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Laidback Friends in Volatile Landscapes

Java, Bali and the Gilis

sunny 35 °C

As my plane took off from Pontianak airport in Borneo enroute to Jakarta I was a little sad be leaving the big island but content with the experience. After three weeks in Borneo, my taste for remote adventure and raw culture had been, at least for the time being, more than satisfied. Nonetheless, my taste for nightlife had remained unchecked for quite some time. I will admit, I am a greedy traveler and I like to enjoy the best of both worlds. So as I was on the way to Jakarta, a city which is considered by many to be the nightlife capital of Southeast Asia, I had one thing in mind, party.
Before leaving Pontianak I posted my intentions on couchsurfing Jakarta and made a call out to any locals or travelers who had similar plans in mind. My call was answered by Eka, a 24 year old student from Bogor who was in Jakarta for the weekend and looking for some people to join her and some friends for a night out on the town. She told me to meet them in Kemang, a wealthy suburb of south Jakarta where much of the city's eclectic night scene is centered. Because of the high prices and distance from train stations, few travelers make it up to Kemang. Well, few travelers bother spending any time in Jakarta in the first place. But I was curious to see what all the hype was about.
Unfortunately, Eka wanted to meet at 9PM and my plane did not land until 7:30. Given the distance from the airport and Jakarta's horrible 24 hour traffic there was a good chance I would not be able to make it. I had to make a decision. Either head to Jalan Jaksa next to the train station where the city's small backpacker scene is centered or take the gamble of heading south where there was only one hostel but a night out with some locals waiting for me if I made it in time. I decided to take the gamble.
As I took the shuttle bus from the airport to Kemang I was amazed by how many massive ritzy shopping centers dominated to landscape of Jakarta. Running between them were multi lane highways jam-packed with honking cars and trucks. The traffic was, as expected, horrible. For a metropolis of such immense size without any rapid transit system to speak of, I didn't expect anything less. The city certainly deserves the title of 'Worst Traffic in Asia'. After two hours of grid locked bus and taxi travel I finally made it to my hostel.
When I texted Eka to tell her I was coming but would be a couple hours late she told me not to worry as she would be arriving late too. In fact, everyone would arrive late. As I would soon come to understand, everyone in Jakarta is always late for everything.
When I finally got to the small beer garden at 10:30 the only other person who had arrived before me was a 30 year old American expat named Ben. Eka soon arrived along with her friend Feni, a cute recent grad in her mid twenties who was a bit shy at first but quite interesting to talk to and two friendly dudes from Eka's University named Erik and Yodi.
Everyone was dressed to the nines. I had on levis jeans, a t-shirt and my hiking boots. When Eka made a comment that we all were probably not dressed well enough to get into the most posh clubs in Kemang I confided in Ben telling him under my breath "these are the nicest clothes I have." "Don't worry" Ben replied "These aren't even my clothes." We both laughed. I could already tell I was going to get along well with this guy.
Ben was born near Seattle and lived in Portland before moving to Jakarta where he has been living the expat life for three years. It was great to meet someone from the same corner of the world as me who understood my crass Canadian sarcasm and was well able to dish it out himself. We quickly became friends and he invited me to crash at his place instead of wasting money on Jakarta's expensive hostels. He was having a birthday pool party for his 30th at his apartment the next day anyways. I accepted and said I would only be staying a couple nights before moving on to Yogya. He just smiled slyly and said "that's what the last Canadian who stayed with me said, he ended up staying a week and a half."
We all got to know each other over some cheap beers at the corner store before we were joined by the last member of the crew. Ben's friend Aidi, a talented singer songwriter and guitarist who had just finished a gig, met us at a small bar before we headed to Jakarta's largest underground club. It was multi level monster club that was so packed with chic looking locals we could barely move. Getting to the bathroom was a mission which took up to ten minutes. Aidi quickly had his wallet stolen in the crowd. Eventually we made it to a spot were we could dance for a few hours and wait out the crowds. But even at sunrise the place was just as busy as when we arrived. It seemed as though nobody ever left the building. As we jumped in a cab Ben told me that the club is often bumpin' until noon.
We went back to Ben's place for a quick sleep since he had invited us all to his afternoon bday party the next day. The next morning we awoke hung-over and tired but Ben was already out and about picking up supplies for his birthday bash. At around one he returned with snacks and boos before his friends started to filter in and congregate around the pool where there was an assortment of Indonesian food, BBQ and sushi. It was an interesting crowd which included English teachers, embassy officials, NGO workers and students. However, I spent most of my time chatting with Feni. She had studied in Ohio for a year as part of her degree in agriculture so she spoke English fluently. I found her passion for plants and bizarre amphibians both interesting and adorable. Since she and Eka were quite tired, they left early but Feni and I agreed to hang out again during the week.
Later in the evening a small reggae band showed up and set up around the pool. Everyone got trashed and danced or swam around until they, one by one, either called a taxi or passed out somewhere on the floor in Ben's small apartment. It was quite the party.
Ben somehow went to work the next morning. He is a professional sign language interpreter and translates for an American student at an international school. I just slept through most of the day then took a minibus to the mall to pick up a few things. Minibuses in Jakarta are quite the experience. They are stifling hot and because of the traffic it can sometimes be faster to walk, but there are always some interesting characters on board. As the rickety rusted metal boxes creep their way along the side of the road, a constant stream of musicians jump on to play a song or two before asking for change. Sometimes they are quite good, sometimes not, but I always gave at least a couple a few thousand rupiah.
That night I wanted to do something a little more low-key so Ben took me to see the seedier side of Jakarta. We went to the hooker bar street, not to pick up hookers but because the bars have live music and free pool. We lost a couple games to some bar girls who should really consider pool as a new profession before grabbing some noodles and heading home.
The next day I joined Ben after he finished work at his kickboxing class, a rigorous sweat filled hour and a half of kick punch combinations. Then I met Feni for our first real date. We started at Kemang's fancy Irish pub where we learned a bit more about one another over some mojitos, moved on to a sushi restaurant for California rolls and edamame then finished the night by jiving on the dance floor of NuChina, Jakarta's newest hip club. Good fun.
The next day I woke up with a sore throat and decided to stay in for the day but after the sun had set staying in was not an option. Ben, Aidi and I went to a couchsurfer meeting for a few beers before dragging some of the surfers out to a local club called venue which sported a swimming pool out back. My throat was killing me so I went home early but Ben rolled in at 5AM with just two hours of sleep to spare before work. How he was able to do this night after night is still a mystery to me.
The next night we hit yet another club. This one was called X2, one of Jakarta's most famous. At 2AM the dance floor was cleared to make way for a random fashion show with four local designers and ten foreign models. It was almost as ridiculous as the drink prices.
Once again, I slept through the next day while Ben went to work. At night I met Feni again at an Italian pizza place called Pizza y Birra. She decided on the restaurant since it was in an area of the city I not seen yet called Kuninggan. In fact, the only places in Jakarta I had seen were Ben's neighborhood, Kemang's bar district and the nearest mall complex. It's hard to venture far in Jakarta without transport. It's hard enough with transport. We devoured some tasty pizza before heading to the backpacker area for some drinks. I was curious to see what it was like. It turned out to be relatively empty compared to Kemang's packed clubs but there was a couple places playing good live music for us to hang out in.
The following day I said my goodbyes to Feni who was on her way to her hometown for the weekend to visit family. Then I bought a train ticket for Yogyakarta departing early the following morning. I did this out of a growing fear that if I didn't book a ticket, I would never leave Jakarta. Later in the day I met up with Ben for an afternoon massage after which he showed me around his neighborhood for a bit.
My last night in Jakarta was naturally filled with high priced drinks, strobe-lights and dance floors. We started at one of Jakarta's most chic bars where Ben was meeting an old friend. The guy was visiting on business and luckily picked up the tab since the beers were $10 a piece. They were even selling Kilkenny for $14 a pint. We returned to X2 for another long night before being forced to leave due to my early train departure time. We went straight from the club to Ben's apartment where I grabbed my bags and ordered a taxi. I said my goodbyes to Ben and thanked him profusely for showing me such a good time. When I arrived in Jakarta I had only planned to stay a couple nights. One week later, we were having so much fun that I could barely bring myself to leave. We made a plan to meet again in Bali during Ben's vacay time and I jumped in my taxi bound for the train station. I left on a Sunday at about 6AM an hour and a half before my train was to leave but Jakarta's traffic fooled me again. I barely made the train.
The train journey to Yogyakarta was difficult. I had no sleep, no food, I was hungover and the cabin was humid and hot. The volcanic scenery was nice but I had never been so happy to get off a train when I arrived in Yogyakarta ten hours later.
My Lithuanian friend Maya who I had met in West Kalimantan a couple weeks previous was at the station waiting for me. Maya lives and studies in Yogya so she offered me a bed in her house where she lives with three guys. As we were driven to her house by a friend named Ayu (who just so happens to be the goalie for the Indonesian national soccer team) I was able to catch my first glimpses of the city.
Yogya sits amongst several imposing volcanoes. On a clear day, the scenery is spectacular. The city itself feels small but is actually quite spread out. The buildings are colorful and most neighborhoods are very quaint. Beautiful graffiti covers unattended fences and once barren walls. Horse driven carriages and rickshaws dominate the roads around the center of town and the street food is delicious.
Yogya is also Java's university city and a primary center of arts an culture. Thus, the attitude is much more progressive and open to western ideas than other parts of Indonesia. Ironically, a flip-side to this openness is that much of the younger 'artsy' crowd tend to be a bit pretentious and not always very friendly. At times I felt like I was hanging out with a bunch Indonesian hipsters. But, for the most part, Maya's friends were always very cordial.
My first sightseeing activity in Yogya was visiting Pramanban temple where a Hindu festival was being held. Pilgrims flock here to touch the breasts of a particular female statue. I'm still not sure why. Next I visited the Kraton (Sultan's palace). For being such a progressive Asian city, the citizens of Yogya made the odd decision of retaining a sultan instead of holding democratic elections. The Kraton is where the sultan resides. The palace grounds hold little interest but the old neighborhoods around it where the small army of palace workers live are very interesting. Colorful cobblestone alleyways and worn down stone houses this time warped little area especially charming. Inside the houses are people living out there daily lives in service to the sultan.
The following morning I had to make a visit to the visa office for an extension, always a frustrating experience. I was told I needed a ticket out of the country to apply. I went back to Maya's, used her computer to Photoshop a fake ticket then returned the next morning. After applying I went to Borobudur, one of the largest and most famous ancient Buddhist structures in the world. The temple was impressive but I found the surrounding volcanic scenery to be more interesting. It was so hot on the temple grounds I could only spend an hour there before returning to Yogya.
I had a couple days to wait for my visa and nothing else to see so I just relaxed at Maya's place and read. Maya took me for some fantastic local food and to a few bars. Maya's roomate John, an American student, took me to the internet cafe to play video games. I hadn't played counterstrike (a game I played so much in high school my mom was forced to password protect the computer) in about five years but it all came back to me pretty fast. When my visa was ready I thanked Maya for her hospitality, promised to stay in touch and took a minibus to mount Bromo, probably Java's top natural attraction.
I booked a direct minibus through a tour company to prevent having to stopover in Surabaya for a night. The agency tried to sell me a complete Bromo package including hotel, tour and transport to Bali but I refused. I can't stand tours and this one sounded especially ridiculous. The tour itinerary was as follows: First take a minibus from Yogya to a village near Bromo. This bus, the only par of the tour I bought, was supposed to take 10 hours but actually took 14 leaving us in the village at 11PM. Upon arrival I was given the hardsell again. At 4AM the tour group is loaded into a jeep and driven up to a viewpoint for sunrise. They are given less than one hour at the viewpoint before being herded back into jeeps and driven to the base of the crater. They are given less than one hour at the crater and return to the village by 8 AM. Once in the village they board another minibus for an 11 hour journey to Denpasar, Bali.
Since Bromo is a huge area with lots to see I thought surely at least a few tourists would try the do it yourself approach. But when I arrived late in Bromo I realized that absolutely everyone had booked the tour. I guess all anybody is interested in these days is checking things they have seen off of a list. Nobody thought that perhaps they would like to spend more than an hour or two in the park. Of course the tour agencies are mainly to blame. They make it seem as though it is impossible to see the mountain on your own then try to create as big of a monopolistic network on transportation, tours and hotels in the area as possible to funnel tourists into the package deal. This is typical of famous but remote attractions in South East Asia.
Since we arrived much later than they had originally told us and were dropped at a hotel that was conveniently located 10 minutes drive from the village center where more accommodation could be found, my first task was finding a place to sleep. The hotel owner would not sell me a room at a reasonable price unless I booked the tour. Luckily an Argentinean traveler over heard me talking to the manager and discreetly offered to split the cost of his room. He was a real friendly guy named Bruno who was just beginning a trip through Asia and I am quite sure he was the only other foreign traveler in the whole park who did not book a tour. How we were lucky enough to randomly meet in the lobby of this particular hotel late at night is a mystery.
Room sorted, we started grilling the manager over alternative transport arrangements. I knew he knew about local moto drivers in the area who could take us up the mountain but he would not tell us. He assured us that his expensive tour was the cheapest way to the sunrise viewpoint. As Bruno argued I noticed a group of local men sitting out front listening intently to our conversation. I approached them and, sure enough, they were local drivers looking for tourists to shuttle into the park. We made a deal for a fraction of the cost of the tour and caught a little sleep before they picked us up at 3:30AM.
The early morning mountain ride was chilly, but we arrived with plenty of time to spare. As the sun rose from the east it illuminated one of the most intriguing sights I have ever seen. The scene was other-worldly. Three volcanic peaks, one turned into a large crater by an explosive eruption rose from a sea of barren black sand. Small clouds of sulphur gases puffed out of the craters settling into the multicolored sun laden clouds above. The rays of yellow sunshine spilling over the edge of the craters made it appear as though they were erupting with liquid gold. Large cliffs which marked the beginning of the barren landscape casted imposing shadows over it. Beyond the cliffs was a patchwork of farms built over a diagonal lush plateau. It was one hell of a postcard picture.
A half hour after the sun appeared, the tour groups were called back to their jeeps and Bruno and I were left with the view virtually to ourselves. When it was light enough we hiked further up into the mountains for some alternate perspectives. Then we hiked down the mountain through the sea of sand to the base of Bromo's crater.
The crater was even more other worldly than the viewpoint. Sulphur gases engulfed the area making it difficult to see the greenery beyond the barren sand-dunes. The crater was huge and mesmerizing. We walked around the lip for well over an hour pausing from time to time to peer into the bubbling sulphuric pool well below. When my head started to hurt from the gases we made our back to the village by moto for some food and well needed rest. We arrived back at the village ten hours after we had left at the end of a very satisfying day.
The next morning I wanted to make it all the way to Banyuwangi on the eastern coast of Java by public transport instead of giving any more money to the tour companies. First I had to hitch an early morning ride in the back of a pickup down the mountain, then I had to catch a moto into the city and jump on a local bus heading east. Three stuffy buses and a couple local minibuses later I finally made it to my destination.
Banyuwangi is a very laid-back and friendly town. For being only an hour ferry ride from Bali and the main transit point for the island, hardly any tourist actually make it into the city. There is only a few hotels, some internet cafes and, of course, lots of curious friendly faces. My main reason for booking a room in the town was to use it as a jumping point for Kawah Ijen, an active volcano and sulphur mine 35 clicks west of town.
Finding a Moto driver to take me to Ijen for a reasonable price was difficult. I eventually settled on a driver who was more than happy to shuttle me up the volcano for a steep price. From the base it was an hour and a half hike to the crater rim. Like Bromo, the scenery along the trail was fantastic. Unlike Bromo, where it sometimes seemed as though there were more jeeps and motos shuttling people around than people being shuttled, there were very few tourists on the Ijen trail. Instead I was sharing the path with worn and weary looking sulphur miners who were each carrying well over 50 kg of bright yellow sulphur down the side of the mountain. It is back breaking work and one miner told me he does the trek three times a day. There arms and shoulder blades were deformed and contorted into bizarre positions and they were continually coughing due to gas exposure.
As I approached the crater I found myself surrounded by more and more sulphur gas. When I peered over the edge I got a look at its source. The crater was large with steep silver like walls which glistened in the sun. At the bottom was an baby blue sulphur lake with a large gas vent on its periphery. I was short of breath from both the beauty of the crater and the gas.
I watched as the miners carefully descended into the crater their mouths stuffed with old scarfs and bandanas. I decide to shove my own shirt in my mouth and follow to get a closer look at the lake. They seemed happy to see a foreigner descending into the harsh environment alongside them.
The gases made the descent difficult but I eventually made it within a few meters of the lake. The volcano must have noticed my presence because as I took the final cautious steps towards my goal it coughed out a thick cloud of sulphur gas. I was quickly engulfed. My eyes began to sting and I was unable to breath. I fell to the ground and began crawling blind in an attempt to escape. I stayed low for about twenty terrifying seconds until the smoke cleared and I found refuge behind a large yellow sulphur rock. As I ascended out of the crater I could not help but wonder how these guys manage to endure this day in and day out. I had a new found respect for them and gave a few some water and a little cash in exchange for a picture to supplement their income. The least I could do.
I awoke the next morning with the intention of making it all the way from Banyuwangi to the Gili islands. My friend Ben had a week off work and we had made a plan to meet in Bali with a few of his friends. But Ben was not to arrive for another three days which I planned to kill on the islands. I thought the Gilis were off the coast of Bali but after an hour ferry ride to the island and a four hours bus trip to it's capital city Denpasar, I was told by a local driver that the Gilis are actually off the coast of Lombok a five hour ferry ride (or a very expensive fast boat) away. I decided to look for a quiet spot on Bali to lay low for few days instead. I was still recovering from a cold and had some work to get done on the computer anyways.
I asked a local at the bus station where I could find such a place and he pointed me in the direction of Sanur beach. When I arrived in Sanur it quickly became apparent that I was actually in the retiree capital of the Bali (people often refer to it as "snore"). For my purposes, however, Sanur was alright. Only when I went looking for a beer and could only five 65 year old Australians line dancing to a Neil Diamond cover band did I wish I was somewhere else.
I had two days to kill so I rented a motorbike to explore the island. First I rode up the east coast. As expected, once I left the central area around the airport the tourists thinned out considerably.
I passed many beautiful mountains and rice patties but what struck me most about Bali was the architecture. Every home and business was built of strong wood or stone, adorned with beautiful statues and carvings, topped with a thatched roof and surrounded by a intricate hindu style stone fence.
The locals I met along the way were also interesting. Many wore colorful traditional clothing and accessories and everyone seemed to be taking part in a ceremony of some type at one time or another. For a people that deal with as many drunken Australians as they do, the Balinese were very cordial and kind. Everyone was helpful and seemed to radiate a positive energy.
On my first day of biking I made it about 80 km up the coast. As I was on my way back my eye caught a weather beaten wooden sign which read 'White Sand Beach ->'. I decided to check it out. Two km of steep dirt road later I stumbled upon one of the nicest beaches I have stepped foot on. Nice first and foremost because of the flat white sand, clear waters, rocky cliffs and jungle back drop but also because there was only one restaurant and about ten other people there. I only had time for a quick dip before I had to race home to beat the sunset.
The next day I drove straight through the center of the island from the Sanur on the south coast up into the mountains and down to Singajara on the north coast and back again. It took about seven hours and I had a sore ass by the end of it but the scenery was worth the discomfort.
The following day I made my way to the infamous Kuta beach, often considered the epicenter of tourism (and douchebaggery) in Bali. I cannot believe how overdeveloped that beach town is. But I had already heard all the stories about Kuta and the only reason I went was to meet Ben who flew in on a late flight. As soon as he dropped his bags we were out the door for a night out in Seminyak a short drive up the beach only to return well after sunrise the next morning.
We took a taxi the next morning to a more relaxed environment in Ubud, the hippie Mecca of Bali. Unfortunately, the hippies in Ubud are more interested in looking like hippies than living like them. But the town is lovely and Ben set us up in a great place perched on a hill overlooking a rice field and owned by an awesome Balinese architect. She was always up for a good conversation and never shy to break out her bottle of patron to liven up the night. Ben's friend Ming, a dutch traveler working at a cafe in Ubud, was staying with us as well. The night we arrived we all made our way to a local music festival where an American band named 'Medicine for the People' was playing. They put on a good show.
Soon we met up with Rachel, another one of Ben's friends. Rachel is an forever laid-back kindergarten teacher who came to Indonesia ten years ago as a traveler and never left. After spending a little time in the country I can see why. A Spanish couchsurfer named Lare also joined the party and we all made a plan to climb the largest volcano in Bali the next day. Lethargy soon downgraded this plan into camping on a quiet beach on Bali's east coast. There we bought a large bottle of arak off some locals and got stupidly drunk while drawing shapes in the sand and sword-fighting with drift wood. As we relaxed in the moonlight we were constantly witness to the twenty four hour a day ferry bound for Lombok leaving the nearby port on the hour every hour. I made the suggestion that we catch the 3AM ferry to make our way to the Gilis for a few days. We all pondered the idea. Rachel took a large swig of arak to allow herself to be convinced that she could miss her flight the next day. Soon we were packing up the tent and stumbling over the hill on our way to the docks. We boarded a surprisingly busy ferry, found an uncomfortable place to lie down and fell into a drunken sleep.
Five hours later we awoke to a sunrise over the towering Rinjani volcano on Lombok. We chartered a car to take us to Bangsal harbor for the Gilis. From the little I saw of Lombok on this one hour ride it seemed far less developed and sported far more natural beauty than Bali. Looking back I wish I had given myself more time to explore it. But for the moment, the Gilis were the goal and we arrived on Gili Air mid-morning. The island was scorching that day. We soon found shelter in a classy bungalow with air con and an outdoor shower. In the afternoon we made our way to the far end of the island to chill on the beach at 'Space Bar', a trippy little beach hut decorated with glow paint. The bartender blared psychedelic techno all afternoon. We each got ourselves a magic mushroom shake (don't worry mom, they're legal in Indonesia) and enjoyed the ocean front views. The mushrooms were not particularly powerful but certainly added some beauty to our surroundings for a few hours. Gili Air is not the party island (Gili T holds that title) but there was a full moon beach party that night which turned out to be alright.
The next day we did exactly what one would expect a bunch of vacationers on the Gilis to so. Eat, drink and sleep on the beach. Since it was Ben's last day on vacation before catching a boat back to Bali and a flight home, he persuaded me to give another batch of mushrooms a try. Later in the evening we each downed a bundle of buds with a tuna steak and some French fries. The second batch was much more potent than the first and I had a good time making my own little world out of the roof of our bamboo hut.
The following morning I said another goodbye to Ben knowing that I would see him again in a few weeks when I was to return to Jakarta. Rachel, Lare and I decided to catch the boat over to Gili T to check out the scene there for the night. I can't say I was a huge fan of Gili T although I may have not spent enough time there. I found some of the locals to be quite rude although Rachel did have a few friends on the island who were friendly. After another island style night out I got a little sleep and woke up early to begin a long couple days of travel the next morning. I said goodbye to Rachel and Lare then took a boat and bus to Lembar harbor in Lombok. After five hours wait, I boarded a dingy public ferry bound for Flores to begin another journey through the Nusa Tenggara and eastern Indonesia. But those stories are for my next post.
For now, I can say that the Indonesian islands I have experienced so far have been fantastic. Java, Bali and the Gilis wonderfully contrasted my time in Borneo offering a very different kind of experience. While still boasting some interesting sights, for me these islands represented the raw fun which I was craving. When backpacking it's just as much about the people you meet as the places you go. I was lucky enough to meet a great group of expats who have added so much to my experience on these islands. In many respects, they have made the experience.
But as fun as Java and Bali can be, they are also quite developed in comparison to the rest of Indonesia. Now it's time to take a step away from the paved tourist track and onto a less travelled trail as I try to find my way through the Nusa Tenggara. Stay tuned.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 04:16 Archived in Indonesia

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