Thursday, 5 July 2012

97. To Bali by bicycle

In Bogor's botanical gardens

Since arriving in Indonesia about seven weeks ago we've covered just over 3500 km through Sumatra, Java and now Bali - so we've visited three of the country's 17,508 islands. In mid June we extended our 30-day visas in Jakarta over a period of two days where we joined commuters on the crowded train from the colonial retreat at Bogor down to the capital each day to process our extension and then collect our passports. Java, the political heartland of the Indonesian archipelago is a densely populated island, similar in size to Britain but with 2.6 times the population - over 130 million. Not renowned as a favourable destination by many cyclists with its narrow highways, very busy traffic and a horrendous need for every passing vehicle to blow their air-horns made cycling a little unpleasant at times. Indonesians of all varieties, however, are usually very curious and welcoming and so our emotions ran a roller coaster everyday between the highs of wonderful hospitality and the lows of being the bottom of the food chain on some nasty highways. Once onto the backroads of southern and eastern Java, however, the situation improved dramatically and while still trying at times was far more manageable and enjoyable. Although the blog has been neglected, another journal has nearly been filled and I thought I'd share three entries from each of the islands to give a sample of what we've been up to. The first entry is from Sumatra, as we continue down the west coast alongside the Indian Ocean. The previous day we'd come across a very forlorn and muddy kitten by the roadside of the rubber plantations and Ellie brought him on-board in her handlebar bag in an effort to save him.

Lotek or gado-gado - a peanut-based sauce with green beans, 
bean sprouts, rice, tofu andtempe with pink crackers 
on top - a staple in Indonesia and great cycling fuel

DAY # 1415: 5/6/2012  Bintuhan - 30 km before Krui (Total distance: 88 km)

Woke up around 05:45 and the kitten had been pooping during the night and then fallen asleep in smelly mixture. Ellie cleaned the sheet while I got the gear ready. Rolled back to the main drag in for a breakfast of lotek [rice, veg and peanut sauce]. Left town after a visit to the toilets at the petrol station where queues continue to form due to the fuel shortages.

Rode out of town and straight into some steep hills as the road climbed up to the 100 m high plateau and dropped into canyon where another river entered the sea. Still made good time to Merpas, having stopped a couple of times enroute for Ellie to ask if anyone was interested in taking the kitten in. Although a lot cleaner after the washing Ellie gave him last night and this morning, he was still scraggly and just skin and bone. Nobody wanted him. In Merpas after more lotek a guy and his family came over, the son toting a large Nikon SLR and the man talked about his time working in Saudi. Whilst we were at the bikes though the man had taken the kitten and was holding it up by its ears and laughing and taking photos of it. I missed this but Ellie grabbed the kitten from him, swore at the fellow and we headed off. I was also told off for not doing more to help but I explained I hadn't seen what happened. 

Across the provincial line, the road suddenly deteriorated and snaked upwards at an almost impossible gradient. I made it up but Ellie had to resort to pushing. We swapped bar bags so that I could ride ahead and take the kitten out in the shade until Ellie caught up. The kitten was getting weaker today and tottered about on its skinny legs. The climbs continued for another few km before easing slightly and got past the roadworks and back onto tarmac. At one point, as we rested in the shade of large trees two police pick-ups pulled up beside us and everyone jumped out and hurriedly gathered to have a photo shoot with us. Very comical. Gave us some tissues for some reason as they roared off down the road. Eventually the downhill began and we exited the Barisan Selatan national park we'd been riding through and back to the cultivated land where the trees had been cleared and papaya plantations grew. Pulled over for the third lotek of the day and to feed the kitten. The friendly lady and daughter gave the kitten some food and water and he seemed to revive momentarily. Another man arrived, machete in his belt, from gathering peppercorns that the area is famous for and sat down to eat. The threatening black clouds soon closed in and everything not under plastic or bamboo was drenched. During the storm a large centipede crawled in behind the man and when I pointed it out, he jumped up and quickly drew his knife and decapitated it before throwing the writhing body into the puddles outside. He motioned to us where he'd been bitten before and said while it wouldn't kill you it would hurt a lot for a few days. The nice lady had a couple of cats already and was almost convinced to look after the kitten as clearly being tossed around the bar bag all day was not going to help him much but in the end she said no.

Continued down the hills and then back along the rolling coast, steep and short climbs. No losmen [guesthouse] until some overnight truck stops further ahead and we continued on in the dark. A scooter came along though and the daughter and her father offered us a room in their house for the night so we turned back. The bathroom is a fast flowing channel of cold mountain water and I wash while trying not to fall off the slippy plank. Ellie tries feeding the cat but its listless now and not interested. The mother prepares supper - a feast of noodles, vegetables and dried fish with chilli and peanuts. Tea. The father smiles on with the muted TV beeming in a different world and their 17 year old daughter practices her English on us. Their other siblings work in Kalimantan and Bandar Lampung. By 20:30 we've exhausted our conversation and ourselves and we head off behind our curtain. The kitten is on a box beside the bed.

The next day, shortly before Ellie reached her 20,000 km the kitten died in her handlebar bag and we buried it in a hole in a coconut plantation.

The next entry is from Java, where we are back on the quiet roads of the central south coast.

DAY # 1430: 20/6/2012  Gumilir - Pentanahan (79 km)

Adjectival mozzies had us awake briefly during the night. No place to hang our single-sized mozzie nets either. Melon, oats and apple for breakfast. Fortunately today we ignored the route advice of last night's policeman who came to photocopy our passports and visas. He advised us to take the main roads towards Yogya, exactly what we were avoiding. Instead we followed our initial instinct and stayed close to the coast, although we didn't see the sea itself until after Ayah. The first section to Slarang was busier but then quieter after the turn-off to Adipala although still bumpy verges. Closer to the coast though the roads improved and quietened down a lot especially after the area where trucks were ferrying material around near Babakan was passed. Passed a lot of tsunami evacuation signs today along the coast. Apart from tea and snacks in Adipala (fried tofu and bananas), we rode on on the straight road to Ayah where we stopped at a roadside bamboo warung for food before noon - a feast of fresh grilled fish, rice and veg.

After lunch we climbed over the very steep hills that provided some wonderful views of the coast back towards Cilacap. We thought we only had about 160 m to climb but that was just the first section. The reality was a rollercoaster ride of impossibly steep ascents and descents that had us taking regular breaks, especially as Ellie wasn't feeling great during the afternoon.

By the time we reached the junction after Kalangbolong, where the flat land once again stretched eastwards towards Yogyakarta it was 15:30. With 16 km to Petanahan we headed off. Midway there was a crowd gathered in the road, watching a procession of dancing horses with dressed-up kids in the saddle. I think it may have been for a wedding. A brass band followed.

At the turn-off into Petanahan village we asked about a losmen but the lady said we'd have to go on for another 20 km. We could either camp down at the beach a few km away or outside her shop. As we cleared a space for the tent, another woman appeared and told us we could sleep in her house in the village and we followed her for a kilometer back through the centre of the village to her home near the police station. Her kids were watching TV and they prepared a room for us, evicting one of the children from their bedroom. Siti's husband arrived back from a day in the rice paddies and seemed reconciled if not ecstatic at his new guests.

I washed in the mandi out back and then swapped placed with Ellie who had been watching cartoons with the kids. A faded picture of a Dutch cyclist with a younger Siti was given pride of place on the wall. She'd had many pedalling visitors it seemed over the years but just one man who had really mattered. They had fallen in love and wanted to marry but her father wouldn't let her marry a foreigner, although twenty years later they still kept in contact and he visited the family occasionally. After going to pray in one of the rooms, Siti returned and prepared us dinner plates with rice, tempe and veg and sweet tea. After eating we strolled through the dark streets with her young son and Siti told us about her family (ten brothers and sisters) and her father's encouragement to her to help travellers. Like the rest of the country, extreme Islamic groups have become a growing force in recent years and even in the village she said that there were many with extremist views who openly criticised her for helping foreigners. She said such extremism was new and hadn't existed at all when she was growing up. Like others she blamed the influence of Middle Eastern clerics now active in Indonesia. Siti had followed in the paths of many Indonesian women and gone to work in Saudi as a domestic worker for a year in the eighties. She described the very tough working conditions though and her daily 19 hour shifts (6 a.m. - 1 a.m.) that she would do. Accompanying the family on their trips in the region, she also had stories of visiting war-torn Lebanon, Turkey and Syria.

Siti and family

Unable to marry the Dutchman she returned home and married her husband, a local farmer. After we returned to her house, her older brother came by to visit and wanted me to go visit his house but I said I was tired. He'd worked as an engineer in Jakarta until the riots of 1998 and the economic meltdown of the Asian financial crisis had forced his employer to shut down. We headed off to bed with the present of a large bag of ginger biscuits for the road tomorrow.

The final entry is from a couple of days ago, here on Bali's east coast. We'd arrived the evening before to a village famous for being the site of the wreck of the USAT Liberty. We were just looking to find a camping spot on the beach and we hadn't planned to dive on the wreck but there was a group going the next morning and Ellie booked us on as my birthday present.

The short ferry crossing from Java to Bali

Bicycle food vendor

Dressing up for the temple

A bicycle brought to Bali by a Dutch colonist features on a temple frieze in north Bali

DAY # 1443: 3/7/2012  Telamben - White Sand Beach (35 km)

Mount Agung

We turned up ahead of schedule for our 7:45 departure, as I'd forgotten to check last night if they had prescription masks here. They didn't have any but we went ahead anyway and I'd just had to hope the fish swim right in front of me. After gearing up there was a mix-up and the group had departed without us but it turned out well as we got our own dive guide and just the three of us went together. Angeline came out from France three weeks ago to work for the season in Bali.

The USAT Liberty served as a cargo ship in both world wars and was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in 1942. The ship was beached below Mount Agung and lay there until the volcano erupted in the early 60s and sent the ship and presumably much of the village to the bottom of the sea. 

The waves and current were quite strong as we shuffled in with our worn booties providing modest protection from the large volcanic boulders that formed the beach. Arms linked and fins off we got in and past the first few metres of breaking waves and then got ourselves together and swam against a strong current to the dive site. As we dropped Ellie had problems equalising for a bit but we kept going slowly and after a few minutes she was alright. We dropped down to 28.6 metres and despite the lack of lenses and the different refraction that occurs when black volcanic sand forms the sea bed, the fish were very clear. Wonderfully coloured angel fish, clown fish and a few others that I hadn't seen before. A large grouper about a metre in length swam cautiously along the sea bed. The wreck itself had collapsed quite a bit and was not instantly recognisable, although the gun barrel was evident. Swam through some of the enclosed areas. Returning to the shore was trickier as the waves crashed against the rocks, I stumbled and got rolled a bit with the tank and BCD pinning me down. I also dragged Ellie down and she fell on her previously broken elbow which hurt. After that we got out though and got the gear back, cleaned up and set off on our continued circumnavigation of Bali's coastline. Ellie has assumed cartographical control since arriving in Bali and is the chief researcher on routes that now miraculously avoid the steep slopes of central Bali and stay close to the level coastline and its sandy beaches. After all the climbing in Sumatra and Java, I'm not complaining either.

Stopped for a great seafood lunch where for a dollar you got several fish skewers, rice and octopus soup. After that we climbed up the main road out of Cucik before dropping from a peak of about 300 m through Tirtagangga and then through Amlapura. After another rice dish we rode down to the White Sand beach near Perasi, with the intention of staying if we could find a camping spot for the evening. A local village policeman, Ketut, offered us the use of his block house near the beach, surrounded by all his cockerals and coconut and cacao trees. Later we ate grilled tuna cooked over dried coconut husks with his wife, Wayan, before walking together back to the deserted moonlit beach. The full moon is an important ceremonial event in the Balinese Hindu calendar.

The next morning we went to the beach with Ketut to watch the returning fishing boast return with their catches of tuna that they had netted in the early hours.

Fishing boat returns with catch

Picking the fish from the net

Padangbai, Bali, Indonesia
Pedalled: 64,375 km