Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 15, May 25, 2002
Bitch Fights, Ballet, Sex Tourists, Lava



Buses and bitch fights

When it came to leaving Sumatra, Jane was adamant that we take a coach down to Jakarta. In support of this position, she advanced two persuasive, cogent arguments: namely that buses are economical and that with overland travel, you get to see more of the country you're passing through. Of course, these arguments were all well and good, but complete rubbish. There was only one real reason she really wanted to take the bus and that was because she's terrified of flying, especially in third world countries whose bucket carriers make a habit of landingin unsual places like mountains and swamps. Still, accommodating chap that I was, I acquiesced with good grace and agreed that a 30-something hour journey over some of the worst roads on God's clean earth beat a half hour flight hands down.

Thus we found ourselves in Bukittingi bus terminal where things swiftly started deteriorating. It soon became apparent that our bus wasn't going to show up at all. We took this development with some stoicism, though several of our fellow passengers were considerably less thrilled about this news. So unthrilled in fact that there was soon a three way bitch fight going on between the woman at the counter and several of her female customers. Nor was this altercation the usual shrieks and slapping: the violence level escalated fast and, presently a chair flew across the counter; this was followed by a pair of shoes, one of which caught the unfortunate counter woman in the face, resulting in a flood of tears and effectively ending the fight.

Entertainment over, order was eventually restored and twenty minutes later there was still no news of our bus, but there was a spanking new uberbus outside. So Jane seized the initiative and explained to the counter woman that she might consider upgrading us to this bus, for no extra charge. The woman dissembled and Jane gave her a business stare. She looked as if she might start blubbing afresh and, doubtless fearing a second shoeing promptly upgraded the entire passenger list to a bus replete with karaoke and Dolf Lundgren films. Indonesian karaoke videos are a remarkably egalitarian art form - instead of starring the young and pulchritudinous, they feature paunchy middle-aged types. And their films are similarly open-minded: after the karaoke we 'enjoyed' a remake of 'Something about Mary'peopled entirely by flabby 45 year olds. The only other on-board entainment was the air conditioner dumping its load of water on a sleeping Jane. This is a rude way to wake anyone and seh spent several confused moments screaming 'Ahhh! Water from the sky! Water from the air!' Indeed it was and I like to think of it as God's way of punishing those who favour coach travel.

After the varied attractions of southern Sumatra - much like the north, but flatter and with less forest and more fields we reached the Southern city of Bandarlampung. This benighted place's sole claim to fame is that it was destroyed in 1876 by the tidal waves resulting from the eruption of the nearby Krakatau volcano, the largest volcanic explosion the modern world has ever seen. Driving through Bandarlampung you find yourself hoping that history will repeat itself and soon.

However Bandarlampung's charms are but a warm up for Jakarta on the neigbouring island of Java. You get in foretaste of what the Indonesian capital might be like from 30km away. A brown smudge appears on the horizon, spreads to become a sort of miasma and expands until you're enveloped in a kind of brown fog. Then you get to the suburbs - a lot of low, anonymous factory buildings,many of them the country's justly famous sweatshops, where thousands toil for pennies an hour to produce the brands we love so much. Economic injustice is rarely pleasant, but it is interesting to see where your Nikes begin their lives. Then you'e in the city proper - at night Jakarta has a sort of Blade Runneresque noir about it, but with daylight you realise the place more like a filthy Singapore, dotted with monuments in the heroic socialist vernacular built by Soekarno, one of the country's less lovable leaders.

Sex Tourists and Shopping

Lacking sufficient time to fully explore accommodation options we found ourselves in Jakarta's version of the Ko San road. It's a grubby, charmless little thoroughfare and our hotel room looked like the kind of place where the less ethical intelligence services interrogate those unwilling to confess after the usual inducements. And there, exhausted from our 36 hour journey we met our Irish pals from Sumatra, fresh as daisies; they had wisely chosen to pay the extra 30 quid and fly. Still, my brother would later make us feel rather better. He had kept it almost unfeasibly real by taking a bus where the bloke next to him was so unpleasant, he had to drool on his shoulder to get him to move seats.

When you're over Jakarta's dirt and concrete, you realise there's something a bit odd about many of your fellow tourists...why you wonder is a man in his fifties vacationing in these climes alone. Indeed, you see them everywhere: flabby, pub-frazzled men with balding combed hair combed over pink pates, fag permanently on the go, booze raddled faces with noses like over-ripe strawberries. Then you realise: these are Jakarta's famous sex tourits. When you see these revolting met, it's very hard to resist the urge to stare daggers and hiss 'pervert' at them. But even if you do draw attentions to their moral shortcomings, they just look away furtively and slink off with their underage companions, doubtless long immune to the opprobrium of total strangers. Or perhaps I'm being desperately cynical and the love that flourishes between a 55 year old European and a 15 year old Indonesian is the most beautiful and natural thing in the world.

So what do you do in big unpleasant cities? Well you can fag around looking at a few grimy tourist attractions, feeling terribly worthy. Or you can hail a cab to the nearest air-conditioned mall chock full of major western labels, many of which are doubtless made locally. For the brand-literate consumer, this is a fascinating experience. Every third world country has its unbelievable bargain brand and Indonesia's is Polo. Yes, in Jakarta at least, Polo shirts are sold for something approaching their true value - around a tenner. So while, the bemused staff of the Polo boutique looked on Jane and I each bought several hundred quid's 'worth' of Ralph Lauren kit for around #30 each.

Still, though we greatly enjoyed our day's conspicuous consumption we both had that nagging doubt: were we somehow missing a fascinating city that rewards those who look that little bit harder? Luckily the answer to this is no: later on we met an American anthropologist, a culturally sensitive chap, who'd spent a year in Indonesia. His verdict on Jakarta: 'You know, I've tried so hard to find something to like about the place, but you did just about the only good thing there is to do.' Indeed, something you soon realise in these parts is that if you want nice cities you should go to Europe - nobody else does urban living as well, or, in most case, at all well.

After a train journey during which I received some over attentive squeezing from an Indonesian army officer (was he just friendly or did he want some military lovin'?) we found ourselves in Jogyjakarta. By our standards it's an average little place, but in local terms, it's Venice, Paris and Prague rolled into one. And, to be fair, in the surrounding environs there is a lot of culture to be had. So, feeling we'd been tad plebby of late, Jane and I went out and cultured ourselves good and hard. The first night we went to the Javanese ballet. This was not an original idea on my part, but only came about because an erudite and sensitive chap next to me at a travel agents (the anthropologist) was buying tickets. Still,despite myself, I rather enjoyed the performance. Mainly because it involved considerably more real fire than is usually found at the ballet, significant violence and an army of monkeys led by the simian God Hanuman who executed a number of stylish SAS-style forward rolls. It was also performed in the grounds of an enormous Hindu temple complex, allowing us to neatly kill two cultural birds with one stone.

The following day we continued our cultural blitzkrieg by visiting Brodobudur, a massive Buddhist complex that must enjoy a whole raft of superlatives. The temple's tone friezes depicted everything from Buddha achieving enlightenment to a story about a monkey who teased a buffalo. Being a jolly good chap, the buffalo didn't tell the monkey where to get off as he would just have gone and irritated the other animals; for this the forest goddess gave the monkey ree-spect. I'm not quite sure what the moral of this remarkable tale of selflessness was, but I certainly felt it was pitched at about my level. Several levls above the friezes there were a number of stylish buddhas, representing various states of being and the whole place was finally capped by a massive stupa containing the perfection of nothingness. I only know all this because the anthropolist came with us, ensuring I wound up learning far more than I had set out to.

Crap currency, crap food

So fun and learning! Edutainment! What more could a you possibly want? Well, for starters a better currency would be nice. In the big cities, a visit to the cashpoint makes you a millionaire, but in the provinces withdrawals are limited to Rp600,000 or around 45 quid: the Rupiah is a currency that would still be unimpressive if it had three noughts lopped off. On a related note, I was lucky enough to catch a couple of minutes of the Indonesian version of 'Who wants to be a millionaire'except in this case it's billionaire. And an Indonesian billionaire is worth just under #80,000.

The other real downer is the food. It's not so much that it's bad - more that you can exhaust the entire Indonesian culinary cannon in a couple of days. Here is a list of Indonesian dishes: fried rice, fried noodles, vegetables in peanut sauce, satay in peanut sauce. Then there's Pedang cuisine which is essentially anything from chicken to brains and fish heads curried in coconut milk. So we're talking a grand total of maybe eight dishes, only two or three of which have much merit. If, in Indonesia, you see a restaurant serving any and I do mean any other (Polish, Romainian anyone?) cuisine you hotfoot it inside. Indonesian food, like Hindi pop music really goes to show that
there are some parts of other cultures that really aren't worth bothering with.


Still, it's important to end on high note and last night we took a minibus to watch Mount Merapati, currently Indonesia or the world's most active volcano, depending on who you believe. The night was a little cloudy and visibility wasn't great, but sure enough, the mountain obliged and coughed out a sevral impressive rivers of fire. If you've ever watched lava on telly, watching lava live is an education. Telly lava seems to move like treacle; the real thing moves at around 100km an hour and sends incandescent bombs hundreds of feet into the air. And just to add that frission of excitement to the proceedings our guide told us the reason we couldn't get any closer to the action. A few years back a pair of Dutchmen had been a kilometre or two closer, when the volcano did it's stuff. One was caught in molton rock and died in unimaginable agony. The other survived but fell in the lava givning himself a Nikki Lauda facelift and barbequeing one of his legs. Still,it's all rather spendid and I'm sure that as long as you keep your distance, a night out at the volcano would make for a stylish and memorable first date.