Dispatches are stored at PerpetualTravel.com
True to the title, this dispatch is sporadic. Finding access can be easy, but expensive. When it is free, there is never enough time, as there are many distractions. You will find that this is less detailed than previous dispatches. It is easier for us to summarize what we have learned, and also show what is possible in a short time, rather than talk about each person we met and everything we did along the way. You might also notice that many of the stories deal with transportation, but only because of the interesting interactions that occur in this common situation.
This dispatch is called "Southeast Asia - Part 1," since we will be returning here after three months in Australia and New Zealand. Asia was an intense experience that overwhelmed our senses more than we could ever have anticipated. We have just started to travel and are adapting to the rhythm, packing and unpacking in less than fifteen minutes, and quickly locating places to lay our heads and whet our appetites. More and more we run into travellers who have been on the road for four to six years, serving as a reminder that there is nothing unique about long-term travel.
Our flight was on time, leaving Los Angeles at 2am. After dinner and a long nap, we arrived in Taipei at 6am. Some time during the night, we had crossed the International Date Line, losing August 3, 1995 forever. After some serious people-watching during the two-hour stopover, we continued our flight towards Singapore. We were glad to get going, as China had started 'missile diplomacy' by lobbing test missiles into the ocean just to the north of the island as a way of getting their message across.
Kuala Lumpur (koo-alla loom-pore) started out as just another stop on the way to Singapore, but quickly transitioned into a highlight of our travel adventure. All the seats in the boarding area face the check-in counter and there were nearly a hundred people in the room, when a rather heavy-set man from the US, wearing an undersized T-shirt and holding up his oversized jeans, walked up to the counter. He was not wearing a belt, and had forgotten to continue to hold his pants up while he was at the counter. It didn't take long for everyone to notice that his jeans only made it halfway up to his waist, and his T-shirt only halfway down his back. There was a small rumble of laughter from the normally quiet Malays, as they are not used to being mooned in public. Everyone recovered in time to board the plane for the final destination.
Although many people back home had expressed their concerns about Singapore's strict controls, we were pleasantly surprised when we breezed through Immigration, and Customs showed very little interest in us. Neville, a friend who was home on vacation from FIT, picked us up and took us around the city before helping us find a place to stay on Beach Road. One of the first things we noticed, apart from the cleanliness and orderliness, was that the drivers very rarely use their horns, so we were able to hear the birds singing in spite of being in the center of this large city.
We spent a day recovering from jetlag before setting out on our daily walks through the city. Thanks to a friend's advice, we had learned to navigate the crowds. It is a game of chicken, where everyone pretends not to see you and hopes you will get out of the way. The trick was to do the same, but lean forward a little.
We visited the Arab District, Little India, and Chinatown, sampling as many foods as possible at the hawker centers and night markets, when we were not stopping in huge, air-conditioned shopping centers for temporary relief from the intense humidity. The older areas are under renovation and covered with bamboo scaffolding. The horizon is lined with cranes erecting new condos and business offices. We were lucky enough to be here for Independence Day and the military air show, as the island was decorated to the hilt with red and white flags.
Escaping our home and travelling across the US was pretty tiring, so we slowed down greatly and started getting into the travel mood. Not too excited about getting online, and when we found telnet access, the links were too slow to stay on long enough to accomplish much. Completed the second dispatch and sent it out from another friend's email account. That would be our last access for a month.
We had not intended to stay as long as we did, but we had many friends from school and the Internet to visit, and had a few delays due to rain and the exhausting humidity. There were also many interesting people in the guesthouse to talk to: Lee from Malaysia works two months of the year here before setting out on wild adventures throughout Asia; Alfred from Liberia was heading to Papua New Guinea on assignment with the UN, and had many fascinating if not grim stories about his region of Africa.
Marc got sick enough from all the new microbes in the food that he had to visit a doctor. The diagnosis was a simple case of stomach virus. Immodium and rehydration salts to the rescue. The symptoms were scary at first since they were similar to Dengue Fever, which had been going around lately. While recuperating, we learned a new travel skill to obtain needed information and meet people: leave a map open and other travellers cannot resist telling you about their experiences there. From this, we made quick plans to get on the train heading north into Malaysia, in order to get to Sumatra, instead of rushing to Java and Bali.
The train was only four minutes late. This ten-hour ride gave us our first taste of Southeast Asia's rich and fertile lands, covered with green plants, including the banana, palm, and rubber plantations. After dropping our bags in a decent little Chinese hotel, we headed out for dinner.
Ipoh (ee-poe) is known for its excellent Chinese cuisine and we liked the people and the atmosphere. We asked for directions from a friendly man named Tan, whom we met on the street, but he promptly threw us in his car for a tour of his city. He felt it his duty to repay a favor to travellers after others had helped him when he was lost in Melbourne, Australia while visiting family.
It was Karin's turn to be sick, so we opted for the train out instead of the bus. At the station, we met Ernst, the wild man from Berlin, who had just emerged from a few weeks of jungle trekking in Sumatra, Borneo, and Malaysia, and convinced us to take the rough road through the mountains of Sumatra.
We arrived in Butterworth at 9pm without a clue how to get to the island of Penang (puh-nahng), so looked around for backpackers heading in the same general direction. The only person there was Ted, from Perth, Australia, who was as lost as we were. We quickly learned that the ferry was just around the corner, so he decided to follow us instead of staying there for the night. His sense of humor provided plenty of entertainment, and we were impressed by his language skills, which saved us plenty of hassles at the dock.
We checked in at a hotel and headed up to the roof for a nice view of the city and to hear his interesting stories from twenty years of working in copper and gold mines in Indonesia. The next few days were spent roaming through the city and to the beach, while marvelling at his ability to bargain on everything.
We survived the five-hour, high-speed boat ride across the Melakan Straits unscathed, but many others suffered from motion sickness. Everyone was relieved when the boat finally docked and we got a breath of fresh air. One of the Customs inspectors called us over to the side and tried to convince us that his friend, the money-changer, was the only one open in town, it being a holiday. We got around this scam by letting him know that we had already changed money in Malaysia and thanked him for the help. We were becoming roadwise, and not a moment too soon.
A bus took us to the overcrowded and polluted city of Medan (may-don), where we were the first off and immediately surrounded by thirty persistent touts, all tugging at us from different directions and trying to convince us to go with them to their guesthouse. This was our first experience in a situation like this. The other travellers were just as unprepared and the touts knew it. After five minutes, we felt that we were in no danger and walked away, travellers and touts following closely behind. Our lucky compass helped orient us on the map and we were soon on our way to a decent guesthouse just down the street. Along the way, we were greeted by the friendly local children with the popular phrase "Hello Meester." A smile and "Hello" was all they wanted in return.
In the lobby at the hostel, we met Bram from Holland. He had just finished work in Tunisia and was travelling around Southeast Asia. We never realized that we would be seeing so much of him, on and off, for a month and a half. We joined three other travellers and wandered around the city in search of food that evening. Settled on the safe side with nasi goreng (fried rice with vegetables) and sate (sah-tay) skewered chicken with a delicious peanut sauce).
It was not until 4:45am the next morning, when we were introduced to the Islamic call to prayer, that we remembered that the Mosque was right across the street. The earplugs were useful, especially when the children, dogs, roosters, and vehicles got cranking. This theme continued throughout Indonesia and taught us the virtues of going to bed very early, like everyone else.
After visiting a bank to obtain money at a good exchange rate, we hopped on the local bus to our next destination for our first experience with: seats much too small for Marc's long legs, and buses packed beyond capacity. We also noticed that bus drivers use their horns continuously as a communication tool -- their hand never leaves it. Honking could mean anything from 'coming through' to 'hello'.
After winding our way through the mountain roads and terraced rice fields, we arrived at our next retreat, Bukit Lawang (boo-keat lah-wong). Shortly before arriving, an official-looking guy boarded, making his way through the bus and demanding an 'entrance fee' to the village from the four Westerners on board. He was not very happy when everyone got off the bus and ignored him. We figured that if he was legitimate, he would have made more of an effort to prove his authority.
This village is very popular for the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, but we were sad to see the situation on weekends. Hundreds of people stream into the woods and start feeding them, after having been asked not to. The rest of the time we enjoyed relaxing along the river, watching people ride inner tubes down the harmless-looking but dangerous rapids, while we ate gado-gado (a dish of vegetable and peanut sauce), pisang goreng (fried bananas), and drank the strong, but sweet coffee. We spent a few days here, then hit the road again.
One of the more interesting places we visited, Berastagi (bruss-tah-gee) is a pleasant 500m-long (1550 ft) town set in the mountains. Due to the rich volcanic soil in the area, it has an impressive fruit market. Cool nights made it necessary to cover up with blankets, and our fleece jackets were never far away.
Hiked 2100m (6500 ft) up the smoking volcano, Gunung Sibayak (goo-noong see-ba-yahk), in three hours. We captured the essence of the sulphur fumes bellowing out of the vents, as we made our way across the crater valley, before descending a steep and slippery path to the hot springs. Due to the difference in pacing and interest, we re-learned the lesson that three is the max for happy hiking, two is great, and one is perfect.
One night we wandered around in the dark during a blackout in town, until we found the Rumah Makan Musliminn. This was a Padang style restaurant where they filled the table with thirty delicious dishes: curried chicken, onion soup, mixed veggies, potato cakes, fish, eggs, rice, meat, pork, pineapple, and papaya fruit salad, tea, and coffee. These are our favorite kinds of restaurants, since the food is spicy and healthy, and the meal costs just over US$1 per person. After discussing trip plans, Bram decided to follow our path through the mountains to the north of Sumatra.
Off the beaten track in the heart of the Gunung Leuser National Park, we arrived at our bungalows in Ketembe (kuh-tom-bay). We immediately saw gibbon monkeys playing in the trees, with the Alas River providing a spectacular background. Our bungalow was a no-frills, no electricity, wooden room on stilts. Another guest had seen a tiger drinking at the river in the morning. Flying high in the trees overhead were odd-looking and noisy rhinoceros hornbills.
Funny coincidence: Bram and Jan, another Dutchman we met in Berastagi, hiked to hot springs where they met Cor and Bettie, friends Jan knew from childhood and had not seen in years. We met them later that evening, when they visited our camp for dinner.
Time to move on. After a lovely breakfast of banana pancakes with honey, we bid adieu to Jan. Marc and Bram sat on top of the bus for a three-hour morning ride through mountains, with a scenic view of the river and rice fields far below. After lunch, the narrow road was rocky or washed out from rain and landslides, making for a very different ride. Everyone had to get inside the bus as we approached our next stop.
Blangkejeren (blahn-kah-jear-en) is a small town in the mountains and a good base for trekking. It also has some friendly people who enjoy talking to the rare foreigners who pass through. They especially liked Karin's hairstyle and thought she was Indonesian, which explained why so many people stare at us. We just happened to be in town during a local concert, but decided to listen from across the street along with half the population, instead of crowding inside with the other half. It was a special night, seeing everybody with their hair down, enjoying the pleasant evening together.
We started learning Bahasa Indonesia in Singapore, and noticed that much of what we had learned could be used in Malaysia since the languages are so similar. Indonesian was easy to learn, and we received plenty of positive encouragement when we used it. Having the language under our belts also paid off immediately since we would meet interesting people day and night and were able to communicate with them. We found that we were always late, because we listen to anyone, and there were so many fascinating stories.
Sad but true, our room at the Penginapan Juli Guesthouse should have been condemned. It was dirty, had holes in the wall, the ceiling was falling, there were chickens and Mynah birds next door, and loud neighbors in the next room. Not only did it have many mosquitoes, but they were so loud that we thought the Air Force was flying by. We always use an Army Surplus mosquito net, and this was one night we could not have survived without it. We are not sure why the owner allowed motorcycles to be started inside, but after this at 4:00am, the mosque's call to prayer, and the owners children screaming in the halls, we were motivated to be on the bus and on our way in the morning.
When a guy on the bus found out that Marc was an "Ameeri-con," he said, "Saddam Hussein" instead of the usual "Beel Cleenton." We later found out that the US, for some reason, had just sent 28,000 troops to Kuwait. At a military checkpoint, all bags and some locals were searched closely, due to the growing of illegal plants in this area. Everyone passed inspection! We had just left the National Park and entered an area of pine forests with plenty of logging, which left the hills bare. It was a somber sight the rest of the way.
We had heard that Takengon (tah-kang-gong) was different, but never realized we would feel like we were from another planet. It was very unusual receiving plenty of stares, but no smiles or even a hello from anyone. The night was just as cold.
On our way to catch the bus out of town, we stopped for gado-gado next door, where we saw the peanut sauce being made from scratch using a grinding stone. The woman crushed the peanuts and hot water together, then added some chilies and shallots. Finally met a friendly person at the bus station here, a handsome motorcycle driver who was glad to engage in a deeper level of conversation than we had been used to so far in Indonesia. We secured seats on the bus and were on the road before long. After dropping down out of the mountains, the bus followed the busy and bumpy coastal road for seven hours.
When the bus reached Banda Aceh (bahn-dah ah-chay), we stood in the aisles trying to come up with a plan of attack, seeing that the bus was surrounded by touts. Marc was approached by a young Muslim woman, wearing a jillbob (headscarf), who asked the magic words, "Can I help you?" And so we came to meet Dewi, a very well-spoken Acehnese university student.
The receptionist at our first choice of accommodations, the Losmen Aceh Barat, said they no longer take foreigners, so we checked into the Losmen Pelambang, another interesting learning experience. The room was cooking like the city, and while we were setting up the mosquito net and taping up peepholes in the wall, we heard a noise outside. Marc was just as surprised when he scared away two teens outside the room looking through the cracks. Jan, who we had met in Berastagi, happened to be staying in the Losmen Pacific nearby, so we moved there the next day. It turned out to be the best place and it overlooked the night market where we found excellent food and atmosphere.
During the next few days, Dewi showed us the city and gave us an inside view of life in her village. Her family thought Karin was Acehnese and Marc was Middle Eastern, as he had grown a beard. She took us to a beautiful beach which reminded us of the ones in St. Maarten, however these had WWII Japanese pillboxes (gun emplacement bunkers) to explore as we strolled along the shore.
One of our favorite places, Banda Aceh is considered to be one of the most fanatical Muslim cities. We saw no evidence of this and found that the people are very friendly and speak a bit more English, allowing us to communicate better. The mosque is a stunning site, and the market next door is what we would expect to see in a large bazaar in the Mideast -- small, endless corridors packed to the ceiling with basic supplies and fresh food. At times, we went there just to meet people and roam around. One revealing conversation took place there, when a man told us that as a young boy it hurt him when foreigners refused to speak to him when all he wanted was to practice English. He appreciated our willingness to stop and talk with him for half an hour.
The time had come to bid farewell to Bram, who was heading south, as we firmed up our plans to move farther north to an island not far offshore.
The first people we saw as we boarded the double-decked steel ferry were Cor and Bettie, who we had met in Ketembe. Once the ferry got into open waters, we were surrounded by locals with motion sickness, yet we managed to retain our lunch. We hit the dock in Pulau Weh (poo-lao way) running and hopped on a bus, a covered Datsun pickup with benches, which took us for a ride over luscious green mountains to a secluded village on the other side of the island.
We stayed in bungalows on stilts at the shore, overlooking the beach. They were equipped with a mattress, mosquito net, and a hammock on the front porch. There was no electricity, no running water, no telephone anywhere nearby, and we had minimal facilities. The rumah makans (restaurants) served an excellent set meal of fresh fish, for which reservations were required, which let them know how much to cook. We had effectively fallen off the planet.
We awoke our first night to the sound of a rainstorm with strong winds, which sent a few drops through the roof and mosquito net onto us. While checking for more leaks, we spotted a scorpion clinging to the door. Marc chased him away and we went back to sleep. The next day we walked along the shore, enjoying the abundant coral and fish that were easily visible through the crystal clear water. We wanted to go snorkelling, but the weather was too stormy.
John, a retired man from Lakeland, Florida living in Southeast Asia for five years, told us that he had heard on the shortwave radio that Hurricane Luis was making its rounds in the Caribbean. That night he confirmed that St. Maarten, Karin's home island, had in fact taken the full brunt of eighteen hours of this hurricane and that much of the island was damaged by the 280km (175 mph) per hour winds. It would be another three months before she could speak to her parents, although we tried regularly to contact them.
The time we spent on this island was far too short as we would have loved to stay for at least a month, but had to keep moving due to visa limits and flight plans.
After we returned to Banda Aceh, we took a ten-hour bus ride down the little-travelled west coast of Sumatra with Dewi, to visit her friends. Along the way, we saw a goat standing on top of another bus heading in the opposite direction; we had seen animals on buses before, but this took the cake. The drivers are amazing -- they can navigate twisting, mountain roads, predicting the speed and actions of: people, animals (dogs, goats, and buffaloes), and vehicles (bikes, becaks, bemos, buses, and trucks), while dodging pot holes and large buffalo droppings.
We were talked into taking our first becak (beh-chock, a human-powered bicycle cart) from the Tapaktuan (tah-pock-two-ahn) bus station to Dewi's brother's house on the beach, a mere 20m (62 ft) from waves crashing against a 2m-high (six feet) seawall. We visited the Seven Step Waterfall, with pools between each one, tucked away in a forest of nutmeg trees. We met some local bank officials, while enjoying the atmosphere and seeing the locals swim around in what we considered to be cold waters. In general, we found the people in this area much friendlier at night, when they would sit along the streets and were eager to chat. During the day, they would stare and barely smile.
One night some 'officials' came to the house to give Dewi a hard time about 'guiding' us around since there is an 'Official' Guide Association that would like to maintain tight control, then they tried to bully us into giving money to get them to leave. She was worried that they or the police would show up later, so had a friend stay the night. We considered getting a hotel that night or leaving the next morning, but decided to wait it out.
After Dewi went back to school in Banda Aceh, we stayed at an old Dutch house run by an Indonesian couple who had been educated by the Dutch colonialists in the late 1940s. Karin got to practice speaking Dutch and singing Dutch songs with the owner. We learned about the legend of "Tapak Tuan" (Bigfoot).
We were on a bus heading for Lake Toba, but our posteriors were so numb after the nine-hour bus ride at 100km/hour (62 mph), that there was no way we could go any farther. We decided to spend the night recovering in a familiar setting.
We had been unable to reach anyone in Curacao or St. Maarten to find out what the hurricane status was, so we telephoned Milly, Karin's sister in Holland, and Marc's mom. We finally found out that Karin's parents were okay and the family house had only sustained minor damage. Things were looking better, but it would be some time before the utilities were restored. That night we slept with heavy blankets, which they had thoughtfully provided, shielded from the 10°C (50°F) temperatures.
The 'tourist' bus out of town was full, but somehow the receptionist at the guesthouse managed to get us seats and sold us tickets shortly before it was due to depart. We were told that we would be picked up at the guesthouse, but suspected something was wrong when half an hour after scheduled departure, we were still sitting in the lobby and there was no sign of the bus. We found out that the bus was already on its way when a taxi showed up to race us to the scheduled waterfall tour stop.
When we caught up half an hour later, we found that there were in fact two buses, a large tour bus and a minibus, doing the job of one. There were no seats, so Karin sat on the dashboard and Marc sat on the stairs. After a few more scheduled tour stops, one where we bought delicious fresh persimmons, the ride was finally over. We arrived at Parapat, a city whose only claim to fame is that it has a ferry service to an island nearby.
We boarded a ferry for the hour-long ride across the lake and were immediately a captive audience for the many touts selling 'their' guesthouse on the island. One of the touts was hassling a Dutch couple, Jef and Rosine, and became very vocal, flashing his knife when they would not agree to stay at his guesthouse. This convinced twelve others, who had planned on staying there, to change their minds and go elsewhere, resulting in lost business for King's (formerly Gordon's). Everyone was relieved when the tout got off at his guesthouse, and we could continue with our lives.
Shortly afterwards, we arrived at Ambarita, a town on Pulau Samosir (poo-lao sah-moe-seer), the 20km by 45km (13 by 28 mile) island in the middle of the 30km by 90km (19 by 56 mile) aqua-blue Lake Toba, formed by a collapsed volcano crater. It was very hazy due to locals burning trees and bushes, but the peaceful morning view of the mountains surrounding the lake was wonderful. In the evenings, the staff played local music, sang, and danced on the terrace next to the restaurant. We had heard of the infamous magic mushroom omelet, but noticed it was not on the menu here.
Approximately half the tourists in Indonesia were from the Netherlands, visiting the ex-colony; two Dutch couples invited us to look them up when we got to Holland.
We spoke with a local man who told us that America is seen as an 'Economic Colonist' (guess they aren't familiar with the newer term 'Economic Imperialism). When asked why there is so much burning going on, he told us that they are burning the trees in protest since the government logs the trees without compensating the landowners.
Back in Parapat, Marc convinced the manager at the bus station to get us good seats, relating our previous experience with his bus company. It was just as well, as this was to be a rollercoaster ride, with the driver flying down the mountain, hitting the hairpin turns like a slalom course -- our first clue should have been the sticker of a checkered racing flag on his visor. We asked the guy on the bus for 'plastique' bags and started handing them out to the locals around us in time for the great heaves which followed. We stopped for dinner not long after, with predictable results when we got back on the rollercoaster.
During the night we could see a rainstorm up ahead, complete with flashing and rumbling. At some point we crossed the equator, a first for both of us. Around 4:30am there was a five-hour delay waiting for the road to open up. A work crew had been busy all night clearing away a slick, orange-red, clay landslide caused by the rainstorm.
We arrived seven hours late, after a twenty-hour ride. At the station, we ran into a Dutch traveller we had met in Berastagi. Gerwin had graduated and was seeing the world before launching his career. We headed for the Wisma Bukittingi (boo-keat-ting-gee), where we got rooms and dropped our bags before heading to the Canyon Coffee House. It is a restaurant around the corner, famous for its dadiah campur, a local dessert consisting of a bowl of cubed fresh pineapple, papaya, and bananas, sprinkled with oats, drizzled with molasses, doused with buffalo yoghurt, and dusted with grated coconut. You have not lived until you have had one of these, so we had several during our stay.
We went to a traditional Minangkabau (me-nahng-kah-bau) bullfight, where two buffalo bulls of similar size and strength charge each other, locking horns to engage in a fierce shoving match. The loser is determined to be the bull who runs off pursued by the winning bull and the owners not far behind, ensuring that their prized bulls do not disappear into the rice paddies down the hill. It was fun to see the crowd of spectators surround the bulls on the muddy field, then scatter in all directions as the fight moved closer to them.
We did not get to see the inside of the Japanese caves, as the rain in the area had caused them to collapse. While strolling through the canyon one day, we saw the entrance to the caves. Two local men explained to us that the Japanese had brought in Indonesians from the other islands to dig them, as they posed less of a security risk not being familiar with the area. They also told us that one of the caves was set up as a decoy to protect the real one, where all the goods were stored.
It was Sunday, a day of travel for the Indonesians. The buses were full, the people waiting to get on the bus were many, and the touts trying to convince us to pay five times as much for their taxi were plentiful, but we soon discovered that there was room enough on the regular buses to cram the two of us and our backpacks in. Our first attempts failed, but soon we were on board and well on or way.
We stopped and visited a friend's father on our way into the city. He took us into the city and helped us find Hotel Benjamin, conveniently located downtown near all the amenities we would need. Nearby was a market with fresh fish, veggies, and fruits, as well as live eels squiggling in buckets of water. Karin bought some delicious and cheapsawo, also known in other parts of the world as sapodillas, sapota, or mesapples.
The city is big, clean, and modern compared to the other cities we had visited in Sumatra; and like elsewhere, we found it safe enough to walk around at night. We met a policeman one night at a food stall, and like many people we met in Padang, he was well-versed in English.
We enjoyed the guesthouse with its balconies overlooking a courtyard, where locals would hang out and chat. Here we spoke with a man who was preparing for his Hajj pilgrimage to Makka next year. He was quite a happy and funny man with many fascinating stories, so we were in no hurry to leave whenever we met him in the courtyard. One night Karin surprised him by wishing him "mimpi manis" (sweet dreams) as we retired for the day.
After our previous bus rides, we decided to splurge and buy ourselves airline tickets to Jakarta, avoiding the forty-or-more-hour bus ride through the deforested mountains of southern Sumatra, and the fifteen-minute ferry-ride across the straits. The flight was a treat well worth the extra cost.
We had heard that Jakarta was one of the most polluted cities in the world, but were not expecting what we found. As the luxury airport-shuttle approached the city, we were submerged in a hot, humid, and smoggy cloud. Once we emerged from the safety of the shuttle, our eyes would burn and throats would be scratchy for the duration of our stay. It looked like a big, dirty US city tightly packed with shops. There were many beggars and touts trying to sell us dictionaries. This was also the first city where we were careful not to wander aimlessly at night.
When we checked into the guesthouse, Bram, who we had travelled through northern Sumatra with, heard our voices in the hallway and came out of his room for a reunion. We shared travel stories, and before long we were again off in different directions.
We visited the National Museum and its nice collection of artifacts from all over Indonesia, including large relief maps of Java, Bali, and Sumatra, and a chart showing the difference in the clothing styles and facial features of the many peoples inhabiting the islands.
We tracked down Tono, a handsome friend of Chinese descent who had gone to school in the States and returned to Jakarta to help run the family business. Over an excellent dinner at the Sahara Indian Restaurant, we talked about travel and computer stuff, and before long he had kidnapped us for a few days of Internet training. In return we savored the luxuries of AC, hot showers, and Internet access. The connection was slow most of the time, but we managed to read our email, and send a few messages to friends and family.
We were able to tear ourselves away from the computer and go on a field trip to the Bogor (bo-gore) Botanical Gardens, where we enjoyed the abundance of flowers and thousands of trees from all over the world. It rains 300 days a year in this region, but the climate was pleasant, making for a perfect day to stroll and talk.
Tono extended an invitation to stay longer. As tempting as it was to just park here, we managed to drag ourselves away, making it to the train station in time to buy food and get on board.
Five and a half hours later the train pulled into the Cirebon (chee-rah-bone) station and once again we set out on a quest for room and board. There were an unbelievable number of becaks outside the station, but our guesthouse was nearby and the night was cool, so we saddled up for the hike down the street. The city is small and the people very friendly.
Breakfast the following days included a chocolate sprinkle (Dutch muisjes) sandwich and Javanese coffee, which we enjoyed on the terrace in the company of our neighbors and other locals in the area, who would stop by to visit. We would spend many mornings and evenings in deep conversation here. One night we stayed up until well after midnight talking with two men who spoke English as well as Dutch pretty well. They enjoyed practicing their language skills on us since they rarely got a chance to speak to travellers. One of them told us that on many occasions he has had to assure them that he is not after their money and only wants to talk. Once again we were able to enjoy a level of conversation which too few travellers experience.
We toured the Kraton Kespuhan, a palace built in 1527 blending Javanese, Islamic, Chinese, and Dutch styles. The Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, and Egyptians were represented in the museum, where we saw a 17th century gilded coach, the Kereta Sinabarang, designed with the trunk of an elephant (Hindu Indian), body and head of a dragon (Buddhist Chinese), and wings of a bird (Islamic Egypt). Four large, white buffalo had been used to pull the coach, the rocking motion causing the wings to flap. This must have been some sight.
The morning we were leaving, we spoke with a man whose wife had died from malaria two years ago, a grim reminder of why we carry our mosquito net and use repellents so religiously here. It was hard to understand how this could happen in a country with extensive medical facilities and knowledge of the issue.
The five-hour train ride was uneventful, with smoky valleys and rice fields. We arrived in Yogyakarta (joag-jah-car-tah) and settled in at a guesthouse, securing the last available room. When we sat in the lounge to watch TV and read the newspaper, we noticed that the news had lost its continuity in our lives. We had been so out of touch with regular news that what little we saw here seemed meaningless and distant.
We could not get this close without visiting Borobudur (bo-ro-boo-door), a Buddhist temple that was covered in volcanic ash soon after it was built in 750-850 AD. It was excavated in 1815 and fully restored by the late 1980s. An impressive structure, it has a 200-square-meter (620 sq-ft) base and six levels, each with friezes explaining the religion. On the lower (hell) and middle (earth) levels, there are 400, 2m-tall (6 ft) Buddha statues staring out over the surroundings. On the top (heaven) level, seventy-two statues are under latticed stupas (stone covers), and there are no friezes, since this level represents nirvana.
Richard, a traveller from Melbourne, Australia, (who we met in Penang) had given us the name of a becak driver to contact about a city tour when we got here. We tracked him down and arranged for a comprehensive tour which started early the following day with a stop at the GPO. Then on to the Sultan's Palace inside a walled city, where the 25,000 workers live for free, and earn a small wage and art training.
We stopped at a batik factory, a batik painting shop, and a Wayang Kulit (why-ahng koo-leat, leather puppet) factory, where young men tediously carve and paint dried buffalo hides into exquisitely colorful and detailed flat figures from the Ramayana Hindu epic. Our next stop was the silver processing factory, where we saw filigree figurines and jewelry being created.
Amazingly, after five hours, our driver did not look very tired, although he perspired heavily. He later told us the trick was to start the day off with two large glasses of water, and drink about two liters a day. He also told us that becak drivers learn techniques to efficiently pedal so they don't get huge legs or bulging veins.
Every day after 5:00pm prayers, he walks 10km (6 miles) with his wife and sons. He is an interesting man, with a thorough appreciation for the differences between Eastern and Western cultures. His basic philosophy, learned from his grandfather: respect yourself and others will respect you. Although he is the poorest in his village, he is greatly admired. Asked what Indonesians think when Westerners dress improperly and offend their customs, he explained that they say nothing so as not to lose respect, but in some places they throw stones at the Westerners to make them go away.
We made it back to the guesthouse in time to finish packing and head to the station, where Karin stocked up on a kilogram of sawo. Not long after, the train rolled into the station, and we were on our way east.
When we arrived, Karin parked at a restaurant with the bags while Marc ran around town in search of accommodations, a common theme in many cities upon our arrival. Before long, Marc was back with good news, followed by Bram -- we were reunited again! At the Monggo Pinarak, we had a memorable dinner of: potato and pumpkin masala, chicken dopiaza, lassi, and an interesting drink consisting of hot coke with lime and ginger slices.
Peter and Elmarie, the South African couple who we had met at Borobudur, were dining at the table next to us. We found ourselves here quite often, eating and talking to the owner, an interesting man from Bangladesh. That is, when we were not at the Gamelan Cafe next door, savoring the moist and crunchy fried chicken, and practicing our Bahasa Indonesia skills with Riri.
We enrolled in a three-day batik course offered at a guesthouse nearby, and spent the time sketching, waxing, painting, and socializing with the rest of the class. We met John, an Australian from Brisbane, who had committed to the five-day course, choosing a complicated but beautiful Aboriginal design of a kangaroo.
We stayed very busy with our design, and colorized a white T-shirt with a black outlined design, which we had brought along. Our helpful and patient teacher, Iwan, a very likable and good-natured Indonesian, took the time to make sure all his pupils were on track and received enough attention. He had a very nice collection of Eric Clapton, BB King, Gloria Estefan, Bob Marley, and Pink Floyd music, making it easy to spend hours working without regard for time.
After all this sitting around, everyone needed some exercise, so we signed on for a bicycle tour of the city. Kabul, a witty Indonesian man who runs the Solo Homestay, provided the bicycles and led the tour. Riding on the left side of the road took some getting used to, turns providing the biggest challenge, yet somehow we managed to survive the city traffic and make it out to our first stop, the Keris Batik Factory, which specializes in three types of batik.
In the silkscreen batik section, they use four, 30m-long (93 ft) tables side-by-side in assembly-line fashion. They walk along the tables, applying one color at a time.
The second method was cap batik, where they dip 3kg (7 lb) copper stamps into hot wax, then apply it to the cloth, leaving a wax impression of the pattern on the cloth. The cloth is then dip-dyed and/or hand-painted, with the wax preventing the dye from reaching those areas. The cloth is then boiled, the next pattern stamped on, and then dyed again using another color.
The third method used in the factory is tulis batik, where the patterns are sketched/traced onto the cloth with pencil, then boiling wax is painted on the sketch, lines isolating the sections of the pattern, then the cloth is hand-painted or dip-dyed. This last method is what we were learning in our course, and we were rudely awakened by the speed at which these workers were moving -- we had plenty of catching up to do. Our teacher had come along for this part of the tour to give us an insight into the processes.
Next we visited a 'modern' bakery, where we sampled the chocolate-filled pastries being made. We had just left a gamelan (brass drum) factory, when Kabul homed in on gamelan music blasting from loudspeakers that sent it through a village and floating across the rice paddies. He led us to the source, a circumcision party thrown by a proud grandfather, who welcomed us with tea and rice cakes. Having paid our respects, we moved on to an arak distillery where a spirit was produced from sugar palms. We sampled it and found it to be similar in taste to good, white rum. Our expedition moved to the rice-cracker factory, where we received more samples, before heading off across the narrow dirt paths through the rice fields.
We came to a rickety bamboo bridge, 35m-long (109 ft) by 1m-wide (3 ft), which Kabul pedaled across without giving it a second thought. The rest of us just about piled up at the bank, when the next cyclist came to a screeching halt, realizing what he was about to undertake. This bridge had no rails and we had an interesting time walking our bikes across, while Kabul watched in amusement from the other side. When we got back to town, we had biked 16km in seven hours.
One night we accompanied the impeccably well-dressed Kabul to a traditional Javanese wedding ceremony. He was wearing traditional batik formal wear, and we wore our traveller's best, which we would soon find out was good enough. We arrived by becak and were promptly seated in a large hall, just in time to see the bride, groom, both parents, and two assistants walk in and take their places in throne-like seats. Everyone was wearing matching sarongs and the men were 'armed' with their keris knives, ceremonial arms handed down through generations.
Halfway through the ceremony, the bride and groom were escorted out by the 'marriage guide' and his female assistants, to be 'prepared'. They soon returned in their new outfits, reflecting their new roles in life together. The evening was filled with many traditional dance performances in the center aisle, including an exciting Sundanese dance, and a Balinese dance where a couple in extravagant gold outfits represented butterflies. While these dances were orchestrated, the catering service continually kept us supplied with various small dishes of what seemed like a twenty-course meal.
On another one of our breaks from class, we visited the Mang Kunegara Palace, which has a large pavilion decorated with Dutch chandeliers, Italian tile, and is outfitted with six gamelan sets. We also found time to stroll through the market, where we bought fried yucca and peanut brittle snacks. Back in school, Kabul kept us entertained with stories of how Karin was really visiting Indonesia in search of her roots. His theory was that she had been taken to the US as a little girl and had returned to see 'her homeland'.
We discovered that many travellers who had planned to spend a day or two in this tranquil city ended up staying a week or longer. It was clear to see how this could happen, as we had done the same. The time had come to continue our journey, so we parted painfully and caught a train due east.
We arrived at the dreaded Probolinggo train station, and lead the pack off the train and out to the main road. We had been warned about touts here, and were determined not to be caught with our guard down. We soon found the right bemo (bus) heading in the direction we wanted to go for the right price, and were on our way 2000m (6200 ft) up the mountain to Cemoro Lawang, a tiny town near the resting volcano. We had hoped to go out to the rim of the volcano, but Mount Bromo had been smoking and puffing powdery ash, and the closest we would get was 1km (1100 yds) uphill from the crater.
It was 10°C (50°F) when the 3:30am wake-up call came the next morning. The driver of the jeep, a funny man with a haunted-house laugh, took us for a ten-minute ride to the 2770m-high Gunung Penanjakan viewpoint, on the rim of the 10km-diameter (6.2 mile) Tenggar Crater. Outside the rim, the horizon was just changing, exposing the silhouette of a volcano to the east. To the south, inside the crater, fog surrounded the base of three small volcanoes. The dark plume from Gunung Bromo became progressively larger and lighter, changing to an ominous purple mauve, while the horizon became a rainbow of deep crimson red - fiery orange - golden yellow - powder blue - navy blue, until it met the grey ash sailing overhead.
Just in front and to the right of Gunung Bromo and only 1km away is the ideally shaped, but presently quiet Gunung Batok. Behind Gunung Batok, sat Gunung Kursi and the majestic Gunung Semeru (3676m). Just as spectacular, the sun rose directly behind the center of the volcano to the east, making it appear as a bright exploding volcano. Another odd effect was that of light rays streaming through the fog-filled trees and rice fields 300m (960 ft) below.
The fog in the crater burned off, revealing a Hindu temple at the base of Mount Bromo, and the lava sand 'sea' changed from orange to green to brown to grey. Our noses warmed up enough to catch the strong sulphur smell, and it was now bright enough to see the grey specks of ash on our hair and clothes. We met a very happy 70-year-old man with a cane, who was being helped down the mountain by a friend.
The jeep deposited us back to the bemo, which raced us to the train, which sped us eastward past banana and rice fields and pine forests to the ferry terminal in Banyuwangi (bahn-you-wahn-gee). The ferry ride was calm, and we were soon approached by a driver rounding up passengers for his bus downstairs in the vehicle area. After agreeing on a fare, he helped us and our packs aboard, then impressed us with his driving skills as he reversed the bus off the ferry and over a narrow ramp onto the dock. Although the ferry only took fifteen minutes to cross the channel, we were in a completely different world, obvious by the change of architecture, decoration, and vegetation. We were on the magical island of Bali.
The beautiful, fertile, terraced, green rice fields, and the ceremonially-decorated Hindu temples lined the large, clean roads into Denpassar (den-pah-sarr). We checked our mail and were glad to find four letters, then made a few phone calls and arranged for transportation to the mountains.
On our way to the bus station, we walked by a cemetery where a cremation ceremony was being held. The friends and family of the deceased were dressed in traditional outfits and a fire was raging. There was a large table with ceremonial offerings of fruit and flowers which had been painstakingly created for the occasion. A large crowd of spectators had gathered, so we moved on.
The time spent in this busy city was short, but long enough for us to notice that most who engaged in conversation with us were after something specific. They either wanted to sell us something, or happened to be related to someone who owned a guesthouse wherever we were headed. We were mobile banks, and everyone wanted to make a withdrawal!
The ride through the mountains of Bali was scenic, until we drove through the gauntlet of art and craft shops on the way into Ubud (oo-bood). We settled in at the Ananda Cottages up the road in the Cerik River Valley, then sat on the balcony of the cottage with our friends, Nyoman and Sari, talking and taking in the scenery of the beautiful rice terraces lining the mountain slope across the ravine, with the river flowing 200m (620 ft) below. The weather was perfect in and out of the sun. We took advantage of the pool, going for a refreshing swim, and enjoyed hot, soothing showers.
A cultural mecca is the only way to describe Ubud. It was more than just a short detour on our journey, it became our base of operation for a week. Once a day we would venture into the city or countryside, having them almost to ourselves since it was low season. A stroll to the GPO turned up a letter from home.
One day, Nyoman took us for a nine-hour Real Bali tour of the area, through back roads along terraced rice fields, stopping at an outdoor auditorium where performances of the Barong Dance are held. Then on to the Pura Besakih Temple, which sits on the side of a volcanic mountain at 1000m (620 ft) elevation, and is a complex of temples flanking a main temple. There were staging areas for the ceremonial processions, where ladies in bright, colorful outfits were masterfully crafting offerings of rice and fruits in baskets made from thin strips of bamboo. It is hard to comprehend how much time and effort goes into their daily religious worship, but there is a fascinating explanation for everything they do. We completed this day with succulent Maryland fried chicken and pizza at the Ananda Cottages.
Having fully recovered and been pampered at an upscale hotel, we moved to a more centrally located guesthouse, hidden in an alley in the middle of town. Across the walkway outside our palatial room, members of the household carefully maintained the family temple. Every morning we enjoyed the sweet, black rice pudding and banana pancake breakfasts, with fresh fruit, while absorbing the beautiful sights and sounds in the garden around us.
It was easy to find entertainment here since events are scheduled almost daily for the tourists, such as the Kecak Dance, where a hundred men sit in a circle around a tree of candles in a temple courtyard, humming and chanting chaka-chaka repeatedly at varying intervals and tones. They are effectively the musical instruments for the dance, which leads into the Fire Dance, with a performer in a 'trance', kicking burning coconut husks around the completely darkened courtyard. It was a spellbinding performance that left us humming the tune for days afterwards.
By far, the most exotic and and fascinating performance was the Legong Dance, with the gamelan orchestra accompanying the beautifully dressed dancers as they meandered around the courtyard, like butterflies among the flowers.
Leave it to us to ruin a perfect setting. Starting to feel guilty about not working, we volunteered to help Putu, Nyoman's son, troubleshoot his laptop. This provided the break we needed from the 'stressful' travel. We regret to say that we were unable to solve the problem, but did manage to isolate it and make some recommendations. Does this sound familiar? We also had a great time showing him some tricks he was not aware of, while we brushed up on our typing skills.
We escaped the clutches of the computer and spent some time with Putu, roaming through the mountains. We enjoyed the time with him since he speaks excellent English and knows the history of the temples. One of the best and spiciest meals we had in Indonesia was a traditional Balinese meal with his family.
The clock was ticking and our sixty-day visa was running out, so it was time to move on. We were trying to avoid Legian (lay-gee-ahn) and the Kuta area, but had to visit John, the Aussie we met in the Solo batik course. He had been surfing here for seventeen years on his vacations, and knew many people in the area. One of his Balinese friends invited us to a ceremony for his six-month-old baby, whose feet 'touched the ground' for the first time.
Peter and Elmarie, who had taken the same batik course, were also visiting and were on a batik buying spree now that they realized it was time to head home. The next evening, October 13th, we boarded our flight to Australia.
After spending two months in Indonesia, we need to state our general impression. We are convinced that the two-month visa is too short to get a feel for all that this country has to offer. The Indonesians have tremendous character; they are happy and friendly, and have pride in their homes and the way they dress.
This was a very good time to visit, as they were celebrating their 50th year of independence and were in a festive mood. We were only able to visit four of the 13,000 islands that span 5000km, and we were moving way too fast to appreciate the people and culture. We are glad we experienced Sumatra and Java first, as we were able to avoid the culture shock and better appreciate everything that makes Bali special.
It is hard to believe that we have only been away for three months, which is only ten percent of the trip. Another way of looking at it is that we get to do this only nine more times, which does not seem like much considering all the fun we have had. Once you power down from the hectic pace of work, travel becomes timeless.
When the last dispatch was sent out, it was not complete, and mentioned AMEX mail-drops by mistake. We are not about to let that happen again, having left the GPO empty-handed too often. If you have the time, we would appreciate any mail you might post.
Before December 25, 1995 to:
CPO - Poste Restante
Before January 15, 1996 to:
GPO - Poste Restante
We look forward to hearing from you, and hope you have a Happy Holiday!!!
Marc & Karin
December 17, 1995
Wellington, New Zealand
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