Indonesia Part 1: Unpopular Opinions

As we sit quarantined at home, cancelling trips and dying a little inside with each cancellation, I have found solace in journeying down Travel Memory Lane. I’ve been sifting through old photos, even those hidden in the masses of a 5,000+ camera roll that I have previously overlooked. The original pre-Covid-19 plan was to spend this week- a teacher’s coveted ten days of Spring Break- in Japan. While we drown our sorrows in a bottle of saki and my attempt at cooking gyoza, we are especially grateful that we as least already had one Asian adventure- our Honeymoon last summer. And I’m also grateful to finally have the time to dedicate to writing this, that it deserves. It’s a long one, so long it’s in two parts. I hope you’re in for a ride.

A Honeymoon in Bali? How typical. You basic. 

I hear you. I fought it. I wanted Thailand, Sri Lanka, or Zanzibar. Somewhere new, somewhere untouched, at least by our circle of friends. But the decision of where to go on our honeymoon was a combination of my travel research skills, my now-husband’s engineering brain and excel spreadsheet obsession, and, the stories and photos of several friends who had been to Indonesia. We analyzed six possible destinations with the factors we were looking for in our honeymoon. These factors- diverse wildlife and nature; a unique (to us) culture; an adventure-relaxation balance; nature, volcanos and/or hiking; a reasonable cost; guaranteed amazing weather and; safety-all became part of the aforementioned excel spreadsheet. Our analytical system ruled out a lot of options due to weather (turns out July is actually pretty limiting in guaranteed good weather in most tropical climates) and the “unique to us” culture factor, since my husband decided that any European and Mediterranean country was not unique enough to him (eye roll. I’m certain he’d be floored by the differences between Tel Aviv and Barcelona). Alas, Southeast Asia was new to both of us and off to Indonesia we went. As a true skeptic of overly touristy and overly hyped typical travel destinations, I’m here to tell you that yes, Bali completely falls into that category. But here’s the thing, if you learn anything from reading this, please let this set in: Indonesia is so much more than Bali. 

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Wait Indonesia is how big??

First, some geographical fun facts about Indonesia. Throughout these posts, I’ll be referencing some interesting information that I discovered through extensive research before the trip, and others that I was compelled to research during the trip, because I  was often in a continual state of awe. Geographically, Indonesia is an archipelago made up of over 17,000 islands that together make it the largest country in Southeast Asia. For reference, Bali is one of those islands, not even one of the larger ones, and the Bali in your head is actually a small touristy beach area on the southern part of that island. There are so many more options in Indonesia than Bali proper, and each and every one of them is worth the effort involved in getting there. We selected the islands we went to based on referrals from friends, but there are three whole islands I would have added if time permitted, or, if we had decided to skip Bali proper (which in hindsight, I would have).

So, you did go to Bali?

Yes. After extensive research, we decided to spend our fourteen days on only two islands, and one of them was Bali. I should mention, we kicked off our honeymoon and Southeast Asia trip with a three-day layover in Singapore which added to the depth of diverse experiences we had and definitely factored into our decision-making on which parts of Indonesia we traveled to.

We flew from Singapore into Yogyakarta. Flying into Indonesia is no joke, and it was here we were hit with our first wave of cultural nuance. Mind you, we had just departed one of the most renowned airports in the world- Changi lives up to all the hype of architecture, safety, technology, shopping and cleanliness. We were headed to the main island of Indonesia, Java, which despite its landmass and host to the nations’ capital, is not nearly as touristy or trafficked as flying into Denpasar (Bali). As the flight attendants handed out customs tickets and declaration forms, an announcement overhead warns us of the severity of bringing drugs into the country- an offense punishable by death penalty. As plot lines of Orange is the New Black ran through my head, I quickly clutched my bag and assured myself there was no way any one else had access to slipping anything illegal in there. I then wished I had in-flight wifi to google more about this law, and the legal system in general in Indonesia. For future reference, you can rest at ease that they at least abide by innocent until proven guilty before adhering to that death penalty, unless you travel to Aceh where they actually practice Sharia law.

Disembarking the plane onto a stairwell outside, the thick hot air immediately hits you in the face with aromas of fire and earth. I remember it smelling the same getting off the plane on the other side of the world in Costa Rica. Maybe it’s the smell of volcanic sulfur in the distance, or the way waste is burned in some countries. Either way, it’s a smell I associate with exotic and tropical places, so our cultural uniqueness factor was already chockfull of points. We braced ourselves as we headed for customs praying that no one has smuggled drugs in our luggage, and took a sigh of relief as we pulled them off the x-ray machine. We stepped out into the sunlight and found a sign with our name on it- our tour company was waiting to pick us up. We were ready to start our fourteen day jaunt through Indonesia: starting in Yogyakarta- traveling East to the most Eastern part of Java- taking a ferry boat to cross over to the island of Bali- to the middle of the rainforest in Ubud for four days- and finally ending our trip with five relaxing days on a beach in Nusa Dua (Bali proper, the Bali in your mind).

A Quick Note about Tour Companies

Yes, we used a tour company, after all it was our honeymoon and we there were just certain things we did not want to worry about. In hindsight, I am so glad we had a tour company in Indonesia. I highly recommend using one, if for no other reason to have a driver. There were days we were on the road for over eight hours, where our driver Djoko expertly maneuvered through the motorbike traffic and around sharp, mountainous, dirt road curves. If you are headed to only Bali, you can probably get away with a simple airport transport to your resort and call it a day. But if you are headed anywhere in Java, a driver is instrumental in making sure you have a safe and successful journey. Additionally, it is very helpful to have a local with you who knows the culture and the language. Djoko chose prime locations for bathroom and food breaks and knew all the norms and customs to get us places on time.

The tour company also helped in these ways. Aside from Djoko, we had the world’s best tour guide with us for the first few days in Yogyakarta. Heni, was extremely knowledgable about the many sights she brought us to. She arranged some cultural immersion experiences that I don’t think are part of the typical tour routes, and she was really helpful in explaining all the fascinating history, religion and cultural norms of Indonesia. She was also just a delightful person, and spoke completely perfect Castilian Spanish which she learned from cassette tapes?! She was the real deal. Why Spanish? We chose this particular tour company, Indonesia en tus Manos, because we were arranging our trip from Madrid, and because they allowed us the flexibility that I wanted. I was able to tell them a rough idea of where we wanted to go and they sent me feedback and together we built the itinerary. Also they built the trip around specific hotels and lodging that we wanted to use (per the recommendations of our friends). At first it was a little off-putting to have this Indonesian women speaking flawless Spanish, but in the end it worked out really well. Djoko, for example, did not speak Spanish. Heni communicated with him in Javanese (a language spoken by natives in Java). When Heni left us and we continued the next part of our trip without her, we had to speak to Djoko in English but his English was very limited. We had a few miscommunications with him that resulted in us missing a sunrise experience. But overall we are very grateful for him guiding us safely up volcanoes.

Yogyakarta

Immediately from the airport we were driven to Prambanan – the largest Hindu temple and a World Heritage sight consisting of over 200 temples that were built in the ninth century. Heni, a practicing Hindu, was the perfect guide, explaining all the temples and the various gods. I was reminiscing in my ninth grade world history knowledge and answering Heni’s trivia questions (in Spanish!) like a jeopardy champ, while one glance at my husband told me this was the first time he’s learned anything about Hinduism. I made a mental note to look into Spain’s world history and religion curriculum as Heni took my camera and let us pose for silly and adorable Honeymoon pictures. After an hour or two of exploring the temples and grounds, Heni skirted us through an outlying market and picked up some rice-chip type of snack for us to munch on as we drove to our next destination.

About thirty minutes later we arrived at what seemed to be a hotel (not our own) that was perched high on a hill overlooking much of the outskirts of Yogyakarta. We were given a two hour pass to use the pool facilities that included snacks and drinks. This was my last experience with a westernized public bathroom for the next five days (public bathroom- our hotel had a westernized toilet). Had I known, I would have taken longer to change into my swim suit and cover up. I never left the comforts of my coverup, and only dipped my toes in the pool as I glanced around nervously wondering what the norm was. One family at the end of the pool- a father and two boys swimming while the mother sat fully covered and in hijab at the side of the pool. Another couple sat in the middle- both fully exposed in bikini and speedo- sunbathing. Heni had disappeared for her break so I couldn’t ask her what was appropriate, so we decided to be in between honeymooners- erring on the side of modesty. My husband took a dip in his 2003-style Abercrombie surfer shorts (yes.) while I sat on the side soaking my feet in the pool, taking in the view and sipping my drink.

When we finally arrived at our hotel it was time for dinner and to pass out after a long day of climbing temple steps and endless traffic. The distance between things in Indonesia is not that far, but the traffic makes travel gruesome. Our hotel was [shocker] Spanish -Meliá Purosani Hotel Yogyakarta, and full of Europeans so we obviously downed a subpar pizza and a Bintang before heading to bed. We were advised not to venture out to local restaurants, not because of safety but because Heni only had two that she would recommend that followed western standards of cleanliness and they were both pretty far away. Either way we were exhausted and eager to eat quickly and get to a nice long sleep…….. except wait, our alarms were set for 1:30 am and we needed to depart the hotel with Heni and Djoko by 2 am.

Borobudur

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This was the beginning of the week with the least amount of sleep in my entire life….except perhaps a few weeks enjoying the White Nights in St. Petersburg in college….. By 4 am we had arrived at our next location: Borobudur Temple. There’s some debate of whether or not this is an actual temple, but I’ll refer to it as one nonetheless. We arrived in total darkness and were given flashlights. This was well outside the city limits so the only real light was from a few cars passing and parking, or the stars. There was also an unsettling lack of city sounds, filled instead by the most eerie sound I have ever heard. It’s hard to describe exactly what Buddhist monks chanting sounds like- their voices drifting from afar in all directions surrounding the temple, reverberating off the cold stone surface that we climbed in complete darkness with Heni’s expert guidance. The chants, for lack of a better word, don’t sound human. Imagine, sitting perched on an unknown hard step, in a strange place that you might not be able to identify on a map, in pure darkness at 4:30 in the morning, the chants and the cool breeze consuming your senses. Gradually, ever so slowly, the sky began to lighten. Clouds and distant volcanoes began to take shape. Finally the sun pierced the skyline just above a volcano peek, but only for a moment before it was swallowed by a nearby cloud. Still, completely worth it. This was one of my favorite experiences of the whole trip. Yogi or not, it was a very spiritual and once-in-a-lifetime experience and completely worth my coffee-less morning. The pictures don’t do it justice.

The rest of our morning, normal morning time, we explored the city of Yogyakarta. Heni took us to a traditional market where we saw and smelled far too many live and recently alive chickens. We traveled around the area on bicycles, something I’d never like to repeat again in the masses of motorbikes on the road. Lanes are not really a thing on the roads. Dodging unpredictable drivers on the left side of the road, we biked from the market to a traditional Indonesian thatched-roof home where we saw dumplings being made, a lot of roosters and cats, and finally had a hands-on lesson in batik, an art form involving hot wax and dye. This time my husband upstaged me in his art skills, and we’re still wondering how since I’m definitely the more artistic one. 

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Trains, Djoko and Automobiles

The next day we said goodbye to our hotel, and to Heni. We took a four-hour train ride and met Djoko in a completely different city that I won’t pretend to remember the name of.  I’m also still not clear on why we took a train and Djoko drove the same distance separately. Heni assured us that it was saving us travel time and that it was easier for him to take our large luggage by car. Either way, the train was a nice change of pace to reach our next destination. Here, we hopped back in Djoko’s truck and embarked on a six hour journey to our hotel near Mt. Bromo. I was so hyped to be on a train (I really love trains) that I stayed wide awake until we met up with Djoko. As soon as we got in the car, I drifted in and out of a good book and light napping. Every now and then I was lulled awake by mosque chanting. It seems every single town has at least three mosques, and that people were very committed to praying five times a day. Now and then when we weren’t on a major highway, I’d awake to motorbikes beeping, mosque prayers and the stop-and-go jostling of Djoko’s top-notch breaking skills. 

Bromo

The last two hours of this journey were spent careening around sharp turns and Djoko testing his all-wheel drive to the fullest. He also really mastered the beep-before-you-round-the-corner skill. This part was impossible to sleep through, but the scenery was incredible. Green and mountainous at every new corner. We finally arrived and shivered as we hopped out into twenty degree cooler air than we had left. We were at a much higher elevation, and I started to worry about the next morning when we would be even higher and in the dark. My honeymoon packing included some light layers but nothing compared to what I would actually need. Djoko went off to sleep (in his car we later learned) at six pm, and told us to meet him there at 2 am. 2 am again. We wandered around the hotel grounds in awe of the mountainous views, had one of the best meals yet at the hotel restaurant, and turned in for the night around 8pm. 

At 2 am we met Djoko and a new driver. Why did we need another driver? To drive us up the sides of volcanoes in an off-road jeep in total darkness. Apparently even Djoko’s driving skills couldn’t live up to that task. We hopped in the back of the military-grade jeep and started our sleepy ride into one of the scariest moments of our lives. Driving through pure darkness, no other cars, no road signs. Wasn’t this a major tourist destination? Wasn’t this a thing everyone did- waking up well before dawn. Where were the other cars? Where was civilization. The jeep looked like it was in the middle of a field, a bumpy, rocky field of nothing. Luckily we were also distracted by freezing (it was probably only 40 degrees outside) to be too concerned that at any moment these men could drop us in the middle of the jungle, take all of our things, kill us and make off with a genius tourist scam… “these stupid tourists…they walked too close to the edge of the volcano. They went well beyond the recommended area…too bad”. You see, Mt Bromo has a rule- they will try rescue you if you fall into the volcano while in the “recommended area” but if you take a scenic detour beyond that point, they won’t. We were really placing a lot of trust into these two drivers.

Finally we saw a sign and a few other cars and took a sigh of relief that we would live past today. We parked at an 80 degree angle on the steepest road and followed Djoko to get a coffee from the little town that was quite awake. We were dressed for a hike (in our light layers) as we had read that it was a bit of a hike to the top of the volcano. We were wrong, or misinformed, or lost in translation with Djoko. The “hike” was approximately eight minutes continuing up the steep road, and then a small staircase and then…..darkness. No one. Djoko was really excited that no one was there and told us where to sit and where to be ready to look…..in two and a half hours when the sun would finally rise. “Bromo there” he pointed into oblivion. So it seemed we were at a viewpoint and that we were going to see the sunrise over Mt Bromo, not from it. Gradually, humans filtered in the space around us. Women circulated selling blankets. We resisted the urge to buy one as we sat there, huddled together on the cold stone steps shivering. Djoko paced the whole time, smoking to stay warm.

Eventually, the sun rose to reveal the most other-worldly views we had ever seen. The most intense colors splash off of Mt. Bromo, Mt. Batok and Mt. Semeru amongst other nameless volcanoes and mountains.  I was grateful for having my real DSLR camera with me and our new GoPro toy. We took the most photos on the whole trip in the next hour and let the glowing sun warm our bodies. Upon returning to the jeep, we realized why Djoko had us get up so early to beat the crowds. It wasn’t about getting a good seat, because people walk around to get the best shots at every angle anyways. It was about getting the parking spot. Even with our huge advantageous spot, we had to join in the world’s largest caravan of military jeeps down the mountain with only one lane. Interspersed with locals who braved these heights on a motorbike, it was a crazy drive down to the base of Mt. Bromo. And once we reached the base, we realized the “field” that we had driven through hours earlier that morning was nothing more than the base of a volcano, full of rock and ash and without any true road. 

The next hour was the actual hiking part of the trip, though low and behold we had somehow signed up to do it on horseback, another miscommunication with Djoko…I swear it’s my job to communicate with people who speak languages other than English, I was really striking out with this guy. I wasn’t thrilled with the prospects of getting on this pony, and after I saw how the owner was treating it, I was less enthused. I decided if I had to do it, I’d make sure to be really gentle with my pony and to give him lots of reassuring and positive pats. I’m sure it didn’t phase him, his owner pulled the reigns from the ground (walking…something I could have been doing) and guiding my pony and lazy butt up the ashy hills of the volcanic crater base. My husband on his own pony a little ahead of me didn’t look very thrilled either. We were relieved to at least be able to finish the final climb up some intensive stairs on foot. At the top of the crater is where the designated viewpoint areas are. As I mentioned before, as long as you stay within these areas and use a minimal amount of sense and caution, there’s no risk of falling into the steaming volcano. We did see others venturing out of bounds and they also looked fine, but the view we had was completely sufficient. 

Ijen

Getting to our next hotel, our base for our Ijen hike, was another long drive- about seven hours. After barely any sleep, we stuffed our faces with a delicious hotel breakfast and piled back into Djoko’s truck and slept our way to our final night in Java- anticipating another early alarm. Djoko made a pit stop on the side of the road, he said he needed a coffee. Sitting in this seaside coffee shack, he attempted to ask us what our plan for Ijen was, “tomorrow-blue fire?” We had agreed, after reading that the blue flame was both very risky, potentially harmful to the environment, and disrespectful to the miners, that we could do without the blue flame in our lives. “No blue fire,” we told him. Djoko interpreted this and told us we could wake up much later, around 3 am- the leave by 4. This made sense, since the blue flame would have meant another 1 am wakeup call, as it’s ideally viewed around 3-4 am after a drive and an extensive hike in the dark. We met Djoko at 4 am and assumed the same drive and hike would situate us ideally to at least wittness the sunrise over the IJen crater. We were surprised by how long the drive was and a little disheartened when the sun had already began to rise when Djoko was parking the car and getting our hiking guide and gas masks.

Nonetheless, we followed our guide- a man who hiked the full 3 miles uphill completely barefoot- up what proved to be a quite slippery trail. It was still wet from morning dew. Many people were opting to be pulled in toboggans by other barefoot men. This seemed like cruel hard labor, and even though it was slick, we’ve done much more difficult hikes, so plunged onward on foot. Although we didn’t see the drop-dead gorgeous lighting that comes with seeing the sunrise over the crater, it was still a beautiful hike and another otherworldly sight. The last leg of the hike has breathtaking views, with mountains that rival those of Austrian Alps, and your nose fills with the uncanny smell of rotten eggs. As you reach the top, sulfuric fog drifts slowly over an icy blue- turquoise lake. The masks are necessary if the fog blows in your direction. Giant chunks of yellow sulfur flake the trail- men selling it, men carrying it, men who risked their lives to make very little money from mining it. They carry extremely heavy loads over their heads all the way down the slick trial we had just journeyed up. We snapped some pictures, got as close to the lake as we dared (not close), and decided to head back. We followed our barefoot guide back down the soggy trail, back to Djoko for another four hour car ride to the edge of Java. We bid Djoko goodbye, tipped him generously, and hopped on a ferry to Bali. 

 

To Be Continued…. Part 2 coming soon. 

 

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