Talking politics when you don’t speak the language

A view of the presidential palace in Bogor Gardens.

Indonesia is a diverse, pluralistic nation with over a hundred different ethnic groups. It’s also got politics, so political talk is inevitable: currently, the city of Jakarta is in turmoil because the former Chinese governor Ahok was convicted of blasphemy, while the man who accused him and drove the campaign for his blasphemy trial, the Muslim cleric Anis, is taking control as governor. Any takers for a serialized TV show on this stuff?

We’ve had a few chats on Trump and the state of the states while here, mostly in English. And they people who we’re talking with range from sympathy to total surprise when it comes to our reaction regarding Trump. A friend who directs policy at a nonprofit shook her head with us at the insanity already unfolding in the states – things like the immigration travel ban and the proposed wall with Mexico. Then there was the uniformed military officer in Bogor Garden who wanted a selfie with us. He asked what we thought about Trump after the photo, and was genuinely perplexed when I put my face in my hands and replied, “Terrible. Embarrassing. Bad.” Then again, Indonesia (and much of Asia) has a history of leaders that the Western world condemned for being dictators and strongmen. Trump’s tactics are likely to appeal to them.

An Indonesian war monument and poorly-placed deer amusement park sign near Bogor gardens, where we had one of our Trump conversations.

But for our last night in Jakarta, we got the same question about Trump from locals in Glodok who DEFINITELY didn’t speak English. They were the guys who made our dinner at their nasi goreng cart. They wanted to know the usual at first, why we came to Indonesia and whether we liked it and where we were from. After using my broken Indonesian to convey we were from the U.S., the two exchanged glances and one of them asked, “Trump?”

Ohhh boy, where to start. I started with the “Bad for the U.S., bad leader,” description, but the guys didn’t understand that. After trying to explain for a few minutes, I gave up. Then the guy asked again, “Trump?” but this time he accompanied it with a thumbs up/thumbs down motion. BRILLIANT! I made a dramatic, emphatic thumbs down motion, which set the two guys off in laughter and excited talking.

The two nasi-goreng chefs who taught us to talk politics without using words.

Now it’s my turn: I ask “Ahok?” and give the same thumbs up/thumbs down motion. I’m curious to know what they think of their former governor, now convicted of blasphemy. I would guess since we’re in Glodok (an enclave of the Chinese minority), they would like him. I’m totally surprised when they give the thumbs down, and make a motion like calling to the sky: blasphemy. He blasphemed Allah. This sign language politics communication is working pretty well.

I ask one more question of our two nasi goreng chefs: “Jokowi?” This is Indonesia’s current president. He’s aligned with Ahok, and one of concerns of the Western world and among the Indonesians is that this Ahok-Anis affair bodes poorly for Jokowi in the next election. They fear that Indonesia will become increasingly pro-Muslim and anti-every other minority in Indonesia, electing people with more hardline views. But I’m surprised again by our two chefs; they both enthusiastically give a thumbs up for Jokowi! His popularity remains unscathed, at least with these two locals.

So the next time you’re in a country and can’t speak the language, you can still talk politics (or anything!) in the simplest possible terms. Just say the word and give a thumbs up/thumbs down. It’s not going to get you a detailed political analysis, but it gets you a feeling, and you might be surprised at how much you can communicate without words.

Ode to the Ojek

An okej turns around in the market street.

In much of south east Asia, the humble motorbike is the number one choice of transport. It’s a reliable, flexible, and most importantly cheap. Individuals, families, cargo, and even food stalls are loaded on the bike, zipping around traffic, through markets, and up mountain roads to wherever people need to go.

Ojek riders in Jakarta. Lots of riders wear face masks for easier breathing.

In Indonesia we got our first taste of the tide of motorbikes. The term for them there is “ojek”, though a friend we made joked that many people call them mosquitoes. During heavy traffic they can truly be a swarm, encircling slower cars and parting only for trucks and pedestrians as needed.

Ojeks swarm around a car during rush hour.

Everyone rides ojeks. In a country that is incredibly divided economically, ojeks seem to be the one unifying factor. Young and old, rich and poor, everyone uses ojeks. Of course, the more wealthy residents tend to drive cars and only use ojeks when they absolutely need to, while a vast majority of the remaining population uses them as primary transport.

A family waits at a light.

There are plenty of ojek-taxi services that work basically like Uber, but with motorbikes. Gojek is one of the most popular and visible services. It’s got a clever name and a very visible green-jacket uniform. These guys are great but a bit scary because they’re likely to check their phone while driving.

One of many Gojek drivers.

And since crossing the street is a cooperative game between ojeks and pedestrians, that’s not a great situation. You step into the river of motorbikes and cars, then while staring at the incoming traffic move through any visible gaps in the stream. Vehicles farther away will tend to move around you, so it’s only the immediately nearby ones you have to worry about.

Crossing the street involves patiently waiting in the middle of it.

Along with traffic, ojeks produce a lot of air pollution. Maybe less per vehicle than cars and trucks, but ojeks outnumber everything else on the road three to one.

As the light turns green, all the ojeks start revving.

Despite their issues, they’re highly modifiable and incredibly useful. This one has been turned into a food-ojek trike.

Cleverly using the seat for cooking!

On our hike up Bromo we saw another form of traveling food-cart, this time strapped on the back of the bike. Everything he needs to sell food for the night is tucked and tied to the stall.

On the road to Bromo. The balance involved here is amazing.

And another one on the other side of Bromo. This is a very popular method of getting the food stall around.

On the road from Cemoro Lawang. This is so much steeper than it looks.

In the countryside people use ojeks to transport produce.

Balancing harvest baskets.

In the very deep countryside. This is in the plateau of Bromo.

Carrying harvested grass on the back of an ojek.
Driving through the ashen wastes of Bromo.

I think there’s an minimum age to drive an ojek, but really people start as early as they can or need to. These kids were super excited to get their picture taken.

Three young riders on the road to Bromo.

Helmets seem to be a toss up. The majority of riders seemed to wear them, even going so far as Gojek drivers carrying an extra helmet, or passengers carrying their own. In the cities it was fairly rare to see a helmetless rider, but out in the country it was much more common. The pace there is also much more sedate and the traffic is much sparser.

Black and white photos are cool. So is that guy’s bike.

Two Drinks from Indonesia

In our travel through Java we almost accidentally got to try two of the most popular drinks in the country. Despite being widely available and delicious, I think it’s entirely possible to go visit the islands and miss these because they’re so ubiquitous they’re not advertised in any way – they just are.


The first is a a summertime treat that’s close to a milkshake and perfect during the sweltering heat of .. all the seasons in Indonesia.  It’s called soda gembira, and its key points are : pink, fizzy, and  sweet (overwhelmingly so in restaurants). We had it for the first time at a stall in the near-Prambanan food market, where Natalie decided to try something random for breakfast. I was suspicious but soon ordered one for myself. This drink is childhood-level tasty. The recipe is extremely simple. The amount of syrup and condensed milk dictate how sweet and milky it will be, while more soda water dilutes the taste. We like the soda to be cold to begin with, but it’s not required. Ingredients (for our level of sweetness):

  • 1/8 cup condensed milk
  • 1/8 cup red syrup*
  • 1 cup soda water

Pour the milk into a tall glass, then the syrup. Fill to near the top with soda, throw in an ice cube or two, mix well and enjoy. About the syrup : it’s main quality is that it should be red. In Indonesia the two most popular choices seem to be rose syrup and coco-pandan syrup. I’m pretty sure strawberry syrup (or even strawberry milk) will work just fine, as well as cherry, or really any fruity syrup. If you want to try the real thing, coco-pandan syrup is available in specialty stores and Indonesian markets in the States. You can also make it at home with this recipe.

The second drink is a warm and spicy milk and ginger concoction that remains our favorite drink of the trip. Susu jahe – that is, milk and ginger, is readily available in any of the cities we visited and seems to come in a million variations. Most common is a pre-boiled ginger concentrate and milk, but some stalls serve a crushed root of ginger in a glass of hot milk, while some boil the ginger in the milk for a bit, then serve. They all come out good with the exception of crushed ginger in hot milk – it’s ok, but not gingery enough. STMJ is a semi-available and far better version, and our favorite drink. It takes a bit more preparation and isn’t suited to fast-paced street markets. Nearly every food area will have a susu jahe cart, not so with STMJ. Indeed, we actually only found one – the night market at Blok M, at the south end of the 1 bus line. There the pace is slower and the STMJ cart serves most of the market.


The acronym stands for Susu (milk) Telur (egg) Madu (honey) and Jahe (ginger). It takes a bit more work than a standard susu-jahe but boy is it ever worth it. Even adding honey to the standard susu jahe is a step up, but the egg takes it to another level.

The ingredients for this one are right in the name :

  • ginger syrup
  • milk
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon honey (or more, this is to taste)
  • ground cardamom, cloves, cinnamon to taste.

We based the syrup on the excellent ginger milk tea recipe from this site, filled with recipes of Indonesian dishes. There are a number of ways to make this, including this recipe which shows a typical process, but we replicated the way we saw it made at the food market.

Start by heating up the ginger syrup and milk to a boil. Pour the two liquids into a glass, about half-way to two-thirds, then stir in the honey. The egg yolk comes last. Pour a bit of the hot mix into a small cup and whisk the yolk in. Keep adding from the ginger-milk until the yolk is foamy and somewhat heated. This is done to prevent the yolk from cooking rapidly and turning into flakes. Lastly, Whisk the yolk into the rest of the drink. The people that were making ours just put the whisk into the cup and spun it between their hands. They also added the amazing touch of torching the top of the drink to give it a creme brulee taste. Sprinkle your choice of spices on top and enjoy.


Crazy Taxi Surabaya: Bus Edition

A P5 bus pulls into the Purabaya Station.

You often hear that in some parts of the world, driving is way worse because road rules simply don’t exist. We can now say with confidence that we’ve experienced this in Indonesia, and although this isn’t our first road-bound brush with death (looking at you Colombia/Ecuador/Peru), this one is particularly amusing. Our example comes courtesy of Surabaya, a major city on the island of Java.

The Crazy Taxi hero of our story is the P5 bus, which we took from Purabaya Bus Station to the train station Pasar Turi as part of our return from Mount Bromo to Jakarta. After brushing past hordes of taxi drivers, we managed to find our hero sitting peacefully under the P5 sign in the intercity bus terminal.

Hanging out in the P5 bus, waiting to go. It’s got some ripped seat leather, some cracks on the dashboard…but I’m sure she runs just fine.

She may look a bit run down, but it’s just the façade. Once the driver and conductor got on board, she roared to life and we were on our way. The driver, of course, drives the bus. The conductor collects payment for the tickets (6,000 IDR as of April 2017), but then proceeds to take on a whole new role.

Uh…sir, what are you doing? We are on the highway, you can’t get off here.

Like that guy in that super-popular 90’s song, he hangs out of his best friend’s ride and hollas, but what he’s hollering about is which traffic lane is free. It turns out driving the bus in Surabaya is a two person job, mostly because the driver is doing EIGHTY kilometers an hour while everyone around us is going no faster than sixty, all in a vehicle with less handling than your childhood schoolbus. The conductor yells whether the lane is clear, and the driver uses this info to weave like a MADMAN through traffic. For example, here’s us using the emergency lane to bypass traffic:

Thought when this first happened: “This is now how I imagined I would die.”
Thought when this happened the twentieth time: “I wonder if our train back to Jakarta will have a snack bar.”

And if you want a video experience, including lane-splitting, tailgating, and traffic-weaving, here you go:

So there you have it. The driver-conductor dynamic duo enables P5 to Crazy Taxi around Surabaya. We made it 11 km in 20 minutes in a bus at the start of rush hour. I don’t even.

The Influence Game: Probolinggo Fake Bus Tickets

These are the real bus tickets for the Probolinggo->Surabaya trip, but don’t count on that to save you; the scammers may be ‘selling’ you identical ones.

All over the world there are folks trying to make a quick buck by scamming others, and travelers are particularly vulnerable because they’re often unfamiliar with the traditions and norms of an area. It’s a risk you take as a visitor to another place, and while a scam can ruin your trip, it’s also a chance to learn how people work. Below is one of the scams we encountered on our travels, broken down so that you can see the techniques the scammer uses to influence you; read on to learn the signs so you won’t fall for it:

Name: Fake Bus Tickets

Location: Probolinggo, Indonesia

Scam Summary: A man approaches you in the bus station or while you’re waiting for a bus to depart selling bus tickets. It will seem like a routine transaction for buying bus tickets, but once your bus departs the real bus ticket seller will come by collecting money for tickets. You’ve just given your money to a scammer selling fake tickets, but you’re already on your way and will never see him again!

How it works:

This scam works on the power of authority and while it’s simple, it’s also incredibly effective. If we hadn’t read anything about it, we probably would have fallen for it without knowing! AND despite plenty of warnings about it online, we still nearly fell for this one. If you’re making the trip to Probolinggo, you should read up on this and remember: only pay for bus passage when the bus is moving, and you pay the same guy that everyone else pays.

When we got off the minibus from Cemoro Lawang in Probolinggo, several men came up to us and offered to help us with our luggage and take us to the bus to Surabaya. While it’s possible some of those were genuine, this unsolicited offer of help raised some red flags with us and we politely declined. They could be helping us to the bus for some kind of tip, or they could be taking us somewhere that only sells fake bus tickets.

We carried our stuff across the street and into the train station, ignoring the additional guys here in kiosks hollering at us or motioning to us. There were no info booths of any kind, but the buses out back were all labeled with different destinations and we found the bus to Surabaya quickly. We got on the bus and settled into seats next to a few other people. A couple minutes later, an old guy boarded the bus and approached us with a stack of bus tickets in hand. He asked in English where we were going. We told him Surabaya, and he tore off two tickets and said it would be 50,000 IDR. This was more than twice the price we’d read online, and it made me hesitate just long enough to realize what was going on.

On the bus with a few other locals.

“The price says 20,000 online,” I told the old guy, “and we pay the bus driver.” The old guy thought I was negotiating with him, and he paused before saying, “OK, 20,000.” He handed out his hand for the money. “No, we pay the bus driver,” I told him again. “I am the bus driver,” he told me with annoyance. “OK, I’ll pay you when the bus starts going,” I replied.

What followed was an increasingly aggressive and hostile salvo from the old guy, starting with his insistence that he was the bus driver and that we pay him now. I kept cool and stuck to my line about only paying the bus driver when the bus starts driving. But I was getting increasingly nervous; this guy had actual printed bus tickets and was extremely persistent. Was I making a mistake? Stoytcho glanced over at me several times, and I could see he had the same question. The old guy eventually left in a huff, giving us the chance to ask a local for help. We asked two girls nearby via Google Translate whether they’d paid already for the bus and they hadn’t. Vindicated.

The scam ticket seller walks off in a huff, as a group of men at the front of our bus look on.

The old guy came back moments later with a younger guy in a polo shirt behind him for a good ol’ good cop-bad cop routine. “You pay for bus ticket,” he shouted at us. “You pay for bus ticket or you get off bus!” The younger man behind him told us more gently and calmly, “You have to pay for a bus ticket to ride the bus, so please pay for a bus ticket.” But we stuck to our guns, “We pay the bus driver once the bus starts.” This was the last straw for the old guy, who began yelling at us to get off the bus, “You take other bus then! I don’t care! NO PAY, NO GO!” The younger guy continued to plead with us, motioning to the old guy and saying “This is my driver. This IS the bus driver.”

(I WISH I had gotten a photo of these guys)

To shut them up, we got off the bus with our stuff. They both got off the bus and walked off in a huff. There was silence for a few moments and then laughter rose from a group of guys nearby. One of them broke from the group and walked over to us, motioning us to get back on. This was the real ticket collector for the bus, who we would pay minutes later when the bus actually started. While the scammers had their hustle, he wasn’t about to lose money from passengers over it. We got back on the bus and finally sat in peace.

And the scammers? The young guy was gone, nowhere to be seen. The old guy stood in front of the bus, glaring up at us for a few minutes while we settled in. When he saw me raising my camera to take his photo, he dashed off.

The REAL ticket seller on the bus, currently selling a ticket to a local. You might recognize his shirt from the previous photo; he was in the group of men hanging out by the bus.

How to avoid this scam:

  1. Don’t travel through Probolinggo. This is terrible advice for those who must, but you can book a round-trip transit to Bromo with a jeep that’s affordable ($40-60 USD) and saves you a lot of hassle.
  2. Refuse to pay with confidence. Our mistake was trusting him at first, but then realizing it was a scam and refusing to pay. From the scammer’s point of view, he had us and it made him fight all the harder when we changed our minds. So if someone approaches you while the bus isn’t moving and the locals aren’t paying them, give them a dismissive look and tell them “I am from around here. I know your tickets are fake,” and wave the person away. If they persist and you want to cause a scene, threaten to take a photo of them and the tickets. If you don’t want to cause a scene, just calmly get off the bus and wait out front. As with us, your bus driver is probably nearby and only tolerates the scammers’ actions insofar as they don’t lose him any money. He’ll make sure you get back on the bus.
  3. Generally, the easiest way to avoid it anywhere is to know what the rules for bus tickets are. You can find this out online from other travelers and from talking with multiple locals when you are on the bus. While it’s possible multiple locals are in on the scam, it’s unlikely.

Bromo to Probolinggo to Surabaya: a primer on Indonesian driving

Our driver from Cemoro Lawang to Probolinggo, standing intrepidly on his ride.

If you’re at Bromo/Cemoro Lawang and need to get back to Jakarta, the only feasible route (as of April 2017) is through Probolinggo and Surabaya.

Your first step is to catch a minivan from the center of Cemoro Lawang that will take you down the mountain for ~40,000 IDR ($3.00 USD). On paper these vans leave every hour, but realistically they leave when they’re full (about 13 people). It will help you to recruit others going down so you’ll leave sooner, or you can all agree to pay your driver more money to leave earlier.

Somehow I don’t think this thing has AC, WiFi, OR Bluetooth.
I claimed shotgun, but without seatbelts I don’t know if I can recommend that to you.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then there weren’t many good intentions to be had when they paved the road down to Probolinggo. It’s bumpy, windy, and your driver will go fast. Buckle up (if you can) and enjoy the ride. You’ll pass tons of adorable little villages, where at midday uniformed schoolchildren crowd the streets as they walk home for lunch. Whizz past them and fear for their safety with drivers like yours on the road.

Someone having a bad day with a ditch.

In Probolinggo, the van driver will drop you on the street across from the Probolinggo bus station. Ignore everyone trying to help you with your luggage, signs advertising bus tickets (there’s a markup), and men trying to call you over and go straight into the bus station. The bus you want will say Surabaya, but you can double check by asking other people on the bus for Surabaya.

Okay, time to play guess-the-real-ticketseller! Which guy down there will give you a REAL bus ticket?

Now here comes the hard part: ONLY pay the ticket collector once the bus is moving. Ignore the guy or pair of guys that board the bus and tell you to pay for a ticket from them. Do not hand over money for the official-looking bus ticket in their hand. It is a scam targeting foreigners and that is a fake bus ticket. If they get angry at you, stay calm. If they yell at you to get off, get off the bus and stand in front of it. The real bus driver will have a laugh at the scammers’ failure and usher you back on the bus. ONLY hand over your money once the bus is moving, and give it ONLY to the guy you see all of the locals paying. And check your change, as he may try to shortchange you. A ticket from Probolinggo to Surabaya cost 20,000 IDR ($1.50 USD) in April 2017, and you can always ask ‘harganya berapa di Surabaya?’ (“How much to Surabaya?”) to a person next to you.

Did you guess the man in a striped shirt with a ponytail? You win! But check your change.
Why yes, this is our bus passing a semi carrying a shipping container, passing another truck carrying construction supplies. Truck-ception, whoaaa.

Phew. Made it to Surabaya? Then you’re past the difficult part. You’ll likely be dropped south of city proper at Purabaya Bus Station, and it’s up to you to take a bus to the train station or airport. There is a WONDERFUL info booth in the bus station where the staff know some English, so politely decline the taxi callers and make your way there. As of April 2017 the bus to the train station was the P5; it cost 6,000 IDR ($0.45 USD) for a ride and took about 30 minutes. We had no scam problems, but it’s literally crazy taxi bus edition, so sit at the front for the 90 km-an-hour ride of your life along Surabaya freeway.

Taxi drivers trying to wave us down at the Purabaya Bus Station. Ignore ’em, unless you’re in a hurry. Even then, the bus is going to be (disturbingly) fast.
A P5 bus rolls into Purabaya Bus Station.
The driver’s ed test: what’s wrong with this picture?

You’ll get off on the West side of the train station, which as far as we could tell had no actual entrance. You’ll have to find your way around to the other side of the station with a map or asking the super-nice locals. There aren’t really cheap street eats at the train station, but there are a couple of cafés and minimarts nearby. After buying your tickets, head over to stock up on snacks for the overnight ride back to Jakarta.

You made it to the train station alive! The train from Surabaya to Jakarta will be a breeze, but bring an eye cover–they never turn the train lights off.
A beautifully-domed mosque near the train station. You may want to offer a prayer of thanks to whatever you believe in for making it here alive.

Bromo at Sunrise

A view of volcanic peaks rising above the mist-filled Tengger Caldera.

The Bromo sunrise hike is part of a regular tour circuit and as such we’re not super enthusiastic to do it. But others have effused to us about Bromo’s beauty at sunrise, so on our last morning we wake at 3:00 am to start the hike.

A light in the dark on our road to King Kong Hill.

With the exception of a few other tourists heading toward the King Kong Hill lookout point, we are entirely alone on Cemoro Lawang’ s roads. After half an hour, we begin ascending via switchbacks up the hill. There are more people here, tourists sporting headlamps hiking up, being driven on ojeks, or riding horses. A few locals wait along the road, asking if we want a ride. Others have set up stalls selling alluring hot tea and instant noodles. With temperatures at around 40 F, it’s hard to resist these.

A long-exposure predawn shot of Cemoro Lawang.
A long-exposure, predawn shot of the smoke rising from Bromo.

The pitch black veil of the sky begins to thin at 4:30 am, before we reach the lookout point, and for a moment we’re afraid we won’t make it in time for sunrise. We stop for a few minutes to snap some photos, then scramble up the muddy, rocky path as quickly as our cold, aching legs will take us. We can hear the noise of people just above, and we find ourselves in a rest area surrounded by a low concrete railing. People chatter excitedly and gaze through camera lenses at the tangerine sky, while locals sell keychains and postcards at a table nearby.

The first streaks of dawn in the sky, with the moon still hanging above in the darkness.

The rote tourism is entirely overshadowed by the beauty of the valley below. King Kong Hill affords a sweeping view of the Tengger Caldera and Mount Semeru (Java’s highest peak and also an active volcano). Bromo exhales a continuous plume of smoke into the air, while Semeru behind releases small puffs from its own crater. The scene is cast in soft lilacs, dusky pinks, and creamy oranges as the sun approaches the horizon. Then the sun takes her first peek over the edge, spilling her warm yellow rays onto the world.

A view south-west into the Tengger Caldera. Bromo smokes on the left, while Semeru emits a single puff of smoke in the background.
Clouds rise from the Tengger Caldera and slowly fan over Cemoro Lawang (lights in center).

We watch the sunrise with a dozen strangers. When the first scene of beauty is over, they stir and stretch their cold limbs, and begin to file out, down the mountain. We look around and notice an empty path further up the mountain. Ten minutes climb later, we emerge onto a broad, paved viewpoint with dozens of giggling, chatting tourists. This is the tour group viewpoint, accessible from the road on the other side of King Kong Hill by a few minutes hike, with no journey to Cemoro Lawang necessary.

Visitors take photos of Bromo at sunrise.
Tourists capture photographs of Bromo as clouds spill over the Tengger Caldera and engulf Cemoro Lawang.
The view of Batok (lower right), Bromo (left), and Semeru (upper right) as seen from King Kong Hill’s viewpoint.

We mingle with the tourists for a bit, enjoying their excitement and watching them take selfies. Then they, too, begin to disperse back to their tour vans and jeeps just over the ridge. We follow them up, curious what this side of the mountain looks like. It’s a cacophony of noise and trapped vehicles, piles of jeeps that have parked each other in on the narrow mountain road now trying to get out with their tourists. I’m incredibly grateful we don’t have to join them.

A tourists stands on the railing with his camera in the new sun.
Tourists mill around as locals sell knitted hats, scarves, keychains, and postcards.

As we walk back down, I notice a dirt path leading into the brush.  It first seems to lead only to a rubbish pile, but then it continues up the hill. Stoytcho and I follow it as it crests the hill above the rest area to offer yet another view of Bromo in the rising sunlight. The path then descends and rises narrowly and near-vertical up the next hill. I leave Stoytcho behind to navigate this path alone, higher still, emerging on a ridge about a hundred feet above the rest area. It’s empty, save for one man with a giant camera and his local guide. This is the hidden vista, the one known mostly to the locals and rarely visited.

The sun rises behind a shrine above the King Kong Hill lookout.
The volcanoes as seen from the highest viewpoint, above King Kong Hill.
The clouds rushing over Cemoro Lawang dissipate in the warming sunlight.
A view westward, along the Tengger Caldera’s edge.

It’s past 6:00 when we start our descent from the mountain, an hour after the tourist hordes have disappeared. The going is faster downhill and the warming air is a comfort after the morning chill. Going is mostly easy. About halfway down the mountain I pause at a faint chittering noise. Glancing up, we see a troupe of monkeys gliding through the trees above us, leaping on bending branches and scrambling along the slender tree trunks. In seconds they are there and gone, off to their daily business now that this mountain home is theirs again.

Locals pack up their wares after everyone has left King Kong Hill.
Offerings of flowers and tea left by locals for the mountain gods.

UPDATE: Here’s a map of our hike from Cemoro Lawang up to King Kong Hill lookout point.

Summiting Mount Bromo

People appear as black dots against white smoke at the edge of Bromo’s crater.

After a night’s rest, it’s back on our feet to climb Bromo. We descend back into the sandsea, this time wearing masks to minimize the amount of dust we inhale. Skirting the edge of a massive dust devil forming on the valley floor, we find the line of concrete posts heading out toward the volcano.

Hiking across the sandsea to Bromo.
A group of dirtbike riders pauses to watch as dust devil form on the sandsea.

The sandsea floor is crisscrossed with vehicle and foot tracks in all directions, punctuated by the occasional tuft of grass or thread of a dry riverbed. Volcanic rocks ranging in size from baseballs to truck wheels also dot the landscape. These are volcanic projectiles, part of the tephra (“volcanic stuff”) hurled from the volcano during an eruption. Projectiles like these were responsible for two deaths when Bromo erupted suddenly back in 2004 and are an uneasy reminder that the volcano could erupt again at any time. But for now, Bromo seems content to simply issue forth a peaceful stream of smoke.

A tuft of grass grows in the sandsea.
Stoytcho poses next to a volcanic bomb in the shadow of Bromo. The face masks reduce the amount of dust and sand we inhale on the hike.

Beside Bromo sits Mt. Batok, a sharp contrast to the volcanic caldera and surrounding plain with its verdant, vegetation-covered east sides. Though Batok is the Tengger caldera’s youngest volcanic cone, it is currently inactive. Life now flourishes on the side shielded from Bromo’s volcanic fury.

Shielded from Bromo, the eastern side of Batok (right) is verdant and shows reduced erosion compared to the west side.

After an hour of hiking across the sandsea, we’re at the base of Bromo and the trail begins its ascent. Without any vegetative cover to hold sand and dirt, erosion here is extreme. The shallow streambeds that thread through the sandsea floor become ravines and canyons on Bromo’s sides that are six, ten, or twenty feet deep. They fan out on every side of Bromo, a vein-like network of valleys carrying water from the volcano’s surface during rain.

Stoytcho picks his way through hills and valleys of erosion near Bromo’s base. We’re wearing jackets because we ran out of sunblock.
Erosion on the slopes of Bromo.

Our hike up culminates in a final flight of stairs to the edge of Bromo’s crater. It’s a surprisingly mundane walk, punctuated only by our curiosity of why a smooth incline bifurcates the staircase all the way up. Maybe people drive their ojeks up here? Maybe they bring things up to the volcano on handcarts? Who knows?

The final climb to Bromo’s crater.
People climb the final stairwell to the edge of Bromo’s crater.

Then we’re at Bromo’s summit, staring into the smouldering heart of the beast we spend our whole lives walking around on with nary a thought to what goes on below. While it’s visually impressive, it’s the sound that gets us first: the hiss of the volcano’s offgassing is like the sound of a high-energy jet engine. The audiosonic spectacle is a manifestation of the power below Earth’s crust, the power that builds islands, makes mountains, and moves continents.

As we stare down into the crater, we can’t help but notice all of the items scattered along its sloping sides. At first it appears to be entirely trash, but when we squint we can make out bunches of flowers, herbs, woven charms, and food. These are offerings to the volcano god, the human attempt at appeasing this force of nature. While we’re staring down at them, a guy nearby takes notice. “They have a festival here,” he tells us in English, “where they throw things into the volcano, like food and chickens.” I nod and reply, “Looks like it.” The guy continues, “Men go down into the volcano, to there,” he points down the slope, at about the halfway point to the gaping hole in the Earth, “and people throw things and they catch. Sometimes they fall.” He gestures to the hole. I turn and stare at the guy, trying to ascertain whether he’s joking around with us. He’s not*.

The view down into Bromo’s crater, with offerings in the foreground.
An altar at the crater’s edge.

The barrier between us and Bromo’s crater is only two feet high, more a warning sign that the other side is dangerous rather than an actual barrier. Rising four feet over this barrier, Stoytcho is decidedly nervous walking beside it, but he bravely accompanies me from one end to another. Further along the crater’s rim, far beyond the barrier, I can make out a hiking couple. Maybe we’ll do that one day. But not today.

People standing next to the concrete barrier illustrate how short it really is.
And in some places, the barrier has collapsed entirely.
Two people walk on the far side of Bromo’s crater.

We climb back down the stairs and start the hike back when *ahem* nature calls. I scramble down into one of the eroded ravines for privacy, and when I’m done I realize I can’t climb back out. I’m stuck navigating in the crevice for several meters, following it until there’s a twenty-foot drop, then doubling back and finding a slope gentle enough to clamber back up.

Inside one of the ravines below Bromo’s crater.
A twenty-foot drop in the ravine, probably a spectacular waterfall when it rains.
Indifferent kind: plants grow above a twenty-foot drop in a ravine at Bromo’s base.

We rejoin the stream of tourists heading back to their tour jeeps and hotels, having climbed Bromo as it simmered uneasily beneath us. Hopefully it does the same tomorrow.

A visitor shuffles his feet in the dust.
Stoytcho crosses a dry streambed in the sandsea on our way back to Cemoro Lawang.

*Sort of. The only mention I can find of this is on the Wikipedia page of Mount Bromo under the culture section, which states that locals often climb down to retrieve objects. It may have evolved since then into a game where locals try to catch things when they’re thrown into the volcano, or it might have been a miscommunication.

The Tengger Massif

The southern valley of the Tengger Massif, with volcanic cones rising on the left. The massif is the remnant of an ancient volcanic caldera more than three miles across.

The Tengger Massif is endlessly photographable, one of those surreal experiences that you’d more ascribe to a high-budget movie or video game than a real place. It’s a massive crater more than three miles across, the remnants of a volcanic explosion millions of years ago. The west side of the crater is a vast, living prairie: grasses ripple in the gentle wind under drifting sea of clouds. To the north lies the volcano Bromo, carrying the torch of Tengger’s volcanic legacy with a low, continuous roar as it sends thick billows of noxious gas skyward. And to the east lies the sandsea, a desert devoid of life except for a few patches of grass eking out an existence on a barren landscape of sand and dust.

Prairie grasses sway in the wind on the caldera floor, while new volcanic cones rise behind.


Wildflowers bloom in the prairie of the caldera floor.


A foot and vehicle track winding along the caldera floor, between newer volcanic cones (right) and the steep caldera wall (left)


Young lovers.


A shrine to the volcano gods on the caldera floor.


Offerings of food and flowers on a shrine to the volcano gods.


The near-vertical wall of the caldera crater.


A woman harvests grasses along the road, near the edge of the sandsea.


This shrine marks the end of the prairie and the beginning of the Bromo sandsea.


Stoytcho stands in the Bromo sandsea. Mist and fog often limit visibility in this part of the caldera.


An ojek (motorbike) approaches us in the distance.


Locals passing in opposite directions stop for a chat.


An instant noodles cup abandoned in the sandsea, with volcanoes Bromo and Batok in the background.


The guideposts to Cemoro Lawang, at the eastern edge of the Bromo sandsea.


Mount Bromo (left) pictured beside Mount Batok (right). Mount Batok is the only volcano in the park that is not currently active, and greenery has taken root on its sides.


A dust devil forms on the Bromo sandsea between Bromo and Batok, in front of the Pura Luhur Poten Temple.


A view of the sandsea and Pura Luhur Poten Temple as seen from Bromo.

Cemoro Lawang

A sign for the village of Cemoro Lawang in the sandsea, with volcano Bromo in the background.

Cemoro Lawang is a tiny village at the edge of the Tengger caldera and were it not for Bromo’s close proximity, it would likely have never seen tourists. Most residents here are farmers, though some are now part of a growing tourism industry that serves tourists to Bromo as hotel staff, restauranteurs, and tour guides. The wealth disparity between the visitors like us and the residents here generates a feeling of desperation, where streetside vendors sell Bromo souvenirs half on pity. Part of the reason is that we’re (once again) in a tourist town during the off-season, when times are hardest. But part of it reflects an economic shift wherein people realize that tourism-related jobs, even one that requires standing out on the cold street selling Bromo kitch, will make far more than any farming work. We might visit Cemoro Lawang one day to find the fields replaced by artisans’ shops and tour agencies in their place. But for now, the dominant feature of village’s landscape remains rows of neatly-planted spring onions, nourished in the volcanic soil.

Farms cover the hills in Cemoro Lawang.


A field of spring onions stretches off into the horizon.


A farmhouse surrounded by fields of spring onions.


A man carries his farm produce into town.


A woman burns garbage at the edge of town.


Our hotel in town, the Cemarah Indah.


The entrance to Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, with a tour jeep parked in front. The poles hanging over the streets are charms, important to the Tengger people who inhabit this and nearby villages.


A view down the hill into town on a foggy day. The proximity to the Tengger Caldera means that most days start or end with fog.


A communications tower in Cemoro Lawang disappears into the fog above.