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Published: October 28th 2007
the Joys of Bintang
Indonesia's premier beverage. A great thirst quencher, and a regular evening companion
My next stop was Indonesia, a country constantly ravaged by natural disasters; Earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, typhoons and tsunamis. Having experienced an earthquake first-hand in Peru last August, I was keen to avoid nature's other bad boys. As it turned out, it was only volcanic eruptions that I had to deal with, but that's a story for a later blog entry.
I landed in Jakarta and went through the usual baggage collection chore. Bag after bag went past, but my rucksack (in glorious and unmissable purple) was nowhere to be seen. The baggage started to thin out, and then a sign was placed on the carousel saying "Last Bag", to indicate no more were coming out. NOOO!!! My worst nightmare realised. This happened to me in Guatemala ten years ago, when bloody United Airlines decided to send my rucksack to El Salvadore instead. And recently my rucksack had left on a plane to Ecuador without me. My rucksack is thus more well-travelled than me. But as it turned out, I was just being a buffoon. I was waiting at the wrong carousel! A wave of relief washed over me as I was reunited with the Purple Beast.
getting bitten on the eyelid by a mosquito is not fun
hate catching cabs from the airport. You're not always sure what the official cabs look like. And even if you use an official one, you never know if you are being ripped off (until you get to know how the country and the prices work anyway). But Jakarta was a delight. They have cabs called "Bluebirds", and when you enter a cab, a company representative gives you a feedback form with the cab number written on. If you're not happy with the service, you write and post the form, and the driver gets his arse kicked!
A quick note on Indonesia. The country has a population of 234 million people, and consists of a vast series of islands north of Australia. The best known are probably Java, Sumatra, Bali and Lombok. I had landed on Java. It was meant to be the start of the Monsoon season, so I expected to be drenched with torrential downpours and battered by typhoons. But climate changes are happening here too, and the rainy season was late.
Jakarta is a dismal place, a blot on the Indonesian landscape. It's a big urban sprawl which lacks any type of beauty, and has all
motorbikes and scooters dominate the roads of Java
the charm of a McDonalds car park. I would list it in my top five most uninspiring cities of all time. So for me it was a quick military operation - get in, get out, and spend as little cash as possible. I spent one night there, in a depressing room with yellow, aged bedsheets and walls covered with the bloodstained remains of squashed mosquitos. Sometimes a cheap room comes with a price. There were mosquitos in the room, and no net, so it was an all-you-can-eat buffet for the little b@stards. Some people say don't let little things bother you. These people have obviously never spent a night in a room with mosquitos. One particularly brave mosquito bit me on the eyelid. That's not playing fair. The face is off limits! To add insult to injury, the hotel was next to a mosque, and I was awoken at 4am by the "call to prayer". The majority of Javanese people are Muslim, and there are mosques scattered throughout all the towns and cities. Every mosque has a series of loudspeakers strapped to the outside, big buggers which would be equally at home at the Ministry of Sound club in London.
a family of four are piled onto a small scooter
At 4am every day, A guy gets on the microphone and half sings, half wails a haunting melody to get people out of bed to pray. I got out of bed to curse.
After a terrible nights sleep, I treated myself to an air-conditioned business class train to Bandung, the fourth largest city in Indonesia. This was an equally drab city, but had some good natural scenery nearby. I spent two days here, and didn't see another tourist the whole time. But this was a good thing in some ways, because I got to know some of the Indonesian locals. I found a tourist information place, a colourful building with outdoor sofas. There were four people working here, which seemed a trifle excessive for a city with no tourists. They made me feel very welcome, and I spent many hours hanging out with them (Enos, Iffy, Irwin and "bloke-whose-name-was-unpronouncable"). They made me endless cups of coffee, and periodically sent someone out on a scooter to bring me a beer. I was bowled over by the genuine and unconditional friendliness of these people. We sat drinking coffee, chatting and playing the guitar, all whilst waiting for tourists that were never
a nice cup of tea
Indonesian tea plantations, planted by Dutch colonists back in the day
going to come.
Bandung was a filthy city. As I headed home on the first night, I could see rats scurrying around in the streets. Large fat ones, fed up big on the remains of street stall food. I'd like to say they were as large as dogs, but that would be pure exaggeration. They were only the size of cats. In fact, I saw very few cats in Bandung. Role reversal - rats hunting cats? There were also a number of cockroaches ambling along the street casually, out for a night stroll.
On the second day I went on a mototcycle tour with Enos. What a scary and exhilarating experience! Indonesia is motorcycle culture. Huge fleets of motorbikes and scooters swarm and dominate the streets, weaving in and out of the larger vehicles. We were undertaking, overtaking, mounting pavements and squeezing through any gap that was wide enough for us. But people are continually honking their horns, so drivers have a spacial awareness of the vehicles around them. So there is a certain safeness to what appears to be chaos at first glance. Plus Enos was a good driver, and took no risks,so my heartbeat slowed somewhat
Local tourists crammed into a truck on their way to the scenic volcano!
after the first fifteen minutes! One thing I noticed, and seemed to be the norm, was families and their kids crammed onto a scooter that can barely hold two people, the kids not even wearing a helmet and showing no fear. This would certainly not be allowed in the UK!!!
On our way to the first sight of the day, Enos asked if I would like to call in and see a friend of his on the way. "She's very beautiful" he added. I was very wary of the deal here, but it would have seemed downright rude to turn down the invitation to meet a beautiful woman. So we parked the bike and meandered through a maze of residential dirt roads to his friends house. She came out, stunning and petite, and he said "I'll leave you two alone". What was the deal here? Prostituition, or Indonesian friendliness? Conversation was impossible. Her only English was "I speak no English", and my only Indonesian was "one beer please". After five painful minutes of miming and smiling, Enos came back. "She likes live music" he said. "And she can sing". I smiled and nodded politely, still not sure of the
tourist hot spot (literally)
on top of a volcano! Just look at the multitude of stalls around the edge of the crater in the distance (click to magnify)
deal. Finally we left and on the way back to the bike, he said "she's looking for a European boyfriend". I told him I had a girlfriend back in England, to nip any futue matchmaking in the bud.
We had a great day touring around and visiting a volcano crater, a tea plantation and a hot springs resort. We had lunch at the resort, and I fell foul of a deceptively hot chilli sauce. A feature of Indonesian cuisine is Sambal, which is served as a condiment in a tiny bowl with most meals in Java. It consists of finely chopped red chillies in a sauce, and adds a ferocious heat to any dish. I added a generous amount, since my chilli tolerance is fairly high. Or so I thought... I took one mouthful, and my tongue started burning within the first minute. By the second minute, beads of perspiration broke out on my forehead. By the third minute, my eyes were streaming. By the fourth minute, my tongue was lolling around uselessly. I tried to speak, and I looked like Jamie Oliver, who looks like he's trying to spit out half a pound of chopped liver every time
"What luck! A piece of carrot the size of my head"
this was the little hamster bought by Enos. Shortly afterwards it had it's first ride on a motorbike
he speaks. By the fifth minute the endorphins kicked in, and I felt a certain euphoria. This is the ultimate appeal of the chilli. Endorphins are a hormone released as a reponse to pain, and hence a feeling of wellbeing accompanies the fiery heat. The chile is an interesting beast, and comes in many sizes, colours and strengths. The strength of a chilli is measured in "Scoville Units". The definiton of a Scoville Unit is the number of parts of sugared water by which you need to dilute the chilli until you can no longer feel any heat. One of the most famous chillies is the Habanero, and this can vary between 100,000 and 350,000 Scoville Units. That means that you need to dilute one part of this chilli to 350,000 parts of sugared water to lose the heat! However, whilst this chilli may be feared and respected by tastebuds all over the world, it is not the hottest. The hottest chilli in the world is the recently discovered "Bhut Jolokia", a devilishly hot fella from Northern India which weighs in at an amazing 1 MILLION Scoville Units! To even waggle your tongue near this chilli would be a grave
does whatever a spider can. Although a spider can't wear jeans., so it doesn't quite work in this case.... (this is an advert for Spiderman Jeans shop)
We visited a collapsed volcano crater on our motorbike journey. I was expecting a remote and scenic experience, but unfortunately there was a tarmac road leading to the top. To make things worse, I had picked the worst time to visit Java. Being a Muslim country, they have Ramadan, a month where they are forbidden to eat between dusk and dawn. Once Ramadan is over, families come together, and there is much feasting and celebrating. However, in Indonesia, the government has decreed that it is a week-long public holiday! So every vaguely touristy attraction is full of local families. There was gridlock on the road to the volcano, including full-on tour buses and trucks with families packed in the back like cattle. Being on bike, we managed to circumvent most of the traffic, but when we reached the top, it was like Bournemouth beach on the first weekend of summer. Local toursists were swarming all around the rim of the crater, and it reminded me of a nest of ants. Plus there must have been close to a hundred stalls selling food, drinks, hats, souvenirs and scarves. The scarf stall was a ridiculous mistake in this baking heat.
Me and Enos, the bad boys of the road
You might as well set up a stall selling chocolate fireguards or solar-powered torches. Two other curiosities were a stall selling crossbows with steel tipped arrows, and a stall selling rabbits and hamsters. The only thing I bought wsa a sweetcorn fritter and some silky, fried tofu. Enos bought a baby rabbit in a cardboard box and a hamster in a tiny steel cage. I looked at him curiously and he shrugged and said "for the office".
I spent no more than fifteen minutes at the crater, and had enough. Mass tourism on top of a volcano? Can you imagine the same thing on top of Snowdon? I told Enos it was time to go, and so he strapped the rabbit and the hamster to the bike, and we hurtled down the hill, dodging traffic. On the way back through Bandung, we drove through "Jeans Street", which is a main street entirely devoted to the sale of jeans. In the same way that each casino in Vegas has an over-the-top theme, each shop here has excessive themed advertising. "Superman Jeans" has a 20-foot long Man-Of-Steel bursting out it's walls. "Rambo Jeans" has an enormous John Rambo brandishing a rocket launcher on his shoulder. Genius!
We got back to the office, and I had a coffee with Iffy and the others. Enos came up to me and said "I'm going for a massage. Would you like to come? You can choose the girl". Fresh adventures! I was in. There's a cliched fine line between massage and "dubious activities", but I was interested to see what was in store. But any hint of "extras" and I would be out of there like a shot.
We arrived at a backstreet building with no signs outside. Uh-uh, I thought, time to plan the exit strategy. We went inside and there was a desk with photos of women under the glass. The women who were currently occupied had a plastic chip over their photo. Enos pointed to one and said "pick her. She's good". I did, and I was shown to the massage room with certain trepidation. I stripped to my boxers and lay down on the table. The girl then came in, and was wearing a proper uniform. A good sign. She then proceeded to give me the most amazing massage for an hour. She even sang during the massage, a slow, relaxing lullaby-style song in Indonesian. I was utterly relaxed and feeling like jelly by the end, and thankfully no extras in sight! The cost was less than $4, and I left a generous tip. Nice one Enos, a top day out. . If you ever plan to visit Java, let me know and I'll hook you up with Enos.
I wanted to eat some authentic Javanese food, so the tourist office possse gave me a recommendation. The place had an array of 25 dishes ladi out, uncooked. You picked a selection, and they cook it and bring it out in little dishes, tapas style. Beef and chicken are always easy to identify, but for others I had to ask. "This?" I pointed. "Stomach" replied the man (ie tripe). No thanks. "This?" I said. "Kidney". No again! "This?" "Erm, I no know the name. Beef of the head?" Aaah, brain. Definitely not. I have tried brain twice. Slices of deep-fried, breaded brain in a middle-eastern restaurant, and "brains massala" in an Indian restaurant in Tooting. The taste is nice, but I cannot bring myself to enjoy it because of what it is. It's the psychological factor, although it's mushy consistency doesn't help. It's like when I tried Haggis in Scotland. I loved it! I knew it was offal, but I like liver and can tolerate kidney. But this Haggis was rich, meaty and utterly delicious. I made the mistake of asking the waitress what was in it. She said kidney, liver, onions, heart and lung. LUNG! That did it. I turned green, felt sick and didn't eat an other mouthful. Psychological you see.
So, I turned down brain, but ordered squid. These weren't squid rings though, they were whole baby squid. Imagine your stereotype giant squid, tackling ships and dragging them underwater. Imagine that bullet-shaped body, but slightly larger than a thimble. I had a dozen on my plate and bit one in half. It was dense, like biting into hard licorice. It was salty, chewy and intensely fishy. I chewed and chewed, and finally swallowed it down with water. Not pleasant! Then I looked in the other half. The reason it was so dense was that it still had all it's internal organs packed tightly inside. Baby squid guts! I left the rest.
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