In theory we shouldn’t have liked Jakarta: an endless sprawl of dirt and concrete; chaotic, congested roads; choking traffic fumes; shabby guesthouses; swarms of voracious mosquitoes; an endless stream of atonal buskers interrupting our dinner at least three times a meal in the hope of a tip (sadly this includes children apparently coerced into singing by a guitar-wielding parent)…and of course, across all of Indonesia, when the buskers go quiet there is the inescapable droning of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer (occasionally a rich and soulful sound, but most frequently sounding like drunk karaoke amplified badly). And yet, somehow, Jakarta manages to add up to be more than the sum of its parts. There’s a charm to the place. We can’t quite identify what that charm might be exactly, but it must have been there or how else could we have enjoyed our time in what should be a completely unlovable city? We joined the locals pedalling around in the carnival atmosphere of a Sunday evening at Merdeka Square, watched dockers agilely navigating precarious gangplanks whilst laden with goods, had a drink in the faded colonial opulence of Cafe Batavia, bought a new tyre for the trailer and some maps, and generally pootled around having a great time. Perhaps it was simply excitement at being in a new country that made us more forgiving – it was, after all, our first new country since September 2013.
After a couple of days sightseeing we set off south. The urban sprawl of Jakarta continues for over a hundred kilometres, fully consuming Bogor some 60km away, and even in the alleged ‘countryside’ three days ride from Jakarta, the traffic remained an unrelenting snarl (and to be honest our patience was starting to wear a little thin at that point).
As we bulled our way through the chaotic traffic, Keith followed the locals’ lead of not letting more than a 10mm gap appear between my toes and the bumper of the vehicle in front. Any gap large enough to squeeze a toe into was fair game to squeeze a Pino into…and if we didn’t take the initiative then someone else would. Railway crossings are hilarious. When the barriers descend motorbikes on both sides overtake the queuing cars and pile themselves into the lane facing the oncoming traffic, thus ensuring that the first 10 minutes after the barriers are raised are spent in a cacophony of furious horn-hooting as over a hundred motorbikes try to do-si-do back to the correct lane whilst crossing railway line, and the car and truck drivers are completely unable to move…to the extent that on one occasion we saw just three cars get across before the barriers descended again for the next train.
The most annoying drivers on the Indonesian roads however, are those at the wheel of the ubiquitous mini-vans: they are an absolute liability. They seem to take a perverse pleasure in overtaking us then cutting in to pick up a fare, almost whipping my feet off the pedals in the process. Other liabilities include the flag-waving, whistle-blowing men who leap into the traffic to help other drivers join from side roads (for a fee); motorbike riders who are incapable of holding their line whilst craning their necks round to gawk at us; and, rather worryingly, the occasional large sheet of aluminium falling from an overhead gantry. Thankfully we were off the road when the 2 x 4m sheet fell into the road. A couple on a motorbike were not so lucky: it landed right in front of them and they had no chance to avoid it. Amazingly they escaped with just scrapes and bruises.
Despite (broadly) sharing a language, rough and ready Indonesia has a very different feel to that of urbane Malaysia. It reminds us more of Central Asia than South East Asia. On our travels we’ve become used to seeing petrol sold in all manner of inappropriate containers (used coke bottles and the like), but Indonesia took it to a whole new level when we saw a guy pouring petrol into his minibus from a plastic bag. At least he hadn’t got a cigarette dangling from his lip.
In Bogor we bumped into Jerry Green again (the cyclist we met when leaving Georgetown a couple of weeks earlier).
Then a couple of days later we bumped into him again and since our schedules coincide we’ve decided to join forces across the rest of Java. It’s really nice to have his company.
Jerry normally starts his day at 4am whereas we usually start around 8, but we can see the benefit in trying to beat the heat so have split the difference and are now on the road between 5.30 and 6am, which means we’re managing to get a few more kilometres covered before wilting in the heat. It’s come as a real shock to us to see how early so many Indonesians rise. The roads are really not much quieter at 5.30am than at 8am.
As we headed from Western to Central Jakarta the traffic finally began to thin a little, and we’ve enjoyed some excellent riding on quiet roads with beautiful views of conical volcanic mountains across lush rice paddies.
We’ve met some great people in Indonesia so far, most notably Harley Davidson enthusiast Eddo who befriended us as we stopped for a break on a long climb, and then, when the heavens opened, invited us to the closest of his several cafes for a coffee. And what a coffee it was! We’ve heard of this particular coffee before, but never been prepared to pay the premium price for it. Its unique selling point is that it is made from beans that, prior to harvesting, have been through the digestive system of the Asian Palm Civet….yup, someone somewhere thought it would be a great idea to make coffee from beans that have been plucked from the excreta of a small omnivorous mammal. Who’d’ve thought?! Anyhow, it’s delicious. Sadly we’ve since discovered that the civets are not kept in particularly good conditions and are often taken from the wild in unsustainable numbers, so I guess we won’t be having that coffee again in a hurry no matter how delicious it tasted.
(As an aside, for the meteorologically minded of you, that particular spell of rain was the first time in SE Asia that we’ve been cold enough to need raincoats. Up at 1500m above sea level there’s a distinct chill in the air even though the sun is still scorching.)
Another nice encounter was with a 71 year old cardiologist in Tasikmalaya. He checked our pulses whilst we had our early morning coffee and declared us fit to pedal…so that was reassuring. And a special mention has to also go to the lovely lady at the water purification shop who not only filled our bottles for free but also gave them a good clean.
The Dutch influence can, as anticipated, be seen in the architecture and canals – particularly in Jakarta – but it’s also apparent in more unexpected quarters, like on the shelves of supermarkets and corner shops, which are filled with packets of chocolate vermicelli. In the UK we would only sprinkle this on ice-cream or on top of a cake so couldn’t think why there was such a market for it here….but apparently in Holland, and in Indonesia too, it is sprinkled on sliced bread and made into a sandwich.
Indonesia has a landscape of high volcanic peaks and craters, rising to over 2,000m along the central spine of Java. For the first few days we stuck primarily to main roads and enjoyed fairly steady climbs with only a few painfully steep sections, and then from Tasikmalaya we found some quieter roads and headed down to the coast to spin along on the flat….or so we thought. We knew the flat coastal road from Cilacap to Yogyakarta was interrupted by 8 or so kilometres of lumpiness over a shoulder of rock, but nothing we’d seen on the map prepared us for the reality of 20% inclines rising savagely and repeatedly from sea level to 150+m and back down again. Pedalling (on our heavy rig at any rate) was out of the question, and even pushing and pulling our 110kg of gear took every ounce of our endurance. Partway up the third or fourth climb we flagged down a passing truck and decided that discretion was indeed the better part of valour and scrounged a lift over the remaining appallingly steep ascents.
Back on the flat we bowled along merrily past vast rice paddies (all being farmed by hand despite their scale) and remarked on the absence, so far, of oil palm plantations.
After a few back-to-back long days we fancied some time off the bikes in Yogyakarta, but we also wanted to see the UNESCO Heritage site of the 1200 year old Buddhist temple at Borobodur, almost 40km away.
The cheapest option was to rent some motorbikes (something Keith’s been itching to do for a while) and so I was able to tick off something on my 2015 to-do list and learnt to ride a motorbike. It was made easier by the fact that Jerry is also a novice rider, so I didn’t feel too embarrassed by my hesitant throttle action. The ride out at 6am was relatively pleasant, fun even; the return at 1pm in heavy traffic, less so.
Borobudur itself was worth the visit: well-renovated bas reliefs around the lower levels of the pyramid depict Siddartha’s life and enlightenment to become Buddha (including such classics as “Siddartha encounters a diseased man” and “Siddartha cuts off his hair”); and the view from the top is breathtaking. It was also an opportunity to meet local tourists whilst away from our bike. Despite now just being regular Western tourists instead of a travelling circus we remained the centre of attention with several families asking to have their photo taken with us.
We’re now well into East Java and our next blog post will see us visiting a couple of active volcanoes before heading into Bali. Until then we’ll leave you with a few more pics of our first impressions of Indonesia.