You knew I was coming back, right? You must have. You must have known I needed to see you and that my soul needed to climb a volcano, see orangutans in the wild, get food poisoning in front of 50 people, think my boyfriend was proposing (read on for that one), see a few sunrises and sunsets, and snorkel the most amazing waters – you knew, you crazy, beautiful, chaotic, fascinating nation, you knew didn’t you?
So how does a girl get a two week vacation in Indonesia in late August and early September 2016? The simple answer is quit the job where you’ve been miserable for months (thanks rounds of layoffs) and convince your new boss that starting a job in financial journalism in August when everyone is on vacation is not a great idea. Then you get Victor to talk you into going to Indonesia (a country you’ve talked about incessantly for the past four years) instead of a new country. So in less than two weeks I planned a two week Indonesia trip that would take us to Java, Sumatra, Lombok, and the Gili Islands. Planning this meant I got to choose places I never made it to while I lived in Indonesia and also avoid the heavily touristed places (while still great, I’d much rather do off season).
After running through the Dubai airport (the most intense workout of my life) we caught our connecting flight and made it to Singapore. After traveling for 24 hours you deserve a cocktail or two and sometimes you get lucky and a truly fantastic place, Hopscotch, is right near your hotel (oh my god the Jewel of Maxwell cocktail with gin, lychee, yuzu, rose cordial, grapefruit, and fresh citrus I’m still thinking of you – don’t worry full restaurant, hotel, adventure list at the end of this post). We spent 24 hours running around Singapore exploring, eating, and catching up with friends.
Of course I would sit down next to Mr. Retra (whose business card says business manager) on the flight from Singapore to Jakarta. Within a few minutes we were chatting and he said I should call him if Victor and I needed a ride or just wanted to hang out while we were in Jakarta (Indonesian hospitality and kindness is always heartwarming). I was surprised how quickly my basic Indonesian came back to me. It’s true about things hiding in the back of your mind somewhere.
It had been four years since I set foot in Jakarta. My friend Niar was there to greet us in the morning and spend all day with us exploring Kota Tua, having lunch in Grand Indonesia, going to the spa, and eating a big Indonesian dinner. I still recognized Jakarta despite the continuing building boom. Traffic has gotten worse, but the city is actually looking a bit cleaner. A lot of that, in Niar’s opinion, is thanks to the governor Ahok. In late August sitting in a cab in Jakarta traffic talking politics with Niar neither of us could predict that in less than a year Donald Trump would be elected president in the U.S. and that Ahok would be charged with blasphemy and face two years in jail. It’s a crazy, unpredictable world these days and Indonesia’s echoes of 1998-1999 are really scary to me especially when it comes to mentions of Chinese Indonesians.
From Jakarta we flew to Medan on the island of Sumatra. This was one for the bucket list: I wanted to see orangutans in the wild. From Medan, over bumpy roads for four hours we made it to Bukit Lawang. Bukit Lawang is a small town on a river, it mainly caters to people heading into Gunung Leuser National Park, a spot where the orangutans are used to seeing people and come pretty close. But in my infinite wisdom I thought let’s do an overnight jungle trek and go in the opposite direction from the park to see orangutans in the wild that aren’t used to people. People are nearby though, palm oil plantations dominate the landscape and our guides said they worried about how much more land the plantations would take up.
I melted as soon as we started jungle trekking. The heat hits your whole body and the jungle looks misty from the heat at times. We spent the whole day trekking and hadn’t seen any red-haired friends yet. As we approached our camp ground for the night our guide suddenly stopped. Over 100 feet up in the canopy a mother and baby orangutan were looking at us. It was magic, pure magic. They nested right above our tent and in the morning I heard loud booms dropping from above, turns out everyone has to go to the bathroom in the morning.
We headed to Gunung Leuser National Park as well and got some really close up looks at orangutans and other monkeys. Then we rafted down the river back to our hotel and hung out on our hammock.
As if jungle trekking wasn’t enough, I had another bucket list item: climbing Mount Rinjani on the island of Lombok. My friends Chloe and Erwin had warned me – this isn’t an easy volcano to climb. As Indonesia’s second tallest volcano (and an active one at that) I was a bit nervous. I knew something wasn’t right early in the morning while we were getting our things together to head to the trailhead with our guide. That old familiar feeling was there. As we started what would be a three-day trek from the village of Sembalun, I felt off. We were trekking to position one and I kept stopping to drink water. Victor was giving me looks that said “you’re in better shape than this, what’s up.” When we made it to position one I immediately sat down and then in front over probably another 50 or so hikers I started vomiting, ah yes, Indonesian food poisoning had struck again. Our guide Hari was confused, asking if I was pregnant and then if I had simply eaten too much delicious Indonesian food – the concept of food poisoning wasn’t translating. Thankfully a lovely woman from Singapore rushed to my side with wet wipes and charcoal tablets. I cleaned myself up, and we kept climbing. We made it all the way to crater rim to camp for the night. We were supposed to wake at 2 a.m. to start the trek to the summit, but around midnight Bali belly hit Victor and instead we woke at around 6 a.m. and started the trek down into the crater.
Rinjani is one of the most beautiful spots in Indonesia. But sadly, like a lot of other places, trash is everywhere. Littering continues to be a problem in Indonesia. It took the U.S. a long time to get to the point of recycling and proper trash disposal, so I’m hopeful Indonesia will get there too. The climb up and the climb down were equally challenging. The porters carry gear and cooking equipment and do it all either with only flip-flops or bare feet. While we were climbing one porter broke his ankle and had to be carried down by his pals.
After all this trekking, I’m glad I plotted beach time into our trip. From Lombok we took a speedboat to the Gili islands. I had visited Gili Trawangan when I lived in Indonesia and in my memory it was a magical place. Well in four years time it has been massively built up with hotels and there were more tourists there than I could have dreamed of. Our hotel was located a bit further away from the main drag and we enjoyed it and the amazing snorkeling, but memory was giving me a hard time and I wanted what had been, not what was.
Thankfully, I had booked a few days at the Tugu resort on Lombok. This was the hotel and location of my dreams. I think about it often now and plan on returning some day. The location, service, and beauty of place was off the charts. We spent two long days in as close of a state of bliss as I think I’ve ever achieved.
I’ve never felt uncomfortable traveling in Indonesia alone as a woman, but with Victor on this trip and religion popping up in a lot of conversations, for simplicity’s sake I thought it would be easiest to just tell everyone we were married and not go into the details of two unmarried people traveling together. On our last night on Lombok at the Tugu hotel we had a lovely dinner and headed back to our room. As we got close I saw a path of candles and rose petals lining the way. Was this a serious moment in our relationship? I looked at Victor and I saw he was just as confused as I was. Then out popped Jaylani, the lovely man who had done our turn down service the last two nights. “Hello,” Jaylani happily said. “I know this trip is special, honeymoon for you.” I looked at Victor and gave him the, “just go with it” look. It turns out Jaylani is a master craftsman of towel animals. Our entire room had been transformed into a towel animal paradise. Jaylani proceeded to explain all of them to us and photograph us with all of his creations. Oh Indonesia, I love you, this was just so Indonesian.
The old saying is true, all good things must come to an end. Indonesia, you were magic, pure magic. I really needed at that moment in my life after a year where I wasn’t very happy. I’m thinking about you a lot right now and how you’re a very young democracy and how I’ll be back again soon.
Hotel: Hotel Hermitage
The Westin Jakarta
Eating and Drinking: For traditional Indonesian fare in a nice setting, Kila Kila. For a classic spot on Kota Tua, Cafe Batavia. For drinks and a good time, Jaya Pub.
Sumatra, Bukit Lawang:
Hotel: Green Hill
Exploring: We booked the overnight Discovery Trek through Green Hill, includes an overnight in the jungle.
Hotel: Sunset Palms Resort
Exploring: Snorkeling – walk into town and go to a stand. You can get a day trip for around (125,000-150,000 rupiah per person).
Eating: The night market or Scallywag’s
Hotel: Tugu Lombok, seriously, if you can stay here it’s a dream come true.
Exploring: We did our three day Rinjani trek with Rudy Trekker.