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Published: August 21st 2017
Having drifted off to such a tranquil soundtrack which made us feel as though we were miles from civilisation, we did not expect to be wrenched from our sleep at 4.30am by the call to prayer echoing from the trees, but rouse us it did, and since we were awake, we were able to appreciate the jungle waking up around us before we enjoyed breakfast with a stunning view.
We were taken on a walk around the plantation of the centre itself, a not-for-profit organisation designed to educate both children and adults from Indonesia and elsewhere about the importance of conservation, as well as using all profits to benefit ecological programmes for the local area. It was created entirely from barren woodland in 1990 when all the trees that now surrounded us were planted, and has literally grown from nothing to a thriving centre now. The project has built irrigation systems for local farmers to enable them to cultivate three annual rice harvests instead of one, has generated hydro-electric power for one of the hill communities and can provide accommodation for up to sixty schoolchildren in dorm houses, as well as providing a wonderful base for tour groups such as ours to learn about local life here.
On our walk, we were introduced to the organic plantation, meeting the friendly chickens and sheep who provide fertiliser (which I once again stepped in!) for the crops (and trying not to think about last night's delicious dinner!), ate juicy tomatoes and fiery chillies straight from the plant and learned how each seasonal crop is produced. We then wandered through the medicine garden where we learned of the different ailments that can be cured by the different plants growing there. Many of the plants were good for diabetes, which is good news since it is an epidemic in Indonesia. I can't say I am surprised when the average local cup of coffee contains five teaspoons of sugar! We passed under huge cobwebs with spiders swinging on them waiting for their next meal, and hoped it wouldn't be us!
We then followed our guide out of the plantation and through the paddy fields, balancing on narrow ledges of grass and concrete irrigation channels as we made our way to the nearby village. Farmers stopped their work and smiled to us as we inched along the route. Soon, we passed through the village, locals calling out to us, and entered a small mud cottage where an old lady sat in semi-darkness next to a small fire. She was rhythmically pounding a huge, hefty stick into a shallow dish which was filled with dark brown beans. Through the smoke, we could smell the distinct aroma of fresh coffee and realised that she was grinding the beans in a huge pestle and mortar. We were told that she was 96 years old and begins each day at 3.30am, by roasting the beans, taking a break to pray and then grinding them up for hours on end. Taking her photo, she jabbed bony fingers into our chests, insisting in a high pitched wail, "Aya," - pointing to us, "Ele!" - pointing to herself. Our guide translated - she doesn't understand why you want a photo, she says you are beautiful and she is ugly. The truth was, with her strength and energy, she was by far more beautiful than us! If I can look that good at half her age, I'll be happy! The cries continued as each of us took a photo, but she smiled at us as she did so, showing a gummy grin with two lonely teeth clicking together.
We stayed with her, in the sweltering heat of the cottage, sampling, and then buying, the coffee she had freshly ground for us. Children peeped in at a long narrow window roughly cut into one wall and giggled as Stacey took their photo and went outside to play chase with them. We each drank a cup of the freshly brewed coffee, which was thick and sludgy and enough to give us a kick for the rest of the day.
We meandered back to the lodge, through the village, our guide pointing out more flowers growing in makeshift gardens. Some of us then decided to tackle last night's hill for a little additional exercise, and it was just as sweaty, if not more so, as the night before. On the way back down the hill, we found a huge snake, freshly squashed into the road and thankfully not a danger to us anymore! On the return to the centre, we had freezing cold showers in the outdoor bathroom, and then enjoyed another incredible meal. After our feast, we were given a demonstration of how to make Sultan tea - a natural herbal tea consisting of a variety of spices, all of which we had seen growing on the farm that morning. The tea is used as a medicine for a variety of illnesses and tasted like a medicinal mulled wine!
Sadly, it was soon time to leave the jungle behind. We boarded our minibus and passed by mopeds weaving in and out of traffic, most carrying a variety of cargo alongside their driver. One man had ingeniously managed to fit an entire mobile kitchen on the back of his - woks, burners, pans, fuel - anything he needed to equip his warung was piled high behind him, seemingly causing him no difficulties at all.
Soon we were out of the city and began our impossible climb up to the guesthouse we would be spending part of the night in. We drove higher, and higher, our ears popping and the altitude meter on the guide's phone was going through the roof! There was forest on either side of the road, but often, we would have a break in the trees and catch glimpses of ancient volcanic hills, their step, ridged sides carpeted in green foliage. It was like being inside some vast crater with mountains undulating on all sides for as far as the eye could see.
We arrived and were allocated our simple rooms, the walls made out of bamboo matting and allowing us to hear EVERYTHING from most of the rooms at all times. However, we weren't detained for long, as we headed out to glimpse the last of the sunset painting all of the surrounding hills in gorgeous pink and orange shades.
After dinner, we walked further up the hill and away from the lights of the nearby guest houses and were greeted by a blanket of stars filling the sky above us. The pale smudge of the Milky Way was clearly visible in the middle of the vast blackness, the surrounding stars creating a perfect backdrop for it. It was beautiful, and something j never tire of seeing. Sadly, it was soon to bed, as we were to be woken at 2.30am for our sunrise view of Mf Bromo, one of the highlights of the trip we had been looking forward to from when we first booked it.
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