Tuesday, July 13, 2010

This Wouldn't Have Happened in Jogya...

Saturday night may have been one of the worst nights of my life. It's certainly putting up a strong showing in the non-illness-related category. Damn Indonesians and their endless karaoke...

This weekend was one of our free weekends. I'd originally been planning to go to Jogyakarta to see Borobudor, but since I've got a 12-hour drive to Bali coming up next weekend I decided to go for somewhere closer instead. Mas Jake was planning a trip to Pulau Sempu, an island off the south coast of Java, about 2 ½ hours from Malang. The ocean around here is too dangerous to swim in, but Sempu has a protected lagoon that fills up with ocean water every day. The plan was to drive to the coast to Sendang Biru, then hire a boat to take us to Sempu. From the boat drop it's about an hour and a half hike to the lagoon. We'd camp overnight, and in the morning the tide would be up and we could swim and relax for a few hours before hiking back across the island and heading home. Jake warned us that the first 14 hours would be a pain – hiking, camping, no water in the lagoon til morning – but that it would be worth it. Turns out he was right on both counts, though 'a pain' was the understatement of the century.

First off, the drive there was gorgeous. All narrow, twisting roads through the mountains, with some incredible views out over the forests and papaya plantations. Poor Mbak Rizki got carsick. How is it that Indonesians manage to throw up silently? I don't understand, but they do.

We arrived at Sendang Biru around 4pm Saturday afternoon, but according to the officials there it was already too late to cross over to the island. They were right – it gets dark before 6pm here, and there's no way we would have made it to the beach and set up camp by then. The island is a nature reserve, with tigers (maybe), cobras (definitely), and monkeys (I got pictures), all of which are more active at night, and in any case hiking through the jungle at night would have been disastrous. So instead we set up our two rented tents on the beach at Sendang Biru on the mainland. Mas Jake had done the same trip last summer and been the only one there; this time, thanks to a national holiday, it was mobbed. The beach was overrun with families, their cars, their trash, and the ice cream carts catering to them. And the water was full of brightly painted wooden boats, as far as I could tell mostly fishermen who also ferried people across to the island. I took plenty of pictures.

We put on some noodles for dinner, and one of the tutors (who had brought some friends along) pulled out a few bottles of Bintang, Indonesian beer. I had about half a cupful, the first drink I'd had since I got here a month ago. That's about when the generator in the back of the truck about 30 feet from our tent clanked to life, in order to power the giant sound system in another tent a little farther down. I don't know what the occasion was, but the result was karaoke blasting from huge speakers until around one in the morning. We tried to get some sleep, but with the music blaring, the generator chugging along, thin rubber mats as mattresses, and horrible stuffy heat inside the tent, nobody was very successful. Meghan, Fatima and I were in one tent, Jake and Kyle in the other, and most of the eight Indonesians were braving the bugs to sleep outside in the cool. Around 1am I stumbled out of the tent, threw up in the grass (thanks, Bintang), and decided they had the right idea – my deet would keep off the worst of the mosquitoes, and at least I'd be able to breathe.

Which turned out to be true, until it started raining and we all had to move back inside the tent.

Around 5am we all dragged ourselves out of bed for breakfast and a hearty round of sharing the ways we'd all fantasized about shutting down the damn karaoke. At 14 hours after arrival, Mas Jake's estimate was turning out to be pretty accurate. We packed up the tents and got ready to head over. Access to the island is restricted because of its status as a preserve, educational visitors only, and you need an official letter from the government to be there legally. To get the letter you have to go to the office and 'lobi-lobi' – literally 'lobby' for it, but doubtless some cash changes hands as well. TII, after all. We sent one of the Indonesians over to lobby for us – the price goes way up when a pile of bules walk into the office. Armed with our letter, we got a boat to drop us off around 7am and started into the jungle.

I've never seen so much mud in my life. After the rains the day before, the whole path had melted into one big slick mudpuddle. The consistence reminded me of the clay you use in middle-school art class, then fire into crappy vases. About three minutes in I took a wrong step and ended up ankle-deep, and from there on it only got messier. We were holding on to trees and vines with every step just in order to stay upright, literally pulling ourselves up slopes to drier paths, slipping and sliding and frequently ending up on our rears anyway. A few of the peer tutors made the hike barefoot, and it was clear that wasn't an unusual way to travel – all along the trail were abandoned sandals, mostly broken and half-buried in mud. It took about an hour and a half of slogging to make it to the beach, which, as promised, was gorgeous. The lagoon was a protected crater, surrounded by a high natural rock wall with a hole in it that the seawater came in through. We were able to climb up in one spot and look down at the South Java Sea below us. Even though we were probably 40 feet above the water level, the force of the surf against the rocks was enough to send spray up above our heads. It's clear why the ocean there has a reputation for being deadly – if the Queen isn't willing, the saying goes, you'll be smashed against the rocks and that's that.

But we had ourselves a nice little cove, and after the hike we were happy to jump in. The water was great, cool and calm and clear. There were a fair number of people there at that point, most of whom had probably never seen a bule in a two-piece bathing suit before, but the attitude was more along the lines of a celebrity sighting or maybe a glimpse of a yeti than anything else – people seemed intrigued rather than offended. I'm sure Meghan and Fatima and I ended up in quite a few semi-surreptitious photos. (Related story – On his trip, Wyatt was asked by his driver whether people in America really wore bikinis, or if it was just celebrities on tv. Yes, Pak, we really do.)

We had about four hours at the beach, swimming, napping, reading, and getting thoroughly sunburned. By lunchtime the beach had emptied out, and some monkeys came down from the forest to scavenge from all the trash left around. There's a nascent conservation movement around, but really very little cultural awareness of the problems with littering, and all along the path, on the beach and in the water were empty water bottles, noodle packages, and food scraps. Ew.

At 1pm we left to trek back across the island to go home. I think I was a little dehydrated despite all the water I'd downed on the beach, and about 15 minutes in I had to stop and sit down for a bit. But we made it through, with frequent water breaks. The path had dried significantly in the few hours since we came, so the going was easier, but it was still awfully slippery. At one point I lost my footing on a slope and cut myself up good on a sharp rock on the way down, shin and elbow. Second blood of the trip; Mas Thoriq stepped on something sharp and sliced his foot open on the way in. When we reached the inlet where we started the sea had already receded easily 50 meters with the low tide, and we had to wade out to the boat when it arrived. A quick shower later (1500 Rp at the bathrooms) and we were back in the car heading home, dead tired, sore, filthy, burned, and bleeding. That super-antibiotic ointment from the travel clinic is coming in handy now, and I'll likely have a nice scar – oleh-oleh dari Pulau Sempu. But - though I say this fully aloed-up and dosed with aspirin - you're right, Jake: it was totally worth it.

Postscript: The Jogya group drank cobra blood. So I guess I did miss out on that.

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