Adventures in India, Part 1

It’s been a long time since I wrote about anything on this blog. I don’t think I’ll realistically catch up on everything, but one trip that I want to record is India. These so-called adventures (normal trip to India) took place in April. This is going to be in two parts, because there’s so much to say.

We spent about 2 weeks in northern India – starting in Amritsar, then moving on to New Delhi, Rishikesh and Agra, before finishing up in Jaipur. If you don’t feel like reading on I can summarise with the following: India was hot, chaotic, fascinating and a vegetarian’s dream. Oh and it’s true that there are cows everywhere. I was also asked some interesting questions like, “are those your original eyes?” For anyone else wondering, they are.

Amritsar (Punjab)

This was my first taste of India, and oh what a taste it was! Speaking literally, the food was fantastic here. Speaking culturally, I can only describe it as a shock. In fact, I would say the entire experience of India was a culture shock like no other for me.

When we first arrived, I was struck by the number of stray dogs roaming the streets, the madness of the roads, the noise, the dirt and encountering some very poor people living on the streets. These are the things that shocked me and which I had never seen to such an extent before.

Getting Indian SIM cards was an ordeal and a half, but aside from the SIM cards which we eventually got, the process also involved a guy taking these delightful mugshots of us after about 4 hours of scurrying around in the dusty heat trying to understand literally anything.

Mugshots2.jpg

But it was definitely not all negative. In fact, Amritsar was probably my favourite place in India. We stayed in an Airbnb with a lovely couple who served us fresh aloo paratha (basically potato bread with some spices) each morning with some chutneys and yoghurt, arranged a driver to take us to main sights in the surrounding area and generally treated us very kindly. I really loved the food here. One of the local specialities is makhani dahl (black lentil dahl) which is now a favourite Indian dish of mine!

Amritsar is an old city. I saw no high rise or modern looking buildings at all. There was nothing familiar to me in any sense, but after the initial shock and feeling of being overwhelmed, I really appreciated the history and culture here.

The highlight was the Golden Temple, which is the most important temple in the Sikh religion. A close second was the Partition Museum, which was really interesting and well presented. We had a local driver arranged by our hosts who took us around the main places of interest, and as a Sikh himself he was a great companion at the temple and made sure we behaved ourselves and saw everything! Although we still had a language barrier, I would definitely recommend having a local driver or guide, as getting around in India alone as foreigners can be quite difficult and intimidating.

 

Another unexpected highlight was going to the India-Pakistan border from Amritsar. I don’t believe the India-Pakistan border is generally a safe place to be, but this one part called Attari-Wagah is fine. They conduct a ceremony there every night, which involves military displays on either side and then very briefly opening the gates between the two. The most surprising part of this was the build up. It was, like so many things in India, insane. Speakers blaring out what I would describe as Bollywood style music (although I’m no expert), the crowds going absolutely wild with India flags waving and painted on their faces, and just general mayhem, in a very joyous energetic way. At one point the main area between the viewing stands was cleared for women and children to come down and have a big raucous dance. Of course I joined in and it was such a funny happy experience, all the gals dancing together away from those pesky men for a change. Then the ceremony itself was fascinating. We couldn’t see too clearly on the Pakistan side but the uniforms and the style of marching etc. seemed very similar. The main difference I could see in the crowds was that the India side was extremely colourful and rowdy, whereas the Pakistan side appeared a bit more subdued.

 

Chandigarh (Haryana) & New Delhi

From Amritsar we took a bus (again with the help of our hosts) to Chandigarh, which was the most modern and “familiar” feeling city we visited in India. We only spent one night here to go to a cricket match, my first ever! It was actually pretty fun, the Indian fans were so full of joy and energy, I didn’t have to understand the game too much to enjoy myself.

From Chandigarh to New Delhi, where we met friends to celebrate their wedding. We had limited time here and the only thing we really did was attend the Mehndi ceremony for the wedding, which is when the bride and the female guests get their henna designs for the big day. The bride had the most intricate designs on her hands, arms, legs and feet, and the rest of us had some on our hands and wrists only. I absolutely loved this, as you can see from my excited little face and the number of photos I took of my own hands. (Also check out my gorgeous outfit, made to measure in Little India, KL!)

 

Rishikesh (Uttarakhand)

The wedding itself took place in Rishikesh. The Indian airline we were meant to fly with went bust the day before, so we took a 7 hour taxi instead. We took several inter-city taxis in India and they were all ridiculous experiences. They were very cheap for the distances and length of time the journeys took, but the driving in India is truly outrageous. There seems to be no concept of lanes, lots of horn-tooting, and the main tactic to avoid collisions with other vehicles is to SPEED UP and dodge. Still traumatised.

The wedding itself was extremely colourful, beautiful and fun. It was unlike any wedding I’ve ever attended. The groom entered on horse and cart, following a parade of dancers (including yours truly) down the street with a live band. There was no alcohol and honestly it didn’t matter. And finally, the food was all vegetarian and was bloody delicious.

 

Aside from the wedding, Rishikesh was actually a disappointment for me. I found it really dirty, noisy and crazily busy. Cows with big horns roamed small winding streets, in what I considered to be a menacing fashion. It was a very stressful place to be. This is the alleged birthplace of yoga. At the very least, it’s a big hub for yoga lovers and teachers, even if its not the birthplace. And while it’s a naturally beautiful place, I just didn’t get any of the secluded peace you might expect to find there. I didn’t look terribly hard, to be fair, but I was honestly pleased to get out of Rishikesh after a few days of the mayhem.

We also went to the famous ceremony along the Ganges which ends with everyone lighting little baskets of flowers on fire and setting them into the river, but bizarrely I don’t seem to have photos of that. Must have been having a spiritual moment or anxiously avoiding some cows. But here’s a view of the Ganges taken from a small hike we did into the foothills of Himalayas.

Rishikesh Ganges.jpg

I also got some great pictures of the monkeys who invaded our balcony too.

 

 

That’s all for now. Adventures in India, Part 2 (featuring Agra and Jaipur) coming soon to a blog* near you!

 

*this one.

Getting high in KL

Getting literally high off the ground, that is. This post is all about VIEWS.

A wise person* once said “I don’t really care about views”. But I happen to love views and KL is a great place to enjoy them.
*16-year-old girlfriend of 16-year-old Joe, said as he foolishly admired a view.

dav

Joe’s mum paid us a flying visit recently on her way to Australia and it just so happened that all of our weekend activities involved being high up with great views of the city. Have I overused the word “view” yet? I don’t think so.

First, the heli lounge. The name says it all – helipad by day, cocktail bar by night. This place is kind of pretentious, but it’s hard to resist getting up on a rooftop in the middle of the city at night. After happy hour, there’s a minimum spend of RM100 per person, the equivalent of about 3 cocktails each. We really just wanted one drink and to enjoy the aforementioned VIEWS, but as wine is normally expensive and not very good in Malaysia, we decided to buy a decent bottle of wine from the list and take it home. Thus reaching the minimum spend and acquiring some good wine for a later date. It was an excellent idea until approximately 5 minutes later when we dropped the entire unopened bottle of wine, smashing it to smithereens. Maybe wine just isn’t destined to be part of our lives in KL. But check out those views!

The next day we went up the KL Tower – or Menara KL if you speak Malay, which I almost do. Going up a tall tower in a city is a typical tourist activity, but for good reason. It’s so fun to be able to see the sites and pick out familiar places from this height. It is potentially less fun for whoever is in our company, listening to us excitedly point out sites such as “that apartment we stayed for 4 days in October!” but there are always more mainstream options like the Petronas Towers to entertain them instead. You can go into the glass floored sky boxes, where you will pose for various pictures, whether you want to or not, as staff members basically shout generic poses at you until you do them for your photographs. Giggling through this experience is a highly recommended distraction from the fact that you’re standing on a glass floor at at 400 metres off the ground.

 

Finally, we took a stroll through the Bukit Nanas, also known as KL Eco Park, which is a small rainforest reserve in the city. You can walk through the forest grounds or up on tree top canopies. Joe and I have done this walk before and I can safely say that it is WAY more fun when you do it out of the midday sun and without a hangover. And finally, the view of sunset from our apartment, and another one from a sneaky trip to the roof of our building.

Chinese New Year in KL

Gong xi fa cai! Happy New Year, little piggies*!

*May not be an exact translation.

This was my first time celebrating Chinese New Year (CNY) anywhere, so I’ll cover the basics for any other first timers. Firstly, it is based on the lunar calendar so the dates change every year. This year it started on Tuesday 5th February and ended on 19th February. So, definitely not in December which is when we decorated our Christmas tree in CNY dragons and piggies. Hehehe..

Secondly, each year is based on the Chinese zodiac, and this time it’s the year of the pig! This leads me onto an interesting fact about CNY in Malaysia.

Malaysia is a very multi-cultural society, but is still predominantly Muslim. One of the things that I’ve learned about Muslim culture is that pigs, or at least pork, is haram i.e. forbidden by Islamic law. This means that while the large Chinese population here bloody love pork and all things pig-related, the larger Malay Muslim population hate it. So in Malaysia, the year of the pig is not celebrated with images of the pig everywhere as it would be elsewhere, as this would be offensive to the Malay people. You can buy adorable little piggie accessories and you’ll see them in the Chinese shops and temples, but not in public places, which are decorated with lots of more generic (and lovely) CNY red decorations, flowers and displays of other important figures, like the god of prosperity. He looks quite fat and happy so I like him a lot.

Thean Hou CNY5

This is Thean Hou temple, one of my favourite places in KL. It has six tiers and is apparently one of the oldest and largest temples in Southeast Asia (sidenote: I feel like a lot of temples claim this fact, but it still may be true). Like most Chinese temples, it celebrates a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. I love the fact that it’s ok to mix these ideologies in one place, and I’ve heard people who describe themselves as Buddhists here say that it is not necessarily a religion but a way of life that anyone can choose to live by, alongside anything else you might believe in. The Chinese temples in Malaysia are such beautiful, welcoming places and this one perched on a hill over the city has to be one of the best.

The first time we visited Thean Hou was when we first arrived in KL, and it was decorated with yellow lanterns at that time. Just for some daytime pics and a comparison to CNY, here it is in September:

This time, for CNY, it was decorated with red lanterns, the colour of luck and happiness. Isn’t it just gorgeous?

One lovely tradition here over CNY is the “open house”. I actually can’t work out if this is common everywhere that celebrates it, or if it’s specific to the Malaysian Chinese. But what happens is that some Chinese families open their doors for family, friends and strangers to come in and share in their food, drink and revelry to celebrate the new year. We were lucky enough to be invited by someone we know to celebrate with his family.

The traditional gifts to give at CNY are angpao, little red envelopes with cash inside, and mandarin oranges. We also thought it would be cute to bring something from “home” to our hosts, but that’s hard to arrange last minute in KL, so I hope they enjoyed their unbranded Scottish shortbread with their tea (neither of us are Scottish, but close enough).

Apparently Malaysia has the best dragon and lion dance teams in the world, so I’m sorry that we only got to see one performance, but it was amazing! Overall, Chinese New Year has been a gorgeous, happy celebration in KL and it reminded me that it’s such a treat to live in this multicultural place.

 

Veganuary in Malaysia

This post is a little bit different because it’s specifically about food, which is another important part of my life in Malaysia and my #1 favourite thing. Specifically, it’s about my attempt to go vegan this January, or VEGANuary, as people are calling it. You can only really say this word by completely mis-pronouncing the word vegan, but that’s ok.

I am already a vegetarian and have been for just over a year. This “decision” was based on nothing more than a month-long experiment to see if I could do it, with no particularly strong ethical basis, health concerns or conviction. My journey began when I still lived in Belfast, where I was surrounded by familiar ingredients and cooking facilities, as well as plenty of excellent restaurants with vegetarian options. So I didn’t have to compromise on taste, variety or treating myself.

So, it’s possible that I would have continued to live a meat-free life without further educating myself, because it was easy. But I did start to read more about the benefits of a vegetarian diet, not just for me but for the planet (and obviously the animals). I’m not going to go into loads more detail on this, because I don’t want to preach about the ethics of it all, but it’s pretty convincing. I am just going to talk about my own choices and efforts to move to veganism in a non-judgemental and honest way.

Veganuary: why?

My views on and commitment to being vegetarian are always becoming stronger. I feel that, for me, there are many good reasons to give up meat and only one selfish reason to keep eating it. But that reason (wanting to) was based mostly on habit and has now disappeared. At the minute I have no desire to eat meat so it’s easy to be veggie. It’s what I want, in every sense.

But what I do still want is milk, cheese, cream, eggs, butter and more butter. But the reasons I believe in vegetarianism also apply logically to veganism. It’s the same argument and I actually think it’s the right thing for me to do, based on what I’ve learned about the dairy industry. Once I started to really think about this, I had to try it.

Veganuary in Australia

I started while in Australia, specifically New South Wales. Very little effort is required to be a vegan here. With a dark chocolate coconut milk ice cream in hand on day 1, I felt pretty good about it.

During the trip, we stayed with a lovely couple along the Great Ocean Road who kindly offered to cook dinner for us. We didn’t think it would be fair to accept the offer and then ask them to cook a vegan meal. This isn’t a great story for me, because by coincidence the vegetable pasta dish they made DID happen to be vegan, apart from the parmesan cheese I voluntarily, though absent-mindedly, sprinkled on top. Oops.

But this was a small blip as far as Australia was concerned. If I had stayed there longer, I’m fairly sure I’d have continued Veganuary with relative ease and pleasure.

Veganuary in Malaysia

The food scene is amazing but a little bit more complex in Malaysia.

The cheapest way to eat in KL is to eat out. Food is a really important part of Malay culture. For example, I’ve learned that “dah makan?” (have you eaten?) can be used as a general greeting instead of saying hello, or how are you.

The food of KL is particularly diverse. You’ll find a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines, but it’s also pretty easy to find Italian and other western food. They just love FOOD, all of it. Here we are enjoying an 8 course tasting menu at a vegetarian Mediterranean restaurant in KL (with a Malay twist, i.e. more spicy than expected).

img_20190202_140001_5105503837136527430007.jpg

A vegetarian can survive eating in all kinds of places here, but my favourites are the Indian restaurants. There are loads of them, where the food is cheap, delicious and in most cases, completely or mostly vegetarian.

This isn’t the best example of banana leaf curry, but it’s the only picture I have, taken in our first few weeks here. You usually get LOADS of rice which they’ll top up unnecessarily, 3 vegetable side dishes, sometimes dips and pickles, and not pictured here – they finish off with 3 vegetable curries that they’ll pour over the rice. I would say the average cost for one is about RM6, around £1.

Food6

However, a lot of the Indian dishes are probably not vegan. I say “probably” because I often adopt a policy of blissful ignorance when eating out. I have been more aware and careful about my choices since January, but I’m sure I’ve still eaten dairy.

Since Veganuary, I am vegan when cooking or eating at home. We cook our own versions of local dishes and sometimes make a nut roast and all the (meat-free) trimmings on a Sunday. I’ve replaced milk with various alternatives like soy, almond or coconut milk and they’re all perfectly yummy in coffee, with granola, or whatever. Did I mention that I have always LOVED drinking milk? Well, I have. I think there’s nothing better than something rich and chocolatey with a glass of cold milk. So if I can replace milk with non-dairy alternatives and still enjoy life, it’s possible for anyone.

What I’m finding more difficult is identifying things which contain dairy, but not in an obvious way. Not eating an egg is a simple choice, but when it comes to pastry, some types of pasta, condiments, sauces, soups and, tragically for me, lots of Indian food, it’s not so obvious.

My future as a vegan?

I cannot strictly call myself a vegan, because I know that I have eaten dairy and will most likely continue to do so, at least occasionally, while I’m living in Malaysia. But this will mostly be accidental and/or relatively incidental. I am still a vegetarian and at the moment I’m happy to have cut down significantly on dairy, because it moves me in what I see as the right direction, and will make more of an impact than not trying at all. I don’t think I’m going to change the world on my own, but my conscience is (relatively) clear in the knowledge that I’m trying.

Here’s a collage of some food I’ve taken pictures of recently, at home and eating out, including various Indian dishes, our vegan roast dinner, Malay spicy fried rice, and the world’s most delicious big samosa (probably not vegan, sigh).

 

Bali: what’s the big deal?

Unlike the stereotypical Bali traveller, I wasn’t on a spiritual quest to “find myself” or party hard, but I was on a quest to have fun and relax after the weird misadventures of Lombok. And I was quite hopeful, because at least people go to Bali and, with it being so popular, I assume they enjoy it. I have even heard real-life humans say they love Bali.

People famously go to the island to “eat, pray, love”. Or in my case, eat badly, pray not get scammed, and love leaving. Overall I didn’t actually hate it, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it or understand the hype. Some of its best attributes were overshadowed by its worst ones.

Bali2.jpg

Those best attributes include gorgeous sunsets, unique cliffside temples, beautiful scenery and some cute animals. I saw two monkeys having a HUG for goodness sake. These things are definitely to be enjoyed and appreciated.

I also met another sweet cat here, who did things like steal my breakfast and drink water from the swimming pool. What a weirdo.

 

Bali’s worst attributes, in my experience, include some really poor food, dodgy taxi drivers and a general culture of taking advantage of tourists. And also some (different) monkeys terrorising and biting people.

Our first experience after clambering elegantly off the boat from Lombok was being approached, surrounded, shouted at and then followed by a mob of pushy taxi drivers as we tried to order a Grab (the Uber of Southeast Asia). I prefer Grab because you know who your driver is and the price is fair, agreed beforehand, and based on distance/time of day, rather than how much of a mug (i.e. tourist) you appear to be. It turned out that Bali has similar rules to Lombok, in that some areas are off limits to Grab and only local taxis are available. So, with tails between our legs, we eventually gave in to one persistent driver and haggled with him over the price to take us to our accommodation. Feeling that we were being overcharged but without any other choice, we went on our way.

He stopped along the way insisting we try some local coffee for free at some place he “recommended”. Tasting was free, but with a sales pitch and presumably set up so that we would buy this stuff and he would get a commission for having brought us. We didn’t buy any because we didn’t want any. This kind of thing isn’t too objectionable, but I don’t like it and on a long journey, it was a waste of time. I mean, just taking us to our destination would have been fine… oh wait, he didn’t even do that!

Arriving in the town where we were staying, he suddenly asked us to either pay more or get out here. His reason was that he didn’t know the address of our accommodation. We calmly and, I thought, quite reasonably, explained that we would tell him the address. You know, how ALL TAXI JOURNEYS WORK. He said he’d do that if we paid more. We explained that we negotiated the (already inflated) price on the understanding that he would take us to our actual destination. He wasn’t having it, and I was afraid that things would get more heated if we insisted, so we got out and at this point were able to order a Grab.

Throughout our stay, several times we were asked to pay more than the stated fare for a taxi for stupid reasons, including “bad traffic” before having set off on a journey that was then devoid of traffic. One driver who reluctantly agreed to accept the original fare then drove us to the wrong place. We didn’t rent a scooter because we read that police often target tourists and fine/ bribe them to avoid getting into trouble for minor violations or made up offences. We probably would have been ok, but I was getting the heebie-jeebies about Bali and didn’t want to take any chances.

There is so much advice online about all the ways you might be scammed here. What annoys me most is the attitude behind some of these posts, for example, almost proudly informing you that you WILL get scammed on your first visit, as if it’s a rite of passage. An inevitable thing that you have to go through to be part of the experienced-Bali-traveller club. A badge of honour. Or that, because it’s well documented, it’s your own fault if something bad happens. Umm…NO! It’s not fair, it’s not acceptable and it’s not “cool” to say you’ve been through it. I don’t think it should be encouraged or accepted as part of the deal. And what about those poor souls seeking inner peace and the meaning of life? Do they all end up nervous wrecks, realising they can only find happiness (on Bali) by being hyper-alert and suspicious at every turn while en route to the nearest wellness retreat to recover?

Maybe I let it get to me too much, maybe we were unlucky, but I can’t understand how so many people, especially those looking for some space and calm in their lives, really enjoy this place. We did get around different parts of the island, and some were better than others, but I feel like even on a good day, it’s quite nice at best.

Well maybe comparing it to a grey rainy day in the UK, looking at a spreadsheet and eating a soggy sandwich at your desk, it’s a better place to be. But comparing it to other destinations very nearby, where you can also experience a mix of culture, history, temples, beaches, cliffs, forests, and monkeys that might bite you at any moment because you looked at them sideways – it doesn’t stack up. I’m pretty confident that you can achieve all of the above with a little more fun, affordability and peace of mind elsewhere in Indonesia.

One thing I haven’t talked about much on this blog is being a vegetarian, but I would like to say that travelling as a vegetarian in Indonesia is generally a very easy and delicious experience. Exhibit A: tempeh. It’s the yummier version of tofu, made of fermented soybeans and with a much nicer texture and flavour. I know it might sound gross, but it’s not. Just trust me, it’s great, and the whole world should be eating it. Anyway, I did eat some nice food in Bali, but we went to some highly rated vegetarian spots and found them really disappointing.

Let’s end with the positives again, because it truly wasn’t all bad. Pictured below in no particular order are some of my favourite things that I would recommend in Bali: the temples at Uluwatu and Tanah Lot, learning to make coconut oil, the monkey forest and the Ubud water palace.

 

….and AS IF I didn’t take a picture of the hugging monkeys!

dig

 

 

Lombok: meh

I am sure my 4 to 5 readers have been truly devastated by my lack of activity recently, but I’m back now. There’s a lot to catch up on, particularly my adventures in Australia (spoiler alert: I got pecked by an emu), but I want to finish up the Indonesia trip first.

Expressing my views on Lombok is quite the moral dilemma for me: basically I hated it, but I want more people to go there.

I had loved Indonesia so far, and Lombok was billed as the more chilled out, laid back, less touristic version of more well-known destinations – “like Bali 20 years ago”. Beautiful beaches, mountains and waterfalls without the tacky bars and crowds of pretentious travellers, finding themselves and updating their blogs (cough).

To be fair, it is a beautiful island and the scenery is excellent. So it’s a shame that it’s quite dirty and the beaches are visibly polluted with plastic. Apparently there is no refuse collection on the island, so people tend to throw their rubbish into the sea or burn it – both unpleasant and environmentally horrible options.

As for the “not touristy” claims – I beg to differ. I did expect that there would be people making their living trying to sell to us, and I don’t have any objection to that. But I didn’t appreciate people stopping their cars or scooters at the side of the road to try and sell us stuff as we walked along the pavement. Then driving on and pulling over to repeat this again, but pushier, 10 steps later after we’ve already said no thanks. We had people selling everything from souvenirs, jewellery, boat trips, drugs and taxi services following us around the town, waiting for us to come out from shops or restaurants to pressure us again. One guy actually came into a restaurant and sat at our table, then the one beside it, trying to make us sign a very suspect agreement to hire a scooter while we were trying to get some lunch. Basically, I didn’t feel comfortable exploring this place on my own, which is a big deal for me, and didn’t particularly enjoy going out at all as I always felt we were about to be scammed, followed or harassed. Once I started feeling on edge, that suspicion and lack of trust in the back of my mind was unfair to the people who were honest and reasonable. The atmosphere was bad for everyone. There was also an unpleasant situation at the place where we stayed, but it’s not fair to tar the whole island with that nasty brush, so I won’t go there.

I’m aware that it’s difficult to criticise Lombok without sounding heartless and insensitive. It is often hit by earthquakes and there was some serious damage done in August last year. This naturally caused devastation to the people who lost family and shelter but also their income source, as tourists are less willing to go there. I can see how such a disaster would leave people feeling desperate, and it somewhat explains the more aggressive tactics we encountered. I get that – but I still can’t pretend I had a good time.

We were warned to avoid certain areas as they were not safe, that there were some temples and sights where tourists were targetted by criminals, and to watch out for scams. Having read a lot of other peoples’ experiences in Lombok, this is not unique to us or to the fact that we visited in the months following an earthquake. I know lots of people enjoy it and have a great time, but plenty of people also report the negative experience that I had.

Logic tells me that people who need tourism to thrive would be aware of the fact that visitors who have a nice time are more likely to talk about it and recommend it to others, thus boosting future tourism, etc. I feel this all over Malaysia, where the locals are friendly, kind and keen to know that you are being treated well and enjoying their country. On one view, it’s because they’re nice (and I believe that), but even taking a pragmatic view, they feel that tourism and their international reputation is important, so they treat people well. At the risk of sounding really patronising, it’s a shame that a similar culture hasn’t developed in Lombok.

I’m in a catch-22 situation when it comes to describing this part of the trip. I believe that if more people visit, creating more stability and sustainable income, the incidents of scamming, crime or generally making people feel harassed and uneasy would subside, so the right thing to do would be to encourage more people to go. But I can’t recommend it as a destination based on my experience, because I simply didn’t enjoy it. For now I can rest assured that I’m not exactly a major influencer and my opinion, one way or another, is not going to change anything. But I do hope that something changes, because the situation as it was during my time there was not positive for anyone.

Let’s finish on a high. Here are some of the best bits, including the pool, sunsets on the beach, and a cat that joined me for a beer:

 

 

 

Mount Bromo: feeling tiny, scared, happy and amazed

For someone who is basically afraid of everything, I am proud to say that I climbed to the crater of a live active volcano and it made me feel amazed and amazing.

Indonesia is part of the “ring of fire”, so is vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcano eruptions. I read up about it one morning and was horrified by the risks people take by just living here and how often homes, towns and families are destroyed. For visitors like us I wondered if it was worth putting ourselves in danger to see some beautiful things, but my experience here was so much more than that. There was something about Java and the people that really touched my heart. We, and loads of people like us, are lucky to visit these places and make wonderful memories, and the local people clearly love to welcome us and show us what they are rightfully proud of in their country. So for all of the positive things I took away from this trip, which were immense and overwhelming, it was worth it. It is possible that I’d feel differently about it if we had experienced a natural disaster, but luckily I don’t know the answer to that.

IMG-20181123-WA0046

Mount Bromo is an active volcano near Surabaya (using the word “near” very loosely here). For one of the main attractions in east Java, it is remarkably difficult to organise a trip there independently. There are many tour companies offering very expensive trips, but we feared a repeat of the Cameron Highlands experience and being shuttled around from location to location like a herd of cattle. We did eventually manage to arrange a trip for ourselves with a local guy we met in Surabaya. The cost of getting there and into the national park this way was significantly cheaper than anything else we could find, and the best part was that we could plan our own itinerary and missed the crowds of the sunrise tours. Oh yes, the dreaded sunrise tour again. Why does EVERYONE want us to do sunrise tours?

Presumably the reason is because sunrise at the volcano and surrounding mountains is beautiful. That’s fine and I appreciate that. But everything I read also mentioned hoards of tourists and it being really busy. I know that I’m a tourist too and I’m part of the problem, but I really hate being unable to appreciate something in its natural glory because I’m in crowds of people taking selfies and shoving past each other.

Following the success of our trip to Borobudur at sunset, we decided (against all advice) to go to Mount Bromo for the afternoon and sunset too. This blog is difficult to write because I can’t express in words how special it was and how I felt that day.

It’s a weird landscape, because after climbing (via jeep, not feet) up quite a lot of mountain, you reach a big sandy plain that looks like you’re at ground level and there’s a volcano and some mountains there, but you’re already super high and this doesn’t come across in photographs. After driving up through thick rainforest and lively mountain villages, suddenly it feels like you’re on the moon.

From this sea of sand we went up Mount Pananjakan which is the main lookout spot over the volcano, and then we climbed (on foot this time) up Bromo itself. It’s over 2,300 metres high but not a difficult climb (and you obviously don’t start at sea level). I became a bit breathless close to the top but I think it was due to anxiety and altitude more than physical exertion of the climb. It’s quite terrifying as you begin to hear the ominous bubbling, rumbling sound of the lava and you can see is the smoke gushing out above you. And the smell that we all describe as rotten eggs, although I’m lucky enough to have never encountered a real life rotten egg, so this is speculation on my part.

I actually became quite over excited and hysterical and silly at the top, and tried to video call people to share the experience with them. I took an accidental selfie and I am genuinely laughing an hysterical, mouth-open laugh in it while gazing wide-eyed into the smoke. I thought it was hilarious.

Nobody was available for a video call and that is probably for the best, because it didn’t take long for me to really contemplate where I was, become absolutely terrified, and urgently shuffle my way back down the slopes expecting lava to engulf me at any moment. Every time the bubbling noise stopped, or changed, or the direction of the smoke altered, it is impossible to assume it’s benign, because it might not be.

Somewhere in between those extreme reactions, I had moments of quiet amazement. This was undoubtedly helped by the fact that we were literally the only two people up there. I have seen photos of Bromo at sunrise and it’s just SO jam packed with people, I can’t imagine the atmosphere is the same.

Back on the sandy moon-like plain at the bottom of the crater I relaxed again and felt like I was having an outer body experience as I watched the sky change colour as the sun set, the smoke rising out of the volcano, and then the full moon rise and shine brightly over us. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect set of circumstances and I’m so happy I experienced this night.