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Published: August 11th 2017
This morning, I had arranged to meet our tour guide for an early run along the sea front. As we plodded along in the rapidly rising heat, we passed by fishermen hauling their catch in from the sea. Working in 2 teams, one to the right and one to the left, they heave ropes in synchronised pulls, as two kilometres worth of nets, set the night before, are hauled from the sea. The sun had just risen and was hovering in the sky and the waves lapped the beach as we passed. We passed the fish market, not yet open for business and small stalls just beginning to make their preparations for the day, enticing, delicious-smelling smoke rising from tiny ovens and grills. Locals waved and smiled as we passed, perhaps more used to runners here than those in Jakarta. On our return leg, we stopped at one of the stalls we had passed earlier and enjoyed sweet coconut rice cakes, hot from the fire, topped with spicy fermented bean curd. It doesn't sound great, but honestly, it was delicious! I saved half to give to Stacey on my return and we continued on. We passed a couple having a wedding photography shoot on one of the jetties and past clothing stalls with brightly coloured sarongs and baggy cotton trousers blowing gently in the breeze. The whole place seemed to be untouched by western tourists, in fact we had seen no others since our arrival the previous night. I hope that tourism does not explode here in the next 10 years, turning it into just another SE Asian beach and surf resort, as the rustic nature would be lost.
After our proper hotel breakfast (Stacey did not appreciate fermented bean curd as soon as she woke up...), we were greeted by our tour guide for the day, Aep, who was to take us on a magical mystery tour of the area. Our first stop was the local market where locals chatted shyly to us as we wandered through food stalls, sampling mangosteen and juicy sweet mangoes. Our guide bought coconut cake for us to try (which tasted more like grilled cheese...) and then sticky rice topped with coconut (surprisingly delicious) and then thick, fluffy green pancakes. I was in my element! To give a yang to my yin, however, we then passed through the fish and meat areas of market where the catch of the day had been well and truly delivered, and the smell certainly let us know! Long strips of sticky string hung from the ceiling, completely obscured by the plethora of dead flies that decorated them like grotesque pearls on Hades' necklace. Slabs of meat hung from hooks, and the dead eyes of fish stared blankly at us as we held our breath and made a hasty exit
Our next stop was a prawn cracker production house. As we entered, vast bamboo mats were laid out in the floor in every available space, crammed full of intricate twists of vibrant yellow dough drying in the sun. Inside the steaming main room, huge dollops of tapioca were mixed with turmeric and prawn flavouring before being fed into a vast shuddering machine that churned out the intricate designs in sheets of around 40 crackers onto a small conveyer belt. Here a worker cut them and carried them to another team who were stacking them into crates. Soon, a huge steaming cabinet was opened and the previous batch was heaved out and the new batch placed inside. The steamed crackers then joined the ones outside drying in the sun while the dry ones were brought in and fried in huge woks of hot coconut oil until they swelled to 15 times the original size. It looked like hot, heavy work, but the men had such a rhythm going that it was like a well-oiled machine. Then, we sampled them. Delectable! Crispy, flavourful and melt-jn-the-mouth. A far cry from the soggy offering from the local Chinese!
Next we visited a local village, where we saw mushrooms being farmed in pots of sawdust lined up in their thousands in warm, humid sheds, before entering the school grounds. Here, children were noisily enjoying a game of football, while others led up for their rubella shots. I'm not sure how the unlucky ones were decided, but those playing or watching football soon abandoned the game as they glimpsed the first westerner in their midst. Soon, we were surrounded on all sides by clamouring children, calling out to practise their English, shaking our hands, cheering and laughing. We took photos of the mob, children posed for selfies and jostled for viewing positions as we showed them the photos. Soon, it was time to leave and we headed to a local wooden puppeteer's house. Wayan Golek is the name of the traditional puppet show here, which lasts for up to seven hours each time, with an hour's performance being bookended by 15 minute intervals. One puppeteer does all of the work, placing puppets in the scene but not speaking at that time in holes in the counters before bringing them back into the action again. We learned how the puppets are carved, with one head sometimes taking up to a week to craft from balsa wood. They are beautiful, intricate designs in bright colours, each with its own meaning. After having time to play with them on our own, we settled down to watch a brief performance in all its noisy glory.
Following the performance, we continued on to the focal point of the day's trip. The Green Canyon, as the name suggests, is a canyon, where the water runs green, reflecting the jungle above the river and the moss below. Here, we boarded wooden longtail boats and pootled down the river, an impossibly gorgeous shade of green, surrounded by lush jungle on both sides. Natural caves had been carved in the walls on both sides and vines hung from above just touching the surface of the water. After about half an hour, we arrived at the canyon proper where our breath was taken away by the beauty before us. Huge sandstone walls, smoothed by thousands of years of water rushing through, towered above our heads, with foliage clinging to their sheer sides. Droplets of water gently fell down onto us from stalactites high above and the water was a shimmering emerald. Aside from the water flowing past, there wasn't a sound. No tubing, no reggae bars, no screaming tourists. Just us and nature, and it was wonderful.
We eased into the cool water, where we were taken on a guided swim up into the canyon. In places, the water was a gentle push against us and barely noticeable when surrounded by such stunning scenery, which just got better and better the deeper we went. Vines trailed down onto us, glimpses of sunlight left dappled patches on the surface and tiny waterfalls cascaded down the sides. However, soon, things got more fun! The current suddenly increased and we had to swim hard against it to grab onto a protruding rock, we rested, giggling, for a while before it was time to carry on. Then things got really fun! We found ourselves in very fast flowing sections, where we had to push ourselves off from one rock and jump through the water to another, hoping to land carefully rather than bash ourselves against the rocks. Our local guides were there to catch us, but mine let go of the rock he was holding as I took his hand, sending us careering back to the last swimming point. Trying again and managing to get purchase this time, I clambered over a rock in the water before doing it all again on the other side. Soon, we found ourselves at the waterfall at the top of the canyon, the white water rushing down the rocks before resuming its green tone and meandering off on its way. Here, our guides decided we couldn't go any further. We simply had to clamber to a rock in the middle of the canyon and then float from there back down. Seeing 8 smiling tourists huddled on a rock, in the middle of a canyon while green water flowed all around them isn't something I will forget in a hurry. Nor will the sight of one of the German girls walking confidently towards us over the rocks and then disappearing down a huge hole. It was like watching Dawn French jumping in puddles as she plunged down and then popped back up seconds later laughing raucously.
We had a few bumps and bruises as we bashed against rocks on the way back to the entrance, Stacey's thigh taking a battering and my knee making contact with a rock before I was pulled under for a second, coming up spluttering and spitting out canyon water! However, despite the slight bumps and bruises, we wouldn't have missed it for the world. It has to rate as one of our travel highlights, the experience and scenery made all the more spectacular by being the only westerners there - tourism truly hasn't found this place yet, and that simply adds to its charm. Wonderful!
We then drove to a local surf beach for lunch where we enjoyed Gadl Gado (an egg and peanut salad) overlooking the sea. Then it was back to Pangandaran itself for our evening activity, a guided jungle walk in the nature reserve at the tip of the peninsula. We were accompanied by our guide from the earlier part of the day, Aep a local celebrity known as the Javanese "Dr. Doolittle". He took us along the sea front, pointing out the stinking jellyfish plucked from the nets by the fishermen in the mornings and left to decompose in the sun. Then he motioned for us to follow him to one of the drains running along the side of the street. He made a few noises and dropped some fish heads into the water and three large monitor lizards crawled out of the tunnel to grab the food before retreating back inside. He pointed out two more, one clambering up a wall into a garden and one weaving along the beach, trailing its vast tail in the sand behind it. This was before we had even entered the jungle!
On entering the national park, Aep made a high-pitched screeching sound and told us to wait. Seconds later, a huge herd of deer tiptoed out of the trees and approached us. We stayed with them for a while, before continuing on our walk through the pitch-black cave, where Aep pointed out tiny bats suspended high above us. As they sensed our torches, they left their hanging place, launching themselves through the air in every direction, high pitched squeaks echoing off the walls. We watched for a while, before continuing on. We were told to switch off our torches. Aep scattered some crackers on the ground and, in the darkness, made chomping noises with his mouth. We held our breath and waited. Soon, we heard snuffling sounds and gnawing sounds as whatever it was grabbed the food. At this point, we were instructed to turn on our torches and, in the narrow beams, were amazed to see three porcupines feasting on the food laid out for them. They paid absolutely no regard to us, enjoying the meal, seemingly oblivious to our presence and we passed a good half an hour with them. Soon, though it was time to leave, the sun was soon to set and we still had a jungle to explore!
We left the cave and, after more animal noises, we were able to glimpse black monkeys swinging through the trees, on hairy arms, high above our heads. Soon, grey monkeys came to join us, watching us as curiously as we were watching them. Again, we stayed a while, until Aep pointed out a flying squirrel resting on a trunk over our heads, a tiny baby on its back. He climbed the tree below it and, spreading its leathery wings wide, the sun glowing through the translucent skin, it launched itself from its own tree gliding gently to one behind us. Another one followed suit shortly after as we stood transfixed - two animals we had never seen in the wild before right in front of us.
Before we left the jungle, Aep had pointed out a mousedeer scurrying into the undergrowth, a toucan flying fro branch to branch, fished in several holes for scorpions and allowed us to watch a huge herd of deer head down the beach, enter the water and swim around the fence holding the reserve and towards the town, while vast colonies of fruit bats soared over our heads and the sun disappeared, plunging us into darkness.
Dinner was at a local seafood canteen, where we selected our ocean-fresh fish from buckets laid out on the tiled counter, decided on a sauce and then selected which pond vegetable we wanted as an accompaniment - pond spinach, pond weed or jungle fern. Figuring it was as good a choice as any, we decided on pond spinach, choosing half a kilo each of tiger prawns - garlic for Stacey and Padang for me - a chilli packed sauce I had been meaning to try. We weren't disappointed. Half a kilo is a LOT of prawns and we were nearly defeated, but coated in delicious spices and accompanied by steamed (pond) green sautéed with garlic and shallots, it was an irresistible feast fit for a King (even if we did had to shell all of the prawns individually, steaming hot, chilli infused liquid spilling all over my hands, squirting onto the white table and napkins, leaving a massacre scene in its wake!)
The cost? £15 for both of us.
I love Indonesia.
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