Indonesia is a fascinating country. The collection of islands close to the equator has everything from beaches, volcanoes, rain forest, legends and smiling people trying to make you feel at home. It’s a gorgeous, mind boggling country that stole my heart already years ago. It was good to be back after many years.
I arrived in Jakarta and was hurried to the car my friend had sent for me. ‘We have to go to beat traffic’, the driver grinned. I jumped in, thankful for the air conditioning and settled in for the ride. After ten minutes I asked myself what in heavens name he meant by beating traffic? We crawled at a snails pace on what was supposed to be a motorway. Thousands and thousands of little motorcycles swirled by left and right, owning the road.
I noticed a majority was dressed in green jackets and discovered the words Go Jek on their backs. Curious I asked the driver what they were and was told they were taxis. Taxi by a small motor cycle? An interesting and hair raising concept but they got further and faster than we did.
After one and a half hour and 25 km, the driver proudly dropped me off at my friends place. ‘Didn’t we make good time or what’ he smiled broadly. I smiled back, tipped him but didn’t know what to say. I come from a densely populated country but never experienced traffic like this. Better not cycle here I thought before entering into the quiet and cool facade of my friends bungalow. Tomorrow my friend and I had to take the same turn back to the airport again to fly to Malang and cycle. I started to doubt our crazy idea and could only hope it was less frantic as Jakarta.
It is sometimes lovingly called “the Paris of East Java” and with it’s mild highland climate and retained colonial architecture, the city breathed a relaxed air, the famous Indonesian “tempo dulu”. We arrived at a smaller luxury hotel that was famous too: famous for its heritage, its art but even more so for its legend that it was haunted with restless spirits and a corridor of spewing blood. The Javanese people are known for their legends and strongly believe in them. We asked where to find the corridor but were met by either sweet nothing saying smiles or warnings.
It took us a day to find it as the hotel turned out to be a maze of rooms, verandas, smoking parlours and strange theatres. It looked like a normal beautiful decorated corridor but it breathed a mysterious air not altogether friendly. I guess we were smitten by the tales of the local people by then.
In Indonesia very affordable but perfectly clean and good accommodation can be found easily everywhere. We had chosen this local more luxurious legend because it had bicycles wth a guide included. It advertised a day cycle across its city areas including a real original kampong. A must for us.
With the most talkative and smiling guide I ever had on any trip, we set off. John or Jack, he seemed to change his name on a whim, burst into song whenever he felt like it. The whole city seemed to know him and smiled back, often shaking their heads at these crazy foreigners cycling through 30 degrees on midday. We circled through the small alleys of the quiet kampong and were met by smiling faces offering us fruit or other exotic looking edibles.
Little canals lined by flowers, plants and washing, criss-crossed the small pathways which were almost too narrow to cycle through. We moved in another world.
After one of the most sharp turns during our trip we exited the kampong on its other side and were suddenly hit by one of Malang’s main and busy streets full of colonial buildings hiding behind guarded gates. I asked John (or Jack) who lived in these old heritage homes and with a broad smile he answered me “the rich of course”; I was treated on a whole list of famous people I never heard of. We passed old Dutch churches, the bird market also displaying cats and entered a small forest in the middle of town exhibiting all sorts of trees treating any ailment you could think of.
We stopped for a late lunch at a small restaurant with an even smaller veranda. Sipping our drinks in the cool of the shade we watched the tourists heaving themselves, hot and bothered into large cars or small vans to join the busy traffic. I smiled inwardly. Cycling was definitely the best way to move here.
Jack (or John) asked us if we had any wishes, wanted to cycle to the shops, back to the market or see a museum but both of us acclaimed in unison: back to the kampong! For the first time during the trip our lively and lovely guide was silent and only smiled when he took us back to that other world of small alleys, canals and lovely people; another world but somehow fitting in this one.