Indonesia

23rd September 2010








I am back in Kuala Lumpur, arranging for the shipment of my car to Buenos Aires. I am not particularly enjoying myself. The process is slow and complicated but I won't bore you with the details. I am in a bottom-end guesthouse in a room that's only slightly bigger than my body. The temperature is 25 degrees yet somehow I am feeling cold. I think this is what they mean by going native. A pigeon also shat on my shoulder today and I want all birds wiped out.

I left Indonesia yesterday after an excellent two month stay. My route through the country was a straight shot along the Alpide belt, which makes up a long section of the Pacific rim of fire. I have plenty of unfinished business in Indonesia, particularly Papua, but I loved Bali and don't regret spending a month there.

Viewed from a distance, it seems to be just one bad thing after another in Indonesia - rioting, bombs, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. "How the hell do they live there?" you think, but then you get there and it's a fantastic place. Life without socks or a watch.

I am now just over halfway through my trip and although I'm not sentimental, I am taking stock. Bear with me. It occurs to me that I am typing this on the Panasonic Toughbook that I started the trip with. The thing is amazing. I bought it third hand from an Australian mining company and it has more than lived up to its moniker. I have dropped it countless times and on one occasion washed it off under the shower. This is the Steven Seagal of laptops.

Dawn, a friend from home, was with me for the Bali and Flores sections. Due to a fundamental difference in travelling philosphy, Bali ended up being a holiday from the rest of my trip. Normally, when I’m in a country, I try to socialise with its people, subsist on its food, drink the funny-coloured 'water' coming out the tap, ride its awful public transport and walk its chaotic, filthy streets. If you want to stand any chance of knowing a country, you need to be there at ground level, with it whizzing past you. Bali, on the other hand, was a succession of beautiful hotels, swimming pools and excellent restaurants. Not that I'm complaining.




Java
It was oppressively hot when I got to Jakarta and we had a pointy-nosed German in the dorm who refused to have the air-conditioning on, citing the usual unspecified health reasons. It seems to be fashionable among travellers to say you don't like air conditioning. These are the same kind of people who say "I don't even own a TV, man". I’m guilty of it myself - often harping on about the fact that I don't have AC in the car. I make it into a virtue, but the real reason is that the car is too old and crappy to have it as a feature.

It's pretty obvious that television & AC are both awesome. Most of the time I would far rather sit in a Lazboy in an air conditioned hotel room playing Medal of Honor than getting up at dawn to take pictures of crumbling buildings.

Jakarta is a large, unruly trash can. The place is a full-blown assault on the senses - a sprawling mess of graffiti-scrawled buildings, punishing heat and people selling street food next to open sewers. A rank stench putrefies the air. The streets are a collapsing jumble of potholes and uneven concrete, it is extremely polluted and there is a profound litter problem. It's a shithole. A fun and lively shithole, sure, but a shithole nevertheless.

It made me reflect on other cities in the region. If I had to live in a major south east Asian city, I would choose, in order of preference:

  • Hanoi – Has the most character.
  • Bangkok - Most fun & exciting.
  • Singapore - Totally first world and excellent food but a bit stuffy.
  • KL - Trying to be Singapore. Failing.
  • Manila - Shithole.
  • Jakarta - Shithole.
  • Phnom Penh - Only a borderline shithole but somehow missing something.
  • Vientiane - B-o-r-i-n-g.

    I travelled across Java in trains (often in Ekonomi class) which tend to be very cheap, basic and slow. The highlights were:

  • Yogyakarta: I stayed at the Green Garden, the best guesthouse of the entire trip so far. To me, the temples at Prambanan were more impressive than Borobudur, which gets all the attention. I arrived at Prambanan at four in the afternoon, watched the sun go down and then went to the Ramayana ballet, which uses the lit-up temples as a backdrop. Well worth it.

    The sultan's palace at the Kraton is not particularly interesting - the family still lives in the best bit. There is a collection of fantastic old photographs illustrating palace life in transition during the early twentieth century though. The much less visited water palace & sunken mosque hidden in the alleys round the back of the Kraton are extremely nice.

  • Gunung Bromo: The whole experience is super touristy. Everyone is woken at the crack of dawn and herded up the mountain to watch the sun come up. Don’t miss it. The view is surreal and extraordinary.

  • Kawah Ijen: Another volcano. The view is mostly obscured by the noxious fumes rising from vents at the bottom of the crater. More interesting to me than the scenery was watching the sulphur miners at work. If you go, try picking up one of their baskets. It's crazy what those guys are carrying:




    Islam
    It is currently fashionable to characterise Indonesia as a "crucible of terror", which is by no means the case, but Indonesia, like Malaysia, often struggles to reconcile its desire for development and modernity with its Muslim identity.

    There has been a recent wave of "convert-or-die" kidnappings of Christians by Islamic terrorists here. I remember an American soldier who was criticised at home for converting to Islam when threatened with death in Afghanistan. Who cares? I would have no problem pretending to be a Moslem for a case of beer and a packet of peanuts.

    Religious idiocy is in full evidence here. Examples include clerics claiming that God, justly angered by local iniquities, sent the Tsunami. A quasi-governmental body, the Ulema, recently decided that yoga should be banned because its Hindu elements are incompatible with the muslim faith. This follows hot on the heels of a 2008 anti-pornography law that (although rarely enforced) bans many traditional customs, such as Balinese dancing and the wearing of penis gourds by Papuan tribesmen. Persecuting tribes of naked hunter-gatherers living in the jungle for indecency is just sad and pathetic.

    I accept that the situation is more nuanced than a visitor like myself can fully grasp, and before the emails start, yes, I have read my Koran. Despite some entertainingly dated tribal laws, it's pretty dry and there’s nowhere near enough sex in it.


    Indonesian Politics
    Indonesia's political history is a story of two men. Sukarno was the leader of the struggle for independence from the Dutch and became the country's first President from 1945 to 1967. Following a failed coup, Suharto, a former army general, took control of the country. As often happens, he used the period of upheaval to narrow the definition of freedom and outlaw all opposition for being destabilising and subversive. Thus a "for the people's own good"-style totalitarian state came into being.

    Under Suharto, the military became vastly powerful, and unlike other military regimes in Southeast Asia, like Thailand or Burma, which promise an eventual transition to civilian rule, the military in Indonesia is accepted as an integral part of the political struture.

    During the early Suharto years, anti-communist purges killed nearly a million Indonesians. The government and military have since used periodic anti-communist witch-hunts as a political tool to suppress opposition. His rule lasted until 1998 when he was finally overthrown during a series of student protests following the Asian crisis. His family remains very powerful. Having had their fingers in the till for thirty years, they have billions of dollars stashed offshore.


    Multiculturalism
    In a world of countries that make no cultural or ethnic sense, Indonesia makes less sense than most. It seems likely to me that a nation-state like this, with a vast territory and people that have little in common, will never be totally stable. In some ways you have to credit Suharto for keeping things quiet for so long. Running the show in Indonesia requires very careful balancing of competing interests in a society that remains exceptionally disparate.

    The lack of a cohesive identity is evidenced by regular ethnic strife. The Chinese are hated by the majority Muslims for being rich, arrogant and clannish, and during the Asian crisis, riots in Java resulted in the deaths of almost 200 ethnic Chinese.

    During episodes of tribal warfare in Borneo as recently as the 90s, two tribes took to ritually slaughtering their enemies and eating them, which appears to be the last instance of active cannibalism in the 20th Century.

    Another case in point is the disgraceful treatment of the East Timorese, which was aided and abetted by the United States. Everyone now sees them as brave underdogs, but throughout the occupation the US blocked any efforts to help them. Independence movements are always portrayed as warranted and heroic if they succeed and treasonous if they don't. The story is one of cold war paranoia, personal vendettas, opportunism and two-way bets on the outcome.

    As ever, the root causes of friction in Indonesia are not only cultural but economic. Uneven distribution of wealth and a deeply inadequate education system play a large part. In the end, the result of the East Timorese referendum probably had more to do with abysmal living conditions during the Indonesian occupation than Christian or Timorese nationalism.


    Relations with Malaysia
    Despite their significant cultural and ethnic commonalities (Bahasa, the national language of Indonesia, is in fact Malay), relations between Indonesia and Malaysia have always been problematic. This dates back to the Konfrontasi, an undeclared war in the early sixties over the future of Borneo. The issue reared its head again recently, when both countries claimed ownership of the oil-rich Ambalat sea block, near Sipadan off the coast of Borneo.

    Another issue is the perceived mistreatment of Indonesian domestic workers by their Malaysian employers. 200,000 Indonesians work as domestic help in Malaysia and are very much treated as second-class citizens. Indonesian newspapers regularly report stories of maids running away or committing suicide. My own experience certainly bears out the view that Malaysians are jealous of Singaporeans, indifferent to Thais and look down their nose at Indonesians.


    Kuta
    Kuta is the tourist epicentre of Bali. It is a place of dark and formless shadows where culture of any sort is seldom to be found. Two grubby alleys - Poppies 1 and 2 – are the heart of the place, a maze of chintzy discount jewelry shops and pirate DVD stalls patrolled by Australians in full Bali uniform - Bintang beer in one hand, Bintang vest, cigarette, mullet and baseball cap. It's like the first hot day of summer in England - you see virtually no-one who isn't holding a beer and the streets are full of shirtless, tattooed men.

    At night the whole place is swamped by rapacious flesh-eating hordes of drunk Australian high school students wandering about drunkenly amongst the hypodermic needles, discarded clothing and occasional condom. A vast proportion of these kids sport an exhaust burn on their right calf and a variety of other scooter injuries. This is down to drunk riding and the fact that they all unbuckle the chinstrap on their helmets to look cool. I can practically smell the friction-burned skin from here.

    Of course lots of people complain about Kuta being too touristy. Then why on earth are they there? It's a bit like people complaining that Paris is too touristy. "Goddammit, I can't believe someone told those bloody tourists about Paris. That was my secret hideaway!". Plus, taking potshots at drunk Aussies is redundant, lazy and indicative of a low sensibility.

    The Sky Garden is the focal point of Kuta nightlife. It is very much at the sticky floor end of the clubbing spectrum, full of shirtless drunks and scantily clad girls looking thirsty and vacant. Still, if you're going to Kuta, you may as well check out the scene. Not seeing it is like going to London and not seeing Buckingham Palace because it's too touristy. You'll probably suffer a few semi-literate verbal assaults from half-naked 18 year olds and end up emerging bleary-eyed at 6am, as the smashed pint glasses glisten in the rays of the morning sun. I would like to take this opportunity to officially condemn this kind of wanton and degenerate behaviour and also officially condemn how much I enjoyed myself.

    I'm not saying that only plebs frequent Bali. There are plenty of moneyed folk hiding up in Seminyak, celebrating their culture of shiny objects. They hang around in identikit boutique hotels and horrible nightclubs where they light sparklers every time someone orders champagne. As with all razzy places, Seminyak can actually be pretty nice, as long as you're at the top of the food chain. It's certainly worth going for a nice meal there. You temporarily rise to the top of the local tree, surveying the world from its topmost branches and watching the oiks tripping over the roots in the undergrowth.

    Lots of tourists remain concerned about terrorism, but as usual they are massively overestimating the chances of being killed by something exciting. Statistically I'm sure you are twice as likely to choke on a chicken wing, and a thousand times more likely to be killed in a scooter accident. One more thing - be careful where you stay. Many of the clubs pump dance music into the street at such excessive volume that adjacent buildings are in danger of collapsing from the vibrations.


    Surfing
    I have been learning to surf in Bali. It is only the barest exaggeration to say that before I got there I could barely swim and that now I am ready to join the professional tour. As an expert, let me improve your life with this:

    Harry's Step by Step beginners guide to surfing:

    First things first. Watch this video on Youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oS_28utt2Y. Get over-excited. Invest in a whole load of expensive gear before giving any thought to whether you are a) young enough, b) interested enough, c) live close enough to the sea to actually take up surfing.

    One key thing is to find another beginner to learn with. This gives you someone to laugh at and reduces your chances of being eaten by sharks by fifty percent. Another important issue is your physical appearance. You must resemble, as much as possible, Kelly Slater. If you are English, it is likely that you are a pale, bulbous freak who could hide for days in a pile of parsnips without being noticed. If this is the case wear a full wetsuit at all times.

    On the morning of your first lesson, make sure you consume at least two pints of coffee. Then visit the little boys room. You are going to be swallowing alot of water. Practice using idiotic lingo like 'shibby' and 'hodad'.

    Arrive in a super-caffeinated frenzy and start warming up like a beaver on speed. Say hi to your instructor as he crushes your fingers in a pointlessly aggressive handshake.

    Practice getting up on the board on the beach. Finicky types will want to ensure they are "standing" on the "middle of the board". Gain a totally unjustified degree of confidence from the fact that the board is stable. Before you get in the water, I recommended you take a break, ideally somewhere other than at the bar. Realise that most of the lesson involves "you putting the principles into practice" i.e. you surfing badly by yourself.

    Next, take a moment to sit on the beach watching the surf. Use the opportunity to look professional by fiddling with your fins and ankle strap. Ooze steely focus. Repeat the phrase “I am radical” several times.

    Don’t forget that size is a critical issue. Reassuringly, smaller is better in the world of surfing. Ignore the instructor's advice and take a shortboard out. After thirty seconds, return dejected, pinned like a moth to the corkboard of your own expectations. Ask for a board the size of a Titanic life-raft. Measure the length of your body with arms extended. This is how wide your board needs to be. Multiply this distance by five to get an approximate length.

    The only place to learn is out with the big boys. Swim out to where the biggest waves are breaking and make sure you assert yourself in the line-up by randomly shouting things like "you sharpshootin' me, punk?".

    When a massive wave forms up behind you, paddle hard to make sure you catch it. Allow the tip of the board to point downwards. Watch as it catches in the water and catapults you forward with sudden and total ruin as the word "radical" tolls like a leper's bell in your inner ear. Make sure you get dragged along the reef and then whirled around like a pig in a tornado. Remember, no waving, only drowning.

    When full-blown disaster strikes, which it will every time you try to get up on a wave, make a mental note of methods that you have tried unsuccessfully, such as getting the leash tangled round your neck or hitting yourself in the balls with the board.

    In the unlikely event that you catch a wave, whoop loudly towards the beach and make a palm-up thumb-and-pinkie hand gesture. Make sure you pay no attention whatsoever to the next wave that will then brutally smash you into a submerged rock.

    Emerge from the water exhausted after less than half the allotted lesson time, citing a vague injury. By this point your lips will have split open like a Warragul mudflat and your nipples will feel like they've been removed with a power sander.

    It's time for a beer. After a couple you will imagine that you have "worked out what the problem was". Get back in the water. Discover you are worse than before. Emerge a shambling, haunted-looking wreck. Plonk down 30 dollars. Say "that was radical".

    Go and have a lie down. You deserve it. You have gone beyond your limitations, which were even more pathetic than you’d suspected. Congratulations!



    Ubud
    The countryside around Ubud is a wonderfully picturesque tapestry of rice paddies, gurgling irigation channels and deep ravines. It’s absolutely idyllic. There is very little to do in Ubud except eat and go for walks. It takes you a while to remember that nothing was exactly what you came here to do.

    A coconut palm climber near Ubud:


    We stayed in the Hibiscus hotel, a lovely spot in the middle of rice fields (or the kids football pitch, depending on the season), with just the sound of running water and quacking ducks for company. This was the view from the bathroom:



    Ubud's reputation for crystal-worshipping new-age twaddle and the publication of the book "Eat, Love, Pray" has led to a massive influx of middle-aged ladies, seeking enlightenment and trying to impress their friends and themselves. It's not really a place for sceptics like me - embarrassing slaves of materialism, spiritually bankrupt and who "just don't get it". I don't want to be too critical – I’m sure it’s a lovely spot to unwind for a month and do yoga.


    Balinese Dancing
    The Ramayana and Mahabarata form the bedrock of the plot of every play, dance and puppet show on the island. Locals complain that the strict traditional poses of Balinese dance are being distorted by the pressure to provide more razzmatazz for tourists. This is not surprising. The audiences are mostly made up of fat sunburned people in board shorts who have the cultural sensitivity of carpet mites. 99% of them have an incredibly superficial understanding of the art form and enjoy it only as a "show". This is not really a criticism, more of an observation. I studied Japanese puppet theatre for two full years at university and have a pretty threadbare understanding of that.

    Given that I am profoundly unmusical, my appreciation of Balinese dancing is even more superficial than most. The Barong-Legong performance that we saw seemed to me quite similar to a primary school musical, with actors dressed as monkeys and others running around haphazardly in massive Chinese dragon costumes. A gamelan orchestra creates an unholy discordant racket over all this by banging a vast range of gongs, cowbells and cymbals, seemingly at random.


    The Drive Round Bali
    We hired a tiny rickety old Suzuki jeep for 10 dollars a day and set off on a six day drive round the island. This was a great idea. It's a delightful drive, through beautiful palm-topped hills terraced with emerald green rice paddies, along deserted beaches and past perfect cone-shaped volcanoes. The sound of running water is everywhere and the air is ripe with the smell of cloves and cinnamon.

    There is no such thing as off-the-beaten-track in Bali, but we got close to it, taking random shortcuts through farming villages and eating at little family warungs. At one point the road led through the trunk of an ancient Banyan tree. The rice terraces are spectacular, especially around Jatiluwih, Tegalalang and Sidemen. A wonderful week.

    Bali has all the familiar hazards of Asian driving - aggressive minibus drivers, animals in the road, potholes and so on. Third-world driving rules apply: the bigger, more aggressively honking vehicle has right of way. As everywhere in Indonesia, there is an absolute sandstorm of small scooters. Public conveniences are few and far between, which can be a problem if you have a ludicrously weak bladder like my travelling companion:



    This is not a good place to have an accident. You as a foreigner are always in the wrong. If, god forbid, you were to kill someone, the matter would usually be patched up with large payoffs to the family of the deceased. However, a number of drivers are killed every year in Indonesia by angry crowds exacting mob justice following an accident. Traffic police are essentially just bribe collectors and I think we were lucky to be shaken down just once.

    Lots of people seem to prefer cycling around the island, which is a great idea if you are a fan of dehydration, sunburn and pedaling up hills with grim determination. I totally understand that you are much more connected to the environment on a bike than in a car, but any uphill gradient whatsoever results in my head being stuck down so resolutely that the only scenery I will take in is tarmac and roadkill.

    Highlights of the Bali tour were:

  • Temples. Bali has a ludicrous number. There must be thousands of them. The best were Pura Besakih, Tanah Lot, Ulun Danu and the carvings at Singaraja. This is Ulun Danu at dawn:



  • The Makepung. In Negara, at the far west of the island, the locals hold bull races in the summer. It was a monumental struggle to find out when and where the thing was happening but it proved to be well worth the effort. I expected a small event but when we got there we found literally hundreds of bulls tethered to small carts. The format is simple. Three competitiors set off one after the other round a rectangular track and those in the rear try to overtake. It's a narrow track and you occasionally get spectacular crashes, with smashed-up carts and bulls rolling around upside down. These are predictably the highlight of the event for the crowd.



  • The hot springs at Bajan were fun. It is a holy place but has the feel of a water park, with vast numbers of small children splashing about and no doubt urinating in the sacred water.

  • Dolphin watching at sunrise in Lovina. A mixed experience. We hired a boat and set out towards what I thought was the fishing fleet. When we arrived, it turned out to be a flotilla of about fifty tourist boats. These spend the morning zooming around noisily, trying to get close to the dolphins whenever they appear.



    There is some disagreement about whether this commotion stresses the animals. I’m not convinced that it does. They reappear every morning in the same place, which they presumably wouldn't if they objected to being chased around. Also, they do amazing spinning jumps out of the water, which is playful behaviour and unlikely to be a sign of stress.

  • Lake Batur at sunrise. This beautiful crater is well worth the detour. Be sure to read the warnings in the Lonely Planet about the local guiding mafia.

  • Amed is a very pleasant village on the east coast with average beaches but calm, clear water and a very nice relaxed vibe. You can snorkel the wreck of a Japanese fishing boat nearby.

  • Cockfighting at Tenganan. Tenganan is a pocket of animist beliefs in predominantly Hindu Bali. The village is a bit of a tourist trap but worth visiting. I have never seen so many fighting cocks in my life. There were hundreds of them, all kept in whicker cages to keep them from attacking each other.

    We were driving through the countryside nearby we came across the event itself. It's not for the faint hearted - they attach a small blade to the right foot of each bird, which means the fights rarely go longer than about twenty seconds. There's not much blood, just a whirlwind of feathers and then one bird doesn't get up. Not exactly pc entertainment, but it's an integral part of local culture. You will be the only tourist there.

  • Nusa Lembongan: This small island is an hour by boat from 'mainland' Bali. It has excellent diving and some nice offshore reef breaks if your surfing is up to it. Fairly expensive but well worth it as a change of scene from Kuta.




    Environmental Issues
    There is a looming ecological crisis in Indonesia from companies bulldozing millions of acres of rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations. The UN recently predicted that 98 percent of Indonesia's forests will be destroyed in the next 15 years. This is a rather significant problem from a bio-diversity standpoint. Indonesia is estimated to contain 15 to 25% of all the species in the world. Many of these are found nowhere else and only in small areas.

    A fact that may interest you - Indonesia is bisected by the Wallace Line. The western part was at one time connected to Asia, and the eastern part to Australia with deep water in between. Thus, completely different species occupy the same ecological niche on either side of the line - for example, monkeys in the west and tree kangaroos in the east.

    Government subsidies from Europe and the US are sprinkled like icing sugar on the Indonesian pancake of development, mixed with the chopped bananas of local vested interests, smothered in the nutella of economic necessity, then rolled up and scoffed by the overweight tourist of global growth.

    Another sad situation is the condition of the reefs in many parts of the country. Throughout the 70s and 80s, local fishermen made extensive use of dynamite for fishing and bombed many of the reefs. Coral was also seen as an easy and convenient source of lime for cement.

    I am aware of the contradiction of me complaining about this while driving round the world. That's why I no longer exhale carbon dioxide. Two more rants and then I’ll climb down from my environmental pulpit:

    1) Unnecessary packaging. Every damn thing you buy comes in a plastic box with a cardboard insert, itself in layer of bubble wrap, surrounded by another box and then put in a plastic bag. As we accelerate towards a dystopic future in which the oil has run out, the continents are entirely taken up by landfill and we are living in unheated hovels on floating islands of garbage in the pacific, I can't understand why legally limiting packaging is not considered a priority.

    2) Virtually all of the 'green' things that people do – buy organic, recycle etc are just displacement activity to avoid the real solution – and the one thing people will never accept - a lower standard of living.


    Flores
    Flores is a beautiful island. The Portuguese named it "flowers" when they landed in the 16th century. It is essentially a succession of perfect volcanoes, whose symmetrical outline, were it not for their huge size, would impress the traveller as having an artificial finish.

    Food quality and general hygiene are not great. We traveled a great deal by bus. The drivers decorate their buses with dozens of fluffy toys and odd phrases in English. You have to wonder if they always understand what these mean:



    The population is tiny and there is a single substandard road that runs the length of the island, following densely forested ridges and curving down through green hills topped with swaying palms.

    Flores highlights were:

  • The incredible multi-coloured lakes of Kelimutu. I have seen "the red river", "the blue mountain" in other countries and they are invariably just a shade of brown. Here, the turquoise lake, black lake and red lake really are that colour. Despite the warnings, it is perfectly safe to walk around the rim of the black lake:



  • Bajawa: This pleasant hill town is the jumping off point for visiting the fascinating Ngada villages that sit nearby in the shadow of Gunung Inerie. The locals are exceptionally charming, although the women mostly chew a local narcotic, which gives them black teeth and makes them cackle hysterically all the time. Luba village was the most interesting. It isn't mentioned in the guidebooks and thus has the most untouched feel.



  • The much-hyped "mini Kelimutu" at Wawo Muda, which was formed by an eruption in 2004, looks like an abandoned quarry. The walk up is nice though. All the locals you meet in the mountains, even the children, seem to be carrying a gun and a parang (machete).

  • Labuanbajo: We were lucky to stumble upon the wonderful Golo Hilltop Hotel, set in a beautiful location high on the hillside outside town:



    We spent five days doing very little except diving, reading and looking at the view. If you go, the three best dive sites are: Crystal Rock, Castle Rock and Batu Balong. Castle Rock may be the most spectacular dive I have every done. Huge numbers of sharks and other big fish congregate around a jutting pinacle that splits the current at one end of a small island. I had twenty bull sharks circling me at the dropoff.


    Komodo
    We hired a boat with a French couple to sail round the islands of Komodo national park for two days, spending one night on deck. This was a really worthwhile experience. We got to see Komodo in the early morning before the arrival of the tour groups, and did some superb snorkeling around the smaller islands:



    Komodo is a forbidding place. Two stark and arid ranges of hills carpeted with brown grass lie in a disordered jumble across the island:



    These bounding costal chains are scored with shallow gorges cut by seasonal rivers. We trekked for a couple of hours along one of these dried-up riverbeds. It is the only place where there is sufficient vegetation to provide shade and it's also where the animals congregate. The split-wedge tracks of deer are everywhere. Like in the African savannah, the animals really have nowhere to hide, so we got to see pretty much everything that lives there - buffalo, wild boar, deer, dragons, megapodes and cockatoos.

    The dragons themselves are impressive but sinister creatures. They are ambush predators that lie on sandy banks under the trees waiting for the unwary. They're a bit like crocodiles - you think they're asleep but they're actually just biding their time. I saw a ranger feed a dragon near the camp kitchens and the damn thing moved like lightning.



    In the evening we had a very pleasant dinner on the boat as the sun set over the golden hills. Pascal's Oakleys were ablaze with the furious tropical sunset and I was bullshitting expertly about the financial crisis when a couple of fishermen passed in a canoe and offered to sell us beer. It doesn't get any better.



    Just as the light dimmed and the evening star appeared, tens of thousands of flying foxes emerged shrieking from the mangroves to fly out over the island to feed. They just kept coming for about twenty minutes before they finally thinned out and darkness folded the coastline into the sky.


    Charidee Work
    I ran into a great number of NGO types in Indonesia, more than anywhere else on the trip bar Nepal. As in Kathmandu, the job here involves hanging out in expensive coffee shops to indulge in smug backslapping about "our lifesaving work" and discussing the shortage of reliable local servants.

    The focus seems to be exclusively on trying to change the traditional way of life where it conflicts with western ideas of farming, parenting etc. At no point do they focus on the real humanitarian issues in the country - corrupt officials and police, ecological damage, worker exploitation by big business and the gross land rights abuses inflicted on the indigenous poor. Meanwhile, most of the money goes on overheads, into the pockets of local ministers and towards paying off tabs in expat watering holes.

    Before you start, I've got nothing against NGO workers. Some of my best friends are NGO workers. And I realise I am potshotting them while being totally devoid of the spirit of public service myself. Still, these people are convinced they are the doctors of society, whereas they are mostly part of the disease.


    Best/Worst Food
    Overall, Indonesian food is unremarkable when you stack it up against the culinary heavyweights in the region - Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. I would say it’s considerably better than Laos and the Phlippines. On and off you find very good things, especially seafood. In Maumere we had an amazing red snapper cooked in caramel.

  • Don’t miss the local dessert, Kue Bandung, found at street stalls across the country. It’s a kind of waffle covered in ground peanuts, condensed milk and chocolate sprinkles.

  • Java has a number of startling things on the menu, including deep fried insects, stewed bat and stir-fried sparrow. The bat stew was the only one worth trying. The sparrow had a pathetically small amount of meat on it and insects are never worth it. There's no meat on the bloody things, just an exoskeleton filled with slime and organs. Vile.

  • I read somewhere that a Balinese cookbook is almost as short as an Irish one. Must-try local specialities are babi guling, spit roast suckling pig, best eaten at Ibu Oka in Ubud, and bebek betutu, duck marinated for 36 hours and roasted.

    The western food in Ubud is inexpensive and unbelievably good. Highlights were:

  • Ribs at Naughty Nuri's. Falling off the bone. The queue is enormous. An Indonesian couple contemplating the one hour wait asked us "Do you think it's like Tony Roma's?". It is.

  • Everything at Cafe Clear. The fact that a vegetarian place that serves no booze is my favourite restaurant in Indonesia says it all. Have the Ikan Asli (baramundi in pineapple sauce) and the Tropical Twister blended juice. Insanely good.

  • Key Lime pie at the Fly Cafe. Off the chart.


    Conclusions
    Indonesia is a filthy and shambolic third world pigsty. I love the place but let's be honest about what it is. For those who equate tall buildings with progress, Indonesia is way behind any of its South East Asian neighbours. There are better beaches in Thailand, better restaurants in Malaysia, better temples in Cambodia and better looking girls in Vietnam.

    And yet, when I come back to this part of the world it will be to visit the Philippines or Indonesia, without question. While I admire Singapore’s orderliness and Thailand’s convenience, travel in Indonesia is an adventure in a way that travel in Thailand can never be.

    It’s the people that win you over. This is by no means a sound and well-ordered society, but you find an amazing degree of grace and hospitality at the personal level. It seems to be the hallmark of the world's poorest countries. In many ways Indonesians are much like the Pinoys - kind, fun loving and always smiling.

    The sky has been leaking badly for the last few days. Time to leave. Wither Harry? I have a couple of months to kill before I pick my car up in Buenos Aires at the beginning of December. I intend to spend a month in China, followed by two weeks in Korea and two weeks in Japan in November when the autumn colours are at their best.

    I’m in the market for a surfboard. The idea is to surf my way up the Pacific coast of the Americas. This is life changing stuff. I used to be a lazy fat bum; very soon I'll be a lazy fat bum with a surfboard on the roof his car.

    My goodness, look at the hour. Time to get ready for going out. I'm going to have a bath and everything. Then it’s out for a few drinks and back to the guesthouse for season two of Being Human, you feel me?