Our last Indonesia post left you with the image of a sunset off of Flores island, so I should probably start you off with a sunrise at our next destination. Except I don't wake up in time for sunrises, so another sunset it is!
We flew back to Bali and took a bus to the far western edge to squeeze in a visit to the island's only national park before heading farther west to Java. Those volcanoes you see in the background are actually on Java, it's that close.
Here's the bathroom of the lovely room we got near the park. OK, lovely is an overstatement, but the room only cost $8. We've used public squat toilets in a lot of countries, but Indonesia is the first one that will routinely give you a squat toilet in a private bathroom! The squareish structure next to the squat is another uniquely Indonesia bathroom feature, the mandi. It's a basin that's filled with water from a tap, then you just scoop out the water with a plastic scooper for whatever purposes you need. It's a toilet flusher, sink, and bucket shower all in one!
OK, finally, we get to the national park, where we did some birdwatching. This is probably the coolest bird we saw, a rufous-backed kingfisher.
Our guide took us up to a lovely lookout, where we sat for a while and watched birds swoop in and out of the forest.
Bali just can't let an intersection be an intersection--if it doesn't put up a huge statue or fountain, it'll bridge it with a crazy structure like this one. Glad we had some stone dragons guarding the road from potential attackers...
On to Java! We got tickets on a Yogyakarta-bound super-luxury bus that may have been the nicest overnight bus we've ever taken: tons of legroom and AC, free pillow and blanket, bathroom on the bus, welcome snack box, and buffet dinner stop included in the ticket. (Stupidly, we assumed that this boded well for bus travel in the rest of Indonesia. It didn't.)
Anyway, our bus drove right onto the car ferry heading from Bali to Java. We got off and enjoyed the half-hour crossing on deck.
Where there is smoke, there must be volcanoes (and cigarettes): Java
So, Java is Indonesia's most populous island (though not its largest--that's Sumatra, the next one further west). It has Jakarta, the capital, and several other large cities. We had hoped to visit Mount Bromo, in eastern Java, but it inconveniently decided to start erupting that week, putting the kibbosh on that plan. So our first stop there was Yogyakarta (usually pronounced more like "jogjakarta") in central Java. Yogya is supposed to be the cultural/intellectual capital of Java, so we took it upon ourselves to visit some historic sites and artistic performances. (And go to a carnival!)
First up, historic site. Borobudur is an enormous Buddhist shrine from around the 9th century. It was abandoned in the 14th century, as Islam took over as the area's major faith, and was "rediscovered" in the 1800s and restored in the 1900s. It has six levels, hundreds of Buddha statues, and thousands of storytelling relief panels. It is so big that we couldn't even fit it all into one photo!
Buddhist pilgrims are supposed to circumnavigate each level of the structure three times, but of course we just ran straight to the top. The top level has all these beehive-like structures, each containing a seated Buddha inside.
Wow, that Buddha's head looks a lot like...
OK, so maybe we weren't as reverential as we could have been. But it was a nice site to visit. These butterflies must agree, since they were everywhere on the grounds.
Our tour made a stop at a nearby little temple, where we paid about 20 cents each to see one final Buddha. Rumor has it that this one was actually made to sit atop Borobudur, but was too heavy in the end to get lifted up there. 20 cents for one Buddha here, or $15 for 504 at Borobudur...which was the better deal? You do the math.
Both Borobudur and Yogyakarta city in general are swarming with uniformed schoolchildren who have been assigned by their English teachers to go talk to tourists, asking them a slew of predetermined questions off a sheet, then asking for our signatures (and sometime our e-mail addresses) or even taking pictures with us to prove that they talked to us. Some kids could barely say the questions and definitely didn't understand our answers, but some were really quite proficient and fun to talk to. Usually the girls were superior, I must say. You go, Javanese schoolgirls! Here I am with a bunch of them on the street in Yogya.
For a few weeks a year, Yogya has a big nightly carnival. We had to ride the Ferris wheel, of course. For 50 cents each we went round and round, faster and faster, for at least 10 minutes. Good investment. And I'm sure the machine was up to all the latest safety standards...
Back to high culture: We went to a Wayang Kulit shadow puppet show. We actually learned all about this traditional Javanese art form last year during our visit to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Museum (remember that post?) in the US, where we said "One day...sometime next year...we will see these puppets in action!" And so we did.
The puppets are made out of buffalo leather and are incredibly intricately designed and painted by craftsmen, many of whose families have been making them for centuries. (The best ones cost around $200 each in case you were wondering--and yes, they'll airmail them to America. No, we didn't buy one.) Here are some puppets, ready to perform scenes from Hindu epics, like the Ramayana.
"Real" wayang kulit performances are marathon all-night affairs, but the tourist version only lasts around two hours. Short or long, all puppets are operated and voiced by a single man behind a screen, though he is backed up by a full orchestra of nifty traditional instruments called a gamalan. For a two-hour show of a myth we didn't know in a language we don't understand, it was pretty mesmerizing. Even more fun is that you can get up and wander around to look at the orchestra and man-behind-the-curtain whenever you like--there are seats on all sides of the screen.
On to Jakarta! We took an overnight train from Yogya to the capital (it was AC and pretty decent, though not nearly as luxurious as the Bali bus)--a good choice, since the train gets in to a central station, but buses arrive many kilometers outside of the city, and traffic is horrendous.
Right outside of the Gambir train station is The National Monument, Monas, also known as Soekarno's Last Erection. Apparently, the former leader erected (heh heh) many monuments around town, which now have funny nicknames (kind of like the statues around Dublin, Ireland, as I recall).
As soon as we got settled in Jakarta, we took a train right out of Jakarta to the suburb of Bogor to visit its famous botanical gardens. They weren't bad, but I have to say that I was kind of disappointed that there was neither a raffelesia nor amorphophallus titanium in bloom for our visit. (Google these flowers--they are huge, stinky, and fabulous!) I mean, didn't anyone tell them that that we were coming?
Anyway, about two minutes after we entered the garden cafe for lunch, the heavens opened and drenched the park for about an hour. Rainy season in Indonesia...guess that's why it's so green.
Back in Jakarta, we wandered north to the old colonial district of Kota (well, what's left of it--a lot of Jakarta has been swallowed up by shopping malls). Jakarta is really big, so just getting there took a few hours (what can I say, the malls kept distracting us). There's a big canal and a lot of old Dutch buildings--just like Amsterdam, with a few more palm trees.
Kota has some museums, but we skipped them in favor of another couple of malls, where I bought a new T-shirt ($1.50!) and decided not to indulge my growing obsessions with netbooks ($350!). Then Andy was feeling shaggy, so we stopped in a hole-in-the-wall barbershop for an 80-cent haircut. While we were in there, the heavens opened...
Apparently, Jakarta has big problems with flooding (and dengue fever) in the rainy season. I guess all those Dutch canals haven't quite done the trick, and the city just keeps expanding.
Luckily for us, the rain stopped in time for us to get home, get on our finest (OK, only clean clothes) and get a taxi to the nice expat part of town for our only fixed appointment in Jakarta--dinner with my cousin's husband's parents! They have been living and working in Jakarta for the past four years, and were wonderful enough to invite us (and all our laundry) over for a serious Tex-Mex feast (and good machine washing), despite us never having really met before. They are big travelers, too, and it was terrific to see their photos and hear their stories about some places we've been and many we hope to get to someday. And it's always really interesting to see what expat life looks like in a city you've just been visiting as a tourist (and to see what said city looks like from a 17th-floor balcony--NICE). So here we are with our Jakarta buddies Terry and Linda--thanks again to you both!
(Also, I hope you noticed my new shirt! Though Linda's embroidered one probably is a much better representative of how nice Indonesian-made clothes can be...)
The next morning, we got a bus to Java's west coast, and let me pause here for a moment to tell you about this bus. If the bus from Bali to Yogya was one of the nicest we've taken in 60 countries, then this one had to be one of the worst. Sure, we've been on a lot of dirty buses with no AC and only half a seat per adult butt. We've been on buses that stop about every three feet, trying to rustle up more passengers even though the aisles are already heaving with standees, making a trip double in time. We've been smoked on in buses, and we've been overcharged. But never before all of these things at once to quite the extent as we experienced on the public bus from Jakarta to Labuan.
I think the smoking was really the worst--the rest of it I can forgive, but the smoking you just can't escape, even if you stick your head as far out the window as it can go. Though it also really got our goats when we found out later that we'd been charged double for the privilege...
Anyway, we did finally arrive at our destination and manage to book a boat for the next day to take us to an even greater source of smoke: Krakatau volcano!
We had both read Simon Winchester's terrific book "Krakatoa" this year, about the 1883 massive eruption that blew apart Krakatau volcano (which sat in the Sunda Straits between Java and Sumatra), killing tens of thousands of people and with the amount of ash it discharged into the atmosphere, changing the world's climate for years and even making sunsets more psychedellic worldwide.
"Wait," you say. "If the eruption blew the volcano apart, what is there to go and see now?"
I will tell you: Anak Krakatau, or "son of Krakatau." In the 1930s, a new volcano started to emerge from the sea (eep!) and continues to grow at the crazy rate of a few meters a year (eeep!), regularly smoking and sputtering. In only 80 years, it has formed a whole new island, complete with trees and wildlife, and you can charter a little fishing boat there to go check it out.
Which is what we did. Even though the oceans had been kind of rough lately. And, um, Anak Krakatau recently became more active than usual. Maybe not our smartest move ever, but we lived!
After two hours on windy, choppy seas (during which I learned--twice--that you can indeed get slapped in the face with your own vomit if conditions are right), we finally pulled up within view of the little monster of a volcano, which I was kind of resenting at that point. It is undeniably quite impressive and stark looming out of the ocean, though.
I felt slightly better after making landfall, but not much. Here we are, though, standing on one of the youngest islands in the world. Usually, tourists are allowed to hike partway up the volcano, but because of activity, this is as close as we were allowed to get.
Along with our captain, we were the only people on the island when we landed, which was pretty cool, but as we were sitting on the black-sand beach after our walk, two more boats arrived, loaded with Korean tourists. As they clambered loudly onto the island in their inappropriate footwear, lit up cigarettes, tossed their rubbish into the bushes, and let their Pomeranian off its leash (seriously? You just had to bring Puffy to pee on the volcano?), we quickly decided that it was time to end our visit.
We did snorkel nearby, though, in the shade of what's left of "Mama Krakatau" (one side of the volcano is still standing, now grown over with trees). There's some nice coral and fish there. And the seas were much calmer for the trip back to Java. It was an expensive and often uncomfortable outing, but it was very cool to see the volcano up close. (That's mama on the left, baby in the middle, as we sped away.)
We braved one more public bus trip back to Jakarta (it was no less smokey, but at least we paid the right fare this time) and then flew to Medan in Northern Sumatra.
When orangutans attack: Sumatra
Sumatra is Indonesia's biggest island, and is the one that seems to get hit with the most natural disasters. If you're reading in the paper about a tsunami, or an earthquake, or a flood, or an eruption in Indonesia, chances are it's happening in Sumatra.
But, that's where the orangutans are! So, that's where we went.
But, no more public buses for us. Medan actually has some very affordable shared taxi services for tourists that will take you to the area's attractions in AC, nonsmoking comfort. Well, most of the time the AC works, and most of the time the driver refrains from smoking in the car...in any case, that's how we got around.
We spotted these kids riding atop their school bus on the road to the rainforest. Don't fall off!
At our hotel in Bukit Lawang, there was this cute, semidomesticated animal hanging around. The owners called it a "night cat," but I know that this is no cat! Can anyone identify? Merrie, Dan?
Here's a song our guides taught us as we began our overnight hike into the rainforest (sung to the tune of "Jingle Bells"):
Jungle trek, jungle trek,
From Bukit Lawang!
See the monkeys, see the birds,
True to the song, first we saw the monkeys. This guy is a Thomas leaf monkey, and was just hanging out on a branch near the trail with some of his buddies nearby. Cute!
I'm sure we saw some birds, too, but before long, we spotted our first orangutans. Bukit Lawang is actually home to an orangutan rescue center, so the forest around it has a very high concentration of "semiwild" primates who have been released and forage on their own, but also sometimes return to the center for feeding. In the wild, you'd never find so many orangutans in one area (they like to be more solitary), but thanks to the center, we saw quite a lot.
Mostly, the orangs were peaceful and lovely to observe...
...but then we had the misfortune to come across "Mina," an orangutan so notoriously violent that she has her own warning box in the Indonesia Lonely Planet (but we only have the Southeast Asia Lonely Planet, so we were clueless!). Apparently, about half of the 120 guides who work in this area have been attacked by her at some point, and multiple attempts to release her deep into the jungle have failed, as she always finds her way back to terrorize more humans.
Andy and I were completely in the dark about her existence, but our chief guide, Dani, knew her as soon as he saw her. Blocking our path with her baby on her back, she wanted our food, Danny knew. He threw her our fruit scraps to try to placate her, as she's been known to bite people (leaving them with facial scars, lost fingers, etc.) when she's pissed off. So, she ate the food...then she attacked Danny anyway. We were backing away from her with the second guide, when suddenly she and Danny were ON THE GROUND in a clench, rolling around. We went from being scared for ourselves to being terrified for Danny. Luckily, he was able to jab her in the eyes and whack her with a branch, which sent her up a nearby tree, but not before she'd bitten both of Danny's hands. He still had all his fingers, but there was blood all over the ground.
Our group dashed past on the trail, then stopped so another tourist with a first aid kit could disinfect and wrap Danny's hand. But Mina didn't give up so easily, and we had to book it down the trail farther and farther as she continued to track us for about five minutes more before finally giving up. We later found out that she ended up biting a tourist later that same day.
Danny went back to town for medical treatment that night and was back with us in the morning, far more chipper than I would have been if a crazy ape had just tried to bite my hands off.
Of course, Mina is this way because she used to be someone's pet and was surely not treated very well. Attempts to release her far from humans have failed so far, so her reign of terror looks set to continue. If you Google "Mina orangutan" you will find all sorts of stories, and even videos, from people who've had, um, encounters with her.
Anyway, we have a few pictures of Mina from before she attacked, but weirdly, they refused to load online when we uploaded photos the other day (hm...). So instead, we'll leave you with pics of another orang with her baby who came sniffing out of the forest when we gave Mina our food scraps. Unlike Mina, she was gentle as could be.
Check out the little baby hands and feet!
Later, after our escape from Mina was over, we needed a rest. Luckily, there was this nifty natural swing.
And here is the lean-to on the riverside where we spent the night. Sure, it looks like a homeless person's shack, but it was comfy enough and rainproof (yup, more rain! Can't outrun the rainy season!).
The river scenery was gorgeous, but the hike was brutal. Up, down, up, down. Hilliest rainforest ever.
Hanging out near our camp were a lot of long-tailed macaques. Also known as "naughty monkeys"--they like to steal your food.
Andy can now add this monitor lizard to his collection of pictures of animals caught sticking their blue tongues out.
Our final stop in Sumatra, and Indonesia, was Lake Toba, one of the biggest crater lakes in the world. That's right, we decided to finish things up by spending two nights inside a volcano. Extinct, of course, and filled now with pretty blue water.
We took a boat across to the island of Samosir, home of the Batak people, and quickly got set up in a room built in the style of a Batak house. Huge room, tall, pointy roof, hobbit-sized door, balcony and loft. Good deal for 10 bucks!
Our ferry boat on the way over was piloted by a five-year-old. OK, I'm exaggerating, he was probably at least eight.
The island has few cars and is so quiet and peaceful--a great place to do absolutely nothing and unwind after a hectic three weeks racing around Indonesia. Here was the view as we played euchre (I won!) and ate tasty peanut-sauce-soaked food.
This giant buzzing thing hung out nearby, and Andy got a nice picture.
That's it for Indonesia. Often beautiful. Often stricken with violent natural disasters (and primates--humans not excluded). Often expensive, too. But really interesting to visit. My favorite places were probably Komodo National Park (for the dragons above ground and diving below) and Lake Toba, but it's such a big country, there's surely something for everyone. (Well, maybe not skiers).
17,000 islands...we set foot on seven. Had to leave a few for next time.