Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau,Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and back to the USA.
From Bali, I headed to Maluku, the fabled Spice Islands of Indonesia – and what an adventure it was! Our flight was canceled (not uncommon in Indonesia), but a military transport plane happened to be available, and flew us to the Banda Islands for a reasonable price.
Sailing on a variety of local vessels through deep, indigo-blue waters, schools of dolphin playfully welcomed us to each new group of jungle-clad islands – brilliant green in contrast to the azure sea and sky. These islands are fascinating both in their astonishing natural beauty, and because of the well-preserved 16th century colonial forts and estates. Amid this splendor is a pervasive Pacific Island feeling, but with the distinctive flavor of Asia.
Traveling with Alice, a young backpacker from Scotland, we climbed volcanoes, explored colonial ruins, wandered through steaming jungles dimly lit up with rays of sunlight slanting through the misty silence, dove in some of Jacques Cousteau’s favorite haunts, and beefed up on delicious food liberally spiced with cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, for which the islands are famous. It was especially enjoyable staying with the local people in their homes. With very little English spoken in these isolated islands, it was necessary and rewarding to do it all in Indonesian.
Continuing to the island of Java I visited YMCA youth development, education and leadership programs in the city of Yogyakarta, renowned as a center of education, classical Javanese fine art and culture such as batik, ballet, drama, music, poetry and puppet shows. We toured ancient temples and night markets rocking with loud music, mania and crowds – and with oddities like fried cow skin and steamed chicken brains (I didn’t know chickens had enough brain matter to eat!) and weird freak shows featuring dancing giants and dwarfs.
In Jakarta, a YMCA staff member took me for a hair-raising motorbike ride through the city – past the open sewers that line the sidewalks and streets, challenging the traffic and going up onto the sidewalks to get past particularly bad traffic snarls – leaving me frazzled and well doused from head to toe in a layer of sticky black soot from all the automobile and motorbike exhaust. The distinctive divide between rich and poor was stark as we sped through poor urban neighborhoods – past people squatting, washing clothes and eating utensils, brushing their teeth, and shitting all in the same squalid river – and then past modern hotels and shining high rise office buildings.
By train and then by boat, I sailed along the beautifully rugged Sumatra coastline to Padang for the bull fights, and on to the pleasant coastal village of Air Manus (‘Sweet Water’) and to a guest house run by the friendly old caretaker ‘Papa Chili Chili.’ A spectacularly scenic bus ride north of Padang brought me to the cool, easy-going mountain town of Bukittinggi where I climbed another 10,000 foot volcano – the most active one on Sumatra.
Unlike Yogyakarta’s dangerously active Mount Merapi – spewing fire, smoke and ash – this Sumatran ‘Merapi’ (‘Fire Mountain’) was dormant — for the time being anyway, and one of three volcanoes surrounding the scenic town.
A thick cloud bank moved in just as my companions and I summited the cone, causing us to nearly lose our way on the poorly marked trail along a perilously steep drop off. When we finally made it down, the park ranger (belatedly) warned us of the potential danger on top – and led us to a gruesome color photo tacked to his bulletin board of a foreign climber they found three weeks after he went missing. He had probably become lost in a sudden white out, just as we were, but tragically had fallen to his death. Lying in a jungle puddle his face was gone, totally rotted away.
I toughed out eighteen brutal hours by bus to beautiful Lake Toba, a large natural lake occupying the caldera of a supervolcano in the middle of the northern part of Sumatra, but was content to skip the overly commercialized Samosir Island in the center of the lake. About 100 kilometers long, 30 kilometers wide, and up to 505 meters deep, Lake Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world.
My visa had run out, so my final days in Indonesia were spent basking in the quiet, local flavor of an obscure town far from all the tourists, where I enjoyed a fitting and wonderfully refreshing final evening – the sensual massage was like food to a starving man. She spoke not a word of English, but by then, I could ramble easily in the language. And like a bad habit, I was leaving again. But my last night in Indonesia simply added to the long list of outrageous experiences and fond memories, and a keen desire to return for more!
Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: Malaysia and Singapore – coming soon!
You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.
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