TRAVEL UPDATE: First Impressions of Java Indonesia
A few days ago I landed on the far eastern tip of Java, Indonesian by a one-hour ferry from Bali.
We crossed a sea channel full of supremely treacherous-looking, churning waters. Right in the midst of an otherwise calmly bobbing sea appeared strange round water spots of incredibly smooth water. On the edge of such water circles were raging frothy ripples. What was that?!
In other places I spotted long lines of suddenly raging white peaks sprouting up. Was the sea hitting a shallow reef? Then suddenly the frothy line would disappear. I don’t know what was going on below the surface of that sea channel, but I do know I would not jump in to find out.
One hour later, I arrived at Ketapang Harbor wondering what the rest of East Java (Java Timor) had in store for me. Back in Bali, all my Indonesian friends had expressed concern about me traveling solo around Java. Each and everyone had cautioned me, “hati-hati” (be careful).
When I told them I wanted to drive a motorbike around, they had all paused, looked grim and shaken their heads slightly. They all warned me that motorbikes were stolen routinely in Java. They further warned me not to drive at night, to be very careful of my bags and belongings, and to wear long clothes (not my usual skimpy Balinese sun dresses). Further, they informed me that I would not be able to take my rental bike from Bali on the ferry to Java. Drats!
So I’d made a new plan. I’d take the ferry without my rental bike, get to East Java’s closest major city, and try to rent a bike there.
I took all their advice with a grain of salt. I’ve been traveling around SE Asia long enough to know that within countries there’s often prejudice and mis-information about other regions of peoples’ own country – against the south or the north, the city or the countryside.
Yes, I’d start my travels through Java a bit alert and cautious. Perhaps my friends were right. But they might simply have misguided ideas about their Javanese neighbors.
When I arrived at Ketapang harbor, I was very surprised to find a ‘tourist information center’. A polite, friendly Javanese man snapped up to help me get to my destination. He told me about a direct bus that I hadn’t known about to Jember city. That proved to be extremely helpful. I had just enough time to get a take-out lunch at a local warung, grab a drink and hop on said direct bus to Jember.
Since then I have taken several long-distance buses past stunning terraced rice fields, through super-ass ugly towns, up over a spectacular forest-clad mountain, and through coffee plantations. I’ve stayed in a tiny town and a huge, sprawling city.
I’ve been serenaded by singing buskers on public buses. I explored my first cacao plantation and processing plant. Visited a charming Dutch colonial hotel set in landscaped gardens. And stayed in my least expensive room of 2012.
I’ve eaten exceptionally delicious foods every day. Befriended several cats. Been stared at, smiled at, greeted with barking ‘HELLO’s, and mostly well-received by locals genuinely surprised to see an actual foreigner in person.
I have not been glared at nor felt threatened. I haven’t had my bags or possessions stolen, or even glanced at, in fact. I’ve felt perfectly safe everywhere I’ve been.
In just a few days I’ve observed a lot about the island and its people.
Here are my initial impressions:
Quite unfortunately, the very first thing I discovered about Java, on my very first bus ride, is that man-oh-man, Javanese men love to smoke cigarettes! That’s bad news for me and any other non-smokers. Javanese men smoke everywhere. I mean everywhere. They smoke on buses. They smoke in restaurants, hotels, shops, while driving motorbikes, in bathrooms. They are non-stop smoke machines.
The worst has to be their habit of smoking in restaurants, especially small enclosed local shops. Have you ever tried eating a meal amidst clouds of cigarette smoke? Nauseating.
Young Javanese guys with various types of guitars board public buses randomly to serenade the passengers with a song or 2 or 3. Then they squeeze through the crowded aisle asking each passenger for a donation. Some people give and some don’t. The buskers respond politely to everyone. It’s a fun diversion on long bus trips… unless you’re confronted with too many buskers during a single journey or they have jarring voices.
Land and towns:
Java is bursting with gorgeous and varied scenery: terraced rice fields, forested mountains, coffee and cacao and rubber plantations. Many prettty beaches line the coasts, but I haven’t reached any of them yet.
In extreme contrast, Java’s towns and cities are exceedingly ugly and noisy. I’d sum up Javanese towns thus: hideously ugly sprawls with roaring traffic spewing gray clouds of exhaust. Ugly buildings, broken-up sidewalks, stenching gray rivers and deafening engines. That’s inhabited Java.
(Back in 2000, I traveled through western and central Java for 2 months. I did find two nice cities: Bandung with its impressive colonial Dutch buildings and Solo (Surakarta), the seat of the Surakarta Kingdom and remaining home of the Sultan of Surakarta and his vast family. Otherwise, Java towns = yuk)
reactions to me:
I’ve been traveling and staying in places that very few western tourists visit. Locals are continually taken aback when they see me. I see shock, curiosity, excitement, friendliness, dollar signs. So many different responses.
But I have not felt hostility nor threat nor resentment. Most people are quite friendly, barking out ‘HELLO!’ or acting delightedly surprised when I greet them with ‘selamat sore’. Lots of big smiles, shining eyes and excited waving.
Interestingly, about half the Javanese I’ve met immediately inflate their prices on me while the other 50% automatically give me normal local prices. Luckily, I know what normal prices should be and I speak Indonesian.
I let them know if they’re gouging me and ask for the ‘harga biasa’. They are always unabashedly unashamed of having given me a higher price. One bus ticket collector even blatantly agreed that the price was higher because I was a foreigner. In the end, I got the normal price, but it was a reluctant deal.
On the other hand, I also had a restaurant owner give me the lower, normal price when I accidentally guessed a higher price. So there you go. Different mentalities amongst the ranks.
bullying / brow beating:
On several occasions I’ve had people blatantly making fun of me, laughing at me en masse, particularly when I ask for the normal, local prices. One food stall woman immediately told every single customer who arrived that I had complained about her high prices. One by one, they all sided with her, glaring or laughing at me because I suggested she was giving me a higher price.
They all stood there talking about me, right in front of my face, and making fun. Meanwhile, she had blatantly lied to me about what other customers were paying for their meals and she went out of her way to hide the money they handed her. Every time I pointed that out, she got all puffed up and huffy. Since I speak Indonesian, I understood most of what they were saying. Talk about F-ing rude!
Despite the regularly inflated prices and the occasional bullying tactics, overall the Javanese people are very nice and friendly. And as I mentioned above, I haven’t come across anyone who seems dangerous, threatening or sleezy. I feel quite safe here and kindly accepted on their gorgeous island.
Java has a lot of incredibly delicious food!
Many of my Indonesian favorites are here, including soto ayam, gado-gado, bubur ayam, sate, and nasi campur. I eat those regularly in Bali, so I’m happy to find them here as well. Bonus: they all taste even better than in Bali!
I’ve also found a new favorite, which I’ve never seen in Bali. It’s a bowl of homemade noodles with shredded chicken, wonton, roasted garlic and one other ingredient that might be a mild cheese.. not sure, but it’s delicious I”ve been eating every day, at least once. Java is a great place to discover more Indonesian foods. Report coming later…
Things in Java not generally found in Bali:
Pony & carts, cats, mosques and call to prayer.
Final note: alas, no rental motorbikes to be found yet. Looks like I might be bus-ing it.
Java is a beautiful tropical island choking with hideously ugly towns, roaring traffic and a mass of humanity. Friendly, curious people, half of whom see dollar signs upon sighting westerners, half of whom don’t. Coffee, cacao and clove plantations. Cats, pony & carts and goats. Delicious food. Rampant smokers.
Have you been to Java? What were your impressions? Anything else to add, agree or disagree w ith?
If you haven’t been to Java, would you like to go? Which places in particular?
You might also enjoy my photo gallery of Volcano Hiking in Java