“Hellllllo mister!” (The ubiquitous greeting in Indonesia)
“Where are you from?”
“Are you travelling on your own?”
“Do you not have any friends?!?!?!?!?”
This was the oft-repeated exchange I encountered during the two weeks I just spent traversing the Indonesian island of Java, from the sprawling capital of Jakarta on the western end to the port of Banyuwangi on the eastern point, tantalisingly in clear sight of Bali. Indonesians really don’t understand the concept of travelling solo, and I was continually asked in puzzled tones like this where were my family or friends!
Java is about the same length as Britain, and acts as the heart of the scattered Indonesian island nation – more than 60% of Indonesia’s population live here – so it made a good place to start an Indonesian trip with. I had a fantastic fortnight, and particularly enjoyed exploring the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan around Yogyakarta, going to a shadow puppet and gamelan performance in Yogya itself, boiling an egg in a hot spring in Bandung, climbing up tree roots and jumping off tall rocks in Pangandaran, and taking surf lessons in the sleepy beach-side village of Batu Keras. However, by far and away the absolute highlight of my Javan trip was scaling two volcanos, Bromo and Ijen, on two successive mornings for sunrise. This entailed early morning starts of 3am and 1am respectively in order to hike to the right place for dawn, but they were absolutely 100% worth the lack of sleep. Bromo involved a night-time adventure through a misty and pitch-black “sea of sands” before the most beautiful deep orange colour I have ever seen spread across the whole sky over the mist; the six of us who had joined forces by bumping into each other in the dark watched the sun rise from the volcano crater with no one else in sight. Ijen involved a night-time climb into the crater of the volcano itself, complete with attractive gas masks to protect against sulphur fumes, and the vision of an amazing acidic lake appearing as the crater grew light. I’ll attach some photos below.
I have always wanted to try travelling solo, but this is the first opportunity I’ve ever had to give it a go properly. I’m quite an independent person, and I don’t mind my own company, so I had an inkling that I would enjoy it, but I definitely also had a few moments of terror/panic on my way to Hong Kong airport after saying goodbye to Katy, envisaging two weeks spent basically in silence, traipsing around an island unable to meet anyone, isolated and lonely. I really needn’t have worried – I have loved travelling alone! Not only does it mean much greater independence in doing what you want when you want, but I also think I met many more people than I have done in the past with others – both other travellers from around the world, and an eclectic mix of Indonesians who were keen to chat to this strange white girl travelling alone.
There was Hariman in Pangandaran, who complained about the expense of education in Indonesia, and how he had never been able to go to college because of it and so was very limited in what kind of jobs he could get, and who also described in terrifying detail where he’d been when the tsunami struck the south coast of Java, devastating Pangandaran and killing more than 600 of the small town’s population. There was Iune, a young Sundanese mother who worked as a bridal make-up artist and insisted on taking me for lunch with her family – seemingly just so that she could take selfies with me every 5 minutes throughout the meal! Rial and Winnie were a fun Indonesian-Australian couple I spent two days with, who joked about the key differences between their two nations – apparently the important things include that Australians are terrible at singing while all Indonesians are naturally very musical, but Indonesians are unable to walk at a normal pace. This I definitely agreed with as I kept having to purposefully walk much slower than I was used to! Rial, who had just done interviews with Fulbright to teach Indonesian in American universities, also talked in a more serious tone about the relatively recent ethnic conflict in his native Aceh in northern Sumatra – but spoke proudly about how it was Acehnese fishermen who had taken in the Rohingya refugees fleeing from Burma who had already been rejected by Thailand and Malaysia – after the Acehnese had taken them in the Indonesian government agreed they could stay for one year while a permanent solution was found.
Then there was Puto, a passionate Balinese man living in Java, who insisted on giving myself and the art student from Manchester I had been having dinner with detailed travel advice “that your hostel won’t tell you because they are trying to cheat you”, carefully writing down all the names and times for us on little pieces of grey paper he carried around with him, explaining to us that it was good for his karma to help us. The next morning he passed me in the street and gave me a ride on his motorbike to where I was going, and patiently answered all my questions about why the entire town seemed to have gathered in open top vans in one street, in fancy clothes. It transpired that one man, a wealthy hotel owner, had managed to save enough money to make a pilgrimage to Mecca (which is apparently very difficult for ordinary Indonesians) and so the whole town had come to say goodbye!
Ayah, our guide in the Green canyon, bemoaned his government’s corruption problems (a common Indonesian complaint) and its lack of investment in the area, one factor that causes western tourists to choose Thailand over Indonesia, indignantly pointing out that “Thailand is really no more beautiful than Indonesia”. As a result of the lack of government funding, he explained, many of the roads in this area had fallen into disrepair – but the locals had come up with a clever solution. They suspended horizontal poles over the road to act as make-shift toll points for big lorries, to help raise money to resurface the roads themselves.
Finally, in Batu Keras I met the surfer gang – men who lived and breathed to surf. At least every other sentence they spoke was along the lines of “I hope there are not too many jellyfish in the water tomorrow”, or “I wonder what the swell will be like later today”: conversations I found difficult to add much to apart from to agree and smile. Tupay taught me to surf, but also took me up a hill to watch the sunset, and told me how he would skip school whenever the surf was good, and dropped out at 15 to surf full time. He also told me about how when the tsunami came, one of his friends wanted to go and surf it, not understanding its danger! And there was his friend Ari, who agreed with him that surfing was the only thing to do with your life – why on earth did I want to go to Borobudur – “it’s just a pile of old rocks!!”
All in all I had a great time solo, partly because of all the people I met along the way, and it was certainly very different to any travelling experience I’ve had before, and I’m now hoping to try it again later in the year!
A few pictures…