Indonesian Adventures- Malang October 2009 (AKA how much can you see in 24hrs on a jam packed schedule, with broken AC and average temperature over 100 degrees)

I must admit that it has been a long time since I last visited the Javanese highland city of Malang, 11 years to the day to be exact. My recollections of the place were pretty blurred. I spent an evening there in transit while traveling from Bali to Yogyakarta. Over the last decade I have been pretty much everywhere else in Indonesia, but never back to Malang.

A few weeks back one of my big corporate clients ordered a 2 group machine for their new cafe in the University sector of the city. On a whim I decided to go myself and do the installation rather than send one of my technicians from Jakarta.

As is always the case in Indonesia, the adventure begins when you step outside your door- rather than when you arrive at the destination. This trip was no exception. The Air conditioning at Jakarta's Soekarno Hatta airport had broken down, the plane was 35 minutes late and the passengers were left roasting in a boarding hall that must have been 110 degrees or more. Boarding the plane was like the usual cattle rush, although Garuda had introduced a new color coded boarding system that should have at least worked in some small way. On board the...air conditioning was not working. Sweat was pouring off even the most hardened brow. The plane then missed its place in the take-off que and we were left waiting a further 30 minutes on the tarmac.

Arriving in Surabaya the plane doors were opened to...heat. Again, the air conditioning at the air bridge was off. It must have been national no AC day. Surabaya was about 20 degrees Fahrenheit HOTTER than Jakarta, the heat on the connector from the plane to the terminal rippled and seared all around the passengers as they made their way off the 737.

I was meet at the domestic lounge by my clients and we made our way to the car, which had faulty AC! Arrived at their Surabaya store to check on the installation of a machine there. Surabaya is Java's second city, a sprawling metropolis of around 9 million, it must be one of the warmest city scapes in Indonesia. It is located between several large volcanos (including Mt Bromo) and the Java Sea. The flat plains all around are conducive to rice farming, the volcanic slopes inland for coffee, tobacco and other types of agriculture. The Dutch used the city as a major port for export and since independence the commercial importance of Surabaya has grown even more.

One thing the Dutch were very good at was town planning. It is unfortunate the Indonesians are polar opposites.While the old towns in every major Indonesian city are typified by shady, cool and wide Avenues and Boulevards, the Indonesian contribution is chaotic and shambolic roading systems. It took us almost 90 minutes to crawl our way over 12km to the cafe. The car was like a Norwegian Spa, but in all the worst possible ways. Puddles of water were forming on the seats, it was like sitting in a very leaky boat.

A quick check of the cafe and we bid Surabaya farewell. 1 hour later we were still bidding Surabaya farewell. Then we broke free and hit the toll road. Indonesia has some great toll roads, the one out of Surabaya is no exception. 3 lanes, well sealed. Nice. Traffic flowed smoothly until we hit what is now known as Indonesia's greatest natural disaster, the Sidoarjo Mudflow (or AKA Lapindo's mistake).

About three years back oil exploration ended in disaster when the drilling crews hit a subterranean mud pool about the size of Texas. Depending on who you listen to the disaster either was man made or created by an earthquake that conveniently (or inconveniently) coincided with the drilling. It is pretty much accepted that the former is more likely. Since then millions of cubic meters of mud have erupted from below- around 100,000m a day is still oozing out. The extent of the damage is monumental. A lake of smelly, sulphur tainted mud has now devoured several large villages. The once thriving town of Porong is almost a ghost town. The Toll Road was also engulfed, so our nice run ended and we joined the long rows of trucks, buses, motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles and other conveyances jockeying for position on the narrow road that leads from the mudflow towards Malang. Two hours later, well after the sun had set into a dusty, mud red sky, we arrived.

The new cafe location was chosen because it is close to several Universities. Malang's motto is it is the “City of Education”, although I think Yogyakarta, with its 85 recognised Universities, might dispute that. .Never mind, opening the door of the car I was greeted by a cool, fragrant evening. The air was clean and almost crisp, a very nice change from the cities of lowland Java. The cafe itself was coming along nicely. Hip, modern Indo designs melded with some more traditional batiks and Mataram period artwork. 30 minutes later, machine installed and espresso flowing like beer at an Irish country pub.

I decided to spend the evening in Malang rather than torment myself with the 3 hour return trip to SBY. A quick check on TripAdvisor had identified an interesting place called “Spendid Inn”. Reviews describing the place as being lost in the 1920's kind of appealed to me, so thought I would give it a go.

The Spendid Inn has a primo location next to the Dutch Era Town Hall, and across the road from a large park. Next door is the splendid Hotel Tugu- reknown for its elegance, design and (of course) hefty room rates. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, indeed, the Splendid Inn was really living in the past. I had booked the equivalent of the Presidential Suite- the “Colonial Room” all for the princely sum of $22 (including breakfast). The room was huge, the bathroom alone the size of a large hotel room in a more modern hotel. The fittings, front desk, bar area and lobby indeed were a bit dated, but charming. The staff were also nice- although they insisted on calling me “Tuan”, which is how the Dutch insisted on being called by the unruly natives when they called the Dutch East Indies home.

The mosque woke me at around 4.30am. 11 years here and I am pretty deaf now to to the early am call to worship. This Imam was different. The speakers came on with a supercharged crackle and then Michale Jackson blared out “No difference if you are Black or White” for a good 5 minutes before the Imam came on. A cunning ploy I reckon, without the late-great MJ's vocal screetches I would have slept through it all. Not being able to get back to sleep I was surprised to find that it was quite light outside already, so got up and decided to do some walking before breakfast. I was dying to find some coffee and even at such an early hour was in luck. The Tugu Hotel cafe was open and I enjoyed a pot of freshly brewed and fairly freshly roasted Java Robusta. I am no fan of Robusta, but the Java variety is fairly solid, with excellent chocolate tones in the cup. Being freshly roasted was a plus- and drinking the coffee in a shop surrounded by antique colonial furniture and newspaper adverts was quite an experience.

From the Tugu made my way past Java Dancer Coffee, across the river where the locals were bathing and/or defecating, up the hill to another Malang Cafe classic- Oen Cafe and Ice cream depot. Oen opened in 1930. Today the great grandchildren still run the place as well as a sister cafe in the Central Java administrative capital of Semarang. The place, like the Splendid Inn, is firmly rooted in a by-gone era. Waiters in waist coats and bow ties serve ice cream and coffee with the panache you would expect to find in Italy or Holland.

Bandung has for a long time carried the mantle as being the most Colonial European city in Indonesia. In colonial times it was called “The Paris of the East”, although Saigon and I believe Vientiane also had similar tittles back then. I like Bandung, but for the share volume of old buildings, churches, movie theaters and houses- Malang surely takes the cake for being in the best shape as a reminder of Indonesia's links to its former Colonial past. The number of Art Deco buildings is surprising- most are now being used as cafes or Ice Cream shops. Another big plus is the friendliness of the locals. East Java gets a very bad rap by other Indonesians and foreigners alike for the people being quite rough and loud. This maybe true in Surabaya- who can blame them with the unpleasant heat and humidity. Malang(ians) are really very pleasant people.

By 7am I was ready for my Spendid Breakfast, so made my way back. It seemed that I was the only guest at the hotel, which I am sure is not true. I had the dinning room to myself to enjoy coffee, 3 slices of toast, scrambled egg, jam, strong coffee and orange juice. The staff left me alone to enjoy what must me described as a truly colonial atmosphere.

With time to spare before my return to the searing heat of Surabaya, I decided to pay a visit to the bird market which straddles both sides of the river running through Malang. Bird markets are not exclusively Indonesian, however I have found that the conditions found in such places is generally indicative of the civic pride and general cleanliness of the cities they are in. Malang's bird market is quite clean and orderly. The smells, odors- make that the stench of sweating birds, stagnant water and animal waste that typify other Javanese cities, is no where to be found. Worth a visit I would say.

The consequence of spending the evening in Malang was that the return trip the next day was by “Travel”. This is the term Indonesians use for the private mini bus fleets that link the cities around Java. Travel means hours crammed into a mini bus sans AC. Look I know how many times I have mentioned lack of AC in this posting and maybe I am getting soft with age. There was a time when I spent 28 hours in a bus, with 60 people, 3 goats, 8 chickens- windows welded shut- everyone smoking- and no AC...but that is another story and I digress. This mini bus had suspension that crazy trucks die for. Rock hard springs keeping the van firmly on the road, the passengers permanently suspended between the seats and the roof. The fan blowing out warm air and clouds of sweet, sticky kretek cigarette smoke. Being very experienced in using travel, I had plastered an entire stick of Rexona 24hr protection guaranteed deodorant on my armpits in the morning. 30 minutes into the trip I began writing a mental memo complaining to the company about false advertising. My shirt was wet, but at least the melting deodorant masked the smell of other sweating bodies.

The Travel made its way at break-neck speed down the sweaty alspalt road back towards Surabaya. The countryside going by at a blur as the well worn springs in the seat dug viciously into my butt.with every bounce the van made. Swinging wildly from one side of the road to other is not the recommended best way of getting from point a to B. For some reason Bruce's rough, crooning lyrics kept replaying themselves in my head - “highway littered with broken heros, on a last chance power drive...” I did recently read in the Jakarta Post that 17,000 people died on Indonesia,s roads last year....hmmm

Having traveled the Archipelago over, the density of the population in even rural Java is a surprise. Commerce- roadside warungs, tireshops, motorbike dealers, fruit stalls, chemists, Wartels, massage joints and cafes block out the green and gold of the rice paddies.

Having only side swiped 2 motorbikes on the way (one laden down with 100kg of grass), almost rear ended 3 container trucks and having avoided any head on collisions (just) meant the trip was fairly successful- at least for the driver. For us, dripping with sweat and tired after 5 hours in the Travel mini van, we were just glad to be back in Surabaya. I cant believe I just wrote that. Now, sitting at the airport plane delayed again, this most recent trip is over.

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Comment by Alun Evans on November 4, 2009 at 1:43am
Great...I am here to help! Have a friend who's father, as a young boy, was in a Japanese concentration camp on Java during WW2. His family were generational Dutch who owned a plantation on the "sloping, green shores of the sparkling Citereup River". Knowing the Citereup River well, it is hard to imagine there were ever any sloping green shores...let alone the river ever sparkled. Nevermind, when the father came out we went to where we reckon the plantation house once stood. It was very emotional for him as he had ended up in Canada straight after the war and had never been back. Yeah, the flame for sure does tend to burn brighter. Any time Eddie, seriously.
Comment by Eddie on November 3, 2009 at 10:58pm
You're telling me! But the flame is growing... Hmmmm?
Comment by Alun Evans on November 3, 2009 at 8:09pm
Great Eddie, its all about returning to your roots right? Someone said "your journey in life is not complete until you have visited the birth place of your mother and father". For me Waimate and Warkworth were not too much of a chore...Bandung is a little further afield!
Comment by Eddie on November 3, 2009 at 1:42am
Strictly Java sparrows and wild chooks, I'm afraid - I too am (as Dad was) a happily married man! The idea is growing and I'd be keen to discuss it with you - maybe even continue it when you're here?
Comment by Alun Evans on November 3, 2009 at 12:38am
Hey why not Eddie! I would be glad to show you not only Bandung, but pretty much anywhere else you have time for. I am sure you would love West Java, although its not quite as uncluttered as it would have been in your fathers day. I was wondering, do you know what kind of "bird hunting" your father was talking about? Being a married man and all I could not condone any type of bird hunting that did not involve the feathered kind of bird!
Comment by Eddie on November 2, 2009 at 11:10pm
Your mention of Bandung has stirred a spark to come visit the city of my father's youth ... I can remember the various stories he told me of the adventures, bird hunting and people in that time. Maybe I should start planning a 'busness trip' there? What do you think? :-)
Comment by Alun Evans on November 1, 2009 at 11:34pm
I stood right about where you took this picture- indeed not THAT appealing being offered Bakso while all around the fetid smell of the Sidoajo swirl... but I did see a few Indonesian tourists munching down while watching the bubbling waters. I have been to batu and also to Tretes. I really, like you, prefer Malang. Friendly feel, indeed the people are polar opposites to the beaten down hoardes of my favorite city (hmmmmmm) Surabaya! Bogor these days is perhaps closer to Yogya in terms of it being quite busy, perhaps a tad TOO busy for my liking. I am off to spend an evening there is nice in its own way, the Botanical Gardens spectacular still- considering the lack of investment in them
Comment by jonathon samuel on November 1, 2009 at 11:21pm
sorry, thats a very larger picture
Comment by jonathon samuel on November 1, 2009 at 11:21pm
Between the pandemonium of the roads, the hellish heat of surabaya and the colonial elegance of the Tugu this casual adventure of yours has left me feeling rather homesick. I haven't been to Bogor since i was very young, how does Malang-or Batu rather, if you made it there- compare? I hear they're similar. Malang is the place i've always seen my self ending up someday,it has however grown significantly in the last several years in all the worst ways, still a beautiful place though.

this is the massive dike keeping the mud sea at bay in Sidoarjo and on it a man selling refreshments for those who come to see the wake of the disaster

Comment by Alun Evans on October 30, 2009 at 2:27am
Will post pics when I get back home. The Netbook Dell is great for somethings, but not uploading 10mb pics

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