November 28th, Semarang, Indonesia – They say it is always darkest before the dawn; I don’t know if that is completely true but it is really dark outside. We’ve come this far so we might as well go through with it. I roll out of bed and step outside in my boxers, look up and, yep, I see the stars; that means it is clear and the hike is on. The trail is supposedly well marked with white posts we will see in the dark and besides there must be other people hiking up for sunrise. The start of the actual trail is down the road from our hotel but we are located right on the crater edge and there is a path down from here; it will save us time and eliminate the need to pay the entrance fee at the trail. There is a white marker marking the start of the trail but I don’t see any others. I am sure I will notice them when we pass across the main trail and the liter along here will serve as evidence we are still in the right direction. The only light is the small glow from our headlamps as we trek down the steep, narrow and at times ditch ridden ‘path’ to the crater floor; it is hard going with no markers, no people and two very tired participants. At this hour you need to be really motivated to keep going; you are much quicker to annoyance and you have to be aware of that to overcome it. We reach the crater floor and have a few kilometers to walk across the now foggy valley before climbing the active volcano. In the distance I hear a jeep and shortly can see the headlights; we still haven’t found the actual path but with the jeep road just ahead of us we must not have that far to go. The people who are too lazy to walk take the jeeps; they do not understand that the beauty comes not just from the range of colors of the rising sun but from the sense of accomplishment of having earned the experience. When we reach the jeep path we turn on it towards the big mountain in front of us; it’s a little lighter now and we can see a decent distance ahead. We are walking along the black volcanic ash of the large Legger crater; this was once an active volcano and must have put on quite a show when it erupted. Three new volcanoes that have emerged within the crater; Bromo, the currently active one, is where we are heading. After a bit we can see the Hindu temple built at the base of the volcano; many volcanoes are of importance to the Hindus of Indonesia, and this is one of the few places on Java where the Hindu community still outnumbers the Islamic one. According to the rudimentary map we picked up at the hotel, the temple should be on the other side of us; we have been heading towards the wrong hill along the jeep path. As we get closer to the temple we see a man trying to sell rides on his horse to the base of the mountain; we politely decline but he does confirm that we need to cut across to the other side of the temple. We reach the base of the mountain and can see that sunrise is almost upon us; from here it is just ~250 steep stairs up to the top so we start climbing. When I reach the top the sun is just coming up over the crater edge and the colors are amazing; below us in the volcano we can stare down at the smoking crater of Mt. Bromo with the occasional change in wind direction bringing with it a sulfurous odor. Despite the detour it did take us just about an hour as we had been told and the image from the top made all the frustration of the early rise and hike dissipate. After some time enjoying the view and volcanic landscape we followed the actual, well marked trail back across the crater. We walked with a local guide whose current customers had hired one of the horses for the journey back; we joked about their laziness together and had a good conversation along the way. After a shower and a quick breakfast and we were in a minibus heading back down the mountain to catch our onward transport to Yogyakarta.
There is a little addendum to the previous day’s story of the man who arranged our transport up the mountain and to Yogyakarta. As I said, he is quite adept at his job. When we reached Probolingo with plenty of time before our departure we dropped our bags at the office, said our greetings to him and I went off to the Wartel to make some phone calls. When I exited the phone booth he was waiting for me; he took me aside and said ‘two other people will be on the bus, please do not mention how much you paid because they paid 100,000 Rp more’. From what I could gather a day earlier he had sold these two backpackers tickets on the standard bus for the same 65,000 Rp we had paid for the door-to-door service. When they arrived in Probolingo this morning he convinced them to purchase ‘upgraded’ tickets on the minibus for another 100,000 Rp. What’s more, the bus ticket included a meal (as many long-distance buses here do) and the two backpackers thought they would get one on the minibus as well. He convinced them that they could get the meal but then they would not get dropped off directly at their hotel; instead they would be left at the bus station well out of the city center. Of course the bus was dropping us at our hotel in the central area and I am sure the driver would be happy to not have to make another stop at the station; but I had no intention of interfering with this man’s job and watched in silent amusement as the poor backpackers agreed they would rather be dropped off. While many of the people we have encountered are definitely after our money; in most cases they are not overly aggressive nor anymore outrageous or misleading than any standard advertising campaign or sales pitch in the U.S. They also have been engaging and generally friendly; even after they gave up on trying to get me to hand over my cash. I’ll provide some specific examples but first want to make one general observation. I was warned by Balinese people not to reveal that I am American to the Javanese, and though in some circumstances I have heeded this warning in general when they inevitably ask I reply I am from America. I have encountered no hostility in response (though they very well may start me out with a higher asking price) and without fail when I mention that I am from Washington DC they ask if I know Bill Clinton, adding he is a good guy. George Bush’s name is rarely ever mentioned, and when it is it is always negative, but the people here seem to have a genuine fondness for Clinton. If reputation were the sole measure of a man…
Over the several days we spent in and around Yogya we have visited the palace, old city, bird market (with its other disturbingly caged animals such as monkeys, flying foxes and huge snakes) and other sites here and the remarkable nearby temples at Prambanan and Borobudur while also taking in a shadow-puppet (Wayang Kulit) performance. We have also encountered many friendly, helpful people; I’ll provide three specific examples:
1. This area is one of the leading producers of Batik, a unique painting style, and everyone has a relative who owns a Batik gallery with low prices or knows a show that is leaving tomorrow. The problem is that most of the Batik is fake and most of the galleries are trying to rip you off while whoever sent you there is trying to earn a commission; so you have to be wary anytime someone mentions Batik or tries to point you towards a gallery. Our tour guide at the Kraton (palace) was included in the entry price; he was very nice and shared more than just the informative description of the palace grounds. We talked about Indonesian television (apparently Fear Factor is a huge hit here) and American basketball (he was shocked at the cost of a ticket to a game and revealed that it was fairly close to his monthly government salary). At the end of the tour he began to warn us of the Batik dealers and we assumed he was going to send us to whatever gallery gives him the best commission; instead he advised us of the government gallery where they have fixed prices and where he would earn nothing.
2. Later that night we went to a Wayang Kulit performance at the government’s Sono Budoyo museum; the gamelan band, puppets and narration were all fascinating but the most interesting tidbit I learnt was that the shadow performance, which we now see as the unique aspect of the show, was originally designed so that the women could watch from another room while the men saw the main stage show. One of the puppet makers, and a government museum guide during the day, provided some information about the show and the puppets and showed us around the stage. His ultimate aim was to convince us to buy one of his puppets; but though they were sold at the museum shop during the day, he would earn more if he sold it himself outside of the museum and that would translate into a cheaper price for us. He was not as natural a salesman and as the souvenir hawkers, but at the end of the show he showed us some of his best designs (which were clearly superior to even his student’s designs) and asked us if we wanted to see more at his house. So we hopped into the stranger’s car, with no sense of obligation to buy, and he drove us to his house where we leisurely looked at the puppets. In the end we found one we wanted and he started with a relatively low offer; we bargained a little and he eventually came down more to what I could pay, with permission from his wife, we came to agreement. From the start he was not trying to milk me; his original price was fair based on what else I have seen and the bargaining was less a business game as a friendly discussion. He followed this up by driving us back towards our hotel and we parted ways.
3. Borobudur is one of the most impressive temples in the world; the Buddhist shrine is generally placed as one of the three best in Southeast Asia. It definitely deserves its reputation, but nearby was a rarity in Java that I wanted to visit; a working Buddhist monastery. It was recently opened near the Mendut temple a couple of kilometers from the main site. However, we had no decent map and I was not completely sure we were headed the right way so I stopped at a guesthouse to ask directions. An employee was walking out as I walked up so I asked him where the temple was and he pointed us in its direction. He then said that he was heading that way and would give us a lift. Being, as I am, conditioned to think that everyone here wants something in return for any service I asked ‘how much?’; he laughed almost embarrassingly and said ‘nothing’. We hopped in his jeep and he drove us to the temple; he even pointed out that we did not have to go back to the village to catch a bus back to Yogya but could hail one from the roadside here. You start off with such a tentative posture towards all these people but along the way you learn that the ones who you need to be wary of are far outnumbered by the ones who are just good natured human beings trying to eke out a living.
One thing we were able to accomplish in Yogya was to arrange air transport from Semarang to Ketapang in Kalimantan (the Indonesian side of Borneo). We were unsure if we could arrange it without going to Semarang but a helpful travel agent here contacted the Deraya Air Taxi (an airline they do not normally deal with) and they sent the tickets via courier from Semarang. So we now have a couple of days to relax and take care of errands in Semarang (Java’s third largest city) before heading to Borneo; we have found we one way to pass the time is watching Hollywood’s latest releases on $1.50 DVDs. In Ketapang we are going to try to arrange a visit to the remote Ganung Palung park; don’t yet know if it will be possible as I have heard mixed reports and in any case it will be difficult and may mean we are without access to communication for at least a few days. If that doesn’t work out we may head to Bukit Baka Bukit Raya park; another remote destination in Indonesia. If all else fails, or in a week or two in any case (before our limited 30 day visa runs out), we will head into Malaysian Borneo at Kuching. It may not be until then that we have further access to update or email; so if you don’t hear from us for a while don’t worry.