Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Goodbye, Indonesia

Day 143: Jakarta, Java, Indonesia
I splurged on an executive overnight train to Jakarta. It was $24 for the eight-hour trip, but it had air-conditioning and reclining seats, a welcome change from the filthy, crowded public buses I had been using. I wasn't able to sleep thanks to the man across the aisle from me who was talking loudly to his friend for almost three hours. I've never heard someone talk so fast for so long. The voices in the carriage grew quiet around one o'clock in the morning, but the offensive fluorescent lighting never dimmed, and the sliding door to the coach banged open and shut all night as the train rocked. At one point our train stopped mysteriously for half an hour with no one boarding or exiting. It turned out we were waiting for a train heading in the opposite direction to pass. Travel in Indonesia can be painfully slow sometimes.

Skyline of Jakarta at night, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Skyline of Jakarta at night, Java, Indonesia
The train arrived at the station in central Jakarta at the absurd hour of 5 a.m. – and it was an hour late. I had contacted a guy named Anton through CouchSurfing and was planning on staying with him in Jakarta. He was nice enough to pick me up from the train station, even though it turned out he couldn't host me. He also helped me out by calling BCA, the bank whose ATM ate my card, to ask how I could retrieve it. It wasn't good news: BCA's policy is to destroy non-BCA bank cards that are eaten by their ATMs, even if I could show that my passport matched my name on the card. BCA was a dead end, so we grabbed breakfast, and then Anton dropped me off at a cheap guest house in the backpacker area before he went to work.

As a last resort, I visited the U.S. embassy to see if they could do anything to convince BCA Bank not to destroy my card. The embassy was a nightmare of security, and given Jakarta's history of terrorist bombings, I'm not surprised. Even as an American citizen, I was not even allowed in the gate without a scheduled appointment, which could only be made during a two-hour window in the afternoons. It was futile to explain to the guard that I could not possibly have made an appointment, as the incident had occurred only the day before. I tried to explain that my Indonesian visa expired the next day, and that I was flying to Singapore, but he would make no accommodation to allow me to ask someone if the embassy could even help. It probably couldn't anyway – I suppose they have more important things to worry about. At least I knew the score; my card was irretrievably lost. So now my only option is to have a new card sent to me whenever I stop for more than a few days somewhere. It's hard to receive mail when you're constantly on the move. I'm lucky that I have my other bank card.

Canal, Jakarta, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Canal in Jakarta, Java, Indonesia
Even though I hadn't slept on the train, there was no point in wasting the day napping, so with the bank card issue at a halt for now, I mustered my energy and set out to explore the city. An estimated 22 million people live in the urban agglomeration, making Jakarta the second most populous city in the world. With forests of skyscrapers, sprawling shopping malls, and epic traffic clogging the highways, Jakarta looks like some super-L.A. Beneath the surface of gleam and polish, ugly poverty grips the city. Slums sprawl along sewage-filled canals, saturated with the stench of decaying garbage. The contrast between modern boulevards and crumbling, Third World alleyways is glaring.

In the Menteng subdistrict, I visited the school attended by Barack Obama when he lived in Jakarta in the 1960s; a statue of him as a boy sits in the courtyard. I also visited the Istaqlal Mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia, and Merdeka Square, which boasts the 422-foot-tall National Monument at its center. In the evening, I met back up with Anton and a couple of German backpackers, and we went to a rooftop restaurant for dinner. The view of Jakarta at sunset was breathtaking.

Old City Hall, Jakarta, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Old City Hall, Jakarta, Java, Indonesia
This morning, I visited Jakarta's Old Town, Kota, which contains the vestiges of the Dutch colonial capital of Batavia, founded in the early 1600s. The former city hall, built in 1710, served as the administrative headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, which controlled the region at the time. The Dutch-style canals that were built in Batavia are today not much more than rivers of sewage flanked by dilapidated colonial buildings. I enjoyed a cup of coffee in the lonely Café Batavia on the main square of Taman Fatahillah, and then proceeded to find an ojek (motorbike taxi) back to my guest house. It was a surprisingly time-consuming task to find one; when I'm not looking for transport, I'm endlessly bombarded by offers, but when I actually want to go somewhere, there are no taxis in sight. Once I finally found a motorbike, the driver navigated through the dense Jakarta traffic, stopping often to ask directions. Ojek, becak, and taxi drivers never seem to know where anything is in their own city, even if you are asking to go to the central tourist hotel district. Of course, they don't acknowledge that they don't know where your destination is until you're already on the vehicle.

I was soon back at my hotel, having explored Jakarta as thoroughly as can be done in two days. After spending the past month in Indonesia (the longest I've spent in any country so far on this trip), I am leaving for the airport and will be in glitzy Singapore in just four hours.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ancient Temples / Civet Coffee

Day 141: Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia
Buddha statue at Borobudur Temple, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Buddha statue at Borobudur Temple, Java, Indonesia
Friday afternoon, I took a train to Yogyakarta. A 14-year-old boy across from me blew smoke in my face from his cigarette, and there was no air-conditioning, but for only a dollar I wasn't complaining. I walked to the backpacker area in Yogyakarta from the train station and booked a closet-sized room in a losmen (guest house). Like most places in Asia, I had to remove my shoes at the door, but I found it a bit hypocritical that motorbikes were rolled inside each evening and parked in the middle of the tiled common area.

I booked a tour for the next day to Borobudur and Prambanan, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. The minibus left Yogyakarta at five o'clock in the morning and arrived at Borobudur at six o'clock, just when the gates were opened. Although Borobudur is the most visited attraction in Indonesia and one of the most famous temples in Southeast Asia, arriving just after sunrise assured that the place was pretty desolate. The lack of tourists, coupled with the thick morning fog, lent a meditative and mysterious atmosphere to the place. I explored the many stairways and levels of the temple, admiring the lush, misty countryside that stretched in all directions.

Borobudur Temple, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Morning fog shrouds the Borobudur Temple near Yogyakarta in Java, Indonesia.

The massive structure – 400 feet on each side – was built in the ninth century and was only rediscovered in the early nineteenth century by the British, who governed Java at the time. These first Europeans to glimpse Borobudur found it crumbling under jungle vegetation and centuries of volcanic ash. Standing near the summit of the temple, shrouded in fog, I could almost imagine this place as a lost temple. As the sun rose in the sky and the fog lifted, busloads of Indonesian children arrived in school groups, and the temple was soon crawling with tourists. By eight o'clock, the temperature and humidity had soared, and Borobudur quickly became just another hot and overcrowded tourist attraction typical of Southeast Asia. I feel fortunate to have experienced the rare magic of the temple at sunrise.

On the way to Prambanan, on the other side of Yogyakarta, we stopped at the relatively small Mendut Temple, also built in the ninth century. It was another hour to Prambanan, a Hindu temple compound built around the same time as Borobudur and Mendut. It was in use for less than 100 years before it too was abandoned. The compound contains well over 200 temples, but most of them are just piles of rubble, having been ravaged by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and looters over the centuries. The inner complex contains eight main towering temples, featuring statues of Hindu deities and ornately carved reliefs telling the story of the Ramayana. While impressive in scale, Prambanan lacked the enchanting atmosphere of the imposing Borobudur. Next time, maybe I should visit in the early morning when there aren't so many tourists.

Mendut Temple, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Mendut Temple, Java, Indonesia
Prambanan Temple, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Prambanan Temple, Java, Indonesia

I spent the next two days exploring the city of Yogyakarta. On Sunday evening, I walked along the main street, Jalan Malioboro. An endless chain of stalls sold t-shirts, sandals, and souvenirs, and I had to wade through a slow-moving river of people. Motorbikes were parked six abreast on the sidewalk, and hundreds of people walked in the street. If the person in front of me stopped to look at a stall, I had to wait until they moved along – there was no space to bypass them. Today I visited the Kraton, the palace of the sultan of Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta is a specialized province of Indonesia that still functions as a monarchy, as it has since precolonial times. The sultan serves as the provincial governor, but he is unique from other governors in Indonesia in that he is not held to a term limit. The Kraton is only open at limited times of the day because it is actually a functioning royal palace.

Yogyakarta has also been a good place to try some unusual Javanese food. For dinner on Sunday, I ate cobra prepared in a spicy tongseng style. It tasted similar to alligator with hints of calamari (although less rubbery). The meat had been sliced from the snake in such a way that the pieces naturally assumed a rolled form, approximating a tube-like shape. I also tried kopi luwak, or civet coffee. Because of its unusual production process, this is allegedly the rarest and most expensive variety of coffee in the world. A weasel-like creature called the Asian palm civet, which lives in Sumatra, Java, and other areas of Indonesia, eats the ripest coffee cherries. The fruit is digested, but the civet excretes the beans, which are collected from the dung, washed, dried, and roasted. Enzymes in the civet's digestive system are infused into the beans, resulting in a much less bitter coffee with subtle, unique flavors. I'm no coffee connoisseur, but I could tell a difference between kopi luwak and all other coffees I've tried. I usually put a lot of cream and sugar in my coffee, but I drank the kopi luwak black, and it was not bitter at all. It was definitely the best coffee I've ever had, and at only $10 for two cups, a bargain. As one of the rarest coffees in the world, kopi luwak sells for as much as $600 per pound elsewhere in the world.

On the way back to my losmen, I decided to withdraw a bit of cash from an ATM. I wasn't desperate, but it would be my last chance to get cash until Jakarta. It was one of those split-second decisions that drastically alters future events. After I received my cash, my card didn't eject far enough from the slot. I could see the card refracted through the curved plastic slot cover, but the edge of the card was just barely inside. The ATM beeped persistently and mockingly, telling me to take my card. It was tantalizingly close; if I had a pair of tweezers, I could have grabbed the edge of the card. And then, the inevitable happened: the machine sucked my card deep into the abyss of its dark, impenetrable guts. The ATM version of the "blue screen of death" appeared, indicating in both Bahasa Indonesia and English that the machine was out of order. All hope was lost.

A man behind me in line gave me a ride on his motorbike to the nearest bank branch to see if there might be a maintenance person around. Apparently, banks here close at 3 p.m., and it was ten after. More bad luck. But I did meet an incredibly helpful English-speaking guy who advised me that I would probably not be able to get my card back in Yogyakarta even during bank hours. I was better off continuing with my plans and taking the overnight train to Jakarta. It is bank protocol to send lost cards to the main bank, so if I could retrieve my card at all, it would have to be done in Jakarta anyway. He also suggested I report the incident to the U.S. embassy to see if they might be able to help.

It is quite a predicament, and I don't have much time to resolve this issue. My Indonesian visa expires in two days, and I've already booked a flight to Singapore. I really don't want to go through the trouble of extending my visa and delaying my flight just for a lost card. In fact, this is the second flight I've booked to Singapore. I canceled the first one after I realized I needed much more time to see everything I wanted to see in Indonesia. To miss one flight is bad enough; to miss two would be ridiculous. Will I ever make it to Singapore?

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Spirit of Java

Day 138: Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia
After so much hassle in Surabaya, I just took a taxi to the long-distance bus terminal south of the city. For $3, I booked a bus (with working air-conditioning!) to Solo, also known as Surakarta. Like all public Indonesian buses, vendors boarded at every stop. Snacks, perfume, books, bracelets, switchblade knives – all sorts of random trinkets were thrown into the laps of the passengers as the vendors strolled down the aisle. Now familiar with this sales routine, I surrendered to the goods piling up in my lap, handing each back to its respective vendor when he made his second round down the aisle to collect payment. A large man sat next to me, digging his entire weight into my side. I wiggled my way into a more comfortable position, turning at an angle to prevent my shoulder from crushing into the window. He seemed to spread out even more and I became cramped into a very awkward position for quite a long time. Another man across the aisle threw peanut shells onto the floor as if the bus was a bar.

When I arrived in Solo, I took a cycle rickshaw into town. Like most drivers here, mine didn't seem to know the way, and we ended up in a narrow alley where uniformed school children swarmed the rickshaw. The driver asked them how to get to my destination, and we drove off as the children chased us and demanded money from me. I settled into my simple $5 room and then walked out to explore the main street. It was lined with appliance stores, banks, a handful of western hotels, and even an indoor soccer court. Like Surabaya, Solo did not seem very popular with Western tourists despite its rather zealous tourism campaign. The city's tourism slogan – "Solo: the spirit of Java" – appeared everywhere, but the campaign seemed geared towards Indonesian tourists and not foreigners. Nevertheless, it was a much more pleasant place than Surabaya. In the evening, I strolled past a string of street food vendors in an area known as Galabo. I decided to brave it and try a dish from one of the stalls. I picked a dish called nasi liwat, but it had many different varieties listed only in Bahasa Indonesia. The vendor indicated that they referred to different parts of the chicken by motioning to a large bucket of pre-cooked meat. She pulled out various chicken parts and knew the English words for most of them. "Head? Heart? Foot? Wing?" I asked for a wing. I sat at one of the plastic tables set up along the street, and my meal arrived within two minutes. Rice with coconut milk was wrapped in a banana leaf with the chicken wing, which was cold and contained very little meat. The meal was only 90 cents, but it was not filling enough, so I went to an attractive Italian restaurant down the street. I usually try to stick to local cuisine, but I needed a break from fried rice and noodles. But Western food comes at a premium in Indonesia – my spicy penne arrabiata was over $4.

Wayang Orang performance, Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Wayang Orang performance in Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia
After dinner, I strolled down the road to a cheesy amusement park teeming with excited Indonesian kids and their families. There was a theater behind the park, and I bought a ticket to a wayang orang masked dance drama. It was not intended for foreigners – no English information about the performance was available – but it was therefore an authentic experience. As a local event, I paid the local price of only 30 cents for the two-hour performance. When I gave my ticket to the man at the door, he excitedly motioned for me to sign the guest register. Over the past month, only a handful of foreigners had listed their names. The performance was beautifully accented by a gamelan orchestra, and the elaborate costumes were captivating.

This morning, I booked a tour to two temples in the mountains around Solo. As I am traveling by myself, I could not book a car or minivan, which required a minimum of two people. I went on motorbike instead. My driver picked my up at my hotel, and we sped out of the city. Half an hour into our journey, we encountered a police roadblock. They were checking vehicle registrations, and unfortunately my driver's registration was expired. I had to wait for an hour for someone from the tour company to bring another bike. As time passed, the crowd of waiting motorists grew. Apparently, very few people actually had properly registered vehicles. We switched motorbikes and were finally on our way to the first temple, Candi Sukuh. This fifteenth-century Hindu temple is nestled picturesquely on the slopes of Mount Lawu and features a pyramidal central monument that would not look out of place in Mexico or Central America.

Sukuh Temple on Mount Lawu near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Sukuh Temple on Mount Lawu near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia

Mountain village at Cetho Temple near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Mountain village at Cetho Temple near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia
We rode along pitted, serpentine roads to Candi Cetho, another fifteenth-century Hindu temple that atmospherically cascades down a mist-shrouded volcanic slope. During our visit, the fog grew thicker until the ancient stone gateways of the temple framed only a nebulous, milky whiteness. I held on tightly to the back handle of the motorbike as we descended the vertigo-inducing road back to Solo, bouncing through potholes and cracked pavement the entire way. We stopped for lunch at a plain roadside restaurant in Karangpandan. I ordered a regional specialty called nasi gudeg, consisting of rice, young jackfruit boiled in coconut milk, chicken, beef, and a blackish-brown hard-boiled egg. At 75 cents, it was the cheapest meal I've eaten yet. It was another hour back to Solo, where I had a little time to relax before heading to Yogyakarta by train.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Chaotic Surabaya

Day 137: Surabaya, Java, Indonesia
After watching the enchanting sunrise over Mount Bromo yesterday morning, I headed back to the village of Cemoro Lawang, where I hopped on a minibus back to Probolinggo. At the main bus terminal, I bought a ticket to Surabaya from a man in the tourist ticket office. After buying my ticket, I sat on a bench outside to snack on some banana chips I had just purchased, and the man from the ticket office walked by and asked if he could have some. "Sure," I replied. He reached his grubby fingers in the bag and brazenly pulled out not one or two chips, but a huge handful that amounted to half of what was in the bag. It looked like he was on one of those game shows where contestants have to grab as much cash as they can while a fan blows it around inside a glass booth. I don't mind sharing, but come on!

It was only $1.50 more for the air-conditioned express bus to Surabaya, so I splurged. It turned out that the weak air-conditioning was less effective than the open windows of a normal bus, but at least the express bus made it to Surabaya in two hours instead of four. I was in a seat next to the aisle, which was fortunate considering there was so little leg room that I needed to sit askew with one leg protruding into the aisle. Even in this position, my knees still poked quite far into the plasticy covering of the seat back in front of me, causing my knees to sweat so badly I had a rash by the time we arrived in Surabaya. I tried to ignore the cramped, sweaty conditions of the bus by enjoying some snacks, but I soon finished what was left of my banana chips and moved on to some fluffy cookies that turned out to have the taste and texture of insulation rolled in dry flour.

At every stop, "musicians" with home-made metal guitars boarded the bus and sang appallingly out-of-tune songs, expecting to receive tips afterward. These performances were not like the pleasantly atmospheric accordion music of the Paris Metro. They were ear-splitting songs that lasted so excruciatingly long I felt like I was going to have a nervous breakdown and start screaming. One musician actually sat on me, putting his entire weight on my shoulder as he shrieked out his obnoxious noise directly next to my ear drum. Turning my iPod to its maximum volume didn't even begin to drown out the horrendous tune. These men were not musicians by any stretch of the imagination – they were simply trying to eke out a living any way they could. Nevertheless, when that little collection cup was shoved in front of my face, I felt like taking coins out of it for having to put up with the never-ending racket.

In addition to the annoying musicians, snack vendors also boarded the bus at every stop, walking down the aisle and throwing snacks in the passengers' laps. If you don't want the snack, you have to shove it back in the vendor's face when he walks back down the aisle to collect payment. I quickly realized that the vendors usually didn't throw their merchandise in my lap if I feigned sleep.

After two hours, the bus drove up an on-ramp onto a proper divided highway, the first one I've seen in Indonesia. Soon, we arrived at Surabaya's main bus terminal, which unfortunately lies quite a distance south of the city. I had to navigate my way to the proper public city bus to continue the rest of my journey. A sprawling, decaying metropolis spread out before us, becoming ever denser as we advanced into the run-down heart of the city. As the second largest city in the fourth most populous nation in the world, Surabaya is an overwhelming and chaotic patchwork of dilapidated Third World buildings, punctuated by a sprinkling of modern shopping malls and towering Western hotels.

Becak drivers in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Becak drivers in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia

I hopped off the bus near the Chinatown area known as Kya-Kya, the closest thing Surabaya has to a tourist district – not that I saw a single foreigner my entire time in the city. As soon as I stepped off the bus with my large pack, I almost had to duck under a barrage of shouts – "Hello mister! Transport? Where you going?" – coming from a gang of cycle rickshaw drivers waiting like vultures for the rare (and highly lucrative) foreign tourist. Cycle rickshaws are know as becak in Indonesia, and I had little choice but to climb into one: I had only a vague idea where I was in relation to the hotel I was looking for, and I didn't feel like wandering the streets with a heavy pack in the heat of the day. I negotiated a price for what I knew was a short ride, but after five minutes I quickly realized that the becak driver was going in circles. I saw the sign for my hotel ahead, but my driver veered off onto an alley just before the hotel. I yelled at him to stop, but he continued for another twenty minutes in a loop through busy streets before finally listening to my incessant plea to return to the hotel. In many developing countries, taxi and rickshaw drivers often take tourists to places they did not request – a shop that will pay a commission to the driver if the tourist buys something, or a hotel that will pay a commission if the tourist books a room. It sometimes helps to insist on being taken directly to your destination, but drivers often take you to places that pay commission anyway. I'm not sure if this becak driver was attempting such a scam on me, but it definitely took much more time than it should have to reach my hotel. It's not like I could have jumped out of the moving vehicle the first time I saw the hotel sign. To make matters worse, when I handed the agreed-upon payment to the driver, he retracted his hand and refused to take the money. Instead, he requested 10 times the amount! Changing the fee after a ride is yet another common scam in developing countries, but at least I had control over this one – I was already at my destination. I placed the proper payment on the seat of the becak and walked away. Of course, the driver yelled at me to stop, but I continued walking. I turned around as he began to cycle away, and I saw a disappointed but accepting expression on his face – he knew I had paid a fair price.

Man making wooden sandals, Surabaya, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Man making wooden sandals in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia
After checking into my bland (but air-conditioned!) room, I set out to walk around the city. Surabaya, like most all Indonesian cities, has no walkable sidewalks. Where sidewalks do exist, they are monopolized by parked motorbikes or workers unloading merchandise in front of shops. Sidewalk cafés are not the quaint variety found in Europe – they literally hog the entire sidewalk with cracked plastic chairs and tables. There is not even walking space next to the curb. That space seems to be reserved for parked cars or trucks, which often back out of their spaces without warning. All these obstacles force pedestrians to walk in the middle of the busy streets, avoiding traffic on one side and reversing vehicles on the other. Space is so limited on the streets that becak, motorbikes, and trucks drive dangerously close to pedestrians – so close that I was even clipped by a side-view mirror at one point. Crossing a road is an even more daunting task. Crosswalk signals are unheard of, and the lack of traffic lights creates a never-ending stream of cars with no gaps. The only way to cross is to unflinchingly walk into the traffic, holding your hands up as if you have magical superpowers that will stop cars in their tracks. Somehow, it seems to work. It is best to cross in the middle of a road rather than an intersection so you don't have to worry about turning cars. Of course, one-way streets are optimal.

I visited a bustling fish market in Chinatown, where motorbikes squeezed through hordes of people crowding the narrow, crumbling alleyways. It was like any other Third World fish market I have visited, overflowing with the sight of fish both common and bizarre, the sound of vigorous haggling, and of course the unmistakable smell that can be detected from many blocks away. Foreigners must be a rare sight here, as children kept running up to me to give me high-fives (after which they usually asked for money).

Chinatown fish market in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Chinatown fish market in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia

I wandered past the fish market to the Qubah, the city's Arab quarter. The area is packed with bazaars and several mosques, including the dominant Mesjid Ampel. The alley leading up to this mosque is packed with stalls selling all sorts of religious clothing and other wares to the devout Muslims who stroll back and forth to the mosque from the main road. A couple of persistent beggar women followed me through the bazaar for a while, and one of the old women even grabbed my arm, holding on tightly until I shook her off.

Minaret in the Qubah, Surabaya, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Minaret in the Qubah, Surabaya, Java, Indonesia
I had walked quite a distance to the Qubah, so I decided to take a becak back to my hotel. As always, I negotiated the price before I stepped into the vehicle, and unsurprisingly, the driver kept trying to veer off course to take me to some place that would probably pay him a commission for bringing me there. Luckily, I knew the way to my hotel, so every time he tried to deviate, I would say, "Hey, where are you going?" and point in the correct direction. After I caught him for the third time, he surrendered and said, "OK, OK, fine." He didn't try to make any more detours, and we were back at the main road near my hotel in a few minutes. I was not surprised when he tried to pull the common change-of-fare scam that my previous becak driver had attempted earlier this afternoon. I handled the situation in the same manner, placing the proper fare on the seat and walking away. Unfortunately, my tactic didn't work so well this time: the driver hopped off his becak, ran after me, and grabbed my arm. I explained that we had agreed on a certain price at the beginning, and that he can't change the fare – not to mention that he kept trying to take me on a detour. He didn't (or acted like he didn't) understand what I was saying. The argument was going nowhere, and every time I tried to walk away, he grabbed my arm tightly or blocked my path. He began to raise his voice and his eyes even teared up, but I refused to give in to this elaborate act designed to guilt me into being ripped off. Scam artists in developing countries know how to twist your conscience so that you feel like you are stealing if you don't consent to being ripped off. But not paying the driver what he asked is certainly not stealing; it's simply a matter of paying the pre-negotiated price. There is such desperation in developing countries that such scams do not seem wrong to these poverty-stricken people. To them, ripping off comparatively rich Western tourists is an honest way to make an income. Certain poor people may even feel that they are entitled to money from Westerners because there is such a gap in wealth.

As people on the street began to stare at the escalating argument, and I began to feel extremely uncomfortable, an English-speaking Indonesian man finally walked by and intervened. I explained the situation, and the man translated my argument to the driver. The driver tried to argue that I had misunderstood the agreed-upon price, which was a lie, as I had negotiated the fee in Bahasa Indonesia in addition to holding up the corresponding number of fingers. The translator communicated this to the driver, who finally relented. The translator said that I had paid a fair price and was free to go. I quickly crossed the busy road, walking into the middle of four lanes of oncoming traffic and hoping that the vehicles would stop. As always, they did, and I slipped down an alley towards my hotel, weaving between motorbikes and parked vans to make sure the crazy becak driver didn't try to follow me.

Persistent scam artists like that becak driver are extremely counterproductive, as they skew tourists' perceptions of their country and therefore convince potential travelers not to visit. Most people do not want to be in a constant defensive mode when they travel. I am passionate enough about experiencing the world that I recognize such unfortunate situations as part of traveling in developing countries. But I too have become bitter and jaded from having to constantly guard against being ripped off. I've become wary of anyone who starts a conversation with me, asks where I'm from, or even says hello. At the first sign of friendliness, I immediately switch into defensive mode and give short answers, or usually just ignore the person completely. The tragic part is that I haven't been wrong yet in being so callous and unfriendly. Every time, without fail, that "friendly" local has wanted my money. I don't think I've met more than a handful of people on my trip who have helped me without expecting anything in return. However, I mostly have contact with people who deal daily with tourists, like taxi and rickshaw drivers, and it is these people who are the most notorious rip-off artists. I'm sure that the locals in Indonesia, or any country, are mostly friendly – but that friendliness is difficult to access for foreign tourists. I try to always maintain that perspective, because if I let the endless scams get to me, I dread how hostile and distrustful I may become after six more months in Asia.

It may be frustrating to be swindled out of a dollar here or five dollars there, but to many people in developing countries, that is a significant amount of money. Although the methods that destitute people use to rip off tourists seem extremely dishonest to us Westerners, I can't fault their tenacity in trying to squeeze a few extra cents out of comparatively wealthy tourists. They don't have many options when it comes to making money. And as bad as it is for rickshaw drivers to rip off foreigners, there are even worse lifestyles that the poor are often forced into in Asia, such as prostitution. Unfortunately, it is very easy to become demoralized in the face of such relentless poverty.

After my sobering altercation with the becak driver and my walk through the crumbling, impoverished streets of Surabaya, I yearned for a different perspective on the city. Having had my fill of rickshaws for the day, I took a metered taxi to the House of Sampoerna Café, which provided a much-needed relaxing atmosphere. The air-conditioned interior of the historic building was tastefully furnished with designer décor and featured a well-stocked bar, trendy ambient lighting, and a flat-screen HDTV playing a World Cup match. A live band played on the patio outside, and chilled-out music enhanced the calm mood inside. Amazingly, my exquisite meal of spicy Singaporean laksa – featuring curry noodles, tofu, and generous portions of chicken and shrimp – was only $2. For dessert, I had banana fritters drizzled in caramel sauce with ice cream. It was the best meal I've eaten since Cape Town.

Refreshed and full, I returned to my hotel ready to wash up and go to bed. Unfortunately, the cap for the spout that drains the mandi (water basin) was missing, so I had to wait for the slow trickle of water to fill up the plastic dipper each time I needed to dump water on myself to rinse the soap off. It took over half an hour for the whole ordeal, but at least I was clean and ready to fall into a deep sleep. Yesterday was an absolutely epic day: remember, it started at 3:30 in the morning when I awoke to watch the sunrise over Mount Bromo. As I try to digest the day's events and distill my thoughts about the becak scams and pervasive poverty, it would be very easy to say that I should not have come to Surabaya. No one recommended that I come here, and I knew that it was not going to be a very pleasant city, but I am glad that I have had the opportunity to experience a place that not many foreigners visit. This massive, manic metropolis rewarded me with a true, unfiltered view of everyday life in an Indonesian city.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Volcanic Vista

Day 136: Cemoro Lawang / Mount Bromo, Java, Indonesia
Although my room in Probolinggo was the definition of bare bones, the hotel was nice enough to arrange transport to Mount Bromo for me – and it cost less than $4 for the one-hour trip through jaw-droppingly beautiful terrain. We twisted through a verdant, undulating landscape of terraced farmland that more than made up for the sub-par impression of Java I had developed when I first arrived. Morning mist hung suspended in the deep valleys, lending a mystical atmosphere to the vista. The fertile quality of the volcanic soil was evident here, where tropical foliage burst from the hillsides in explosions of green punctuated by colorful splashes of flowers. Impossibly steep fields blanketed the precipitous sides of the hills, guarded by farmhouses carefully placed on the slopes like sentinels. Up, up, up on the steep road, and we finally arrived at the picturesque little village of Cemoro Lawang, perched on the rim of the epic Tengger crater. Inside this six-mile-wide crater are five smaller volcanoes (including the infamous Mount Bromo) rising like phoenixes from a massive, desolate sea of black volcanic sand.

Sunrise, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Sunrise over the Tengger Caldera from Mount Penanjakan, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia

At 7,500 feet, it was much cooler and less humid than in sea-level Probolinggo, so I decided to go for a hike along the rim of the crater. I walked along rural trails, passing only farmers, while I gazed at the apocalyptic landscape below me. When I returned to town, I walked down the steep main road for a while until it started to rain. The temperature continued to drop into the evening, and it eventually became quite brisk outside. I actually had to sleep under a blanket for the first time in weeks, but I'm not complaining.

Old woman, Cemoro Lawang, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
An old woman sits outside her home in Cemoro Lawang, Java, Indonesia.
Main street, Cemoro Lawang, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
A view down the main street in Cemoro Lawang, Java, Indonesia

At the brutal time of 3:30 in the morning, I woke up and got ready to meet my transport to Mount Penanjakan, where I would watch the sun rise over the Tengger crater and Mount Bromo. At four o'clock, our jeep entered the gate of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, and we endured a bone-rattling ride down the rim of the Tengger crater, across the vast black volcanic plain, and up the winding road to the summit of Penanjakan at 9,000 feet. Considering that Cemoro Lawang was the only town around, and that I only saw a few other jeeps entering the park, I figured that there would not be many people at the summit. Unfortunately, I was dead wrong: it was packed with tourists! I was shocked, because I had not seen any foreigners at all on my way to Probolinggo, and there are not that many places to stay in Cemoro Lawang. I think most of them were on package tours, so who knows where they started off this morning. The sheer number of tourists did take away from the magic of the experience a bit, as I had to fight my way to the fence to get a glimpse of the view. But what a view it was! When the first rays of the sun lit that otherworldly, desolate panorama, I forgot all about the hundreds of other people that were watching with me. The plain was shrouded in a thick blanket of mist, and the Tengger crater's perfectly formed volcanic peaks rose like islands from a white, ethereal sea. A wafting column of steam escaped from the highly active vent of Mount Bromo, reflecting the pink glow of the morning sun, and the gigantic Mount Semeru (at 12,000 feet, the highest peak in Java) stood watch over the entire scene from the hazy distance. It was one of the most sublime and enchanting vistas I have ever witnessed.

Poten Temple, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Poten Temple in the Tengger crater, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia
After sunrise, we headed back down into the Tengger crater, where I set out on the path that leads to the very rim of Mount Bromo itself. I traipsed across the sandy volcanic soil, passing a uniquely positioned Hindu temple nestled at the foot of the active volcano, and began to climb up the rocky slope. The final ascent features a steep stairway that ends on the precipitous rim of the crater. Out of breath and breathing only the sulfuric fumes belching from the volcanic vent of Bromo, I finally reached the top. One side of the narrow rim dropped precariously into the steaming crater; the other side descended at a slippery angle all the way to the plain below. It was one of those special places that begs you to step outside of the moment and say to yourself, "I can't believe I'm really here."

View from Mount Bromo, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
View from Mount Bromo, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Long Journey to Java

Day 134: Probolinggo, Java, Indonesia
I left Amed at 6:15 this morning, and it was just under two hours to Singaraja, a large town on the north coast of Bali. I dropped by the post office to ship some souvenirs home, and the process was very methodical compared to my shipping experiences in Africa. It may have taken an hour, but the guy at the desk was very helpful and carefully packed my two flimsy boxes into a large, sturdy box. I chose to send the parcel via sea mail, so it will take up to three months to reach Florida. When I was done at the post office, I hopped on a local bus to Gilimanuk on the western tip of Bali. The bus was full of cigarette smoke, and the boy next to me was sprawled over half of my seat. He was asleep and wouldn't budge, so I sat at an angle with one leg in the aisle. The three-hour journey was slow going, and we stopped repeatedly to be sprinkled with what must have been some sort of holy water. When we arrived in Gilimanuk, I paid the $2 bus fare and crossed the street to the ferry terminal, where I bought a ticket for 60 cents. The ticket didn't specify the destination, so I assumed that all ferries from Gilimanuk cross the narrow straight to nearby Java. I walked over to the nearest boat – no signs were in English, so I hoped it was the right one. I climbed the rusting staircase from the vehicle deck to the grimy passenger deck and sat in one of the rows of plastic seats that were bolted to the concrete floor. A sad, meager snack stand at the front was flanked by aging televisions which played cheesy Indonesian pop music videos. The snack stand attendant was stretched out across the front row of seats, and he slept for most of the journey. Ferries leave every half hour from Gilimanuk, so at least the deck was not crowded – in fact, it was quite empty.

The crossing only took half an hour, but I was on the ferry for an hour including the time spent waiting for the boat to depart Bali and dock on Java. Once in Ketapang, on Java, I walked past the touts offering transport to the bus station. At airports, bus stations, and ferry terminals, gangs of taxi and rickshaw drivers descend like vultures on arriving tourists, hoping to charge exorbitant prices for short rides. The scam usually involves the touts asking where you want to go and then informing you that it is too far to walk. As usual, I walked past the vultures and continued towards the bus terminal, which I figured couldn't be too far from the ferry terminal. Unfortunately, in this case it turned out that the touts were telling the truth, and I walked for ages along a busy road in the stifling tropical humidity. I passed gated off port facilities and ignored the many vehicles that honked at me to ask if I needed a ride. I was determined to not be ripped off. I asked everyone I passed the direction to the bus terminal to make sure I was getting a consistent answer. I spoke using the few words of Bahasa Indonesia that I knew – people here in eastern Java don't seem to speak English nearly as much as the Balinese because there are fewer tourists. In fact, I didn't see a single foreigner on the ferry or anywhere in Ketapang.

Just when I couldn't take the humidity any more, my walk was hindered by an inconvenient but refreshing tropical downpour. I ducked under a plastic tarp on the side of the road so my bags wouldn't get soaked. There was a man sitting on a bench underneath the tarp, and we attempted to have a simple conversation, half in English and half in Bahasa Indonesia. The rain soon let up, and after ten minutes, I finally saw the much-anticipated sign for the bus terminal. It was in the middle of nowhere, and I didn't have much choice other than to pay what the ticket collector asked for the ride to Probolinggo, which was three times the standard price. Even though I got ripped off, it amounted to only a few dollars, and I was just happy to take off my pack and sit down for a while. I wiped the sweat and rain from my face and breathed a sigh of relief as I settled in for the six-hour bus journey.

As I gazed out the window, I immediately noticed how much Java differed from Bali. In Bali, Hinduism permeates every aspect of the island's culture and the overall look of its cities. In Java, mosques are everywhere, and the intricate stone work of Bali's ubiquitous temples has been replaced by more modern, but very bland, architecture. Instead of beautifully patterned batik sarongs, women in Java wear plainer head scarves. Java seems to lack the magical and exotic atmosphere of Bali.

The bus stopped for a while at the bus terminal in the uninspiring town of Situbondo, and I hopped off to use the toilet. No one indicated when the bus would leave again, so I made the stop quick so the bus wouldn't roll off without me. The bus ended up staying for half an hour. It would have been nice to know that beforehand so I didn't have to rush, but the driver had disappeared and no one spoke a word of English. During the stop, a gang of snack vendors boarded the bus to sell snacks, and I bought a packet of weird fried sticks that satisfied my hunger well enough – I had not eaten anything all day except some stale wafers from the dilapidated snack bar on the ferry.

I was exhausted and ready to crash when I arrived in Probolinggo. There did not seem to be much in the way of budget accommodation in the city, as most places seemed to be hotels popular with Indonesian tourists. I finally found a hotel for $7.50, which seemed like a decent price, except this dismal room had only a noisy fan anchored to the wall, a squat toilet, and no sink. Literally hundreds of ants infested the grimy floor. Luckily I was only staying one night.

Room in Hotel Moronyoto, Probolinggo, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Room in Hotel Moronyoto, Probolinggo, Java, Indonesia
I still had not eaten a meal, but there were no restaurants nearby. I asked the attendant at the front desk where the closest store was, but he had no idea what I was asking. After charades failed, he finally called the hotel manager, who was able to give me directions. The language barrier in Java is turning out to be quite a challenge. Probolinggo doesn't see many foreign tourists because most people breeze through on the way to Mount Bromo, but I arrived too late and will have to take a bus in the morning. As I set out to walk to the nearby store, a guy out front was pushing a motorbike ride on me. I am starting to become fed up with the never-ending offers of transport. If I needed a ride, I would approach one of the many obvious rickshaws or taxis. I don't see the point in touts bombarding tourists with "Where you going?" and "Transport, mister?". After five minutes, I came across a little shop and bought some juice, stale banana chips, and an unlabeled bag of mysterious little snacks that had the taste and texture of burnt popcorn kernels. In fact, I think they were burnt popcorn kernels. It is quite a challenge to find fresh, decent snacks in Indonesia. It seems that the humidity makes everything go stale in about a day, even if the snack is in a factory-sealed pack.

Bathroom in Hotel Moronyoto, Probolinggo, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Bathroom and toilet in Hotel Moronyoto, Probolinggo, Java, Indonesia
With no sink in my room, I brushed my teeth with bottled water and spit into the squat toilet. Instead of a shower, there was a mandi, a traditional Indonesian water tank used for bathing and also for pouring water down the squat toilet to "flush" it. I was dripping with sweat after the day's trials, so I gave the mandi a try, soaping up and then pouring water over myself with the plastic scooper. I wasn't brave enough to wash my face with the stagnant water, although I'm sure it would have been fine. I just have to overcome a psychological block about bathing from water that essentially is sitting in the equivalent of a toilet tank.

I think today is the first time on my world trip that I've truly felt like an independent traveler. I've taken plenty of cheap local transport before, but I felt like all that travel knowledge culminated in today's epic 14-hour journey. Things didn't go perfectly, but I can learn from today's mistakes as I prepare for many more long journeys across Asia.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

More Temples / Snorkeling in Eastern Bali

Day 133: Amed, Bali, Indonesia
Balinese Barong dance in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Balinese Barong dance in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia
After twelve nights in Kuta, the longest I've stayed in one place in over four months, I finally left for the tranquil eastern coast of Bali. On the way, I stopped at quite a few sights for a final taste of Balinese culture. The first stop was Denpasar, the island's biggest city, where I went to a Barong and Kris dance. This performance depicts the eternal fight between good and evil, and like all Balinese dance, emphasized elaborate costumes. There were a series of short stops in the craft villages in the Ubud area before lunch. I learned about the process of making batik fabrics in Batubulan, examined the intricacies of silver jewelry in Celuk, and witnessed some impressively detailed wood carving in Mas. After lunch, I visited the ninth-century Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave) and its associated bathing temple, excavated only sixty years ago.

Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave) near Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave) near Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Bathing temple figures at Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave) near Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Bathing temple figures at Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave) near Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

It was a little over an hour on winding roads to the sprawling Mother Temple of Besakih, nestled at the base of Mount Agung. This huge temple complex is one of the most popular tourist sites in Bali, and as such, I had to contend with numerous scams designed to rip off tourists. There was a roadblock many miles before the temple where I had to purchase a ticket, and the ticket checkpoint and parking lot were half a mile below the temple, necessitating motorbike transport up the steep road to the temple. The man at the ticket counter tried to suggest that I pay around 20 euros for the required guide, but I ended up paying 3 dollars. Unlike every other temple I've visited in Bali, Besakih does not provide sarongs, so I had to rent one for an outrageous price (well, $1.50, but that's outrageous for Bali). I used the toilet next to the ticket counter, and when I exited, a woman sitting next to the door demanded 5,000 rupiah (50 cents), even though the typical price should have been more like 1,000 rupiah. Of course, there was no sign indicating the price, so I had to pay what she asked. In retrospect, I should have just put 1,000 rupiah in the jar and walked away. Once I navigated through all the scams, the temple complex itself was actually quite impressive. The complex had a terraced design that climbed the slope of the volcano, and numerous towers jutted into the misty sky. Some of the temples date back as far as the eighth century, and the black lava stone used for construction originated from the bowels of Mount Agung itself.

Mother Temple of Besakih, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
The Mother Temple of Besakih sprawls up the slopes of Mount Agung in eastern Bali, Indonesia.

Rice terraces at Bukit Jambul, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Rice terraces at Bukit Jambul, Bali, Indonesia
On the way down from Basakih Temple, we stopped at Bukit Jambul to view the rice terraces, which were picturesque but not as impressive as the extensive landscape of terraces at Jatiluwih. The next stop was the Court of Justice and its moat, part of the Klungkung Palace. Klungkung was the most important kingdom in Bali from the seventeenth century to the early twentieth century. Outside of Klungkung, I visited Pura Goa Lawah (Bat Cave Temple), which features a natural cavern containing hundreds of fruit bats. Since there was still a bit of daylight left, I asked my driver how much it would be to extend the trip all the way to Amed further up the east coast. He suggested $5, and I haggled the price down to $3. This seemed a bit too good to be true, as Amed was an hour and a half away. Even though the driver was looking at a map, he clearly wasn't familiar with Amed, and when we finally arrived (after stopping for directions many times), he was disappointed that he had agreed on such a low price. I've been ripped off so many times that it's only fair to come across some good fortune every once in a while. It all evens out in the end.

I stayed in a bungalow across from the beach, and the water smelled of sulfur, a constant reminder of Bali's volcanic nature. Even with ear plugs, it was difficult to sleep that night because of the incessant crowing of roosters. It was my ignorant impression that roosters crow at sunrise, but it turns out that the avian insomniacs crow all night long.

Today, I hired transport to Tulamben further up the coast, where a fabulous World War II shipwreck rested just off the coast. It was supposed to be the best diving and snorkeling site in Bali, so I rented a snorkel and mask and splashed into the waves. Unfortunately, the rough water was churning up so much black sand that the water was too murky to see anything. The beach was composed of large, water-worn lava stones that swirled in the crashing surf. I only stayed fifteen minutes before I decided to give up and head back to Amed. The drive back was more interesting than the snorkeling: we passed one of Bali's famous ritualistic cremation processions, featuring traditional music and dress. A dried black lava flow originating from a conical volcano emptied into the sea. In Amed, the water was a little calmer and slightly clearer, and the black sand beach was softer. Still, I only saw a few fish and bits of coral. I swam out further, but it was just a murky turquoise void. I gave up on snorkeling and relaxed in my room the rest of the day.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Rice Terraces / Temple by the Sea

Day 131: Kuta, Bali, Indonesia
This morning, my driver picked me up at 9:30, and we drove an hour north to Mengwi to visit the royal temple of Taman Ayun, built in the seventeenth century. Then it was off to the rice terraces at Jatiluwih. Although these are considered the most picturesque rice terraces in Bali, Jatiluwih is fairly remote, and my driver had to ask a few people on the side of the road how to get there. I truly saw the "real" Bali as we passed rural lanes and children flying kites in the green fields. It took an hour to reach Jatiluwih, and I ate lunch at a restaurant overlooking the terraces. My excellent meal of Balinese baked chicken included locally-grown brown rice. After lunch, I walked through the terraces and enjoyed the stunning hilly landscape. The fertile smell of manure filled the country air.

Rice terraces at Jatiluwih in central Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Rice terraces at Jatiluwih in central Bali, Indonesia

From centrally-located Jatiluwih, it was an hour to the much-visited sixteenth-century Tanah Lot temple on the coast. Tanah Lot is probably the most famous temple in Bali, as it occupies a stunning location on a rocky outcropping by the sea. The most popular time to visit the temple is sunset, and I had a few hours to kill. I walked around the beach below the cliffs of Tanah Lot – like many temples in Bali, only worshippers are allowed to enter. I walked over to a row of cafés overlooking the coastline, and I relaxed on a terrace with a cold avocado juice. Then I strolled along the coast, from a posh golf course at the eastern end to some smaller temples to the west of Tanah Lot. A spectacular natural stone arch bridge over the water led to a picturesque little temple that jutted out into the sea. As sunset approached, I walked back over to the golf course, which seemed to have the best view of Tanah Lot. I climbed from the golf course down to the beach and slowly approached the temple as the sun set. As the tide started to come in, I had to walk closer to the cliffs that rose above the beach. When the temple was completely silhouetted against the darkening sky, I walked back to my vehicle, having spent a thorough and relaxing four hours at Tanah Lot.

Sunset at Tanah Lot temple, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Sunset at Tanah Lot temple, Bali, Indonesia

It was an hour before we reached Kuta, and I liked my driver well enough, so I booked another tour with him for tomorrow. This time, it would be a one-way trip towards the east coast of Bali; this would be my last night in Kuta. Tonight was the opening of the World Cup in South Africa, which I suppose is an exciting event to experience in a vibrant tourist hub like Kuta. I walked over to one of my favorite restaurants, where I ate dinner as I watched the opening ceremony on their big screen. I felt almost a bit "homesick" for South Africa and thought about some of my friends who are still there. I wish I could have stayed in South Africa longer so I could enjoy this exciting and defining moment for one of my favorite countries. After I finished my meal, I moved over to the bar to get a better view of the screen. It started growing crowded as the time for the first match grew closer. A couple of guys sat down next to me. One was Canadian and the other British, and they teach English in the large city of Bandung on Java. I enjoyed a Bintang with them while I asked them about living in Indonesia. Suddenly, the restaurant lost reception and the crowd booed. Apparently it was too expensive to pay for the broadcast, but it's not wise to scrimp on something as important as the opening of the World Cup. We, along with other patrons, left for the more vibrant Legian Street. Even though it was within walking distance, I jumped on a motorbike with an Austrian tourist who was going with us. We watched the match for a while in a bar, but the guys I was with were more interested in drinking than watching the game, and they left for a cheaper bar that wasn't broadcasting the World Cup. I stayed for a while longer, but the match seemed really slow, and I had to wake up early. I walked back to my guesthouse, bombarded by the sound of the horns at the World Cup echoing throughout a packed Legian Street as almost every bar and restaurant broadcast it simultaneously.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ulu Watu by Motorbike

Day 130: Kuta, Bali, Indonesia
Luhur temple at Ulu Watu, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Luhur temple perches on a seaside cliff at Ulu Watu in southern Bali, Indonesia.
This morning, no tours were available, but a guy at the agency, Rey, offered to take me to Luhur temple at Ulu Watu on his motorbike for a much cheaper price than the air-conditioned van trips. We left at 3:30 so I could watch the sunset at the eleventh-century clifftop temple. It was a 45-minute white-knuckle ride on the back of Rey's motorbike. We dodged in and out of traffic, zooming into the oncoming lane to pass vehicles that were going slightly slower. When we slowed down in heavy traffic, the front tire of Rey's bike was mere inches from the back tire of the bike in front of us. We passed trucks so close that I could have touched them, and I had to make sure my knees weren't sticking out where they could hit another vehicle. I felt like I could have fallen off at any time, and I gripped tightly to the handles placed awkwardly behind my seat. I tried to relax, knowing that everyone in Bali drives like this, but it was quite a nerve-racking ride at times. We went up a steep hill at one point; I tried to adjust to keep from falling off the back of the motorbike, and I lost one of my flip-flops. I've been looking for an excuse to get a new pair anyway, as the cheap pair I've been wearing since Namibia are getting quite worn.

When we finally arrived at Ulu Watu, I told Rey I had lost a flip-flop and asked him if there were any vendors where I could buy a new pair. He nodded, and I proceeded barefoot with Rey to the ticket booth. I figured there would be vendors inside the temple area, as there have been at other attractions in Bali. We walked all around the temple complex – up and down stone stairs, along rough pathways next to the seaside cliffs - and I asked Rey quite a few times if I could please go buy some flip-flops now! After a while, Rey finally realized the situation, and he took me out of the temple complex to a nearby row of vendors, where I finally bought a new pair of flip-flops for my now filthy, tender feet. I don't know if he just didn't understand what I was saying – most Balinese speak quite broken English – but I would have thought that my plight would be obvious with me standing barefoot, holding one flip-flop, and asking where I could buy a new pair.

With my feet now enjoying the protection of my new pair of flip-flops, we went back into the temple area. Annoying, cheeky macaque monkeys were roaming the place, and we had to watch to make sure they didn't try to take anything from us. We saw one nab a girl's earring, and numerous people warned me to protect my glasses from the thieving monkeys. It's one thing to walk around barefoot, but I certainly didn't want to ride on a motorbike all the way back to Kuta blind. Although I didn't have any food in my backpack, at one point I was going down a large flight of stone steps, and a macaque bared its teeth and pounced onto my back from the wall next to the stairway. I ran at top speed down the steps and the monkey dropped off. As much of a nuisance as these animals are, tourists for some reason love to risk their earrings and have their pictures taken with the vile creatures. Vendors sell nuts and bananas at the entrance to the temple, and it seemed to me that the practice of feeding the macaques just exacerbates the problem. However, I soon found out otherwise: Rey bought a pack of nuts and threw one at a monkey whenever one seemed about to jump on us. It was a useful diversion tactic. One massive, fierce-looking macaque cornered us as we walked down a wooded pathway. Rey just chucked the whole bag at the beast, and we ran. Locals and tourists seem to be equally cautious of the macaques; they sport a mean set of fangs and are ruthless in their attempt to obtain food.

At sunset, I made my way to the clifftop theater at Ulu Watu, where I enjoyed one of the Kecak dances for which Bali is famous. This dance is the interpretation of a story from the Ramayana, a Hindu epic. The strange chanting was hypnotic, the costumes were elaborate and beautiful, and the fiery finale was spectacular, but it was difficult to follow the story with little to no knowledge of the Ramayana. But for the performance alone, it was definitely worth seeing.

Kecak dance, Ulu Watu, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
A masked performer dodges flames during a Kecak dance at Ulu Watu in southern Bali, Indonesia.

After the dance, it was half an hour to Jimbaran Bay. I was getting slightly more comfortable on the back of Rey's motorbike, but maybe it's just because it was dark and I couldn't see anything. At Jimbaran, I ate dinner at a seafood restaurant on the beach. My table was actually in the sand. I selected some massive king prawns and fresh snapper, and the restaurant barbecued them Balinese-style. The prawns were as big as my foot and tasted excellent, but the snapper had too many tiny bones for my taste. After my seafood feast, it was only twenty minutes back to Kuta, and I could relax knowing that I didn't have to endure any more of that motorbike. I wanted to set up a tour for tomorrow, but I tried a different tactic: I went up to a random tour vendor on Poppies Gang I, and I asked how much it would be to hire a private vehicle and driver for a whole day. I told him where I wanted to go, and he quoted me a price of $35 – not bad for a private, custom tour to locations all around the island.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bali: Settling In

Day 129: Kuta, Bali, Indonesia
Adenium flowers at the Buddhist monastery in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Adenium flowers at the Buddhist monastery in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia
Last Monday, almost two weeks ago, I took the bus from Ubud to Kuta, the tourism center of Bali. I arranged the bus ticket with my guesthouse that morning and paid $5 for the two-hour ride. Within ten minutes of arriving in Kuta, I had wandered through the alleys off Poppies Gang I, one of the main tourist drags, and found a cheap guesthouse called Taman Ayu Bungalows. I initially booked four nights in the basic room for $8 per night, but I had no idea how long I intended to stay in Kuta. The room does not have air conditioning or hot water, but the fan keeps me sufficiently cool, and I wouldn't want anything but a cold shower in this humidity. That evening, I walked along the beach to the enormous air-conditioned Discovery Shopping Mall, where I met Deepa and Neerav, a couple who had been on part of the Oasis trip in Africa with me. They have been traveling in Southeast Asia for the past couple of months, and I happened to catch them in Bali only a day before they flew home. It was a lot of fun to hang out with them again thousands of miles away from Africa, and we stayed out late talking about our travels. They are moving from the UK to Australia in a few months, and I hope to meet up with them again for New Years in Sydney.

I spent the next eight days getting to know Kuta and catching up on my blog. Near my guesthouse is Poppies Gang I - not to be confused with nearby Poppies Gang II. It is a crowded, narrow street filled to the brim with motorbikes that breeze within inches of your arm, hawkers selling massages or transport, souvenir stalls with Bintang beer t-shirts and flip-flops, and hard-partying Australian beach bums who have traveled to Bali for the cheap Bintang and good surf. Not my scene - but I discovered quiet sanctuaries in some of the cozy restaurants along the alley. I became a regular at a Cuban restaurant called Havana Club. They have free wireless internet, so I would sometimes stay there from lunch through dinner writing my blog, going through my photos, and chatting with friends and family. I tried quite a few of the restaurants along Poppies Gang I, enjoying avocado juice, chicken satay, nasi goreng, and free wi-fi for days on end. One day, I made the long, sandy trek along the crowded beachfront back to Discovery Shopping Mall, where I enjoyed the air-conditioning in Starbucks for an afternoon. My Frappuccino was as expensive as lunch and dinner combined at some of my new favorite cheap restaurants, so I retreated back to the more affordable area around Poppies Gang I. I also ventured out a few times to Legian Street, the main busy road through the city. It is lined with bars, nightclubs, and surf shops; drunk partiers prowl the street every evening. This is where two simultaneous nightclub bombings occurred in 2002, and there is a large memorial in the middle of Legian Street to commemorate the terrorist attacks.

I have been extending my cheap stay at Taman Ayu Bungalows, and by yesterday, I finally caught up with my blog and photos from Africa and was ready to start exploring more of Bali. There are hundreds of tour operators with street stalls in Kuta, but I initially had a bit of trouble booking a tour. Even though these tours are package deals with set itineraries, they are in private vans rather than large buses. The problem was that every one of the tour operators seemed to require a minimum of two people for a trip. I had to wait until someone else was interested in a particular tour before I could go. I visited one agency, marked the trips that interested me, and later in the day went back to see if any tours had become available. I had a lucky break: this morning, I left for my first tour.

One of the guys from the tour agency picked me up at eight o'clock from my guesthouse. I rode on the back of his motorbike to the van, which couldn't fit into the narrow alley where I was staying. We drove to a hotel and picked up the other tourist, a French guy who had been traveling in Australia and stopped in Bali on his way home. We drove north for two hours until we reached the picturesque Ulun Danu Bratan temple on an island in Lake Bratan. It was teeming with mostly Asian tourists, including a large Balinese school group - a stark contrast to the tranquil setting depicted on postcards, but not surprising on this heavily touristed island.

Ulun Danu Bratan temple, Lake Bratan, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Ulun Danu Bratan temple appears to float in Lake Bratan near Candikuning, Bali, Indonesia.

Miniature Borobudur at the Buddhist monastery in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Miniature Borobudur at the Buddhist monastery in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia
It took about half an hour to reach Gitgit Waterfall, stopping along the way to see macaque monkeys in the forest along the road. There was a quaint moss-covered stone temple near the falls. We drove through Bali's second largest city of Singaraja on the way to the beach town of Lovina, where we had lunch at a restaurant that sits right beside the water. After lunch, we proceeded to the nearby village of Banjar, where we visited some hot springs that have been tamed into a recreational pool with stone fountains and statues. The milky green water smelled of sulfur. Next, we visited the largest Buddhist monastery in Bali, which features a smaller version of Java's famous Borobudur temple complex.

Gitgit Waterfall, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Gitgit Waterfall, Bali, Indonesia
Fountain at the hot springs in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Fountain at the hot springs in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia
Buddha statue at the Buddhist monastery in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Buddha statue at the Buddhist monastery in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia

It was three hours across the island back to Kuta, and a torrential, foggy downpour obscured the rice terraces and mountainous center of Bali into a misty suggestion of gray landscapes. In Kuta, I went back to the tour agency to see if any tours had opened up for tomorrow. None had, and they told me to check again in the morning. Luckily, I have no definite plan for how long I am staying in Kuta, and I've grown accustomed to this sort of last-minute arrangement that seems to be so common in less developed countries.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Steamy Tropical Paradise of Bali

Day 119: Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
My flight to Bali this past Monday went smoothly and quickly. In the Johannesburg airport, I bought my bible for the next few months, Lonely Planet's Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, and I spent most of my flight researching Indonesia. I've never been able to sleep well on planes, so I figured I would make good use of my time. Every once in a while, I glanced at our real-time path on the screen in front of me. We crossed over Madagascar and the vast Indian Ocean, and before I knew it, we were over Sumatra and it was early on Tuesday morning. I had a layover in Kuala Lumpur, where I took advantage of the airport's free wi-fi and caught up on email. When I landed in Bali, I had to get an Indonesian visa. I headed to the payment counter, but they would only accept cash. I had used up the last of my U.S. dollars months ago, and I obviously didn't have any Indonesia rupiah, as my plane had just arrived. It must be a common conundrum, as the woman at the payment counter told me to give my passport to an immigration officer, who would hold onto it while I withdrew money from the ATM. I had to cross back through immigration, where I could finally pay for my visa and get my passport stamped. If this is such a common problem, wouldn't it be easier to put the ATM before immigration?

When I walked out of the air-conditioned airport, the stifling, sticky heat almost took my breath away. Maybe it was a shock because I had just come from the South African winter, but I think it may be the most humid climate I've ever experienced. The temperature wasn't terribly hot, but I was sweating from pores that I don't think have ever sweated before. My task was to find a taxi. I walked past the endless gauntlet of hawkers asking me if I needed transport – taxis directly outside airports are always expensive. I continued past the parking lot and into the street. I haggled with a few taxi drivers, but the price was still too much. I finally chose a minibus packed with school children. It wasn't the most comfortable-looking vehicle, but it was the cheapest ride I could find – about half the price of the taxis in front of the airport terminal. The open windows (and door!) of the minibus let in a breeze, which alleviated the sweltering humidity. As we made stop after stop through Kuta and the main city of Denpasar, children hopped on and off the vehicle, some hanging out of the open door as we rode through the crowded streets. An old woman in a traditional conical hat stepped onto the bus, and she placed a large basket of fruit on the floor. An older boy started a conversation with me, but his English was very basic, and we both ended up repeating the same things over and over, trying to forge a basic human bond by smiling and nodding. I don't think he ever understood my answers to his questions; I felt like we were having two totally different conversations. Still, it was much more interesting to travel with the locals than in an air-conditioned private taxi.

We passed through manic streets lined with narrow canals, ornate Hindu temples, a rainbow of colorful hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and countless small shops. The road was packed with thousands of loud motorbikes, taxis, and schoolgirls on bicycles. Some of the ubiquitous motorbikes were even driven by boys and girls not more than twelve years old. The smell of exhaust, incense, and Indonesian noodle dishes swirled through the air. The passengers departed the minibus one by one, and soon I was the only one left. I was traveling all the way to the town of Ubud, an hour and a half away. The frantic streets of Denpasar slowly thinned out, and I began to see glimpses of rice terraces between the ever-sparser buildings lining the road. Soon, there were larger rice terraces punctuated by patches of jungle.

Stone statue, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Stone statue, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
We arrived in Ubud, and the driver dropped me off at what he said was my guesthouse (cheap hotel). There was no sign for Jati Home Stay, but he seemed sure that this was the place and even pointed in the direction of reception. I gathered my bags, and he drove off. Unsurprisingly, this was not Jati Home Stay. I asked several people to make sure, and they all consistently pointed in the same direction down the road. I fastened my big pack on my back, threw my daypack over my shoulder, and started walking along the narrow, buckled sidewalk. Ubud is considered the center of Balinese culture, and art galleries, shops, bohemian cafés, and temples lined the road. I finally spotted the sign for Jati Home Stay after half an hour, and I was pouring sweat in an embarrassing amount when I wandered along the narrow walled passage into the compound. Inside was a temple, an artist studio, a laundry facility, and a small canal-like pond surrounding the outdoor reception area. Cued by the flip-flops lining the mat, I slipped off my shoes and stepped onto the covered patio. I received my key and walked up the nearby steps to my basic room. I dropped my bags on the floor and immediately took a long, cold shower. When I was refreshed, I opened the curtains – there was a quaint view of a small rice paddy in the back of the compound.

I relaxed the rest of the afternoon until dinnertime, when I ventured out onto the main street in front of my guesthouse to browse the numerous restaurants. I decided on a restaurant and sat down at a table on the street-front patio. As motorbikes whizzed past, I dined on a generous portion of excellent chicken curry that was only $2. The spicy meal made me sweat even more in the sweltering night, but a banana dessert with honey and ice cream cooled me down. Not having slept for well over 30 hours – since Sunday night in Johannesburg – I crashed for a dreamless 12 hours in my nice, soft bed. The tiny ants that infested the room tickled my arms and legs, but I was so tired that I couldn't care less.

Restaurant in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
A cozy restaurant in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
I spent the next five days in Ubud relaxing and catching up on my blog entries and photos from Africa. I was in dire need of some down time since every single day for the past four months has been packed with activities. I've been enjoying the great Indonesian food at the cheap restaurants here: satay chicken, nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice), mie goreng (fried noodles). I've had some excellent chai tea, and my new favorite dessert is bubur injin, a sweet Balinese black rice pudding. The black sludge may not look very appetizing, but it tastes incredible. I've become immune to the ubiquitous offers of "transport?" that guys with motorbikes constantly shout when I walk down the street. I wake up every morning to the sound of sweeping right outside the thin walls of my room. The Balinese seem quite obsessed with having clean walkways, which certainly isn't a bad thing.

I've been updating my blog from a nearby internet café that has cheap wi-fi. One evening, I walked into the place after dinner, and the wi-fi was not working. I asked the girl at the counter if there was another internet café nearby. She smiled and nodded, but she didn't elaborate. I asked her where the other internet café was located, and she just shrugged, smiling politely the entire time. As in Africa, people here in Indonesia don't like to give a negative answer to any question, so they usually reply "yes" even if they don't understand the question.

Macaque monkey in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
A macaque monkey eats a snack in the Mandala Wisata Wenara Wana ("Monkey Forest") in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Thursday, I walked to the nearby Mandala Wisata Wenara Wana, a jungle with a few temples and other holy places hidden among the trees. The hundreds of cheeky macaque monkeys living there give the place its better-known name of "Monkey Forest". Vendors sell bananas to tourists brave enough to feed the monkeys, but in my opinion this just makes their thieving behavior worse. One tourist walked in, pulled out a banana, and was practically mauled by six monkeys that actually jumped on his back. They will snatch anything shiny or dangling too – earrings, sunglasses, dresses. It puzzles me that many of these tourists want their picture with the monkeys, but yet they are terrified of the creatures and end up looking incredibly awkward and scared in their photos. Some people end up losing jewelry or other things to the monkeys, but they are asking for it if they stand right beside a monkey with their back to the animal.

I had enough of the sneaky monkeys, so I walked out to the main street of Ubud, where I started browsing around a market. It started pouring down rain – as it has been periodically since I've been in Bali – so I ducked underneath a covered portion of the market and was stranded there for a while before the rain let up a bit. It was still raining, though, and luckily I was prepared to walk in the downpour – a lesson I learned the hard way in Africa.

Market in the rain, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
A torrential downpour soaks a market in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
I put on my poncho, wrapped a plastic bag around my backpack, and trudged through the soggy streets back to my guesthouse. Unfortunately, ankle-deep muddy water was rushing across the road just outside the market. I walked carefully through the flood, making sure not to slip on the slick tile of the sidewalk underneath the running water. I had a cut on my foot, and I disinfected it as soon as I got back to my room – who knows where that filthy water was coming from?

Friday night, I awoke to a scratching sound about two o'clock in the morning. I scoured the room trying to identify the source of the noise, leery of what I might find. I finally discovered that the sound was coming from behind the rattan wardrobe, so I carefully pulled it away from the wall, stepped back, and waited for something to crawl out. Nothing did, so I pulled it out some more and waited again. Nothing. I leaned my head against the wall to look behind the piece of furniture, and a huge rat poked its head out from a ledge on the back of the wardrobe. All of a sudden, the rodent jumped down and ran towards me along the wall. Startled, I screamed, probably waking my neighbors. By this point, I was wide awake. I turned on all the lights and searched the room for the rat. I saw it scurry along the wall once again, but I couldn't find it under any of the furniture after a thorough search, so I assumed that it must have left the room through a crack. I soon gave up the search and tried to sleep, hoping that the rodent wouldn't find its way onto my bed if it was still in the room.

The next morning, I checked out of Jati Home Stay. Not because of the rat – I think camping in Africa must have hardened me to vermin – but because they were booked solid. I had been extending my stay day-to-day because I didn't know how long I wanted to remain in Ubud. I walked a block down the street, found another guesthouse, and booked a room within 10 minutes – for a cheaper rate than Jati. It's so easy to find a cheap place to stay in Bali that there is really no reason to book ahead. This new place was $12 per night. It had a few geckos crawling on the walls, but they eat mosquitoes and other insects, so I don't mind the cute lizards. There was also some loud construction work right outside the room, but earplugs solved that problem.

Tomorrow, I'm leaving Ubud and heading down to Kuta, Bali's main tourist hub, to see some friends that traveled with me on the Oasis trip in Africa. Although I've enjoyed the tranquil setting of Ubud, I suppose it's time for me to explore another corner of Bali.

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