Monday, 10 December 2007

Overthink your Bali sins on top of Mount Bromo

Ever been to Club Med? Welcome to its cheaper sibling: Bali. Arriving at this middle sized island in central Indonesia is experiencing how neo-colonialism works. Why show interest in their culture if we just want to lie on the beach the whole day? Trying local dishes or drinks? No way, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Coca-Cola is what we want! And what is that weird local language? I bet they gossip about us all the time. Hello, speak English please! Be happy we still find our way to your little island after the 2002 and 2005 bombings: the Balinese should be happy we still want to spend our well earned pounds here. They should be honoured if they can serve us, drive us around, massage us, guide us. Oh please, we don’t wanna visit that 300 years old temple anyway, crush it and replace it by a Holiday Inn or a Burger King!

At the Indonesian island of Bali, the differences in wealth, spending and lifestyles couldn’t be bigger. Since many tour operators in Europe and especially Australia offer cheap ‘relax and do nothing but eating, drinking and swimming holidays’ most tourists are not interested in the local temples, rich culture, diverse kitchen or wonderful scenery the island has to offer. I was shocked by the way many (older) tourists handle locals: with suspicion, arrogance and screaming English, German, Dutch or Italian at them (like they do understand what you see if you speak louder), not to mention the unhealthy sex industry. Bali villages such as Seminyak and Legian are known for older visitors, mainly from Germany, Switzerland, Italy and the UK, looking for a young summer love. I still feel a bit ashamed of being a European if I see a huge, white, old, hairy creature grapping the hand of a thirty years younger, tented, skinny, smaller local boy, mainly interested in the expensive hotel room, some hard cash or a meal at McDonalds. Because that is what it is: many young, poor, Hindu Balinese (so not welcome in the rest of Indonesia, which is mainly Muslim) idealise and romanticise the lifestyle of the tourists. The younger generation of visitors does not differ to much either: although they obviously not come to mingle with locals, for many it is just another party resort. The idea that it is in Asia (not in Thailand, for a change) and an old hippie resort dating back to the 1960´s give it some extra special. Many backpackers make Bali their first or second stop on a trip or during a gap year, mostly when travelling between the ‘safe zones’ Australia, Thailand or Europe.

The druggies days of the sixties are over
The Balinese parties are infamous and not to miss, especially the ‘full moon fiestas’: on the beach, with your feet in the sand, strong cocktails and a crowd with a vibe. Surfing, swimming, watching and be watched, crashing and sleeping are the main activities in the city of Kuta, on the south side of the island, where as good as good as all backpackers occupy the cheap hostels (2-10 pounds per night), many restaurants (50p-4 pounds for a large main course) and the funky clubs (no entrance fees, drinks from 80p for a beer to 3 pounds for a long island ice tea). Most backpackers or older hippie’s who decide to stay for a while rent a motorbike, and why shouldn’t you, for less than 4-8 pounds a day? It is a great way to explore the island and after all, Kuta seems a place you do not want to leave: once you have accepted the way Bali and Kuta work, it is very tempting to mingle in the party scene and be part of what it is all about: sun, beach, sex, booze and rock and roll. No drugs though, trying to get them is not worth the risk, since the Indonesian government has adopted the policies on drugs as for example practiced in Thailand and Singapore. Although in general bribing is the first door on your way out in Indonesia, this does definitely not count for drugs. Only some old hippies, most of them arrived in the late 60´s, who own dive centres or a bar, are secretly allowed to keep gardening, although their position is not longer safe either. In recent years, several tourists, mainly Australian, were locked up for ten to fifteen years because they were in the possession of weed, LSD or Ecstasy. Most notoriously, the case of Australian model Schapelle Corby who is still fighting in appeal to her 15 years verdict for 4.1 gram of marihuana. Just remember some basic rules: only carry cash with you (rent a small safe in your ho(s)tel for your passport, ticket, credit card), don’t accept drinks from strangers, especially from locals (drugging does occur) and if you like someone more than just a friend, do not even think of unprotected sex, since HIV is on the rise in Bali. Done partying and don’t want to drink away your hangover again? Perhaps the time has come to explore the rest of Bali. Bali is so picturesque that you could be fooled into thinking it was a painted backdrop: rice paddies trip down hillsides like giant steps, volcanoes soar through the clouds, the forests are lush and tropical, and the beaches are lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

Recent tragic events have scared away many of those who simply saw Bali as a place for cheap beer. Travellers are advised to check with their local embassy or travel advisory for up-to-date information regarding travel to Bali. A terrorist attack, by a group called Jemaah Islamiyah, took place in 2002 killing 202 people (including 164 foreigners, 88 Australians). A smaller scene was repeated in 2005. Although it is normally safe, the island could be a target in the future. Nevertheless, the beautiful beaches with the warm ocean waves crashing up on to the white sand and the friendly locals with their unique smile make this an island many return to. Bali is one of the 13,000 islands making up the Republic of Indonesia and is located 8-9 degrees south of the equator between Java to the west, and Lombok to the East. The volcanoes which dominate the island are surrounded by the vast variety of tropical plants and terraces of rice crops, making a picturesque setting that takes your breath away. The variety and number of temples seem endless demonstrating the depth of Bali's history. But if you want to visit a really impressive volcano, travel to Java by bus and boat (20-30 hours). Do not fall asleep though, some fellow travellers would not mind to help you get rid of some extra luggage). A diverse, intense and interesting journey. Right through central Indonesia’s rural countryside, straight to the biggest island of Indonesia: welcome to Java.

Once saddled with a reputation as a poverty-ridden hell hole, Java mutated into an Asian boom island in not much more than a decade. It is one the most densely populated parts of the planet and the cities are incredibly crowded (128 million people on the size of England), but there are vast stretches of open country in between. An island of smoking volcanoes and incredible fertility, an island of exceptional history, culture and contrasts. No one fails to be impressed by this remarkable island. However, an earthquake struck Java on 27 May 2006, causing widespread destruction and thousands of fatalities in and south of Yogyakarta city, in central Java. Another natural disaster happened two months later: on 17 July 2006 a tsunami hit the southern coast of Java. The town of Pangandaran was devastated, causing many fatalities and leaving several thousand more people missing or displaced. Relief and aid work are ongoing and there are many volunteering options for travellers who want to stay for a while. And only last month, in February, the Jakarta region was hit with devastating floods causing extensive damage and displacement.

Breathtaking views from Mount Bromo
Probolinggo, on the north coast of Java, is a small, poor, forgotten town where you end up if you arrive by boat and a bus trip from Bali. Not many English speaking people can be found here: the tourists are only found high in the sky, preferring the airwaves when going to the capital Jakarta or the 2nd largest city Surabaya. It's about two hours to Ngadisari, and here I decided to go to the active volcano Broom, which entailed all night travel: first by vehicle, then by horseback until we eventually reached the crater area before dawn. It's a fairly easy 4-mile hike to the foot of Mount Bromo. Alternatively, you can hire a pony to do the drudge work for you. Private cars are not allowed inside the caldera. You can join the pony package at R50.000 per person (3 pounds) but, of course like in any third world country, prices are negotiable. Bromo is set amidst a large caldera. To see the crater itself you must ascend numerous hewn steps until you finally make it up to the level where you can view inside. At the time I was there (June 2006), a red lava glow could be seen in several places near the bottom. Hiking around a volcano is often very slow going. At one point I noticed what appeared to be a distant smoke column. Every few minutes, a new burst of dark smoke would appear in the distant horizon. It was an eruption from the nearby volcano Semeru. Indonesia is loaded with volcanoes! Mount Bromo really is a live volcano that erupts with disturbing regularity: in 2004, two tourists were killed and five injured when the mountain spit out molten rock as far as 300 feet from the crater. And eruptions are not uncommon, the volcano woke up in 2000, 1995, 1984, 1983 and 1980, as well.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Yeah, it is Pakjesavond! ('Pakjes-what?!')

Today, it is the 5th of December, which means it is ‘Pakjesavond’ in my home country Holland! Sinterklaas (also called Sint-Nicolaas in Dutch and Saint Nicolas in French) is a holiday tradition in the Netherlands and Belgium, celebrated every year on Saint Nicholas' eve (December 5).

Traditionally, in The Netherlands adults started to give each other presents on the evening of the 5th; then older children were included and today in my country sometimes even the youngest get presents on the evening of December 5 (Saint Nicholas' eve), known as Sinterklaasavond or Pakjesavond (present evening). After the singing of traditional Sinterklaas songs, there will be a loud knock on the door, and a sack full of presents is found on the doorstep. Alternatively - some improvisation is often called for - the parents 'hear a sound coming from the attic' and then the bag with presents is "found" there. Some parents manage to "convince" Sinterklaas to come to their home personally.

Sinterklaas traditionally arrives each year in November by steamboat from Spain, and is then paraded through the streets, welcomed by cheering and singing children. Invariably, this event is broadcast live on national television in the Netherlands and Belgium. His 'Zwarte piet'
helpers throw candy and small, round ginger bread-like cookies, 'kruidnoten' or 'pepernoten', into the crowd. The children welcome him by singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. Sinterklaas also visits schools, hospitals and shopping centres. After this arrival all towns with a dock have their own intocht van Sinterklaas (arrival of Sinterklaas)
Another aspect of "pakjesavond" are the small poems people make. When children become too old to believe in Sinterklaas, they will be introduced to a different form of entertainment during this night. People will write small personal poems for friends and family usually accompanied by a small gift or candy. This way it is also entertaining for parents and other adults. Students usually write teasing and embarrassing stories for each other. But this is expected and is received in good spirit, so it is usually good fun!

Sinterklaas is the basis for the North American figure of Santa
who later was 're-designed' to match a cola company's needs in the 20th Century. It was during the American War of Independence, that the Roman-Catholic inhabitants of New York, a former Dutch colonial town (‘New ) which had been swapped by the Dutch for other territories, reinvented their Sinterklaas tradition, who was regarded as an alternative for the "Irish Catholic" Saint Patrikc. The name Santa Claus is derived from older Dutch Sinte Klaas.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

India calling

Last week I started a new chapter in my life, I have moved to the Indian city of Mumbai (the former Bombay) and started working at CNN IBN, a 24/7 English news channel with (inter)national news, current affairs, sports, politics, and lots of investigative pieces. My first impressions? Big, noisy and busy. I discovered it is not too easy to describe the financial heart of India, the country’s biggest city (and one of the fastest growing in the world) and the home of the famous Gateway of India (left). I think Lonely Planet’s recipe for the Mumbai main course is one of the best I ever read:

‘Measure out: one part Hollywood; six parts traffic; a bunch of rich power-moguls; stir in half a dozen colonial relics (use big ones); pour in six heaped cups of poverty; add a smattering of swish bars and restaurants (don’t skimp on quality here for best results); equal parts of mayhem and order; as many ancient bazaars as you have lying around; a handful of Hinduism; a dash of Islam; fold in your mixture with equal parts of India; throw it all in a blender on high (adding generous helpings of pollution to taste) and presto: Mumbai.’

CNN IBN's Mumbai newsroom and Marine Drive Beach (r)