Ijen and the morning I just wanted to die.

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Tiny van. All seats taken. It’s hot outside. It’s hotter inside. 6 hours to our next destination: “Twilight Zone hotel” number 2 at the base of Ijen.

The hotel is deserted except for a few locals gathered around the tv and an overly hyped guy from somewhere in Western Europe. No wonder. He has spent the past 2 days all alone in the hotel waiting for a tour to come along so he can get to Ijen and then get the hell out of there. We’re a sight for sore eyes.

It’s 7 pm. We have to wake up at… did you guess 3am? WRONG. To make it even more interesting, we have to be ready by 1 am, so we have to set our alarms to half past midnight. Yaaay! Back to the story. It’s 7 pm and we all gather around a table zipping complimentary tea and sharing crazy travel stories. At 8 pm we call it a night. Yes, at 8 pm. We want to sleep as much as possible. Of course, the pressure of knowing you have to wake up in 4, 3, 2, f@ck-this-sh*t hours makes it almost impossible.

So, off we go, 1 am. While we’re all trying to sleep our way to the base of this second volcano, there’s a specially chatty American who’s all cheerleader-like. At 1 am. She’s kind of entertaining though and I’m not going to be able to get any sleep anyway so I just go with the flow.

We get to the base at 2 am: the idea is to go all the way up, then down to see the sulfur mine and the blue fire while it’s still dark and then go up again to see the sunrise. This time, the main attraction isn’t the sun but the blue lake you can see in the crater, which only looks blue early in the morning. Afterwards, the light of day makes it look just gray.

We get introduced to our guide for the night, Holili. Cool, let’s go! We start walking. By now, I’m used to being the last one in the group, gasping for air and doing things at my own pace if I want to be able to do them at all. This nice Italian guy hangs out with me in the back. OK, no biggie, I’m last as usual. Suddenly, the road starts getting steep. Steeper. Steeper. 39 degree angle steep (don’t quote me on this). I start to feel like my lungs aren’t keeping the air long enough, or that they don’t have enough capacity or something like that, I’m not thinking straight anymore. I’m struggling, very badly. I can hear the rest of the group laughing several meters ahead. How can they walk and laugh?!! And to add to my embarrassment, our guide stays behind, with me, smoking his cigarette and looking like he has just started. I tell him I’m sorry like 5 million times. He just smiles. I’m ready to give up, I will just stay here until they come back down, or until dawn breaks and I can find my way back or until a giant eagle mistakes me for dead meat and takes me back to its nest and feeds me to its little eagle kids.

My friend Julia just won’t let me quit. She coaches my way up and down and back up. Bear in mind, she’s the one that has respiratory issues and goes around with asthma medication! I can still hear her: “10 more steps and we’ll stop to rest” I hate everything and everyone. I can’t feel my legs or my head. To add to this beautiful concoction, as we’re going down to see the sulfur mines, the air becomes unbreathable. REALLY? I’m already having trouble breathing, dude! (dude: someone I made up to direct my hatred to, as if he was forcing me to do this). Out come the surgical masks we bought for the occasion. Sexy. Julia sees me struggling so bad she even considers giving me a hit of her medicine. Hilarious.

So… yeah, blue fire, very nice; sulfur, crazy. It really looks like hell down there. To add to my feelings of inadequacy, we see sulfur workers doing their thing. They hike up and down the crater, twice a day, carrying an average of 90 kgs of sulfur on their backs. It looks like exhausting, excruciating physical work. It seems that they’re in great shape, but all I can think of are the consequences of doing this day after day. Consequences for their backs, for their lungs. It makes me appreciate my good fortune in life.

Time to go back up and enjoy the sunrise. When we finally get to the top, I feel like crying. I feel like Rocky Balboa, I can’t believe I’ve made it! I even get my picture taken with my arms held high. You can tell by the expression on my face that I’m not 100% right in the head at this point. I have my friend to thank, I honestly wouldn’t have done it without her.

So we’re there. Ok, THIS IS IT??!! And as my feeling of having been bs’ed about the whole experience starts to grow stronger and stronger, there it is. The sight, the feeling of marveling at the universe, how can this be possible? There’s a blue lake in the crater of a volcano, and it’s the most stunning and beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! I realized later that I took like 20 pictures of the same thing, just because every passing minute seemed to offer a different light to the whole landscape.

It’s time to go back down. And as we’re going down a winding road, there he is, the sun. All covered in fumes, looking like this incredible black hole, making the trees below him look like Tim Burton drawings.

I’m in pain, my feet are blistered, I’m hungry, thirsty and tired. Cold sweat on my body, and I would do it all. over. again. As my good friend Jack Kerouac would say:

Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.

Ps: the trekking is really hard if you are not in good shape. It’s almost 2km of steep hike. HOWEVER, if you have good shoes, a stick to help yank yourself forward and a good trekking buddy, it can be done. Don’t forget surgical masks and water. And an energy bar in case your blood sugar goes down. If you get the chance, do it. It’s rewarding in so many ways.

Rocky "Anto" Balboa

Rocky “Anto” Balboa

People from afar at the top of Ijen

People from afar at the top of Ijen

Blue lake + pink in the sky / Lago celeste en el crater del volcan + cielo rosa

Blue lake + pink in the sky / Lago celeste en el crater del volcan + cielo rosa

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Holili / Nuestro guía, Holili

Holili / Nuestro guía, Holili

Sulfur workers / Recolectores de azufre

Sulfur workers / Recolectores de azufre

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Bali, baby! — Not so soon, my dear.

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I’m getting paler and paler. I need to hit the beach ASAP. OK, let’s go to Bali!

We’re in Yogyakarta, 600 km away from Bali. What better idea than to embark in a 3 day-2 night trip through volcanoes, mountains, blue fire and sulfur mines before we actually get to Bali? Here we go again!

6 am, the alarm from hell goes off. Again. After being awakened by the Muslim call to prayer every day at 3.30 am for the past 5 days, I’m not sure if 6 am is a piece of cake or an extension of hell on earth. The desire to go on a killing spree over this leaves my body in about 3 minutes. There’s no time to waste. Brush my teeth… check. Make my hair look human-like… check. Breakfast… check. Carry my 14 kg backpack to the front of the hotel… check. Now I just have to wait for my ride. They arrive 20 minutes late. I can’t help thinking I could’ve slept 20 more minutes. Yes, I’m greedy when it comes to my sleep time.

And… we’re off. Bye Jogja, hello unknown. We pick up a few more people on the way over. Other than EVERYONE’S crazy driving in SEA, it’s a pretty standard trip, so far. UNTIL, the van stops in the middle of the way. I see our driver talking to some woman who’s selling something. Something that is in a little blue cage, something that is moving, something like… A MONKEY! Our driver stops in the middle of the road to buy a tiny monkey for 18 usd. He puts him in the front seat of the van and off we go. We all grill him with questions like “what are you going to do with the monkey?”, “pet?”, until I can’t hold it anymore and I ask him if he’s going to eat it. He says ‘no’. To this day, I still don’t know what became of that monkey. I hope he’s doing his monkey business somewhere, being very happy.

monkey business

monkey business

First stop, Probolinggo. A 2 hour wait for our next transport. Then off again. 12 hours after our departure from Jogja, we get to Cemoro Lawang, the village at the base of Mount Bromo. Gunung Bromo is an active volcano, 2329 mts above sea level. Its name derives from Javanese pronunciation of Brahma, the Hindu creator god.

We stay for the night in what can only be described as a “Twilight Zone hotel”. There are some locals sitting in the lobby when we arrive. I’m pretty sure they are zombies…
Anyway, no time to waste, we should get up at 3. Yes, AGAIN. So off to bed, hoping no creature of the night will get ahold of us.

By now, I hate my wrist watch, my cell phone and anything that reminds me it’s time to wake up. A tiny jeep picks us up and off we go up the winding road to Penanjakan to see the sunrise over Bromo and Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. The tiny jeep parks: time to trek. I don’t really like trekking… I just like the view at the top, but not the process of getting there. Luckily, this was a 10 minute trek. WIN!
We get there and it’s like Disneyland, packed with tourists. Locals rent jackets and gloves and hats: to Indonesian standards, it’s freezing cold up here. Me? I’m happy I’m not sweating for a change! I snuggle between strangers and secure a nice spot to see the sunrise and take some pictures. The landscape is surreal: fuming volcanoes, mountains, little villages tucked in valleys; with every passing minute, as it grows clearer you get to see more shapes and colors and depths. It’s pretty amazing. Of course, no ball of fire, aka sun, happens. Ok, time to get to the top of Bromo. I’ve never been to the moon, but I’m pretty sure it would look something like this:

Base of Gunung Bromo.

Base of Gunung Bromo.

We get to the base of Bromo, time to walk. Doesn’t look that bad! I can do this! As soon as the incline starts to happen, I start cursing the last cigarette I had and the beer and the fact that I don’t exercise more often. Out of breath… time to stop. It goes on like this for 30 minutes and eventually, I get to the top.
The view isn’t actually wowing me, but I feel pretty good about getting my bum up there. Mr. Bromo is fuming like crazy, security around the crater is almost non-existent; how many people fell over the years? I don’t plan to be one of them, but the urge to go to the other side of the rail is too strong.

Look mommy! No hands! / Mirá mamá! Sin manos!

Look mommy! No hands! / Mirá mamá! Sin manos!

While at the top, I take my time to see what’s happening around me: people that choose to go up on a horse, for example. I mean, if you can’t get your fat bum up the volcano you don’t deserve the view. I know I’m being harsh, that there might be some people with injuries or something but, what can I say? I feel bad for the horses.

Lazy / Vagos

Lazy / Vagos

And locals that go there, day after day, to try and make a living, you can see tiredness in their eyes. Perspective hits you, like a hammer to the head.

Sad but beautiful / Tristemente hermosa

Sad but beautiful / Tristemente hermosa

By now it’s 7 am. We get back to “Twilight Zone hotel” for breakfast and a 1 hour nap, and we’re on the move again.

Next stop: the bowels of hell.

View from Penanjakan / Vista desde Penanjakan

View from Penanjakan / Vista desde Penanjakan

Contrasts / Contrastes

Contrasts / Contrastes

Surreal. Bromo from/desde Penanjakan

Surreal. Bromo from/desde Penanjakan

Love all, serve all. Holy day.

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3.30 am and the alarm clock goes off. Sh*t. Time to wake up. Ok, let’s do this! In 20 minutes we’ll be picked up to go see the sun rise over buddhist Borobudur temple, UN world heritage site.
It’s pitch-black outside, but the city is already on the move. Devotees on their way to their first prayer of the day, markets being set up, (most surprisingly) a market being taken down, young people leaving the club… it’s Saturday morning, after all.
It’s an hour drive and after a first introductory chit-chat among the tour-goers, the van goes silent: everybody’s trying to squeeze in a few minutes of sleep.
After a 15 minute piece-of-cake trek we get to the viewing point that would allow us to see the sun rising over Mount Merapi with Borodubur in the middle, as a sunken cherry on top of a cake.
After seeing some impressive pictures, we’re expecting to see a big ball of fire in the sky. No such thing. It’s rainy season and it’s all covered in fog. However, the fog plays its part and creates very surreal images which make the trip over there worth it.

Surreal. Mount Merapi and Borobudur's compound site.

Surreal. Mount Merapi and Borobudur’s compound site.

You see that little thing in the middle of the picture? That's Borobudur

You see that little thing in the middle of the picture? That’s Borobudur

After that, breakfast with radioactive strawberry jam –it has a suspicious bright red color- at the base of Borobudur and then, finally, off to the main attraction.
I don’t usually like guided tours, but this time it’s both necessary and worth it (we would’ve missed so much if we hadn’t taken it). We meet Fatah, who introduces himself as a “muslim buddhist who knows everything there is to know about the temple”. He grew up by the compound where the gardens are now, until the government bought his house after a 2 year struggle including public protests and power and water cuts. He says he can still recognize some of the trees by which he used to play as a kid.

Fatah sharing his knowledge.

Fatah sharing his knowledge.

We get all sarong-ed up and get on with it. At every level of the temple he explains the engravings on the 2672 narrative relief panels that decorate the sides of the walls that tell Siddhartha Gautama’s previous lives, his family life and his path to enlightenment, and to eventually becoming the last Buddah that, until now, has walked the earth. You can learn more about this fascinating place, here y aca.
The temple compound was built in the 9th century. It has 504 Buddha statues, 72 of which are located on the top floor, all under perforated stupas. Some of the Buddhas along the temple are headless: they have been stolen to be sold. The place has been preserved in great state and the narrative panels still have definition. A lot of them are covered with green, giving the whole place an enchantment feeling, as it happens with most places in Indonesia due to its humid weather.
Fatah leaves us at the top to wander around. The challenge is to get a picture not invaded by all the other visitors… I think we did fine. In fact, visitors sometimes make great additions to the pictures.

Behold! Borobudur's entrance and two little kids.

Behold! Borobudur’s entrance and two little kids.

Headless Buddha

Headless Buddha

Illustrative engravings of Buddha's life. Fatah explains this shows the love for animals and why buddhists are vegetarian

Illustrative engravings of Buddha’s life. Fatah explains this shows the love for animals and why buddhists are vegetarian

Sharing Buddha's view

Sharing Buddha’s view

Stupas at the top + colorful visitors

Stupas at the top + colorful visitors

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Buddha in stupa at top of borobudur

Buddha in stupa at top of borobudur

Our next stop is Prambanan, Indonesia’s other temple. Prambanan has been a witness to the Hindu era in Indonesia, now only officially present in Bali; the rest of the country is Muslim. It also dates back to the 9th century and it’s the largest hindu temple in Indonesia and one of the biggest in SEA. It shows the shift from Mahayana Buddhism (which Borobudur represents) to Shivaist Hinduism. You can dig more into it here y aca (Este link tiene sólo una fracción de info del que está en inglés. Si les interesa, pueden usar Google Translator para ir traduciendo de a párrafos.)
It’s huge. And stunning, especially from afar. It hasn’t been as well preserved as Borobudur and comparisons are inevitable for me visiting both, not only on the same day but on the same morning. Maybe it’s a bit too much to do together, especially for my brain to process.
It’s packed with people since it’s already close to noon. And then it starts raining. Nevertheless, we walk up and down the different buildings that as a whole make the temple. The images in the panels are not as clear and we have no guide, so it’s a little puzzling. To access the central temple (the one dedicated to Shiva, the destroyer), you need to wear a helmet and there’s a release note explaining that in case of an accident, it’s not their fault: you knowingly walk in.

Postcard-like

Postcard-like

Shiva's temple + people wearing helmets

Shiva’s temple + people wearing helmets

After sitting in one of the temples for awhile to protect ourselves and our cameras from the rain, we call it a day and go back to the van that will drive us back to our nap, I mean, hotel. Yeah, to take a nap. We’ve earned it. After all, we’ve managed to honor the buddhist, the hindu and the muslim, all in one day.

She’s a rainbow

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Yogyakarta goes all “in your face” with its bright colors. From the beautifully decorated becaks to the colorful clothes its citizens sport. From the insistent “Coca-Cola batik” sellers to the pushy tour guides at every site. And let’s not forget the becak drivers, following you around, asking where you’re going and where you’re from, stalker-like.
While being a little bit lost looking for the Kraton, the Royal Palace where the king still lives, we met a tall, slim man wearing a bright emerald shirt, very dandy-looking. We asked for directions for the Kraton and he explained it was already closed for the day, due to a ceremony taking place. He explained he knew, cause he works there. He suggested we went to the art center to check out live batik making and if we wanted to, buy some there, since they had fixed prizes and it was real batik, not “Coca-Cola” batik, which we learnt is the name the locals gave to the not so authentic and overpriced batik they try to sell tourists. He said we should take a becak to get there, but a locals’ becak, not a tourists’ one. How to spot them? If they chase you down the street, it’s tourists’ becak, with rates up to 5 times more than the ones for locals. If they are just hanging out, lying on their becaks (napping even), that’s locals’. And even though you might have to bargain a little due to tourist looks ownership –”portación de rostro”, as we say in Argentina-, you’ll get a much better rate. He fixed a becak for us and off we went, grateful for the insider’s tips we were just given. Or so we thought. Another friend we made during our stay explained to us that our “dandy friend” and the becak driver most likely got a commission for the batik we bought and that that’s why the price of the ride was so low. Great, not feeling so cool after that insight. But hey, got an amazing batik piece AND a cheap becak ride.
Yogyakarta is a nice place for foodies, also! We had great food, local dishes with a gourmet twist –the best Nasi Goreng so far- and all around the world classics such as hummus or crème brulee. We also had crappy food. Well, I did: in my attempt to try some local dishes other than Nasi Goreng, I had the most awful Gado-Gado ever. Didn’t have more than two bites of that one. Tried Ankor beer for the first time there… tastes like yogurt to me, I swear! I stuck to Bintang ever since.

For me, Jogja is a collection of moments, postcard-like. A colorful sight awaiting in every corner for you to see, to experience.
If you’re interested in knowing more about why this city can be called both Yogyakarta and Jogjakarta, in addition to other names I found recently, here’s a nice article I found while surfing the net.

And yes, the title of this post is evocative of The Rolling Stones song.

Just chillin'

Just chillin’

These would be the local's becaks

These would be the local’s becaks

Cutest girl riding motorbike with her family

Cutest girl riding motorbike with her family

Men on the sidewalk

Men on the sidewalk

Happy balloon salesman

Happy balloon salesman

Becak driver ready to go

Becak driver ready to go

Men in the Kraton

Men in the Kraton

Jakarta. Ok, bye now!

Aside

So, Jakarta… I’m writing this as the train starts moving from Gambir station to take me to Yogyakarta, not only a new city but a solace from this, indeed, big durian. As I look out my window I’m surrounded by green and tall buildings, it doesn’t look bad. Suddenly I can see the street, the traffic jam, the layer of smog between the buildings and the sky, and I remember why I’m leaving so soon. Jakarta strikes me as a city of contrasts. Contrasts in what you see and in how it makes you feel. People walking barefoot along trash filled train tracks with shiny skyscrapers as a backdrop. Executive class trains passing by slums settled by a brown river, the brownest river you’ve ever seen. And more trash. As a woman traveling alone, I felt the eyes of people, men mostly, on me. Harsh, not sure if judgmental for not being covered or -and i feel silly for writing this- lusty. And I also found some of the kindest faces I’ve seen in my 2 months of travel. Bright smiles and welcoming eyes whenever I asked for help or directions, thankful seniors whenever I let them go before me. However, if you do not engage them, they remain distant and the curious stare is sometimes a bit heavy to bear. I never really thought what Jakarta would be like, I had no expectations. A couple of days before flying here I did a quick research and found that it wouldn’t be appealing at first. I thought I could deal with that. I was wrong. I got to Jakarta from Singapore, so the contrast was obvious at first sight. Took a shuttle into the city. The city: all I could see was gray, trash, sadness. I noticed my jaw had dropped a few minutes ago and I couldn’t believe my eyes. A need to escape was starting to manifest. After getting to Gambir station I took the TransJakarta bus to get me to the hostel. Pickpockets welcomed me to the city. Unable to put my backpack down cause the bus was full, the ride was a little tortuous. Sunday traffic jam made what should have been a 10 minute ride, last 25. The 200 mts walk to the hostel was a trek between flies-covered food stalls, smoking men sitting on the sidewalk apparently doing nothing more than that, cars parked on the sidewalks, very thin cats and motorbikes, lots of them. The hostel was very nice, an oasis within all that chaos. I had seen enough. For the first time ever in all my traveling experiences I wanted to get out of a place as soon as I got there. Of course, right after that feeling, came guilt. I felt so ashamed of how my mind was closing at the very sight of something I was not used to. I didn’t do much the first day, except go get some food. At the supermarket. I escaped the feeling of oppression by hiding in a western experience at Carrefour. I couldn’t even bother to get to a mall. Shame on me. I was so in awe at what I was feeling that I started researching what I could do in the city. Most comments held this ying/yang proportion. “It was nice but as everything in Jakarta the idea is good but the execution is very poor” Ok… Everything came with a “but” attached. Suddenly, i felt the need of knowing if anyone else had felt the way I was feeling so I googled “I hate Jakarta”. I know, I’m a horrible person. It turned out I was not alone. Even Jakartians describe it as a love/hate relationship. That made me feel good and bad at the same time; like if I was entitled to not like this city, but then again, guilt kept creeping in. My second day was a cloudy one. I liked the city much better without the blazing sun that makes everything more unbearable. It then rained, and suddenly all the wonderful greens splattered along the city popped up, making me feel that the air was breathable. And I felt it. A ‘liking’ feeling appeared in me and I couldn’t help but smile. As I walked under the rain to the train station to buy my ticket out for the next day, I felt bad about breaking the 3 day rule I had established for myself when I began traveling: even if you hate some place, stay 3 days, give the place a chance and amazing things can happen. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But I didn’t give Jakarta a chance. And I shamefully admit that I didn’t do anything in the city. So, as this train keeps gaining speed and leaves the city’s craziness and contrasts behind, I can’t help feeling sad. Maybe it was a timing thing, maybe I was not ready, maybe I’ll never be. But one thing I’m sure of, I can distinctively feel it, is that it’s definitely me, not you, Jakarta.