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 locating 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.
"Pangandaran! Pangandaran! Pangandaran!" Our ears were ringing with it.
The bus from Garut had a conductor on board. He stood up front on the bottom step and hung out the open door repeating this singsong mantra at the passing bushes as we slowed down for villages and crossroads and each unlikely cluster of rough dwellings. Patient Javanese would appear, hand over coins and ride a few miles, replacing others disembarking in the same piecemeal fashion. We might have been the only passengers who made the full journey from Garut down to the coast.
Lovely little Pangandaran (pan-gand-a-ran with a hard 'g') is a seaside village on a flat triangular spike jutting directly at the Indian Ocean. The peninsula's southern tip becomes a rising promontory of jungle - an oval of elevated land containing both a national park and a restricted-access nature reserve. It's a town that lives mostly off the sea, with a modest tourist industry catering to the intrepid. One can find good pictures, particularly of the town's colorful wooden tri-maran vessels, and other area details, at this website.
Traveling in this fashion, we weren't booking rooms ahead, preferring to visually reconnoiter and evaluate the ambience of potential lodgings in person. Accordingly, we sat at the town's outdoor market across from the depot, perusing maps and narrowing our choices, before seeking shelter nearby.
Our plans were altered by a woman who approached and offered enlightenment by means of a crude flyer advertising a nearby resort.
It was a few miles east, off the peninsula, situated on a lagoon and not listed in our books. Even from the homemade inkjet circular, the place looked attractive: a friendly air, a natural setting. So we called and waited for the promised pickup. Obviously, they didn't anticipate our overstuffed backpacks and sundry bags of Asian loot, because they sent two kids on tiny motorscooters to get us. After a lively discussion, they went back and returned with a van.
The worthwhile wait included a half-hour drive up the coast highway, then down a grassy cart-track across rice fields through a tidy workers' hamlet permanently shaded by giant palms. One more turn of the trail brought us to an archway made from branches. Beyond the gate, cute cabins were arranged in a horseshoe around a lily-padded lagoon, the interior courtyard a profusion of broadleaf plants and tropical flowers, linked by wooden bridges with rope railings. At its far end stood the main building with its large thatch-roofed deck offering passage to the exterior grounds
In this perimeter area, arranged for privacy under the palm leaves, two-story cottages stood on beams, a concrete bathhouse below a wood-planked living area. We chose one of these and hauled our cargo upstairs to a wrap-around balcony pointing across a canal at the ocean. We were close enough to hear the roar of crashing surf.
It was a small revelation, having found this place by chance. Apparently owned by a long-absent Dutch woman, operations were left to an unassuming posse of bright, young Indonesian locals working a just-in-time budget model. This jocular bunch would always ask your plans - if you were returning for supper, if you wanted beer - before making a grocery run, even getting us to settle our bill after two nights so to have available funds to supply our next few days. An understandable situation and not a problem for us, although the Bintang was never quite cold enough. This was a common challenge throughout our trip in these hot-weather outposts. With intermittent electricity and many businesses relying on old equipment, learning who has reliably frosty beer becomes precious knowledge for the beverage-inclined.
The aura of impoverishment was neither bleak nor seedy - this was another self-contained paradise. Our ardent hosts kept it fun, serving sweet banana pancakes and rich coffee as guests lingered peacefully on the big patio each morning. A fine Goreng, Nasi or Mi, was a dinner specialty. According to their menu, we only had to ask, and a designated climber would scamper up and knock down the main ingredients for a coconut cocktail served in the shell.
Accessible from the resort by self-operated rope ferry, the wide beach was almost deserted, the water devoid of swimmers due to relentless asymmetrical waves and deadly riptides. Even going out just over the knees, the undertow was felt and our swimmer's keenness was limited to shallow bodysurfing close to shore. More swimmable beaches were found north of town; the best one needing a drive. (See below)
Left: Sarah, instant friend.
Cleverly disguised, our hosts were running a conveniently located motorbike rental agency as well. That is, they were renting their own bikes for extra coin; dirt bikes, not scooters, for a change. One morning, we set out on a sightseeing mission, choosing to act as our own tour guides.
Above: two images from the settlement next door to our resort. Below: rice-growing on the marshy lands between the highway and the ocean.
Following potted, busy roads about 25kms. north and west of Pangandaran to the village of Cijulang, we first went looking for Cukang Taneuh, promoted to western tourists as the Green Canyon. That morning, being the only customers at the roadside landing area, we were offered a private tour at a reduced rate. Rupiahs were exchanged and we climbed aboard a long blue wooden boat, half-sheltered by canopy and powered by outboard motor.
At first, the flat, green water flows down in a lazy meander as dense vegetation crowds in from the shore. We rode the river upstream until it narrowed into a twisting gorge. Here, the pilot and his mate used barge poles to guide their craft next to small rapids. This is where visitors are allowed, for an allotted time, to disembark and walk upstream over damp rocks as light-dappled waterfalls spill over both sides of the canyon. There are naturally formed pools for swimming, although the footing can be tricky along the water's edge. We didn't linger long in the close, humid air, deciding to go downriver, get on the bike and look for some swimmable ocean.
We found Batu Karas beach, a minor surf mecca, a little farther southeast from Cijulang. (There's a medley of roads here, but the signage was reliable.) At the east end, a curving point forms a surf break; to the west, away from this action, meter-high waves roll up gently over soft sand. That afternoon, we had this little crescent to ourselves - the sun up behind an overhang of bush, putting the shoreline in shade, even as the water remained exposed to its rays.
Properly aquified, the day lengthening, we made our way back along the same roads to the resort. Along the straight stretch of crowded highway running north out of Pangandaran, my friend spotted the workshop of a wooden puppet maker.
Puppet theater is part of an important west Javanese tradition. A very thorough explanation of puppet history and craftsmanship can be found here. The shop owner gave us a brief tour of the hand-making process before putting on an impromptu performance in the dim light.
The instruments pictured below were set up in a shrine-like corner of the workshop. They represent another Indonesian tradition. It was on the patio of our resort here that we first heard the haunting, melodic Sundanese Degung music. Our hosts played it each morning with breakfast on the portable stereo and we had an immediate response. This genre of Gamelan gets under the skin and will improve your mood. After that, the music seemed to follow us the rest of the way on to Bali. The CD we found in Yogyakarta remains one of our most precious souvenirs.
Our last day included a few fretful hours at a Pangandaran travel agency securing tickets for the passage east through the "Inland Sea" and overland to Yogyakarta in central Java.
3. HARD PASSAGE ON THE INLAND SEA
March, 2003. South central Java.
Information was uncertain during the great SEA travel slump of early 2003. The worry of passenger shortfall meant no guarantees booking east out of Pangandaran going to Yogyakarta, so we were a little surprised the morning we travelled when a van arrived at our resort on time, already well-loaded. Getting everyone seated and their luggage stowed turned into a game of full-contact tetris. We were similarly perplexed at the Segara Anakan dock 15 kms. away, when we found our passenger ferry was actually a no-nonsense commercial scow meant for hauling small loads of freight to and from isolated villages.
This was central Java's Inland Sea.
It sounds exotic and mysterious, as if one might expect filtered light and large birds and not featureless tidal channels of ochre water cutting through an endless mangrove expanse. There was no verdant canopy overhead; these shores were lined with listless shrubbery growing too low to shelter our half-open boat from Java's midday sun. We were post-colonial versions of those Englishmen with their mad dogs, squinting into the haze, a flat murk stretched ahead of us, untroubled by landmarks.
Exiled from habits of affluence for the next few hours, our little group of western travelers found places on the forward deck's hard perimeter benches. There was a shaded area aft in the crude pilot house but this meant crowding against the frightening diesel clatter of the boat's overtaxed engine.
It was a noise that drowned any hope of hearing coastal birdlife. We were left to don sun hats, stake out some deck space and read our books. Another option was to sit and stare forlornly outward. There were a few stops at remote settlements for exchanges of cargo, but the schedule didn't allow for shore leave. The picture above is a dredging operation that produced a decibal uproar even greater than our own.
A certain kind of traveler derives a grim-minded satisfaction from these experiences and the assault on the senses is part of the bargain. Here was a fascinating slice of backwater authenticity - hard-working Indonesia unsullied by tourist frippery. My emphasis on the harsh is to counter what I've read in guidebooks and on the web about this journey; as if it's a jungle eco-cruise through a watery paradise. Maybe there is a passenger ferry without a skull-crushing motor, but we didn't see it.
The Dutch built a prison on the great island south of the boat channel; it is now Indonesia's top maximum security facility. One look at the surrounding hectares of trackless marsh might well encourage a general hopelessness among the inmate population and quell any realistic thought of escape. Below, a final vision of industrial dislocation: the refinery at Cilacap.
At Cilacap we boarded another van and drove until nightfall to get to Yogyakarta.
This was the last stop of our motorized trek across Indonesia's main island, Java. We arrived in a mini-van shared with other western travelers, ending a day-long journey from the Indian Ocean beach town, Pangandaran, that included a slightly grueling, four-hour "cruise" through waterways collectively known as The Inland Sea.
Yogyakarta (yō-gyə-ˈkär-tə) is a sprawling city of about half-a-million, close to the geographical center of the island of Java. This is the capital city of the Special Region of Yogyakarta, the only province in Indonesia still governed by the area's precolonial monarch, The Sultan of Yogyakarta. The land rises north of the city onto green agricultural hills, then more mountainous terrain covered in forest and dotted with volcanoes. Thirty kms. to the south, the Indian coast runs in a more or less east-west direction.
At first, Yogyakarta looks typical of other southeast Asian cities we visited - hot, polluted, teeming with street noise, an off-kilter medley of vehicles defying the basic concept of traffic lanes. A little time, however, and a closer look, reveals something unique, even special, to be pasted into one's mental travel scrapbook.
Planters along the sidewalks, outdoor cafes, funky business signs painted with artistic flair, an abundance of smiles - there was noticeable fun in the air and an openness to outsiders. This friendly feeling was dampened during our visit by world events, unfortunately. The Americans had invaded Iraq a few days before, unleashing public anger and vivid manifestations among the city's Islamic population. One afternoon, we were surrounded, then rebuked, by white-robed youth on the Malioboro sidewalk while witnessing one noisy march. I wanted to show sympathy and my Canadian passport, but the tension was dissolved when my friend spoke back to them in French. We didn't stick around and chat, but an incident was averted. I decided not to take casual pictures of the political uproar, thinking they might be cheap and exploitative. Of course, now I regret this decision.
Two pictures above, we see the becak, the human-powered, chain-driven three-wheeled taxi famous to the city, carrying a local woman on her rounds. Directly above is a line of these along Jalan Malioboro, Yogya's "Main" street, including a driver on downtime smoking the ubiquitous (among males) kretek, or clove cigarette.
We stayed in the Sosromenduran district northwest of the Kraton (Sultan's palace), recommended in guidebooks as well-located and traveller-friendly. Our visit lasted only four days so I have nothing to report about other areas, but 'Sosro' lived up to its billing with an abundance of budget lodgings (and a couple of swank places), art galleries and live music venues. Yogyakarta is a university town - the buzz of intellectual life was ever-present in these narrow streets.
Clockwise from top left: one of the long pedestrian passageways dissecting the district; tower for broadcasting Muslim call to prayer; street food kept warm by light bulb; chronological device at train station.
We were frequently approached by aggressive touts promoting "student art". One clothing store manager elaborately took time away from his shop to lead us through alleys to the "studio" of his good friend where we were cajoled by a succession of amazing offers. No doubt, there are many fine, talented artists in the city, but what we saw was no more than mediocre dreck that might be found anywhere. The enterprise didn't quite make sense; number one issue being this was the work of "students" who were "well-known" but willing to sell their work for a song.
We never were intending to buy; we just allowed ourselves to be carried along - a traveler's diversion that meant we could say, "Been there, done that," to any subsequent entreaties. I don't know if this is still happening, but, if so, watch your wallet, kids.
Pictured above: the soft colors of Yogyakarta's market scene. In some cases, a market might be an ad hoc spreading of wares on blankets at unmarked sidewalk locales. Below: a diptych displaying two extremes of the botanic odor spectrum; the foul durian fruit and the frangipani, or plumeria, a flower with a sublime, almost mood-altering fragrance.
What's that? Borobudor? The immense 1200-year-old Buddhist shrine on every Java traveler's must-see list? We didn't go. Our plans were changing and we decided to cut our Yogya visit short, thus sacrificing our visit to the monument. On the afternoon before our next-morning flight to Bali, feeling something like tourist's guilt, we took a last-ditch bus ride to the entrance area only to be put off by mobs of sightseers, the steep price charged to westerners and also by the time of day. (Borobudor, we had read, is best seen at the breaking of dawn.)
Prior to this minor fiasco, I did find my way northbound to Kaliurang, sitting up close under the angry eminence, Mt. Merapi, a perpetually active volcano. This is another former Dutch hill station, where colonial masters would retreat to escape the tropical heat. The bus dropped me at a crossroads restaurant, where I had tea alone among the staff. Then I went walking.
Going one way quickly brought me to a nice park, full of field-tripping high school students posing and singing by a shimmering waterfall. I retraced my steps to the cafe and then followed an old road winding upward, thinking a view of Merapi would be around the next curve. Or maybe the next. It became a daunting trek, high above the town, climbing into fog. I was standing, finally, at a mighty gully, losing initiative, when the fast-moving clouds briefly gave way and for a moment the volcano revealed itself between two steep ravine walls.
I banged off these two shots: above, missing the peak but showing the vast lava fields; below, the only one of the mountaintop billowing steam and ash. The latter is not a great digital file - I was working fast in changing light - and it manages to be both under- and over-exposed in the same shot. So I rendered it in black-and-white to help save the image and preserve the moment.
Another volcano story. We were bailing on an increasingly stressful Java. Confirming our eastward itinerary with travel providers became fraught with uncertainty and confusion. It made sense at the time to fly straight to Bali from Yogyakarta and simplify the final weeks of our Asian junket. Our biggest regret was having to pass up the pre-dawn hike to Gunung Bromo (video here and here), a smoldering landscape of active fissures and baby volcanoes lying within a massive ancient crater in eastern Java.
My companion and I were two out of only eleven passengers on the airliner during the early morning flight to Bali. About halfway along the captain directed the passengers to the right side windows. He was flying directly over Bromo. We were being luxuriously afforded a sweeping, unobstructed view of the vulcan spectacle under a cloudless sky, albeit without the pony ride.