Racing to Bali, Slowly

It is Earth Day and it is exactly ten months since we set off on our adventure. A lot has happened and most of our experiences have been rich and harmonious. We have met so many kind people, we have visited so many wonderful places, we have been very fortunate and very happy. There is however one regret:  we have not managed to capture and share with our distant friends and supporters the true essence of it all. I have kept a journal, we have taken photographs and Yoel has filmed a fair amount of video ‘footage’, but we have both been disappointed at the massive gap between our records and what we see, hear and feel. The word is not the thing, the image does not pay justice to the reality and the time spent trying to capture it often distracts from being present and living it. Having said all this, we have promised that we would recount our trip and we are still committed to doing the best we can.  

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As the end of the academic year at Green School approaches, we are contemplating travelling back to Britain the same way we came. One thing is clear though, we are going to change the way we share our story. We have both suffered from perfectionism, frightened to make mistakes, fearful to produce mediocre material and, as a result, presented very little. The more we got delayed, the more difficult it became. This is changing and before we move to a new format and a different pace, here is the last instalment of our journey from Britain to Bali by train and boat.

Slow travel sometimes mean that you have to rush a little. Having been delayed by five days because of Ramadan (so we could process our Indonesian ‘social/cultural’ visas), and three extra days in Singapore to wait for the weekly boat to Jakarta, meant that we now had to travel non-stop if Yoel were not to miss his first day at school. It was going to be tight but thanks to our friend Francis who put us up in Jakarta and bought our train tickets, we managed to cross the whole length of Java and reached south Bali just in time.

As mentioned in the previous post, our thirty-hour boat crossing on the KM KELUD was not one of the most comfortable journeys. Due to the potent smell in third class, we ended up spending most of our time on the decks, and thankfully the sea was calm. Apart from a couple of backpackers from France and Poland, we were the only non-Indonesians among the two thousand passengers on board. The couple were also on an overland adventure, but were on the road since January 2013. They had hitch-hiked from Poland to Pakistan through Iran and because of border restrictions had flown to Myanmar and had continued their super slow travels through Southeast Asia on an even tighter budget than ours.

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We were most probably the only vegetarians on board and not being able to speak any Indonesian did not help. Having third-class tickets meant that we were not allowed in the restaurant/cafeteria and were sent to the canteen were we could redeem our food coupons. The canteen resembled a soup kitchen in a refugee camp – a hole in wall in the centre of a vast dormitory.  Three times a day there would be a long line of people waiting for their Styrofoam rice and fish rations. The first night, after a little fuss, we managed to get a special rice and vegetable meal, but were not given any other concessions for the rest of the journey. We gave our meals to the French-Polish couple who were happy to get seconds.

It drizzled for some of the night, but we managed to remain dry. The next day, Yoel and I got separated for two hours. I had left him reading his book on the upper deck to go hunting for the cleanest toilet I could find, when I found my self stuck on the third level down, unable to go back up.  Everyone were locking in their floor levels during tickets check; even the fire exits were locked. Our phones did not have signal, and I could not see any staff in sight – there were no ways for us to get in touch. Luckily, I had given Yoel his ticket before leaving him and most amazing of all is that he remained very zen about the whole episode.  One of the highlights of the journey was the equatorial sunset and the call to prayer chant that resonated through the metal speakers.

Equatorial sunset

With a two and a half hour delay, we arrived in Jakarta. The boat took a long time to dock and we were again locked in our levels for what felt like another hour. The third class came out last, but this time Yoel and I were together. The crowd quickly dispersed and we met up with Francis, who had patiently waited for us at the lugubrious harbour of Tanjung Priok. We were so glad to be greeted by him. He took us to his spacious and creatively decorated house and treated us to a lovely meal. Francis and I went to the same school in England, Brockwood Park, and had not seen each other for more than twenty years. We talked until quite late and finally retired in what seemed to be the most comfortable beds of our entire journey.

The next morning, when we got up Yoel was very pale, but I thought he was just tired from the boat journey. We had breakfast in the company of Francis’ Japanese fiancé, got some provisions for our last train journey and met up with another friend from our time at Brockwood for a delicious Indian meal. It was so nice to see Suryanto after twenty-eight years. Suryanto was my first roommate at Brockwood and it felt a bit surreal to meet him after all this time with his young family.

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Unfortunately, Yoel did not really join in the conversations as he was sick and decided not to eat. In fact he slept through the lunch in a somewhat noisy restaurant. It was the first and last time that Yoel got ill during our fifty-two days journey – he blames it on traveling third class on the ship! Choosing to travel third class had not simply been to save money, but for us to understand what the majority world experiences on a daily basis in mass public transport. In contrast and contrary to what I had expected, the Indonesian rail service was very clean and well organised. Given that Java is the most populated island in the world and having experienced trains in India, it was quite a surprise to witness a cleaner and more efficient service than the one in Britain. As soon as we got on the train, Yoel was already much better; he did not eat anything and slept a little once the TV screens were switched off. The train was air-conditioned and it was the last time we had to wear our fleeces and use blankets.

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We arrived in Surabaya in the middle of night and waited in a comfortable waiting room for our next train. At around eight o’clock in the morning, we were amused by a live band in the inner gardens of the station. The standard of the band was very good and they were playing an amazing repertoire of pop music ranging from the Beatles to Steely Dan, with few Indonesians and contemporary songs in the mix.

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Thankfully, our next train did not have TV screens and we were able to enjoy the landscape unfolding in front of our eyes: the more east we went the more rural it became.

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IMG_6731We arrived in Banyuwangi at around four in the afternoon. Stepping out of the train felt somewhat symbolic: our journey was coming to an end and we were just a ferry crossing away from Bali. The western tip of Bali is only two and half kilometres from Java and it felt like we could swimming across the calm stretch of sea!

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We were so close yet so far, the many ferries were competing for the two docking places and it was fascinating to see them dance as if they were bees coming back to the hive. While we were waiting for our turn, I asked Yoel to pose with the shore of Bali in the background – he was not amused.

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On arrival in Gillimanuk, the cameras were put away and we had to think on our feet. The day was coming to a close, school was starting the next morning and we had no clue how we would reach South Bali. There were no bus terminals, no taxis, just a pack load of commuters either on their motor-scouters or in their Toyotas or Suzukis vehicles and lots of truck drivers. It was clear that not too many foreign visitors came to Bali this way. The place was not exactly beautiful, the hills in the distance were green but in front we could not avoid noticing the usual roadside development, the litter, and the traffic. Not exactly an anti climax – but not the Bali of our dreams.

After asking few people in the streets and vendors – uttering “Dempasar”, someone finally pointed to a fully packed minibus that was just about to go. The driver got out put our luggage on the roof and asked some of the passengers to squeeze at the back so we could be have the tiny bench that was facing the door. The old minibus, which we later learnt is locally called a Bemo,  had the ‘signature’ broken side door that remains opened at all times. Prior to leaving on the very last leg of the journey, I took a blurry snapshot of Yoel smiling at the situation. For the next four hours we clung to our lives, watching the roadside continuum and the tarmac rushing under our feet. 

Four hours on a Bemo

We reached our final destination at 10:30 at night after being picked up in Dempasar by Madé, the driver of our German friends who were hosting us. Yoel would have to get up at 6:30 the next morning to start his Green School learning adventure.

Mission accomplished in 52 days – door to door.

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