Right when we get into a leaky wooden canoe with strangers and get to the point where we’re proud of ourselves for being able to rough it in very basic accommodations, someone else comes by to prove us wrong. In this case, one day after arriving at Yangkawe Bungalows on Waigeo Island in Raja Ampat and still trying to adjust to not having plumbing, refrigeration or 24-hour electricity, an energetic older French couple came swooping in by longboat from another homestay an hour away. It was their fourteenth time in Indonesia, their third month in Papua, and this would be their seventh homestay in the area. They also spoke Indonesian fluently. Seriously.
They were also a godsend. We are. Such. Lucky. Bastards. As described in our previous post, we hadn’t had the foresight to do any research prior to arriving in Raja Ampat, and the Lonely Planet guidebook was useless. So very long story short, we ended up at this homestay* and spent the first day by ourselves snorkeling around the cove, building a sand castle and wondering where we should go and how long we should stay at this homestay.
When Eva and Ante arrived, we latched onto them like leeches and siphoned them for information. They were incredibly generous in sharing their extensive knowledge with us, and they pretty much planned out the rest of our stay for us among these islands. We also extended our stay at the homestay by one more night because we just weren’t ready to say goodbye.
We spent the majority of our waking hours with this globetrotting couple. Every morning, we started a leisurely, sunny day over breakfast of freshly-baked cakes and instant Indonesian sludge (coffee). This was followed by a snorkel in the vicinity with a couple of family members from the homestay making sure we weren’t going to drown ourselves. Lunch was fish, rice and vegetables. Dinner was the same, except small crabs would scuttle over our feet for scraps as we ate. Hey, I’ll take crabs over cockroaches any day. Even though the main ingredients were always the same, Mary tried to change it up for us with preparation methods.
We flew to Makassar for the sole purpose of immersing ourselves in death in Torajaland, where the indigenous ethnic group in the mountains of Sulawesi have a fascinating culture of celebrating their deceased. It’s doable on your own, but we hired a local guide because it’s really hard to learn anything otherwise. And learn we did.
I wish I remembered the name of the village our guide Arru hails from, but I have a crappy memory. Anyway, it’s a good representation of traditional Torajan homes. We walked through the short row of houses as Arru explained that homes always face north and rice barns face south. Buffalo horns are stacked high up the center of the front of these homes to signify how many buffalo were sacrificed during the funerals of their family members, which in turn shows off the wealth of these families. There are reasons for the placement of almost everything within these villages.
Most tourists don’t visit or stay long in Makassar and that’s what makes it interesting to us. We hired a rickshaw to visit a fish market and “traditional harbor” in Makassar and got dropped off by the harbor. We slowly picked our way around puddles and trucks and came upon a tiled area covered in blue tarp with a god-awful stench emanating from it.
There were boys and men everywhere, and as soon as we started walking around, the attention was on us. It was a reminder that once again, we are in an area in this country that sees few tourists, which means we are a fun spectacle for the locals. Hawkers beckoned us over to take photos of them and their fish, and guys jostled each other as they approached us in turns and asked us where we were from before turning around to their buddies and letting them know very loudly where we hailed from.
We felt perfectly safe but we don’t like to be the center of attention for too long in unfamiliar places (just in case), so we didn’t stay long. It was still an unexpectedly cool experience. The harbor wasn’t as interesting but we got to see some pretty big old school wooden boats being loaded and unloaded.
Makassar is the biggest city in Sulawesi, situated on the southwest coast of the octopus-shaped island. Biggest is relative though, because while it might be a big port city, there really isn’t much going on. We flew in to recharge before taking on Tana Toraja and Bunaken.
While there isn’t much happening yet in Makassar, there is a growing number of enterprising young people who are making Makassar their own, opening the kind of places where they can hang out with their friends.
We got to know the son of the owner of the Hotel Agung, a clean, new and budget-friendly hotel near Fort Rotterdam. A graphic designer, Christian designed the interior and exterior of the hotel, which has a simple, modern look. We ended up using this hotel as our base and recovery place (after we got stomach troubles), staying there for a total of ten days.
Christian took us to a nearby cafe opened two years ago by a young local who loves coffee. It was the sort of place you might see in a hipster neighborhood in Brooklyn. For a little over a dollar, we had a tasty cappuccino and an Americano, with delicious homemade peanut cookies to nibble on (two for 3000 rupiah, or about 25 cents). It was busy when we got there in the late afternoon, and groups of young people sat chatting and smoking.
You can’t go to Komodo National Park in Flores and not see Komodo dragons. And we saw them, but it looks like I deleted the photos off of my memory card so I don’t have any proof. Looks like you’ll just have to believe me. N and I heard that Rinca Island was less touristy than Komodo Island, so we shelled out 300,000 rupiah each to go on a group tour of the island with Christian’s Tours in Labuan Bajo. We weren’t given a whole lot of information from the tour office as to what to bring or how to prepare. We were just told to show up at a certain time and that the boatman would speak English.
The next morning, we walked to the tour office down the street from our hotel. There were four French tourists and a Spanish couple going with us, and we all walked down to the harbor to get on the boat for the two-hour ride to Rinca. The boat we were instructed to board was a tiny old thing with benches facing each other along the sides. The boatman spoke no English. He communicated via hand gestures and that’s how we found out he was 70 and has been manning a boat for 40 years. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was this particular boat he’s been on for the past four decades.
The eight of us sat there for two hours in near silence as we sputtered along past small islands. By the time we arrived on Rinca, the sun was high in the sky and it was hot. We didn’t really know where we were supposed to go so we started walking down a winding path towards what we assumed was the entrance to the park. A guide was leading a pack of French tourists back from their tour, so he waved goodbye to them, turned around and introduced himself as our guide.
Mahmed carried a long stick with a forked tip for keeping the large lizards at bay. The land here was arid and relatively flat, and we walked down a concrete path towards the ticket booth. Mahmed pointed to the base of a small tree, where a juvenile male dragon lay in the shade. His legs were all splayed out comically and he slowly lifted his head to look at us as we stopped at a “safe distance” — whatever that means because these reptiles are fast — to stare and snap photos.
Mahmed explained that the dragons are most active in the early morning when it’s cooler and they’re hungry. By the late morning, they grow lethargic from the heat and the food in their bellies and lie still for the remainder of the day. It was clear we would be watching dragons nap all afternoon. Read more…
Snorkeling and diving in Komodo National Park is supposed to be excellent and that’s pretty much what we came for so N and I signed up for a day trip with a dive operator, popped our motion sickness pills and headed off early one morning on a big wooden double-decker boat with eight adults, three kids and a baby. We were immediately off to a good start as the boat got snagged on the anchor rope of another boat, and one of the staff had to go diving underneath to untangle us. So we sat there inhaling the acrid fumes from the boat’s engine and about fifteen minutes later we were off for real.
We met Kirsty and Emily, a British lesbian couple, who were the first British travelers we’ve gotten to know during our travels over the past year and a half. We shared travel tales and we realized that these 20-something kids were much more hardcore than us. For example, instead of going to Bukit Lawang on the Banana Pancake Trail which most people follow, they went to some remote remote area in Sumatra to see orangutans. While we were being carried up and down the mountain like royalty in a touristy area practically Justin Bieber-style because we can’t handle anything, they went on a more authentic experience by taking a tour on some rickety boat whose engine died halfway through on their way back. They were only saved by a passing boat which saw their captain waving a pole with a life jacket attached to the end of it. While we (I) would’ve spent the rest of our travel money extracting myself from that situation — via helicopter, G7, speedboat, or inflatable raft — and flown back to Tokyo in a traumatized daze, they kept calm and carried on (I had to use that somewhere in this post cuz you know, they’re Brits).
Besides them there were two quiet German guys who were snorkeling too, and a young globe-trotting Swiss family with a billion children (well, four). They were a hot mess even with two of the dive school’s staff on the boat to watch over the chirrens, and I wondered how they managed to travel around the world with their brood in tow. The kids immediately started tearing into bags of crackers and cookies, which they proceeded to stuff their faces with, spewing cookie crumbs and partially-masticated crackers all over the blankets laid out on the deck where we all sat. Not like a few crumbs here and there, but like a thin layer of them coating the floor. The parents didn’t seem to care, scooting all over the crumbs to talk to us and the German boys. My OCD was going out of control.
We got to our first snorkel/dive spot and N and I donned our masks and fins and watched scuba divers struggling awkwardly into their suits and equipment. Scuba diving reminds me of skiing but worse. There’s so much prep work needed before you actually go out and enjoy yourself. At least with skiing, you don’t have all these potentially life-saving computers and gear hanging off of you.
We landed in Bali and immediately went about getting our visa extensions, which ended up taking longer than expected. We didn’t care at all because Ubud ended up being the perfect place to laze about and recharge and we did just that for two weeks. This town made popular by “Eat, Pray, Love” with sinewy yogis and young women trying to “find themselves” was also chock full of good, healthy, organic(-inspired) food and a great vibe for creative inspiration.
Every morning we woke up to a beautiful sunny day and ate a leisurely breakfast on our balcony in our pajamas. We eventually left our room to get lunch, explore and walk around the town. Maybe we should’ve been less lazy and done stuff like see the traditional dances or gone on tours of the coffee plantations and temples in the area, but we seriously needed some down time. It’s strange because while we never felt like we really needed to take breaks during the Europe leg of our adventure, Southeast Asia’s been a little more mentally taxing for some reason. We love it here in Indonesia but sometimes we need a “taste of home”. Ubud was perfect because it gave us just that and then some.
The afternoons were hot. We walked around the quiet town peeking into cute shops selling organic soaps and clothing, and stopped into cafés and restaurants when we were hungry. During the day, van loads of pale Chinese tourists descended on Ubud from the busier parts of the island like Kuta and Seminyak, fanning themselves under the identical cheap straw hats they probably bought for too much somewhere.
I have a newfound fascination with volcanoes, thanks to Mount Bromo on Java. She isn’t very beautiful by any stretch of the imagination. Her top is all blown off and disfigured from recent eruptions, but she’s a vivacious, vocal and volatile volcano (I did that on purpose). N and I had never been to an active volcano, so we figured we would visit Mount Bromo, known to be one of the most accessible volcanoes in Indonesia and didn’t require a challenging (multi-day) hike.
It was a real pain in the ass to get to there from Yogyakarta, but having read loads of blog posts about it, we were mentally prepared. A little discomfort wasn’t going to keep us from looking down into the depths of Mount Bromo’s soul. After braving a packed economy class-only train, and then an ancient minibus ride up the mountain in the dark which felt like some kind of nightmare rollercoaster experience, we arrived at the village of Cemero Lawang to find out that the overpriced hotel we had emailed to hold a double room for us hadn’t held onto that room. So we paid for an overpriced triple room, which was a dark, musty room with a hot water heater that barely worked. And we really needed that hot water. The nighttime temperature on the mountain at our elevation of 2,217 meters (7,218 feet) dropped to close to 5 degrees Celsius (about 40F), which isn’t that cold but it is for a couple of people who have acclimated to SEA nights, which are mostly sweat-inducing. The fleece jackets we rarely had any use for (except for on buses where they crank up the AC) came in handy, and carrying them all through sweltering SEA suddenly became totally worth it. Since we had an electric water heater that came with our fancy room, we added boiled water to the barely lukewarm water from the shower and bathed Indonesian-style (using a bucket and ladle) as fast as we possibly could. The next day erased all of our lingering annoyances about this town and the highway robbery of the minibus drivers and hotels in the area. While most visitors pile into jeeps at the buttcrack of dawn to drive up to a vantage point to see the sun rise before heading to the crater in droves, we opted instead to have breakfast before setting out on our hike to the volcano. This ended up being the best decision for us because we hate crowds and even in the midst of one of the most touristy attractions in Indonesia, we like to pretend like we’re the only people who discovered it.
The hike wasn’t really a hike. It was more of a walk. We passed jeeps coming back from the crater and unloading hungry tourists in front of their hotels. With the morning rush finished for the day, enterprising moped drivers and horseback guides called out to us. As in most developing countries, they seemed perplexed when we told them we wanted to walk. Why walk if you can afford a cheap ride all the way there? And because they never understand that we walk because we want to, they slowly followed us and whittled down their initial prices.
We started walking through the Sea of Sand, a flat expanse of sand leading up to the volcano. I finally called out to two approaching horse guides and asked them how much for a ride back. 100,000 rupiah (about $8) each there and back, they said. We insisted that we only wanted a ride back, and that we wanted to ride the horses ourselves. Totally unconcerned if we had any sort of riding experience, they agreed to 50,000, turned their horses around and followed us. Fine sand blew into our eyes and mouth, and we trudged on as the guides occasionally offered the horses to take us the rest of the way up “if we were tired”.
We were tired. The elevation was killing us, and this was on relatively flat land. In the not too distant distance, there was a photogenic little volcano next to a larger one that looked like it had its top blown off. The pretty one was Mount Batok, and her neighbor was Mount Bromo, one of the most active and volatile volcanoes in Java. According to volcano experts, she’s ready to erupt at any time. We walked on, huffing and puffing up the short but steep slopes leading up to the stairs to the crater. The horse guys just watched us in silence, most likely wondering why we were being so damn cheap and subjecting ourselves to this much physical discomfort.
We have a dear friend back in New York who is a master in the art of persuasion. Besides being stylin’ and easy on the eyes, she’s an expert salesperson. Roz is N’s nightmare when it comes to shopping, because she can easily convince me that I really need those $400 shoes. But she is also a professional negotiator and knows how to get a good deal. Over the years, I’ve watched her work on some of the toughest people, including Turkish salespeople in the Instanbul tourist markets. They literally have fun with the sport of bargaining, and they’re a tough bunch.
Roz recommended Yogyakarta to us, and I don’t want to age her but she went about a billion years ago when it was still an emerging tourist destination and Indonesia in general really wasn’t on anyone’s tourist map besides, of course, Big Bad Bali. She sold it to us without much effort because we had heard from other travelers that it was Indonesia’s creative capital. Plus, it was also the most convenient base from which to visit Big Bad Borobudur. Yogyakarta is the CliffsNotes of Indonesian (Javanese) art and culture. It’s a good place for people who don’t have months to immerse themselves in Indonesia but want a taste of what the country’s culture is all about. It had changed a lot since the last century when our friend visited and it ended up not being one of our favorite places, but there was plenty to keep us entertained.
Yogyakarta was our first real big city in Indonesia, and our first stop on the island of Java. Like other cities we’ve been to in this country, it is dirty, congested and polluted. So chokingly polluted from vehicles spewing dark exhaust that riding a becak (rickshaw) in traffic is suffocating. It is the bustling home of traditional batik artists and shadow puppetmakers. It also happens to be overrun with touts and scam artists preying on tourists to get on overpriced becak “tours” around the city’s sights and buy fake batik textiles and other random junk they probably get manufactured for cheap in China.
Our first full day in Yogya, we ran into a Spanish-German couple who was on the same plane as us from Medan. The German girl was friendly as expected, and the Spanish guy was probably the second quietest Spanish guy we’ve ever met. We’re starting to suspect that Catelonians are really quiet compared to the extremely vocal groups of Spanish tourists we encounter, who sound like they learned how to whisper in a sawmill and are in some kind of competition to outtalk each other at the same time. We eventually found ourselves at the Water Castle, and a not-so-random local approached us. This man became our impromptu guide for the Water Castle, taking us down the narrow alleyways crammed with little houses and art studios.
As was his intention from the beginning, he casually stopped in front of a batik workshop where two artists worked on a beautiful sarong. He explained the process and the different artistic styles used in batik textiles nowadays. It was hard not to be impressed. I won’t go into the process here because it’s lengthy, but these guys were legit. They knew what they were doing, and we watched as one of them expertly applied dye to the waxed cotton.
Our “guide” spent the next few hours educating us on Sumur Gumuling, an underground rest area and mosque used by the sultan and his ladies, and then onto the Water Castle (Tamansari), gesturing for us to follow him from one place to another. By this time we were already wondering how much we should tip him at the end.
On a day we had originally designated to being a lazy one, a solo Dutch traveler we met at our guest house convinced us to go inner tubing with her. We didn’t have anything better to do so we changed into our swimsuits and met up with Marijn in the restaurant lounge area, where the young local guys lazed about in the downtime when the tourists were all out hiking the jungles.
When Putra — one of the intrepid jungle guides — came into the lounge with a guitar cradled in his arms, Marijn asked him to come along. He shrugged and agreed, put down his guitar and led us across the river to a small restaurant/inner tube rental shop where we rented two large inner tubes. There were no helmets or life jackets offered or even for rent, nor were there waivers to sign. But that was expected. We carried the inner tubes to the river below, and after we clumsily clambered on and situated ourselves inside, we pushed off.
We immediately got wedged on some rocks in the river while Marijn and Putra drifted ahead of us. Putra noticed, jumped out of his inner tube and came to our rescue to pull us off and back onto the current. This was the first of many times he had to save us from something; there would be spiders, brambles hanging in the water, heavy machinery and more rocks coming up. We didn’t have any string to tie the inner tubes together so we wouldn’t go drifting off again, so Putra held us together with his arms, all 90lbs of him. This was a guy who wrestled Mina — an aggressive female orangutan feared by all jungle guides for attacking humans — off of a tourist, and bears the scars from her bite marks on his arms.
It was a sunny afternoon, and the cool water felt amazing on our hot skin. We bounced along the shallow and light rapids and twirled around in the calmer waters, and got to a gravelly sandbar where we got out to take a rest. Well, more like to let poor Putra rest since he was doing all of the work. We sat on the tubes and talked with Marijn about her five-week travel plans in Indonesia while Putra smoked nearby, most likely regretting having agreed to come along with these useless tourists.