Dancing With The Spirits

Trip Start Nov 16, 2007
Trip End Aug 2008

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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Monday, February 25, 2008

The culture shock encountered leaving the airport in Denpassar is more extreme than that from London to Rio; passing from the quiet, well manicured streets of Darwin to the bustling, organic sprawl of the capital of Bali. After getting through customs with a nice new visa in the passport, Inga and I share a taxi to Kuta and I check into a hotel. Great value and right in the heart of the resort. After a refreshing swim with the rain pouring down, I head to bed.
Kuta is a collection of villages which have molded together as Bali's tourist industry expanded. On the southern peninsula of the island, it is a popular destination for Australians and Japanese people to soak up some rays and make use of the excellent beach. The centre is focussed on one road set back from the beach, with an array of restaurants, clubs and shops. I spend the day exploring and wandering along the beach, having the spicy local speciality of Nasi Campur for lunch. After a swim, Inga and I head out for some dinner in a local warung before heading back for a drink in the hotel bar. A bit more rain ends the evening.
I have hired a driver and car for the following day to drive to the interesting sites around Bali. Inga joins me which is fortunate as both my camera batteries run out at the first port of call, a performance of a traditional Kris dance involving the classic 'Good versus Evil' tale; between good Barong and evil Raglan. Although staged for tourists, you get a good idea about the ritual and colours. The constant stream of Chinese tourists to the bathroom is only a minor distraction.
Back in the car, we head to various factory shops in and around the cultural centre of Ubud. Batik cloth, wood carving, silver smithing and painting are all important parts of the Balinese culture, and I get to look at some good examples. We carry on north of Ubud, uphill all the way to the lookout point at Kintamani. Situated on the edge of a large crater which shapes the whole of Bali, the view over the volcano in the centre, Gunung Batur, is staggering with typical terraced rice fields stretching throughout the crater.
After a spot of lunch gazing down into the crater, we head down towards Ubud to a spice and coffee plantation and get to try the products while wandering through the beautiful grounds. Then onto Ubud to the famous monkey sanctuary which also contains the local temple of death, an interesting venue to watch grey monkeys cavorting. Heading back to Kuta, we pass back through bustling Denpassar, heaving with people heading home from work. Dinner again with Inga before I head out to see what the nightlife has to offer. The Bounty is the uber club of Kuta and I sip beers and cocktails with some Aussies and Dutch teachers on a break from their schools. The venue is in the style of a huge ship, with sails and rigging. After a couple of hours I head back and get packed for the journey to Java the next day.
Catching a taxi back into Denpassar in the morning, I get to the main bus station in plenty of time for the afternoon bus across to Probolinggo on Java. The station is absolute bedlam, with transport of all shapes and sizes heading off throughout Bali and beyond. Waves of passengers come and go before it is my turn. My neighbour on the bus is poorly old woman who makes a great effort to talk in broken English to me. She sleeps much of the rest of the way, occasionally waking to grab the rubbish bin for a discrete spitting session. We weave our way along the rolling road to Gilimanuk on the west coast where ferries make the 30 minute journey across the Bali Strait to Ketapang on Java. The water is like a mill pond as we slowly chug out into the murky channel, the shapes of mountains lingering in the darkness.
Back on dry land we continue round the Javan coast towards the transport hub of Probolinggo. Arriving at 2 in the morning, I am met by three guys in a minibus to take me up into the mountains. After the boss tries to sell me every tour possible over the coming weeks, we dash up the valley at breakneck speed to the small village of Cemoro Lawang on the edge of the Bromo-Tenegger-Semeru National Park. The hotel night duty receptionist offers me the chance to just stay one night instead of two, by leaving my bags there and heading up for the sunrise now. After an entire day traveling, I find myself walking down into the crater of an active volcano at 3:30 with a headlight and the moon for company.
I am soon joined on the walk by a group of Indonesian guys going up for the sunrise with a guitar. The Plain of Sand, the large crater that holds the active volcanos Bromo, Batak and Kursi, is a desolate place with dark volcanic sand broken up with patches of more recent lava flows. As we reach the base of Bromo, the stairs carved in the side become apparent in the bright moonlight. 249 steps to the Bromo crater edge, choked by the sulphurous clouds bellowing from below in the darkness. We are the first ones here and sit facing east with our clothes drawn over our mouths and eyes shut when Bromo belches. Between the emissions, an increasing number of lights dance in the plain below, from jeeps, motorbikes and other walkers. Mixed into this are the bright orange jets of flames that shoot out of vents in the lava flows, reminding of the active status of the region. More people arrive for the glow that develops in the sky. The sunrise is masked by the clouds, but Bromo and the plain below is revealed and makes a spectacular image. After half an hour or so taking pictures and wandering round the limb, I head down to get out of the fumes. The sunshine is cutting through into the plain and gives a beautiful light as I wander back up to Cemoro Lawang. I explore the village for a bit, heading back down towards the hotel before checking in and getting to bed.
In the morning, I catch the early local bus back to Probolinggo, stopping everywhere to take goods and people to market and town. On arriving at the terminal, I secure transport on a big bus before getting the bonus of being put on a tourist shuttle bus direct to my next destination of Solo. My fellow travelers are two Dutch girls who are a little surprised when two hours into the journey we pull over and pick up 4 Indonesian guys. Driver getting a little extra compensation for his efforts, and considerable efforts they are as we arrive an hour early, inspite of torrential rain and heavy traffic. A hair raising experience to say the least. Checked into a central Solo homestay, I grab some food at the nearby warung and head to bed.
Temples are the order of business today. I join a German brother and sister in traveling first to the Hindu temple of Candi Ceto, halfway up the the mountain of Gunung Lawu. It is an fascinating structure with a narrowing staircase leading through the steps of mans' enlightenment. Built 700 years ago, it is a site of pilgrimage and ceremony for much of Javan history and is set in an amazing location on a hillside. After stopping to look at a local waterfall, we head down to our guides sister's roadside canteen to have lunch and tea, surrounded by a tea plantation.
After lunch, we head up to the temple Candi Sukuh. A contemporary of Candi Ceto, the temple has more in common with Mayan temples than any other Javan temple. It is the subject of much research for this reason and is vastly different to Ceto. Traditionally this was the site of fertility ceromonies for royalty and also possibly a sacrificial altar of humans, although research is not conclusive on this. Taken aback by the variety of the day, we head back to Solo. I spend the rest of the day walking in the centre, the highlight being the vast Batik market, Pasar Klewer, housed next to the central mosque and one of the royal palaces.
The central Javan royal families have had a complex history, full of feuds and rivalries. For this reason there are two royal palaces in Solo and another two in nearby Yogyakarta. The first stop of the day is the Puro Mangkunegoro which was built in 1757 to placate Prince Mas Said, the nephew of the then ruler. Along with the palace and title came control over 4000 Solonese households. Entering from the south with my guide from the local tourism school, you come to the pendopo. These are covered meeting places and stage court events and entertainment. This one is the largest in Indonesia and has four complete Gamelan orchestras. You proceed through various state rooms that house the collections and artifacts of the court. The mix of styles is really interesting, with Javan art sitting alongside Dutch and Italian statues and features. The current Mangkunegoro lives in an off limits section at the north end of the complex. Well worth the visit.
A short walk south is the complex of buildings called the Kraton which houses the Kasunanan Palace. This was brought over in a great one day procession by Pakubuwono II in 1745 fro Kartasura, and is the oldest of the royal palaces in central Java. It is a much less organised wander through the courtyards, with Gamelan music drifting across the black sand. Like the previous palace, the current Pakubuwono lives in a fenced off section in the grounds. I wander through the rest of the Kraton, now used for non-royal purposes, but the buildings still remain. Back to the hotel to get ready to leave for Jogja in the morning.
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