A night flight from Medan brought us to Jakarta in darkness. By the time our taxi rolled up to a point where we could find a hotel near Gambir Railroad Station, the hour was late. Indonesia's sprawling capital was on our itinerary only as a launching point for crossing the island of Java to Pangandaran on the Indian Ocean side. We recall little of the teeming, narrow streets - a long, mountainous Sumatra bus ride followed by a few hours of air travel had us wanting only a night's sleep before catching an early train to the inland city of Bandung.
Above: a daybreak view of downtown Jakarta from our hotel window. Now imagine the sound of dozens of loudspeakers broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer across the early morning air; an eerie, compelling noise to unfamiliar western ears.
Gambir Station (Google Map) was modern and spacious. We got to our train without jostling or drama and found two coach seats together at the back of the car. The usual hawkers came aboard, but it was a practiced routine. No hard selling, yet - we were free to relax and enjoy the morning journey to Bandung.
Look at a population-density map in any atlas and you'll see Java glowing deep red. It is the world's most populated island. It is also a large island, outsizing Cuba, Iceland and Newfoundland, meaning loads of people here, over 130 million.
When a good segment of these inhabitants are haphazardly driving unregulated vehicles, flaunting safety precautions, smoking wherever they choose, an impression of pandemonium asserts itself. Not quite lawlessness - we never felt danger, just beleaguered at times, almost overwhelmed by the seeming anarchy. Personal boundaries are differently defined in this crush of humanity. One needs to get used to constant, sometimes ridiculously persistent, offers of help in exchange for a little of one's travel funds. The inevitable conflicting priorities between local and traveller can add monumental futility to even the simplest task. This is a poor country. Understanding and a sense of humor are strongly advised.
Even with the Malthusian pressure, Java is a beautiful place; a strange, magical landscape of rice terraces, tea fields, perfect volcanoes, crashing seashores and the red-clayed soil from which the ubiquitous Javanese roof tile is made.
Above: he saw my camera, called me over and struck a fierce pose beside a bus at the Bandung station. In the end, instead of a bus ride, we negotiated a pretty good deal with a taxi driver to take us, in the relative comfort of a mid-sized car, on to Garut, famous for its thermal waters, where we were planning to stay one night.
Garut was a posh, thriving hill station in colonial days; now an air of decline pervaded the hotel zone. We knocked on many doors before finding a room with the piped-in natural spa waters promised in the guide books. Then finding towels required a minor mobilization of Garut's innkeeper community.
Surrounded by dark hills and distant volcanoes, we enjoyed a meal of street satay, cooked over coals stoked by a bamboo fan, in the sultry evening air.
Above: slowly but surely the huge tiled tub filled with comfortably hot thermal water piped directly from the mountainside. Below: a pond reflecting a faint volcano in the dawn light.
It was next morning that the crazy started. Commercial Garut is a rather different place from the resort district. Our search for the bus station resulted in a small mob following us through the streets, grabbing at our luggage, giving us conflicting directions. We were freaks: two blondish Canadians, far from home, out of our cultural depth, getting sneered and laughed at, even by passing busloads.
We finally found the empty Pangandaran bus, bought tickets, climbed aboard and then waited while it filled, as is the custom, to full capacity, meaning not a square inch left, sitting or standing, before we were underway. An interesting ride, with many, many stops, down to the ocean.
I'll be posting the next leg soon.