driver, thrilled to be rid of us, found us our officially recommended Lonely Planet hovel, dumped us on the sidewalk, and took off.

Thinking we'd earned it, we went for dinner at the most highly recommended place in town, Restoran Malang. The rain was still pouring, so we took a becak to a tiny grungy hole in the wall. Dinner was a scary combination of undercooked chicken satay and sweet and sour pork consisting of some white doughy substance. When we returned to the hotel we worked out the train schedule for an 11:00 departure the next morning and went right to bed.

The next morning we were awoken by breakfast being delivered to our room. (fancy fancy) Rice, tofu and sprout soup, and a cold old chunk of chicken. At the train station we tried to buy a ticket to Semanyuk and then on to Yogyakarta but their systems were down. All we could get was economy class from Probolinggo to Semanyuk. We'd have to take our chances there to see if we could get tickets to Yogyakarta. Frankly, economy class was bad, but not that bad. We couldn't find seats, but the ticket takers eventually made some people move over to make room for us. The air was hot, but one or two windows in the car opened, so it wasn't terrible. And the seats were hard and painful, but we only had to survive two hours, so it was fine. Plus, we were entertained at every stop by the vendors who would pile in to sell food and drinks. As we got closer to Semanyuk the type of vendors changed and an interesting sales process would take place. Items for sale would be dropped in your lap, in hope that you'd pick them up. Minutes later the vendors would come back and if you hadn't picked up the goods they'd take them back. This included goods ranging from Dora colouring books to knives.

When we arrived in Semanyuk we were ambushed by train station "assistants", looking for a little spare cash in order to give directions. We found the Executive ticket booth and tried to buy tickets for the next leg of our trip. Unfortunately Executive class was all sold out, so we had to go with Business class. This didn't sound too bad to me, until an assistant that wouldn't leave my side informed me that Business was the same as the economy train that we'd just gotten off. We got a very Indonesian lunch from the train station's Dunkin Donuts (Colleen - Lemon, Me - Boston Cream) and waited for our train. When it arrived we found our seats, assigned this time, and it turned out that business class was much nicer. There were a few fans on the ceiling, the seats were more comfortable, and there were fewer vendors. The six hours to Yogyakarta were fine.

Colleen gave me a new nickname on the train. She called me The Happy Traveler. Even though we were sweaty and had had a few exhausting days, I was perfectly content. Being on a train, moving along, in a foreign country, I felt great. She was looking forward to being at our destination. I think I was perfectly at ease with the journey. I like that name - The Happy Traveler.

Upon arrival at Yogyakarta we checked in at a hotel that Hans and Peter had recommended. Small rooms, but they seemed clean and very pleasant. We had dinner in the hotel, I went to a local Internet cafe to check messages and start this dispatch, then went back to the hotel and crashed.

The next morning, yesterday, we arose with nothing on the itinerary for the first time in ages. There were lots of things to do in Yogyakarta, but we didn't want to do them yet. We needed a day off. In the morning, after the hotel's "American" breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, I came back to this Internet cafe and wrote more of this letter. Colleen napped, read and did Sudoku. We took our laundry in. Yesterday afternoon we went for a walk down the nearby main street, which is also a huge market, Jl Malioboro, named after the Duke. After 1/2 an hour the skies opened up on usand it started to pour. Even the becak drivers hid. By the time we got back to our hotel we were soaked. I came back here, wrote a little more. We went for dinner at a little restaurant down a tiny alley nearby, and went to bed.

This morning I read a little - The Omnivore's Dilemma. We had a nice breakfast of banana pancakes. And got ready to set our on our day's adventure to the local palace, where the Sultan still lives to this day. There was to be a gamalan performance at 10:00 which, while being painful to my ears, was something we thought we should see. Just before leaving though, knowing that today was a public holiday, we checked with our hotel to see if the palace was open. It wasn't. So, back here to finish this baby.

To anyone who has made it this far in this dispatch, thank you for having such an interest in our lives. I had never intended to write this much when I sat down, but sometimes it's nice just to let the thoughts come out. I hope you've enjoyed or at least appreciated some of what I've jotted down.

We are having a wonderful time. It's not been the easiest trip so far, and it's probably not our best ever, but it has been refreshing and a good time to relax and think. We're dirty, sweaty and bug bitten. We're sad that we'll be missing Christmas with our families. But a break from our lives and the job that I really did not enjoy has been terrific. We're going to spend the next few days including Christmas in Yogya, then to Jakarta on Boxing Day to fly to Bangkok on the 27th. I hope not to have such a long break in messages going forward as my Internet bill over the past two days is higher than my hotel bill and I'm missing touring the city. But, in case we do have another long hiatus between messages, know that we're well and probably off having a terrific adventure.

No comments: