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.