Talking politics when you don’t speak the language

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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.

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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.

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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.

Crazy Taxi Surabaya: Bus Edition

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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.

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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.

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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:

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Thought when this first happened: “This is now how I imagined I would die.”
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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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Somehow I don’t think this thing has AC, WiFi, OR Bluetooth.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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Did you guess the man in a striped shirt with a ponytail? You win! But check your change.
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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.

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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.
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A P5 bus rolls into Purabaya Bus Station.
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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.

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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.
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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

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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.

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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.

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A long-exposure predawn shot of Cemoro Lawang.
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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.

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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.

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A view south-west into the Tengger Caldera. Bromo smokes on the left, while Semeru emits a single puff of smoke in the background.
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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.

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Visitors take photos of Bromo at sunrise.
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Tourists capture photographs of Bromo as clouds spill over the Tengger Caldera and engulf Cemoro Lawang.
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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.

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A tourists stands on the railing with his camera in the new sun.
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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.

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The sun rises behind a shrine above the King Kong Hill lookout.
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The volcanoes as seen from the highest viewpoint, above King Kong Hill.
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The clouds rushing over Cemoro Lawang dissipate in the warming sunlight.
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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.

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Locals pack up their wares after everyone has left King Kong Hill.
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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

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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.

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Hiking across the sandsea to Bromo.
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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.

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A tuft of grass grows in the sandsea.
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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.

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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.

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

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The final climb to Bromo’s crater.
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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*.

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The view down into Bromo’s crater, with offerings in the foreground.
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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.

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People standing next to the concrete barrier illustrate how short it really is.
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And in some places, the barrier has collapsed entirely.
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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.

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Inside one of the ravines below Bromo’s crater.
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A twenty-foot drop in the ravine, probably a spectacular waterfall when it rains.
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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.

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A visitor shuffles his feet in the dust.
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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

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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.

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

 

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Wildflowers bloom in the prairie of the caldera floor.

 

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

 

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Young lovers.

 

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A shrine to the volcano gods on the caldera floor.

 

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

 

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The near-vertical wall of the caldera crater.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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An ojek (motorbike) approaches us in the distance.

 

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Locals passing in opposite directions stop for a chat.

 

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

 

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

 

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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.

 

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

 

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

Cemoro Lawang

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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.

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Farms cover the hills in Cemoro Lawang.

 

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A field of spring onions stretches off into the horizon.

 

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A farmhouse surrounded by fields of spring onions.

 

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A man carries his farm produce into town.

 

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A woman burns garbage at the edge of town.

 

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Our hotel in town, the Cemarah Indah.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

Hiking Tumpang to Bromo: Day 2

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Epiphytes hang from a tree along the road to Bromo.

This is day 2 of our hike from Tumpang to Bromo, an ambitious (and overly optimistic) expedition that’s wilted in the relentless tropical heat under the weight 50 kg of gear. Our path is here:

While this hike is do-able, it’s way harder than Google lets on, especially given the near-continuous uphill ascent, the tropical heat, and heavy packs with all of our stuff. Here’s the short summary of the hike verdict:

We sleep through sunrise and wake up around 9 to the sound of people walking around our tent. Then we see a hand slip underneath the rainfly and try to lift it and Stoytcho shouts “HEY!” The hand retreats. We dress for the hot day ahead and emerge from the tent to find a group of guys hanging around our tent, waiting for a ride out to the fields to start work. They’re curious, and stare at us with sheepish smiles on their faces. Our tent, with its slick orange-and-grey rain cover hiding everything, is a UFO – unidentified field object – for them.

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The poor guys hang around after we decamp, waiting for their ride to the fields.

We decamp and continue our hike in the increasing thickness of the day’s heat. Though we’re now continuously climbing in elevation, it’s not fast enough to shake the drag of tropical weather that wearies us at every step. When we stop for a break to check our progress and refill our water, we’ve only covered 2 km in an hour. We’re not going to make it today at this rate, so it’s time to change tactics.

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The morning moon and bird hanging over a tree along our hike.

Back on the main road, we stick out our thumbs in hopes of catching a ride. It fails spectacularly. At first it’s because the trucks are full of farmers catching rides to their fields, so there’s no room for us. Then comes a string of ojeks, some of which are so low-powered that they already have a former passenger running up a steep hill behind them, only to get back on at the top. But empty trucks also bafflingly pass us, sometimes honking with driver grinning. Are they making fun of us? Finally, a passing ojek driver honks and with a laugh, throws us a thumbs up. Holy crap, they don’t know we’re looking for a ride—they just think we’re giving them a universal sign for “good job”!

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Two cheerful guys along our hike, who return our thumbs up and we’re like WAIT WHAT no one knows we’re hitchhiking.

When the next empty truck approaches, we change tack and wave our hands frantically. The driver stops and looks out the window, and we point toward the truck and ask “Bromo?” He nods, and we ask “Harganya berapa?” (how much does it cost?) With a shake of his head, the driver motions for us to get into the truck bed. We scramble up and drop into a pile of wood planks and cardboard boxes as the truck lurches forward. In minutes, we we’re flying up hills that would have taken us hours to walk, gazing down sheer cliff drops alongside the narrow road over the two-foot walls of the truck bed.

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The view from our new ride.

The truck drops us at the entrance to the national park, where we get a nasty surprise: entrance to the park for foreigners costs 220,000 IDR ($16 USD) per person, which is most of the money we’re carrying. We try to explain that we haven’t got much and it has to take us all the way to Cemoro Lawang, but the park guard isn’t interested. He isn’t paid enough to care. We dig around and find enough to pay the fee for admission to an apologetic girl at the admission booth. She speaks enough English to kind of understand the situation, but can’t do anything beyond offer us our admission tickets and a “sorry.”

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The ticket booth at the Tengger Park entrance.

We continue the ascent up the hill by foot, trying to flag down another ride for free since we now only have only 200,000 IDR to take us through Cemoro Lawang and down to Surabaya. Most of the trucks that pass us are tour jeeps, so they’re either full of tourists already or they’re not going to be giving out any free rides. We finally flag down a huge construction vehicle the size of a semi, but there’s nowhere for them to pull off to let us on so we’re forced to jump on while it moves slowly beside us. We find ourselves in a mess of bent rebar and cement buckets beside construction workers—these guys are going up to Bromo to build something. They take us a few minutes to a turnoff, then the drivers tops and scrambles up to tell us it’ll be 100,000 rupiah for a ride. We tell him we haven’t got any money and get off. It looks like we’ll be hiking the rest of the way when another black pickup pulls over at our shouting and waving and motion for us to get into the back.

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The view from our first truck looking up at the sky, under a pile of rebar (and my pack).
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Two guys stare at us as we sit in the back of a pickup truck, headed up to Bromo.

It couldn’t get any luckier. These guys drop us off in Jemplang, the highest point in our hike, and point us in the direction of Bromo in the wide valley below. They’ve been so kind to us that we ask “Harganya berapa?” but the guys in the truck smile and shake their heads. “Terimah Kasi” is all we can offer them.

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Staring down into the Tengger crater.

The Tengger Caldera:

We make our way downhill for the first time in hours, descending to the floor of a miles-wide valley. Steep hills flank us one side, erosion lines snaking down their sides. A towering cliffedge rises to our other side, a near-vertical wall that seems too perfect for mountain erosion. And it’s not. This sheer cliff beside us is the rim of the ancient Tengger caldera, the wall of a hollow more than three miles across made by an explosive volcanic event millions of years ago. We’re merely ants, crawling on its surface.

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The road through Tengger caldera’s prairie, with hills on the left and the steep rim of the caldera on the right.
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Wildflowers in the Tennger caldera prairie.

The west side of the crater is lush green prairie, cut only by the dirt tracks used by humans for travel. It’s beautiful and isolated, silent except for the cooling wind coming off the surrounding mountains and an occasional vehicle engine. Clouds drift over us so slowly, we can see and feel the shift between sunlight and cloud shadow. We hike by families picnicking, couples resting by bikes, and newlyweds doing photoshoots, all lost in an endless sea of waving grass.

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Young lovers.

We proceed eastward as the sun dips in the sky, signaling the disappearing daylight hours in the moments we can see it. The clouds have become thicker, forming a wall before us. The landscape is also changing: the endless prairie has faded to a few sparse patches of grass huddling together on an increasingly barren landscape. This is the start of the sandsea, the barren desert of brown-black dust and sand between the prairie and Cemoro Lawang.  We hike on, breathing in the chilling air, using the wheel tracks of ojeks and trucks to guide us in an otherwise featureless landscape. Occasionally a vehicle materializes from the mist wall before us and passes by, dissolving back into the mist from whence it came.

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An altar at the edge of the sandsea.
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An ojek (white dot to the left) approaches us in the distance in the sandsea.

But the sandsea is not silent. There’s this dull rumble at all times, like a simmering of malcontent just beyond the wall of mist. Finally, there’s a break in the mist wall that reveals the source of both sound and overcast sky: the volcano Bromo, exhaling a continuous miasma into the sky above us.

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Our first view of Bromo, spewing gas into the atmosphere.

The last few kilometers of the hike are messy, as the poor visibility ahead and crisscross of tracks left by tourist vehicles and dirtbikes make it hard to find the trail to Cemoro Lawang. We finally find a row of concrete posts leading in the town’s direction and follow it. Though there’s no change in the landscape, each step draws us closer to the town, to putting down our packs, to a room with a bed in a place that hopefully takes credit cards.

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Nearly there: the concrete posts that lead out of the sandsea to Cemoro Lawang.

Suddenly a form materializes from the mist before us, an oasis of a lone tree surrounded by a wall. Scattered remains of flower and food offerings lay on the altar before it, and we stop for a few minutes to rest. The temperature continues to drop and we can feel the cold through our jackets. A few meters on, we find the east lip of the crater, a steep road zig-zagging up to Cemoro Lawang. It’s our final ascent in the creeping dusk; it can’t have taken more than half an hour, but it feels like an eternity.

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The sacred tree at the base of Cemoro Lawang.

Cemoro Lawang, perched on the crater’s edge, is utterly silent. By some miracle we have phone reception (many thanks, T-Mobile) and manage to find a hotel on Hotels.com that we can pay via credit card. After checking in, we walk the streets looking for an ATM, and our fears are confirmed: there are no ATMs in Cemoro Lawang (as of April 2017). Luckily, the hotel restaurant and a handful of others take credit cards. Freed from our packs, we sit down to a hot meal of stir-fried vegetables, rice, soup, and tea.

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Cemoro Lawang is in a cloud today and the streets are devoid of people. Still, buildings mean beds and warmth and food.

In the end, I can’t say that hiking from Tumpang to Cemoro Lawang is something I’d recommend to everyone. But given the chance, I’d do it again. We saw parts of Indonesian life that are otherwise unseen, the streets of villages and families living beyond the bustling cities that make up Java’s economic heart. We were the recipients of endless kindness and curiosity and warmth. And we like to think we gave the folks at Google some good corrective data about their walking estimates—the elevation feature that’s now standard in walking routes was added shortly after.

UPDATE: Here’s a map of our hike from Tumpang to Bromo.

Hiking Tumpang to Bromo: Day 1

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A rusted road sign pointing the way to Mount Bromo.

Having successfully hiked a dormant volcano (Merbabu), it was time to hike a live volcano in Java! Bromo was the best choice because it’s between Jogja and Jakarta, where we’ll be flying out to Vietnam after the hike. But searches online didn’t bring up any multi-day hikes around Bromo, and it’s only a couple hours up the volcano from the nearby village of Cemoro Lawang—hardly a hike at all! Online searches also revealed that getting to Bromo from Jogja could be tough. Most visitors come from Surabaya in the north or Bali in the east, meaning that there’s little infrastructure to get there from any other direction. After several hours of searching, I found that we could get from Jogja to Malang by train. There were rumors online of a minibus that could take us from Malang to Tumpang, and from there it seemed that most travelers hired a vehicle to take them the rest of the way. That’s neither reliable nor cheap.

But this might be the perfect chance for a multi-day hike. Google Maps indicated that the 30km distance between Tumpang and Cemoro Lawang is about 9 hours of hiking, which should be perfect for a two-day trip! Since we won’t be coming back to Jogja, we’ll have to carry everything we own plus food and water on this hike. That’s about 50 kg (110 lbs) of stuff. This is a great idea, right?

The train ride to Malang and minibus ride to Tumpang are without incident, with the exception of the mini-bus itself being a really mini mini bus. Seriously, Stoytcho has to double over inside it, we barely fit with our packs, and we’re somehow back here with a whole Indonesian family. Our driver is chainsmoking out the window.

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Stoytcho, crammed into minibus line #70. That tan thing in the lower left is MY knee.
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A street entrance (Ken Arok) in Tumpang; many of the large streets in these towns sport ornate gates like the one above.

Once we’re dropped off in Tumpang, the walking begins and the folly of our choice reveals itself. The goal is to make it halfway (15 kilometers) today, but as we trudge along the road with hot tropical sun beating down and ojeks whizzing by, we realize we’re slow. Really slow.

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Ojeks pass us on the road (Jl Raya Tulus Ayu). This guy has his whole food stall attached to the back of his ojek.
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Stoytcho hikes along the road, later in the day.

We climb foot by foot up hills and through villages, where people come outside their homes to stare at us, wave, and smile. We’re funny and weird wherever we go, with our massive packs and sunblock-smeared skin. People riding ojeks up and down the road pull over and want selfies. We try to buy a couple of bananas from a roadside stand and the woman there first wants to sell us the bunch for 5000 rupiah; when we clarify we just want two bananas for 5000 rupiah, she laughs, then pulls two from the bunch and hands them to us. “Gratis,” she smiles and waves us off. We’re insanely grateful, but I feel bad because we have way more money in our accounts than she’ll amass in a lifetime. But we’ll later find out there are no ATMs in Cemoro Lawang and cash will become scarce, so we’re lucky to have saved money here.

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These kids stopped their ojek to take a selfie with us. Their camera and mode of transport are definitely more glamorous than ours.
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The gift of a banana on the road.

By nightfall we’ve made it only 11 km, to the rest stop just past the town of Gubugklakah, and we’re utterly exhausted. We set up our tent across from the rest stop, Ponco Kusumo, where all of the jeeps that run tours to Bromo are lined up in the fading light. There’s barely time for dinner before we fall asleep.

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We reach Ponco Kusumo Rest Stop. Stoytcho’s expression says it all.
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A moth hiding in foliage nearby.

THUD! WHAM! BRRR-AM! We’re awakened around 21:00 by what sounds like a whole marching band by our tent. Our first thought is that some of the teenagers who passed us earlier in the day are playing tricks on us now, but doesn’t seem to be in line with the Indonesian attitude. The noise continues as we lay there, wondering what to do. We eventually crawl out of our tent to gaze over at the rest stop, where lo and behold, there is an actual marching band. It’s the local school band, and this is where they practice on Sunday nights, far enough from the town to avoid disturbing anyone.

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The local high school marching band practices in the rest stop parking lot, far enough from town to avoid disturbing anyone (except us).

We can’t sleep, so we wander over to the rest area to get a cup of hot tea and watch the band practice. There are about a dozen people here watching the practice, some parents and friends who came up to show support, give someone with an instrument a ride, or just to hang out on a Sunday night. It’s surprisingly similar to watching high-school band practice in the U.S.—the students work on marching in time with a senior student up front correcting them. They work on getting the timing of the piece right. The music starts strong and polished as they cover the most practiced parts, and then no, that’s a little too fast: start over. The only difference is that we’re at an open-air rest stop in the middle of a tropical island, and some kids less than half our age have started a small fire—a common Indonesian pastime.

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A high school student practices flag waving with the marching band.

A group of curious guys catches sight of us and starts to ask us questions. They don’t know English and we don’t know Indonesian, so Google is our interpreter. They ask us where we come from and what we’re doing out here, and we tell them about our travels and our hike toward Bromo. One asks where we’re sleeping and we point out into the murky darkness at our barely-visible tent. With each answer we give him, he responds with an ever increasing pitch of “oohhhhhhh!” as if he were a kettle coming to a boil. I wonder if at some point his excitement will launch him from the ground with enough acceleration to reach escape velocity.

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Our buddies for the night, full of questions. Thanks to Google Translate, we found out they’re high-schoolers, all around 16 or 17, and they want to know all about the world.

Band practice winds down around 23:00 and the students slowly disperse, loading into trucks with their flags and drums or climbing onto precariously balanced ojeks with their instruments and speeding off into the night. We’re getting drowsy too, so it’s time to head back to our tent. Goodnight Ponco Kusumo rest stop. Goodnight Gubugklakah. Goodnight Indonesia.

UPDATE: Here’s a map of our full route from Tumpang to Bromo.