Re-Unity in Travel

I have just completed two weeks of almost non-stop action. An underlying rule that guides this saga (and just about everything here) is that even the simplest of travel plans in Indonesia turn into an epic tale.
All of the IACS participants had a holiday for some portion of the past two weeks following Ramadan. This was to allow for Idul Fitri, a Muslim holiday period of celebration and forgiveness. We were free to explore anywhere in Indonesia on our own terms.
For most of my first two months I had waffled on where to go and with whom I would travel. Two weeks prior to vacation, I booked a first class train ticket ($18) to Bali. It was the last available, finally forcing me to make a decision.  From there I decided to meet in Ubud with Yan from Bulgaria and Ana from Serbia as they toured the island by motorbike. This covered my first two days. Everything after was almost entirely on the fly.
Haylee (from Australia) and I took the overnight train from Surabaya to Banyuwangi, the eastern tip of Java (“The Sunrise of Java” according to the tourism board). There, we go onto a bus that got onto a ferry which shuttled us across the Bali Sea onto the mythical island, then four hours later we ended up in Denpasar, Bali’s capital. Our booked ticket ended here, and at this point we had to find our way to Ubud with our trust in a bemo (minibus) driver. They’re not particularly trustworthy.
I had looked up information on a cheap way to get there, and plenty of websites had claimed that there were public minibuses for about 8000 rupiah (or $.80) up to Ubud. We couldn’t find them. This is because in Indonesian bus or ferry terminals (on all islands, it seems), there is a wall of transport hawkers greeting every vehicle, looking to cheat any unknowing travelers with ridiculous prices. Since Haylee and I were the only tall and white people there, we became a prime target. Eventually we negotiated one down to 50,000 each. Ten times what it should be, but the best we were going to get.
No matter, we were in Bali! And it’s so green! It seems like every road in Bali is post-card perfect. Even the grey afternoon mist was picturesque as it hung over the alternating rice paddies and plantations cut into the rainforest. We marveled at this for about an hour, and then we knew we had reached Ubud when the traffic reached a complete standstill on the narrow jungle street.
Green! Photo by Haylee
Many consider the town to be the cultural and artistic capital of Bali, so it is also a major bulehub, especially since Julia Roberts showcased it in “Eat, Pray, Love.” Therefore, rental cars, tourist busses and motorbikes choke the tiny roads of what used to be a tiny collection of villages. And wow, there are so many white people there. It had been awhile since I saw such a concentration, and I caught myself staring like many Indonesians do when I walk around Surabaya.
Haylee and I parted ways in front of the village’s Monkey Forest, which is exactly what it sounds like. After immersing myself into Balinese culture with a pizza and a beer, I set out into the intermittent drizzle to find the hotel that Yan had booked. Unfortunately, Indonesian roads, just like in DC, are incredibly confusing, ending in one place and restarting (or duplicating, in this case) illogically somewhere else. As a result, I wandered up and down the hotel’s supposed road for about two hours, asking everybody how to find a seemingly non-existent home stay. While not helpful (nobody had heard of this home stay), the strangers I approached were very eager to help, and even wanted to converse with me (because I can use basic Bahasa Indonesia now), but I was too desperate and confused to stick around.
Thankfully, I eventually stumbled upon the right shopkeeper who pointed me up a side road, and the gathering panic in my chest quickly dispelled as the fragmented directions of dozens of friendly people finally coalesced into coherent directions and I found my destination.
This is a good lesson for over-packers: you never know when you’ll wander through winding rainforest lanes looking for your hotel. Pack light!
Yan and Ana, suffering the same disorientation as myself, arrived just after me, and we finally reunited after two months in our separate arts centers. Despite only having a week together in Jakarta, it was like greeting old friends with the warm hugs and the excited shouting of a new opportunity to be with each other.
We quickly caught up with each other in the room, and then set out in search of our Dutch friends, Maaike and Dewie, before attending a Balinese dance performance. All three of us squeezed onto one motorbike (the suspension was not happy) and took a shortcut past the Monkey Forest into town.
Side story: Had I taken this path, I would have found the home stay within fifteen minutes, but the locals warned me not to go through, because the bag of fruit I was carrying would have guaranteed a mugging by the gangs of primates eyeing the passing visitors from their perches on the fence. The monkeys make you feel like you wandered into the wrong neighborhood in the city.
At the performance (where we scored a discount with our IACS ID cards), we got to sit next to the gamelanplayers on the stage. It was such a beautiful show; the energy of the music and dancing has a very spiritual aspect, which I eventually noticed pervades just about every aspect of Balinese life. The costumes’ powerful colors, the dancers’ penetrating stares and the music’s rapid polyrhythm were almost trance-like. I quickly lost myself in the beat and the movements, and was fairly upset when it ended two hours later.
It’s also a very different style from Surabaya, and incredibly interesting to compare with what I’ve seen so far. I love that two places so close together can have such massively different traditions, and maintain them so well to this day.

These are actually from the next night’s Kecak performance, but I didn’t have my camera due to rain. This at least shows you the basic stance and ornamentation of the costumes
The next morning, we set out on a temple exploration marathon. Squeezing onto the motorbike again (which attracts a lot of attention, despite the fact that Indonesians will ride with a ton of sugar cane or a hundred balloons on the back), we struck out towards Goa Gajah, or the Elephant Temple, an important Hindu sanctuary. Its main characteristic is the myriad demonic faces throughout the site which are supposed to ward off evil spirits.

Like most famous sites in Ubud, it had lost a lot of its magic to the glut of inconsiderate tourists, but we discovered that there were other temples hidden in the jungle behind the main complex. We worked our way through the beautiful grounds and onto a muddy, narrow pathway that wound into the thick, torso-sized leaves guarding the Balinese rainforest.

“Torso-sized” was only a slight exaggeration
This is what greeted us
This pathway is narrower than it looks

Most importantly, it looked like nobody else was going this way, making this much more of an adventure. I had a sort of Indiana Jones sense of exploration now, especially after passing more of these demon faces, which are very reminiscent of the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. We slipped over wet, mossy rocks and traversed precariously narrow cliff-side pathways for a little over half an hour. Finally, we came to this bridge:

Look at that confident face

Of course, we crossed, and somehow survived. Eventually we found the temple, and watched some prayers, but didn’t sit around, thinking we had to trek back the way we came for another hour. Instead, as we rounded a bend, we found an Indonesian woman with a drink cooler and a pile of coconuts, as well as two children. Baffled at how she lugged all of this into the middle of nowhere (although we certainly appreciated the coconut), she explained that there was actually a staircase into the village about five minutes away. It turned out we weren’t as far from civilization as we’d thought, but we decided to ignore that fact, since we hadn’t seen another human in an hour and a half.
Also, we found the temple (near the stairs), which was much nicer to observe in this peaceful atmosphere than in the din of a hundred tour groups.

At the top of the stairs we encountered two other, smaller temples before ambling back to the motorbike and heading towards the Monkey Forest, where I didn’t dare take out my camera for fear of the primate gangs looking to extort anyone for a bunch of bananas. That’s really not a joke.
Monkeys are really funny to watch, especially around the people that didn’t read the signs and therefore attract their mischievous attention. We relaxed in a temple, talking about Indonesian dance styles (naturally) and watching other people have their food stolen or otherwise finding themselves in territorial disputes with the Macaques.
We eventually moved on, finding food and then meeting again with Maaike and Dewie to attend a Kecakperformance. This one, designed in the 1930s, isn’t traditional, but is still supposed to be particularly visually impressive. For me, it just came off as a very touristy performance, without much quality and also lacking the spirituality and energy that is supposed to make up Balinese performances. It did provide this cool picture, though, where the dancer, with a giant “horse”, kicks flaming coconut shells around:

At this point, I still didn’t know where I would be the next day. Yan, Ana, Maaike and Dewie were leaving for Gili Trawangan early in the morning and since I lacked any other plans, they convinced me to join. So at 5:00 the next morning, with our bags (another reason to pack light) we took off through the Balinese countryside towards Padang Bai, the port from which we would begin the rest of what became a long, long journey towards the tiny island destination.
As much as I hate waking up early, it’s hard to rival watching Bali wake up from the back of a motorbike. Villagers had begun filling roadside markets, incense clouds from temple offerings thickened the air and the beginning sunrise between the mountains lit the rice paddies and countless Hindu statues with a brilliant gold. It almost brought to life the statues presiding over the center of village traffic circles.
We arrived with perfect timing for the early ferry, watching the low sun rise over the bay for the beginning of the five hour crossing from Bali to Lombok, the island one must pass through in order to reach the Gilis affordably. Taking advantage of the gentle rocking, cool breeze and pleasant company (we met up with Spain and Denmark at this point) we let our guard down for the transportation frustration what would greet us in Lombok.

Yan’s guidebook turned out to be fairly inaccurate in a very important place, claiming there were public busses from the ferry port to another harbor in the north, from which we’d have to take another boat to Gili. Either it is entirely wrong, or did not properly tell us where to find the bus stop, so we had to deal with the relentless bemo(minibus) drivers looking to give a ride.
This experience has further solidified my already firm prejudice against almost everybody in the taxi industry, as a cartel of drivers demanded exorbitant amounts of money for our ride. Eventually we had a reasonable price from one man, who ended up lying and dumping us halfway to our destination.
Our agreement had been to the Senggigi bus station, where we would take a public bus to the harbor. As we pulled into Senggigi, however, the driver told us that, by the way, there’s no bus station, or public bus for that matter, and that was too bad.

We had stopped in front of a bar, and had begun to argue loudly with him, because we were all very tired, and very pissed. By a stroke of luck, an adorable Kiwi woman who owned the establishment, flanked by two drunk Aussies (at noon), came out to help; she’d seen this situation before. This affable woman bestowed upon us an insider’s guide to arriving to Gili T much more easily than by the beaten path, saving the group from a collective breakdown.

We paid the first driver, even though he certainly didn’t deserve anything, found a second bemo for an acceptable price and piled in, despite the fact that it was held together by twine and zip ties. The minibus barely achieved the top of cliff-sides, and hardly held itself together as it rumbled down the opposite sides, and everybody felt carsick from the hairpin roads and exhaust fumes filling the back. This didn’t matter, though, when we caught our first glimpse over the bluffs of the fabled sapphire and turquoise seas that draw so many bule from around the world.
A half hour of almost vomiting later, the minibus shuddered to a stop behind a row of “banana boats” (not the inflatable resort kind) that locals use for fishing and traveling among the islands. Our Kiwi guide had told us not to go all the way to Bangsal, the official harbor, but to negotiate a ride with one of these vessels. We found someone who was willing to take us aboard as he ferried his possessions to our island’s next door neighbor, Gili Meno. As a result, we got a private boat ride across the beautiful sea that is so clear one can see shadows of the coral dozens of meters below the surface.In a way, the bemo driver’s dishonesty was good, otherwise we would not have had this experience that most people pay for as a tour.

Chintia saved us
Abnormally green rock
Focus not on the sunburn but the clarity of the water
The unexpected and unplanned can be quite relaxing
Rooftop seating
Finally, an hour later, and twelve hours from our start in Ubud, we landed at Gili Trawangan. Since this wasn’t the boat’s final destination, he only nudged the bow into the sand of the “harbor” and we had to jump off the front onto the beach. The first four made it off without a problem, but I, with all of my stuff, leapt from the side as the boat slid from the sand and a wave rushed in. I landed unevenly and almost kept my balance, but after some flailing, I ultimately fell completely under the water for two long seconds.
Miraculously, despite soaking my entire being and completely submerging my backpack, nothing inside (such as my camera and passport) was the slightest bit damp. Even my iPod, in my shorts pocket, survived without a problem. Things, temporarily, were looking up.
That is, until the group split into its respectively booked hotel rooms, and I tagged along with Yan and Ana (I still had nothing anywhere at this point). It turned out that a reservation might not have mattered anyway, though, since my Balkan group and the European duo both arrived to their hotels to discover they had been double-booked and there was nothing the incompetent managers could do about it, even if they cared. During the peak season, which was this time, there are far more visitors than hotel rooms, so many people end up sleeping on the beach as punishment for coming to an isolated island at the same time as everybody else.
We were one of those groups.

We searched for an affordable room for two hours, passing sign after sign posted outside hotels with the fateful word “full” in bold letters slapping you in the face. All we obtained in this hunt was the adoption of a lone Swiss traveler who was dealing with similar luck. Eventually, everybody accepted that we would not sleep inside that night. After a somewhat melancholy dinner, we wandered the darkening beach, looking for a home, and found a set of lounge chairs in front of a hotel’s restaurant that nobody had cleaned up. Quickly, before surrendering them to the scores of other dejected, homeless foreigners wandering around, or to the hotel, all six of us grouped the seats together and spread ourselves over them.
The hotel employees did come out to clean up, but upon seeing us huddled across the chairs, they smiled pityingly and told us “ok, you sleep for free tonight, ya.” I was immensely relieved that nobody would kick us off the very comfortable beds we had claimed. At this point, I was even excited for our situation; we saved lots of money on lodging, and I had always wanted to sleep on the beach.
Because it was the last night of Ramadan, the island was almost silent that night. Instead of night clubs’ thundering bass that supposedly usually rocks the main beach area, all we heard was the meditative Koran reading from the beachfront mosque. Much to my delight, there was a fireworks show across the channel on Gili Meno, and we had a perfect view. After, when everything had calmed down, the mosque’s quiet chanting helped lull me to sleep.
We splurged on a sea view
Some went off rather close to us

I woke up in the morning to a bright red and pink sky, with the sun rising directly in front of us over the neighboring island. The beauty was startling and I immediately thought to grab my camera to save it forever. However, I had locked my bag with both my iPod and camera under the chair, and would have missed the sight trying to get a photo. Instead, I settled into my chair, claiming this beauty for myself. Until the actual orb of the sun popped above the horizon, I examined the brilliant, hot colors mixing above me. Maybe it was my half-doze, but I don’t remember seeing anything so vivid before.

Edit: I’m using this picture courtesy of Ana

This doesn’t do it justice
Deeply content, I drifted back to sleep, then woke up to this:

Good morning, indeed
Also courtesy of Ana
So, being homeless for a night turned out not to be so bad. Most of us even felt very relaxed, so we lazily found a breakfast place, and as we saw waves of customers checking out of their rooms, began our room hunt anew. Within minutes we found a sufficient lodging for the best price we could get during peak season, and it was only 30 meters from the sea.
Secured in lodging (although the lounge chair was arguably much more comfortable than my bed), we spent the next two days lazing around in the beach and eating western food. While I was excited for it having eaten just Indonesian food for two months, I don’t understand why everybody who travels so far to reach the culturally rich Indonesia would want to encounter the same stuff from home instead of experience the local flavor. The thought bothers me now, but it was hard to hold on to it as I sipped delicious coffee with my feet in the sand and eyes on the sea.
It’s distracting
On my third morning, I had to begin my journey back towards Java, as I was going to meet with the Tydif team in Banyuwangi for an outbound program. I spent the night in Munggu, the tiny village that houses the Bali IACS arts center. It was certainly too quick of a stop, since the area and arts community offer so much, but at least I got a quick glimpse of the real Bali outside of the tourism hubs, as well as a chance to see some other friends from the first week in Jakarta.

While this is far from my normal travel style (I like to go slow and spend a long time in one place), I doubt I could replicate this experience so successfully, and definitely not with this unique group. I certainly would never exchange these memories for any other experience.

What is most important about this experience is that, despite some periods of stress and exhaustion due to the long travel times, it was just about the essence of my idea of adventure. There were real challenges that would determine the outcome of my experience, and it embraced the excitement of the unknown by following such a nonexistant plan. It was a valuable learning experience in patience, negotiation, acceptance, endurance and teamwork, as we all really had to stick together in order to enjoy the ride, and definitely couldn’t have done so alone.

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