Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Goodbye, Indonesia

Day 143: Jakarta, Java, Indonesia
I splurged on an executive overnight train to Jakarta. It was $24 for the eight-hour trip, but it had air-conditioning and reclining seats, a welcome change from the filthy, crowded public buses I had been using. I wasn't able to sleep thanks to the man across the aisle from me who was talking loudly to his friend for almost three hours. I've never heard someone talk so fast for so long. The voices in the carriage grew quiet around one o'clock in the morning, but the offensive fluorescent lighting never dimmed, and the sliding door to the coach banged open and shut all night as the train rocked. At one point our train stopped mysteriously for half an hour with no one boarding or exiting. It turned out we were waiting for a train heading in the opposite direction to pass. Travel in Indonesia can be painfully slow sometimes.

Skyline of Jakarta at night, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Skyline of Jakarta at night, Java, Indonesia
The train arrived at the station in central Jakarta at the absurd hour of 5 a.m. – and it was an hour late. I had contacted a guy named Anton through CouchSurfing and was planning on staying with him in Jakarta. He was nice enough to pick me up from the train station, even though it turned out he couldn't host me. He also helped me out by calling BCA, the bank whose ATM ate my card, to ask how I could retrieve it. It wasn't good news: BCA's policy is to destroy non-BCA bank cards that are eaten by their ATMs, even if I could show that my passport matched my name on the card. BCA was a dead end, so we grabbed breakfast, and then Anton dropped me off at a cheap guest house in the backpacker area before he went to work.

As a last resort, I visited the U.S. embassy to see if they could do anything to convince BCA Bank not to destroy my card. The embassy was a nightmare of security, and given Jakarta's history of terrorist bombings, I'm not surprised. Even as an American citizen, I was not even allowed in the gate without a scheduled appointment, which could only be made during a two-hour window in the afternoons. It was futile to explain to the guard that I could not possibly have made an appointment, as the incident had occurred only the day before. I tried to explain that my Indonesian visa expired the next day, and that I was flying to Singapore, but he would make no accommodation to allow me to ask someone if the embassy could even help. It probably couldn't anyway – I suppose they have more important things to worry about. At least I knew the score; my card was irretrievably lost. So now my only option is to have a new card sent to me whenever I stop for more than a few days somewhere. It's hard to receive mail when you're constantly on the move. I'm lucky that I have my other bank card.

Canal, Jakarta, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Canal in Jakarta, Java, Indonesia
Even though I hadn't slept on the train, there was no point in wasting the day napping, so with the bank card issue at a halt for now, I mustered my energy and set out to explore the city. An estimated 22 million people live in the urban agglomeration, making Jakarta the second most populous city in the world. With forests of skyscrapers, sprawling shopping malls, and epic traffic clogging the highways, Jakarta looks like some super-L.A. Beneath the surface of gleam and polish, ugly poverty grips the city. Slums sprawl along sewage-filled canals, saturated with the stench of decaying garbage. The contrast between modern boulevards and crumbling, Third World alleyways is glaring.

In the Menteng subdistrict, I visited the school attended by Barack Obama when he lived in Jakarta in the 1960s; a statue of him as a boy sits in the courtyard. I also visited the Istaqlal Mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia, and Merdeka Square, which boasts the 422-foot-tall National Monument at its center. In the evening, I met back up with Anton and a couple of German backpackers, and we went to a rooftop restaurant for dinner. The view of Jakarta at sunset was breathtaking.

Old City Hall, Jakarta, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Old City Hall, Jakarta, Java, Indonesia
This morning, I visited Jakarta's Old Town, Kota, which contains the vestiges of the Dutch colonial capital of Batavia, founded in the early 1600s. The former city hall, built in 1710, served as the administrative headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, which controlled the region at the time. The Dutch-style canals that were built in Batavia are today not much more than rivers of sewage flanked by dilapidated colonial buildings. I enjoyed a cup of coffee in the lonely Café Batavia on the main square of Taman Fatahillah, and then proceeded to find an ojek (motorbike taxi) back to my guest house. It was a surprisingly time-consuming task to find one; when I'm not looking for transport, I'm endlessly bombarded by offers, but when I actually want to go somewhere, there are no taxis in sight. Once I finally found a motorbike, the driver navigated through the dense Jakarta traffic, stopping often to ask directions. Ojek, becak, and taxi drivers never seem to know where anything is in their own city, even if you are asking to go to the central tourist hotel district. Of course, they don't acknowledge that they don't know where your destination is until you're already on the vehicle.

I was soon back at my hotel, having explored Jakarta as thoroughly as can be done in two days. After spending the past month in Indonesia (the longest I've spent in any country so far on this trip), I am leaving for the airport and will be in glitzy Singapore in just four hours.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ancient Temples / Civet Coffee

Day 141: Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia
Buddha statue at Borobudur Temple, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Buddha statue at Borobudur Temple, Java, Indonesia
Friday afternoon, I took a train to Yogyakarta. A 14-year-old boy across from me blew smoke in my face from his cigarette, and there was no air-conditioning, but for only a dollar I wasn't complaining. I walked to the backpacker area in Yogyakarta from the train station and booked a closet-sized room in a losmen (guest house). Like most places in Asia, I had to remove my shoes at the door, but I found it a bit hypocritical that motorbikes were rolled inside each evening and parked in the middle of the tiled common area.

I booked a tour for the next day to Borobudur and Prambanan, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. The minibus left Yogyakarta at five o'clock in the morning and arrived at Borobudur at six o'clock, just when the gates were opened. Although Borobudur is the most visited attraction in Indonesia and one of the most famous temples in Southeast Asia, arriving just after sunrise assured that the place was pretty desolate. The lack of tourists, coupled with the thick morning fog, lent a meditative and mysterious atmosphere to the place. I explored the many stairways and levels of the temple, admiring the lush, misty countryside that stretched in all directions.

Borobudur Temple, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Morning fog shrouds the Borobudur Temple near Yogyakarta in Java, Indonesia.

The massive structure – 400 feet on each side – was built in the ninth century and was only rediscovered in the early nineteenth century by the British, who governed Java at the time. These first Europeans to glimpse Borobudur found it crumbling under jungle vegetation and centuries of volcanic ash. Standing near the summit of the temple, shrouded in fog, I could almost imagine this place as a lost temple. As the sun rose in the sky and the fog lifted, busloads of Indonesian children arrived in school groups, and the temple was soon crawling with tourists. By eight o'clock, the temperature and humidity had soared, and Borobudur quickly became just another hot and overcrowded tourist attraction typical of Southeast Asia. I feel fortunate to have experienced the rare magic of the temple at sunrise.

On the way to Prambanan, on the other side of Yogyakarta, we stopped at the relatively small Mendut Temple, also built in the ninth century. It was another hour to Prambanan, a Hindu temple compound built around the same time as Borobudur and Mendut. It was in use for less than 100 years before it too was abandoned. The compound contains well over 200 temples, but most of them are just piles of rubble, having been ravaged by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and looters over the centuries. The inner complex contains eight main towering temples, featuring statues of Hindu deities and ornately carved reliefs telling the story of the Ramayana. While impressive in scale, Prambanan lacked the enchanting atmosphere of the imposing Borobudur. Next time, maybe I should visit in the early morning when there aren't so many tourists.

Mendut Temple, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Mendut Temple, Java, Indonesia
Prambanan Temple, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Prambanan Temple, Java, Indonesia

I spent the next two days exploring the city of Yogyakarta. On Sunday evening, I walked along the main street, Jalan Malioboro. An endless chain of stalls sold t-shirts, sandals, and souvenirs, and I had to wade through a slow-moving river of people. Motorbikes were parked six abreast on the sidewalk, and hundreds of people walked in the street. If the person in front of me stopped to look at a stall, I had to wait until they moved along – there was no space to bypass them. Today I visited the Kraton, the palace of the sultan of Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta is a specialized province of Indonesia that still functions as a monarchy, as it has since precolonial times. The sultan serves as the provincial governor, but he is unique from other governors in Indonesia in that he is not held to a term limit. The Kraton is only open at limited times of the day because it is actually a functioning royal palace.

Yogyakarta has also been a good place to try some unusual Javanese food. For dinner on Sunday, I ate cobra prepared in a spicy tongseng style. It tasted similar to alligator with hints of calamari (although less rubbery). The meat had been sliced from the snake in such a way that the pieces naturally assumed a rolled form, approximating a tube-like shape. I also tried kopi luwak, or civet coffee. Because of its unusual production process, this is allegedly the rarest and most expensive variety of coffee in the world. A weasel-like creature called the Asian palm civet, which lives in Sumatra, Java, and other areas of Indonesia, eats the ripest coffee cherries. The fruit is digested, but the civet excretes the beans, which are collected from the dung, washed, dried, and roasted. Enzymes in the civet's digestive system are infused into the beans, resulting in a much less bitter coffee with subtle, unique flavors. I'm no coffee connoisseur, but I could tell a difference between kopi luwak and all other coffees I've tried. I usually put a lot of cream and sugar in my coffee, but I drank the kopi luwak black, and it was not bitter at all. It was definitely the best coffee I've ever had, and at only $10 for two cups, a bargain. As one of the rarest coffees in the world, kopi luwak sells for as much as $600 per pound elsewhere in the world.

On the way back to my losmen, I decided to withdraw a bit of cash from an ATM. I wasn't desperate, but it would be my last chance to get cash until Jakarta. It was one of those split-second decisions that drastically alters future events. After I received my cash, my card didn't eject far enough from the slot. I could see the card refracted through the curved plastic slot cover, but the edge of the card was just barely inside. The ATM beeped persistently and mockingly, telling me to take my card. It was tantalizingly close; if I had a pair of tweezers, I could have grabbed the edge of the card. And then, the inevitable happened: the machine sucked my card deep into the abyss of its dark, impenetrable guts. The ATM version of the "blue screen of death" appeared, indicating in both Bahasa Indonesia and English that the machine was out of order. All hope was lost.

A man behind me in line gave me a ride on his motorbike to the nearest bank branch to see if there might be a maintenance person around. Apparently, banks here close at 3 p.m., and it was ten after. More bad luck. But I did meet an incredibly helpful English-speaking guy who advised me that I would probably not be able to get my card back in Yogyakarta even during bank hours. I was better off continuing with my plans and taking the overnight train to Jakarta. It is bank protocol to send lost cards to the main bank, so if I could retrieve my card at all, it would have to be done in Jakarta anyway. He also suggested I report the incident to the U.S. embassy to see if they might be able to help.

It is quite a predicament, and I don't have much time to resolve this issue. My Indonesian visa expires in two days, and I've already booked a flight to Singapore. I really don't want to go through the trouble of extending my visa and delaying my flight just for a lost card. In fact, this is the second flight I've booked to Singapore. I canceled the first one after I realized I needed much more time to see everything I wanted to see in Indonesia. To miss one flight is bad enough; to miss two would be ridiculous. Will I ever make it to Singapore?

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Spirit of Java

Day 138: Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia
After so much hassle in Surabaya, I just took a taxi to the long-distance bus terminal south of the city. For $3, I booked a bus (with working air-conditioning!) to Solo, also known as Surakarta. Like all public Indonesian buses, vendors boarded at every stop. Snacks, perfume, books, bracelets, switchblade knives – all sorts of random trinkets were thrown into the laps of the passengers as the vendors strolled down the aisle. Now familiar with this sales routine, I surrendered to the goods piling up in my lap, handing each back to its respective vendor when he made his second round down the aisle to collect payment. A large man sat next to me, digging his entire weight into my side. I wiggled my way into a more comfortable position, turning at an angle to prevent my shoulder from crushing into the window. He seemed to spread out even more and I became cramped into a very awkward position for quite a long time. Another man across the aisle threw peanut shells onto the floor as if the bus was a bar.

When I arrived in Solo, I took a cycle rickshaw into town. Like most drivers here, mine didn't seem to know the way, and we ended up in a narrow alley where uniformed school children swarmed the rickshaw. The driver asked them how to get to my destination, and we drove off as the children chased us and demanded money from me. I settled into my simple $5 room and then walked out to explore the main street. It was lined with appliance stores, banks, a handful of western hotels, and even an indoor soccer court. Like Surabaya, Solo did not seem very popular with Western tourists despite its rather zealous tourism campaign. The city's tourism slogan – "Solo: the spirit of Java" – appeared everywhere, but the campaign seemed geared towards Indonesian tourists and not foreigners. Nevertheless, it was a much more pleasant place than Surabaya. In the evening, I strolled past a string of street food vendors in an area known as Galabo. I decided to brave it and try a dish from one of the stalls. I picked a dish called nasi liwat, but it had many different varieties listed only in Bahasa Indonesia. The vendor indicated that they referred to different parts of the chicken by motioning to a large bucket of pre-cooked meat. She pulled out various chicken parts and knew the English words for most of them. "Head? Heart? Foot? Wing?" I asked for a wing. I sat at one of the plastic tables set up along the street, and my meal arrived within two minutes. Rice with coconut milk was wrapped in a banana leaf with the chicken wing, which was cold and contained very little meat. The meal was only 90 cents, but it was not filling enough, so I went to an attractive Italian restaurant down the street. I usually try to stick to local cuisine, but I needed a break from fried rice and noodles. But Western food comes at a premium in Indonesia – my spicy penne arrabiata was over $4.

Wayang Orang performance, Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Wayang Orang performance in Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia
After dinner, I strolled down the road to a cheesy amusement park teeming with excited Indonesian kids and their families. There was a theater behind the park, and I bought a ticket to a wayang orang masked dance drama. It was not intended for foreigners – no English information about the performance was available – but it was therefore an authentic experience. As a local event, I paid the local price of only 30 cents for the two-hour performance. When I gave my ticket to the man at the door, he excitedly motioned for me to sign the guest register. Over the past month, only a handful of foreigners had listed their names. The performance was beautifully accented by a gamelan orchestra, and the elaborate costumes were captivating.

This morning, I booked a tour to two temples in the mountains around Solo. As I am traveling by myself, I could not book a car or minivan, which required a minimum of two people. I went on motorbike instead. My driver picked my up at my hotel, and we sped out of the city. Half an hour into our journey, we encountered a police roadblock. They were checking vehicle registrations, and unfortunately my driver's registration was expired. I had to wait for an hour for someone from the tour company to bring another bike. As time passed, the crowd of waiting motorists grew. Apparently, very few people actually had properly registered vehicles. We switched motorbikes and were finally on our way to the first temple, Candi Sukuh. This fifteenth-century Hindu temple is nestled picturesquely on the slopes of Mount Lawu and features a pyramidal central monument that would not look out of place in Mexico or Central America.

Sukuh Temple on Mount Lawu near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Sukuh Temple on Mount Lawu near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia

Mountain village at Cetho Temple near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Mountain village at Cetho Temple near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia
We rode along pitted, serpentine roads to Candi Cetho, another fifteenth-century Hindu temple that atmospherically cascades down a mist-shrouded volcanic slope. During our visit, the fog grew thicker until the ancient stone gateways of the temple framed only a nebulous, milky whiteness. I held on tightly to the back handle of the motorbike as we descended the vertigo-inducing road back to Solo, bouncing through potholes and cracked pavement the entire way. We stopped for lunch at a plain roadside restaurant in Karangpandan. I ordered a regional specialty called nasi gudeg, consisting of rice, young jackfruit boiled in coconut milk, chicken, beef, and a blackish-brown hard-boiled egg. At 75 cents, it was the cheapest meal I've eaten yet. It was another hour back to Solo, where I had a little time to relax before heading to Yogyakarta by train.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Chaotic Surabaya

Day 137: Surabaya, Java, Indonesia
After watching the enchanting sunrise over Mount Bromo yesterday morning, I headed back to the village of Cemoro Lawang, where I hopped on a minibus back to Probolinggo. At the main bus terminal, I bought a ticket to Surabaya from a man in the tourist ticket office. After buying my ticket, I sat on a bench outside to snack on some banana chips I had just purchased, and the man from the ticket office walked by and asked if he could have some. "Sure," I replied. He reached his grubby fingers in the bag and brazenly pulled out not one or two chips, but a huge handful that amounted to half of what was in the bag. It looked like he was on one of those game shows where contestants have to grab as much cash as they can while a fan blows it around inside a glass booth. I don't mind sharing, but come on!

It was only $1.50 more for the air-conditioned express bus to Surabaya, so I splurged. It turned out that the weak air-conditioning was less effective than the open windows of a normal bus, but at least the express bus made it to Surabaya in two hours instead of four. I was in a seat next to the aisle, which was fortunate considering there was so little leg room that I needed to sit askew with one leg protruding into the aisle. Even in this position, my knees still poked quite far into the plasticy covering of the seat back in front of me, causing my knees to sweat so badly I had a rash by the time we arrived in Surabaya. I tried to ignore the cramped, sweaty conditions of the bus by enjoying some snacks, but I soon finished what was left of my banana chips and moved on to some fluffy cookies that turned out to have the taste and texture of insulation rolled in dry flour.

At every stop, "musicians" with home-made metal guitars boarded the bus and sang appallingly out-of-tune songs, expecting to receive tips afterward. These performances were not like the pleasantly atmospheric accordion music of the Paris Metro. They were ear-splitting songs that lasted so excruciatingly long I felt like I was going to have a nervous breakdown and start screaming. One musician actually sat on me, putting his entire weight on my shoulder as he shrieked out his obnoxious noise directly next to my ear drum. Turning my iPod to its maximum volume didn't even begin to drown out the horrendous tune. These men were not musicians by any stretch of the imagination – they were simply trying to eke out a living any way they could. Nevertheless, when that little collection cup was shoved in front of my face, I felt like taking coins out of it for having to put up with the never-ending racket.

In addition to the annoying musicians, snack vendors also boarded the bus at every stop, walking down the aisle and throwing snacks in the passengers' laps. If you don't want the snack, you have to shove it back in the vendor's face when he walks back down the aisle to collect payment. I quickly realized that the vendors usually didn't throw their merchandise in my lap if I feigned sleep.

After two hours, the bus drove up an on-ramp onto a proper divided highway, the first one I've seen in Indonesia. Soon, we arrived at Surabaya's main bus terminal, which unfortunately lies quite a distance south of the city. I had to navigate my way to the proper public city bus to continue the rest of my journey. A sprawling, decaying metropolis spread out before us, becoming ever denser as we advanced into the run-down heart of the city. As the second largest city in the fourth most populous nation in the world, Surabaya is an overwhelming and chaotic patchwork of dilapidated Third World buildings, punctuated by a sprinkling of modern shopping malls and towering Western hotels.

Becak drivers in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Becak drivers in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia

I hopped off the bus near the Chinatown area known as Kya-Kya, the closest thing Surabaya has to a tourist district – not that I saw a single foreigner my entire time in the city. As soon as I stepped off the bus with my large pack, I almost had to duck under a barrage of shouts – "Hello mister! Transport? Where you going?" – coming from a gang of cycle rickshaw drivers waiting like vultures for the rare (and highly lucrative) foreign tourist. Cycle rickshaws are know as becak in Indonesia, and I had little choice but to climb into one: I had only a vague idea where I was in relation to the hotel I was looking for, and I didn't feel like wandering the streets with a heavy pack in the heat of the day. I negotiated a price for what I knew was a short ride, but after five minutes I quickly realized that the becak driver was going in circles. I saw the sign for my hotel ahead, but my driver veered off onto an alley just before the hotel. I yelled at him to stop, but he continued for another twenty minutes in a loop through busy streets before finally listening to my incessant plea to return to the hotel. In many developing countries, taxi and rickshaw drivers often take tourists to places they did not request – a shop that will pay a commission to the driver if the tourist buys something, or a hotel that will pay a commission if the tourist books a room. It sometimes helps to insist on being taken directly to your destination, but drivers often take you to places that pay commission anyway. I'm not sure if this becak driver was attempting such a scam on me, but it definitely took much more time than it should have to reach my hotel. It's not like I could have jumped out of the moving vehicle the first time I saw the hotel sign. To make matters worse, when I handed the agreed-upon payment to the driver, he retracted his hand and refused to take the money. Instead, he requested 10 times the amount! Changing the fee after a ride is yet another common scam in developing countries, but at least I had control over this one – I was already at my destination. I placed the proper payment on the seat of the becak and walked away. Of course, the driver yelled at me to stop, but I continued walking. I turned around as he began to cycle away, and I saw a disappointed but accepting expression on his face – he knew I had paid a fair price.

Man making wooden sandals, Surabaya, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Man making wooden sandals in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia
After checking into my bland (but air-conditioned!) room, I set out to walk around the city. Surabaya, like most all Indonesian cities, has no walkable sidewalks. Where sidewalks do exist, they are monopolized by parked motorbikes or workers unloading merchandise in front of shops. Sidewalk cafés are not the quaint variety found in Europe – they literally hog the entire sidewalk with cracked plastic chairs and tables. There is not even walking space next to the curb. That space seems to be reserved for parked cars or trucks, which often back out of their spaces without warning. All these obstacles force pedestrians to walk in the middle of the busy streets, avoiding traffic on one side and reversing vehicles on the other. Space is so limited on the streets that becak, motorbikes, and trucks drive dangerously close to pedestrians – so close that I was even clipped by a side-view mirror at one point. Crossing a road is an even more daunting task. Crosswalk signals are unheard of, and the lack of traffic lights creates a never-ending stream of cars with no gaps. The only way to cross is to unflinchingly walk into the traffic, holding your hands up as if you have magical superpowers that will stop cars in their tracks. Somehow, it seems to work. It is best to cross in the middle of a road rather than an intersection so you don't have to worry about turning cars. Of course, one-way streets are optimal.

I visited a bustling fish market in Chinatown, where motorbikes squeezed through hordes of people crowding the narrow, crumbling alleyways. It was like any other Third World fish market I have visited, overflowing with the sight of fish both common and bizarre, the sound of vigorous haggling, and of course the unmistakable smell that can be detected from many blocks away. Foreigners must be a rare sight here, as children kept running up to me to give me high-fives (after which they usually asked for money).

Chinatown fish market in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Chinatown fish market in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia

I wandered past the fish market to the Qubah, the city's Arab quarter. The area is packed with bazaars and several mosques, including the dominant Mesjid Ampel. The alley leading up to this mosque is packed with stalls selling all sorts of religious clothing and other wares to the devout Muslims who stroll back and forth to the mosque from the main road. A couple of persistent beggar women followed me through the bazaar for a while, and one of the old women even grabbed my arm, holding on tightly until I shook her off.

Minaret in the Qubah, Surabaya, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Minaret in the Qubah, Surabaya, Java, Indonesia
I had walked quite a distance to the Qubah, so I decided to take a becak back to my hotel. As always, I negotiated the price before I stepped into the vehicle, and unsurprisingly, the driver kept trying to veer off course to take me to some place that would probably pay him a commission for bringing me there. Luckily, I knew the way to my hotel, so every time he tried to deviate, I would say, "Hey, where are you going?" and point in the correct direction. After I caught him for the third time, he surrendered and said, "OK, OK, fine." He didn't try to make any more detours, and we were back at the main road near my hotel in a few minutes. I was not surprised when he tried to pull the common change-of-fare scam that my previous becak driver had attempted earlier this afternoon. I handled the situation in the same manner, placing the proper fare on the seat and walking away. Unfortunately, my tactic didn't work so well this time: the driver hopped off his becak, ran after me, and grabbed my arm. I explained that we had agreed on a certain price at the beginning, and that he can't change the fare – not to mention that he kept trying to take me on a detour. He didn't (or acted like he didn't) understand what I was saying. The argument was going nowhere, and every time I tried to walk away, he grabbed my arm tightly or blocked my path. He began to raise his voice and his eyes even teared up, but I refused to give in to this elaborate act designed to guilt me into being ripped off. Scam artists in developing countries know how to twist your conscience so that you feel like you are stealing if you don't consent to being ripped off. But not paying the driver what he asked is certainly not stealing; it's simply a matter of paying the pre-negotiated price. There is such desperation in developing countries that such scams do not seem wrong to these poverty-stricken people. To them, ripping off comparatively rich Western tourists is an honest way to make an income. Certain poor people may even feel that they are entitled to money from Westerners because there is such a gap in wealth.

As people on the street began to stare at the escalating argument, and I began to feel extremely uncomfortable, an English-speaking Indonesian man finally walked by and intervened. I explained the situation, and the man translated my argument to the driver. The driver tried to argue that I had misunderstood the agreed-upon price, which was a lie, as I had negotiated the fee in Bahasa Indonesia in addition to holding up the corresponding number of fingers. The translator communicated this to the driver, who finally relented. The translator said that I had paid a fair price and was free to go. I quickly crossed the busy road, walking into the middle of four lanes of oncoming traffic and hoping that the vehicles would stop. As always, they did, and I slipped down an alley towards my hotel, weaving between motorbikes and parked vans to make sure the crazy becak driver didn't try to follow me.

Persistent scam artists like that becak driver are extremely counterproductive, as they skew tourists' perceptions of their country and therefore convince potential travelers not to visit. Most people do not want to be in a constant defensive mode when they travel. I am passionate enough about experiencing the world that I recognize such unfortunate situations as part of traveling in developing countries. But I too have become bitter and jaded from having to constantly guard against being ripped off. I've become wary of anyone who starts a conversation with me, asks where I'm from, or even says hello. At the first sign of friendliness, I immediately switch into defensive mode and give short answers, or usually just ignore the person completely. The tragic part is that I haven't been wrong yet in being so callous and unfriendly. Every time, without fail, that "friendly" local has wanted my money. I don't think I've met more than a handful of people on my trip who have helped me without expecting anything in return. However, I mostly have contact with people who deal daily with tourists, like taxi and rickshaw drivers, and it is these people who are the most notorious rip-off artists. I'm sure that the locals in Indonesia, or any country, are mostly friendly – but that friendliness is difficult to access for foreign tourists. I try to always maintain that perspective, because if I let the endless scams get to me, I dread how hostile and distrustful I may become after six more months in Asia.

It may be frustrating to be swindled out of a dollar here or five dollars there, but to many people in developing countries, that is a significant amount of money. Although the methods that destitute people use to rip off tourists seem extremely dishonest to us Westerners, I can't fault their tenacity in trying to squeeze a few extra cents out of comparatively wealthy tourists. They don't have many options when it comes to making money. And as bad as it is for rickshaw drivers to rip off foreigners, there are even worse lifestyles that the poor are often forced into in Asia, such as prostitution. Unfortunately, it is very easy to become demoralized in the face of such relentless poverty.

After my sobering altercation with the becak driver and my walk through the crumbling, impoverished streets of Surabaya, I yearned for a different perspective on the city. Having had my fill of rickshaws for the day, I took a metered taxi to the House of Sampoerna Café, which provided a much-needed relaxing atmosphere. The air-conditioned interior of the historic building was tastefully furnished with designer décor and featured a well-stocked bar, trendy ambient lighting, and a flat-screen HDTV playing a World Cup match. A live band played on the patio outside, and chilled-out music enhanced the calm mood inside. Amazingly, my exquisite meal of spicy Singaporean laksa – featuring curry noodles, tofu, and generous portions of chicken and shrimp – was only $2. For dessert, I had banana fritters drizzled in caramel sauce with ice cream. It was the best meal I've eaten since Cape Town.

Refreshed and full, I returned to my hotel ready to wash up and go to bed. Unfortunately, the cap for the spout that drains the mandi (water basin) was missing, so I had to wait for the slow trickle of water to fill up the plastic dipper each time I needed to dump water on myself to rinse the soap off. It took over half an hour for the whole ordeal, but at least I was clean and ready to fall into a deep sleep. Yesterday was an absolutely epic day: remember, it started at 3:30 in the morning when I awoke to watch the sunrise over Mount Bromo. As I try to digest the day's events and distill my thoughts about the becak scams and pervasive poverty, it would be very easy to say that I should not have come to Surabaya. No one recommended that I come here, and I knew that it was not going to be a very pleasant city, but I am glad that I have had the opportunity to experience a place that not many foreigners visit. This massive, manic metropolis rewarded me with a true, unfiltered view of everyday life in an Indonesian city.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Volcanic Vista

Day 136: Cemoro Lawang / Mount Bromo, Java, Indonesia
Although my room in Probolinggo was the definition of bare bones, the hotel was nice enough to arrange transport to Mount Bromo for me – and it cost less than $4 for the one-hour trip through jaw-droppingly beautiful terrain. We twisted through a verdant, undulating landscape of terraced farmland that more than made up for the sub-par impression of Java I had developed when I first arrived. Morning mist hung suspended in the deep valleys, lending a mystical atmosphere to the vista. The fertile quality of the volcanic soil was evident here, where tropical foliage burst from the hillsides in explosions of green punctuated by colorful splashes of flowers. Impossibly steep fields blanketed the precipitous sides of the hills, guarded by farmhouses carefully placed on the slopes like sentinels. Up, up, up on the steep road, and we finally arrived at the picturesque little village of Cemoro Lawang, perched on the rim of the epic Tengger crater. Inside this six-mile-wide crater are five smaller volcanoes (including the infamous Mount Bromo) rising like phoenixes from a massive, desolate sea of black volcanic sand.

Sunrise, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Sunrise over the Tengger Caldera from Mount Penanjakan, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia

At 7,500 feet, it was much cooler and less humid than in sea-level Probolinggo, so I decided to go for a hike along the rim of the crater. I walked along rural trails, passing only farmers, while I gazed at the apocalyptic landscape below me. When I returned to town, I walked down the steep main road for a while until it started to rain. The temperature continued to drop into the evening, and it eventually became quite brisk outside. I actually had to sleep under a blanket for the first time in weeks, but I'm not complaining.

Old woman, Cemoro Lawang, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
An old woman sits outside her home in Cemoro Lawang, Java, Indonesia.
Main street, Cemoro Lawang, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
A view down the main street in Cemoro Lawang, Java, Indonesia

At the brutal time of 3:30 in the morning, I woke up and got ready to meet my transport to Mount Penanjakan, where I would watch the sun rise over the Tengger crater and Mount Bromo. At four o'clock, our jeep entered the gate of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, and we endured a bone-rattling ride down the rim of the Tengger crater, across the vast black volcanic plain, and up the winding road to the summit of Penanjakan at 9,000 feet. Considering that Cemoro Lawang was the only town around, and that I only saw a few other jeeps entering the park, I figured that there would not be many people at the summit. Unfortunately, I was dead wrong: it was packed with tourists! I was shocked, because I had not seen any foreigners at all on my way to Probolinggo, and there are not that many places to stay in Cemoro Lawang. I think most of them were on package tours, so who knows where they started off this morning. The sheer number of tourists did take away from the magic of the experience a bit, as I had to fight my way to the fence to get a glimpse of the view. But what a view it was! When the first rays of the sun lit that otherworldly, desolate panorama, I forgot all about the hundreds of other people that were watching with me. The plain was shrouded in a thick blanket of mist, and the Tengger crater's perfectly formed volcanic peaks rose like islands from a white, ethereal sea. A wafting column of steam escaped from the highly active vent of Mount Bromo, reflecting the pink glow of the morning sun, and the gigantic Mount Semeru (at 12,000 feet, the highest peak in Java) stood watch over the entire scene from the hazy distance. It was one of the most sublime and enchanting vistas I have ever witnessed.

Poten Temple, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Poten Temple in the Tengger crater, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia
After sunrise, we headed back down into the Tengger crater, where I set out on the path that leads to the very rim of Mount Bromo itself. I traipsed across the sandy volcanic soil, passing a uniquely positioned Hindu temple nestled at the foot of the active volcano, and began to climb up the rocky slope. The final ascent features a steep stairway that ends on the precipitous rim of the crater. Out of breath and breathing only the sulfuric fumes belching from the volcanic vent of Bromo, I finally reached the top. One side of the narrow rim dropped precariously into the steaming crater; the other side descended at a slippery angle all the way to the plain below. It was one of those special places that begs you to step outside of the moment and say to yourself, "I can't believe I'm really here."

View from Mount Bromo, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
View from Mount Bromo, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia

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