Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Straits of Malacca

Crossing the Straits of Malacca from Indonesia to Malaysia changed my environment drastically. While I was on the 'fast-ferry', a vessel that lurched awkwardly between the air/water interface as though it was trying to rid itself of its passengers (if not their lunch), I met a guy from Malvern and instantly put him into my debt by drugging him up against an impending motion-induced hurl. Our duo was soon augmented by the introduction of an English girl, with whom I ran my usual joke about how Australians believe they're so English they still think they have to go to Europe for their holidays, despite Australia being nearly three orders of magnitude further away from it than Britain is.

The ferry ride itself was amazing enough to make up for it being twice the cost of the equivalent plane trip - we saw a plethora of flying fish, dolphins, the wary sharing of the waters between massive container ships and tiny fishing boats, a terrific sunset and eventually the specter of approaching land.

During my final weeks in Indonesia I'd been carefully avoiding learning too much of the language, knowing that I'd need to make room for the next language I'd be encountering. My skills in this department had been progressing fairly well despite the fact that I found that communicating complex ideas could actually be achieved through the judicious employment of exaggerated facial expressions and carefully choreographed mime displays. I'd mastered the numeric system, times and dates, transport and distances, food, money and "Go away" - all the important stuff. I'd even learned a few verbs but was too afraid to use them in a sentence. I think my greatest achievement was having a political discussion in Indonesian: "SBY good?", "Yes, good", "Megawati good?", "No, Megawati bad".

But when I'd landed in Malaysia I discovered to my horror that that the Malaysian language is practically identical to Indonesian! I'd been forgetting all that language for nothing. However, this frustration proved premature as it turns out Malaysians only ever really speak Chinese or English, so I haven't actually had a chance to use it here.

You know, I've never understood the name 'Indonesia' - 'Islands of the Hindus'. Indonesia is full of Muslims, Hindus live in India, which means 'Land of the Indus River', which is actually in Pakistan (a nation named for an acronym of states, not all of which it actually controls). At least 'Malaysia', or 'Bad Asia', is straight-forward about itself.

The major change I noticed traveling between these two countries, apart from an increase in Starbucks encounters and my newfound ability to attract no attention to myself, is the national mood. Indonesians are more depressed than Malaysians. In Indonesia, the Asian Tiger crash of '97, terrorism and separatism, the tsunami and other natural disasters, the advent of cheap airfares erasing the tourism industry of most medium-sized towns and then another economic collapse in the form of the GFC seems to have imbued the population with a resignation of their future that ambushes one like a street party in a sleeping gas attack... or the Grand Final played by koalas. People spend so much of their time lying around! Most businesses are so used to not getting any customers that all the staff spend the day watching TV and eying passes-by with suspicious glances. Things always happen 'tomorrow' but are 'not worth it' and I was always asked what I was doing there in the first place. Saying that, the people do put on a brave face and are extremely friendly, smiling and laughing a lot of the time but hiding a general feeling that there is nothing to hope for. Heartbreaking.

Malaysia seems to be the exact opposite. In every person I meet I get the sense that they are on the cusp of great things, live in exciting times and have big plans and ambitions that will change themselves and the world for the better. This positivity is a breath of fresh air.

The island of Penang was my first encounter with Malaysia. Taking a break from constant travel I spent four days hanging out with my Melbourne buddy, enjoying my first beer in almost a month (a Royal Stout, naturally), going to the beach, picking up a free two-month Thai visa (they're on special right now) and seeing the movie 'Zombieland'. I also discovered that my premature ejaculation from Sumatra (there are probably better ways to express that) resulted in some embarrassing reading material. 'Sopie's World' and 'Anne of Green Gables' are good books to read locked in a hotel room 500kms from one's nearest co-Westerner, but reading them in a dormitory full of curious and literate judges of personality is another matter - especially when the covers are bright pink with girly handwritten titles. I quickly moved on to the more masculine 'War and Peace' which brings impressed glances and sympathetic nods (undeserved of course - all 560,000 words are engrossing). My gradual progress through this paper brick is followed by everyone around me.

Penang is like two cities inhabiting the same area. One is the gleaming skyscraper city of the present and the other the decaying British colonial remnants of the past. This latter city is largely left to rot out its existence independently of its successor. Huge mansions hosting collapsed roofs and trees tearing its walls apart, whole rows of terrace houses with vines twisting window frames loose and clinging onto bricks before they can fall to the street below. It's a reminder that the wilderness is always out there, waiting for us to look away for just a second before it regains its mastery over our environment. In a war with nature we can never win, only destroy ourselves.

I took the bus over the bridge to the Cameron Highlands on the peninsula. Here I loudly declared to my dorm room that this was the first night I'd ever spent on the Eurasian Super-continent, forgetting for a moment that I've actually traveled for three months in India which is connected to Eurasia via the not inconsiderable land bridge called the Himalayas. I tried to amend the definition to mean the Eurasian Tectonic Plate, but that includes annoying islands I have also visited like the UK, Singapore, Japan, Penang and, well, Indonesia. Anyway, I could at least declare that I was now just a stroll away from Nicholas Sarkozy, something one misses when inhabiting Australia.

I think all the energy reserves and sleep deprivation quotas I'd been expending in the last... four years?... finally hit zero and demanded a recharge here. Major attractions in the Cameron Highlands include beautiful tea plantations, towering rain-forest canopies, the preserved culture of the local tribes and the world's largest flower. I skipped all of these in preference for hanging out in the dorm's common-room which overlooked the rain-soaked valley, reveling in the company of English-speakers, playing scrabble, reading War and Peace, consuming a 1.7 litre tub of icecream and watching dozens of hours of Hollywood DVDs. I spent a whole week here - five days longer than planned. I did go on a couple of short walks around the local hills and ate at some Indian restaurants a few times - I think that counts as environmental and cultural tourism.

After a while I followed a bunch of travelers on a bus to Kuala Lumpur for another week of extreme chilling out - this time in the local environment of malls.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Storm Out

Just after the Kerinci Valley the architecture becomes awesome in Sumatra. All the buildings look like they're extreme parodies of 'Asian Style'. Almost like exaggerated Sydney Opera Houses jutting out of them, the roofs curve upwards at the ends to points that are almost vertical, sometimes with several layers set inside one another. If I ever build a house I'm telling whoever is cohabiting it with me now that it's going to have a Sumatran roof, got that?

...And then in the city of Padang a new architectural feature: destruction. I was only there for one night but it was enough to get a glimpse of a range of indiscriminately collapsed buildings from the earthquake a few months ago. Luckily the place was now mostly functioning. I met a local on the bus (the buses here all sport spoilers by the way - they look hilarious) and had my evening occupied by a tour of many of the local student share houses, as well as some interesting collapsed buildings. This topic was always brought up awkwardly, and it was embarrassing to answer. "Err... well... yes. Yes I do. I want to see your beautiful city crushed by nature's destructive fury".

For this impudence, the gods decided to spite me by inserting a piece of grit in my eye while I was being ridden around town on a motorbike - the next 24 hours were so painful I naively made all sorts of vows about how much I would appreciate being a healthy person from then on.

Bukit Tinggi was next on the agenda - an awesome hill town with a cool traveling scene - albeit without the travelers. The only exceptions were two Americans, my first westerners in Sumatra, allowing me the opportunity of my first real conversation in English for almost three weeks. Here I was staying in a hotel room overlooking such an awesome view, and conveniently located near a museum of stuffed Siamese twin farm animals, that I decided to stay three nights - but I found myself checking out after the second night. I'm too restless.

I got on a suitable seeming bus about lunchtime to go to Lake Toba, touted in Wikipedia as being a super-volcano formed with a 'Volcanic Explosivity Index of 8' or 'Mega-Colossal'. My one additional requirement was that the bus stop on the equator (as defined by me) which took a surprising amount convincing (come on - it's THE EQUATOR!)

Not long after taking off, winding through totally spectacular hilly jungle scenery, we arrived at this geographic marvel. I sat at the front of the bus counting down the seconds of latitude from my GPS to let the driver know when to stop and upon reaching zero hurriedly ran out to take some shots. Of course the 'official' equator was a few metres to the north of that designated by my GPS but whatever, the Northern Hemisphere can have that dumb ribbon of land. I wasn't going to build a space elevator on it anyway.

Having crossed the equator, the world seemed different. Not only did it get a lot more landy, there being more of that stuff in the north, but suddenly it got colder, no doubt because I was plunged into winter having previously been enjoying the summer months. I also felt a lot more important, cohabiting the hemisphere with the likes of Socrates, Shakespeare and Kevin Rudd - let me know if any of you Southern Hemispherians want me to use my Northern influence for anything. I also distinctly felt myself change elevation suddenly - after all, the two halves of the world can't be expected to match up exactly.

It is also worth noting that at that very instant I reached my greatest ever land speed record: 1675km/hr relative to the Earth's core. I had thought that it was my greatest speed relative to the core ever, having largely traveled west when flying over the equator, but annoyingly, the addition of the velocity vectors coming home from India by plane over the equator several years ago would have made me faster - I wasn't even aware of the occasion.

However, I did stay up to midnight for what I thought was an even more awesome personal record smash: my fastest speed relative to the Sun: 30.47km/sec. This award had to wait for midnight because that's when the rotational and orbital vectors of the Earth combine to the greatest determinant.

But suddenly I thought of something! What was my speed when I was sleeping on Gunung Kerinci? Struggling to remember my high school geometry I plugged in my elevation at midnight on Kerinci (3060m plus the distance the core) and the equatorial radius of the Earth (6380kms) into the sides of a right-angled triangle and found that my Kerinci camp would have to be less than 199kms from the equator to exceed my current speed. Crap. My GPS told me it was only 189kms south of it - I'd been 79m/hr faster on Kerinci and didn't even think to celebrate it (for pedants, my 50km distance from the equator at midnight on the bus was canceled out by my 200m elevation). I'd better work out my top speeds relative to the galactic centre and Virgo Supercluster so I don't miss those too.

The rest of the bus ride carried on into the night and then well into the next day (although the mental geometry did burn a few hours), but I was never actually bored. The first part of the ride was really spectacular as we crossed the Sumatran highlands - towering hills covered in rainforest and deep valleys etched out by paddy terraces. But even during the long flat later sections dominated by endless palm oil plantations (damn you bio-fuels!) I enjoyed the warm glow of camaraderie that inevitably develops in these situations: when the bus broke down or got stopped by a fallen log we were all in the shits together. I feel more comfortable subversively traveling techno-blasting 'ekonomi' through leafy Sumatran suburbs than pompously reclined and flat-screened 'eksecutif' through the slums. Luxury insulates you from real life.

But that's not to say this massive and crammed bus ride did not elicit any nail-biting moments. I had my GPS out for a lot of the trip (often a curse on bus rides because they wind around so much) and during the morning I saw Lake Toba 140kms ahead, then 100kms 45 degrees to the left, then 80kms 90 degrees to the left. When it started to peel away to 135 degrees and then 180 degrees off, with the distance increasing at an increasing rate, I knew something had gone very wrong.

"Danau Toba?" I asked the passengers around me. Polite nods and nervous grins were the reply. This was not a good sign. To increase the tension, the bus driver played the same 10 songs on repeat through the extremely loud sound system, and heroically managed to stop and let us out only once during the entire trip (I was so dysphasic here that I thought we were at a buffet and served myself from the restaurant's kitchen - I was the laughing stock of the whole bus). This almost unbroken driving effort was despite having to navigate the dodgy unsealed four wheel drive track calling itself the 'Trans Sumatran Highway'. Finally, what clinched it that I was going the wrong way was when the supposedly 17 hour epic bus ride turned into a 30 hour mind-mangler.

I ended up in the city of Medan on the east coast. Just before I alighted, the bus driver revealed knowing all along my intention to go to Lake Toba by telling me I should get off here and catch a bus heading hundreds of kilometres in the opposite direction. This was clearly not a very efficient way of getting to Lake Toba, but it had allowed me to hand over RPs 140,000 to that bus company.

To top it all off I left one of my sandals on the bus. Did I then find it in my pack after I'd thrown out the other one? No. The universe is not that cruel, merely indifferent. Heartless bastard.

Standing in Medan, Sumatra's largest city, I quickly decided to cut my losses and immediately go to Malaysia - I can check out Lake Toba along with Aceh on the next trip. I took the first bus to the city, then the first bus to the ferry terminal, slept in another expensive windowless mosquito den and stormed out of the country the next morning. I left behind the beautiful Sumatran wilderness, my celebrity status as a white guy and two unused flights from Medan.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Gunung Kerinci

After a few days I left Bengkulu with its deserted and extremely rippy beaches behind. I jumped on a bus heading up the coast and stopped at a couple of little seaside towns along the way. One of these, Ipuh, had a great beach at the mouth of a river. The whole place was strewn with tree trunks and debris, presumably from one of the recent tsunamis, and at high tide these would wash back and forth in the surf. For some reason along this long coastal stretch I kept getting asked where my bike was. Sure, it was welcome respite from the usual question, "Where is your wife?" accompanied by expectant peeks around the nearest corner, but damn it, it was a good question. Apparently the only tourists that came that way were cycle tourists - everyone gave me pitying looks like I was soft when I got on a bus.

Buses are definitely inferior to trains - I've always been a little suspicious of these non-rail traveling things: will they turn up? Will they go where they say they'll go? With how many chickens will I be sharing my seat? The bus from another beach town, Mukomuko, into the Kerinci Valley confirmed these suspicions by forcing me to wait seven hours for it to turn up, finally delivering me to Sungai Penuh near midnight. But when it did it rewarded me with interesting company, semi-shelter from the rain, crazy music (a monotonic monologist with violin accompaniment) and spectacular night views of the valley towns. I've been avoiding travel by night so far in order to fully appreciate the distances I'm covering - I don't want to just teleport between discontinuous points, I want to understand the true scale of the world (reconnaissance for future conquest you see).

Getting up early in the morning (and skipping breakfast - a bad move) I took another bus to the small town of Kesik Tua where I looked into hiring a guide for climbing Sumatra's highest mountain, and Indonesia's highest volcano, the 3805m Gunung Kerinci - I decided to go for that one in retribution for failing to climb Java's Gunung Semeru (Semerooo!!!). When the guide finally named his price of 1,500,000 Rupiahs for the two day trek - five times what I was willing to pay - I told him to get stuffed, hired a tent, bought some bread, biscuits and water, dumped my unread books at a homestay and marched up the side of the volcano on my own.

The walk to the campsite at 3060m (Kesik Tua is at 1800m, so don't get too excited) was fairly harrowing as mountain scrambles through thick rainforest go. I think I encountered the entire animal kingdom on my way up: snakes, leaches, some interesting spiders, giant centipedes, a variety of stinging insects and even a few orangutans swinging next to me with ostentatious ease.

It rained pretty much the whole time, turning the well-worn track into a cascading creek - luckily the actual path was largely irrelevant as I had to clamber up between tree roots and branches to make any progress. When I finally got to the campsite at the deeply uncivilised time of 3pm I found it was deserted like the rest of the trek (the guide at the bottom did say no one had climbed Kerinci for a while). Looking forward to a rest and some dryness I set up my tent - only to discover that it had no fly! Possibly the homestay divided the tent meiotically to double the revenue.

The rest of the afternoon and evening I spent dodging the increasingly frequent drops from the roof, trying to consume the dry bread and biscuits for dinner and reading Moby Dick in my drenched sleeping bag - it was a race against time as the splotches rendered each page successively illegible (I was particularly careful about the pages on the right).

Moby Dick is awesome by the way. Every now and then I come across a book like this that makes me see real life as a mere distraction from the storyline of the reading matter (and those biological necessities like eating and sleeping - what's the deal with those?). I totally identify with Ahab's monomania - at the end of the book (spoiler alert!) I was thinking, "Yeah yeah everyone's dead big deal... But hath the White Whale been slain?? That's the real question!".

Eventually I constructed a sort of tent brace out of water bottles that shed the rain a little better and got me a few hours of cold damp sleep and I drifting off to the creepy sounds of the jungle outside. Unexpectedly, when I woke up in the night a few times, I distinctly heard the sound of a woman singing at the campsite across from mine. There must be a later group also summitting the volcano in the morning, I assumed.

I got up at 4am to climb to the peak - and found that the other campsite was not only unoccupied but clearly had not been occupied all night. Had the orangutans managed to mimic human singing or had I gone crazy with the isolation during the night? Probably the latter.

Scrambling through thick overgrown rainforest on your own in the rain during the night in a foreign country is as spooky as it sounds. I kept expecting to get bitten by something or slapped by an orangutan (they do that I hear) or incinerated by a volcanic eruption or something. I was pretty thankful that I did not also have to contend with triffids, raptors or Japanese snipers. Luckily the views were spectacular enough to keep my mind off it most of the time, and eventually at sunrise I got some proper vision. I exhaustedly scrambled up the steep and loose rocks to the summit after dawn where the views of the Kerinci Valley (source of 40% of the world's Cinnamon I'm told - think about that), and the western coast of Sumatra spectacularified me - as did the 600m vertical drop into the sulfur spewing caldera below which I carefully avoided (see Mum: 'carefully avoided'). The descent felt like a disproportionately long way down - damn it, why can't I get all that potential energy back for free!?

At last I arrived back in the extremely scenic valley below Kerinci - the Shangri-La of Sumatra. I spent the rest of the day horizontally in my homestay room, nursing hot bakso soup and looking out of the panoramic first floor windows at the mountain down from which I'd just trekked, enshrouded in rain and fog, hoping the entire contents of my pack would dry at least a little (including the new toilet paper I'd recently acquired - Aghh!!) before I took the bus to Padang for some good old fashioned disaster tourism.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Tourist Attraction

You know, I've come to realise that my main interest in the world is transport - getting places. Whether it's by bike, train, dirigible airship, space elevator or solar sail, transport's where it's at (except for cars - they seem to have been invented by someone who thought that getting from one place to another should be as boring an experience as possible - they displace more interesting modes of transport like a weed). In this way, the actual travel for me is an end in itself - the destination is neither here nor there.

A great part about traveling by train in Sumatra (one of the more enlightened methods of moving around) is the buskers. Some of them are pretty shocking, but there are some crazy bands out there. One girl brought an amplifier with a microphone through the carriage singing techno songs with a reverb (very loudly). A really large band had a complete drum kit, carefully modified to be portable along the narrow passageway, two guitarists and vocals, replicating western rock classics to an astonishing degree of accuracy, despite being stretched over about 50 metres. But the best one was a solo busker with a guitar singing Indonesia's Most Annoying Pop Song, but somehow transposed into a minor key so it sounded like a dirge to Sumatra's economic plight. The entire carriage joined in the singing bringing me almost to tears.

When most people think of Sumatra, if they do at all, they probably think of jungle, encroaching palm oil plantations and burning orangutans. However, despite having one tenth the population density of Java, Sumatra actually has about the same number of people as the UK - although spread over double the area. That means there are a surprising number of vast sprawling metropolises that you've probably never heard of. Palembang is one of these.

I stopped here after spending the last few days feeling like I was walking on hot coals - the hotels at each city I got to were even more outrageously expensive than the previous city, forcing me to spend only one night at each and wishing I'd had a break at the previous stop (the hotels are all set up for rich businessmen - a cheap hotel here is your family). My hotel at Palembang was both the worst and the second most expensive on my trip so far - I reckon it was designed by the same guys who did the solitary confinement ward at Pentridge.

This city is sprawled out along the banks of a few rivers, with a lot of wooden houses suspended on stilts above the water and connected by narrow causeways. I spent the day first wandering around looking for a cheaper or better hotel until I gave up, then spending ages looking for an old Dutch fort - I gave up on that too. Finally I tried to find my way back home and it took me four hours. This place really is like a labyrinth.

I'm a big deal here. Everywhere I go people crowd behind me, talk to me and hoist their children on their shoulders and point at me like I was some kind of rare astronomical phenomenon. Now I know what you're thinking - finally a place that finds me as remarkable as I find myself. And yes, I do derive some satisfaction from being The Only Thing Happening In Town, but after so many "Hello mister my name is!" calls it does get pretty tedious. Some people - and not just kids, at one time a whole police patrol - run desperately up to me as though the future of their English Language education depended on it. But really, most just want to have something to do with me. If I ever run for World President, I know where to campaign first. In fact, even when I was on the train from Palembang to Libuk Linggau several people came up to me to tell me that they'd seen or heard of me wandering the streets the day before, and Palembang is a city of 1.5 million people.

Those bandits waiting in their trees must be getting pretty hungry by now, I haven't seen a single other tourist or English speaker since I got to this island (one near exception is a civil engineer with whom I bonded in Libuk Linggau - he introduced me to his young family and we exchanged lessons in our respective languages over a thunderstorm). As a consequence of the dearth of westerners I've noticed that it's been almost two weeks since I've had any form of alcoholic beverage. I reckon I could sustain this indefinitely if it wasn't for the bitter taste of a thick black stout, which I miss dearly.

It's also occurred to me that a disproportionate mass of my reading material is about the collapse of civilisation: various books from or about Ancient Rome, "Collapse" by Jarrod Diamond, "The Day of the Triffids" by John Windham and err... "Persuasion" by Jane Austin. This is aptly reflected by my travel from Melbourne, to Bali and Java, then Sumatra. Infrastructure engulfed by wilderness. Neither does it help that my guide book says of many of the towns I visit "Few tourists get this far", insidiously suggesting that all those Europeans traveling south east through Eurasia (for whom my guide book is clearly written) usually get themselves killed off somewhere in Sumatra.

Similarly, I've found that I'm at the stage where I'm having a hard time replacing various items that have worn out or been depleted. All my water-tight snap-lock bags now have holes in them, I've run out of books written in the last ten years and the supply of songs on my ipod that haven't become irritating is quickly diminishing to zero.

But one thing has been harder to source here than I would have thought. About four days ago I dropped my only roll of toilet paper in the mandi (a large cube of water found in bathrooms the exact purpose for which remains a mystery). I quickly salvaged about 15 squares by drying them out, but I've only got a few squares left before I'm forced to resort to the old scoop'n'wash or whatever one does (I can see my parents hanging their heads in shame at my reluctance to adopt this so far). It does not help that my epic quest for a source of dietary fibre has so far proved fruitless.

I'm chilling out in Bengkulu now, a seaside town on the south-west coast. I'm staying in an old Dutch villa where I go to sleep each night listening to the rats crawl around inside the walls and ceiling and the mosquitoes hover just outside my net - waiting. In the day I've been going to beach, reading a lot, failing a geohash by getting the day wrong (hard to keep track of these things you know) and battling my way through hoards of Sumatran groupies.

Till next time!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

To Sumatra!

I spent the next couple of days in Yogyakarta recovering from the all-night hike conquering Merapi (and the excessive partying), sleeping for 14 hours in one day. 'Conquering' Merapi. It kind of sounds a bit exaggerated to me. Really if you wanted to demonstrate hegemony over a mountain you should have to completely dismantle it into its component energy and then reconstitute it exactly as it was except one metre to the left - using only a particle accelerator hooked up to an exercise bike. Or if you really wanted a challenge you could undo every joule and second of the universe and then restart it from the beginning under the same initial conditions that allowed the mountain to exist in the first place, this time using nothing but a bench press and an electric toaster. Anyway, we went up and down the outside of it.

After I'd regained my former energies I jumped on the train and headed for 'Java's Premier Beach Resort' of Pangandaran. Trains are by far the best way of getting around over here. I spent my time on this one listening to my favourite train-riding songs on my ipod, like MIA's 'Paper Planes' and Ben Folds Five's 'Jesusland' (or 'Mohammadland' as I translate it here - quietly), while hanging out the door high-fiving the banana leaves as they shot past. This train kept the same grade as it spanned seemingly unspannable valleys and punched tunnels through kilometres of rock.

Soon I arrived at the beach town which had the misfortune to suffer from a terrorist attack in 2006, then, just as it was recovering from that, was hit by a tsunami in the same year. Hardly any of the hotels were very occupied, all offering unreasonably large discounts and many of the town's structures lacked habitation on their lower floors. Still it had a good, if post-apocalyptic, feel to it. I hired a bike and rode around the various beaches and the national park, and went snorkeling and things. It even had a huge 1950's sci-fi section at the bookshop that made me so giddy with excitement it undermined my negotiating position.

I then took myself off to Java's second biggest city of Bandung where the rainy season had hit hard. I spent a lot of time sitting under a piece of corrugated iron on a rooftop garden eating mangoes. But the real reason I went there was because I noticed that there was a partly accessible geohash there that day which I spent an afternoon chasing after on a motorbike (and getting stopped by the cops for riding the wrong way down a one-way street).

Now, a lot of people are asking me how I'm going with this traveling thing. The answer is that I'm pretty happy, but I often worry that I'm not traveling at my maximum efficiency. Either I'm not enduring the greatest number of tourist attractions per second that I could be, or I'm not fathoming the deepest recesses of the local culture that I can get away with without incurring a Fatwa, or - and this is the worst one - that the intensity of my relaxation is not extreme enough.

So in the view to give myself a bit more time I tried to get my visa for Indonesia extended. Kindly, my hotel provided me with a free car and driver for help in the negotiations (also having an eye to extend my stay at the hotel, no doubt), but as I waltzed up to the counter of the Immigration Department they stared at my passport and burst into laughter. Now I realise the true nature of the visa I had got from the Indonesian consulate in Melbourne, which caused the Airport Dramas in Episode One. There was a texta line struck through the visa, and on the opposite page there was a faint stamp with the date from which the visa was valid and the words '60 Days' written in pen inside it. I must have seen that subconsciously when I thought everything was okay, and the Virgin check-in staff clearly missed it, seeing only the date 30/11/2009 and getting me to buy a whole new, and unnecessary, flight. I've now sent an email to Erin, the check-in chick, explaining the error. And worst of all I now have to abandon my withering opinions of Indonesian Bureaucracy and unlearn all my lessons about paying attention to what's going on.

And so I decided to celebrate by seeing that movie '2012' - both one of the stupidest and most awesome movies I've seen. It had buildings crashing into other buildings, elevated freeway spans tumbling from their piers and pyroclastic flows - so something for everyone. The best part was when the audience screamed 'Tsunami!' when that phenomenon appeared on screen.

The rest of my time in Bandung I spent hanging out with the Indonesian head of Microfinancing, my hotel's funky manager, two independently traveling Dutch girls and two Icelandic girls (with whom I visited yet another bubbling volcano and hot spring, old hat for the Icelanders). My final night I spent in the same manner as that of Yogya - beating a Dutch psychologist in a game of pool.

My final stop before Sumatra was Jakarta - a not very impressive city in which my main activity was discovering the true extent of my sunk-cost obsession: after two hours waiting for my suburban train to travel the single stop to my home station I could hardly give up and take the express buses continuously following the same route - damn it, then all that time would be wasted!

I leave you on the doorstep of Sumatra. I've heard a lot of tales from other travelers warning me of bandits dropping from overhanging trees with machetes, slicing up tourists limb from limb to get at the gooey money inside, "And that's if you can out-run the tsunamis", so I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nightlives in Surabaya and Yogyakarta: A Comparative Study

I've noticed something about traveling around by public transport. It's almost as if, in any given landmass, there are two landscapes. The first landscape is the normal topography, with valleys and mountains and plains, while the second is an abstract landscape representing how easy it is to get to places.

In this way, big cities and tourist attractions are at the bottom of troughs or hollows, and the tiny villages and uninhabited places are at the tops of ridges or mountains. If you happen to be standing at 'high altitude' in this landscape it can be very easy to get to somewhere of 'low altitude' - almost like rolling downhill.

This was my experience in getting to Surabaya from Ranu Pani. I was taken down to Tumpang by motor bike over a narrow paved road along a spur, passing steep sides, jungle and amazing views of paddy field valleys and small towns. At Tumpang, I walked straight into a bemo (a minibus) which took me to the Malang Bus Terminal. Here the buses left every 100 seconds to Surabaya. It all seemed to happen automatically, without really having to think about it.

Surabaya is a hole. I spent an entire day just trying to see some water (in ocean form) and ended up getting stuck in the labyrinthine docking infrastructure, still unsuccessful. I then compensated myself by crawling around inside a decommissioned submarine.

But I was still determined to see the real Surabaya, and what better way to do that than go to a club and drink in a city of strict non-clubbing non-drinking Muslims? Well even that proved difficult, as I spent three hours relentlessly trawling the city looking for activity, pausing only to get a haircut.

The haircut I got turned out to be 'The Dutch Man' judging from the way everyone could pick that I was from Melbourne with uncanny precision before the cut, and then proceeded to assume I was Dutch immediately after. This would have results later on.

Eventually, I stumbled into a place that seemed to be happening. Not having anyone to talk to I sat on my own on a table in the centre of the room, drinking a Bintang and pretending to be fascinated with the live band but really just hoping someone would come and talk to me. After forty minutes of polite nods and nervous smiles I bumped into someone with a small amount of English who then proceeded to introduce me to an expanding group of friends (whose English skills diminished with the inverse square of the acquaintance level). We ended up drinking a Kava/Guinness hybrid and meeting the band between sets. The proprietors were keen to get me dancing and visible like one of those chained monkeys one sees around here as some kind of 'white guy' endorsement of their establishment.

But suddenly, at about 11 o'clock and with the action still ramping up, I was told to leave immediately and whisked into a taxi. Was I committing some horrible social faux-pas of which I was not aware? Was there to be a big drug-deal or corruption scam about to unfold (one of my more aged and enlarged acquaintances said he was the police commissioner)? I'll never know, but it did leave me with a sour taste of the evening that surpassed even the kava's. At least I got a good haircut.

The nightlife in Yogyakarta was very different (like Sirius against Barnard's Star), as I discovered after traveling by train there the next day - and meeting my first Westerners in four days. Here I soon met a 26 year-old Dutch psychologist called Jasper who initiated contact by speaking Dutch to me (that haircut...) and is very similar to me in many respects. The next night we hit the town, visiting a few pubs and bars before stumbling out onto the main street to discover spontaneous parties erupting all over the place, with live musicians roaming around brandishing double basses and gamalan instruments. We soon enlarged our circle of young white tourists (one of whom was armed with stories of living in Antarctica) and decided to hit the seedy and expensive Republic Club. My night would have been a major success were it not for smoking a cigarette for the first time in my long life and throwing up all night from the effects (although it's hard not also to blame the stout and arak-spirit-mixed-with-orange-juice combo).

I ended up staying a week in Yogyakarta, four days more than planned. In that time Jasper and I hired motor-scooters to see the outlying Buddhist and Hindu ruins, met a MacRob girl called Anh visiting from Melbourne whom we quickly inculcated into the group and took geohashing, then further expanded our circle of friends by climbing Indonesia's most active volcano: the 3000 metre Gunung Merapi, again at midnight, with more Dutch, Australian and some Swiss travelers. On the way to the base of that mountain we were worried for our lives after we complained to our driver about his Indo-pop CD - he expressed his displeasure for our poor taste through his driving.

Soon I had to leave my new friends, as the nomadic life of flux dictates. I was off to the ever-suffering beach resort of Pangandaran and the next cool city of Bundang. Keep an eye out for the next exciting post - in which the earlier Airport Dramas conclude with a twist.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Volcano Has Anti-Climax

A failed final volcano attempt. Read on...

In my last blog I left you on the road to Mount Bromo in Java. Things are a little different here: now that I'm out of Bali I'm finally within my planned budget of 3 Rupiah per second (or 120 billion Rupiah per millennium for those that like to think long term) and now well on my way to not running out of money by the time I finish up in this 'world' thing (and go home - not to Felix Heaven, whatever that would look like).

I arrived late in the afternoon at a town called Cemoro Lawang, which was doing its best to imitate a Himalayan village as it's 2500m above sea level. The town is perched on the edge of a mindblowing 10km wide caldera with a smaller active volcano at the centre - Mount Bromo.

At 3am I went on a jeep jaunt to a nearby mountain as well as the rim of Bromo as it squirted suffocating sulfuric clouds at us (I've kept my body clock near Melbourne time to maximise my utilisation of sunlight). Then, just before I was about to catch the bus back down to the plains, I get a message from Dad telling me that Bromo is ho-hum and that Gunung Semeru, the highest mountain of Java at 3700m, is the real deal. Thanks Dad. I certainly couldn't walk away from that one so I packed my bags and descended into the enormous caldera surrounding Mount Bromo for the start of what was supposed to be a three day trek.

This caldera floor is surrounded by 700m cliffs and is covered in a fine volcanic sand, called the 'Sand Sea', that makes the landscape look extremely Martian. It's even strewn with random rocks flung from nearby volcanoes and occasionally the odd whirlwind twists by. Despite the fact that it's over 2km above sea level it's still extremely hot. I spent the next four hours or so clomping through thick sand, watching the two volcanoes erupt on either side of me (the guide book actually has a warning about pyroclastic flows) and wishing I'd been able to offload the 900 page 'Anathem' to a worthy recipient by then.

Eventually, the steep caldera walls revealed a zigzagged path to escape the desolate landscape and ascending it I found myself on a narrow track up one the spurs of Gunung Semeru. After another 10kms or so, getting towards evening, I walked into a tiny village called Panu Rani which was set in a small valley by a lake. Judging from the welcome I got I felt like the first Westerner to set foot here in years. It was pretty difficult to find somewhere to stay as my Indonesian is yet to reach Conversation Grade, but I managed to use sign language and animated body movements to get a bed in some guy's house.

This guy turned out to be the best English speaker in town - a very old trekking doyen. After a delicious homemade dinner from which I was distracted by being covered in a 150mm thick layer of kittens he approached me about my mooted Semeru climb.

"To climb. Gunung Semeru. You must. Take two days. But there is. A requirement." He warned.

"Err, yes?", I asked.

"You must. Get a permit. From the National Parks Office down the road."

So I mosied off down the street, but nothing was open at that time.

"Ah, I couldn't find it", I told him.

"Yes. That. Is because. It is closed." He told me.

"No worries", I said, bypassing my annoyance for the chronology of this discovery, "I'll go there in the morning. Is there anything else I need?"

"Yes. You must. Have three things. 1) You are fit? You are healthy? You are not ill?", He asked.

"Ah, yes, I'm all of those things", I replied.

"2) You have food? You have water? 6 Litres!"

"Yeah, well I'll buy them in the morning from the shop on the corner".

"Good. 3) You cannot climb Gunung Semeru! No Gunung Semeru for you!".

"Huh? Why's that?", I asked, horrified.

"Because Gunung Semeru. Is erupting! My son-in-law. Will take you. By motor-bike to Tempung. In morning. Good night!"

So that was that. No climbing of Semeru. And to top it all off, when I looked at it in the morning it was fine - hardly erupting at all. I reckon the old guy just didn't want me to go - but since he was the only one around with a tent there was nothing I could do. A bit of an anti-climax that one.

Well, I was off to Surabaya - city of industrial scale docking infrastructure - but that's another story...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


In which I visit the peak of Bali's largest volcano - Gunung Agung - and then head to Java.

Well after a couple of days of reading by the pool, contemplating the cosmos (thanks a lot Anathem!), checking out the local waruns and hitting the town with my new Ubud friends - surfer Lindsay and his Finnish workmate Anina - while waiting for a second person to join me on the Gunung Agung hike I finally cracked. I called up a random guide from Lonely Planet and paid for both me and an imaginary friend.

The guide picked me up from Ubud and I stayed with him in his tiny village of Muncan. Here, I went to bed at 7pm after reading a section of Anathem in which one of the main characters is bizarrely killed by a pyroclastic flow - then the guide told me over dinner that some of his village friends had died in a pyroclastic flow from Gunung Agung when he was young - I'm getting pyroclastic flows coming out of my ears!

Luckily this didn't happen on our climb (and nor from any other orifice), which we started at the confusing time of 11 o'clock... PM. This was like the Melbourne Uni Mountaineering Club tradition of Midnight Ascent, but with double the vertical elevation (rising to 3000m) and having to head back down the same day (but minus the formal dinner and keg scolling).

Annoyingly, after about an hour of climbing we came across a different group - he was an Austrian called Franz and he had his own guide too. Neither of us needed to exchange words for us both to know what we were each thinking: rather than both of us having to invent imaginary friends to climb the mountain with us why couldn't we have both imagined each other and bootstrapped our way up automatically? This feeling was compounded by the fact that the path was so easy to follow it was set inside a rut that was at times a metre deep. Plus my guide was so slow he kept on getting puffed out and demanding rest stops (I'm the fittest Westerner he's ever met, he reckons, which sounds like it can't be many).

Just before reaching the top at about 4am, my guide told me we were two hours ahead of schedule and that we'd need to have a break before summitting - it's chilly at the top! But this involved lying on my back on a cold granite slab angled towards a steep gully and I certainly didn't get much sleep out of it - plus I was keen to see my first sight of the Andromeda Galaxy that I figured was just on the other side of the peak.

The summit was pretty awesome - we saw the sun rise over the slightly more impressive Rinjani in Lombok, and the volcano managed not to erupt while we were standing on it. The way down and the rest of the day got pretty blurry though. I ended up staying in Lindsay's spare room in Ubud, the rent for which I paid in beer.

In the next couple of days I worked my way around Bali to Java, stopping briefly in Lovina to seek out the place where I have a vivid memory from when I was two of being chased by geese. I'll never know what revenge I would have exacted on them or their descendants because they evaded detection... for now.

After the ferry ride over to Java my environment changed pretty drastically. For one thing people stopped speaking English and all the Westerners scooted off. Also, people suddenly got very serious about religion with the Call To Alms being frequently loudspeakered over all the towns I passed through. I actually think it's an eerily beautiful sound... except for when they let the local kids in the village sing it one by one out of tune and all the adults tilt their heads and go "Awww, isn't that cute" and I try not to throw up.

Getting to my next destination from Lovina took a bus, a ferry, a train and another bus. I spend most of my time traveling like this lost in the depths of my own brain, often resurrecting old conversations, song lyrics and poems I'd assumed were lost to the ages (it's amazing how much junk there is lying around in there). But every now and then I suddenly stop and think "Hold on - where am I? What's going on? How did I get on this bus?", to which a small voice in my head would reply, "Relax Felix, I prepared a dossier of memories linking you to this moment. Just sit back and let me take care of everything", and I would then return to my own thoughts.

Next up, another couple of volcanoes - I climb Mount Bromo and then make a poorly planned and ultimately failed trek to another one. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cyclo-Volcano Trip

Well, a few things have happened in the last week but rather than tediously going through them one by one I thought I'd just describe one day - yesterday. This day involved losing mosquito repellent and meeting someone from close to home at the top of a volcano.

I awoke late in the morning in the town of Ubud still thoroughly absorbed in the awesome book I'm reading, 'Anathem' by Neal Stevenson (it's similar to Harry Potter but with celestial mechanics instead of magic). So I grabbed it after breakfast with the intention of reading it by the pool for the day. However, just as I did this I noticed a mosquito - this insect would have consequences for me (in a causality-type-way, not a malaria-type-way).

I tried to find my mosquito repellent I had bought at great expense back home, but after a thorough search and extreme annoyance I came to the conclusion that I'd left it at the hotel in Kuta. After getting nothing out of calling the hotel I decided I needed to rent a motor-bike (I'd probably be able to figure out how to ride it if my life depended on it) and ride back to Kuta to get it and so negotiated a reasonable price for one and packed my bag... but there was the repellent! Hiding in my day pack with my suncream! So, still in the mood for an expedition, I swapped the motorbike for a pushbike for a Single Day Cycle Tour (or 'bike ride') and headed off in a random direction (north).

Traveling consistently uphill I passed a few villages, the odd Hindu temple, great views of the volcano Gunung Agung and some amazing rice paddy encarved valleys that stretched down to the sea. I would have taken some photos, but it never occurred to me to bring a camera. Occasionally someone passing me would give me a look that said, "You're weird", so I would give them a look back that said, "I'm weird?! You're the one balancing your whole family and three metres of live chickens on a single motor scooter!", which shut them up.

After riding uphill without knowing where I was going for about three hours I could see that I was getting to the top of something. Suddenly, I realised what I was the top of: the rim of a spectacularly massive volcano. There were several small towns perched at the top of the rim, and a couple even at the bottom of the caldera, narrowly missed by a recent PYROCLASTIC FLOW (keen followers of my life and times will recall that this is my favourite mode of death), which had exploded from a secondary volcano inside the caldera of the first. Getting out my GPS I discovered I'd climbed 1200 vertical metres from Ubud over about 30kms.

Sitting down at a local eatery cantilevered over the rim of this vast volcano I bumped into a blonde-haired guy speaking animated Indonesian to the proprietor. As it turned out, he did an Arts degree at Melbourne Uni, like me, and actually lives about 100m from my old house in Port Melbourne, on Pickle Street (he was working for an NGO in Ubud over here), so we exchanged numbers the better to catch up for beers later.

My hurtle down the mountain (taking a wildly different route) was everything I'd hoped it would be on the way up. I flew around bamboo enshrouded corners and overtook motorbikes as the oval shape of my back wheel caused the bike's vertical oscillations to weave in and out of the resonant frequency of my own body. Going past I watched farmers cut the rice with large sickles (I'd previously assumed they were only used for Communism). Every now and then I'd have to stop at an intersection and yell, "Ubud!" and follow the hand gestures.

Back in Ubud, on the other side of the island to Kintamani, as I later discovered it was called, I tried to arrange through the hotel a guide for a trek the next day up the 3km high Gunung Agung, but found that there was a minimum of two people for the trip (this place is too pro-couples I reckon). So I called up Lindsay, the Melbournian, who couldn't come on the trek but helped me hit the local food and drink scene instead.

After a quick road-side meal Lindsay introduced me to some Ubudian friends of his (who were mainly interested in arranging times for me to teach them English), then we beersed it up at my hotel. Interestingly, more out of momentum than absent-mindedness, we both managed to plant our feet on a step containing a coiled and hostile looking snake going down the hillside stairway to my room.

Lindsay had to work in the morning so I got back into Anathem until late in the night, savouring the fact that I didn't have to get up at 3am for the trek (which was also good because it was pissing down with rain all night).

I'm still waiting indefinitely at the hotel for someone else to go on this trek, but it occurs to me that it's in the hotel's interest to keep me here indefinitely so I'll try to find some way of bypassing them.

Until next time!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Airport Dramas

So rather than sending out all this info to everyone in email format, I thought I'd start up a blog so people can read it if they're interested and get on with their lives if they're looking forward to hearing it over a few beers when I get back (although I will have forgotten everything by then). After all, this is what blogs are supposed to be for aren't they?

Anyway, in this episode I get to the airport only to discover that I do not satisfy my own visa requirements and spend the remaining hour before my flight departs shuttling between the check-in desks and an internet cafe buying a new onward ticket and having it printed for me by the officials upstairs. Luckily I make it on the plane in time with whole minutes to spare.

Okay, so my folks give me a hug and two manly handshakes at the airport to bid me farewell (but quick ones because they were stopped at the 2 minute drop-off area) and I waltzed nonchalantly into the check-in queue for Pacific Blue's Denpasar-bound flight.

Soon I reached the counter and handed over my passport and ticket print-out - but the check-in chick (who I learned later was called Erin) still insisted I present her with my 'itinerary'. Apparently I needed a print-out of my onward flight in order to enter the fine nation of Indonesia to prove that I had plans to leave - despite me already being in possession of a two month visa.

As it happened, I had arranged a $25 flight between Medan and Penang (in Malaysia) for the day before my visa was due to expire on the 20th of December as that was the only way the Indonesian consulate would allow me to get a visa. I just had to print it out.

"There are no printers at any of the internet cafes in the airport" I was told by Erin. "But we still have time for you to email your itinerary to me and I can print it out on my computer upstairs", she offered.

Racing over to the computers I inserted my last Australian dollar and frantically searched for and forwarded on my itinerary from AirAsia in the 10 minute interval allotted to me for my money.

With only an hour by now until my flight I was getting nervous as it took 20 minutes for Erin to return with the print-out (the computers had crashed).

But wait! What's this on your visa?! What is this date 30/11/09 in the corner, far away from the emboldened "Visa valid for 60 days from arrival"? Why is your flight booked for the 20th of December???

Well I hadn't seen that date buried in amongst the small script numbers and Indonesian words at the edges of the visa, and nor was I expecting to find it as I had filled out the form for my visa over a month ago very clearly specifying that I was staying until the 20th of December and even including the mandatory print-out of my flight out on that date - and even called the consulate to confirm that such a visa would be provided.

But no - if I was to enter the country in any capacity other than indefinitely detained illegal immigrant (sorry, Irregular Arrival) then I must have a printed flight itinerary for before the 30th of November... and the plane was due to leave in 40 minutes.

By now tensions were rising and I could feel my cheeks reddening with frustration and the possibility of having to make the call to my folks asking them to pick me up from the airport and let me stay for a few more weeks. We discussed the possibility of buying a $2000 fully refundable Pacific Blue ticket home so I could get in the country and then get the money back. In the end I decided to go back to the internet cafe and try to change my AirAsia flight date.

'Borrowing' $1 from a kind check-in staff member I went online again for another 10 minutes to change the flight - but friggin' oath, I could not remember the password I had invented months ago for that website and I locked myself out of it trying.

Restarting the browser did the trick, but then I had to create a whole new account which I kept stuffing up due to wobbly fingers. Then I had to select a new flight - the 29th of November - and pay for it. Unfortunately, half way through entering my credit card details, a sign popped up informing me that I had 60 seconds left on the terminal.

Typing furiously I finally got the end of payment - but it was still processing as the counter ticked down to 7 seconds left... and I still had to get into my Gmail account and email the itinerary back to Erin... and since I only had 25 minutes until my flight, this was pretty much my only chance!

In desperation and 5 seconds to go I turned to the guy sitting next to me, "Do you have $1? It's pretty urgent", I asked. Amazingly he produced the dollar instantly allowing me to insert it in the slot about three quarters of my way through the final second on the machine before it wiped everything. I waited a couple of minutes for the itinerary to appear in my inbox and then forwarded it onto Erin.

Much quicker this time she appeared from upstairs with the printout, while I was checked in in parallel with another check-in chick (after she had signed the form saying I was legally allowed in the country while hovering around me at the internet cafe in the final minutes). I plonked my luggage not on the conveyor belt as there was not enough time for it to reach the plane but on the trolley with the pilot's luggage (meaning I could have got away with more than 20 kgs if I'd known about this in advance). I was then very briskly escorted past all the queues of customs and metal detection through the secret 'flight attendant route' and straight onto the plane where we took off right on time.

So I guess that's why they say we're supposed to get to the airport 90 minutes before our flight departure.

Anyway, the reason my visa said I had to be out by the 30th of November rather than the 20th of December as I had specified was probably because I later re-read the term, "Visa must be used within 90 days of issue". I had interpreted that as meaning I had 90 days from the 30th August to get into Indonesia ("use" the visa), but no, I had 90 days to use the visa... and then finish using it - ie. the 30 of November. You'd think they'd alert me to this when I was applying for it. And there I was thinking I was being organised by getting it early, when really every day I might have delayed in applying for the visa would mean an extra day in the country.

It kind of reminds me of the time I was installing the Ubuntu operating system and it asked me if I wanted to use "The whole disc". "Of course I want to be able to use the whole disc!", I'd exclaimed. "Why would I want to limit my access to only some of the disc?!" But, inevitably, Ubuntu then went on to wipe my entire 350GB hard drive forcing me to spend the next year slowly accumulating all the movies, music, photos and documents I had lost in the purge. Maybe I need language lessons in English.

Anyway, this whole saga means I miss out on 3 weeks of travel in Indonesia, which rules out my planned trip to Lombok to climb Mt Rinjani, and means I'll have to be pretty swift in my travels through Java and Sumatra, rather than taking it easy as I would have hoped. There's no way of extending my visa.

So yeah, pretty long description - they won't all by like this. And a post pretty soon after I arrived. I just wanted to share this tale with you while it was still fresh in my mind.

I'm staying in Kuta, Bali now. I've got a nice room and the hotel has a pool. Things are pretty normal here really, I don't feel overwhelmed, freaked out or even that things are other than they should be and always have been. I guess Bali is not really the place for culture shock or the realisation of being on my own. I'll let you know how I go in Java.

Not sure what I'll do today. Might just wander around for a bit and read a book.