After using public transportation in Bali with little difficulty, I figured I would do the same in Java and save the huge mark-ups found in tourist-oriented transportation. It turned out to be an interesting experience, but not necessarily a good idea. The problem is that while Bali is (among other things) a place of art, culture and religion – which usually occurs where people live – East Java’s sights are mostly natural, and are located in the middle of nowhere, in places where locals seldom have a reason to go.
The attitude, as you transit from Hindu Bali to Muslim Java, also changes a lot, or so I perceived during my short stay (that and the fact that women become increasingly mummified as you travel West). Several of my fellow travellers had noticed the unusual driving habits of the Balinese. Traffic is rather chaotic, with rules hard to understand, if they exist at all. However, people get stuck in traffic, or blocked by somebody trying to make a U-turn, and they just patiently wait, often letting someone pass first. Not so in Java, where Middle-Eastern style, very aggressive driving – with all the accompanying honking and screaming – seems to be the norm.
Scams are also common and Lonely Planet described the Probolinggo bus station as one of the worst in all of Indonesia. I am a poor target for “porters”, since I have little luggage and it never touches the ground in those kinds of places, but someone did try to sell me a tour of Bromo National Park. It was a good price and an itinerary I liked, so I accepted. When I politely said I would pay at the park entrance, the very upset man mumbled a bunch of things and left angrily. So obvious.
I nevertheless made it to Banyuwangi and, seeing no other tourists, hired a 4×4 and driver for myself, so I could leave around 4 am and see the Ijen crater at sunrise. It was a fairly hard climb, but the cool mountain air was a refreshing change from the brutally hot and humid Indonesian coast. While not very conducive to taking good pictures, the mist made the place quite magical.
I often seek volcanic regions and, as I approached the crater, I recognized the kind of other-worldly scenes they create. With very little life on it – if any – the crater’s edge shows the kind of strange erosion pattern that generally only happens near volcanoes (glaciers can also “paint” some crazy landscapes).
The lake at the bottom of the Ijen crater is apparently the most acidic body of water in the World, with a pH of 0.5. I say “apparently” because I have seen the “most-acidic-lake-in-the-World” in many countries, including Costa Rica and Ethiopia, just as I have been to several cities claiming to be the oldest in the World. You get the point. The yellow area is where molten sulphur escapes, solidifies and gets broken in pieces by the miners. Tourists can go down but, uncharacteristically, I passed. I had a bit of a cold and even at the edge of the crater, the fumes were getting to me. And I was in a lazy mood, I guess.
The miners make it look easy, but these are not styrofoam blocks. The loads they carry weight between 70 and 90 kg! They have to walk 3 km down the mountain on a very steep road, after walking 300 m up to get out of the crater. Because of the sharp incline, I thought it was a fairly strenuous hike, and I did it with a light daypack. They get paid the equivalent of about $0.07 per kg and they go in the crater twice a day. After all that work, they can make $10-13 a day, which is very good for unskilled labour in Indonesia.
I overheard a local guide saying how the miner’s health, and life expectancy, is greatly affected by the sulphur fumes. I then read in Lonely Planet that the tough exercise keeps the miners in great shape and they work and live longer than the average Indonesian! Funny how we sometimes take info from guides or guidebooks as facts. Neither are exactly the embodiment of academic excellence, and thus, neither is my blog! I wonder how many lies I have already unknowingly told all of you.
After Ijen, my trip to Java went downhill. I again tried to make my way to the edge of Mount Bromo, by public transportation. An early morning taxi took me to the train station half an hour before my train’s departure and I told the ticket clerk I wanted to go to Probolinggo. On the train, I found someone in my seat. Upon verification, I had been sold a ticket for the next day. From the Probolinggo train station, I took a microbus to the minibus station, but was told that it was too late, and that it would take forever for a minibus to fill-up to go where I wanted to go. I knew timing was an issue, I just never realized 1 pm was late. I was told I should take another minibus to the next town and try there. I did, in a minibus full of uniformed schoolgirls – a little awkward. Once there, I was told there were no more minibuses, but that I could get one from the next village. I went there on a scooter (!), only to be told there were never any minibuses to where I wanted to go. Finally, I hired someone else to drive me up the crater. An hour long drive, by motorcycle, on a twisting mountain road, in pouring rain! I took the photo when the driver stopped to put on a poncho. Notice my bag on the gas tank. The only reason why I accepted such a dangerous proposal was because I was told it was 15 km away and would take an hour. With two of us and luggage on a small bike going uphill, we rarely reached dangerous speeds. I would NEVER have done it downhill.
After I finally arrived at the hotel, the guy in charge described the tour available to see Mount Bromo at sunrise. Basically a seat in a 4×4 which takes you to a look-out point at 4 am. I said OK. The next morning, I got out at 3:50 and was asked by another guy for a voucher. “What voucher?”, I said. “I was never told anything about any voucher”. All the 4×4 going were full and I was out of luck. It turns out the hotel guy hadn’t understood I wanted to go. Now, I have many times made myself understood by people who spoke far, far less English than that man. He was just a bloody idiot. Anyways, rewind to 4 am. I rarely get upset traveling, but I do “quit” on some things. So, when told I could not go, I did not try plan B, C or D. I turned around and went back to bed. It was too late; my mind had placed Java in the exclusive club – along with Djibouti – of places I just don’t want to spend any time in.
A few hours later I jumped in with a Danish family of 5 who had booked a minivan straight to the Surabaya airport. I wanted to share the cost, but this resulted in a very funny argument. I didn’t think the children should count in our calculation, so I wanted to pay a third, not a sixth. “I’ll give you $25”. “No, just give me $15!”. We agreed on $20. Very refreshing. At the airport, I tried to buy the first ticket out of Indonesia, but it was exorbitant. So I flew to Jakarta, slept at an airport hotel and took the first morning flight to Singapore.
I would never have thought an airport hotel stay would produce a good story, but it did. I thought the taxi driver and dispatcher were pretty pathetic, as they did not know about my hotel, a 6 story affair only 2 km from the airport. It took forever to find it but, in the end, I understood the problem. We had to drive through a construction zone, as there wasn’t yet a road to the hotel. For the first time in my life, it is quite possible I was the first person to stay in a hotel room. This was the hotel’s third night of operation. It took an hour of running the air conditioning at maximum power to get rid of the overwhelming smell of drying caulking, glue and paint. They made up for it with a free breakfast of chicken rice wrapped in banana leaves.