Java Jive (2016)
Updated: Jan 20
Further along down the road of our one-year round-the-world honeymoon backpacking adventure in 1986-87. As we journey across the crowded island of Java, Indonesia by public transport, it becomes increasingly more stressful to move from point A to B.
Previous Story: Beautiful Bali
More Thoughts on Independent Travel
Thus far, our trip had been fairly easy except for a couple of rough patches: the overnight ferry boat from Ovalau to Taveuni Fiji was pretty damn scary, and there was that day we managed to avoid a near fatal car crash in New Zealand. Nevertheless, we looked forward to the overland/sea journey from Bali to Thailand along the hippie trail: a mix of boats, buses, trains, and quirkily odd local transport common in SE Asia: bemos, horse-drawn carts, human and motor-powered trishaws.
We falsely assumed it would be a relatively easy to move from one place to another, but sometimes, it helps to be a naive about what lies ahead. Despite some of the wonderful scenes and characters that we would encounter, we might've given Java and Sumatra a miss had we known what to expect in terms of the rough travel.
Off-the-beaten path travel in Indonesia in the 1980s was cheap but tough. With trains in short supply, buses were the primary form of transport. As seating arrangements were meant for the more diminutive Asians, westerners often found themselves with knees nearly at their chins, jammed into two seats that were usually filled with three or four locals. As there was never any air con, and with all the bodies packed into the transport, the tropical heat was unbearable. But the worse part was that main highways were one and a half lane affairs, and bus drivers were macho madmen playing games of "chicken" with on-coming trucks (whoever pulled over to the shoulder first was the chicken),
Anyone who travelled through Java can sympathize with us; we cannot over stress how difficult some of the routes were, both physically and psychologically.
Paul Theroux travelled by train in Asia in the early 1970s. His influential book, "The Great Railway Bazaar," came under attack by critics featuring too much complaining. Fussell's "The Norton Book of Travels" called bitching in travel literature "post-tourism":
In Theroux, there's often a trace, and sometimes more than a trace, of post-touristic masochism. It's hard not to notice how often he enjoys the awfulness he experiences, confirming with pleasure his worst suspicions about the badness of airlines, hotels, guides and famous places. "You see? I was right!" you can hear him saying. Actually, of course, if the whole operation weren't a form of perverse pleasure, post-touristic travel would never take place (and post-touristic travel books would never be written.)
As for us, we didn't intend to be post-tourists, we just couldn't afford to travel for that length of time in a more luxurious fashion. Thus our motto quickly became: the harder the journey, the greater the reward. The upshot of the road less travelled of course is a great amount of complaining, but it doesn't get any better for hard core travellers than to gather round a table in some distant backpacker's café to recount travellers' terror tales, a book we thought we might actually write! A chapter could have been devoted regarding the horrors of flying on the Chinese National Airline, CAAA. Westerners sporting t-shirts with "I survived CAAA" were spotted in those days along the overland trail.
"Extensive traveling induces a feeling of encapsulation; and travel, so broadening at first, contracts the mind...I couldn't recall what day it was; I had forgotten the country. Being on the train had suspended time; the heat and dampness had slowed my memory...The conductor said we were ten hours late, but this did not worry me as much as my failing memory and a kind of squinting fear I took to be an intimation of paranoia."
So, lest it seem we too are constantly bitching, be forewarned we are part of a travelling breed eschewing the tourist trade but paying the price through painful journeys. The good news is it does make for an interesting story!
On The Road Again
Being comfortably established in paradise often creates a sense of unease amongst independent travellers. Things are going so well, it feels all too good to be true. As Bali proved an idyllic setting for us, we deluded ourselves into thinking that the same was true next door in Java ("After all, we reasoned, it's in the same country, the people and the scenery must be somewhat like Bali").
Setting off from Bali's Lovina Beach at 6 am, we hoped to arrive at Mt. Bromo, an active volcano in eastern Java before dark. We quickly flagged a bemo van headed to Gillimanuk to catch a ferry across the narrow strait to Java. On the way, the driver stopped at several temples to offer fragrant blossoms wrapped in banana leaves and say a quick prayer. When he returned to the van, he'd pass around small flowers. The first time he gave the blooms to us, we weren't quite sure what to do with them. At subsequent stops, we noticed locals put them in their hair behind their ears, so we followed suit.
About half a mile from the port, the van stopped to disgorge its passengers. We were offered a ride to the port aboard a horse-drawn cart (in parts of SE Asia, much of the transportation network is a chain between the big and small operators, spreading the wealth around).
As we pulled up to the dock, we discovered the boat was ready to go and we quickly clambered on board. The journey across the strait took only about half an hour, giving us enough time to relax a little as we spotted a variety of fish in the crystal clear blue waters. As we glimpsed Bali's pristine beaches one last time, a wave of sadness swept over us for we realized we were leaving one of the most magical places on earth. Would we ever return?
As soon as we set foot on Java, we came face to face with what would become a rather annoying ritual: young touts running at us from every directions, yelling: "Where you go mister? Where you come from? Come with me, I help you find bus!"
We were swept along on this tide, our bags then quickly hoisted upon our intended bus's roof rack, and we were given assigned seating trying not to worry too much about how rickety-looking the bus was. Almost immediately, we departed; thus far, we hadn't waited for transport for more than 10 minutes.
This bus was extremely uncomfortable, as were once again crammed into seats not designed for tall westerners like us. Passengers continued to cram into the bus; the locals used them like a taxi: the bus was constantly stopping to let people on or off, thus extending travel time to double its normal length. This was the first of our many experiences with Java's so-called "express" buses—a great misnomer indeed.
At one point when some passengers had vacated seats at the rear of the bus, we rushed to take their spots. This served two purposes: we couldn't see the insane tactics employed by the driver to weave in and out of traffic with great gusto, and we could stretch our legs into the aisle.
One little boy was particularly interested in us, and after staring at us for some time, he, with some hesitation, began to pepper us with questions:
"What country you come from?"
"We come from Canada."
(Aside: Either he has no idea where Canada is or he is going to sing our national anthem!")
"Can I have your address," he inquired.
"Sure, will you write to us?"
"Yes, Canada very good. I come visit you in Canada. Canada number 1!"
He promised he would send us a note. As we discovered, young Javanese (half the residents of this, the most populous island on earth, were under 18 years of age) were anxious to practice their fractured English on Westerners. And many of them dreamed of leaving that crowded country that held little hope for a prosperous future to come to the promised land of the west.
After five sweaty hours on a smoke-filled crowded bus, (oh yes, they allowed smoking and practically all the male locals took advantage) we pulled into Probolinggo. We'd made extremely good time thus far; all that remained was a short bemo trip up the mountain to the base of Mt. Bromo, a popular stop on the trail. Bemos were plentiful near the bus station, so knowing we didn't have to rush, we enjoyed a cool drink, thus providing entertainment for the locals, who stared at the two of us—tall, blonde Elaine and tall, curly haired me, as if we were famous.
After we boarded the bemo, it quickly filled to what we assumed (ha!) was at capacity and we departed. We passed verdant rice paddies before beginning a steep climb up a road into the mountains. Although only 40 kms from town, the journey took over 3 hours, since our bemo naturally served as a local bus and shuttle van, with a constant stream of passengers loading and unloading gear all the way to the top.
At one point, I counted 25 people in the small van; the driver was crammed so tightly into the front seat (sharing it with five other people) he was forced to lean out the window to navigate. These driving conditions did little to enhance our feeling of security, especially in light of the sheer drop offs into ever deeper ravines.
Just when it looked like we were nearing our destination, the driver stopped once again and loaded several 100 kg bags of flour and rice, vegetables and two geese in a basket onto the roof. With geese aquacking atop our overloaded bemo, we somehow journeyed the last five kms up an incredibly steep road to the Ndsari, where we gratefully extricated ourselves from the van.
Our trusty yellow travel bible, Lonely Planet's "Southeast Asia on the Cheap", indicated we could easily find several lodges in town. After a great deal of fruitless searching, with little help from the locals who seemed surprisingly surly, we at least found the air quite cool, as we had climbed to 8,000 feet from Probolingo, thus giving us a little dose of adrenalin.
Eventually, we stumbled upon one poorly marked hostel with tiny, decrepit rooms.
We had little choice but to stay in the sleazy little inn, which was especially depressing for Elaine, for the next day was her 30th birthday, and we had hoped to find a nice hotel to celebrate. What had happened to all the lodges that Lonely Planet boasted about, we wondered? Fortunately, we met some other travellers staying in the dive, so we all commiserated with each other, agreeing this would certainly be one birthday to remember.
(For the story about climbing the active volcano, Mt. Bromo, to mark Elaine's 30th birthday, click here.)
Later, we discovered that most travellers stayed in a lodge, a former prince's beautiful home located at the foot of the volcano, which required hiring a donkey or horse to transport bags and selves up to it. That's pretty well exactly where we envisioned we'd be celebrating Elaine's birthday. If only the internet had been invented!
Read more about our time at Mount Bromo here.
Onward to Jogjakarta
We certainly didn't relish the thought of riding in another sweltering bus packed with Javanese on the road to Jogjakarta. We discovered that a train ran from Probolingo, but there were complications. We couldn't catch a bemo back down the mountain in time to connect, so we'd have to leave the night before and stay in Probolinggo, a dusty town with little appeal.
We noted a little travel agent office near the square in the small town near Mount Bromo, so thought we'd enquire about train tickets. He didn't tell us anything we already didn't know.
"Train impossible to catch from here without staying one night in Probolinggo," said the leather attired young Javanese who was manning the office.
"How can we avoid riding on the bad bus?" we asked.
"I can sell you ticket on express bus, two seats across [the usual is three plus three in Asia], modern with air-conditioning. I can give you student discount, 50% off!" he promised.
"How much?," we inquired, our hopes raised, as it sounded like a perfect way to get to Jogjakarta.
"Ticket is 13,000 rupiah ($12 Cdn) for two, including a special bemo to Probolinggo, leave Ndasari at 12 o'clock, arrive at Jogjakarta at 8 pm, no problem."
(Note to self - when someone trying to sell you something says "no problem," run away!).
"And the bemo, is it crowded full of people, because our ride up was very full?"
"Bemo is very good, brand new, not many people on it," he promised.
After some discussion, Elaine and I agreed this was a good deal so purchased the tickets for the following day. Of course, when we woke up at our usual time of 6 am the next morning, ready to hit the road, we immediately regretted having to wait around for 6 hours for the bemo. Well, at least we could enjoy the cool high hills before descending to the sweltering landscape below.
But our journey began on the wrong foot, and then quickly deteriorated from there. The bemo was almost full to bursting by the time we descended the mountain. Then more Javanese loaded on, with huge bundles headed to market. We were sitting in the front seat, but stubbornly refused to let anyone else in our zone, as we figured we'd paid for it. When an old man tried to jump into the front, Elaine yelled: "Tidak (no)!" Undeterred, the old man climbed in through the driver's side, squashed himself between me and the driver.
Somehow, we made it to town, but our fun had just begun.
At Probolinggo, the express bus was full, no room for us. I proceeded to yell in three languages at the travel agent where we'd been deposited, but were blithely informed we'd get on the next express bus, passing through at 2:30 pm. We'd already wasted much of the day, and didn't look forward to having to wait longer before we began a six+ hour bus ride to Jogja.
At the appointed hour, we were unceremoniously loaded into a rickety bus, despite our protests, as we had been promised it was the express model. As we pulled away, we knew something else was wrong; there weren't any farangs (foreigners) on board. Then, at the bus terminal in Surabaya, more Javanese jammed into the bus and when we were handed our ticket, to our dismay we noted over 30 stops! I asked the conductor what time we'd arrive in Jogja. To our shock, he said we'd get there at 12:30 am—in ten hours time! Well, we were stuck on the bus now, so resigned ourselves to the fact that not only had we'd been ripped off, we had a hellishly long, hot, dusty ride ahead of us.
As usual in the Third World, the driver pushed the bus to its top speed in between many of the towns. Therefore, we sat at the back to avoid seeing the road ahead and getting too freaked out. At least the scenery was quite stunning ... sparkling rice paddies set amongst verdant green hills and dormant volcanoes which poked up along what is known as the "ring of fire", but it seemed every village we passed through was an instant replay of the last: bamboo huts, water buffalos, chickens scurrying about, and people ... oh the people ... everywhere.
On and on it went until dark.
When we at long last pulled into Jogja, we were overjoyed to be dumped out near the traveller's hotel district along Jalan Marlioboro, which featured a no car zone with a series of lanes known as gangs, filled with restaurants and hotels. It was a backpackers' retreat in the middle of a bustling city. We were immediately accosted by trishaw drivers who wanted to take us to a hotel. We'd heard the Hotel Bagus was inexpensive and fairly decent, so told our driver to take us there. He took us instead to the Asiatic, only a quarter of a mile from the bus drop, and of course not where we'd told him, but likely he was hoping for a commission from the hotel owner: we were too beat to argue. We got out and proceeded to walk along the gang looking for the Hotel Bagus. When we found it, we were dismayed to see it was one of the sleazier joints, but we grabbed the only room for the night—dark and dingy as it was, glad to be off the bus ride from hell.
A Traveller's Terror Tale: Lou and Sue's Story
We thought our two Java bus rides were terrible, but these paled in comparison to fellow travellers Lou and Sue's experience. Like many young Australians, they had set off from their happy home to engage in the "European Experience" along the overland route through Asia from Bali to London.
In Bali, they'd booked a ticket on a modern bus for the overnight journey to Jogjakarta. Soon, they were comfortably seated, and headed off into the night.
"I was awake most of the journey," said Lou, "because I was fascinated with the way the bus driver waited until the last possible second to pull off to the side when approaching on-coming vehicles."
Yes, we were very aware of that driving behaviour, we told him, but we certainly didn't want to watch.
"At about two in the morning, as the bus roared down the highway, bright lights appeared ahead. I could see we weren't going to pull over, and braced myself for a crash. We hit a huge truck head on at about 60 miles per hour."
"Oh my god!" said Elaine. "Were you ok?"
Sue nodded. "Well, Lou had a pretty bad cut on his foot, but other than being in a state of shock, we were ok. But all around us, as we tried to get off the bus—pandemonium! The driver was dead, a passenger in the seat ahead of us had an eye hanging out of its socket ... the body count was quite high."
"Jesus!" I said. "That sounds horrible!"
"I am a registered nurse in Australia," continued Sue, "but there was literally nothing we could do to help the situation. Despite my training, with so many injuries, without any medical supplies, it was impossible to make an impact. We were miles from anywhere, and of course, in Indonesia, no ambulances or medical care. The wounded were simply carted off to the closest village, and the dead were left by the side of the road to await someone to come and take them away. All we could do was follow the survivors walking down the road toward Surabaya. Eventually, a bus came along and took us into town."
Somehow, they had managed to carry on their journey, even more wary of the busses than even we were.
Jogjakarta: City of Contrasts
Jogja, the heart of Java, is its cultural capital. Over 300,000 people were crammed into the city, which sprawled along a plain under three volcanos. With over 25,000 becak drivers, (cycle rickshaws), they are a site to see. As we stood at an intersection near the Kraton, the King's Palace, we realized there was a section of the road reserved only for the becaks. As the drivers' legs pumped like pistons, they rolled along as if in a visual symphony, and turned the corner in perfect unison.
We soon discovered it was almost possible to set our watches to the afternoon rains in Jogja. We'd arrived in the middle of the monsoon season, and at about 2 pm, when the heat felt like it would make us burst into flames, the skies over the nearby volcanos and plains would darken, the rumble of thunder would be heard, and rain would come down in buckets, provided a refreshing interlude. Two hours later, it would be over, and the air would be slightly cool and electric, perfect for walking down the busy shopper's centre: Jalan Marlioboro Avenue.
Along the gangs, we were sheltered from hustlers and touts, but as soon as we stepped out onto the bustling streets of the city, we were immediately descended upon by the becak drivers, anxious for passengers, their brightly-coloured three-wheeled bikes looking like festive open mouths ready to swallow us whole. We usually walked everywhere, to save money and get some exercise at the same time, so we always refused the first offer to ride. Twenty feet later, another bejak pilot would inquire if we needed a ride. And so on down the line until we got lost in the crowded streets and escaped their entreaties. I guess hope springs eternal...
Sometimes the best places are the least expected. The Hotel Bagus, (which ironically means "good" in the local Bahasa), was truly disgusting with its filthy mandis (small rooms for having a shower of sorts with a pail filled with water from a large bucket on the floor), and small stuffy rooms outfitted with a thin, lumpy bed and one tiny fan. Fortunately, we met up with a woman who'd been hanging out with us on Lovina in Bali, and she recommended the Asiatic, where we'd been driven by our bejak driver when we'd arrived.
We couldn't believe it.
After retracing our steps to the Asiatic, to our delight we discovered it was one of those old great hotels with large airy rooms and huge wobbling ceiling fans. We decided we definitely had to stay there and we immediately made plans to vacate the Bagus and check in.
In the cavernous lobby, where many styles of locally produced batik hung on every available wall, we were provided with free coffee and tea all day, and toast and jam in the morning ... the last time we'd receive a free breakfast on our trip. Even though it was outside the gang area, we could sit in comfort on the front porch and watch the traffic and people go by.
We quickly discerned that shopping seemed to be the major past-time in Jogja. Malioboro's sidewalks and shops were literally crammed with goods for sale; on the street, stalls displayed everything from wood carvings to bootleg cassettes of western favourites. The first time we walked down this shoppers' mile, our minds were boggled with all the incredible choices on display.
After a few days, we'd become accustomed to prices and quality of local crafts, so began to bargain in earnest. Our gift list featured 26 names (we both come from large families), so it was obvious we could only buy small gifts, as our budget and our backpacks didn't allow for much else. We purchased earrings, a sliver ring, 8 small batiks, an exquisite hand-made wooden puppet, 2 small straw wallets, and a hand-carved wooden owl, all for around $15 CDN. Such a deal!
The best part of our purchases was that they were lightweight, so we wouldn't regret trudging around with them all over Asia.
We were also amazed by how superb the food was in Jogja, especially the quaint little places along the gangs, frequented by westerners. One night, we were handed a flyer announcing the opening of a new French restaurant. After meandering down a maze-like gang, we found a neat little place set in a cool garden. Lucky us! We dined on suckling duck and sweet and sour shrimp for only $1 each!
Our other favourite haunt was Supermans's, usually full of travellers, and we often had to wait for a table in the garden setting. The guacamole was superb here, and across the way, at The American Hamburger (how do you like these terrific western names?), the menu was varied and the food excellent.
An old Indonesian woman would visit all the restaurants at night, playing some sort of ancient box with three strings on it, while singing songs that surprisingly sounded like western Christmas carols (it was getting to be that time of year). We couldn't help but be charmed by her efforts, and pressed a 100 rupiah note into her hand (about 10 cents – yes, we were big spenders). She thanked us with a sweet smile, while intoning some sort of blessing (at least that's what we assumed).
The rest of the travellers generally ignored her as she sang, no doubt regarding her a nuisance. We were surprised by their reaction to this sweet and enterprising old lady, but then we realized most of the other westerners were in general very anti-social. I don't want to name the country they came from, so as not to insult any of our dear readers.
Next Story: Christmas in Jakarta