Calm before the storm: Lombok to Jogjakarta.
Comfortable, quiet, slow. The last 10 days have been more in line with what most would expect from an Indonesian holiday.
After our dash from Labuanbajo to Mataram, Sami and I spent a few days lazing on the islands of Gili Meno and Air off northwest Lombok. They were welcome days, those few on the islands. I spent my time jogging their circumference, bare foot and bare chested. I read my books. We drank and ate like we were on holiday. We swam and snorkled and slept outside under mosquito nets and bamboo shelters. Then, we headed south catching the ferry from Lembar, on Lombok's southwest to Bali.
We arrived in Bali to an immediate throng of Europeans excessively haggling down a local driver for a ride to Ubud, who we somehow gravitated towards in order to split the cost of a ride to town.
It was an embarrassing start to my few days on the island.
One of my grievances when on the road is watching young travellers treat haggling like a sport; like a zero sum game that must be won at all costs.
Now, I disdain getting ripped off like anyone. But these travellers (from Sweden and Austria) were arguing over the most minute quantities - in this case, 5000 rupiah (or around 50 cents), for the best part of thirty minutes.
The driver (the only one around) was upset; our ride was delayed. It all seemed an unnecessary exercise, one which I watched on as a frustrated, regrettably passive bystander.
As one of our Swedish companions stormed off after not getting his way, the young Balinese driver relented, agreeing to take all seven of us who'd disembarked the ferry to Ubud for a rock bottom price. It was a sour affair. It saved us only a few cents each, but cost us time and - in my case - burdened my conscience.
The reality of joining the backpacker trail after a few enjoyable weeks largely away from it sunk in at that moment. From Timor all the way to Western Lombok (with the exception of Labuanbajo and the Gili's), I'd seen only a handful of other travellers. Now, we were in the thick of it.
Sami and I arrived in Ubud and spent the next 24 hours sharing a tiny motorbike which rarely carried the both of us up even the most modest inclines. Exploring rice fields and Lake Batur, I was pleasantly surprised: not all of Bali felt manufactured or false or crafted for its never ending crowd of foreigners. There was still something real here, something to explore and learn.
After two weeks sharing the road together, it was soon time for Sami and I to head on our own paths. I'd spend the next few days lounging in Ubud with Emily - my accommodating girlfriend who’d come to visit me for a few days before our distance grew too great - and Sami would leave Indonesia all together to get some family time in Thailand.
It had been eye-opening traveling with someone from a different walk of life to me. In any other environment, Sami and I would likely not become friends. He is an mechanic from a rural Finnish family who’s hometown borders the Arctic Circle; I ran my first car into the ground because I didn't know how to change the oil, and have spent the last few years tethered to a desk in the humid, beach-side city of Sydney. We are opposites, only united by an unusual decision we made independently to cross from East Timor into Indonesia and make it as far west as possible. By chance, our paths crossed at that border.
Those five days in Ubud with Emily erased an element of my Bali skepticism (though my brief passage through Kuta raised it to fever pitch). Emily and I pressed pause on our lives: we ate, and we drank, and we slept and we swam. It was the most welcome respite before what I knew would be an extremely challenging, fast paced few weeks ahead. After our time in Ubud, we spent our last fleeting moments in Kuta before Emily flew home to Adelaide.
The melancholy brought about by our pending distance, compounded by the sheer awfulness of a filthy, clogged Kuta - was a hard pill to swallow. I saw Emily off at Denpasar airport, and trudged solemnly in the rain and flooded streets alone back to my barren and empty $8/night hotel.
The race against time begins
The route from Lembar to Jogjakarta.
The joy of a journey of this magnitude is that there's always a next destination. Those fleeting hours in Bali’s capital were wretched, and I was desperate to begin my race against time from Denpasar all the way to Dumai in Sumatra, where I plan to catch the ferry across the strait of Malacca to Malaysia.
The next morning, I flagged a taxi to Mengwi bus terminal and caught the first ride I could to Jogjakarta, the burgeoning tourist hot-spot at the heart of Java.
Bus trips in Indonesia to me are best accompanied by a good book and a packet of Oreos. Over the next 24 hours, I finished two of the best reads I've ever devoured: Born to Run, a journalistic masterpiece that follows one man’s quest to transform his flabby writer’s physique into that of an ultramarathon runner in order to race a Mexican tribe of super-athletes through the Copper Canyons, and The Golden Spruce, a sad chronicle of the logging industry in British Columbia, and one anti-logging activist’s misguided protest that ended up costing him his life. I also finished all 12 biscuits.
The bus broke down three times. The first two were minor inconveniences; the third a lengthy pause on the side of the highway halfway between Surabaya and Jogjakarta. The tyres had exploded a few hours prior, jolting the bus and waking everyone. But the bus limped on to the next service station. It took the best part of five hours for our driver to piece together his wheels again, at least well enough to get to Jogja.
Exhausted, I arrived in Jogjakarta close to 8 hours later than expected, ruining my chances of seeing anything if the city before having to push on.
I'm simply running out of time. With 7 days remaining on my Visa, I don't have a choice but to move with a pace I'm yet to attempt. It's a shame in some sense: while true to my commitment to an exclusively overland route, the pace necessitated by an expiring Visa means I still will miss out on those shades of grey between large Indonesian cities. The view from the window of a night bus is usually just an uninspiring reflection of my own fatigued face, hardly an open door into the less visited communities at the heart of this country that I'd hoped to spend some time exploring.
The next week will see me cover my final two thousand kilometres of Indonesian countryside.
It's a race against time that starts now, as I depart Jogjakarta on the express train (which is heavenly in contrast to the endless coaches and local buses I've taken from Timor) through Central Java towards Indonesia’s sprawling, 25 million person capital: Jakarta.