I know this post is a quite overdue and I humbly beg your forgiveness for that. I feel that finding the time to write something gets exponentially more difficult when traveling as a couple. I promise to not leave anything important out. That also means that you get to read a freakishly long post about how I (and we) experience Indonesia and Singapore…
Before I start talking about everything I’ve done in Indonesia, I’d like to tell you a little bit about the country itself.
Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world (in terms of population), but it is quite liberal and open, with Jakarta/Java being somewhat ahead of the other places. Don’t take it too literally though, I certainly don’t meant to say it’s like western world.
There are a lot of other religions, most prominently Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, and they all seem to get along quite well. Just like in Malaysia, I have a strong feeling they are very accepting of each other and simply live in harmony, letting everyone believe what they want to and caring about themselves instead of forcing their ideas on others.
To really talk about Indonesia as a country is very difficult and sometimes even impossible. The simple reason is that each island is its own little region with its own rich culture and traditions. When I talk to local people, they often talk about “Lombok people” and “Balinese people” and “Javanese people” instead of “Indonesian people”. Because of this thoroughly exploring and understanding Indonesia would take years. There is so much to see. Thus, if I talk about Indonesia as a country, I’m really only talking about the parts I’ve seen. And that’s actually just a few islands 🙂
It’s a real shame most of us never go outside of Java and Bali (or Lombok and Flores for the more daring ones), because I’m quite sure the rest of Indonesia is just as amazing, if not more. I really hope I will be able to come here sometime again in the future and see the parts I am not able to now. But lets get to the fun part now 🙂
My start at Senggigi
After a whole day of flights from Malaysia, I finally landed at the Lombok airport and from there took a bus to Senggigi. About halfway through the ride I was the only person left in the bus and the driver felt like it’s time to turn up his favorite music… What followed was about 30 minutes of some local “music” crackling on the cheap, half broken speakers on maximum volume. I very quickly knew I was not a big fan. I arrived to Senggigi really tired and since it was already really late, I was well aware this puts me in no negotiation position about the prices of accommodation. I’ve decided to take the first decent room I could find for the night. I did and I ended up with a room full of bedbugs, which I promptly left. The second attempt went a bit better and I found a reasonable homestay, where I actually stayed the whole time.
I spent three full days in Senggigi. On the first one of the three I’ve rented a scooter and visited two beautiful waterfalls. The ride itself was rather long but very pleasant. I mostly drove around the coast and made small stops to soak up the beautiful island, including a break at a very neat little restaurant, where I sipped fresh juice and took a swim in the sea to cool off. The waterfalls themselves were very beautiful and refreshing. On the second day I was planning to visit a few temples and rice fields, however halfway through I started to feel pretty sick, so I just turned around and spent the rest of the day in bed. The third day was my lazy “recovery” day and I continued to watch sitcoms in bed (first time I watched something during this trip!) and the most effort I spent was walking to the nearby beach.
After being lazy in Senggigi, I’ve moved on to Gili Air.
Gili Air is a lovely tiny little island. I viewed it as a compromise between the crowded, party Gili Trawangan and the quiet, barely inhabited Gili Meno. I found out it was originally called Ayar (and locals still use this name), which actually means water. This was very fitting, because I came here with the intention of diving and I spent the next two days underwater. My diving buddy, Sarah, was on a similar schedule as me and we spent most of the time during these two days together. We had a lot of fun together and made tons of pictures with her GoPro… and so I’ve decided to buy my own, because damn, those pictures are amazing! 😛 The diving in Gilis was quite amazing, there were a lot of beautiful, large turtles and we even got to see two whitetip reef sharks.
The hostel I was staying at at Gili Air was very nice and very social, but some of the bungalows started complaining about bed bugs. I left the place even though I had already paid for one more night, and went to a different one. Throughout my whole trip I haven’t seen bedbugs anywhere, and Indonesia was really killing it in a week. But moving turned out to be a pretty good decision, because at my second hostel, I met Puja.
Puja was guy from a small village on Lombok, who worked at my second hostel. He was preparing to go to his cousin’s wedding. I wasn’t even sure how it happened, but before I knew it, he invited me to come to the two day wedding with him. Considering this was probably a once in a lifetime chance, I’ve decided to accept his invitation.
Do as the locals do
My first thought after receiving the invitation was “I need to dress up”. Not dress up to look more fancy, but dress up to not walk around in my “promiscuous” western clothes (i.e. shorts and a tanktop). Both Senggigi and Gilis are rather touristy destinations, where our normal summer clothes are very well accepted by now. I was pretty sure in Lembar, the village I was heading to, it would not be the case. And I could not have been more right about that.
The two days that followed were pretty crazy and to describe it all, I would really need a whole blog post on its own. I’ll just try to get to the highlights.
- The wedding, as I understood it, basically lasted for two days. On the first day, there was a big dinner. People kept coming and leaving at random times and there was actually no such thing as eating together – the amount of people would never fit into the small space where we ate anyway. There was also a live band playing throughout the rest of the night. The second day consisted of the preparation for a big parade, where most people got all dressed up and the parade itself.
- I had some of the most delicious food ever, most of which I couldn’t identify at all. For instance, what looked like meat to me turned out to be a papaya dish. And it was so tasty! However, the food also posed one of the biggest struggles, because Indonesian people eat with their hands. As a tourist, you normally don’t get to experience this, because restaurants do provide cutlery. I was a little terrified when I realized I’m supposed to eat the rice, sauce and whatever mushy looking things were in front of me with my hands. Timidly, I’ve briefly observed others and then tried to do it on my own. I think I must have looked very silly (to put it mildly), because Puja promptly started explaining how I am actually supposed to do it. Let me tell you, at the age of 25, I surely did not expect to be taught how to eat. Admittedly though, I actually had a lot of fun. I made an awful lot of mess, but I ate like a proper local! (Well… maybe a local kid… still counts in my book 😛 )
- I got almost no sleep for two days. Both me and Puja were staying at his dad’s house. It was basically one small room, a kitchen, outdoor shower and toilet and some kind of outdoor gazebo. They graciously let me sleep in the little room, while the two of them slept outside (which is actually pretty common here, a lot of people do it all the time). However, the room was pretty bare – there was only an old CRT TV and a small shelf. I was sleeping on the floor for two nights, and as a proper spoiled westerner, with every slight movement I made, all I could think about was the amount of pain I was in. Also, try sleeping next to a mosque. I dare you.
- Very few of the locals spoke English, which is not too surprising. Often they were either too shy to talk to me or would just start talking in their own language, of which I understand about 3 words in total. I mostly had no clue what went on, so I just kept smiling at everyone and hoped that’s alright. What I found very commendable were Puja’s efforts to get the kids (and even some of the adults) to see the importance of speaking English and I was happy to help him with this.
- I’ve noticed there is a world of difference between how men and women were interacting with me. For instance, when guys would ask me to take a picture with them (which happened A LOT), they would all just stand next to me. Not a single one would hug me or touch me in any way, because that would be highly inappropriate. For a while I was considering doing so myself, just to mess with them a little bit 😀 I’ve decided that might be a little too cruel and I did not want to put my host in a difficult position. Contrary to men though, women had absolutely no problem with invading my personal space in ways that I found pretty uncomfortable. They would often talk about how “chante” (beautiful) I am, touch my face, my arms and I swear that one of them just grabbed my boobs like it’s the most normal thing to do before I even had a chance to realize what’s going on.
- On a similar note, the mere fact that I was walking alone with Puja basically made me his future wife in the eyes of the whole village. The look on their faces upon me mentioning my boyfriend was incredible, in their eyes it was as if I had just admitted to adultery. The initial horror turned into utter confusion and few people even admitted to me they assumed I was Puja’s girlfriend. This is something he actually warned me about, but I only realized the full extent after this incident.
- Everyone was very excited to see me and they all kept stopping us and asking to take a picture with me. Every time I would sit down, a small crowd would gather around me to simply watch. At some point, I was sitting on a bed and the kids wanted to take a picture with me. All of them (along with a few adults) climbed up on top of the bed with me and before we could even take the picture, the bed literally broke down under us. I felt somewhat guilty, but the owner was there, laughing, and so I figured it’s probably alright.
- During the parade a lot of the people got dressed up in the traditional clothes. I decided to follow suit and I received a complete make over, the only thing that stayed the same were my flip flops. When Puja saw me, he claimed I looked like a princess. In all honesty I felt like a lot of things, but princess was definitely not among them. I had a ton of very strong make up and my hair was pinned up with some fake golden stuff. I really did feel quite ridiculous, but everyone else around me seemed to think I am beautiful and they all wanted to take even more pictures than before, which in turn made me feel even worse. It actually got to the point where the traffic officers stopped directing the traffic and started taking selfies with me. No kidding. If the whole thing wasn’t bizarre before, this surely did it.
- Even though everyone seemed to consider me so very beautiful, they all also thought I had a really big nose and they would often remark on it the first moment they saw me. Imagine telling someone they have a huge nose before even saying hi 😛 I would probably get a little self conscious about this, but I’ve already heard of other backpackers experiencing the same thing. It turns out a lot of Asian people seem to think this of us Caucasians. And funny fact, the proboscis monkeys (with the huge funny nose) are sometimes referred to as Dutchmen 🙂
There are many more things and I could go on and on about, for instance how I had to swim in long pants and a T-shirt, cos a bikini would probably cause a riot, but I’m not going to bother you with all of that 🙂 Let me just say that these two days have made me realize just how conservative can conservative really be. It’s a completely different world. We sometimes hear about it and are vaguely aware that somewhere, some people live like this. But to really understand what it means is impossible unless we experience it. And experiencing it – fully experiencing it – requires much more than two days. I think it’s a good start though 🙂
After the unique experience in Lembar, I’ve headed to Kuta. I’ve spent my last few days on Lombok driving around on the scooter and discovering the beautiful nearby beaches. I’ve visited Tanjung Aan and Mawi, both of which were truly breathtaking. If I get myself to compose a list of the best beaches I’ve been at, these two are definitely going to be somewhere at the top.
On Sunday the 29th, I took a flight from Lombok back to Jakarta. After landing and talking my way through security, I managed to get to the international arrivals luggage area (it turned out it’s actually more difficult to get out of there than it is to get in 😛 ), where I impatiently waited for the flight number GA089 to land. In order to spare you of what sounds like some cheap romantic teenage novel, I’m not going to describe the meeting with Barry. But it was awesome 😀 We had two lovely relaxed days in Jakarta. The city itself did not seem very attractive to me, I can absolutely understand why every travel advice says to get out of it as soon as you can. But that hardly mattered at that time 🙂
A whiff of the sea
After Barry’s jetlag and sleep deprivation recovery, we’ve decided to move on to Pangandaran, a small coastal town at the middle of south Java. After a reasonable train journey, we’ve had the chance to enjoy over 7 hours ride in a very tiny bus. The regular Indonesian person is about half our size, which was painfully obvious from the teeny-weeny seats we were sitting on and the leg room that was (not) provided. Under normal circumstances, I’m hardly a person to complain about leg room – I fly with budget airlines and I never once thought of it as an inconvenience. But this was really quite bad. The only good thing about the bus was the half-working AC and the fact that it was non-smoking.
We got to our hotel quite late during the night. The next day we decided to visit the Pangandaran national park. We saw Japanese bunkers and execution chambers, ruins of Hindu burial grounds, caves, lots of monkeys, deer (who were surprisingly fearless) and porcupines. We swung on the jungle vines and finished the day by chilling at a cute little beach, where a monkey stole my oreos, which the locals found rather amusing. I first wanted to fight for it, but after a small tug of war I decided oreos might not be worth flying to Bangkok for rabies shots.
Discovering Yogyakarta… kind of
The one day in Pangandaran was followed by another day of travel, this time to Yogyakarta. Although we spent two days here, I felt like we haven’t really had a chance to properly explore the city itself, apart from seeing the famous Malioboro street. We spent the two days visiting the two beautiful nearby 9th century temples, Hindu Prambanan and Buddhist Borobudur.
They were both truly magnificent and kept us busy walking around for hours. Unfortunately, they were both a bit too crowded, Borobudur a bit more than Prambanan. We took about a million pictures with the excited local tourists in Prambanan, but in Borobudur we did not have too much time until closing and so we had to say no to a lot of people, which I actually found somewhat difficult.
Warm up at Bromo
From Yogyakarta, we took a night train to Malang. Malang on its own did not interest us too much, but we knew it was a good base to get information and possibly start the tours of both Bromo and Semeru – the two active volcanoes in the area.
The first one on our list was Bromo, the volcano named after Brahma. Going to the top was very manageable, it mostly consisted of walking up a bunch of stairs covered in layers of dirt. Once we got up and caught our breath a little, we started walking around the crater. It was very impressive, Bromo was slowly puffing up white smoke and every once in a while we a faint sound resembling thunder would echo beneath us.
We followed footprints around the crater, but they slowly started getting fewer and fewer. At some point I joked that there are only two lunatics left, but the last quarter really only had one set of footprints before us. It was a little scary there (well, I thought so, Barry didn’t), mostly when there was no real path anymore and the ground under our feet would occasionally give way. At the same time, it was quite exciting and exhilarating.
Semeru (aka Mahameru)
After visiting Bromo, we’ve decided to sign up for a two day tour of Semeru, the bigger one of the two. We were told that the first day is quite easy going, and the only real hard part is the so called “summit attack” during the second day, which lasts about 4-5 hours. In retrospective, I think this was quite true.
After getting our mandatory, thorough medical check (i.e. they checked our weight, height and blood pressure), we were cleared to go. We had a guide (a kind, but gutsy girl named Yuan) and three porters, who were carrying the tents, sleeping bags and other necessities for us. In a way it felt a little silly, knowing that locals do this on their own, but we soon found out they usually take much longer for the whole tour. Furthermore, this gear was not carried all the way up the volcano, but only to its base, where we set up camp for one night and then it was picked up again when we came back from the summit. All things considered though, we both had a lot of respect for the porters, they are some seriously tough men doing really hard work.
The first day took us about 8 hours of trekking through the hills to the base camp. It was tiring to some extent, but that’s what one expects from 8 hours of trekking. After getting some dinner and warming ourselves up a bit at the campfire, we went to sleep at 7:30. It was quite early, but we had to get up at midnight again and start the summit attack. And an attack it was.
I can only describe getting to the top of Semeru as intense and challenging. I think I can safely say I’ve done my fair share of trekking and hiking (I even grew up in a mountainous area), but the four and a half hours that followed were unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. It was cold and dark when we started from the base camp. The ground very quickly changed to gravel, sand and dust. For every step forward we took, we slid half a step back. It was not just physically exhausting, it really took a mental toll on us.
The longer we walked and the higher we got, the lower sank our morale. Our breaks became more frequent, but the creeping cold kept driving us forward. We were trying to support our weight with the DIY hiking poles we each had as much as possible. We were barely dragging ourselves, yet it did not feel like being on autopilot, because we had to stay constantly awfully aware of every single step we took on the unstable footing.
To kick us when we were down, it also became windy and started raining. Covered by some gigantic plastic raincoats, we continued the grueling journey up. It felt like forever and in the dark we could not see the summit, we only saw the faint lights from the other poor souls above and below us. We kept pushing through in what felt like a futile attempt to conquer the insurmountable Semeru.
I think my lowest moment was when Barry, after a very long period of silence, quietly uttered in a resigned voice “this is insanity” and the best response I mustered up, despite trying to stay cheerful, was “yes”.
Upon reaching the summit, my first thought was… absent. I was surely feeling relieved, but I couldn’t really think, all I perceived was the cold, the rain and the darkness. I couldn’t see much, apart from a few people huddling up together to keep warm. After slowly catching our breath and realizing we don’t have to continue the agonizing walk anymore, we both started to cheer up a little. The rain gradually stopped and the cloudy sky started opening up a little. We saw bits and pieces of the red sky and felt a little warmer as the sun started to come up. That’s when the first broad smiles crossed our faces. The smiles turned into laughter and we both felt elated. We made it. It was tough, but we made it! And it was absolutely worth it.
Semeru seemed like a big sister of little Bromo, it was so much more powerful. It erupted semi-regularly, three times while we were up. The first time it was still dark and we could only see some black smoke behind us. The second and third time were much more impressive. Clouds of yellow, red and black smoke rose from the crater, while a muffled rumbling sound came from the earth below us. Unfortunately, we were only allowed to quickly go look to the edge of the crater and then run back to the safe side again (while being thoroughly informed that it’s our own risk and responsibility), due to the toxic gasses and the occasional dangerous rocks shooting out of the crater. But it was spectacular. We could hear the eruption. We could see it. We could smell it. And we could feel it, too.
When we both concluded that we’ve seen enough, had enough pictures and videos and were starting to get somewhat cold again, we began the descend. I was a little worried about how it was going to feel to go down on this treacherous ground, but it went better than I could have expected. It felt exactly like sliding down on a snowy mountain in sky boots, except for the fact that it was not freezing cold and that my sneakers were full of rocks. And when I say full of rocks, I am not exaggerating – every single little space that was not occupied by my feet was filled by rocks. There were so many. The descend was incredibly fast though and it was almost hard to believe how difficult it was to go up the same hill.
After eating some breakfast at the base camp, we walked back the same way we came to the village we started the tour from. We got some food, copied the pictures from Yuan and said our goodbyes. An arranged car drove us to Surabaya, from where we were catching a flight to Singapore the next day.
When we arrived at Singapore, we were decided to take it easy and relax for a few days. After all, we have earned it 😛 We got a really nice hotel with a rooftop pool and took our sweet time to explore the city.
Over the course of more than five days, we did some shopping (necessity), visited an art museum, went to a big data art-science exhibition, saw the beautiful gardens, tried the tasty Singapore sling in a charming little rooftop bar with an infinity pool, rode in a cable car, went to the cinema (Warcraft!), did some proper dining, met one of my diving friends for a drink and enjoyed the feeling of being back in the western world. I have to admit, after three months of the dusty southeast Asia, I was ecstatic when I got to this kingdom of cleanliness and had cherry tomatoes and croissants for breakfast…
Singapore is unbelievably neat. It feels remarkably safe. It is very green, every street has trees or grass or flowers on it. The transportation within the city is extraordinarily easy. People speak English everywhere. I’m running out of superlatives here 🙂 The point I’m trying to make is that we both loved it. Although it’s definitely heavy on the wallet, it’s a beautiful city and we both thought it was well worth our time.
I think subconsciously, we both decided that the marina bay was the most beautiful part of Singapore and we spent quite a lot of our time there. The waterfront and its skyline was very imposing at day and downright magical at night.
Back to Indonesia
After a short week in Singapore, the day before yesterday we flew to Bali. We came quite late and spent the night in Seminyak. During the day we went to the beach and relaxed for most part. I have to admit, as hyped up as Bali is, I expected it to be one marvelous place after another. So far, I’ve seen a fine beach, but also loads of tourists. It’s not bad at all, but it’s also not the exquisite marvel it’s promised to be. I’m curious if this will change 🙂
I’m going to stop writing now, it’s already so much anyway… I promise to try to post more frequently and thus shorter pieces. If you made it through, congrats, you get an extra friend point from me 😛 Thanks for reading again! 🙂
Love you all,