It was that time of the year and this time around we decided to go back and discover more on SE Asia. It has been nearly four years since we moved to Singapore and we have not traveled to many places in SE Asia yet. Our week long vacation took us back to Indonesia, to the least populated East Java.
We flew down to the Capital city, Surabaya from where our road trip began. We were met by our friendly guide Irsam Soetarto (I was later to learn that Javanese names for men almost always ended with an /o/ sound) and the driver Herri ( never found out his second name). Herri was a rule breaker to the popular belief that East Javanese men are outspoken and loud. I barely heard the man say anything louder than a whisper in the whole week we were on road.
Day 1 – Surabaya
Our adventure began even before we stepped outside the airport. The airport toilets were our first reality check. Singapore spoils you with squeaky clean toilets in malls, airport and other public places and it becomes difficult to accept lesser standard of cleanliness. We were not checking into a hotel until later in the evening and so we had to make sure that we had empty bladders at the start of our journey on road. When it was our turn at the immigration counter, we found out that we had filled three forms short and so we were sent back to fill the individual forms instead of “one form for the whole family” as we were advised in the aircraft. We were practically the last ones to leave the airport. The sight of the Toyota Hiace Commuter with a beaming guide next to it as we stepped out, raised our spirits.
Surabaya is the capital of East Java and is the second largest city town in Indonesia. Surabaya got its name from the Sura (White shark) and the Baya (Crocodile). Legend has it that there were territorial fights between the river and the sea predators. There is a huge sculpture of a white shark and crocodile in the harbour town.
Sam made a special mention of the mayor who is a woman. I came across this article after I returned from my trip to understand why she was highly respected and powerful. I salute you, Ibu Rismah.
Our first stop was at the House of Sampoerna. Sam told us it was a cigarette museum and we could smell nicotine and clove even before we stepped in. That is when I learnt of the hand rolled cigarettes called Kretek. Sampoerna is the cigarette manufacturing company that makes Indonesia’s most prestigious cigarette‚ Dji Sam Soe. This year the company is celebrating their 100th anniversary.
The scene that will forever remain in my mind is from the factory where they were rolling cigarettes. It was a scene right out of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times-
The workers were all women and worked like precision timed machines. They were seated in rows and in teams. Each worker had a different coloured cap. For every three red capped workers who rolled the cigarettes, there was one black cap worker who cut the corners of the kretek ( you would miss how she turned the cigarette with one swift move of the little finger, if you blinked) and a yellow capped worker, who packed the finished cigarettes into packs. Sam said that each team manages to pack 200 individual packs per day which means about 20000 cigarettes per team. They get paid per piece rolled. They works 6.5 days a week and on an average earn about 250 USD a month.
Even though I condemn smoking, I couldn’t resist picking a pack of kretek for keep sake.
Sam kept us engaged in small talk as we drove from the museum towards the magnificent Suramadu bridge in the rains. We passed by the commonest public transport the becaks or the trishaws. Java was under the Colonial Dutch rule before its independence and so many of the buildings still had the old charm of Dutch architecture.
The Suramadu bridge connects Surabaya to Madura Island across the Madura Strait. It is a bridge supported by cables and is about 5.5kms long. The rains added to the mystery of it all. Sam told us that when the wind speeds were high, they don’t let motorcycles and other two wheelers across the bridge.
One of the observations that Sam made about Java, was that no one in the whole region ate only vegetarian food. That was not one of our concerns. Having lived with an Indonesian help for the last two years, we had a fair idea of the veggie fare we would find in that country. The food choices during our entire trip were either a soto (soup) or a sate (grilled or roasted) with lavish servings of peanut sauce and sambal. According to Sam, Sambal is like the appetizer for all meals. As long as there is hot, spicy sambal, anything goes. Padang food, known for its coconut milk and spicy chilli, was everywhere.
We passed by little towns on our way to our first night’s halt at Mt. Bromo. Sam highlighted what these towns were known for; one for its milk corporation, another for its green apples and another for its dam across the river. More than the destinations, our vacation was the road trip. Watching the beautiful green country side of East Java go by with its rich rice, sugarcane and corn fields was a treat.
The drive towards Mt. Bromo was long winding and torturous because of the weather. Plus we had had a long day, an early start at Singapore and a holiday that doesn’t end in a hotel check in soon after you land always leaves you wondering! Soon after we began the trudging climb to Mt.Bromo, the weather became chilly and the scenic beauty outside, the green topography, began to calm us. The rain seemed to have slowed or even taken a brief reprieve. There were horn flowers everywhere like bells during Christmas time and they seemed to add a natural decor to the road side trees.
We reached the Java Banana hotel and were greeted with a pretty sight of a beautiful rainbow. It was worth the long drive and it was full of promise of a beautiful beginning of our holiday. Sam said that this may be his 500th visit to Mt. Bromo but his first ever rainbow.
Thus began our journey – Java over land.