Me, My Girl, and a Frost Free February #14: Indonesia (Bali and Java) – Indonesia

Indonesia (Bali and Java)

“Aren’t you worried about traveling in Indonesia?” I heard this question from people at home, other travelers and, most surprisingly, Indonesians. Having spent the better part of a year in places our government told us not to go to (India, Bangladesh) or to be extremely careful in (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) Helene and I are accustomed to taking travel warnings with a grain of salt.

We aren’t crazy � we changed our plans to visit a friend in Aceh, Northern Sumatra when it looked like war was likely to break out. Instead of going overland we decided to fly from Bangkok to Denpasar, in Bali, and work our way north into Java. But even in these normally heavily touristed areas things were quiet and felt a bit odd. It seems that most people have decided that, all things considered, a vacation in Indonesia is not the best idea at the moment.

The effect of the lack of tourism was immediately evident in Bali. Helene and I are pretty good at getting rid of unwanted touts, but Kuta beach challenged our skills. The women offering massage are like limpets. “Before, we didn’t have to look for people, they came to us” said one woman lamented. “Now, there is no-one.”

“Massage, massage. You want massage?” desperate, they hit you as soon as you pause on the beach.
“No, thank you.”
“Good massage.”
“No, thank you.”
“I give good massage.”
“No. I don’t want a massage.”
“Why not?”
“Because I don’t want one.”

“Maybe later?”
“Where you from?”
Silence. Silence. Silence.
“You want massage?”
“Why not? I give good massage. See…”

This can continue for five more minutes, or until you give up and walk 50 metres away, where you will undoubtedly be offered a massage once again.

The site of the Bali bombing is fenced off, with a small memorial visible to the public. We walked by and I wished I had brought flowers. Adjacent to the now flattened area, souvenir salespeople have rebuilt their stalls offering “Terrorism Sucks,” “Bali Crys,” and “Osama Don’t Surf” t-shirts next to sarongs and figurines. One of the accused Bali bombers, Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, went on trial the day after we arrived. Balinese people assured us that the bombers were an aberration. “Balinese people are not like this,” one said, “tell your friends to come back.”

Helene and I caught an overnight bus to Yogyakarta, in Java. En route a young student introduced himself and, after asking if we were worried about traveling in Indonesia, let us know how to get around Yogya and what day would be best to visit the enormous Buddhist temple Borobodur. He also told us that the city would be crowded � it was school holiday and festival time.

He was right. The city was packed with Indonesians enjoying themselves. Squeezing through crowds we priced textiles and wood products, ate curried jackfruit, and marveled at the bags of deep fried snakes being sold as snacks. We joined crowds for a parade celebrating the birth of Mohammed and, after waiting 90 minutes, were rewarded by a few dozen marchers in tattered outfits. We caught a series of rickshaws and buses to Borobudur and climbed up the temple to the steady rhythm of monks’ chanting � amplified through strategically placed speakers.

Near our hotel in Yogya a salesman shadowed us. With only a few western tourists around he found us frequently and never gave up trying to sell us a blowgun. It seemed a bad choice of souvenir given current circumstances. I couldn’t imagine bringing the 7-foot item on a plane as part of my carry-on allowance.

“Maybe the tourism industry will improve soon,” said Helene to a guy who was driving us to see a ballet based on the Ramayana, at the Prambanan (Hindu) temple near Yogyakarta. He looked at her as if she were a complete idiot.

“In 1998, it was the riots.” He said. “Then September 11. After that, the Bali bombing. After that, war in Iraq, and SARS. Now fighting in Aceh. I don’t think it will be better soon.”

After he dropped us off Helene and I settled down to watch the ballet. The outdoor theatre was completely full. Families were squished in everywhere, with little kids bouncing around excitedly awaiting the appearance of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. We chatted with the three Muslim women sitting next to us while waiting for the show and shared some of the candy and biscuits they’d brought along. They were university students, out for a night of fun and after asking us if we were frightened to be traveling in Indonesia, told us how glad they were that we were there. When the show started the audience clapped along, cheering for the good guys and booing the bad guys. In the end of this story the good guys won, of course � and everyone went home happy.

We headed to Kaliurang to see Gunung Merapi, one of Indonesia’s more active and dangerous volcanoes. A guide took us on an early morning hike for a stunning view of the smoking mountain. Born and raised in Kaliurang of an Indonesian mother and a Japanese father (who stayed in the country at the end of WWII) our guide praised his town and his neighbors while giving us a hint of the racial tension that still haunts the country. “Everyone here knows who I am,” he said. “I moved to Yogya once, but is no good. There, people maybe think I Chinese. I get trouble, bad prices. Here is good. Everyone knows me.”

After enjoying the stunning vistas around Mount Bromo (where we had a hotel to ourselves) Helene and I splurged and bought a ticket on a “tourist bus” back to Bali. When the bus was an hour late we got a little antsy, but by the time it was three hours late we realized we’d been had. The ticket sellers had mysteriously disappeared from their office and the authorities at the station were no help.

“These people sold me a ticket that is no good,” I explained to the uniformed man in charge. He smiled sweetly at me. “Yes, yes,” he said. “We would like to change it,” I continued. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Can you help me?” I asked. He smiled and shrugged.

Eventually we managed to find one of the guys from the travel agency and, through a combination of bullying, pleading, threats and insults, got ¾ of our money back. In the process we had the entire population of the bus station staring at us, including the police who were clearly amused at the show we were putting on. They giggled as one of the guys from the travel agency grabbed me and tried to pull our ticket receipt from my hand. Finally Helene and I boarded a local bus and headed out. “I want to fuck you,” said one of the young men who got on the bus to try and sell us snacks along the way. His friends laughed as I turned my head, trying to ignore him and for a moment desperately wishing I were in a country where complaints would result in some kind of action.

We switched buses several times on our way to the port town of Ketapang. The friendly ticket collector on the final leg motioned for us to stay put as we pulled into the last station and everyone else disembarked. Once the bus was otherwise empty the driver took us the final few kilometers to the ferry terminal, dropping us at the ticket booth, eliminating the need for us to take a rickshaw and restoring our faith in humankind.

Helene and I had a hotel to ourselves in Lovina, and again in Amed � except for the locals, that is. “These are my friends,” said the guy who signed us in. There were half a dozen young men in the otherwise empty hotel restaurant. “They live here now, because there is no work.”

Tattooed, handsome and well built they must have been popular with female tourists. Realizing we weren’t interested in partying they offered us snorkeling equipment, a boat ride, and day hikes. The prices they quoted were exorbitant. “A lot of people are putting their prices up,” said a British couple we met in Lovina. “They’re trying to make money from the few tourists there are.”

In beach areas Helene and I sometimes found ourselves paying more for food than we would have in Canada. Guides wanted upwards of $50US for a day hike. But whether prices went up or down, people were having a tough time. We visited a gallery in Ubud that was going out of business. Restaurants sat empty. “No Balinese go out to eat. Only tourists,” explained a worker. “All the farmers pulled out their rice paddies to build hotels. Now maybe they’ll have to pull down their hotels to make rice paddies.” He laughed, but it was a rueful laugh. There were “For Sale” on a number of beachfront businesses.

The lack of tourists did benefit us sometimes, but still left us feeling uneasy. Hotel prices were generally very low, sites were less visited and Helene and I snorkeled over the famed Liberty shipwreck alone. Out of the water with our masks pulled down we found sumping, delicious rice flour, pumpkin and coconut snacks for sale. Scarfing them down on the rocks overlooking the clear waters we were aware that our relative peace meant that dozens of scuba diving outfits around the island were in the process of going out of business.

As we headed back to Kuta to catch our plane to Australia, things did seem to be picking up a bit. A few more people wandered the alleys looking at souvenirs and the barstools held a few bums. It remains to be seen how long fears of terrorism, both real and imagined, will keep tourists from the sandy shores, ancient monuments, smoking volcanoes, cheap prices, excellent food and generally very friendly people of Indonesia. It is a fascinating and complicated place that offered me a month of glorious sunsets and, in the end, left me worried about a lot of things.