Category Archives: Indonesia

Surabaya Storm

End of days skies loomed ominously over the apartments ahead as I hurriedly left work. The first roll of thunder was all the motivation I had needed to drop everything and head home; I figured I had a ten-minute window before the heavens opened for the daily downpour.

As I crossed the car park a clap of thunder exploded directly above me, reverberating through me like a shock. The crack was so violent I actually looked around to see if anything had exploded or if a shotgun was near by. I didn’t think my heart rate or hearing would ever be the same again as I hastened my steps.

Warm winds whipped around me, occasionally mixed with a shock of cold air that froze the sweat on my brow. Above me the sky was still blue, behind me the thunder growled again, and ahead the skies lowered angrily. Just as I passed under some power lines I saw the first shard of lightening flicker off to my right. I tried to move faster through the humid, choking air, closing my eyes to the dusty wind and listening apprehensively to the low whistle of approaching rain.

Just as I reached the lobby of my apartment the first fat drops descended, quickly followed by never ending strings of tropical rain. I’d made it!

A Near Perfect Day

I woke under canvas to the sound of waves, waves lapping the golden sands of Pantai Gantra, on the coast of Java, South of Malang. I woke to the sound of waves… and chickens, scratching, clucking and cock a doodling the new day in.

Having washed in a bucket, done some yoga stretches on the beach as the sun warmed up and breakfasted on fruit in my tent with my book, I was ready to start the day – exploring the bays and beaches while assessing some adventurous teens doing their Silver International Award expedition.

Each beach visited was a delight; golden sands, blue waves, distant emerald islands greeting my view. Shores were explored and shells collected, creative projects imagined and discussed, and the moment enjoyed. I learnt how to ‘pop’ a leaf, providing myself with plenty of amusement as I watched the group realise where the sound came from, and then learn the trick for themselves.

When we reached Tigga Warna Beach we went snorkelling. The group’s delight at being able to explore the reef and witness the colourful fish that live there was memorably illustrated by the squeaks emitted through their snorkels and the excited chattering that happened when they surfaced.

Later, we waded across an estuary to a mangrove conservation area and sought a beach on the other side of the bay. Uncertainty nearly forced the group back but the spirit of adventure prevailed and they found their way to Turtle Beach. Although there were no turtles there at that time of day the flush of success caused them to go further afield and find another beach on the other side of the promontory we were on. It was entirely deserted with not a footprint in sight; we were the first there for some time. Much fun was had wave jumping on this pristine secret before time and tide forced us all back to the campsite.

That evening I joined the other assessors for a B-B-Q on the beach. A huge tuna had been purchased at the fish market that day and was grilled in foil with butter and lemon as the sun went down. Having feasted on mouth-watering chunks of tuna and a shandy, I lay back to the sound of waves again and studied the star-studded dome above, seeking a shooting star while reflecting on the near perfection of my day.

Mt. Rinjani – between heaven and hell

Mt. Rinjani, my fourth volcano this year, is by far the toughest to visit. It is Indonesia’s second highest volcano at 3,726m, and takes, at the very least, two days to summit. I signed up for a four-day/three-night trek, having been warned that it was a tough, but achievable, adventure. I know that I am a slow, cautious walker and not as fit as I should be, so I wanted to give myself as much of a chance as I could.

I’m glad I did. This trek is as much about mental stamina as about fitness. Having a positive mental attitude and the sheer force of will to put one foot in front of the other when it feels impossible to go on are essential because the whole trek is unrelentingly steep, almost from the word go.

Day one is all about climbing to the rim of the caldera in preparation for summiting Rinjani in time for sunrise the following morning. My trek (with Rudy Trekker) started from Sembulan Village at 8am. I was with a much younger, fitter couple, a guide and four porters who were carrying all the camping and cooking equipment we needed for our trek (about 35kg each). The beginning was a fairly gentle gradient although in full sun it quickly became necessary to stop regularly for water breaks. Our guide set a cracking pace, which I struggled to keep up with as the trek progressed, but was essential to get us from point to point in the end. I walked with a pole for the first time ever and truthfully found it very useful in taking the strain off my aged knees during the steeper sections. (I even resorted to two poles coming down when my knees were pretty much buggered, and they helped a lot!)

We walked steadily upwards for about 7 hours, including a lengthy lunch break at 11 in a less that scenic location. When we arrived at the rim we were greeted by a carnival of coloured tents and knackered hikers, most of whom were planning on summiting Rinjani the following morning. A few though, had already decided not to try due to the steepness of the day’s trekking, which says something about the gradient of day one and the potential gradient of day two! Our campsite was well located in a sheltered spot overlooking, so we were told, Segara Anak Lake. The only problem was that the cloud had come in and enveloped the slopes of Rinjani and its surrounding mountains so all we could manage were tantalising glimpses through the mists. Eventually a full moon came out and the skies cleared a little, magically making the tops of the mountains glow as though they were floodlit.


We retired to bed early in an attempt to get a few hours rest before beginning the summit trek at 2am. This ascent is divided into three distinct sections: a very steep start once we had left the carnival site behind us; a steep ridge walk and then, for the last hour or so, a scramble up a relentlessly steep incline of sand, ash and loose shale where one step up could actually be two slips down and any incremental progress was a cause for celebration. This is where sheer bloody-mindedness kicked in and I literally cajoled myself up to the summit with motivational mantras, threats and a lot of swearing. I was resigned to missing the sunrise with my tortoise speed but I actually made it bang on 6am, just before the allotted time. According to the guide my speed was normal and there were still a lot of people behind me when I summited. My companions, by comparison, were cheetahs, and managed the summit at a much greater speed with seemingly no side effects.

The top of Rinjani is cold, very cold at about 1 degree, and sadly very busy with all the other trekkers we had seen at the bottom who had made it to the top. Our sunrise was hampered by low cloud again but to be honest, the glimpses we got of the lake, the Gilis and of Bali and Lombok below us, were nothing compared to the sense of achievement I felt in actually summiting a mountain nearly four times as high as Scafell Pike in the UK, and definitely four times as steep.

Of course, we had to go back down the way we had come up. Theoretically, it should be quicker as you can let gravity and the shifting shale do a lot of the work for you. But it’s easy to fall too, and a long way from help if you injure yourself. Having two walking poles definitely helped at this point but I was just a slow coming down as going up, although I was able to enjoy the views as the cloud cleared below us.

On returning to camp, we had a quick second breakfast of burger and chips before packing up and continuing our descent to the lake and our second campsite. This trail was also steep, and rocky, and my knees were starting to suffer. It was a miserable, damp, foggy walk that I completed pretty much in silence. I began to get irritated by the inane chatter of surrounding walkers, the graffiti and the incessant litter problem that Rinjani suffers from. Reputable companies bring down the litter generated by their groups and guides and porters are expected to carry down an additional bag of rubbish each as they go a long. But lots of disreputable companies also run treks here and sadly lots of locals also wander the lower trails and leave very clear, and disgusting, evidence of their visit. The campsite by the lake was one such ‘tip’ and the warm springs, part of the attraction of the lake and a great place to ease aching muscles, looked like a refugee camp with tents and litter everywhere.


That afternoon I just put myself to bed and tried to ignore the noise and chaos that surrounded me. I ate what I could in my tent but I was so exhausted I wasn’t hungry and sleep and oblivion were much more appealing. When I surfaced the following morning I did feel more human and a dip in the best of the hot springs did ensure that I wasn’t as crippled as I could have been.

Our third day’s trek was negotiable. We could have simply walked for a few hours back up to the caldera rim and camped there with the hordes. My group, however, elected to continue down the mountain for a few more hours and camp in the rainforest, therefore removing us from the masses and reducing our final day’s trek to a few hours, rather that seven. It was as unrelentingly steep as before and although rocks and tree roots make great steps up, negotiating them going down when your knees don’t want to bend further than 90 degrees is very hard work. The trick is to use the porter paths, which might be a bit longer but usually avoid the steeper sections. They’re not always easy to see, especially when you’re already knackered from focusing on making every step as painless as possible. But they help.

Camping in the forest was lovely. There was peace and quiet, a camp fire (how many men does it take to light a fire?), beer, a lovely curry for dinner and glimpses of the sunset through the trees. Sleep came early again that night although the darkness was punctuated with unfamiliar noises, the worst of which was the dogs, used for pig hunting. One dog, we discovered in the morning, had got caught in a pig trap nearby and its pain was palpable and loud. It was alive and walking, but badly injured with the trap around its waist. It hovered around us but was uncatchable, and made its way painfully down to the forest edge with us. That simply added to the pain I was feeling on the last day. My thighs were screaming, my knees jarred and I developed a blister on one of my toes with every downward step. However, I made it to the pickup point: exhausted, grubby, bleeding and hobbling but exceedingly proud of myself.

I would say it is one of the hardest treks I’ve done and is somewhere between heaven and hell. I’m glad I did it, and I’m delighted by all my volcano adventures this summer, but I don’t think my love of Lombok will extend to repeating a visit to Rinjani.



Three Vocanoes in Three Months

I’ve just returned from trekking my third volcano in three months and I’m pretty pleased with myself.


The first, Mount Batur in Bali A Sunrise Trek of Mt. Batur, Bali was significant in several ways. It was my first Indonesian volcano; it was proof that I could travel solo successfully in Indonesia after a less that successful previous attempt, and it was a return to health – and ultimately, the gym – for me after months of feeling under the weather. On reflection though, it was a bit of a disappointment. The walk was only two hours each way but it was steep, a combination of rocky paths and shifting sand, and ridiculously crowded. While my lack of fitness can partly explain the pain I felt for days afterwards it doesn’t change the lackluster sunrise and rather touristy feel of a place that is supposed to have a religious significance to its people. It felt tatty and tacky in a way. But I’d done it, and that felt good.IMG_0196

My second was Mount Bromo in East Java. This was a fun trip with friends, organized by a colleague. We did the tourist thing and hit the overcrowded sunrise spot by jeep and motorbike rather than on foot. At first it felt a bit like Batur, but the sunrise was pretty spectacular and once Bromo was glimpsed through the hordes of people the magic began. Bromo is stunning. Helped by the sunrise, the shapes and shadows, cloud and smoking caldera make this place other-worldly, alien almost. Walking on newly fallen ash up to the smoking crater was like walking on powdered snow, the type that’s good for snowballs. We went away from the crowds and crossed the whispering sands, which didn’t whisper that day; turning a corner to see vivid green, rolling hills (appropriately called Wisata Teletubbies), hidden behind the grey, lunar landscape. I was reduced to the child-like exuberances of singing and dancing like a loon at the breathtaking change. It was impressive beyond words and an excellent day out.IMG_2740

My third volcano, Mount Ijen near Bangywangi in Java was probably the most awe-inspiring though. Famous for it sulfurous blue flame, this volcano has real power. Its toxic sulfur clouds, acidic turquoise lake and Jurassic landscape forced thoughts of a lost world upon me and if it hadn’t been for the upsetting sight of twentieth century graffiti and litter along the way I would have expected raptors and rexes to rear out of the misty, fern fringed ridges we descended after sunrise. The fact that men still mine the sulfur in the crater and carry at least 75kgs of it out on their backs in baskets twice a day made the place seem more real, and more hostile, than the other two.IMG_0400

The trek itself was relatively easy because I’m now fit (in comparison to Mt. Batur when I was not!) The journeying of the miners has smoothed the route and while there are some steep sections during the first two hours they weren’t onerous. The last thirty minutes took me down rocky steps into the crater to see the blue flame fairly close up, and by that I mean ‘close up as in wear a gas mask to be safe close up’! The route can be slippery and I had to make way for the miners climbing with their loads but with the right foot wear, a powerful head-torch and a guide who knew all the lads, I was fine! If you’re really struggling you can get a cart, only recently introduced, which the miners usually use to take their heavy load down the volcano once they’ve lugged it out of the crater. A very strong ex-miner can pull you up or push you down! I elected to walk.IMG_0411

I really enjoyed Ijen, I’m proud of my small accomplishment of three volcanoes in three months (I think it’s becoming a bucket list thing), and I’m pleased that my Indonesian travels are coming together at long last.

Here’s to the next one: Mount Agung on Bali or Mount Rinjani on Lombok?Mt. Rinjani – between heaven and hell


A Sunrise Trek of Mt. Batur, Bali

I miss mountains. I miss hikes and fresh air and the thrill (and chill) of high places. So when I realised I had a long weekend ahead of me at the beginning of March I decided to do something about it.

Bali is only a 40 minute flight away from Surabaya so I resolved to do a sunrise trek among Bali’s volcanoes in order to sooth my soul.

Gunung Batur is 1717m, one of several volcanic cones in what seems like a giant dish with water in its bottom. It was formed in an eruption in 1917 and has been active as recently as 1994. There are lots of tours there so once I’d arrived at my lovely hotel in Ubud (The Saren Indah, highly recommended for a relaxing break), I asked them to sign me up (I’m getting lazy in my travel habits out here), and then relaxed for the rest of the day, in preparation for my efforts.

Pick-up was 2am. I’d indulged in lovely Balinese cuisine and a glass of wine before going to bed early, managing about four hours of sleep before my alarm went off. I rolled out of bed, pulled on my hiking gear and grabbed my new, lightweight rucksack. The car arrived and in I climbed, the first of three pick-ups around Ubud. Then we drove for about an hour in dozy silence, up towards the start of our trek at Toya Bungkah. But first, we stopped off at a little place that provided us with banana pancakes and coffee, and our ‘second breakfast’ for the summit (ultimately banana sandwiches and a boiled egg). Then we drove a further 15 minutes to meet our guide.

As I said, there are lots of tours, so it was no surprise to draw up to a huge car park filled with tired looking hikers gripping bottles of water and flash lights. We were organised into groups of four, given a flashlight if we didn’t have one (I’d remembered my head torch, naturally!) and sent on our way.

Our guide was, appropriately enough, named Dante, as in Dante’s Peak. The irony did not escape our group. He set a cracking pace, which was fine to begin with, but the route quickly became steep and is, by alternates, rocky or sandy. I was quickly reminded that I am not as young or fit as I was. Two months of battling an ear infection had stopped my gym visits early in January, so I quickly got out of breath compared to my younger, fitter companions. Additionally, although the ear infection was no longer rife, the aftermath of slight deafness continued, and I found myself feeling a bit dizzy the higher we climbed, which was a concern when I repeatedly stumbled. Dante, however, kept us going and made frequent rest stops.

Each rest gave us a wonderful nighttime view across Bali. The silhouette of Gunung Abang opposite us on the other side of the lake dominated the landscape, matched only by banks of cloud that regularly lit up with orange lightning. The sky was clear and the stars were out in abundance, lighting our way.

At one point we had a long rest while our guides prayed at a shrine before the steepest ascent to the summit. Bali is a Hindu country, although Balinese Hinduism is a unique blend of beliefs. They believe that spirits are everywhere and good spirits dwell in mountains and bring prosperity to people. Sadly, some groups were ignorant of local customs and failed to wait quietly while their guide prayed. It always disappoints me when people ignore local customs, as it takes very little to learn about and appreciate other people’s cultures and beliefs.

Mt. Batur is always busy, but especially so at weekends when groups of students are able to complete the walk. One thing that kept me moving against all the odds was the desire to get way from the shouting, music playing hordes and breath in the space and silence of the volcano. I’d positioned myself at the front of our group, knowing the slowest should set the pace, but I could feel the youngsters stepping on my heels behind me, perhaps not as used to walking in groups as I am. Still, I slogged on, determined to out pace them. It was more easily said than done, I can tell you.

We arrived at the summit in good time; it was still dark and clear when we arrived at the already crowded lookout. The sunrise wasn’t far behind us. The sky quickly took on a lighter glow behind Abang and the cloud-banks surrounding it. As the light increased, so did the cloud as heat and cold met. So the sunrise wasn’t a spectacular as I could have hoped. But never mind. I was high up (1717m); I was cold (such a nice feeling after constant heat and humidity – I even got to wear my favourite Rab feather down jacket and enjoy a hot chocolate from the food station near the top!); I had space around me, even though the top was crowded with snap happy student groups. I was happy to be there.

Once the day had well and truly begun and we’d been at the top for nearly an hour, we turned around and made our way back. The steep top was quickly managed, as it was mostly sand and therefore quick to descend using the ‘dig your heels in and slide’ method. We stopped briefly at the crater, active in 1994, and gazed at the still blackened landscape below it. We felt steam rising from fissures in the ground and dodged tourist savvy monkeys, greedy for anything they could get their hands on.

About half way down we diverted from the original route and took what could pass for a road to the bottom. It was certainly accessible to traffic as we dodged motorbikes laden with passengers and goods. It was also a good deal easier to walk after the rocky slog we had endured on the way up.

Dante discovered I was an English teacher, and, while teaching me some Indonesian phrases such as ‘kaki ku kaku’ meaning ‘my legs are stiff’, he grilled me in English grammar, and the finer definitions between maybe and probably (amongst other things)!

Soon enough we were back at the car park fulfilling the ‘two hours up-two hours down’ prophesy every one had warned me about. Reunited with our driver we were quickly on our way, although the drive home seemed to take forever and I was desperate to get back and take a shower after my exertions. I had sensibly booked a massage for later that afternoon and, I have to say, it helped work out the stiffness really well. Of course I was still rather sore for a good couple of days afterwards, but it was definitely worth every step. I had got my mountains fix, with added stars and lightning clouds and a tiny bit of sunrise, to make everything well in my world.




Testing times

 I had been in Indonesia for less than a month when I was informed that I was expected to take a Bahasa Indonesian proficiency test. My employer had been ‘invited’ (in a way that allowed no refusal) to send the expat employees along for the test. This examination was introduced a few years ago by the government for all foreigners living and working in the country but, as far as we were aware, had been scrapped earlier in the year. Nevertheless, one hundred or so expats were placed in a school gym behind exam desks and put through a Saturday morning of language exams.

Now I have no problem with being expected to learn the language of the country I am living in. I tried and failed in Myanmar, (languages not being my strong suit) but I arrived in Surabaya with the intention to learn, and I’m quite proud of my progress over my first few weeks of living here. Good morning ‘salamat paggi’ and thank you ‘terima kashi’ came quickly. I’ve been learning my numbers and can count to ten with the exception of seven and nine, as they keep slipping from my mind! I’ve been reading and interpreting signs while out and about. Dilarang, for example, is DO NOT (and there are a lot of those signs around I’ve noticed!) plus I’ve got the essentials: phone credit is ‘pulsa’,water is ‘air’, and beer is ‘bir’, all things I buy on a regular basis. But I’ve also been settling into my new life and job, meeting students and parents, planning lessons and learning my way around, so I haven’t been able to give much of my time to language acquisition. I’ve found going to the cinema helpful as everything is subtitled and I’ve started to see and hear other words I recognise. But still, after just 36 days, there I was facing a test of my proficiency in a language I barely understand. 

I first appreciated the rediculousness of my situation when we met with a trainer a few days before the exam so that he could explain the testing procedure. He had a tough audience, a group of teachers who knew that essentially, they were being set up to fail. Even the longer term colleagues who had picked up conversational Bahasa by going out and spending time with locals quickly saw how unrealistic and undifferentiated the test was. It went against everything we stand for in education. The session was disheartening and demotivating. Even though we were encouraged to try our best as the results were to be used for ‘data’ to help the government support expats in learning the language, we knew that the results would be skewed because of our short time in the country.

The test itself was equally rediculous. I suppose, after years in education testing children, I have a pretty clear view of how people should be tested (if they must be tested at all). 110 minutes of back to back exams with instructions in a foreign language (and some spoken translations I struggled to follow), using a multiple choice baked bean format is not my way to go about it, but that is how we were evaluated that day.

Candidates were wandering about, phones were out, selfies were taken (guilty). There was even the rumour that some people were using GoogleTranslate  to help them, but no formality was observed, except for the welcome speeches from people responsible for the delivery of the tests. We were encouraged to enjoy the experience, and I guess some people did!

But I tried, I really did, even though every fiber of my being screamed at the farcical nature of the situation. I followed my own advice to students in the listening test and pre-read the questions, listening carefully for keywords before making a (semi) educated guess at the answer. Let’s face it, I had a 25% chance of getting it right after all. I used reading strategies like skimming and scanning, key wording and prediction to attempt the reading paper until the length of the paragraphs I had to read became too much for me to process. I admit I used the old reliable snake pattern for the grammar seksi (section – see, I managed to extend my vocabulary while in the exam!) as I wasn’t even able to decode the questions in that one. And, I’m sorry to say, I failed the writing section completely as the 250 word limit exceeded my own vocabulary by about 225. So I wrote the phrase I learnt specially for the occasion ‘saya tidak mengerti’ I don’t understand. I also rated each section with emojis, most of which involved tears!

Now I simply await my result, and accompanying certificate, which will tell me what I already know: my proficiency in Bahasa Indonesian is very ‘terbatas’ –  limited!