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.


  1. That. Submarine. Sounds. COOL.

  2. I feel it only fair that you post a photo of this said 'Dutch Man' do, so that all may profit from the knowledge :)