As our ferry approached Java I couldn’t help but notice the huge volcano dominating the skyline. After our experience of hurtling down the very steep sides of a Balinese volcano and near misses with local scooters, we both agreed that whilst we may be missing out on some spectacular scenery in Java, it would be safer sticking to flatter routes. At the ferry terminal we tried to get a map of Java from the Tourist Information Office but were told that they had run out. In fact the whole of Java had run out of maps apparently. We were helpfully directed to a map on the wall as if that would be more than sufficient for our purposes. So on we pedalled into Java not really sure where we were going but hoping that it was flat with plenty of places to stay en route.
Our route took us through the Baluran National Park which was a pleasant start. It was cool and calm under the trees with not a great deal of traffic. However, the park seemed to go on and on and on. We had originally planned to stop and find somewhere to stay after 50kms but as we were still cycling through parkland, this was not to be. We would have found somewhere to camp but we were already having to ration our water supply. A bit of a shocker as we had never even been close to running out of water as we cycled through the Outback! So we just had to keep pedalling hoping we would pop out somewhere.
As the afternoon wore on, we eventually arrived at a small village, thankful to be able to buy some water to fill up our very depleted supply. We played a game of charades with the local people as we acted out that we were looking for somewhere to sleep. They all yelled ‘Situbondo’ and that it was another 4kms on. I spotted a sign for a lodge in the village and so we wandered deeper into the village, passing women washing themselves and their clothes in the polluted-looking river. As we did so, our presence created quite the stir amongst the children who yelled ‘Crazy’ at us. I guess they are not far wrong. There was no one around at the lodge but a man on a scooter started taking it upon himself to find us somewhere to stay. He took us to a homestay and Steve reported back that there was a shared squat toilet. I know I am a wuss and I know I missed out on a very good opportunity to see how the people in this small village lived but I have to admit that my fear of the squat toilet is something that I still need to conquer. Conquer it I will as I conquered my fear of calls of nature in the bush but I just didn’t want to have to conquer it that day. So as Situbondo was only 4kms on, we cycled on a bit further.
I guess unsurprisingly it turned out that Situbondo wasn’t only 4kms away. After 4kms everyone we asked along the way shouted out varying numbers – 40kms, 100kms, 10kms – as if picking a number by random. The badly pot-holed road was much, much busier now with top-heavy trucks, cars and of course millions and millions of scooters hurtling past us. Besides the road was a non-stop line of shacks selling bottles of water, soft drinks and various snacks with faded packaging suggesting sales were rare. We just had to keep cycling on as the late afternoon turned into night. After 120kms of cycling we finally reached Situbondo and a hotel. Now at this point, I didn’t care where I slept or whether it had a squat toilet but I was more than pleasantly surprised when Hotel Karisma’s very cheap room turned out to have a lovely clean western bathroom and clean crisp white sheets on the bed.
The next morning there was a knock at our door. It was the hotel receptionist asking if she could take a photo of us with our bike. Whilst pleasant enough, it felt like the staff had been slightly off with us the previous evening but we were so exhausted it made little difference to us. However, that morning when we went out to pack our bike, all the hotel staff had congregated and were buzzing around, waiting to have their photo with us. We could tell that they were really very excited about this. It dawned on us that their reaction to us the previous evening had probably been due to them being slightly intimidated by our arrival. We had a funny photo session with them and we began to get a feeling as to what the life of triple-Z celebrities must be like.
After the events of the previous day we had a short cycle to a beach resort called Pasir Putih. It soon became apparent that it must have been a public holiday as every hotel we went into said it was fully booked. Our hearts were sinking as we just didn’t want to cycle anymore that day. Then we came across a bright pink guesthouse. Steve ran over to check out whether there was anything available and I could see him being escorted to a room by the tiniest man I have ever seen. Steve looked like a giant beside him. When Steve walked over to open the door to the bathroom, the little guy rushed ahead of him so that he could be the one to open it and to be able to present to Steve, with a small bow and lavish sweep of his arms, the grandeur of the bathroom. This turned out to be a very old but clean bathroom with only a toilet and a mandi shower.
A mandi shower is basically a big sink of cold water and a paddle which you use to throw water over yourself and to flush the toilet with. Whilst my initial impressions of a mandi shower weren’t good, I actually began to favour them over a shower with rubbish water pressure. The initial paddle of cold water gets your heart racing, following which it all feels rather refreshing after a hot and sweaty day of cycling. So we were happy to have found a place to stay for the night and enjoyed watching the Javanese people kick back and enjoy their holidays.
The next day’s destination was Probolinggo, a very busy city famed for its extremely tasty mangoes. We had been wandering around for some time trying to find a place that we had heard did good food. Everybody kept pointing us further up the road until eventually someone pointed us back to where we had come from. Then a rickshaw driver came up and was trying to convince us to let him take us there. It was hot and sweaty and we were hungry and grumpy and in the melee we didn’t know whether we were coming or going. And then, as if by magic, Nanik emerged from the crowds to rescue us. Nanik invited us into her home and before we knew it she was serving us Javanese coffee and chicken satay. We spent a lovely evening with her, her husband, daughter and father-in-law learning about the Javanese way of life and sharing with them what life in England is like. Despite our protests that we were happy to walk, Nanik’s husband and father-in-law very kindly gave us a lift back to our hotel on the backs of their scooters – an exciting change from the bike and a very typical form of Javanese transport. Nanik, thank you for looking after us so well.
To be honest the next few days went by in a complete blur. It felt like we were in a computer game as we dodged scooters piled high with whole families, overloaded trucks leaning somewhat dangerously to one side, rickshaws with various passengers including goats and cows, cyclists on antiquated bikes, pathetic looking kittens with short, crooked tails and daredevil pedestrians coming at us from every direction. We inhaled unhealthy amounts of black fumes from vehicle exhausts and from the fires of domestic waste burnt at the side of the road, including the acrid fumes of burning plastic. I waved, smiled and shouted hello to what felt like the whole of Java shouting ‘Hello Mister!’ at us as Steve concentrated on keeping us safe. People seemed so excited to see us and our fantastical vehicle that even when I felt knackered I had to muster up my brightest smile and wave wholeheartedly. Steve would laugh away as all he could hear was me shouting hello in a sing-song voice every two seconds. I would think we had been cycling for hours but then look at my watch and only 15 minutes had gone past.
I saw with my own eyes that Java certainly is one of the world’s most densely populated places. There were people absolutely everywhere with never a break along the side of the road where people weren’t living their lives. Java is also less touristy than Bali. In fact I can count on one hand the number of white people I saw. In one respect this was great as it was difficult sometimes to know in Bali whether people were being sincere or whether they just saw you as a walking western wallet. But on the other hand it meant that we were always attracting a great deal of attention. When we were on the bike people would make risky moves on whatever vehicle they were driving in order to turn round and film us. At a quick stop for a sip of water, we would suddenly be surrounded by people wanting to have their pictures taken with us on their mobile. Even just walking round a grocery store people would be pointing, nudging each other, staring, laughing and peering to take a look at what we were buying. Steve’s now enormous, eye-catching beard wasn’t helping us go incognito either.
We could only cycle for a short time as it took so much concentration that we would be worn out after a couple of hours, plus we would be soaking wet from the humidity. Our stomachs were also making it very clear that it was having difficulty getting used to the local food. At the end of the day we would shut ourselves in our room, sitting silently, eating a packet of biscuits, gradually letting go of the franticness of the day. Because of our slow progress it soon dawned on us that there was no chance we would be getting to Jakarta before our visa ran out. Not only that, the traffic would only get worse and we were already struggling to enjoy the cycling. So we made a decision to cut our time in Java short and to fly to Singapore from Java’s second largest city, Surabaya.
That decision took a little time to get used to as we thought we had had our last flight already and had put the hassle of taking the bike apart behind us. It was particularly irksome having to walk the 5kms back from a random bike shop lugging two huge cumbersome cardboard bike boxes in the pouring monsoon rains and trying to dart across roads with four lanes of busy traffic. Steve also gave us a last minute panic as we realised on the morning of the flight that he had booked it in my maiden name rather than my married name. However, we have quickly learnt that most problems can usually be overcome with a broad, cheery smile and by following this lesson, the check-in staff casually gave us the ok. I’m quite certain it would have been a different story if we had been checking in back at home.
Arriving in Singapore was like stepping into a world of the future. I couldn’t get over the complete contrast from life in Java where it seemed a large proportion of people lived in poverty. Singapore was slick, modern and expensive. We could only afford to spend a couple of days there but they were a couple of great days, particularly as I got to meet up with an old school friend and her husband. Rachel and Jarwo made fantastic tour guides and showed us around so many of the sights of Singapore which we probably wouldn’t have seen if we had been on our own. Not only this, but it was such a welcome relief to see a familiar and friendly face after being constantly on the move. It really lifted morale!
At times it felt like we were in a sci-fi film, what with its Super Trees and rivers running through their shopping malls.
There are a lot of rules too including the total ban on chewing gum. Whilst I guess you could say this makes Singapore a little authoritarian, it certainly makes for a much more pleasant and clean city environment. It seemed to chill everybody out too as people were really polite and friendly, even standing well back and allowing you off the tube before getting on.
It only took us a couple of hours to cycle through Singapore – a whole country in one day!
But before we left we stopped off at a little Chinese run café for a cold drink. After buying a couple of cokes, the owner came over to chat to us about what we were doing and gave us a two isotonic drinks to take with us. Then a guy came over on behalf of a young, shy waitress to ask if we would mind having our photo taken with her. She was so excited when we said yes and she was so very sweet. As we started to get ready to get on the bike, and despite already having two free drinks to take with us, she rushed over with two more to take on our journey explaining that Singapore is very, very hot.
Throughout our journey people have been so generous to us and I feel so guilty at times as I have nothing to give in return. However, it was clear on this young girl’s face that being able to give us something for our journey gave her such great delight and had completely made her day. This made me think that maybe just allowing her to do that for us was enough and it didn’t require anything in return. It has made me think though that whilst I may not be able to give anything in return to the kind people we meet along the way, when I am in a position to do so once we get back, my thank you to those people will be an aim to be just as kind and open to other people, including strangers, as the people we are lucky enough to be meeting.
Our first land border crossing went without a hitch and before even working up a sweat, we were entering our second country of the day, Malaysia. Unfortunately we hadn’t found anywhere to stay before the afternoon monsoon rains began. When it rains, it sure does rain with big heavy raindrops that stung our skin. We began to cycle through rivers of rainwater and at one point the rain was so heavy that we couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of us. We decided to pull off and take shelter but after 20 minutes there was no sign of it abating. After being informed by a number of people that the nearest accommodation was some way back from where we had come, we had to do a u-turn. We eventually found a place to rest our heads and hang up our soaked clothes in the vain hope that they would have drip dried by the morning.
As we have plenty of time to get up to Penang for when my mum comes out for Christmas (very excited!), it has given us the opportunity to do shorter days and take more days off to fully explore the towns we are passing through. Malaysia is an exciting mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures, which are reflected in the places of worship and of course, the food.
We have also tried a number of strange and exotic fruits. Dragon fruit’s flesh is a most scarily vibrant fuschia pink which tasted a bit like watermelon. We smelt durians before we saw them and they are widely sold at stalls along the side of the road. I can only describe the taste of this fruit as like eating other people’s vomit and will never pass my lips again. We were handed a bunch of rambutans from a passing car as we cycled slowly up a hill. These have become our favourite. Steve thinks they look like testicles but inside they are more like a lychee.
At a place called Muar we decided to stay another day after Angie, the owner of the hotel we were staying at, convinced us that there was a lot to do and see in Muar. It certainly didn’t disappoint as we wandered along the river looking at the historic mosques and temples. We even saw a huge lizard swimming along. Plus we enjoyed trying for the first time the strong, sweet Malaysian coffee and rotis with banana; a great way to start the day.
From there we headed to Melaka, a town awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. Again, you could see the different cultures reflected in the town’s architecture but also its colonial history by the Portuguese, Dutch and then British. A new element to the town was the loud, pumping techno blaring out of the huge sound systems attached to the rickshaws transporting tourists around town. It has certainly given us a few ideas!
We hadn’t been in town long when there was a knock on our hotel door. It turned out to be a Belgian family we had met in Bali. Ben, Celinie and their three girls are travelling for about a year taking pretty much the same route as us. It felt like a small world and it was a lovely surprise to once again see familiar faces. Over the next couple of days we enjoyed some good meals and company with them. This included a great experience at a satay place where you had to get there early to avoid the long queues.
You took a tray and loaded it up with all sorts of skewered meats, fish and vegetables and then placed them into the boiling vat of satay sauce sunk into the middle of the table. Each stick cost 90 sen which is about 20p so we went all out and I can tell you that tray was groaning.
Hopefully it will be our good fortune to bump into Ben, Celinie and the girls again along our route so that we can enjoy some more great company and tasty food experiences!
We had an interesting evening the night before we arrived in Kuala Lumpur when we stayed in a hotel where it was also possible to get rooms by the hour and where there were theatrical curtains framing a window that looked out from the bedroom into the bathroom. We couldn’t help but think it was a brothel but a very clean and reasonably priced one though (for the room that is!).
As usual cycling into a major city like Kuala Lumpur (or KL if you are in the know) was stressful. It was made the more stressful as we thought we had found a small road on the map which would take us all the way into the centre but it suddenly turned into a major expressway. It seemed it was ok for cyclists to be on this road as signposts would direct cyclists off the road at every fly-over and then spew us back onto the busy road again seconds later.
My panic about these busy roads was soon eased once we spotted the Petronas Towers rising over the city and so we knew we just had to keep aiming for there.
We arrived safe and sound and are now enjoying a few days off the bike for some sightseeing. Oh, and also doing what the Tandem Turners do best; eating lots of food of course!
We should also take this opportunity to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a New Year with a bang!