Java – the exotic found on your doorstep (3/3) – Mt Bromo and Ijen

If I have to pick a travelling moment that took my breath away, marvelling at the star-coated sky from the windowless passenger seat on the way to Mt Bromo on a May night in 2014 would be that moment.

By the time we climbed on that bus, it had been almost a day spent on buses. My Asian look and being solo female tourist somehow always gained me some ‘popularity’ with the drivers and organisers. Perhaps they would worry who else is going to take care of this girl if not us (apologies in advance for my naivete in looking at the world and men). I had the passenger seat which was scary. Every now and then my eyes couldn’t stop but stare at the wires underneath and witnessed how the (first) driver overtake another bus, one hand perched lightly on the steering wheel with a cigarette between his fingers, the other hand on his phone.

We started from Jogja, heading east towards Surabaya. The day had been hot, and sitting in poorly air-conditioned buses was not comfortable. But for the price we paid, I have to give it to tour operators in Indonesia. The whole thing was efficiently organised and value-for-money. Rooms were basic but clean. Wake-up “service” was a few knocks on the door before departure time. Tea/coffee was there when we got to the dining area. Breakfast was packed for us to bring and eat along/after the trip. To put it simply, if a ‘princess’ with OCD like me could enjoy it, so can everyone.

The second driver signalled me to sit closer, seeing me struggle to close the broken window of the bus. Despite the chill, I couldn’t help but stay as close as I could to the window. Cold crisp air brushed my tired face.  The night (even in the country) never looked that mesmerising. Bright stars against the backdrop of the velvety dark sky seemed within arms’ reach. I was somehow being 7 years old again, wishing I could pluck a star and play with it to my heart’s desire.

The next morning, I was squeezed in a jeep with 4 guys and a couple. It was so packed that I felt I could break my hip bone at any minute. The only thing that took my mind off that worry was watching the guys talk. The Dutch was switching between speaking Dutch to the Belgians and French to the French. Everyone was in the country for a few weeks at least and that seemed to be the case with almost everyone else I met. I did feel bad living so close to Indonesia but have been ignoring the country, thinking there’s nothing to it except Bali – which had proved to be a bit of a let-down. Perhaps when the hype is that much, it’s hard to beat the expectations.

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The road up to the viewpoint to see Mt Bromo was crammed with Jeep cars like ours – obviously, it’s a well-trodden path. The Dutch guy in our Jeep was exclaiming “Man, I’ve never seen traffic jam like that at 4am!” Neither had everyone else in that Jeep, I believe. The viewpoint is not only popular with foreigners but also with local people. It was difficult to get a spot without shoving someone over the fence but I managed to behold the mighty mountain for more than a few seconds (without any homicide). Sometimes you just have to pretend you’re on your own, and that you have the whole view for yourself. I clearly hadn’t mastered that kind of art, so I left earlier than most, bought myself a corn on the cob, and enjoyed the long walk back to our Jeep, surrounded only by … Jeeps along both sides of the road.

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Our Jeep driver. Please tell me I’m not the only one who thinks he looks like … Hitler 🙂

The next ‘adventure’ was a hike to Mt Bromo itself, a volcano that is still active and apparently had killed 2 people when it erupted in 2004. I slowly managed to climb to the crater of the mountain, not a small feat for someone who doesn’t exercise and overindulges with cakes whenever the weather proves to be slightly depressing (which is more than half of the time). The terrain around the mountain sort of looked like Mars to me (not that I’ve ever been to Mars myself) and shows how diverse Indonesia is. Whatever takes your fancy, I can guarantee this archipelago has something to offer.

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Mars … not!
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Smoke (?) coming out of the volcano

The morning stretched like forever when one woke up at 4am. By late morning, we had ticked off the must-see of that day. After that, we embarked on another day on the bus, heading towards Ijen – a place even my Indonesian friends haven’t heard of and which I signed up for only because of the incredible turquoise-coloured lake I saw on my friend’s blog posts of her trip to the aptly-nicknamed Emerald of the Equator a couple of years before. My trip itinerary was slightly different in that we were going to Ijen at midnight, to be able to see the incredibly rare blue fire that resulted from combustion of sulphur upon contact with air.

I didn’t know of the blue fire beforehand, but when it seemed everyone was going there, I hastily paid the extra fee so be woken up at half an hour past midnight and went on a four-hour hike to see something I had no idea about. Let’s all remember that this is the very girl who went on a blind date (organised and documented by a popular English magazine back home) in the name of ‘experience’ many years ago. The hike to Ijen was not that difficult to everyone in the group, who upon being dropped off all marched on excitedly, armed with headlamps and legs made for hiking, leaving behind the princess (aka me) whose best asset, up until that point, had proved to be a healthy dose of curiosity and hopefully half a sense of humour.

Being the slowest person on a tour group brought me a benefit I never realised I needed. The guide had to make sure everyone was on their way, so I had his company all the way, and more importantly his help climbing down the tricky path towards the crater. I remember him saying Are you OK Miss? more than a couple of times.  At a few points I did feel embarrassed of my physicality and thus looked around to search for other people in the same situation. Only to find out that the only people with a guide holding their hands (literally!!) were some Asian 50-year-old plus aunties who didn’t seem to know what they signed up for, either.

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Photo by Olivier Grunewald, in a Nat Geo article linked up below

Against the backdrop of Ijen beauty in tourists’ eyes, the story of Ijen miners is, however, kind of sad. They work for a meagre pay without proper safety masks. News headlines often draw us to hot spots of wars yet lives at far-flung corners like Ijen somehow seem less precious. Coming from a third-world country, I somehow felt too privileged, having time and money to go travel to places like these.

Travelling then isn’t about discovering new landscapes, or seeing old things with new eyes (in the words of Marcel Proust’s), but more like putting things in perspective. So that one can go home and live out the rest of one’s daily life with a renewed appreciation of the incredible luck one possesses. No matter how third-world that life is.

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