The Holiday, Part 2: East Java Version

Thankfully, my Idul Fitri adventure didn’t end after a short week in Bali. From Munggu in Bali, I caught a bus to the island’s western tip, and then took the ferry back to Banyuwangi in Java. Ucan, our coordinator, met me at the harbor’s exit to bring me to the group’s hotel for the start of our marathon tour in this corner of East Java.
I arrived in the early evening, right before dinner, to find most people sleeping. While it’s not incredibly outlandish, since we nap all the time, it was still odd. Ucan then told me to join the resting party, because at 11 that night, we would set out to Ijen Crater to see its famous blue fire. One of our participants found a great article about it, for some in-depth information: Kawah Ijen by Night
Before heading out, Banyuwangi’s tourism board gave us a very warm greeting in the hotel restaurant, providing our dinner as well as some beautiful batik souvenirs. Then, at 11ish (times aren’t very punctual on tropical islands) we climbed into a trio of minibuses that carried us most of the 2600 meters above sea level up the volcano.
Keep in mind, it’s so hot in Surabaya that I’ve never had to wear long sleeves here, and only wore my sweatshirt in Gili to avoid a sandblasting when I slept on the beach. This is to say that my idea of cold is now severely warped. The high altitude of the mountain in the middle of the night meant it would only be about 10 degrees Celsius, which feels terrible after 25 degree nights here. Granted, my available wardrobe in Indonesia isn’t quite sufficient for that temperature.
Everybody dozed in the vans despite the violent rocking inherent in navigating pot-holed, dirt, mountain roads. Then the driver opened the door and we screamed in shock at the sudden, frigid-ish blast of the almost-icy air. Reluctantly, when we accepted our temperate fate, as well as the fact that the driver wasn’t going to close the door, we abandoned the vehicles and stumbled towards our tour guide, and our only visible light source.
He handed out face masks, to protect us from the sulfuric gases pluming out of the volcano and then began our clumsy, short-breathed three kilometer trek uphill to the top of the crater. It was a new moon that night, and the trail is not lit, so we fumbled around in almost complete pitch black for three hours, with the assistance of only a few flashlights that had to shine for about 30 people. Most of our walk was in the black.
The going was tough. We were at a high enough altitude that breathing was more difficult, and the hills were very steep at points, doubling the effort. Consequently, I found myself supporting two of the dance instructors, Fia and Erma, on both of my shoulders almost the whole way up.
While it was difficult, even treacherous, all of it was rewarding. The cold wasn’t an issue once we started moving, and the crisp air rejuvenated the lungs that receive so much abuse in Surabaya. Ijen, looming invisibly above us, was so silent that we could hear the crashing waves of the Bali Sea far below, and the absent moonlight allowed for completely unobstructed stargazing. Shooting stars flashed across the entire atmosphere with the glowing white of the Milky Way hanging prominently yet softly over the middle of my view. I was more than happy to let Fia and Erma pause and catch their breath so I could look at, but more importantly feel, the immensity and the peace of the world around me.
The Surabayans struggled with the cold, too
I couldn’t see where the camera pointed, so Elmi’s head got in there
Hikers trailing behind us
When we eventually reached the top of the crater, it was windy, dusty, and now smelly. Our guide explained that the path down towards the blue fire was treacherous, steep and, of course, dark, so those who didn’t want to deal with even more exertion could hang out there until sunrise. Despite utter exhaustion, probably exacerbated by the altitude, I chose the potential danger over the certain cold of sitting at the top. My main logic behind this was to move closer to the fire, which would theoretically provide some warmth.
Some hesitant minutes later, about half the group decided to descend the 200 meters on a narrow, poorly (if at all) maintained pathway towards the flames. At the bottom, we regrouped, making sure everybody had survived. Despite the opportunity to get closer to the flames, fatigue won and I nestled into some rocks with Fia and Elmi, one of Surabaya’s cultural ambassadors and helper to Ucan, content with the view from our meeting point.

Inside the crater was much warmer than above, but still fairly uncomfortable, so the three of us huddled together, watching the dancing fires and ducking our heads when the wind blew the sulfur gas in our direction. Eventually I dozed off, waking up to the rapid “ayoh-ayoh! (let’s go, let’s go!)” of our guide. The sky was rapidly getting lighter as the sun began its ascent for a new day.
Haylee, who actually went closer, got this great video of the flames:

Daylight makes hiking a thousand times easier. It took an hour to descend into the crater, and only twenty minutes to climb out, if you don’t count the extra half hour I spent creating the beginning of a movie with Ucan. Now the top of the crater was the best place to be, as we could look out over the clouds and the world for miles in every direction.

We returned to the hotel around 9:00, and had to be ready for a city tour by 11. Some napped, and I energized with some extra helpings of tea at breakfast. The tourism board then picked us up and brought us to the mayor’s residence for a general history of Banyuwangi. Next we went to a beautiful Chinese temple that mixed Confucianism and Buddhism, showing the influence of the smaller religions in the area.

Our last stop for the day was a village just outside the city where they were celebrating a traditional ritual to earn a prosperous harvest. The elders choose a pre-pubescent girl as a kind of sacrifice to dance with the gods in order to please them. She is in a trance the whole time, and the ceremony takes seven days. I had never seen anything like this, and admittedly felt a little weird watching. It turns out religious trances are a very intense experience, even as an observer. Regardless, it was still fascinating to see such a traditional event taking place, especially as the priests checked their Blackberries during breaks.
Dinner that night ended up being a fantastic experience. The local government had put a lot of effort into our visit, this night greeting us at a restaurant with traditional dances and music in the street. This included a barong performance (traditionally meant to ward off evil spirits, it’s a two person character, with a lion mask. It might make you think of a Chinese dragon) as we stepped out of the bus, and two musical greetings that ancient villages would use to keep up field workers’ energy during rice harvesting led us into the restaurant.

I took videos, but a very uncooperative internet won’t let me upload them. The first would have been two men in a watch tower playing bamboo instruments at a very rapid tempo, meant to hurry rice harvesters along in the fields. Second would be a group of elderly women making beats with large wooden poles against tree trunks. Traditionally, they would be pounding rice inside the trunks, and the beat would keep them going methodically and quickly.

After they let some of us try the rice-pounding beats, the local newspaper got their photographs (here we are, and that’s me playing the rice trees) and we met the mayor, the restaurant owner ushered us to a performance space where two stunning dancers performed the gandrung, the area’s most famous dance. It was originally a ritual for the rice and fertility goddess Dewi Sri, but now represents love and courtship, as well as a greeting to visitors.
Because of its proximity to Bali, Banyuwangi and its neighbor share a lot of characteristics, especially in the dances and music. I felt the same exciting and energizing spirit from the rapid percussion of the gamelan and the hypnotizing movements of the dancers that I saw in the Balinese dancing. What is interesting about it is that it is also decidedly Javanese, despite its many shared characteristics with the other island. I could really see the mixing of cultures here in the gateway between the two vastly different places.
We enjoyed a delicious buffet, and then had time to learn some gandrung or chat with the owner, who treated us to his very high quality java (I’m sorry, I had to). I spent my time floating between the dancers and the coffee bar, plucking tasty cookies from jars placed throughout the space and dipping them into my drink. I usually don’t like black coffee, but this was good enough (for a non-snob, at least) that even I enjoyed it. Everything was so wonderful there, from the people to the performance and food, that we were all a bit sad to leave.
Keeping consistent with our trend of minimal sleep, we got up at 5:00 the next morning for a series of jeeps waiting to take us into the bush. Banyuwangi is famous for its biodiversity and surfing, making it a major ecotourism destination so we spent the next two days out in the bush to appreciate Java’s beauty.

Way into the bush

Bad quality due to a very shaky ride
First we went to Alas Purwo National Park, home of surfer’s paradise Plengkung Beach, better known as G-Land. More importantly about the surrounding forest is its spiritual significance in Javanese mythology as the spot where the earth first emerged from the ocean (the name means first/ancient forest). Before entering, the guides very seriously warned us not to curse and to maintain a positive attitude (difficult for some) to avoid the evil spirits lurking in the trees because of the area’s connection to the underworld.
Our first stop was something I definitely hadn’t expected to see: a bright green savanna in the middle of the jungle, which is now a highly protected area to care for some of Java’s endangered species. Environmental maintenance and animal rights are still not major considerations for most Indonesians, so the park has a lot of catching up to help these species. A simple example: there is litter everywhere. It’s still on the right track for doing great work, though.

These three courtesy of Haylee, who stole my camera

In the middle of dense jungle
We then bumped across more dirt roads to G-Land and spent a few minutes wandering the beach and watching the high waves breaking out in the sea. At times they can reach up to five meters in height. As you can imagine, this is a surfing beach only for the experts, but it still aroused my desire to try again after only having done it twice in Chile. If one foot waves are exhilarating, I can only imagine what big ones will do for the soul.

A good place is one with surfboard repair shops instead of cars
The actual waves were farther out; my lens couldn’t capture them

A colorful photographer
Unfortunately there was not a lot of time in Alas Purwo because we had to get to Sukamade Beach in Meru Betiri National Park, a very long and bumpy drive from where we were. I fell asleep between parks, while we were on smooth pavement and the sun was out, and woke up to the jeep violently bucking around in almost complete darkness. What I could see out the window was dense, dense jungle.
Like Alas Purwo, the bush out here had a very dark spiritual aspect. Riding through at night, especially since I woke up in the thick of it, really let me feel its intensity. The forest is forbidding and imposing; you can feel in your stomach that you’re intruding. At one point we had to stop to allow a python to cross the “road”; the silence and darkness closed in around us, preying on our most primal fears. Even the two villages we passed along the way were hauntingly instead of peacefully silent. When we had endured the heavy jolts of traversing rock pathways for four hours (never going faster than 10km/hour), I’ll admit that panic even began to set in. Staying positive got increasingly difficult as the jungle cursed our presence.
Of course we made it to Sukamade, after six hours of jungle. The beach here is another protected area because of the sea turtle population that comes to lay eggs on its sands. Travelers visit to learn about the sea turtle conservation efforts, as well as watch first hand while rangers work to protect them and their eggs. First we waited in the darkness, away from the likely nesting places, while the rangers looked out for mothers to create their nests. Once a turtle had begun her process (about midnight), they summoned us with flashlights and we watched her lay the eggs, then the ranger counted and collected them, bringing them back to a hatchery in order to protect them from poachers and predators. They raise the baby turtles for about two weeks before releasing them into the waves on the same beach.
The idea of sharing these efforts is great, but I think they’ve allowed it to become too touristy. For example, I don’t think it’s right for people to use flash photography in a turtle’s face while she’s laying a hundred eggs, but the rangers didn’t stop a particularly obnoxious tourist from going so far as leaning on the mother’s shell for a photo. Tidak bagus (not good). Despite this frustration, however, I do feel the project is overall a great pursuit.
We had the option to stay on the beach all night to watch more turtles, but it had started to drizzle and I had to get at least a little bit of sleep, which I’d been lacking for a week at this point. Early the next morning we released 500 baby sea turtles into the water and then had to work our way back through the jungle.

A foggy morning gave the beach a haunting look
I didn’t take any pictures of the turtles, but I did find these adorable cats playing with our shoes

Unlike at nighttime, the daylight made the area beautiful and exciting, and much safer. So much so that four people got to ride on top of the jeeps during our exit ride.

I selfishly grabbed a spot as quickly as possible.

Seat belt

The roof was very uncomfortable, since I was sitting on a metal grid with the squares big enough to fit four fingers through. My bum was very sore after four hours on top of the car, but I’d argue it was just as comfortable as inside, where the violent rocking of the jeep’s frame slammed its occupants against the walls twice a second. Also, I saw some people negotiating this path on motorbikes. They’re brave souls.
Along the way we forded a river (awesome, as seen above) and stopped at a few beaches along the way. First was Green Bay, which I suspect is prettier than the one in Wisconsin, although I haven’t actually been to the latter. It also rained on and off during the ride, so when we reached the second, unnamed beach, it was almost abandoned, allowing for completely free reign over the sand and dangerous waves.

The Green Bay

Four other people were there, though, and as coincidence would have it, two happened to be the Serbian and Argentinean girls that I had been in a movie with a couple weeks prior. It’s a small world, but the odds really were stacked against this happening, especially since we had only meant to stop to wait for the last two jeeps, and they were waiting for a transport up to Sukamade. I do love the randomness of life and all the connections, or reconnections, it provides.
After pulling us away from that impromptu stop, we then spent an hour at another beach named Red Island, even though it’s not an island. Most people ran straight for the sea again, but I stayed behind with Fia and Ucan to indulge in the myriad snack stands across the grounds. With them I tried what has potentially become my favorite sweet after my mom’s cookies: terang bulan(tuh-rahng boo-lahn; shining moon). It’s a really thick, sweetened pancake folded around whatever filling you choose. Putting chocolate inside this delicacy was exactly what I wanted, and I had to resist buying three, especially since they were only about 50 cents each.
We stayed until about sunset and then returned to Banyuwangi to spend the night before our rafting trip the next morning. Ucan and Ibu Diaz’s family (they’re related) lives in the city, so we stayed there and departed, as you may have guessed, early the next morning, with the sunrise.
Hours of driving later (a major theme for the week), we arrived at the rafting company, divided into boats, trekked to the  start and spent two hours descending light rapids. It wasn’t particularly challenging, and I think the goal was more to soak ourselves, which we did thoroughly. It was a great laugh the whole way, and the scenery was astounding. The river wound through a deep canyon with mysterious caves and lush greens hanging all the way down the sides of the bluffs. It was really difficult to decide between the excitement of the rapids and the awe of the yawning gap through which we were riding.
Alas, all adventures must end, and after rafting and eating, we got back in the cars one last time and began the ride back to Surabaya. I finally got the kind of adventures I had been craving, as well as the opportunity to solidify my friendship with some of the Indonesians in our group. What I got most from this second part of the holiday is that three months is far too little time, and I need to come back to see everything that I can. Even living here indefinitely wouldn’t fully provide me the necessary time to get it all, but I know that eventually something will draw me back to experience it all again another way.

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