It’s a man thing.

Maybe I expect a lot from people who work in the hospitality industry. I once worked in it too and a lot was expected of me. So you can understand why I think what happened to me is worth blogging about.

It all began with my need for a sanitary pad. Now before you blame me for lacking clairvoyance in matters related to this, I was sure we had brought a big bag of them when we left home. We were traveling in Australia and I was due for the inevitable cycle to begin that week. We were stepping out to sight see the whole day and just to be safe than sorry, I dug into our over spilling suitcase for the ‘accessory’ I needed and to my dismay didn’t find the pack.

We were right in the middle of civilization and there was no need to panic except that it was seven in the morning and none of the stores would open for another 2 hours. We had checked into a hotel of repute and surely the house keeping department was prepared for such exigencies. So I called the Front Office and a male voice answered.  I asked for the required assistance and he politely said he will have to call me back after he had made some inquiries.

Ten minutes later, he apologetically called to explain that the hotel couldn’t help me and that I may have to procure what I needed from a store outside. Up until then what I suspected may happen, seemed incredibly likely to! I tried to stay calm. I decided to cross the bridge when I came to it. To cut a long story short, the inevitable did not happen. I also managed to pick the needed accessory at a store before the day was done.

We were checking out the next morning and I happened to use the rest room at the hotel lobby before we left for the airport. To my chagrin and utter disbelief, I spotted a sanitary pad dispenser in the confines of the washroom. I reprimanded the world traveler in me. Why hadn’t it occurred to me to check here instead of asking the FOA? Then the humiliation turned to anger. Why was the employee not informed about this option? When I brought it up with my husband, he stood up for the FOA. According to him, the FOA was a male and he wouldn’t have known!

The dispenser

The dispenser that I spotted in the rest room seemed to wink at me.

 

I was ready to make a protest. I wanted to educate the entire Front Office staff at Novotel Sydney about the situation knowing that such requests may come up frequently. The male FOA who ‘helped’ with my request was nowhere in the scene that morning.  Two women FOAs were busy checking in cheerful travelers and also our airport pick up was waiting at the curb.

I decided then to write them a feedback once I was back home and once I was done blogging about it. Have you had a similar experience during your travel?

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Jogjakarta- Borobudur

Prambanan - The 9th Century Hindu temple dedicated to the Trimurti At Jogjakarta

Prambanan – The 9th Century Hindu temple dedicated to the Trimurti At Jogjakarta

Many of the cities in Java have been named after the great cities in the epic stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Madura island is named after Mathura, the birth place of Lord Krishna. Mt. Bromo is derived from the Javanese pronunciation of Lord Brahma himself. Yogyakarta (or Jogjagarta) is named after Ayodhya, the birth place of Lord Ram, another Hindu influence.

So far it had been an amazing week of learning – about another culture, about the people from that culture. Sam was in the mood to discuss politics in Indonesia since the presidential elections were due to happen in mid 2014. It was interesting to find out that it was an unwritten law of the country that any man contesting the post of President had to be from the dominant Javanese tribe. Sam was all praise for Jokowi, who is seen as a potential candidate in the election for President.

Beautiful sculptures from the 9th Century restored at Borobudur.

Beautiful sculptures from the 9th Century restored at Borobudur.

We passed the little district of Muntilan and Sam pointed out that most people from this district make statues from volcanic rocks for a living. The statues are made for the overseas markets since the Islamic homes are not allowed to keep statues or sculptures of any living creature in their homes.  According to the teachings of their prophet, the act of creation is the prerogative of God and not humans.

The last day of our travel took us to visit the ‘big ruins of an old Buddhist temple’ as Sir Raffles had been told in 1814. On our way, as it was usual practice by now, Sam filled us in on the many interesting facts about Borobudur.

Borobudur

Borobudur

Borobudur, a monument from the 9th century, has been renovated several times to the tune of 30 million USD. The last renovation went on for over ten years, when several volcanic rocks were removed and reset like a giant jigsaw puzzle after they had disarranged themselves in the repeated earthquakes and cyclic weather changes. According to Sam, there are many speculations as to why the Mahayana Buddhists decided to construct such a fabulous temple at that particular spot. One of which he said could be because Central Java is also where the provinces of Demak and Kudus existed  and they were considered to be almost as holy as Mecca by the Islamic population.

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One of the several statues of Buddha in Borobudur

The Borobudur temple lies in an axis line that connects it to two other Buddhist temples believed to be constructed in the same century- The Mendut and Pawon– which are a few kilometers away from each other.  Even though no known reason has been established, Sam supposed it was because in the ancient times people had to walk great distances, over long periods of time to reach Borobudur.  The temple lies between two rivers, Elo and Progo. Typically people had to walk across one river rest for a bit before crossing the second river, to reach Borobudur.  Even today, Buddhists in Indonesia, observe the annual ritual on Vesak day,  by walking from Mendut passing past Pawon and end at Borobudur.

We reached the temple premises when the weather threatened to become bad. From a  bright sunny morning, somewhere along the way,  it had turned dark and cloudy. Thankfully there were locals who had umbrellas for hire, and we had the good sense to take one each before our climb. Trishno, the local guide who took us around Borobudur, was a veteran, who by virtue of repeating the story to the many tourists before us, could say the story of the sculptures backwards, if you woke him up in the middle of the night.

Parents of Lord Buddha, Mahamaya and Sudhodhana

Parents of Lord Buddha, Mahamaya and Sudhodhana

It is believed that a Buddhist of Indian origin, Gunadharma is the chief architect of the temple of Borobudur. He is believed to have visualized the teachings of Vedas and incorporated these into the design of the temple. The temple design, which is in various levels, is believed to correspond to the phases of life a bodhisattva lives to reach nirvana.  We learnt of the incredible Avalokitesvara,  the bodhisattva who refused Nirvana only to stay back in the world to share his wisdom and ensure others reached the state of Nirvana.  The Dalai Lama is believed to be one such, in Tibetan Buddhism.

By the time we were done, the rains had begun to pour. It was Jummat (Friday), a sacred day for the Islamic community and we had little hope to reach our next destination before closing time.  We did reach the palace of the current monarch of Jogjakarta, Hemangku Buwono X, who also happens to be the provincial governor of Jogjakarta, just short of closing time.

The pandapoh, where the guests of the King were received.

The pandapoh, where the guests of the King were received.

The rain continued to pour and yet, we managed to take in a few details of the vast palace grounds,  the pandapoh (the pandals) and some exhibits of royal batik and the occasions that they were worn, the gamelan ( musical instruments) and the gifts received by the royal family over the years from other countries.

Someone has got to redo the captions

Someone has got to redo the captions

Akank and I found entertainment in the English captions given for the exhibits. The others were seriously contemplating the wonders of the centuries gone by.

Our next stop was at the beautiful garden restaurant of the Prince of Jogja, nDalem ngabean,  for lunch. The buffet was largely meat and shrimp based but they gladly accommodated our veggie requests and rustled up some yum fare. We listened to the gamelan music of gongs and xylophones accompanied by singing of which we didn’t understand any. 

Post lunch, we headed to Taman Sari, the water castle of the Kings of Jogja.

Taman Sari - The Water castle of the Jogja Sultans.

Taman Sari – The Water castle of the Jogja Sultans.

It was possible to imagine green lush gardens minus the housing that has sprouted around the complex. Our last stop of the day, sans rains, was at the batik factory. Even though we have been to one in Malaysia, to watch the workers at it, is always amazing. It reminds me to appreciate why I pay so much for batik material. We ended up picking something for everyone from the store there.

That was the end of our week long sojourn of East Java.  We flew back to Singapore the next morning, bringing with us plenty of memories and photos to share. I hope you have enjoyed my posts on our vacation at Java as much as I have enjoyed sharing them with you.

Sights at Solo

The sights from the local market

The sights from the local market- The effect “mongo” had on the man is evident.

The entire vacation was aimed at soaking up on the local cuisine, culture, people and sights. We had taken in the sights, indulged in the cuisine and when Sam suggested we walk through a traditional Javanese market that morning to interact with the locals, we were ready.  As expected the market was crowded and noisy. It seemed like every other shop in the market was selling  bamboo ware, fried food or tempeh . Sam had warned us earlier that if we were avoiding fried food, then we were probably in the wrong country. Clever Sam helped with vocabulary that could light up the faces of the locals when used. Mongo. That single word had the power to instantaneously light up many faces of the traders and shop keepers who tried selling the local fare to us. Use Mongo and they did not mind being photographed, refused, smiled at or ignored. Mongo meant Hello, Goodbye, Thank you, No thanks, Sorry, Please and anything else you wanted it to mean. With just that one word, it is possible to break ice and build rapport with the entire local community. It brought to my mind another word that I heard being over used when I was travelling in Italy- Prego, similar to Mongo, means several things- What can I do for you, Thank you, Of course,  Welcome, Pardon and such.

We tried some fritters made from Jack fruit and Tapioca. We watched some of the women shop keepers cut kilos of red chilly padi that they obviously sold for making the sambal to the locals.

The typical ambience of a Chinese temple.

The typical ambience of a Chinese temple.

Our next stop was right next doors- a local Chinese temple. Since moving to Singapore, we have been to a few of these temples and they all look identical. A few idols of Chinese Gods, incense sticks, red candles, red lanterns and walls with inscriptions and paintings from another era and we had taken the details all in.

Our third stop of the day was at a local Batik market. Even though Sam wasn’t too enthused about walking us through the market (as we later found out why), we insisted that we walk through the market. Batik is practiced like art in the whole country, Solo has an annual batik carnival and Batik is an integral part of Javanese culture.

The claustrophobic batik market

The claustrophobic batik market

Those were reasons enough for us to want to walk through the market. As it turned out it was a claustrophobic 30 minute maze of batik retailers in narrow lanes. One of us would have lost consciousness had we stayed on even for another minute. We were relieved when the tour was done.

The only thing I recall from that half hour is a few locals that called out ‘Shah Rukh Khan , Amitabh Bachchan and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ when we passed by- to let us know they recognized us from India. And to think that these names were known in the narrow batik lanes of Solo!

Who knew these guys are famous in Java!

Who knew these guys are famous in Java!

Our next stop was the palace of the Paku Buwono- 13, whose ancestors were the rulers of Surakarta.  History has it that, the ancestors of the current Paku Buwono were powerful Islamic kings who were close to the Dutch rulers. The 13th Paku Bowono is in residence and traditionally respected as a royal, even though he is a regular man who runs a batik business locally. The palace was badly kept and was being set up for some commercial batik exhibition in January.

We were quite disappointed with the state of the palace but Sam made sure our disenchantment did not last too long.

The family at the Mankunegera palace

The family at the Mangkunegera palace

Our next stop at Solo was at the palace of King Mangkunegara. The current King of Solo, Mangkunegara-IX has only ceremonial powers and lives in the palace with his family. He is also a business man and deals in Batik and Teakwood. He seemed to own a flourishing business, from the way the palace was maintained.  We looked at the artefacts that were on display and our guide, Mariyati (March born and thus the name she said) was very well informed and chatty. She toured the palace grounds with us and filled us in about a lot of details of the Mangkunegara dynasty. What I found a little disappointing was that at the end of the palace tour,  Mariyati tried selling us some herbs and concoctions that were brewed using the recipes of the Queen Tustiputri, the wife of Mangkunegara VIII. Commercial activity using the name of a royal dead soul sounded unfair and full of hocus-pocus.

We were exhausted by the time we stopped for lunch at a Javanese speciality restaurant. The food we ordered again was tweaked to accommodate our only vegetarian options. It was funny how they brought a portion of vegetarian Mee for Akanksha with an order of chicken sate and shrimp fritters on the house! What I will also remember for a long time was the Keronchong music– a Javanese style music ensemble influenced by the Portuguese that Sam seemed to be absolutely comfortable singing along to.

One of the shops in the antique market

One of the shops in the antique market

It was nearing late afternoon and both Akank and mother in law were out of steam and wanted no more sights to see. Ramesh and I walked to the Triwindu antique market which was basically a flea market that had everything from antique idols in different materials, to paintings, to jewellery, door knobs, house decor, lamps, Chinese porcelain from Ching Dynasty, Topeng masks, wooden puppets and more. After a quick tour of the place, we began our two hour drive towards Jogjakarta.

We drove nonstop and reached Jogjakarta a little before 6pm and checked into The Phoenix hotel. Akank had the time of her vacation at Jogja. She used the pool, got to play the grand piano at the restaurant where we had dinner and got to eat pizza. She was a happy teenager.

Onwards to Surakarta

The Tugu Monument

The Tugu Monument

The family had a long restful night. The evening had ended well, with foot reflexology massages for all and we cheerfully looked forward to the rest of our trip. Sam was in high spirits too. The local football team from Malang,  Arema had won against Thailand and he was in a celebratory mood.  It was a bright sunny day and we rejoiced in the sun as we stepped out to visit the Tugu monument right across the hotel. I don’t recall seeing so many pink lotuses in full bloom ever before. It was a beautiful sight.

We were driving onwards to Solo today and no sooner than we began our road trip, the weather turned cloudy, and wet with rains. In retrospect, we probably chose the wrong time to be in East Java – It was peak monsoon season. Nevertheless, monsoons made the whole landscape green and fresh and the fog and cloud added to the mystery and beauty of it all. And then there was ginger tea.

Ginger tea at one of the warungs

Ginger tea at one of the warungs

All through our drive we crossed road side warungs, small shops that sold, hot tea, cold bottled drinks, candy, cigarettes, snacks that sometimes doubled up as wartel or warnet depending on whether they offered a telephone or internet facility. We stopped for a photo shoot and some tea on our way at the town that was known for its green apple orchards. I have never seen an apple tree all my life and I was hoping to catch a glimpse of green apples on trees but the weather spoilt our chances. Our scheduled visit of a walk through an apple farm was literally washed out.

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The green corn and rice fields that passed by as we drove

We were going to be on road for over 8 hours and we had to make the best of it.  We enjoyed the country side that looked green with corn, sugarcane and rice fields for long stretches of land. It seemed to me that that the farmers in East Java were a happy lot.  The highlight of our drive was our lunch at a town called Nganjuk. At first it looked like no one had stopped for lunch at that hotel for the day, but when they laid out our lunch I was impressed beyond words. We had explained to the chef of this bistro how we were vegetarians and that meant no shrimp, meat broth or eggs even (It is a big challenge for them to make a dish without a meat broth, shrimp paste or eggs) This is where I discovered the magical urap-urap. Sam did warn us that if we wanted to avoid fried food, then Java was the wrong place to be. Fried food is omnipresent in Javanese cuisine.

The awesome lunch

The awesome lunch

On our way Sam engaged us in interesting tit bits about Java. At some point in our conversation, we mentioned Maxx and wondered why we hadn’t spotted any dogs at all. Sam told us about the hadith and Quran and how Muslims strictly follow what the prophet has urged them to follow. I thanked my Indonesian helper at home a million times for she is fond of Maxx and will never ignore his needs.

I seldom miss noticing the various regional accents that creep into the way we speak English and with Sam it was no different.  Many words he spoke took time and repeated listening, to understand. Those were the times I appreciated the effort it takes for people who speak English as first language to understand the way the rest of speak English, when it is not our first language.

Even though we were driving past large towns, the roads that connected these towns weren’t typically highway. It seemed to me that there were houses built on one side of the highway throughout, which meant shops, children, pedestrians, cyclists and two wheelers doing what they did best- randomly crossing of the road, riding too close to fast moving traffic. I even saw barefooted men who dashed across the road right in front of the commuter.  As we drove by many shops and sign boards it was difficult to miss how many Indian sounding names I was noticing- Rajawati, Wijaya, Kartika, JayaSakti, Dewi, Kusuma, Poornama, Surya and Sri. Even the toilets have Indian names-  Wanita for the ladies ‘room and Pria for the men! I asked Sam about the names and what he said about how boys and girls were named as infants I found interesting.

The  Javanese alphabet

The Javanese alphabet

Most Javanese names for men ended with an O sound – largely because their alphabet, the Huruf Jawa had such sounds. So a Java is Javo, Bramha is Bromo and Siva is Sivo. You get the idea.  Most Javanese have only one name without a surname. Now you know Sukarto, Sukarno and Susilo are Javanese names. Also boys are named after the most recent and big event happening around town at the time the baby was born. You will find many boys in Java that have been named after active volcanoes or something as mundane as the day of the week they were born. So it is likely that you will meet a Sinen, Suhlasa, Rabu, Khamis, Jummat, Sabtu, or Minngu which are also the names of the days of the week. Sam added that infant girls however are usually named after flowers or something as ‘genuine’ as that. I found out that Sam had two daughters and so I was curious what they were called.  He had to enunciate and repeat the names thrice for me to note it down. Their first names were beautiful and would have made Steve Jobs proud. Irlanda Padmaningrum and Iloka TiktaPamunkaas.

We checked into the Novotel Solo before the evening was late. Akank spotted a beautiful digital piano in the lobby and instantly cheered up. Post dinner, she even gathered the courage to request that she play it and the hotel let her.

The Tugu Malang

We reached in time for their house tea with local snack specialties. Of course most of the snack had shrimp paste, beef or ayam– chicken. Not too many choices for “vega”tarians. The rice pancakes and the tapioca shreds with gula kelapa (Coconut sugar) were sweet but edible. We had it with hot ginger tea.

The room, the pool and corridors at Tugu Malang

The room, the pool and corridors at Tugu Malang (Click to enlarge)

We were offered a tour of the boutique hotel. The owner of the hotel, we were told by Sam, is an collector of antiques and he built this place to showcase his collections. Tugu, in Indonesian Malay, means ‘monument’.  The Tugu Malang is located facing a monument. Extravagantly done, the hotel has rooms and corners designated to different regions from where the antiques have been acquired – Java, China, Emirates, Bali and Khmer. Huge stone, marble or wooden sculptures from these countries were all over the place, wooden door frames, paintings, tiles, crockery and other collectibles.

Some glimpses of the artifacts at the Tugu Malang

Some glimpses of the artifacts at the Tugu Malang (Click to enlarge)

What was very interesting about the tour was the Presidential suite. Just the size of the bed was worth the 1000 USD per night. It had a foyer with a private massage table, a bath with curtains around, a floor seating with lots of comfy cushions thrown in and a private terrace garden with trees.

A collage of what the Presidential suite looked like

A collage of what the Presidential suite looked like (Click to enlarge)

Mt. Bromo to Malang

Mother in law, husband and daughter posing for the camera.

Mother in law, husband and daughter posing for the camera.

We all have our reasons why we travel on a holiday. The reasons vary with age. Nothing could be more horrific than having a group of people who travel together who don’t share the same reason. We were a family of four, including my husband, daughter and mother in law. My 14 year old daughter, Akanksha’s idea of a holiday is to wake late, hit the pool, play the piano, eat good food, take pictures for instagram and listen to music on her iPod. Our reason as a couple was to discover a new city, visit the sights, enjoy the road trip that throws you in a confined space for hours at stretch when you have no other option but talk to each other. Of course good food and photos are a given. My mother in law is enthusiastic about travelling. She does not let her age or health interfere in the enthusiasm. She wants to go anywhere we take her before ‘her day is near’. And if there are dilapidated ruins of a Hindu temple in the itinerary then she definitely wants in!

Day 2 of our holiday began early. Very early.  Right there you have a reason why our daughter was not too happy. We were scheduled to be at the point of view to watch the sunrise at Mt.Bromo as early as 5 am. The drive from the hotel to the point of view was a little over an hour. We had to drive on a stretch of sandy caldera in the dark. Dark kind of described Akank’s mood as well since she had lost her protest about wanting to stay back and miss the grand event.

The beautiful sunrise at Mt.Bromo

The beautiful sunrise at Mt.Bromo

There were other 4 X 4 Toyotas and two wheelers that were on the road and everybody seemed to be heading the same way as us. The sunrise we witnessed from the point of view has to be experienced because no words can do justice to the description. The valley below glimmered. We saw the rays of the sun exactly the way a renowned artist would draw them in his masterpiece. Breathtaking. Everyone was going crazy with their cameras, iPads and iPhones. Thank fully the event was so dramatic that it cheered up Akank as well.

The scene at the foot of Mt.Bromo that morning

The scene at the foot of Mt.Bromo that morning

Our next stop was at the mouth of the crater on Mt.Bromo. This needed us to get back into the jeep and drive another 6 kms towards the foot of Mt. Bromo. The jeep took us to 3/4th distance to the foot of Mt. Bromo. From there we had to go on horseback. The horse ride was an adventure by itself. The black volcanic sandy ground that the horse had to tread on was uneven and that made it extra challenging, and not just for the horse. The local tribes who owned the horses walked the horse slowly and surely as we rode on them. My only thoughts were  to stay on the horse all the time or risk being trampled upon by the other horses that were behind us.

That is us on horse back.

That is us on horse back.

Akank and GSR seemed to mount and dismount the horses like it was second nature to them. When I mounted the horse, I held on to the halter that made the poor horse rear up and neigh! (My imagination was unbridled – In my mind I was already galloping towards the crater with one of my foot in the stirrup and the rest of me being dragged on the black sand) Nonetheless, nothing dramatic happened and we soon found ourselves at the foot of the mountain from where we had 250 concrete steps to climb to reach the mouth of the crater.

Taking a breather enroute

Taking a breather enroute

My lungs were overworked and it was a test of cardio vascular fitness that when I reached the top, I had to stop and catch my breath before I let the crater take my breath away. What a sight. Who would have imagined that I would one day stand at the mouth of an active crater looking into it and clicking pictures of it, surviving it to write about it on my blog? Blessed are the ways of Lord Srinivasa.

We got back to the hotel hungry for a decent breakfast and  shower before we left for our next leg of sightseeing for the day.

Our next stop was the old dilapidated remains of the temple of Singosari, the oldest Hindu kingdom in Java. No points for guessing whose day was made. Many damaged stone sculptures of Hindu Gods were still displayed in the complex. Sam told us that most of the damage was done by volcanic eruptions and not Hindu- Muslim enmity as you would like to imagine. So far, from what I observed, Javanese people seemed peace loving and not fanatic about their religion or practices.

The Singosari temple and the broken sculptures of Hindu Gods

The Singosari temple and the broken sculptures of Hindu Gods

We were on road the rest of the day, driving towards Malang, our next destination. Sam kept us engaged in small talk the entire time. He was a proud Javanese man and had only good things to talk about his country and his fellow countrymen. Java according to Sam has one of the most fertile lands on Earth (I double checked the claim and Google confirmed that land near volcanoes are considered to be the most fertile soils.) Java has over 40 mountains – 15 of which are in East Java – of which half of them volcanoes and half of those volcanic mountains are active.

According to Sam the people of Java are very industrious and get involved in anything that can make them money. Make a note Monster.com; you seem to have missed out Java in your survey. We passed a lot of small shops on wheels on the roadsides and many of them had “Kunci” written on them. Sam told us that the word meant keys and all those little kiosks made spare keys. If you counted the number of Kunci’s we passed, it would seem that there were many people losing keys in Java.

It was nearly evening when we reached Malang. Malang is the second largest city after Surabaya and has a reputation of being Indonesia’s center for higher education and learning. It has over 15 Universities and most of them along the prestigious Ijen Boulevard that is also lined with old colonial Dutch houses. Sam pointed out to a few students and called them mahasiswas (students of the university).

We checked into The Hotel Tugu late in the evening and were quite intrigued to find out  why Tripadvisor that had given the hotel 4.5 stars. I have pictures of the hotel to share, so will make that a separate post.

Java over land

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.

The sculpture of Sura and Baya

The sculpture of Sura and Baya

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.

The Kretek has a heady smell of nicotine and cloves.

The Kretek has a heady smell of nicotine and cloves.

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 cable bridge- Suramadu

The cable bridge- Suramadu

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 horn flowers that looked like Christmas decor

The horn flowers that looked like Christmas decor

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.

The beautiful rainbow that we spotted that evening.

The beautiful rainbow that we spotted that evening.

Thus began our journey – Java over land.