Backpacking through Indonesia was one of the most difficult countries I have ever travelled. Geographically, Indonesia is very long and skinny and dispersed into many different islands. There are lots of tours offering to take travelers to different parts of Indonesia but upon closer inspection and research these companies are often sketchy, unprofessional, and in this Hobo’s opinion, overpriced! We had a general idea of the places we wanted to visit in Indonesia but it would have been impossible to plan out the details of our trip from our laptops in Canada. There simply isn’t enough good information online.
Two and a half weeks into Indonesia we’d been yearning to make it to the mainland but kept hitting frustrating roadblocks with the logistics of it. Finally, Hobo M and I decided to stop trying to plan and just go for it! We booked a ticket with Garuda Indonesia Air this time, ($10 more for a better baggage weight, food, and it didn’t sound like we were riding a whipper snipper through the air) and headed off to Surabaya in the province of Java.
We got to the tiny airport and picked up our bag which had been rummaged through. Jokes on them, my clothes reeked of dirty hippie and I carry anything of value in my small pack which stays strapped to my body. Our destination goal upon arrival was the small city of Malong. Had we not done some research before heading here, we would have been completely lost before we even got out of the airport. Fortunately, after sifting through hundreds of blogs and websites someone had posted information about getting from Surabaya Airport to Malong. It’s amazing that we trusted the information some random online person posted to take us to where we needed to go, but overall I think the travel community is pretty trustworthy. Also, we had no other information to go off of. I’ll pay it forward and repeat the information:
We ventured outside the busy airport avoiding the aggressive touts for a taxi and scanned the area for the Damri shuttle bus. We were on this bus for approximately one hour as it weaved through the busy traffic to the bus station. Now, bus stations are sketchy enough in developed countries but I can guarantee that those bus stations are first class limo services compared to the stations of developing countries. Trying to navigate signs in a foreign language while having people yell at you to get on their bus to who-knows-where, while carrying your luggage, and really having to pee is a complete nightmare. I would have taken a photo of the experience but I was afraid to take my camera out. We chose to spend the extra 10,000 rupiah ($1) to go with the “upscale” Patas bus to Malong. There is no ticket booth, you simply wander until you stumble upon the correct bus, toss your backpack underneath and pray that no one takes it, then get squished into a “seat”. We were some of the last ones to board the bus so Hobo M got stuck in a back seat which was supposed be for three people but had evolved to seating 6, one of which was a rather large, snoring man. After about 20 minutes Hobo M had enough of her makeshift seat and to the confused looks of the locals took up a lounging position on the bus floor. 3 hours later, just when we were convinced we had gotten on the wrong bus we pulled into the equally sketchy Malong bus station. From here, it was a quick cab ride to our final destination, Helios Hotel.
I had only spent 5 hours in Java, but one thing was for certain; this was real Indonesia. The infrastructure was older and more basic, the roads were clogged with honking scooters and cars everywhere, and the pollution was atrocious.
Our first goal after arriving in Malong was to find food. This proved to be much more difficult than we had anticipated. We followed the worst directions in history and found everywhere but the eating district. 2.5 hours and a few near meltdowns later, we stumbled upon a McDonalds of all things. I’m ashamed to admit that in the heart of true Indonesian culture I succumbed to eating dirty, greasy McDonalds. But I was starving and oh, so HANGRY (Anger caused by severe hunger). Upon asking for directions we also came upon a tour to take us to Mount Bromo. Perhaps it was the state of starvation and exhaustion talking; the price was right so we spontaneously booked it without doing any research.
The next morning, or should I say that evening we woke up for our midnight pickup. The 5 people plus the driver crammed into a rickety red jeep. We drove through the darkness up the twisting mountain roads which were about as sketchy as the jeep we were driving in. There were definitely no guard rails and the muddy roads were spattered with broken cement slabs and rocks. It was amazing that our driver was able to navigate the route in the dark, especially when we got to the base of Mount Bromo and all the other rusty jeeps were racing each other through the open grass fields.
We got to the viewing area very early: 3:00 in the morning to be exact. There was really no place to wander and we couldn’t see anything so Hobo M and I tried to sleep on a cold bench for a while. I’m not going to sugar coat it, we were very unimpressed with this part of the tour. The sun didn’t really rise over Mount Bromo in a romantic, awe-inspiring way one might imagine … it just sort of got light. There were tourists EVERYWHERE and the endless array of selfie sticks were being waved around like magician wands. It wasn’t calm and peaceful, people were shouting in all languages trying to get their friend to take a picture of them. Eventually after the crowds started dispersing Hobo M and I wandered to the edge for a better view. The scenery was magnificent when the view wasn’t blocked by hordes of other tourists. We snapped a few photos and left, slightly disappointed that we had lost half our night’s sleep over the “sunrise” event.
To our surprise, the day did get better though. We drove down a different path of winding roads and ended up at the base of Mount Bromo. Our guide suddenly stopped the jeep, pointed to the mountain, and said, “Walk, 1 hour”. So we did as we were told and wandered to the mountain and started strolling. There was a set of stairs but it was full of tourists so we went to the secluded side of the mountain and climbed up the black volcanic sand. We weren’t sure what would be at the top but to our astonishment there was a ledge about 2 meters wide and then a plummeting drop down into a smoking crater. It was a beautiful phenomenon; we were standing on the edge of a smoking volcano!
For the rest of the day we stopped at various scenic spots at the base of the volcanoes to admire the scenery before fighting the congested, dirty traffic back to the place we were staying.
After a really solid nap and shower we made a plan for the next few days and were much more successful in finding a restaurant for dinner. Outside the restaurant some teenage locals approached and told us they, “Need to talk to, uh, people like you for our English project.” Due to Hobo M’s job, she cannot be videotaped but as a teacher I felt compelled (and secretly a nerdy excitement) to assist these students. We must have been the only Westerners in town because once I agreed to help the students started calling all their friends and suddenly teenagers everywhere were showing up on scooters looking for the one Westerner who was willing to assist with their project. Basically, the project was for their English Conversation class so they just needed to be videotaped talking in English to someone who’s native language is English. It was actually lots of fun and by the end they had me proudly singing Oh Canada. Perhaps I’ll be an Indonesian youtube sensation in the near future, haha.
The following morning we began the next leg of our journey. We were met at Helios Hotel by Mr. Dodo, who we would soon find out, would be the best tour guide we ever had. It was a long day of driving to our destination but we were in a comfy SUV instead of a falling apart jeep so we didn’t mind. 7 hours later with minimal stops we pulled into a secluded mountain town to hunker down at our homestay for the evening. The sleeping arrangements were as nice as they could have been for a town in a developing country kilometers away from anything else. And we were only slept there for a few hours anyway because we had another early wake up. Mr. Dodo fawned over us in the wee hours of the morning making sure we had some coffee and carefully presenting us with our packed breakfasts and bottles of water. It was an hour drive to Ijen Crater where we were met by a 17 year old boy, Rossit, who would be our guide. We were a little skeptical at first but this boy’s family had lived in the Ijen Village for years and his Dad was a miner and then a tour guide. He had a strong understanding of trail etiquette and had many more safety precautions put in place than all of the other guides we saw.
We started the upward hike that lasted a few hours. When we got near the top Rossit stopped us and gave us gas masks. We laughed because we didn’t see any other tourists wearing full out breathing apparatus but we took the masks anyway. We think the masks were Mr. Dodo’s doing.
When we stood on the edge of the crater looking in, it was like we were on a different planet. There was smoke pluming and billowing into the night sky, the volcanic rocks looked like they belonged on the moon, and there was blue flames at the bottom of the crater. Blue Flames! They were BIG and a brilliant electric bright blue. I had never seen anything like this and probably never will again in my life. Unfortunately the photos didn’t turn out very well because it was dark and the wind would shift the smoke quickly, blocking the view of the flame. The landscape will be forever etched in my memory though.
We took care climbing down into the crater. Rossit was very respectful of the miners who carry minimum 100 lb. loads of sulphite in woven baskets on their shoulders up out of the crater and then down the side of the mountain to town. Both Hobo M and I tried to lift one of their baskets and failed miserably. They get paid the equivalent of 90 cents for a load of sulphite. The miners are SO strong and work for virtually nothing. I felt admiration for them but also sympathy.
Avoiding the miners and allowing them to pass on the narrow path, we eventually made it to the bottom of the crater. We could see the bursting blue flames up close and admire how they danced across the sulphite. Rossit, being Muslim, took a few minute to go pray and then returned by our side. Suddenly Rossit perked up and tilted his head towards the sky, quickly shifting his view from left to right. He grabbed my hand and yelled, “Danger! Danger!” We weren’t sure if he was being overly dramatic or serious but we found out soon enough when a huge sulpher smoke cloud forcefully blew our way. We climbed as quickly as we could and I was so grateful that I had worn my silly gas mask. My eyes were burning and watering but I scrambled after Rossit’s path with Hobo M in tow. We finally reached an area where the smoke couldn’t get us and listened to the coughing and sputtering of the other tourists trying to retreat to safety as well.
After catching our breath, we trekked to the top of the crater to enjoy the stunning view that the crater had to offer now that the sun had risen. There was a striking turquoise lake in the bottom framed by the soft billowing of the sulphite smoke beside it. The blue flames were no longer visible, only the night hikers got to see them. The walk down the mountain was serene and peaceful.
Mr. Dodo was waiting for us at the bottom of the trek with tea and cookies. Once our energy was replenished we made the 2 hour drive to the harbor. Mr. Dodo purchased our ferry tickets for us, then walked us in directing us from a distance to make sure we got on the right boat. A true tour guide, right to the bitter end!
Back in Bali, Hobo M bartered hard for a taxi and we drove for 4 hours to the town of Seminyak, which is a few kilometers down the beach from Kuta (where we had been staying previously). We had scheduled in 3 days of rest, relaxation, and of course, surfing before we had to hop on our flights back to cold Canada. There was plenty of rest and relaxation, but unfortunately the surfing conditions had changed drastically while we were on the main land. The rainy season had come, which meant that the Ocean currents had shifted. This resulted in all of the garbage thrown in the Ocean near Java (on the mainland) was being washed up on the beach in Bali. Within a week, this beach had gone from a pristine, white sand, surfer’s paradise to a disappointing dump. There was so much garbage washed ashore that beach front hotels had to clean it up with rakes, as if they were raking autumn leaves every day. We tried surfing in the garbage water one day, but feeling pieces of god-knows-what brushing by your legs and arms was gross.
We spent our last few days walking the beach, doing some Christmas shopping, relaxing by our hotel pool, eating delicious meals in bean bag chairs on the beach, and getting spa treatments such as a haircut and style, and fingernails and toenails painted for $12.50 total. It was a lovely way to end 100 days on the road.
I wish I could say my flights had gone as smoothly as my last few days of travel but they did not. My flight to Seoul, South Korea was delayed. They came and found me on the plane and moved me up to the front to give me a fighting chance to make my connection back to Canada. I told myself this was excellent training for The Amazing Race Canada and with no shame I full out sprinted through the Incheon Airport. I was determined to get home to Hubby Hobo! I arrived at the gate as the last people were boarding and miraculously made my connection. Unfortunately, my luggage did not make it, but was delivered to me a few days later. Mother Nature gave me a nice welcome home by dumping the biggest winter snowstorm we’ve had this year on me when I arrived. “Welcome Home” – Love, Canada.
Overall, my 100 days of travel were some of the most fascinating, challenging, fun, and craziest days of my life. I learned that I am much stronger and more capable than I ever gave myself credit for. I learned that you don’t need many material possessions to be happy. I learned that the human race, as a whole, are really good people. And I learned just how BIG our planet is. There are so many places to go, things to learn, cultures to experience, and people to meet. You just need to make the effort to break outside of your bubble and see all that the world has to offer!
–> A special thank you to Hubby Hobo for fully supporting me in my crazy dreams of touring. I know you sacrificed much more than I did to make this happen. I am so lucky to have had the adventure of a life time and be able to come home to you patiently waiting for me at the airport with a supportive smile on your face. I Love You more than all the sand in the Namib Desert! XOXO Lots of Love, Your ridiculous, wandering wife – The High Class Hobo