Our first impression of Indonesia can quite simply be summed up with one word: chaos. After immigration we filed into a room which could hardly fit all the passengers from several flights let alone all their luggage. Airport staff were lifting our bags off the baggage carousel and stacking them on the floor next to it whilst the crowd of people craning their necks to identify their suitcase grew and grew. Finally we were given the green light and like angry bees we swarmed around the bags, checking name tags and if lucky hauling the bag through the frantic buzzing crowd. One German man told me Yogyakarta’s airport had not changed this grossly inefficient system in 25 years, but that they were belatedly renovating the airport.
On our bus ride into the centre we started chatting with a friendly girl from Borneo studying at Yogyakarta’s university. Despite the rain she offered to take us to our hotel and our instinctive scepticism (people are never so friendly in Europe) soon gave way to warm surprise and gratitude. Baggage carousels aside, Indonesia had already left its mark.
Our five days in Yogyakarta were spent going on long walks (one with the sole aim of acquiring wine which ultimately proved fruitless) and visiting the Kraton which housed the sultan and royal court. Being creatures of habit we dined at the same restaurant every night where we discovered tempeh, or fermented soybean cake. With such an appetising name we probably don’t need to expand on how delicious it is, but you can trust us when we say that tempeh grilled or doused in peanut sauce is a real mouthwatering treat!
We made a day trip to Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple site in Indonesia, although the attractiveness of the temples themselves was somewhat overshadowed by the swarms of schoolchildren jostling to have pictures with the two sweaty white tourists. We were immediately approached by two girls, one of whom was named Frisky (yes, really), who explained that they were trainee guides and asked if they could practice their English with us. Once again our innate scepticism reared its ugly head but we ultimately agreed given that we were woefully uninformed on the temple’s history anyways. Frisky proceeded to explain the bas-reliefs telling the story of Ramayana, minus the “pornographic” details depicted in one section. Throughout this hordes of schoolchildren and teenagers as well as their teachers huddled around us and clasped our arms to snap a picture with their smartphones, much to our bemusement.
Our next stop was Malang, a city halfway between Yogyakarta and Java’s eastern coast which attracts tourists keen on climbing Mount Bromo. It’s not that we were averse to the idea of taking a bus at midnight, visiting villages throughout the night, trekking for several hours to the summit to catch the sunrise, and then visiting MORE villages on the way back, it’s more that we didn’t have suitably warm clothes and couldn’t POSSIBLY risk such a treacherous climb with Astrid’s injured foot. We just wouldn’t have enjoyed it you see, and it always rains in the mornings anyways! We decided instead to head straight for Bali (plenty of trekking there) and boarded our last night bus of the trip.
After a horrendously long journey we arrived in the laid-back fishing village of Padang Bai where we would stay one night before boarding the ferry for Lombok. We duly celebrated our arrival on Hindu territory by quaffing wine over a delicious and unbelievably cheap dinner of grilled fish.
Turns out there were more horrendously long journeys in store for us, for the 6-hour ferry ride was followed by a 2-hour drive at snail’s pace through gridlocked traffic from the ferry terminal to Senggigi, our destination on Lombok. To make it worse our van overheated and we had to wait whilst a replacement van inched through the traffic to reach us.
We spent three days in Senggigi lounging on its lovely beach with blue and white fishing boats. In the evenings we headed to our local bustling “warung” (Indonesia’s version of street kitchens) for a plate heaped with grilled squid and “cap cay”, stir-fried vegetables with shrimp.
When the time had come to move on the owner of our homestay, Sonya, drove us along with a chatty Lithuanian-Iranian couple living in Sweden to the port (or rather, beach) where we would take a boat to Gili Air. In the early morning Lombok’s scenery was just magnificent. The blue velvet sea lapped at the black volcanic sand beaches framed with tall palm trees. Lombok’s imposing mountains towered over us in all their emerald green glory whilst the tips were still shrouded in the silvery early morning mist.
We parted ways with the Lituanian-Iranian couple who were heading to Gili Trawangan and waited on the beach whilst our boat was loaded with white burlap bags full of rice, chilies, green beans, cucumbers, morning glory, tomatoes and onions. We wholeheartedly approved of the food being shipped to Gili Air. The passengers sat, rather cramped, on the edges of the narrow boat where there was still some free space for legs and feet.
The only means of transportation on the Gili islands is either by foot, which is not ideal when you have a heavy backpack on your shoulders, or by a horse-drawn cart. Luckily Astrid decided to spare me a hideously long walk in the glaring sun so we opted for the latter.
After a hard day of lying on the white beach we found a friendly warung run by a group of relaxed boys who like to sit and chat with their guests and belt out Rod Stewart’s “I don’t want to talk about it” whilst strumming on a guitar. As we lay back on our cushions on the bamboo platform facing the sea, our bellies full of grilled red snapper and the wind blowing through our hair, these incorrigibly carefree Indonesians singing away had us hooked on the Gili islands immediately.
Thinking the night was over we headed back to our hotel only to be invited by the staff to sit down with them in the reception whilst they also played guitar and sang a range of classics from Rod Stewart to Bob Marley over a bottle of wine and several bottles of beer. It didn’t take long for us to decide to prolong our stay on Gili Air!