Well this blog post (report) is a long time coming. Goodness me. As I’m beginning to write and mentally organize where this piece of writing is going to go, I’m all a blur. Regardless, I know that if I don’t throw down some words about this adventure soon it’ll all be lost in the sea that was my last 2 months of SEA adventuring. And truthfully, this one was one of the best, so it must not be missed.
Thursday August 4th my parents, Laura, and I piled 6 oversize suitcases and 4 carry-on bags, as well as ourselves, into a taxi at rush hour and headed for the airport. This day marked the end of my parents 3 week vacation in Vietnam and the beginning of Laura’s and my trip to Indonesia. Upon arrival at the airport, after a 1 hour taxi ride that has now raised the bar for busiest traffic I have ever been in, ever, ever, ever, I said “see you later” to my parents and sent them off with a tonne of my (illicit) goods, which would be waiting for me when I would be returning home just 2 weeks later. But until then, I was off and up and away with Laura on our last SEA adventure together.
We flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Jakarta (on the Indonesian island of Java) and arrived in Jakarta at 11:30pm local time. Knowing that Jakarta is a city with little to be desired we had another plane ticket departing at 6am the next morning. Although we had planned in advance to make our first night accommodations the airport floors, we wandered dozily and hazily among the dodgy wheelers and dealers of the big city searching for a buck and a scandal, hoping for something we could call home for the night. It wasn’t exactly the most welcoming of welcomes I’ve received when first entering a country, but rather than entertain and dwell on the filthy factor of the occasion, we found a slatted bench to lay on and rest our weary heads. Uncomfortably, we rolled around and around and drifted in and out of Stage 1 REM cycle until 4am graced the wee hours and we clambered off our respective benches to find the shuttle bus hopefully waiting to take us to the next terminal for our domestic flight to Yogyakarta. Armed with a much needed Starbucks espresso, we found the shuttle pick-up station and did our best to guess which bus would take us to Terminal 3. Without much luck and and a passerby’s hint that such a bus does not even begin service until 6am, we became increasingly more concerned about the likelihood of a missed connecting flight may be. As we both started to waiver, a man stopped to drop a few passengers at the Terminal where we were waiting, we approached to ask if he was, in fact, the shuttle we were looking for but alas, he too was not our man. But before leaving he probed a little further. He asked us where we were going and what time and in true SEA fashion, offered his own services. Feeling a little unsure of the trustworthy nature of the Javanese (solely based on the sketchiness of our arrival encounters) we declined. And then, as expected, he offered again, so I asked, “how much?” knowing we were over the ’60 mins before check-in’ count. He replied, “however much you want.” Sure sure, likely response. We replied, “no no, we’ll wait for the shuttle.” It wasn’t until he turned and looked at Laura and I and said, “but I am afraid you will miss your plane” that I realized that not only was he right but he was genuine too. He delivered us where we needed to be and when we arrived and I went to give him money for saving our asses, he refused the monetary gesture. Surprised and touched by his generosity, as a true Westerner, I insisted he take the overpayment. He smiled, shook hands, and was on his way.
The island of Java is a hotbed of Javanese intellectual and political thought, still headed by its sultan whose kranton (palace) remains the hub of traditional life, and boasting an incredibly rich artistic cultural heritage. Unsure of what I expected “Indonesia” or “Java” to look and feel like, for that matter, I found myself taken aback by the sites, smells, and sounds of the city of Yogyakarta, populated with 700,000 Javanese. It certainly wasn’t a outwardly shiny or wealthy as I think I expected but instead it was raw and real with poverty and wealth living hand in hand. The streets smelled of cloves smoked by the men sitting atop their becaks (cycle rickshaws) charmingly greeting each walker by and offering a service of “transport? transport?” A fun a usual response given was one of “walking. walking.” Everything of question or quick response was said in pairs. Made me chuckle on every occasion. Another surprising presence in the city of Yogi, were collections of young punks out and about squeegeeing and representing torn fashions and anarchy. I kinda liked it. While in Yogyakarta for the day and one night, found the most adorable and what will now be known as “the best” accommodation we chose on our Indonesian adventure. I’ll leave it to the pictures to explain the quaint decor, mostly mosaic tile work, and the blessed bed of canopied comfort. It saw a midday nap of heavenly bliss and lovely night, post-temple adventuring, local bus riding, sultan square seeing, market bartering, and engaged conversation sweating, of sweet sweet sleep, which worked wonders to prepare us for the 12 hour minibus ride all the way to Mount Bromo.
Early the next morning we boarded the back of the 10 person minibus for the day-long long-haul to to Mount Bromo. It was as exhausting as it sounds. It was hot. It was sweaty. It was just what you do. And it was endured with a smile. There’s not much to say or complain about when there’s a blessed 80 year old Chinese man sitting the front seat accepting his fate with a sense of dignity and pleasure. After be shuffled, duped, and scammed in Probolinggo, we arrived at the guesthouse of “choice” at 10 pm in the foothills of the volcanic site. Quickly we began thinking of our early morning ahead and so prepared for our impending 3 am wake up call.
We woke at 3 am and readied ourselves for the cool altitude airs and the hiking ahead. Our jeep for transfer arrived, we piled in with our 80 year old traveling companion and his wife and daughter and headed straight for the peak that looks out over the active volcanic range of Bromo, Java. Mount Bromo (Indonesian: Gunung Bromo), is an active volcano and part of the Tengger massif, in East Java. At 2,329 metres (7,641 ft) it is not the highest peak of the massif, but is the most well known. Mount Bromo sits in the middle of a vast plain called the “Sea of Sand” (Javanese: Segara Wedi), a protected nature reserve since 1919. We hiked the remaining 500 m up to the viewpoint on Mount Penanjakan (2,770 m or 9,088 ft) in the darkness of the early morning hours and waited for the sun to rise over the Tengger massif. And as sure as the sun rises each and everyday, we began to see the light take the stars away and warm our skin with oranges and reds. Not before long, not only was Laura’s camera battery dead but we were beginning to see the four volcanoes sitting in their early morning shadows. Breathless and in awe, we took advantage of the forgiving light of the rising sun and snapped a mini-photo shoot of us both with the spectacular range in the distance. After our time atop looking on, we met with our jeep-man and headed to the foot of the volcano where we trudged through the volcanic ash sands and up to the rim of the active volcano.
Whilst atop the rim of the billowing Bromo, we noticed items of noticeable sacrifice had been tossed into its mouth. Later, thanks to Wikipedia, we learned that on the fourteenth day of the Hindu festival of Yadnya Kasada, the Tenggerese people of Probolinggo, East Java, travel up the mountain in order to make offerings of fruit, rice, vegetables, flowers and sacrifices of livestock to the mountain gods by throwing them into the caldera of the volcano. The origin of the ritual lies in the 15th century legend where a princess named Roro Anteng started the principality of Tengger with her husband, Joko Seger. The couple were childless and therefore beseeched the assistance of the mountain gods. The gods granted them 24 children but stipulated that the 25th child, named Kesuma, must be thrown into the volcano as human sacrifice. The gods’ request was implemented. The tradition of throwing sacrifices into the volcano to appease these ancient deities continues today and called Yadnya Kasada ceremony. Though fraught with danger, some locals risk climbing down into the crater in an attempt to recollect the sacrificed goods that believed could bring them good luck. With thoughts such as this swirling in our minds, Bromo began rumbling and such a rumble was getting louder and louder. I looked at Laura who’s eyes were as wide as I have ever seen, staring at the growing white cloud of sulfuric smoke coughing out of the craters pit. In a quick reactive moment, Laura yells to me, “run, go, let’s get out of here!” Knowing that if this baby’s gonna blow, it’s likely not going to matter much if we’re sitting here or running down the side of the mountain, and so I giggled and responded with a few more photo snapshots and big “whoaaaaa… yes.” We returned to the jeep soon after jumping down the side of the volcano sands, just for fun not out of fear, and we were delivered back to our beds of the guesthouse just in time for a nap and a few hours of reading time before beginning our next long trip to the island of Bali.
Not without typical southeast Asian travel unreliability and confusion, we found our chartered bus headed overnight to Denpasar, Bali, a short 11 hours away. Certainly not a tourist special, we sat ourselves down with about 40 other Javanese men and a rooster, secured our place and hoped for a night of of some sleep. I tossed and turned, listened to podcasts and albums to keep myself dreamy and happy, while Laura sat still, without a movement, eyes closed, and serene. By the early hour of 4am, we arrived in Denpasar at the bus station, hours away from any kind of hotel check-in and still a number of kilometers from Ubud, our next destination. Given the dodgy nature of the hours in waiting we did at the bus station before leaving to find Ubud, I will refrain from writing detail about our “think-happy-safe-thoughts” strategies and will jump to the point where we were dropped at the monkey forests of Ubud just in time for breakfast. Ubud is famous as an arts and crafts hub, and much of the town and nearby villages seems to consist of artists’ workshops and galleries. There are some remarkable architectural and other sights to be found, and a general feeling of well being to be enjoyed, all thanks to the spirit, surroundings, and climate of the place. Still in the early hours of the morning, we settled into to an early opening organic vegetarian restaurant, ate Balinese pancakes, much like the dutch-style pannekoeken, and embraced the hollywoodized pop-philosophies promoting eat, pray, love.
After finding (or it finding us) a delightful homestay in the heart of the city, we headed out for a day long walk through Ubud and its composite villages. We shuffled and picture snapped through the streets decorated in for one of a many Hinduism festivities, navigated through the rice fields, drank young coconuts, and ran from threatening guard dogs. Similarly but not redundantly, the next day we traveled through the gorgeousness that is the countryside of Ubud for nearly the whole day, but this time we did it by it bicycle and with a tour group. It started early in the morning and even a precious hour earlier than we thought due to an unexpected time change since coming from Java… despite having a total of 3 mins to prepare for an entire day of cycling, we found ourselves laughing at the triviality of time and its current and welcomed insignificance. We rode and stopped at a number of points of interest including a Kopi Luwak plantation (yup that’s the coffee beans taken from the Asian Civets poop), traditional Balinese homes, and had a traditional Balinese feast at the end of the ride. Speaking of the end of the ride, in true Wendy and Laura fashion, we opted for the optional 8 kms uphill ride to the site of the feast. Along with 2 other girls, we four plus 2 guides, powered up and up to the finishing line.
Deliciously, Ubud also fed us well, in spirit and in stomach. We ate and lounged and coffeed in some of the funkiest and warm bistros and cafes. One certain cafe stop on one evening on one particular night was one that will forever be my definition of Ubud and dreams rediscovered and realized. I fell in love again that night in a really important way and I still sometimes wonder how different things may have been for me now if that night, that light, if that moment of rest hadn’t happened those 4 days before my southeast Asian departure.
All aglow and with harmless delusions of grandeur, friendships carved in stone, and with eyes wide open, my current read began to make more sense and truly taught me to say and feel thanks for it all. From Ubud, we then headed to the beaches of Kuta, where I’m realizing now that living out thankfulness isn’t all too difficult with the beach as your backdrop and sun all ablaze, but it was certainly a good site to start practicing a life lived in Eucharist. These last days at the beach were spent reading, reflecting, relating, rambling and resting. It wasn’t until we were traveling back home (to Vietnam) via Jakarta with one last night stay in the big city, that we were truly tested in theory and practice. We stayed at the least desirable of all guesthouses, ever. We were afraid to touch the mattresses, were quick to douse the room in citronella spray, and did our best to will away the bugs and filth. Our room was sweaty, sticky, and soiled (much like the rest of the city). Just when I was ready to admit that I had reached the limit of “oh God, I can’t take this any more…”, I heard Laura begin to say in a small voice from the bed laying next to me, “Thank you God for the roof over our head. Thank you for a mattress to lay on and a sense of humour well developed enough to tolerate this.” With this, we began laughing and did our best to search out the 1000 little things in our last moments of travel spent together being truly thankful for it all.
This bit of writing is coming months after the Indonesian exploration ended but this was not reason enough to not write anything about it. Since being home home, I find myself thinking back on this time away with my dear travel companion longingly, lovingly, and glowingly. It was a defining time… and it only took me a year to get here.