Two Days in One

Friday, March 07, 2008

I got into the chartered van from Lovina and was off to Gilimanuk at 3:00 to catch a ferry from the island of Bali to Java (pronounced Jawa, it is the largest and most populous island in the Indonesian archipelago). It was March 6th and March 7th was an island wide holiday, Nyepi. In Bali, the island of the gods, effigies would be burnt of the evil spirits on the 6th and then on the 7th everything – and I mean everything – would stop. People were to stay at home day and night, lights were to remain off, airports, roads, everything is closed all in the hope that the island would appear deserted to any descending spirits investigating, and Bali would be left alone for another year. As a result, getting out of Bali on the day prior was a bit of a mission. We arrived two hours later at a gas station which was, apparently, our jumping on point for the larger coach that would take me the other six hours to Probolingo, Java. We waited. And waited. I’d been told that we were leaving at three from Lovina instead of the scheduled six to make sure that the busses can get to port before cities and towns start closing streets for the festivals, and that we’d be on the coach by 5:30. Me and the family going to Java waited and waited at that station. It got dark. 8:00 – we’d been waiting now for three hours on the porch of the gas station in the middle of nowhere and Nyepi was fast approaching – and still no bus. I began to worry that I was going to spend the night and the next day hiding from spirits in a gas station. 9:00. No bus.

Finally, at 9:30, the bus arrived. It wasn’t our bus though, it was bus one and ours (number two) was supposedly coming behind. A second bus arrived. Number four. Finally, our bus did arrive and five hours we boarded in the darkness and drove to the port five minutes down the road. The scene was mayhem. There was a very War-of-the-Worlds quality to the pandemonium, as if we were all trying to escape before these monsters from beyond found us on the island. Would we get on the ferry, would we escape with our lives? The clock was moving ever close to midnight and finally we were flagged forward and herded onto a ferry. We were saved! Or were we? The ferry went nowhere for what felt like ages. I eventually got off the bus to have a look around and see what was going on. As I climbed the stairs to a better vantage point, we started to move, slowly, but inexorably toward the surprisingly close lights of Java. A flash of lightning on the horizon illuminated a massive volcano behind the lights and another smaller volcano behind that. I wondered if I was making a mistake. A few seconds later, another flash and this time the cloud near the further volcano glowed a distinctive red but the boat moved ever closer from the frying pan into the fire.

Of course, there was no real problem or danger, but it had been a long day and I had plenty of journey left – though how much I had no idea at this point – to keep myself awake for. We arrived in Java and stopped somewhere where everyone got off. The friendly family I’d traveled with from Lovina told me we were getting off for dinner at about 1:30 AM. Finally, just before three in the morning, I was standing in a fairly major but quiet highway intersection in Probolingo with my backpack on my back and a lonely planet in my hand wondering how to find this hotel. A guy about my age came up and offered me a lift on his bike, which might sound unusual but is quite a common (and for many travelers I’ve met, annoying experience). I was reluctant at best but he mentioned the hotel I was looking for and so I took his offer at half the price and we took off.

It was not the direction the bus driver had gestured (though he didn’t seem certain) and the guy whose bike I was now on said something to his friends as we drove past and again I found reason to keep awake and alert as we drove from the well-lighted intersection down the much darker road. His friends didn’t appear to be following, however, and the street was still pretty major, and a few minutes of tension later, we were at Hotel Bromo Permai 2. I hadn’t slept a wink and though it had been a long journey wasn’t doing too badly so far as I walked into the lobby. My plan was sleep, investigate Probolingo the next day and book a trekking tour up Bromo for the following day. Instead, I was approached by someone telling me he had a tour going up to Bromo at three in the morning (it was then I discovered that the time in Java was actually 2 AM). Being that I wasn’t dead tired and the price was right according to what I’d read, I took him up on it and sat an hour in the lobby. He also sold me a shuttle ticket to my next stop, the city of Yogyakarta (pronounced Joeg-ja-karta) for after the excursion. It would be a long day but I could already tell there was nothing to do in Probolingo, so why not?

3:15 AM I was en route to Bromo with two Swedes in the early morning darkness. Up and around the mountain, bouncing along in what has to be the most dodgy vehicle I’ve been in, ever. No panels anywhere, I could see the road pass below my feet through holes in the floorboards, my door had no handle on the inside, no seatbelts anywhere, and we were bouncing up winding ill-maintained mountain roads. And then the van started to clunk rhythmically, like we had a flat tire or something. We pulled over and investigated but could see nothing. We could certainly hear and feel it but the tires were fine and there was nothing else our flashlight was able to illuminate for us. It seemed to change and disappear (or get worse) as we turned in certain directions. With no immediate cause apparent we pressed on and it seemed to fade away. We stopped at a village perched on the crater rim that seemed a much better place to stay, Cemoro Lawang, and picked up a Scottish guy from the hostel before continuing the rest of the short distance up the road to get a view of the sunrise over the crater.

Already the sky was lighting and our group (minus guide… err… driver) walked up the dewy slopes with some difficulty finding the path. I took the lead on a particularly treacherous part as I was pretty sure we weren’t on the path anymore and it got increasingly precarious as it was muddy, slippery, and narrow. I was about to turn and say that we were on an animal path and should probably turn around when my foot slipped from beneath me and I began sliding down the slope. I wasn’t able to stop my slide as I desperately tried to dig my hands into the mud. Above me on my left a small tuft of grass, I reached for it and slowed but it was clear that the grass and I were sharing the difficulty clinging to the muddy slope and I could feel it beginning to give. All this happened, of course, in the blink of an eye, yet I felt calm and clear-headed, able to evaluate things in an almost suspended frame of time. I certainly knew that looking behind me to see what I was up against if I failed to stop was not going to help. And then, in that same two seconds stretched into 15, I grabbed the Scotsman’s outstretched hand with my other and, together with the grass, managed to stop my descent and pull myself back up to the path. I had wordlessly and, suffice it to say, inadvertently persuaded everyone to turn back.

We managed to find the correct path in the ever increasing light. We made it up to the viewpoint and watched as the sun broke and illuminated the desolate volcanic landscape below us. There was a large and inactive mound beside a smaller smoking crater known as Mt. Bromo, and in the distance, mostly obscured by cloud, another volcano towering over the scene. It was one of the most striking things I’ve ever seen and worth the trip to Java alone. We enjoyed the full sunrise and made our way back to the van where we drove to the small aforementioned town again. This time, we set off down into the caldera and trekked across the lava fields as cloud and mist wisped all around us. A horse ran unattended through the desolation beside us and a small temple sat vigil at the base of an extinct dome volcano (Batok) on our other shoulder. We hiked to Bromo and up the 253 steps to the rim of the crater. Below, the smoke poured out of large cracks in the crust, the black hillside ran up to where we stood and back down into the crater valley below. Volker (the Swedish guy) and I hiked along the rim of the crater to its highest point. After the morning’s scare and a little trip at the beginning of our rim walk, I was a little shaky especially as we were again walking on volcanic mud in places not wide enough for two people to pass each other with the slopes dropping off rather dramatically on either side. It was a fun walk but we didn’t circumnavigate the entire crater.

Back we trekked and down the hill where, for 20,000 ($2) each, we rode horses back across the volcanic plains. At first I was perched precariously but got comfortable relatively quickly and soon was playing around and having a good time making my way ahead of and around the others, weaving in and out and faster and slower. Then we rode up the slope back into town, hitched our horses to a pole, and strode into the olde tavern… err… café for breakfast. It had been a long day – journeying from Bali, hiking up the volcano and down the crater, horseback riding – and at last I started to feel it. I ate my breakfast with the Swedes and we all got back in the car at 10 AM for our trip down. The landscape was beautiful coming down. It is amazing where they farm, here. Halfway up the exposed roots of the mountain where you’d be hard pressed to maintain your footing and a misstep would surely tumble you to your death are fully planted and maintained farms. We met up with our shuttle bus to Yogya an hour down the slope and the change to a much more reliable and comfortable van was quite welcome. The Swedes were not coming with us, so it was me, the Scottish guy, and his girlfriend whose back had been too sore to make the journey with us that morning.

The ride was neverending. I had read it was about an eight hour journey, the Scots had been told it was six (which makes a certain amount of sense given it was chartered and not public) and well, it just kept going. The countryside was varied when it was there, most of the time it was just road and buildings and powerlines. From time to time I’d see flooded rice plains reflecting a tall volcano in the distance and the even more distant smoke of Bromo rising like a pin in the map of my journey since arriving in Java late last night. We stopped twice, once for fuel and bathrooms, once for lunch. I should say a word on the washrooms here. First of all, they’re ceramic holes in the ground, foregoing the whole seat and bowl concept. Second of all, toilet paper is generally not available nor, should you be prepared enough to bring your own tissue, allowed as it plugs what little plumbing they have. Instead, there is a water basin with a water scoop for flushing, and I assume, cleaning. How dirty the handle is I try not to think about. I’ve been fortunate enough to be near my hotel or a tourist restaurant with western amenities every time I’ve needed to make use of the extended options, shall we say, but I suppose it’s only a matter of time.

Finally, much later in the night than I’d expected, 37 hours after I awoke in my Lovina hotel yesterday morning, we arrived in Yogyakarta. Unfortunately, most of the hotels were full as other Balinese and Hindu are vacationing for Nyepi, but I did manage to find a clean-enough place for 35,000 a night. Everything else was VIP suites or ‘superior’ rooms with air conditioning, hot water, and high prices relatively speaking. It wouldn’t be so bad with a second person but I can stay here for four nights for the price of one night in a room like that. I was obviously dead tired at this point, but I needed some food in my stomach to take my malaria pill with – Java does have malarial mosquitoes – so I went out to a little café on the corner and had some Indonesian curry (kare), a beer to celebrate a very looong day of traveling, and at 11:30 that night, almost 40 hours after setting off from Bali, I fell asleep in Yogyakarta. The bus ride, the gas station, the ferry, more bus rides, 1 AM dinners, 2 AM deal making, a 5 AM hike nearly ending in a perilous slide down the mountain, another hike around a crater rim later that morning, horseback riding, and another 9 hour journey to find a room. It had been a journey alright. All the while, it was Nyepi back on Bali and the entire island rested and stayed at home. Maybe they had it right after all.

Mount Bromo Photos

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