You hope Indonesian journeys are going to get better, but they don't.
Many Indonesians had told us that in Java the roads are 'just like
Europe'; I can only assume they were talking about some forgotten corner
of Bulgaria or Macedonia. Plus our driver either couldn't drive or was
so new to the driving game he'd picked us up straight from the test
centre: he decelerated or changed up or both while overtaking. As the
land rose as we neared our destination, Mt Bromo, he gamely climbed the
hills in fifth, occasionally allowing himself to slip into fourth if a
stall looked imminent. I know my driving has been the subject of
considerable comment (little of it favourable) over the years but this
fellow had scaled new peaks of ineptitude. And there is something
incredibly frustrating at watching the truly incompetent at work,
knowing all the time that you could do so much better. I could see Jane,
who takes her driving a little more seriously than me choking back her
rage as she fought the urge to seize the wheel from this moron.
By some chance (and some hours late) our man delivered us to the 'Lava
lodge' on the lip of the main crater. Despite its cheesy moniker, the
Lava Lodge was a fine establishment with great food and friendly staff;
indeed one of the waiters later became so friendly I suspected he
wouldn't have minded watching the male members of our group in the
As the Lava Lodge's name would suggest, Mt Bromo is no stranger to
tourists; in fact this spectacular volcano is Indonesia's premier
tourist draw outside Bali. And big attractions draw big tour groups.
What is it with big tour groups? I can't imagine anything worse than
being cooped up with a coach load of ill-dressed, loudly grousing
idiots, treated like cattle, forced to eat in sanitised restaurants and
occasionally allowed out to gawp out some MUST SEE attraction. But
clearly a lot of people disagree with me, because big coach groups are
everywhere. I suspect the answer to this conundrum is to be found in
that adaptable old adage: nobody you know likes all-in package tours,
but everyone you don't know just loves them.
The deal with Bromo is that you (and the several dozen economy sized
tour groups present) get up at 3:30am and leave at 4am to watch sunrise.
Because, if there's one rule of big tourist attractions, it's that they
look just great at sunrise. No matter what time you might want to see
them, you simply have to see them at sunrise: that's the law. And, sure
enough, by 5am we were drinking tea at a chilly observation point
surrounded by camera clicking, video-shooting hordes. We readied our
cameras and waited. Sure enough, on cue the eastern sky turned all sorts
of fabulous shades shot through with some of the finest iridescence
nature has; dutifully we clicked away. After enjoying the strident,
fiery show in the east for a while, we looked over at the crater where
the clouds were targeting a more sensitive audience with a series of
delicate pastel shades.
Land of the Rising Sun
As we were marveling at nature's broad spectrum appeal and commendably
inclusive approach, there was a tremendous round of applause from behind
us: an entire Japanese tour group was clapping and cheering. And the
occasion for this ovation The sun had just peeped above the horizon; and
- naturally enough - those from the land of the rising sun felt honor
bound to applaud the sun as it rose. Ian, one of the Irish guys showed
his cultural flexibility by joining in enthusiastically: 'Well done
God!' he yelled. We all agreed that we'd have to get up at 3am the
following morning to see if the sun was prepared to repeat this
But in fairness to the volcano, after all this build up it was worth it.
Within a fog filled 10-kilometer wide crater were three smaller cones,
one of which was still spitting brimstone. It's one of those
fantastical, rather unbelievable vistas like Yosemite Valley or Ayers
rock at sunset - nature getting a little too cute for its own good.
Heavily vulcanised as we were (averaging one a week) it was difficult
not to being impressed; and we gave the volcano a final sotto round of
applause before filing down into the crater.
Our final Javanese volcano box ticked, we bid a fond farewell to my
younger brother and the Irish guys who were off for a little R&R on
the Gili isles; we were heading to Surabaya, Java's eastern port.
Exhausted and in no mood to talk at the train station, I got to enjoy
one of those conversations. Here was a skanky looking guy, clearly
trying to sell me something. Within five minutes he'd sussed I wasn't
buying, but Indonesians aren't as mercenary as the Indians and, if
you're not interested, they'll hang around and talk for another half
hour for appearances' sake. And, like so many other conversations, this
particular conversation's topic was great heavy metal bands. What is
with Indonesians and heavy metal? - they can't get enough of this
dubious art form. Luckily I'd enjoyed enough heavy metal in my early to
mid teens to bluff my way. And the curious thing is that heavy metal
doesn't seem to have changed one bit since, aged 16, I decided that U2
were probably better than people who strutted around in sequined
codpieces and pretended to worship the devil.
Just as we were getting to the real reasons behind the black Sabbath
split, our train arrived. I bid my new metal chum a fond farewell and
once again - the train was 'Ekonomi' Class only - we were keeping it a
little realer than we'd hoped, crammed between a bulkhead and a
cantankerous family. But then we were rescued by a charming group of
teenage boys who insisted we came and sat with them. They were great:
they chatted a little in pretty good English, got Jane a fan and then
left us more or less to our own devices. They didn't want anything - not
even a conversation about Iron Maiden's glory days. What was more there
had clearly been a fire sale down to the endangered species pet store
and the boys had an entire menagerie of cute creatures (baby owl, baby
wildcat, etc.) covered by the CITES agreement to keep us amused during
Surabaya is a place of little charm and big shopping malls, that is a
typical Indonesian city. The only moment of real surprise came outside a
cash machine in one of the malls when we bumped into a group of
Americans: they were all young, all male and all had that huge look -
both well-muscled and fat - that comes from eating way too much hormone
fed beef as a child. Plus they were having the kind of conversation that
doubtless inspired the creators of Beavis and Butt-Head; one of them
seemed to be having genuine trouble chewing gum and standing still.
So what you might say - big dumb yanks are everywhere. But they're not
really. A few days earlier, I'd been talking to David, the American
anthropologist and he'd been bemoaning his fellow Americans' world-view
or lack of it. When I said that I'd met quite few well-informed
Americans in my travels, he told me that almost any American I met in
Indonesia would be atypical: it was, he explained a selection bias. He
went on to cite that well-known statistic - that only 15% of Americans
(around 42 million) have passports. But, he continued, that stat,
amazing enough in itself, was only the start. Of that 15%, he said,
around half only ever go to Canada or Mexico and of the remaining 7.5%
half only ever do a whistle stop tour of Europe. So only 10 million or
3.8% of the population has every traveled in anything like an remotely
None of which is a dig against Americans; it's just by way of explaining
why I was surprised to see fifteen prime meatheads in Surabaya's
swankiest mall. I tried to ask one what they were doing there, but I
think he thought I was French or something and, after a couple of tries,
I gave up. But the next day this mystery was solved: a copy of the
Jakarta Post told me that the US Navy was in town and conducting join
manouvres with its Indonesian counterpart. In my day-to-day life I have
never before encountered real life members of the sole remaining
superpower's armed forces, but I must say, I'm glad I've seen them up
close. Suddenly all those 'friendly fire' incidents make a whole lot
We'd planned to take the boat to Sulawesi, the K-shaped island east of
Borneo but Garuda Indonesia plane tickets were so cheap - around 25 quid
for 1000 km - that we decided to fly. As I boarded the plane I was a
little unsure whether my ticket was an unbeatable bargain or whether
Garuda is Indonesian for 'Ha ha ha - you're all gonna die.' It proved
the former: for less than the price of most UK rail fares, we enjoyed a
faultless flight. The stewardess - snazzily clad in a pleasingly
tight-fitting red jump suit - even provided a tasty box of cakes to
soothe Ms Treasure's aerophobic nerves.
At first, the Sulawesi landscape looks ominously malarial, particularly
when you've decided to ditch the malaria tablets - all rice paddies,
mangroves and fishponds. One gigantic swamp. But then things pick up and
its gets hillier and hillier and, within a few hundred kilometers you're
in an area reminiscent of southern Thailand with limestone buttes rising
out of rice paddies rather than the sea. Then the palm trees merge into
pines and you're in the Highlands, with peaks up to 3500 meters. For
some peculiar reason, a lot of countries like to style themselves 'The
Switzerland of the Orient' (this despite no snow or Nazi gold) but
Sulawesi with its towering peaks and impossibly neat little houses and
gardens actually does look a little like the Swiss alps in summer.
Our bus had stopped for lunch and we were a little surprised to see a
short red-faced man in his 60s with a video camera glued to his eye.
Espying us, he turned off the camera and announced: 'I'm Andy from
'Where's that?' asked Jane, not unreasonably.
'Wales' I said, but he wasn't listening and launched into a spiel about
how ludicrous it was that someone could possibly not know where Redcar
was. Although he was droning on I was well impressed with this
adventurous senior citizen, all the way out here, apparently by himself.
Then his wife appeared: some twenty years his junior (a mere blink of
the eye by the usual standards of Euro-Indonesian marriages) she was
from the island and in 25 years of marriage this was the first time he
had visited her home. I was a little less impressed. Andy then started
grousing afresh about those whose geographic knowledge didn't include
Redcar and, to break the tedium, I commented on the extraordinary and
unexpected beauty of the scenery. 'Yes,' he said, with a satisfied smile
'Just like Wales. It looks exactly like Wales. Amazing, just like
'Except the palm trees' said Jane eventually.
'Yeah' he said, put out 'apart from them it looks just like Wales.'
'Actually,' I said, 'I think it looks more like Scotland.' This did the
trick and he stomped off in huff, video camera back in place muttering:
'Just like Wales.'
The Torajan way of Death
We were staying in Rantepao, the largest town in the beautiful and
culturally rich Toraja region. Tana Toraja is Sulawesi's biggest
attraction and the Torajan way of death draws visitors from around the
world. Specifically the Torajans - although they've converted to
Christianity - believe that you can take it all with you and retain
strong elements of their pre-Christian animist beliefs. The funerals are
fantastically elaborate affairs and, if the stiff is important enough
can involve the sacrifice of dozens of buffalo; even a loser gets at
least one animal. Eventually after several days' pomp and ceremony the
dead guy (and his stuff) gets buried. But because well heeled corpses
are natural targets for grave robbers, the burial usually takes place
half way up a cliff face or in some similarly weird, tourist friendly
So, peculiar as it may sound, the thing to 'do' in Toraja is to go to a
funeral; not as odd as it sounds, these are affairs that involve whole
villages. And this is perhaps why so many of tourists in these parts are
French and Italian - you need to be Catholic to be that fascinated by
death. Anyhow, dilettante just about Protestants that we were, we
engaged a suitably lugubrious guide and bought 200 fags, the traditional
strangers' gift to the family of the deceased. And a very apposite gift:
given the quantity most Indonesians smoke, there's a very good chance
the subject of the funeral died of lung cancer.
But before we could go and intrude on very public grief, we got to go to
the market which, as things turned out, was the highlight of the day.
The Torajan market is basically all about buffalo - the rest,
interesting as it is, is a mere sideshow. Indeed, for a suitably flash
buffalo to sacrifice a Torajan will pay thousands of pounds, more than
many people here earn in a year. And, in the way that Americans save for
college education and the Brits save for weddings, Torajans save their
whole lives for death: if you can't kill a few buffalo when Granddad
karks it, you're nothing in Torajan eyes. A number of Indonesians on
other islands have cottoned on to this fact and bring their buffalo over
to Sulawesi where they fetch twice the price they would back home. All
this is because, way back in their pre-Christian, animist days the
animist Torajans worshipped the buffalo. And, when you think about it,
worshipping buffalo makes a lot of sense - after all, at least buffalo
Once we'd left the buffalo paddock, the market got even more exciting.
Two groups of locals were having a knife fight, the participants
doubtless hoping to give their village another reason to sacrifice a
buffalo. Then a guy ran down the street with a gun and we all piled
inside, lest we wind up having a couple of buffalo killed on our
After this excitement, the funeral itself was something of an
anticlimax. From the blood and chunks of meat, we'd clearly missed the
buffalo sacrifice. All we got was a load of downbeat music and waiting
around. Paying our respects to the dead we met a Portuguese couple (on
their Honeymoon) who posed next to the swaddled corpse with a
black-garbed relative for pictures. I know that Torajan funerals are, by
any standards, very public affairs, but this felt a little distasteful.
Back outside again and our guide finally broke his silence: the man had
been dead for five months, marinating in herbs and ointments, waiting
for his relatives to get together and organise his funeral. We did a lot
more waiting and eventually they put him in a big tent and carried him
around a bit. All in all, I was a bit underwhelmed by the whole affair.
I think the real problem was that our corpse wasn't a particularly
wealthy or well-liked chap. If only he'd been a bit richer or more
popular we might have got a real buffalo blood bath. As we were about to
walk away, we heard a family voice:
'Hi,' it said, 'I'm Andy from Redcar.'
I assumed he'd forgotten me and said: 'Yes we met a couple of days ago -
at that rest-stop, remember?'
'Course I remember,' he said, triumph rising in his voice, 'I was being
sarcastic you stupid wanker.'
Still stinging from Andy's own brand of sarcasm, we headed back to the
hotel where we told the owner who was busily trying to get us to provide
employment for all his mates, about the man with the gun. 'Hahah', he
said, 'It's nothing.' No, Jane replied, we weren't worried, but it was
definitely not nothing. 'No, really' he said, 'It's just fun.' I told
him that very few people jogged down the street with home made rifles
for kicks, but he persisted and we eventually agreed: gunfights were
either nothing or fun. Then he went back to trying to convince us to pay
another of his miserable mates to hang around all day saying nothing.
The next day, continuing in our funereal theme, we went to see some
burial sites sans (entirely unnecessary) guide. These were actually
rather better than the previous day's funeral and we kicked with an
impressive cliff face filled with graves and effigies of the dead before
heading up to a village with some seriously weird dead stuff. First we
saw a coffin suspended from a limestone overhang, then we dragged a
local guide away from a minor world cup match to take us round a couple
of caves full of bones. Despite our sepulchral surroundings, this man
was a cheery chappy and I for one was glad to have him there as we
ambled round the kind of place people are never seen again.
Grinning, our man pointed to an impressive rack of skulls - these, he
said, were his ancestors - before guiding us to a number of very recent
coffins, members of his village who had been buried (with appropriate
buffalo bloodletting) in the last month or so. All around us were small
offerings of food and bottles of mineral water which rather spoiled the
look of the tomb but, hey, you wouldn't want be seen drinking tap water
in the afterlife. Then after following our guide through a series of
gloomy passages and spooky chambers we were back in the blinding sun of
the equatorial day, more or less beneath the hanging coffin. His duties
over, our man sprinted back to catch the rest of the game, but not
before advising us that, if we fancied it, there was a nearby village
where they buried dead babies in trees.