Monday, June 14, 2010

The Long Journey to Java

Day 134: Probolinggo, Java, Indonesia
I left Amed at 6:15 this morning, and it was just under two hours to Singaraja, a large town on the north coast of Bali. I dropped by the post office to ship some souvenirs home, and the process was very methodical compared to my shipping experiences in Africa. It may have taken an hour, but the guy at the desk was very helpful and carefully packed my two flimsy boxes into a large, sturdy box. I chose to send the parcel via sea mail, so it will take up to three months to reach Florida. When I was done at the post office, I hopped on a local bus to Gilimanuk on the western tip of Bali. The bus was full of cigarette smoke, and the boy next to me was sprawled over half of my seat. He was asleep and wouldn't budge, so I sat at an angle with one leg in the aisle. The three-hour journey was slow going, and we stopped repeatedly to be sprinkled with what must have been some sort of holy water. When we arrived in Gilimanuk, I paid the $2 bus fare and crossed the street to the ferry terminal, where I bought a ticket for 60 cents. The ticket didn't specify the destination, so I assumed that all ferries from Gilimanuk cross the narrow straight to nearby Java. I walked over to the nearest boat – no signs were in English, so I hoped it was the right one. I climbed the rusting staircase from the vehicle deck to the grimy passenger deck and sat in one of the rows of plastic seats that were bolted to the concrete floor. A sad, meager snack stand at the front was flanked by aging televisions which played cheesy Indonesian pop music videos. The snack stand attendant was stretched out across the front row of seats, and he slept for most of the journey. Ferries leave every half hour from Gilimanuk, so at least the deck was not crowded – in fact, it was quite empty.

The crossing only took half an hour, but I was on the ferry for an hour including the time spent waiting for the boat to depart Bali and dock on Java. Once in Ketapang, on Java, I walked past the touts offering transport to the bus station. At airports, bus stations, and ferry terminals, gangs of taxi and rickshaw drivers descend like vultures on arriving tourists, hoping to charge exorbitant prices for short rides. The scam usually involves the touts asking where you want to go and then informing you that it is too far to walk. As usual, I walked past the vultures and continued towards the bus terminal, which I figured couldn't be too far from the ferry terminal. Unfortunately, in this case it turned out that the touts were telling the truth, and I walked for ages along a busy road in the stifling tropical humidity. I passed gated off port facilities and ignored the many vehicles that honked at me to ask if I needed a ride. I was determined to not be ripped off. I asked everyone I passed the direction to the bus terminal to make sure I was getting a consistent answer. I spoke using the few words of Bahasa Indonesia that I knew – people here in eastern Java don't seem to speak English nearly as much as the Balinese because there are fewer tourists. In fact, I didn't see a single foreigner on the ferry or anywhere in Ketapang.

Just when I couldn't take the humidity any more, my walk was hindered by an inconvenient but refreshing tropical downpour. I ducked under a plastic tarp on the side of the road so my bags wouldn't get soaked. There was a man sitting on a bench underneath the tarp, and we attempted to have a simple conversation, half in English and half in Bahasa Indonesia. The rain soon let up, and after ten minutes, I finally saw the much-anticipated sign for the bus terminal. It was in the middle of nowhere, and I didn't have much choice other than to pay what the ticket collector asked for the ride to Probolinggo, which was three times the standard price. Even though I got ripped off, it amounted to only a few dollars, and I was just happy to take off my pack and sit down for a while. I wiped the sweat and rain from my face and breathed a sigh of relief as I settled in for the six-hour bus journey.

As I gazed out the window, I immediately noticed how much Java differed from Bali. In Bali, Hinduism permeates every aspect of the island's culture and the overall look of its cities. In Java, mosques are everywhere, and the intricate stone work of Bali's ubiquitous temples has been replaced by more modern, but very bland, architecture. Instead of beautifully patterned batik sarongs, women in Java wear plainer head scarves. Java seems to lack the magical and exotic atmosphere of Bali.

The bus stopped for a while at the bus terminal in the uninspiring town of Situbondo, and I hopped off to use the toilet. No one indicated when the bus would leave again, so I made the stop quick so the bus wouldn't roll off without me. The bus ended up staying for half an hour. It would have been nice to know that beforehand so I didn't have to rush, but the driver had disappeared and no one spoke a word of English. During the stop, a gang of snack vendors boarded the bus to sell snacks, and I bought a packet of weird fried sticks that satisfied my hunger well enough – I had not eaten anything all day except some stale wafers from the dilapidated snack bar on the ferry.

I was exhausted and ready to crash when I arrived in Probolinggo. There did not seem to be much in the way of budget accommodation in the city, as most places seemed to be hotels popular with Indonesian tourists. I finally found a hotel for $7.50, which seemed like a decent price, except this dismal room had only a noisy fan anchored to the wall, a squat toilet, and no sink. Literally hundreds of ants infested the grimy floor. Luckily I was only staying one night.

Room in Hotel Moronyoto, Probolinggo, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Room in Hotel Moronyoto, Probolinggo, Java, Indonesia
I still had not eaten a meal, but there were no restaurants nearby. I asked the attendant at the front desk where the closest store was, but he had no idea what I was asking. After charades failed, he finally called the hotel manager, who was able to give me directions. The language barrier in Java is turning out to be quite a challenge. Probolinggo doesn't see many foreign tourists because most people breeze through on the way to Mount Bromo, but I arrived too late and will have to take a bus in the morning. As I set out to walk to the nearby store, a guy out front was pushing a motorbike ride on me. I am starting to become fed up with the never-ending offers of transport. If I needed a ride, I would approach one of the many obvious rickshaws or taxis. I don't see the point in touts bombarding tourists with "Where you going?" and "Transport, mister?". After five minutes, I came across a little shop and bought some juice, stale banana chips, and an unlabeled bag of mysterious little snacks that had the taste and texture of burnt popcorn kernels. In fact, I think they were burnt popcorn kernels. It is quite a challenge to find fresh, decent snacks in Indonesia. It seems that the humidity makes everything go stale in about a day, even if the snack is in a factory-sealed pack.

Bathroom in Hotel Moronyoto, Probolinggo, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Bathroom and toilet in Hotel Moronyoto, Probolinggo, Java, Indonesia
With no sink in my room, I brushed my teeth with bottled water and spit into the squat toilet. Instead of a shower, there was a mandi, a traditional Indonesian water tank used for bathing and also for pouring water down the squat toilet to "flush" it. I was dripping with sweat after the day's trials, so I gave the mandi a try, soaping up and then pouring water over myself with the plastic scooper. I wasn't brave enough to wash my face with the stagnant water, although I'm sure it would have been fine. I just have to overcome a psychological block about bathing from water that essentially is sitting in the equivalent of a toilet tank.

I think today is the first time on my world trip that I've truly felt like an independent traveler. I've taken plenty of cheap local transport before, but I felt like all that travel knowledge culminated in today's epic 14-hour journey. Things didn't go perfectly, but I can learn from today's mistakes as I prepare for many more long journeys across Asia.


  1. what an incredible story.
    In our language mandi is take a bath . . . we call the water tank bak . . . so, take a bath is mandi for us. and we do it in a place like that, with small plastic scooper . . . :)

  2. Thanks for the clarification. I was using the term as it was used in my Lonely Planet guidebook. I guess they need to do better research! By the end of my time in Indonesia, I definitely got used to bathing this way. It was refreshing to dump cold water on myself after being outside in the heat and humidity!


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