Saturday, March 8, 2014

Indonesia’s Ring of Fire

March 7, 2014 – Indonesia’s Ring of Fire              
Bali, Indonesia
Day 52 - Distance biked so far: (3,634 km)
As I continued east from West Java, the heavy traffic slowed slightly and the joys of bicycling returned. I had a couple of days off in Yogyakarta (pronounced Yogya for short), a city considered the cultural capital of Java.  Yogya is very independent and is still headed by a Sultan whose palatial abode is referred to as a Kraton. It is a large city of about 1.6 million but feels much smaller after visiting the megacities of Jakarta and Bandung.
I had planned to rest here, particularly after reading that they had a nice guesthouse with a leafy garden, something I am always on the look out to find. The place had a pool that was being repaired but it was quiet and a great place to get some fresh air. Here is a view of the guesthouse.
Guesthouse in Yogyakarta
Yogya is a symbol of the Java resistance to colonial rule. In 1948, the Dutch occupied the city but the Sultan locked himself in the Kraton and allowed the rebel forces opposed to the occupation to live in the palace. The Sultan is very popular so the Dutch didn’t dare act against him and they declared that Yogya would be a special region when Indonesia eventually got independence, and it remains that way today. I toured around the Kraton and saw the Sultan’s palace. Here is a picture of one of the buildings.
Sultan’s Palace
I left Yogya and continued my eastward journey through Central Java. At one of the smaller cities I came to this statue. I started wondering how many times in my travels I have seen a large central statue erected for someone who was a teacher, scientist or even someone who donated a lot of their time to the less fortunate, there are millions of those people but I couldn’t recall one. Almost all the men occupying center stage around the world come from the military ranks. Here is another being celebrated.
Another military hero
I have spent almost all my time in Indonesia in areas where tourists seldom visit. At every single place I’ve stopped to eat, the waiters or waitresses will approach me and ask for a picture, usually with my bike. The people here are incredibly friendly and as is often the case, curious about our perceptions of their country. I was eating breakfast one morning and a man introduced himself after asking where I was from and where I am going, of course. His first question was “why do the people in America love to kill other people?” He was particularly angry with President Obama who promised to end the wars and to some extent did but then escalated the use of private contractors and unmanned drone attacks resulting in the death of many innocent people. He said there is a real anger brewing in the Muslim world again and American might pay a heavy price down the road for such reckless aggression. He got up and said it is something we just don’t understand. He wasn’t really asking me the questions, they were rhetorical in nature and I didn’t reply although I do agree with him. It seems the optimism for a more peaceful world after Obama came to office was met with the realization that those in control of arms and weapons, including many members of Congress, have more power than even the President of the United States.
Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world with almost 250 million people, 86% practicing the Muslim faith. They also have large minorities of Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. It is a very safe country to travel in, far safer than most Western countries, with crime rates low even in the large cities. The government is secular but there have been recent tremors of religious extremism. There were terrorist bombings in Bali in 2002 (killing 202 mainly foreign tourists) and again in Jakarta in 2005 however, the much feared rise in Islamic radicalism was unfounded.
There is widespread corruption here. In 1995, Indonesia was ranked the most corrupt of the 41 countries assessed by the first Corruption Index prepared by Transparency International. In 2004, it placed former President Suharto, as number 1 on it’s all time world corruption list, with an alleged embezzlement of up to $35 billion from his 32 years in power. Interestingly, the number 2 most corrupt politician of all time is the former President and Dictator of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos. You would think that once the plunder and graft of public funds was discovered, that Marcos and his family would pay a heavy price but that has not been the case. Marcos wife Imelda Marcos is currently a Governor in the Philippines and their son; Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is a Senator. Given the history of how corrupt politicians are treated in the Philippines, the son has a pretty good chance of one day becoming President.
One day I stopped for lunch and it started to rain. I went out to my bike and noticed that a man sitting nearby had put a piece of cardboard over my rear bags to prevent them from getting wet. I love the people here. In small towns, people just take more time to be aware of their surroundings and to care for each other.
Rain cover
It is harvest season in Indonesia and biking through the rice paddies is fantastic. Here is a photo of the large group of people involved, a scene repeated all along the roadsides.
Team effort
The rice harvest is done by hand. There would be 4 or 5 people (always women) cutting the rice plants with small machetes and piling the grass to the side. A few young men would then come by and lift the piles to the thrashing machines, which would separate the grass from the grains. One person would feed the grass into the machine and another collect the grains of rice in large sacks. The sacks would be piled up on the side of the road to be collected and taken to the mills. Here is one of the many thrashing machines in action.
Rice harvest
When I would go by the people would always yell and wave and often invite me to help. I would leave since it appeared no one needed a supervisor. The grass left over after the grains of rice were separated would be piled up and since this is Indonesia, lit on fire. The exhaust fumes and cigarette smoking is not enough so they have to add fires all along the highway for good measure. Cycling past those piles of burning grass made it very difficult to breathe.
Another fire
Just past Yogya, I passed the 3,000 km mark. It seems like a long time since I left Bangkok but in terms of my goal of cycling 50,000 km’s within 2 years, I have only completed 6%. If anyone says the world is small, they haven’t tried to bicycle around it.
3,000 km’s
The food in Indonesia is very good and in terms of spicy, it would fall somewhere between the spicy food of Thailand and the no spices of the Philippines. Most of the places I stay offer a breakfast that would typically involved fried rice and a small mixture of cucumbers and carrots in a vinegar sauce. They also serve crackers that are eaten everywhere and it has a fishy taste to it which I don’t like. One of my favorite breakfasts was a vegetarian meal with tofu and rice with vegetables. It was served on a banana leaf and absolutely delicious.
Another breakfast
Last year I did a personal experiment with eating. I wanted to see the impact of diet on my personal blood composition so in May had a full blood test measuring cholesterol, blood sugar, lipids etc. I then commenced a strict vegan diet. That means I went 6 months without chicken, beef, fish, butter, cheese, eggs or even cream in coffee.  No animal products at all. At the end of the test period I had another blood test done and the results were incredible with my total cholesterol level dropping from 178 to 138 and my bad cholesterol decreasing from 117 to 75. It was very difficult to maintain the diet when I went back to Tacloban for 6 weeks, as meat is such a big part of the meals. On my bike trip I have done my best to maintain a vegetarian diet but a vegan diet is particularly difficult. I do seek out vegetables and fruit wherever I go and have maintained a strict vegetarian diet here in Indonesia. I wonder how that will go over in the barbecue capital of the world, Australia. I suspect that I will be met with a few raised eyebrows in the outback where a cyclist would be expected to eat at least one large steak, and love it.
This breakfast is a traditional one served in Java called Nasi Punel (Nasi is the word for rice). It was also delicious.
Traditional Java breakfast
As I eat in these small roadside restaurants I am inundated with questions about my trip, my impressions of Indonesia and of course my love life, or lack of it in my case. When I tell them I am travelling alone they have what can only be described as a look of deep pity. I thought one lady was going to burst into tears when I told her I was riding by myself. I saw her lips quivering as she tried to absorb the idea of biking around the world on your own. The people here are without exception friendly and curious and always want a photo. Here is the owner and her daughter with me.
Restaurant owners
My favorite meal in Indonesia however is called gado gado. It is so good that they named it twice. The meal is steamed bean sprouts and various vegetables served with a spicy peanut sauce.
Gado gado
As I passed from Central to East Java the traffic slowed even more and the scenery continued to be very impressive. I love the stark contrast offered by the flat green rice fields and the volcanic mountains in the background.
Towering volcano
One of the things I was really looking forward to as I headed east was to visit one of the many volcanoes. Indonesia is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 40,000 km area with volcanoes and earthquakes and the volcanoes here are some of the most active in the world. On February 14th, a major eruption occurred nearby on Mount Kelud, killing 3 and forcing the evacuation of 100,000 people.
I had heard that one of the most impressive sites was Gulung (Mount) Bromo and that was my target. Bromo is located in Bromo-Tengger-Semuru National Park and I was told a few times that the best experience would be to join a tour. In many places I enjoy going on tours as you get a lot of good information that would often be missed if you went alone. I arrived on a Thursday afternoon in the town of Probolinggo and asked the owner of the hotel for advice. I was hoping to rent a motorcycle to get to the Park but he suggested I go with a driver since it would be very early in the morning and he would know where to go and how to arrange the tour. I was up at 2:30 am and jumped on the back of a motorcycle and headed off. It was a crazy ride, speeding through the countryside at dark and then going on a very long and windy road up to the park. At the entrance I had to put on a jacket and head warmer and then waited for a jeep. 4 other tourists and a jeep driver soon met me and off we went. The road was almost vertical and the jeep crawled up in 4-wheel drive at a walking pace, they like steep roads here.
A long road of jeeps was there and everyone got out to climb up to a viewing point. The arrivals of the jeeps are timed to be there just before sunrise. Gunung Bromo is one of 3 volcanoes that emerged from a vast crater stretching across 10 km. In the distance stands Mount Semeru, which at 3,676 meters is Java’s highest peak.
Here are a few photos of the sunrise over the crater.
Tengger Crater
Sunrise in Indonesia
Gruning Bromo itself stands 2,392 meters and is flanked by 2 slightly taller mountains. Here are a few photos of Gruning Bromo from a distance at sunrise.

Bromo on a clear day

We then got back into the jeep for the descent to the rim of Gruning Bromo. Walking up to the rim was like crossing a lunar landscape and the sheer size of the entire crater was impressive. We hiked across and up the 253 steps for a bird’s eye view. Here are a few photos looking down into the active volcano.
Steaming Bromo
Crater of Bromo
I was sitting on top and thought this wouldn’t be a great place to lose your balance. Notice the lack of a retaining fence and if you did fall, there wouldn’t be a lot to stop you from going all the way down.
Sitting on the edge
At the top you can look back over the large crater and here is the moon-like view.
View from Bromo
I continued on through the northeast part of Java, into more beautiful scenes of rice fields and volcanoes.
East Java scenery
Storm clouds
I am often asked where I stay at night on my bike trip. In countries like Indonesia, it is not easy to camp because of the large numbers of people. The hotels are cheap and readily accessible so at the end of the day I will seek them out. In the non-touristy areas, you don’t have a lot of choices in accommodation, and most are not up to western standards. When you stay in a budget hotel in Indonesia, you will not get a shower, toilet, blanket, air-conditioner or paint on the walls. If someone could convince the hotel owners that clean walls are more appealing, you could make a lot of money by investing in a paint company. Here is an example of a very typical hotel in the non-tourist places.
Typical hotel in Indonesia
This was the bathroom that actually had a western toilet, one of the few places that did not have a squat toilet.
Typical bathroom
I have mentioned a few times that the roads here are not always in a great state of repair. It was particularly difficult to bike in West Java, as the traffic would force you to the side where most of the potholes were located. I had to always watch the downhill sections, if I hit some of these going 50 km, my bike would be shattered, and so would most of my bones.
Indonesian roads
The far northeast of Java is home to the Baluran National Park. It was a joy to bike through this remote area of Indonesia. It is hard to imagine a nicer route with thick jungles, perfect weather, and a windy road that had only gentle hills.
Nice cycling in the forest
I soon came to the end of the road in Java and hopped on a ferry to the island of Bali. Here is a view of the scene leaving Java and the ferry that made the short 30-minute crossing of the Bali Strait.
Good-bye Java
Ferry to Bali
The tropical paradise of Bali did not disappoint and I was immediately on beautiful roads with spectacular scenery. Here is a scene in West Bali.
Bali is beautiful
Bali’s culture is unique and is largely influenced by Hinduism with over 90% of the population of Balinese Hindu descent. The traditional Balinese society is communal, with the organization of villages, cultivation of farmland and the creative arts all being very communal efforts. I could see the structure of the communal villages as I cycled through the Western part of the island. In this area, it looked like things haven’t changed much in generations.
Bali village
The tourism boom here started in the early 1970’s, but Bali has proven to be quite resilient to all the negative impacts. The cities in the south of Bali appear to be more like Australian beach resorts than Indonesian towns but for the rest of the island, you can see a strong attempt to keep their culture in tact. I decided to cycle to the north to avoid having to stay too long in the south and my first stop was the town of Lovina on the north coast. Here is a view from the coastal town of Lovina, looking over the Bali Sea.
Bali Sea
I had to cross the island, which meant having to go up and over the mountains of Central Bali, but I wanted to see some of the volcanic lakes in the high country. The road up into the mountains was a steady 36-km climb but with reasonably good roads and relatively light traffic, it started out quite easy. I have a theory about roads that are built in the mountains of Indonesia. They start out with a reasonable incline and wind up the mountainside but near the top, the workers must have said enough of this back and forth and decided to just go straight up. The first 32 km’s were steady but not at all difficult but with 4 km’s to go the incline rose sharply. It was now late afternoon and as is fairly typical in the wet season, it started to rain. After a few stops and starts I just decided to keep going. The last 4 km was completed in a downpour and I was getting cold but soon enough I was at the top. The day was overcast and I couldn’t see my surroundings so had to wait until the morning to see the views.
I was in the town of Batur, right on the edge of the crater overlooking Danau (Lake) Batur and the volcano Gunung Batur. There are a series of small villages all along the crater edge and my backpacker lodge occupied prime location right on the edge. I woke up to these views.
Lake Batur
Volcanic Lake Batur in Bali
The large crater contains the lake and the volcanic mountain. There have been a series of volcanoes on Gunung Batur, the latest in 1993, and you can see the different craters created by the eruptions, along with the results of the lava that flowed down the sides.
Gunung Batur
If anyone is interested, I save all my photos on Flickr and they can be viewed at this link,
I wanted to provide an update on the people many of you helped in Tacloban. I am trying to stay current on what is going on there but it is getting harder and harder to get news. It is certainly becoming another in the long line of disasters that grab headlines for a month and then disappear. I was in Tacloban in early December, exactly 1 month after the November 8th typhoon, and at the time read that the Minister responsible for reconstruction promised that Tacloban would have electricity restored by December 24th, so the people could enjoy Christmas. He promised that if the electricity was not fully restored, that he would resign. When the deadline came and went, the President refused to accept the resignation because he was doing such a great job and any change in personnel would just add to more delays. It has now been exactly 4 months and the City still does not have electricity.
Jennifer is back in College but is living at the Missionaries of Charity orphanage because her home has had a series of floods subsequent to the typhoon. One of the projects many of you helped with was to rebuild their home and the work has started with the raising of the floor.  The cost of materials is still so high that her father has been slow in starting; he wants the prices to come down first.
Bella and Gemma, the 2 ladies who saved 16 children at the orphanage on the day of the typhoon are still at the orphanage but not getting paid because there are no children there. The kids cannot come back to the orphanage until there is electricity, and that will likely be at least 3 more months, but more likely another 6 months. Bella’s 2 daughters transferred to another city to go to school and will return to Tacloban in a few weeks. The 3 of them will be living in a tent since they do not have a home. It is coming up to the hottest time of the year and it is almost impossible to even sit in a tent for 5 minutes let alone live there. Gemma is also living in a tent with her 2 kids. I will continue to monitor them and send money when needed to ensure all of the families have enough to eat and at least the basic necessities. Things really have not changed at all in the last 3 months, despite the hundreds of millions dollars pledged by governments around the world. I wonder how many times things like this will repeat itself before someone is held accountable.
The Angel House orphanage continues to operate thanks to David and his staff. They are not getting any government financing or institutional support and rely solely on individual donations. Here is a picture of the latest addition to the family, enjoying the attention of 2 of the boys of Angel House. If anyone would like to sponsor a child to help David meet the monthly operating costs, please contact me.
New puppy
On March 10th, I will be flying from Bali to Darwin, Australia to continue my southern journey. I will be cycling straight down the center of the outback to Adelaide, the southern shores and then up to Canberra, a distance well in excess of 4,000 km’s.
Here is a summary of a few things since I left Bangkok on January 15, 2014.
Days on the road – 52
Km’s cycled – 3,634
Countries visited – 4 (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia)
Money found on the road - $4.07 (to be donated to Angel House after 2 years on the road)
Books read in Indonesia
-          The Shadow World – Inside the Global Arms Trade (by Andrew Feinstein)
-          The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas)
-          Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee)