S.E. Java

We drive 4hrs northwest to get to the ferry in Gilimanuk, stopping for babi guling.

Ferries run every 15min, so we slide onboard quickly, though first the police officer at the entrance tells Evan he should get himself a Javanese girlfriend. Evan explains that I am his girlfriend, which the cop shrugs off, replying, “Get an Indonesian girl, too. Oh, and bring me back a girlfriend. I like those Australian girls.”

In Java the houses are brightly painted; mosques and pedicabs abound

(a wonderful service, as old people, mothers with young children and kids 10-13 are more rarely on motorbikes). We stop at Indomart to grab car snacks. The cashier, a girl with a stunning smile in a hijab, has been to G-Land. “It is beautiful, and there are plenty of hotels”. Formerly uncertain if we should make the drive in one day, her report settles it. G-Land is the nickname surfers have given Grajagan, an isolated 2km area on the southeastern tip of the peninsula.

We get lost; Evan asks a man sitting outside his shop for directions. Four others gather, and all give advice on distance, landmarks. We drive from city into cornfields, rice paddies. In Bali, houses are built as compounds with an external wall separating families from the outside world, evil spirits. In Java, houses are open, displaying beautiful tiling, bright colors (red, orange, light blue), porches, and gardens. Run down houses (wooden planks, no windows, dirt yards) next door to ones newly painted and tiled. In the states, we geographically divide based on wealth, sharing neighborhoods with people of similar means. Here, people want to stay where they are from, and so neighborhoods are more economically varied.

We get lost in Banyuwangi. Again near Pasar Anya. Smiling, animated directions are given by guys setting up a fruit stall, two men loading a truck, women at roadside stands, teenagers washing motorbikes.  At one stop, a boy of maybe nine opened the back door to the car while Evan asked directions from his grandmother. “Sore. Apa kapar?” (Good afternoon. How are you?) I asked. He did not respond, only climbed in the backseat, closed the door. His grandmother came over and pulled him out. “Dia tidak bisa bicara” she explained (He does not speak).

Finally we are on a bumpy, tree-lined road into Alas Purwo National Park.

Alas Purwo means First Forest in Javanese; according to legend, it is the place where the earth emerged from the ocean. We pay to enter the park (elated at having arrived) and drive 15min to a beautiful, deserted beach. The sun sets; the jungle closes in around us.

Now to find a room. Deer race off the road, eyes reflecting our headlights. At Pesanggrahan, there are no rooms. Construction. But there is a warung where we can eat. “Try Triangulation just down the way.”

Back in the car, we miss the turn for Triangulation and end up at the entrance where a small bar blares karaoke for five men sitting outside. Evan buys beers for later, gets directions. Finally we find Triangulation. There are no rooms; a group from Yogjakarta has made a reservation and arrive at 4am. “Is there anywhere else to stay?” “No.” G-land is one of the most famous surf spots on the planet. It is amazing to see it so undeveloped, so quiet. We will sleep on the beach. First, food.

The warung is small. Three Indonesian surfers sit across from us. There is no menu: only mie goring. Evan runs to grab his wallet from the car, and I see him across the road waving. I wave back. He keeps waving. I rise and one of the surfers warns, “Be careful. There’s a wild boar out there.” “Seriously?!?” my eyes go wide. He nods, eats his noodles. I move slowly off the porch. Across the road from Evan is a 300lb, black wild boar. “Holy shit!” We watch it for a few minutes and then start to the car. I walk backwards, nervous. The boar races off into the forest, surprisingly fast for its big body. “It was HUGE!” I say to the surfer. “Delicious,” he responds.

We make our way to the beach next to two dark houses and a pagoda. We park, crack beers, grab the glow-in-the-dark frisbee. To my right: waves. To my left: a pulsing forest. Overhead: a full moon. As we throw the frisbee, it changes colors: whirling red, blue, green against the night.

“Since the turtle preserve is so close, there might be turtle eggs here, too. Want to look?” We leave shoes, frisbee and walk under the moonlight. No signs of turtle eggs but animal tracks everywhere: wild boar, deer, monkey.

We sleep in the car, putting down the back seats and stuffing bags in cracks to create a semi-flat surface. Stand up paddleboard (uninflated in its bag) becomes our pillow. It is hot, so we leave the rear door and windows open. Sometime in the night, a motorbike parks by one of the houses. I poke Evan in the ribs, hard. “What?” “Someone’s here.” “It’s fine.” He slips back into sleep while I lay heart pounding.

Deep in the night, mosquitoes attack. I wake up itching, leave the car to coat myself in Off. “Should we close up the car?” “Please.” It is a restless sleep. I wake, aching every 30min or so, turn a new direction. “Let’s move up front.” With the seats leaned all the way back, I finally dream.

The sun is brand new when Evan wakes me. “Want to go for a walk?” “What time is it?” “Early.” The clock on the dashboard reads 6:30. We walk up the quiet beach, examine animal tracks, listen to birdcalls.

Men and women using flat sticks and what looked like horse brushes move the sand in circles, searching for clams.

We find a river teaming with fish. A large lizard warily swims upstream away from us. Birds swoop to the water’s surface dive bombing the insects and fish alike.

Back at the car, the couple in the house behind us is awake. The man (in his late 30s, topless) sits cross-legged on his porch in front of a huge pile of tobacco, rolling cigarettes. His wife comes out. Would we like coffee? A smoke? A shower? I feel silly for my restless sleep: they are so welcoming. “No really, you should shower.” “No, it’s alright.” “No, really, if you don’t the monkeys will.” During our short stay in their front yard it appears as if a large portion of their daily routine is keeping the monkeys at bay.

We change and balance stand up boards on our heads. “Watch the waves. Between sets we will push out past the break. Then we can paddle around, surf some.” We head out.

The waves are shoulder height. I can’t stay on my board, clasp the handle of my paddle and dive under wave after wave, leash pulling fiercely on my right ankle as my board is thrashed. When the set pauses, I pull my board close, jump on, grab my paddle, turn– and it is already too late; the next set of waves has started. I am pounded. I head to shore to rest, watch Evan push out past the waves and paddle into the distance.

Back at the car, the night of interrupted sleep leaves belongings chaotically dispersed. We unpack, repack, change beneath sarongs, roll up the inflatable, attach the other board to the roof, wave goodbye to our friendly neighbors.

In Pesanggrahan there is a 2km-hiking trail to caves; overhead leaf monkeys dive through trees. We meet up with four men in search of madu (honey), hike together as they search the forest for hives. They stop to smoke, rest.

In the first cave, Gua Istana, we find gold and white umbrellas, prayer rugs, a shrine. A man and his wife are there; she grabs a flashlight and guides us into the deepest recesses where bats squeak overhead. Through a hole, we see water pooled in another chamber of the cave: a lake in the mountain.

The man explains that his wife is pregnant, and their child is a gift from God. They are staying in the cave until she gives birth, fasting four days every twenty-four. She is maybe three months pregnant.

To get inside the second cave, Gua Padepokan, we have to climb a steep metal ladder attached to the mountain with barbed wire. I am terrified; Evan scampers happily up.

Inside we squeeze through a narrow rock passage (I picture snakes) before stepping into the opening. Another shrine; this one smaller but with the same umbrellas and prayer rugs. Deeper inside the cave gets darker and narrower. Evan wants to keep exploring; I turn around.

Leaving Pesanggrahan, I drive: my first time driving a car in Indonesia. It takes a minute to get used to shifting with my left hand. The roads are nearly empty but deeply rutted by potholes, so it is a good challenge. Ahead is a man we saw on the trail; we offer a ride. He climbs in, bearded, walking stick, thanks us and falls asleep. Evan wakes him when we get to the first crossroads. “Here?” “Keep going.”

As the town gets busier, I am less comfortable driving. In Indonesia, it is necessary to constantly pass pedal bikes, motorbikes, slow moving trucks, other cars, pedestrians. Often simultaneously. The stress makes me anxious. Our hitchhiker, apparently not sure where he is heading, asks us to turn around. The road is narrow and lined by irrigation ditches; Evan and I switch. Turn left. Right. Left. Ask this guy. Left. Finally we arrive at his destination and continue to ours.

Lunch is bakso (soup with noodles and a baseball sized piece of questionable meat). We add sambal (hot sauce). There is a container of fried tofu on the table. I give Evan my meat (too pink for me to feel good about post-salmonella). The two girls that work there stare. At the shop across the street we get snacks. The old man working has few teeth and laughs delightedly when Evan speaks Indonesian.

In few of these towns do they see foreigners, especially driving and eating bakso at local warungs. Most people that visit get tour groups out of Jakarta or Bali, hire a driver. So people don’t stop and ask directions and buy snacks.

We cross a wooden bridge with planks added in patchwork style to support car wheels. Every single board it loose and driving a car across it sounds like world’s most perilous xylophone. We breathe a sigh of relief on the other side and hope to fine an alternative route home. Then we start up a dirt road to the mountains. Suddenly: a manicured gate and guard.

We are at one of Java’s largest coffee and rubber plantations. To access Meru Betiri National Park, we have to pass through, so Evan signs the registry. Dump truck after dump truck drives past packed with 60+ men and women streaked with dirt and wrapped in layers to protect them from the sun.

Seeing rubber trees (spout extended, men with metal buckets traipsing through forest to gather the liquid that will eventually become bike and car tires) and coco trees (the swollen nuts plucked from trees by women who bash them to open) was a first.

At the park office in Jember, we ask if Evan’s Avanza will make it over the steep, 4WD-recommended road. One man nods yes, we will probably make it. The other shakes his head passionately, No! It is 3K until the road gets crazy: let’s see how we fare on the initial stretch. We can always turn around and get a jeep into the park (but it will cost us $100 US). Evan drives slowly and deliberately over huge rocks, uneven terrain, his Colorado training shows. After cresting the mountain, we begin a slow and steady descent into thriving farmland, through a tiny town with laundry hanging and kids on bikes. The road branches, and we follow the left fork to the river crossing. Gunning it down the steep incline into the river, we are terrified to see water splash up around the doors, over the hood.

(a hornbill in the tree)

We end up in a town where people on front porches call, “Where are you going?” “Sukamade”. They shout instructions, indicate direction. Boys on a motorbike guide us to our turn. We end up at another fork in the road and meet a man hauling huge bushels of cane. Left, he indicates. Finally, we arrive at Sukamade, one of Indonesia’s most important turtle spawning grounds, where five species come ashore to lay eggs. We greet park rangers attempting to tame a golden eagle.

(golden eagle)

Our room is a cement square with twin beds. The nicer rooms have fans and screens, but all six of them are booked, so we hope our window will provide more cool air than mosquitoes. The bathroom has a squat toilet and a bucket for showering. We walk through the forest to the beach.

One of the staff’s wives cooks for guests, their home a makeshift warong; she whips up nasi goring, which we eat at a table across from the family’s bed. They gather in the kitchen eating rujak. As we pay, Evan asks if I have tried it. When I shake my head, the family ushers me over to have a slice. It is an unripe, bitter fruit dipped in a sugar/chili sauce; spicy and delicious.

We are told to meet at 8pm to walk to the beach. Evan and I, outside a few minutes before 8, find ourselves alone. After our second 6hr day in the car and restless sleep, we are tired. Half an hour later, the other guests emerge and the staff gathers. With flashlights, we make our way through the forest. Once on the beach, we are instructed to wait as the staff searches the coast in either direction.

Other guests pull out blankets, snacks, wine. They are in sweatshirts and shoes. Evan and I sit back to back, using each other for support. The wind from the ocean is cold. An hour passes. I slip in and out of dreams. “How much longer might it be?” “We often wait until after midnight.” We missed this memo, decide to head to bed. In the morning, we are told that three large turtles appeared just after we left.

We have breakfast in the same kitchen (nasi and mei goring with fried egg). Then we go look at the hatchery. It is a huge sandpit with eggs buried below markers indicating date, time and species.

Some eggs have hatched and babies crawl about. “Go on in,” a staff member offers, and we enter to watch their new bodies struggle through sand.

“We keep them here a day and then transfer them to the aquarium. Would you like to see?” The aquarium is a boxy cement room with six basins. Each has baby turtles splashing, crawling, searching for ocean. “You can hold one.” I reach for a turtle that is intently trying to crawl up the wall. In my hand, he grows still.

“They stay five days before we release them into the ocean. The first five days, they are still healing their umbilical chord. See?” He flips over a day old baby to show us.

Instead of a solid shell, there is a tiny hole where its umbilical chord sags. “This one is five days old. See the difference? Now they have to start feeding, so it is time to wish them luck.”

Leaving the aquarium, a 5ft monitor lizard moves next to an adjoining building. He has grown large on eggs that don’t hatch or turtles that don’t make it. Monkeys fight over breakfast scraps. We begin the journey back through the river and over the pass.

We stop to hike at a sign announcing a 41m flower and cave.

It is unforgivingly hot. The cave is a Japanese bunker from WWII, when the Japanese conquered most the South Pacific.

We search for the flower. Evan pauses on the trail. “Do you feel that?” “What?” And then the vibrations are clear: my first earthquake. I look up the mountain, worried things will pour down at us, but it is a small quake. The flower nowhere to be found.

Out of the park, we turn into a small, colorful town in the large bay with fishing boats on the shore.

It is a small, clean break: a good beginners wave. As we unpack the boards, a dozen people gather. When Evan tries to get his board out of its bag, a man in his 70s leaps forward to help. As Evan pumps the inflatable, kids laugh. “You should camp on this beach tonight.” They do not ask us to buy a thing, just want us to stay and enjoy their community.

I leave my sandals in the car. The sand excruciatingly hot, I race as far as I can, throw down the board and hop on top. “Leave it and run” Evan instructs, dropping his board by the water and doubling back for mine. “Doesn’t that hurt?” He shrugs. It is a perfect practice wave and the day is beautiful.

After an hour on the waves, we paddle past fishing boats to check out the coves nearby. I see my first school of flying fish.

An hour later, we pack up and drive out of town past salted fish drying on racks. I get an email from G checking to hear if we are okay; he’s just heard about the earthquake: a 6.8 in Bali. How will the island look when we return?

We head back north to Banyuwangi and turn west, towards the Ijen Plateau. We weave through a few small towns before emerging in rice paddies stretched to the base of volcanoes.

Boys showing off the fish they have caught.

It is stunning. Our room looks over paddies to the cones of Ijen, Merapi and Raung. There are soft, bamboo sheets and a huge bathtub. It is a night of luxury.

Catching the ferry from Banyuwangi the next day is smooth. We watch large trucks backing within centimeters of the vehicles around them, loaded with goods for Bali.

The coast is beautiful as we pull out to sea.

In Bali, incidents of violence and crime are commonly blamed on Javanese (as in America ethnic group after ethnic group is blamed over the centuries). Southeast Java is welcoming and beautiful; people friendly without following up with sales pitches for transport, goods for sale. It is refreshing, and so good to have our own experience with the Javanese to dispel the negative stereotypes.

Bali’s temples, flowering trees and beautiful sarongs shine when we return. Up north there is no hint of the earthquake, which mostly hit the southern part of the island.

The drive is intense; the route down the coast is thick with trucks bearing merchandise. It is bumper to bumper with class V passing required, and Evan is exhausted by the time we get to Denpasar.

15min from home, Evan gets stuck in a left turn lane and has to inch his way right. A few blocks later, a cop on a motorbike gestures for us to pull over. Evan smiles and waves, pretending not to understand. The cop catches up, taps on the window; Evan waves and pulls forward again. At the third tap, Evan sighs and pulls off to the left.

“What are you doing?”

“Driving home. What seems to be the problem?”

“You were creating traffic back there.”

“I was creating traffic? Everyone that drives creates traffic.”

“No, you were creating traffic. Are you Indonesian?” This makes Evan laugh.

“No. I work in Buleleng.”

“I thought at first you were Indonesian, but I came up to check and you did not look Indonesian. Is this your wife?”


“Is she Indonesian?”

“What do you think?”

“No. Can I have your license?” Evan hands it over.

“You were creating traffic. I can write you a ticket. Or you can just pay the 250,000 rp fine.”

“250,0000?!? Write me the ticket.”

“You will get a ticket and have to go to court. Or you can pay the fine now.”

“Write me the ticket.”

“Look, it is a 250,000 fine.” The cop produces a ticket book from his pocket with a fine for 250,000 already circled.

“Let me see that.” Evan looks at the description. “But this is for not having a license. I gave you my license.”

“It is 250,000! There are many fines in here.” The cop flips through the book.

“Write me the ticket.”

“You are a very naughty. You have created traffic. Okay, okay. Give me 100,000.”

“I will give you 50,000.”

“Okay, don’t be naughty again.”

In this way, we are welcomed back to Bali: its white and yellow flowers, ornate shrines, traffic and corruption. Here things never seem lean too far towards the positive or negative: it is always a balancing between extremes.

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