18 Jun Breaking Down in Java Indonesia
I couldn’t stop them any longer – flopping down on the hotel bed I buried my miserable face in the pillow and let the tears flow. I’d been holding them back for days, trying to ignore the disquieting feeling in my gut that I’d made a terrible mistake coming to this country. We’d been in Indonesia less than a week and I was already longing to leave – what had gone so horribly wrong?
The Curse of Jakarta
We touched down in Jakarta after a 12-hour flight and were greeted by an immense thick, moist wall of heat and shouts of ‘Mister!’, ‘Taxi?’, ‘Hello!’ We made our way slowly, by bus and taxi, to our accommodation, discovering along the way that pavements are a novelty in Indonesia – you have to watch your step next to the roads crammed with weaving motorbikes, honking taxis and dangerously-speeding cars.
Jakarta is a sprawling, dirty, congested city with no particular centre; everything looks the same, streets lined with tiny wooden shops and areas of wider paved roads, tall glass buildings and malls. Very quickly we noticed the absence of other foreigners and we soon realised why – Jakarta is way off the tourist trail. There aren’t any particular sights to see or monuments to explore; everything is so spread out you have to get taxis everywhere and unless you can speak Indonesian it’s incredibly difficult to communicate with people.
This hadn’t been what I’d expected. Naively, I’d imagined Jakarta would be similar to Bangkok; easy to get around with plenty of English signs and information, loads of places to stay and sights to see – Jakarta wasn’t even remotely like that. To make matters worse we were staying out in a residential area in a house we’d found through AirBnB; we got extremely stared at by the locals every time we ventured outside and spent a long time wandering fruitlessly looking for a taxi. I’ve never felt so completely out of place in my life – like a total alien. All this combined with the squat toilets, giant cockroaches and spiders in our bathroom, cold-water showers, stifling heat, putrid stench of the air and lack of edible food made for a very miserable start to our trip to Indonesia.
Yes, in retrospect we had just been smacked in the face with the culture-shock stick; having just spent two months in neat, sparkly-clean New Zealand and Australia we were completely unprepared for the conditions in Jakarta. We were only just realising how easy everything had been on our trip so far. We’d experienced nothing but clean, clearly-priced hostels, English signs everywhere, supermarkets selling recognisable food and our very own rental car. Now, exhausted, we were floundering in the stifling strangeness and heat of Jakarta.
Nevertheless, we had things to do; a second laptop to buy, Philippine visas to get hold of and travel vaccinations and malaria tablets to sort out. We found a laptop quickly enough but things went downhill after that; the visa office was closed because of an election. At the travel clinic we paid a fee to see a doctor and somehow got conned into buying some very expensive anti-malarials – we were beginning to feel pretty cursed.
Fed-up, we hid in our room, comforting ourselves with episodes of the Amazing Race. I was staggered by the powerful waves of homesickness that were washing over me. I didn’t just miss London, I longed to be anywhere in England, or New Zealand, or Australia – I even found myself pining for Scotland after one particular episode of the Amazing Race – I’ve never even been to Scotland!
I skyped my mum one evening and felt like I was peering into another universe; the computer screen was like a magical portal showing me a reality so familiar, yet so alien to what I was experiencing in Jakarta. I wished I could have just stepped through the glass to have a sandwich and a chat and snuggle up with one of my mum’s little dogs on my lap. I hadn’t expected to feel like this at all and especially not so early on in the trip, what was wrong with me? Maybe I wasn’t cut out for travelling in Asia? Or perhaps feeling this lost, in every sense of the word, is merely what it’s like to really travel – but if that was true, did I really want to live this kind of lifestyle?
It was time to get out of Jakarta.
Our train to Yogyakarta was booked for 8.30am and although the taxi driver picked us up before seven, I began to panic as soon as I saw the traffic-choked streets. I spent the next hour gritting my teeth in the back of the taxi, terrified that we’d miss our train, lose the hefty £37 we’d spent on tickets and worst of all, be stuck in Jakarta for another day. My nerves were stretched taut – if I thought travelling would chill me out, I was sorely mistaken.
Unbelievably, we did make the train but sadly, things didn’t improve.
On arriving in Yogyakarta we spent about an hour trekking through familiar Jakarta-esque streets looking for a room in the searing heat; our backpacks weighing us down, sweat soaking our shirts until we found somewhere halfway decent. I became even more dispirited as we later searched the streets for food, hungry and headachey to find nothing vegetarian or appealing to eat.
I’d had enough. It was all I could do to get back to the hotel before I broke down, admitting everything to Andrew, who was also having trouble warming to Indonesia. I felt like a total travel failure – what were we going to do now?
Leaving Java Indonesia and Brighter Days
We’d planned to spend a few weeks in Java but decided instead to move on to Bali early, as soon as we’d done the few things we were really looking forward to in Java. Maybe we should have stuck it out for longer and things would have improved, but in the end we decided that we’d invested too much in this trip to spend any more of it feeling miserable.
As I write this I’m sat in a beach hut on Gili Meno, a tiny, almost silent island off the coast of Lombok and it’s hard to remember exactly how awful that first week in Java was or to believe just how miserable I felt. However, I want to write honestly about my experiences and even though things improved vastly once we left Java I still think it’s important to document the challenging times; because I have no doubt we’ll learn the most from them in the long run. That week in Java marked a turning point in our travels; our trip, which had so far been a series of fast-moving adventures stalled and the novelty of travel started to wear off – the reality of what long-term travel entails began to sink in and we’ve been slowly adjusting to that realisation ever since.
Despite our difficulties, we did have a couple of incredible experiences that made our week in Java memorable for happier reasons. Firstly, we took a trip out to Borobudur, an impressive ancient Buddhist temple. The mammoth stone structure looked so beautiful set against a hazy backdrop of mountains, volcanoes and vast green fields. As we walked around an odd thing happened too, Indonesian tourists started approaching, asking to have their pictures taken with us simply because, as white westerners, we were a bit of a rarity. We didn’t quite get used to this strange attention but the Indonesian people are so lovely in general (which made me feel even worse about disliking Java) that you couldn’t refuse.
Right before we left for Bali we also had one of the strangest yet most incredible travel adventures yet: our midnight tour to Mount Bromo.
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