The Road to Pelabuhan Ratu (2010-03-31)

The view from the back seat of the Pondok Kencana van

A pair of blinding white lights barrels towards me out of a sea of blackness encircled by a ring of foliage. My heart skips a beat as the vehicle whose headlights briefly blinded me swerves back into its own lane, having avoided the obstruction that is merely a black void to our stunted vision, probably a disabled bemo (a small, under powered mini van). I am sitting in the passenger seat of a standard mini van on the roads of Indonesia. My driver, Itang, has been skillfully wending through the highways, local roads, and half gravel half pothole back roads that lead from Jakarta to Pelabuhan Ratu. We’ve been traveling nearly 3 hours.

Jakarta Skyline (From WikiMedia Commons)
Public Domain1

The roads around Jakarta are surprisingly first world, considering I’ve heard Jakarta compared to Mexico City, an image that the state of affairs at the airport tends to reinforce. As you haul along the 3 lanes of smooth blacktop, green direction and exit signs flashing past, glassy sky scrapers erupting from the mix of green palm trees and red clay tile roofs in the distance, you could almost forget you weren’t in The States; were it not for the fact that you’re driving on the left side, and the shoulder is more often than not used as a passing lane. Every third truck on the road here is carrying water (in the blue plastic Mulligan Man bottles). I’m not sure where from or where to, but the idea of water mains and pipelines seems to have no place here. These trucks, so massively overburdened, tend to have a hard time keeping the pace, so the difference between slow and fast lanes is often 50 KPH (the ratio of Kilometers to Miles is about 5:3 FYI).

It’s not until we reach Bogor, a city about half way between Jakarta and Ratu geographically but certainly not temporally, that things get really interesting. When we reach Bogor, the multilane blacktop freeway, rest stops with Mc Ds and Pizza Huts, and all other trappings of the first world end abruptly. The road is suddenly one narrow lane in each direction, with a 5 cm drop off to a gravel and mud shoulder. The narrow should is flanked by shack after bamboo shack peddling anything from fruit to cell phone SIM cards. The rest stops sporting Big Macs have been supplanted by warungs (food stalls) advertising their nasi goreng (fried rice) in big red letters. Where vehicles stop in order to frequent these establishments would be a mystery to me, except that every mile or so we have to eek our way around some car parked half on the shoulder half in the road, and that’s excepting the angkot (bemo used for public transport) receiving or discharging passengers.

A Bemo (From Wikimedia Commons)
Some Rights Reserved2

As the sun begins to set, and the traffic thicken, the organized chaos of the roads turns to full fledged anarchy. Bemo and car alike have started using the shoulder as another lane, despite its rut worn, occasionally washed out nature, as we try to pass the lumbering, oversized tour buses that look so out of place on the narrow lanes, next to the mini-mini-vans of Indonesia. The mopeds are weaving in and out of traffic with such speed and through such tight spots it puts New York bike messengers to shame. And yes, we’re still on a road lined be shacks, sometimes peddlers, sometimes homes, and not for lack of distance traveled, for the landscape remains thus, unchanged, for miles. It’s as if the city failed to ever develop outwards, but instead stretched on, for seemingly endless miles, lining the highway, like vegetation clinging to the banks of a river in the desert.

Eventually, as traffic grinds to a near halt, Itang veers off onto one of the seldom seen side roads. I’m not sure if we’re taking a detour to avoid traffic or if this is the normal route, but this road is much narrower, closer to one lane although we pass oncoming vehicles at near full speed, and frequently pocked with man sized potholes, which we rapidly decelerate for, or swerve around, depending on the size of the next oncoming vehicle. Motorcyclists and pedestrians alike seem unfazed but the 250 some odd kilos of steel hurdling towards them, and Itang drives with what seems like a willful disregard for life. But really he just doing what it takes to get somewhere in rural Indonesia. The local roads, in such disrepair that they are, are also "toll roads." But no booth or uniformed official will you find, instead local villagers stand at the entrance and exit of their village collecting a tax for your passage, like the highwaymen of old. The supporters of the local mosques just stand in the center divide accepting donations instead, much to the chagrin of the lane splitting mopeds.

At some point during this ride, I’m struck by the similitude between the periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror I experience in the passenger seat of this van, and the larger experience of reaching our destination. Before we even left, I ground out several months at a job that I found little joy in, before feeling the excitement of actually embarking on our three month journey. There was the typical blasé air travel, contrasted with stress and worry over how we would get my surf boards from the cargo warehouse at 8pm on a Sunday, where they had arrived several days before. Some of the bungalows at Pondok Kencana taken as we waited for word about our boards Then there was the first ride Jakarta to Ratu which I was only half conscious for followed by a day of waiting and uncertainty, contrasted with the terror of not being able to tell if the "shipping agent" was actually working on my behalf or trying to con me out of the ridiculous sum quoted as "import tax" without getting me any closer to having surfboards. Not to mention the stress of being in a place where few people speak the same language as you, theft from and abuse of visitors is reported as common, and the water just might give you dysentery (although I doubt it since most of it is brought in on trucks). But despite the emotional rollercoaster ride, we’re here now, we got our boards, the surf is good, most of the locals we meet are friendly and helpful, and it all comes with a sense of accomplishment at making it to a place, completely on one’s own initiative, that most others wouldn’t think of visiting, much less overcome all the fear
s that might dissuade them.

The sun sets, boards in hand, the stress melts away

  1. Jakarta Skyline: Public Domain This file has been released to the public domain. See http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jakarta_Skyline_(Resize).jpg for more Information.
  2. A Bemo: This file is licensed by under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. See http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bemo,_Gianyar_200507.jpg for more information.

Third World Oven (2010-03-28)

“Jeremy, you may not sit in the fridge,” Paul’s sister instructed her son.

IMG_1174 We were spending the week in Yangon, Myanmar visiting my in-laws. Paul’s sister and her husband taught English locally. Their 2 year old daughter Rebecca had joined her older brother in his attempt to beat the sweltering heat in front of the fridge. It was the dry season, which also meant the hot season. I normally enjoy warm weather, but this was extreme – sit in the fridge extreme, to be exact.

Jeremy complied readily to his mother’s request, and accepted a drink as an alternative means to cool off, but it was clear that he was disappointed to move from his chosen spot. He was five years old (a fact he reminded us of several times a day) and had spent most of his life in Myanmar or neighboring Thailand. Yet throughout the week, he and Rebecca could be found at times sitting or standing in front of the open fridge door. They never remained there long, as some adult usually discovered them quickly and helped them with whatever they were looking for. But I don’t blame them for wanting that refreshing cold air.

Over the week, I got used to the heat, as much as was possible. It was still incredibly unbearable in the midday sun, which we avoided as much as possible. We spent most of our time relaxing around the apartment and playing with the kids. We read to them, played games, and tried our best to move around as little as possible. In the evenings the heat started to fade, and I began to enjoy waking up to cool mornings, which clocked in at a refreshing 83°F/30°C.

IMG_1333 A trip down the alleyways outside was quite an experience. Dust drifted past our ankles. Beads of sweet dripped down the small of our backs and brow. The street was narrow and the people and stalls around made the place feel close. Men walked swiftly past in long longyi (lone-gee) and loose flip flops. The streets were lined with carts of fruits and vegetables, or food that was cooked too long ago. Their purveyors hovered over them, listlessly shooing away flies with long brushes. The stalls sold dried goods or car parts, or they housed workers bent over sewing machines or offering haircuts. In one a man couched over some hulking car part with an arc welder. The bright point of light burnt a spot into your vision, and I didn’t envy the man wearing his heavy mask in the heat. We stepped aside as rickshaws rattled past over the mix of rutted gravel and pavement. Further down was a square with a cafe, the clients sitting outside on overturned buckets taking their lunch. The sun beat down overhead, as we sidestepped the raw sewage puddles blocking our path and stifling our breath.

Out on the large roads, crossing each street was a game of Frogger. Vehicles bear down on you with no intention of stopping as you hurry across busy lanes in one direction, pause on the middle line while traffic on both sides zooms past at full speed, then make the final dash to the far side. It’s all part of regular life in Myanmar – there are practically no tourists and no infrastructure for tourism. Twice during the week we saw other westerners in the stores, but overall our pale faces were unique among the city full of locals.

IMG_6567Despite the lack of official tourist destinations or activities, there were a few interesting things to see around the city, such as the Buddhist temple not far from the apartment. It was a massive city of white tiles and real gold decorations, with hundreds of large gold plated Buddha statues sitting or lying under high pagodas. Some of the statues even had fans above them to keep them cool. All visitors checked their shoes at the front, though luckily they were watched over so no “slumdogs” made off with them. We walked barefoot, avoiding the dark tiles that soaked up the rays of the sun, and savoring the cool shade of the pagodas. As we went Paul’s brother in-law explained to us some of the tenants and history of Buddhism, and its establishment in Myanmar. Still, we couldn’t help but be taken in by the sights and sounds that surrounded us. The air was filled with the sound of gongs being rung for good luck by the faithful or by mirthful children. Women and scarlet robed monks avoided physical contact as it could hinder the latter in reaching Nirvana.

IMG_6553

We also visited a local park near the man-made Inya Lake. IMG_1182The park consisted of a small restaurant, play area, and garden, situated peacefully along the still lake, stirred neither by wind nor vessel.  Signs marked fallen trees that remained as evidence of the 2008 cyclone. It was a pleasant place to spend the hot part of the day, the water and vegetation caused a significant drop in temperature compared to the dusty, barren sidewalks around the rest of the city. We spent the late morning hours admiring the shrubberies and sculptures, or wandering amongst brightly colored dragonflies.

IMG_1238

Brilliant colors were also the theme at the large restaurant we visited on a subsequent day. It was shaped like a huge gold temple pagoda and a boat, poised as if floating on another of Yangon’s lakes. The dinner buffet featured a generous and delicious sample of regional cuisine, along with a few foreign imports. Paul enjoyed the local liquor, a clear gin-like spirit, which was a fraction of the price of the imports. The entertainment went on over the noise of dinner. It included traditional instrumental music, Burmese dance, and very talented puppeteers. It went on for hours, starting before we arrived and was still going after most people left for the evening.

Everywhere there were signs of poverty. Cars and buildings suffered the wear and tear of the tropics with little attention to upkeep beyond maintaining basic functionality. Some places looked great inside, like the apartment we stayed in and some fancier stores, but all still suffered the daily afternoon power outages. No electricity IMG_1264meant no elevator and flashlights for the dark trip down the stairwell. Luckily, the power was always back whenever we were coming back up. The water pressure also dropped to nothing since the usual pulsing flow from the tap required electricity from both a main building pump and another in the apartment. Even at the somewhat fancy dinner show the power went out several times during the evening.

We embraced a bit the Burmese culture as much as possible during our short stay. We purchased and wore our own longyi, which helped us follow the sweltering style of dressing modestly. Our hosts introduced us to many delicious local dishes.

Between spending time with family and the vast differences in culture and weather, it was an interesting and enjoyable week.

IMG_1357

Photos From Australia (2010-03-21)

So we haven’t been posting much lately, not because things haven’t been happening, but because our ability to connect to the internet in Indonesia was so limited. Not to mention we’ve been a little busy traveling, surfing, meeting new friends, and partying. But we’re back in San Francisco now, and I’ve finally been able to upload a bunch of our photos from Australia. So here they are:

Keep an eye out for more back dated posts & photos from our trip to Myanmar and Indonesia.

The Land of Oz (2010-03-21)

The Sydney Skyline Seen From the Rose Bay Ferry

Australia is a far more beautiful than I ever gave it credit for, or at least the coastal area of New South Whales is (but I’m told the rest is equally gorgeous). There are clear blue waters, white sandy beaches, striking sand stone formations, and the lush forests of the Blue Mountains framed by the massive cliffs of the Australian Grand Canyon. On top of this the summer weather is idyllic. I always thought Australia would be more like the United States: expansive stretches of blasé landscape and marshy or rocky coastline, punctuated occasionally by magnificent features, like our Grand Canyon, the Sierras, or the white sand beaches of western Florida. But if there is an area in Australia with nothing to see, we haven’t been there.

The Steps Down to 'The Three Sisters' in Katoomba Thanks to our gracious hosts and friends here, we’ve been able to survey a wide variety of the landscape. Simon drove us to the Blue Mountains about 2 hours drive west of Sydney.  We visited the town of Katoomba which sits perched atop a significant cliff, below which lush green foliage, reminiscent of that of the Olympic Peninsula, stretches to the foothills of distant ridges and mountain ranges. If one were to venture beyond the visitors center, massive staircases cut into the cliff, and well marked trails, to which we confined ourselves, they would find miles of pristine wilderness. After riding the breathtakingly steep cable car back to the top, we made our way to the North, just short of the town of Blackheath. There, at the end of a long, rough dirt road, we enjoyed a view of the expansive Australian Grand Canyon. The canyon is 600 meters from rim to floor, with a sheer cliff at its rim reaching 250 meters at its most extreme. It not a little resembles the American canyon of the same name, with it’s colorful sand stone faces, just save the arid slopes that line the base. We’ve resolved to return the region fully equipped for a multiday backcountry hike the next time we make our way to Sydney.

The Australian Grand Canyon, Taken From the South Rim

The following week, our "cousins" Shaun and Deborah drove us north of Sydney to do some beach driving and surfing at a remote beach called Birubi. The beach was nearly deserted, and the break completely devoid of other surfers. Jen, Heading Out to the Waves at Birubi The waves were okay at best, but we definitely got some good rides. I saw Jen get one of the best rides of the day on a seemingly endless left hander, which she deftly caught backside. Unfortunately we missed the photo op. After an hour or two of surfing we continued North to Nelson’s Bay, a pristine boating spot, lined with beautiful beaches sporting warm clear blue water, but little in terms of surfing waves, although apparently on big swells the region features some of the better spots thanks to its sheltered nature. We had BBQ for lunch before making our way to one of the ocean side beaches where I did some body surfing while Jen took a long walk looking for shells.

Paul Catches a Wave at Birubi

Shaun Lets Some More Air Out of the Tires For the Drive Back Down the Beach And lest my meager descriptions here fail to persuade, let me say that throughout all of our drives through the skipped over and unexplored landscape we have been repeatedly stunned by its beauty. What we’ve seen is merely a smattering of places within a short distance from Sydney. There is so much to see here, that surely one could spend a lifetime exploring this continent and not begin to scratch the surface, nor cease to be in awe of it. If you don’t believe me, I guess you just have to visit yourself. Just remember, you can’t allot too much time to explore and experience Oz.