Saturday, 8 October 2011

Days 33 to 35: Ticking Boxes

Welcome to the cattle truck.

One of the joys of travelling is the sense of freedom. It's just you and a bag: wake up and you can choose to go anywhere. The world is a big place and every road goes at least two directions. But get in the cattle truck and you're on a fixed route.

Burness and I made the mistake of joining this three-day tour for the best of reasons. We were in Yogyakarta and wanted to go to Bali, which is some distance plus a ferry ride away. En route are two sights that generally came highly recommended: the still-smoking crater of the Bromo volcano, and the sulphur lake of Ijen, reputedly the most poisonous lake in the world. It was quite possible to do all these ourselves, but it involved changes of buses, a degree of hassle, and would be likely quite time consuming. Outside our hostel was a travel agents who happened to do our exact route of choice, in just three days, for just £45 in total, including accommodation. It sounded great.

It was a mistake. (Maybe.)

Unless you want to feel like a cow stuffed in a truck being herded from place to place without semblance of free will, I beg of you not to do this trip. The sights may be beautiful, but the grim expressions on everyone's face tell a different story. It is a cheap package tour, in which we tick a bunch of boxes without any depth of experience behind them.

I've mentioned it in previous entries, but box ticking is something I want to avoid when travelling. There are a lot of great things out there and not always the time to squeeze them all in, so the temptation is great when a plate with every tasty snack is laid out for you. But a hearty meal is better than an array of wolfed-down biscuits: the former leaves you satisfied and content, the latter makes you sick.

So it has been with this trip. Bromo viewpoint sunrise - tick; Bromo crater visit - tick; Ijen sulphur lake -tick. But ask me what I remember of the experience in five years time and will not be the stunning scenery or smoking volcano, though they are undoubtedly wonderful, but it will be the crowd of foreigners herded into hotels, buses, jeeps, and up mountains, to a schedule. It will be the grim faces and the long journeys in minibuses between snacks.

The first day of the trip was a write-off, but we always knew it would be that way. The journey from Yogya to Bromo was supposed to take ten or eleven hours: it ended up taking thirteen. 8am to 9pm, most of which was spent in a minibus with fake A/C, driving through Java which seemed to be a never-ending town. Barely in the entire journey did we see countryside, the Central to East Java would appear to be a series of homes, shops and restaurants by the side of small roads clogged with motorbikes and stuffed trucks. It wasn't a fun journey but it was never meant to. Just a means to an end.

Arriving at 9pm, and it being at least 10pm before we'd eaten and had a very enjoyable beer, not much sleep was allowed due to the following morning's 3.30am start. Bromo has two attractions according to the cattle route - watching sunrise over the mountainous desert valley and climbing up to the crater of the smoking volcano. At 4am we were ready for our jeep, what we weren't ready for were the crowds.

When we watched sunrise from Mount Merapi, just a matter of days ago, there were just three of us plus the guide. At the scenic sunrise viewpoint there were... 200? It was beyond counting. There must have been twenty or thirty jeeps. The path up to the viewpoint was clogged with foreigners, most or all of whom clearly on the same kind of box-ticking package tour as ourselves. The magic of the orange sky was dimmed. Unable to stand the crowds, Burness and I took to a higher path which led further up the mountain we were on, and eventually to a superb viewpoint. We admired the spectacular scenery, the desert valley with fog slowly lifting surrounded by volcanic peaks, for perhaps fifteen minutes before having to rush back down to get our jeep.

Next stop on the tour, the smoking volcano crater. How could it fail to impress? It managed to. The crowds must have swelled to four hundred by now, plus loads of locals offering horse rides, and the climb to the mountain crater had been fitted with a stairway.

The crater was impressive, and was duly smoking, but there wasn't much space up there and the crowds were thick. Besides, we had to rush back to get our jeep.

Breakfast, and then a little time to have a lie down and rest... oh no, because our guide knocked on our door and said it was time to leave, half an hour earlier than planned. Back into the cattle truck and to a nearby travel agent in a nearby town, where we met with lots of other sad-eyed cows, and waited for an hour and half while "the buses were getting washed."

And that day was a write-off as well. Due to all the fannying around herding the crowds and washing the buses, we were late in setting off and only arrived in Ijen just before dark. No smiles from the glum cattle. But the bus driver was more cheerful. He insisted I looked like Chuck Norris, and kept trying to set me up with the obvious lesbian of the group. To my greater dismay, the obvious lesbian was wearing the exact same style of dress as me - jeans and black T-shirt - so we even looked like a weird, surly couple (although unlike her I wasn't wearing a trilby).

In fact, now came the part that threatened to deconstruct my argument against tours: I started to have fun. Although it was almost dark, we had the whole evening at leisure, our first leisure-time of the trip. And so Burness, Swiss Chris and I sat in the lovely outside area of the hotel, packed full of other packaged foreigners, drinking a couple of beers, and chatting. For dinner, a couple of French girls joined us, and the evening went by pleasantly as we exchanged various travel chat, moaned about Bromo and expressed reservations about the upcoming Ijen.

Ijen turned out to be wonderful. As in, really, really wonderful.

I had little expectations, knowing only that Kawa Ijen had a crater with a sulphur lake, and that sulphur was gathered there by tough men with low life expectancies. These men, mostly very cheerful, could be seen on the fairly steep hour-and-a-half climb to the crater, nimbly strolling up the mountain with a pole-and-two-baskets over their shoulders, or steadily making their way dow the hill with poles bending under the weight of baskets stuffed with fluorescent yellow rocks. These rocks were lumps of sulphur and were frighteningly luminescent, not to mention heavy. Very heavy - I tried lifting a pair of baskets and could barely manage it. These small wiry guys carry them down a mountain several times a day.

The sulphur came from the crater, by the side of the poisonous lake. It was unlike anything I have ever seen before in my life.

Approaching the crater, a whole load of steam was rising, and clambering down into the mouth of the crater - always passing by hardy guys laden with yellow sulphur rocks - a scene from a different planet unfolded. Weird, unworldly, wonderful, it was an oddly beautiful scene straight from a nightmare. Just by the side of the sickly green lake were yellow cliffs, and vents puffing out vast clouds of noxious fumes. The air was eggy sulphur. Guys chipped at the garish cliffs, filling their baskets, then staggering to their feet carrying the weight of them. Safety was limited to cloths tied round their faces. Surrounding us were the high edges of the crater we'd spent about fifteen minutes climbing down and a sky obscured by fumes. Filling this scene was tourists, taking their holiday snaps, but all in obvious awe at this alien world we'd entered.

The wind changed as we ascended the crater, and we got a short taste of what Ijen's sulphur workers experience daily. Noxious fumes surrounded us and burned our throats. It was chemical and painful. Covering my mouth with my jumper barely helped; a worker suggested wetting it, which helped, but even so all I wanted to do was get out. It felt like slowly choking, like dying. My eyes stung. Yet workers, with over 80kg of sulphur in baskets on a pole over their shoulders, continued their steady ascent up the steep climb to the crater top, with over an hour of mountain descent still to follow. I felt like years were being taken off my life. Most workers die at around 40. Many said hello cheerily as they passed me.

The crater lake of Ijen is not something I will forget in a hurry, and was probably - let's whisper it - worth the misery of the tour prior. Despite the many tourists in presence, the numbers were much more spread out, and lower than that of Bromo. Herded cattle we may have been, but we were also cows that had been treated to a tasty stretch of meadow - before being shoved back in the truck and driven to our next destination.

So Ijen was great, but despite the tour rather than because of it. It managed to retain its sense of adventure. Which is, I suppose, where the advantage of the tour is - it allows a highlight reel of sights to explore. Enough time was allowed at Ijen for the reel to make a worthwhile experience, which was not the case with Bromo.

Naturally, tourists will want to visit tourist attractions, and we all have free will as to how we visit them. If Ijen hadn't saved the day, for all the tour's sights it would have been a very empty experience - brief snatches and a quick photo. Bromo was beautiful - astoundingly so - and a day there at leisure would have been amazing. Even as we departed, at 9am, we could see the crowds around the crater had vanished - all back on their tourbus - and the desert and mountains left again in peace. It would have been a marvellous, and even slightly spooky, time to visit - but there wasn't time. Four hundred tourists for sunrise, none for the rest of the day looked to be story of Bromo, and it is a crying shame that the majority of visitors will leave the visit with a photo, some memories of crowds and jeeps, but little in the way of an actual experience.

This extends also to visiting Wonders, with Borobudur the nearby case in hand. Not that first impressions don't count, but a tour bus visit for a photo and quick look around might tick the box but don't qualify as a full appreciation of the place. Borobudur cannot be experienced in an hour. While I don't expect every tourist to have studied every place they visit, I definitely feel they are missing out on the place if they don't see it in their own time, instead being at the mercy of their tour group and bus driver. It's shallow box-ticking. Borobudur is wasted as a ticked box. Bromo - as I now know myself - is wasted as a ticked box. Only Ijen manages to be a ticked box, because visiting an alien world is worth the indignity of being herded.

Tours can be wonderful experiences, but like late night kebabs they can be greasy, sickly affairs unless you have a kebab shop you fully trust. Good and bad, it shouldn't be down to luck, and hindsight now tells myself and Burness that all the signs of Bromo being a ghastly trek of emptiness should have been clear from the description. But we favoured the convenience. And so I won't be making any sweeping statements about doing no more tours, but I will certainly be putting them under far greater scrutiny in future before committing. I do not intend to jump in the cattle truck again.

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