Hello from a place called Ende tho frankly it feels like they should drop the 2nd 'e'. I really wish I wasn't here...
This month began in 'The Big Durian' that is Jakarta. Durians are the very smelly fruit that are also very delicious but that's definitely not a fair description of the city. During Dutch colonial times the city had a population of half a million and the Dutch were very worried that if it grew much more serious problems could arise as its built on a floodplain. They devised a flood management plan based on dykes etc that would hopefully be an end to the problem but unfortunately they then got kicked out and the plans were never built. The population of Jakarta is now a whopping 14million and large parts of it gets flooded almost every single yr. When you add its location on a tectonic fault (as seen by the earthquake a few weeks ago) it's not exactly the best place to live, but it is very much the place where this vast nation comes together. The business and political centre of the country much to my surprise it's also got one of the best clubbing scenes in the world (no, really!). I've always found that Muslims can be quite hypocritical when talking about the evils of alcohol, simply because in most parts of the world they simply substitute it for another stimulant. In North Africa they smoke hashish, in East Africa and the Gulf they chew qat but in Indonesia very much the drug of choice is ecstasy (far and away the worlds biggest producer and consumer). Regardless of your views on it, it does mean the clubs are just awesome with very good DJs playng to huge crowds. One club I went to called Stadium is normally open from Thursday night to Monday morning but unfortunately they shut at 4 when I was there, it was Ramadan so they had to close early to make sure everyone ate before the sun came up (I'm not making this up!). It had a capacity of 5,000 and that many people on the drug mentioned = a pretty memorable night.
But Jakarta really isn't somewhere you want to stay too long and so I left to climb a volcano. There are few things I enjoy more than getting to the top of mountains and with more active volcanoes than anywhere else in the world (over 130) I've been pretty happy in Indonesia as you get the view 'in' as well as 'out'. I've been fighting an ongoing battle with the Indonesian park service which stands at 10 nil to me over the enforced guiding they make you take for many of them. In the more isolated areas you can generally just rock up and do them yourself but in the more touristy areas they try and make you pay upwards of $50 just for someone to walk a path with you so have had some early mornings trying to slip past the guards. They're generally really easy as they're all under 4,000m and below the snow line and they've varied quite nicely from the very active Rinjani which recently erupted (so you could see lava) to the kinda scary Inerie (no path so quite dangerous). One of the strangest sights was at Bromo where Indonesian tourists would throw things like vegetables or money into the crater which is belching out sulfur and some of the locals would risk their lives having to try and scramble down the ridiculously dangerous and steep crater walls and nab them before they vanished. God knows what their life expectancy is but it looked like one of the worst ways to make a living I've ever seen. Just crazy.
One of my overriding memories of Java will be the night buses, not only the red eyed chain smoking with the locals of the awesome local fruit scented tabs (like smoking a Wrigley's juicy fruit gum) but the fantastic buskers that would serenade you 24hrs a day. On the tube in London the Gypsy accordion players are so bad that half the time they get menacing stares all the way up to racial abuse from their fellow passengers, but here they're great. Indonesia has a surprisingly strong Indie/grunge scene and there's just hundreds of these buskers groups (normally 2 or 3 young guys) who can play the guitar and sing and who get on board to entertain you 10 minutes. Definitely improves the journey, although maybe less so at 5am.
From Java I left for Bali and with lush volcano lined scenery, beautiful beaches and people it's not hard to see why it's been regarded as a paradise island for so long; however, perhaps it's biggest asset is it's unique culture. Bali is famously Hindu in this mainly Muslim country but in the Indonesian constitution you can only worship a monotheistic religion (mainly to try and stop animism from surviving in remote parts) so the Hinduism practiced here is a bit different from that in India. Instead of many Gods they tenuously claim that Shiva, Brahma et al are just one God in different forms, either way the people are fiercely passionate and all over the island you see the beautiful bright oranges and purples from their offerings, seemingly a temple on every corner and of course all the men wearing skirts (sarongs).
It really is a beautiful place and I have many happy memories of it from cycling down through crater lakes into the coffee plantations to seeing the huge religious ceremonies it packs an awful lot to do for a place it's size. Probably my best memory however was when I went to climb the highest volcano there called Agung, I slept in the temple on the slopes of the mountain and my journal entry for the day ends: "I had no food but the nightwatchman gave me some rice and so I ended up in my sleeping bag in the courtyard of the highest Hindu temple in Bali watching the stars above me. Magic"- which sums it up quite nicely.
Unfortunately too much tourism has meant it's not quite as perfect as the brochures make out however; the touristy areas in and around Bali is one of the worst places I've ever been for people trying to rip you off. Most people have an image of haggling as something done quite good naturedly over souvenirs in North Africa or Turkey but when you have to do it several times a day literally down to the price of an orange it becomes both tedious and actually mentally draining. Indonesians are actually quite 'bad' at it in the sense that they don't start at 'twice the price' which you expect but 4, 5 or even 10 times the price of something, at which point as one Irishman I met put it quite nicely "you don't want to negotiate, you just want to tell them to p*ss off".
Bali also has a seedy underbelly which has given me a slightly new perspective on the bombings that took place there earlier this decade. I'd been warned by fellow travelers that parts of it resemble an 'Australian Magaluf' (ie lots of drunken debauchery) and its also become a popular meeting point for gay Asians to hook up with western men. Whilst Bali has a long tradition of being a very tolerant place it is literally a small island surrounded by a much more conservative culture; to see the very public drunken excesses of the Aussies on holiday and the visually disgusting sight of older western men with gunsels of very indeterminate ages definitely makes you think who's in the wrong exactly. At the time of the bombings all the headlines were of the 'Is Indonesia a hotbed of fundamentalism?' or 'A new front on the war on terror!' brand of sensationalism but if Western tourists are gonna do these kind of things which aren't so much alien but actively wrong in Islamic culture then we can't really be too surprised when some people get quite upset and being quite pessimistic I can see it happening again.
All the volcanoes in Java and Bali have made the land very fertile and covered in people but as you start moving East to the islands known as Nusa Tenggara the landscape becomes much drier and far emptier.
By the time you get to Komodo national park it's hard to picture a more unforgiving environment, scorching hot with hardly any vegetation not much can survive but I did fulfill an ambition of mine by getting to see the dragons in the wild. The biggest lizards in the world, they can reach up to 3m in length and survive on the few deer and water buffalo that can survive on the island. Not really dangerous to humans you can go as close as you like but as one Jap famously found out 2 yrs ago- too close and you lose an arm (their saliva is acidic and causes your flesh to slowly rot). I also did a bit of snorkeling there and from swimming with turtles, climbing a few more volcanoes and taking umpteen motorcycle hitches in beautiful Flores I thought things were going very well until I got here.
My visa runs out today (and you can't renew it) but have been stuck here since the 22nd with no prospect of leaving Indonesia til at least the 27th. Despite being the 4th biggest country in the world and generally reasonably developed in most ways the transport infrastructure here is truly appalling. It's airlines are banned from virtually everywhere and it's impossible to get information on ferry schedules as none of the websites work. You can also only buy airline tickets from the place you depart from and when I arrived I was told all the flights are full for another week. There are no boats leaving til the 26th so am effectively stuck here before I can get to East Timor, you can get up to 5 yrs in prison for overstaying your visa and whilst I don't think that will happen I think the projected fine of $60 is one I won't really take kindly to as there's literally nothing I can do about the situation.
Hopefully I'll get to East Timor and then it will be back to Indonesia for another month.