Jess and I have converted to Islam. Unfortunately this is not by choice, but from being slowly broken down by 4.15am awakenings to the sound of a seriously tone-deaf muezzin. There's nothing for it but to get up on our cigarette-holed sheets (it's far too hot for covers) on JL Jaksa and join in.
In retrospect, we're pretty lucky that it wasn't until the last leg of our whistle-stop Java tour (and Indonesia for that matter) in capital Jakarta that we've been stationed directly under the over-enthusiastic loudspeakers. Everywhere else has been the picture of tranquility - if totally contrasted. First stop, Gunung Bromo, the main attraction of East Java's Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park (yes this is straight out of the guide book) and utterly freezing at 2774 metres above sea level. Then on to Yogyakarta, "Jojee" to the locals, to see the biggest Buddhist stupa in the world, Borobudur, complete with four days unfathomable heat and much fan-gazing, arms flapping.
We had been warned that Bromo was going to be cold by a surfing local on Kuta beach who had advised us to restock our hipflask (before promptly trying to sell us the arak to put in it) but nothing had quite prepared us for the shock of going from 35 degrees to 5 in the space of one journey. Then again, the shock might have actually been a RESULT of the journey - 2 hours of steep incline and winding night single-laned road in the most torrential rain, fog, and thunder and lightning I've ever seen in my life. Coming back down the road 2 days later and seeing just how close the road was to plummetting off the side of the cliff, I was glad that I couldn't see further than two inches in front of the windscreen that night - I'm not sure I'd have gone up if I'd known how dangerous it was. Still, the driver seemed confident enough - that is until he had to stop for directions and we realised he was as lost as we were, that stormy night on a hillside miles from anywhere...
The next day dawned brightly though, and delighted at being able to walk ten steps without breaking into a sweat for the first time in weeks, I determined to climb Bromo, which we could see smoking across a dark sandy plain from our hotel. Walking-booted up, I set off with my camera, passed a few words with a mad Scotsman on the back of a motorbike with a flat tyre and got a stride on. It felt so good to get the blood pumping again that I leapt up the volcanic rock at the base of Bromo, ignoring the locals' entreaties to borrow their horses to ride to the top and mounted the final section, a set of stairs, in what I'd wished would be one go, but which had me gasping so hard that I had to stop half way up (which i obviously tried to disguise as a cunning photo stop, kidding no-one). I was immediately beleagured by a young Indonesian on a mobile, who blocked my exit and forced me to speak to his girlfriend on the phone, red-faced and sweating. "Hello?" "Ha, hello, hahahaha" "Tell her you're speaking here!!" "Umm, hello, I'm speaking here?" "Yes, hahahaha". Foreseeing a pretty long afternoon ahead, I went for the best option I could, and said in my most English accent, brightly, "Well, it's been MOST lovely speaking with you, but now it's time for a rapid ascent. Goodbye!" Handing back the phone with a ravishing smile, I firmly carried on marching.
You can walk around the crater lip of Bromo, but I chose to stand by the locals selling posies to throw into the smoking centre (to appease who knows who/what) and stare into its depths. Taking all the obligatory pictures, I turned back the way I had come and walked across the sandy plain, accompanied by Mr Mobile, who'd been waiting for me.
Jess and I woke at 3 the next morning to watch the sunrise over Bromo from a viewpoint on the next mountain, which we were taken to by Jeep. The crowds were out in force, but we had a good spot at the front and it was utterly breathtaking. Somehow the peaceful view of the sun lighting up the still smoking mountain with a rosy hue blocked out all the sounds around us and everything was totally still. Most unlike the ride back down - when we were treated to a jolting stop and quick reverse, at which the driver leapt out, leaving the door rocking on its hinges. Thinking we were done for, I nearly followed him, until we saw him reappear in the bush hopping around and making a mad grab into the grass. He returned grinning and put his find - a still cheeping chick - into the glove compartment before driving on.
To be honest, I was glad to get back to the warmth of Yogya. We stayed in the most beautiful guesthouse (which after the dubious pleasures of the one in Cemara Lewang (Bromo), was a delight) called Prambanan Guesthouse on JL Prawirotaman. The place had a swimming pool, tropical garden and little balcony, all in budget, and was a real oasis in the first proper city we'd stayed in - and went some way to prepare us for Jakarta. And we needed an oasis after hiring a motorbike on the second day to try to see moreof the city. We (I mean Jess; who am I kidding, we'd both be dead by now if I'd tried to navigate those roads!) drove to Prambanan, a Hindu temple hit by the earthquake in 2006 and despite being in some stage of reconstruction appears to be much as it was after the event. After biking around the Kraton (Sultan's Palace) and stopping off at the day markets (a dazzlingly bustling array of clothes, spices, bananas - so many bananas!! -and batik) which we were shown around by a sweet old man who took us EVERYWHERE and kept popping up, even after we'd firmly said goodbye, my heart was hammering at the rush hour traffic (so who knows how Jess was doing!) not to mention my lungs burning from the bike fumes, so we head back to deep breathe under the fan in our room.
The next morning was another sunrise start, this time to Borobudur which again was totally worth the early rise and resplendent in the gentle morning light and dewy mist. Huge stone Buddhas overlook the blue volcanic mountains on the horizon and large stone bells hold sentry around the pinnacle of the stupa. The lower 'floors' have cartoon strip carvings of the Buddha's life and it's interesting to see a minor religion in the country have such a huge presence here.
The Java section of our trip nearly over, we took the 9-hour Argu Lawu train to Jakarta, past paddy field after paddy field of cone-hatted workers bent double and knee-deep in water. The heat was rising in the early morning light as we left Yogya, and the distant mountains still had their blue misty glow which contrasts so strongly with the green land and red-topped huts. Meaning to read the Jakarta Past we had bought, with intriguing articles entitled, Is it worth cheating in your exam? as it was the week of their GCSE-equivalent (apparently you can buy the answer sheet before the exam for RP300,000 and they're cracking down on being able to text your teacher for the answer IN the exam), I frequently found myself gazing out of the window at Java whizzing by.
We'd been told that the capital was big, smoky and smelly, and it was, but I had a real city thrill as we made our way in the evening lights to JL Jaksa, the packpacking strip. Our room was suitably spartan (but clean thank goodness - Hotel Tator if you're interested, v good rates) and noisy but I felt at home. We quickly mastered the bus system (which is excellent, and air conditioned) and made trips to the old Dutch colonial area, dodgy markets and to contrast, the financial district and smart shopping malls where Louis Vuitton was hosting a photo exhibition on Chow Yun Fat - a million miles away from the dirty, smoggy scrum with open sewers we had just left in the northern area. Despite enjoying city living again, with all its pleasures and sadnesses, conveniences and poverty, I was glad to leave and catch a plane away from Indonesia to Thailand (via a 4-hour stop over in Kuala Lumpur). Highlights? The food...the street market food really is filled with the most amazing flavours and spices and i can't wait to learn how to replicate some of the dishes. The only downside to Indonesia? That my new memory card broke and i lost all the photos of me toiling up Bromo and the morning sunrise. Hopefully this blog will stir the memories instead.