Sunday, June 17, 2007

The wonderful Majahpahit Hotel in Surabaya

As I found on another blog from someone taking a domestic flight in Indonesia a week or two ago: Of course, my first thought was the recent downgrading of Indonesia's air transport facilities to a level 2 which means they do not meet all internationally recognized safety standards and areas of the industry are in need of immediate attention. Other countries with this distinct honour include DR Congo, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and similarly struggling countries. Lion Air is not recommended and is still considered "risky".

Touching down at Surabaya airport with Lion Air, I keep a close eye on how fast we're going (the Garuda crash last month was because the plane touched down at too great a speed). Eventually my bag came out (no priority handling here!), and I head out to a pre-paid taxi, 77,000r (my book, published 5 months ago says 40,000, and I later discover it's cheaper to do it on the meter). The bus service into town conveniently stops at about 3pm (whoever heard of an airport bus service like that - must be the bloomin' taxi drivers union paying off certain officials). Would be good to share a taxi, but lonesome me will have to pay for the whole thing. The driver doesn't say a word to me the whole journey. I have asked to be dropped at a shopping centre just round the corner from the hotel, as I hate the whole "porter bag grab" thing at big hotels.

So from the shopping centre, I pass by rickshaw drivers and taxi touts, cross a foot-bridge over a multi-lane road, and walk along in the heat and traffic until I reach the hotel, the Majahpahit. Given that one feels like one has just stepped in from the pavement of a major motorway, inside is the height of serenity. I don't know how many people are staying here currently, but I hardly see anyone in my whole stay. Even at breakfast there are just a handful of people about. The girl says they are full though, with a French group. Perhaps they're out all day and just crashing here late at night? Strange.

Anyway, my room is 117, a fair trek from the lobby, but worth it. Oh my god I love this hotel! For 75$ US a night, i.e. about 37 pounds, I am staying at what LP describes as the best hotel in town, and it is certainly an incredible classy old-school colonial hotel. Lucy will understand, when I say they serve Sacher Torte. Proper Sacher ;) The hotel is only two stories, but is characterised by long walkways, beset by arches, painted white, with garden courtyards and fountains at ground level. It reminds me of Raffles in Singapore, but is so much quieter. Perhaps more like the Phoenicea in Valletta.

I have a large room with balcony. The bathroom has separate "rooms" for toilet and shower. Internet? Not even a mention of it. I'm slightly surprised that there aren't cords to summon servants or chambermaids. There are large metal flick switches for lights. It's wonderful.

I ask reception if I can extend a night, though I have a secret desire to forget Indonesia and just stay here till I fly out! I do note, however, that Surabaya obviously has serious mosquito problems. My book mentions some of the budget hotels as being beset by them, and here they have anti-mozzy lights and gadgets everywhere. There's a note on my table to say that "Fogging" will occur the following afternoon, that is to say anti-mozzy spraying of the whole hotel. One is advised to avoid the terrace between the hours of four and six, and keep windows closed. I'll have to get afternoon tea in before then, then!

Next morning, I enjoy a hearty breakfast. Their buffet has so much available, but I don't want to pig out and do nothing the rest of the day (the NYC effect), so I miss out on lots that I would otherwise quite happily eat. Kway Teow noodles, salmon with capers, etc. The mixed omelette is excellent, I must report. I wash it down with proper coffee, black - what else can one drink when in Java, after all?

Surabaya and Perak Port
Out of the hotel, into the furnace (this city is supposed to be one of the hot spots of the country, it really is offensively hot out), I walk along the motorway (how else to describe a four-lane each way dual carriageway?) back to the shopping plaza, noticing that there's an internet café across the road. There are 5 lanes between me and the café. Stripes have been painted on the road suggesting a crossing, but I strongly suspect these are a token gesture. I watch the locals. A group of uniformed employees go to cross. They wave at the traffic and cross in a tight group, shifting from lane to lane like the old computer game frogger. I go with the next group, though I seem to be on the traffic-facing side - I guess the small Indonesians are hoping I'll make a good buffer if someone decides not to stop. After a bit of net access, it's bus time! Hurrah!

Across the road again, and over the pedestrian bridge over the 8-laner, I wait only a few seconds before a P1 bus turns up. Buses are called patas, I think. It's crowded, but I manage to get a seat, and the girl next to me confirms that this is going the right way, and the fare is 2,000, or about 11p. The ride to the port north of town takes about 20-30 minutes. People keep getting on, walking (or squeezing their way) along the bus, handing out sweets, or newspapers, or nuts. You have no choice, whatever is being offered is thrust into your lap. Then once the whole bus has received, the chap will start at the front, collecting what he's handed out. If you don't want it, hand it back, otherwise hand over cash. Some of the sellers don't bother giving me things, I'm obviously a troublesome or untrustworthy foreigner!

Finally the bus terminates (one of the reasons I risked it - I was going to the end of the line!). Out in the heat, it's obvious that not many foreigners are seen here, by the stares, and greetings I receive. In fact Surabaya in general is very un-touristy. Anyway, I go to the first ticket office, and have a strange bunch chatting away at me. One is being over-friendly, offering me drinks, asking me to sit (I politely refuse). Another is yelling that the third one (middle-aged woman who does seem to be eyeing me up) loves me, and laughing in a high-pitched giggle that so many Indonesian men unfortunately seem to exhibit.


Extricating myself from this office, with promises to visit next time, I head round the back to the actual ferry terminal. Here I'm told it's 25,000 to Sumenep, where I want to go. There are lots of parameters here, I'm suspicious. Does this include the ferry cost? Will we get to the other side, and I'll be dumped with promises of another bus coming? Their English, and my Indonesian, is not good enough to work any of this out. I think it will just be a case of paying and hoping. I'll be back here tomorrow.

Returning on the bus, two guys jump on, one with guitar, one with charango, and they belt out Indonesian classics for us. They're not bad, and I thrust a 1,000 note into their bag when they come along to collect. I'm impressed that they manage to play on a bus this packed, with people squeezing past continuously, the sweet sellers going back and forth, and of course the conductor trying to collect money. Mayhem. I had planned to go to visit the old town of Surabaya, centred around a bridge, and Chinatown, but I'm not in the mood. It's too hard work here. I want my hotel back! I stay on the bus until the stop just the other side of the Mandarin Oriental. Funny to pull up on an 11p bus. There's a pollution index electronic board on the way back into town, it's broken.

It is interesting, the different atmosphere here in Java. I had been warned by many Balinese that I should be careful in Java, that it was less safe, less friendly etc. I think it's broadly true, though how representative Surabaya is of the whole island, I'm not sure. The religion has changed from predominantly Hindu to Islam, it is Indonesia's second largest city, and certainly doesn't seem to have much to offer tourists. I certainly would feel much less safe walking around here late at night than anywhere in Bali. On the other hand, most of the people I have been accosted by thus far do just seem friendly, wanting to say hello etc. I suppose as there aren't many tourists, there are relatively few touts. Being slightly edgy, I am not reacting kindly to people literally yanking my hand from behind me just to say hello.

And yet it was only a decade ago or so that riots in this city ended up spilling into sectarian killings, with hundreds of Chinese killed, and all sorts of other atrocities committed. For somewhere that has a large Chinese community and trade links with China, this is very sad. The cause was ostensibly related to deposing of the then ruler of Indonesia - hence the question of why it took the military so long to intervene, especially in what is the base of Indonesia's navy.

Moving on (slightly) - I have a friend back home who is well-travelled, intelligent (okay perhaps I credit him too much ;), and refuses to go to Islamic countries any more. He says you can feel the tension as soon as you step off the boat - they just tend to be less happy places. Very superficially comparing Java with Bali, maybe there is some truth in this. I certainly would feel much less confident in any dealings with Islamic authorities than others - there just seems to generally be a much lower threshold of tolerance, and it is precisely tolerance that all of us need more of these days, as we tread (often accidentally) on one another's toes in this crowded world. Even when visiting mosques, I am always very tense that if I step into the wrong area I will be yelled at (has happened in Malaysia) or arrested, something I don’t feel with any other religion. I have a friend in Malaysia who is Chinese but looks Malay. The Shariah religious police in Malaysia only have powers over Muslims (Malay race more or less equates to Muslim), and many a time she has been hauled up by them and had to show her ID to prove that she is not Islamic.

I suppose what I am saying is that Islam needs to focus more on its message of peace than on being authoritarian about behaviour. This god, which is shared with Christians and Jews, surely does not want people living their lives in anger and terror. Does the Koran really allow polygamy? Should the message be spread by the sword? Why are people not updating these "rules"? Why do we need Shariah police? Is it so serious? Does halal matter? Is this omnicient god who created the universe (read up about Super super novas, apparently there'll be one in our neighbourhood in the Milky way soon, we may be toasted!) seriously worried about whether people eat pork or not? What a preposterous notion. That reminds me, there are a few books out calling for the end of religion, and suggesting that religion is the source of all evil (one of them is by Dawkins). I must ask Hedge to bring a couple out for me!

At the end of the day (awful phrase I know), it's a matter of choice. I am in an Islamic country, so I will respect (to a point) these rules. Though it is worth bearing in mind that those born into this do not have a choice. What does make me angry is when there are calls to implement Shariah law in the UK! It is a matter of choice, and England is a Christian, or perhaps even atheist country. If you want to enshrine ridiculous outdated thinking that has apparently not evolved in a thousand years, don't try to do it somewhere where women having equal rights or the ability to kill animals humanely instead of letting them bleed slowly to death in the name of "god" is now a given. Rant over. And don't think I'm singling out Islam, I'm no less keen on the others. Except Buddhism, which is the only major religion that preaches and *practices* peace, and is relatively free of all this worshipping an idol (or god) rubbish. Will Thailand adopt it as a national religion? I don't think they should, but watch this space (or perhaps the BBC if you don't want it fourth hand)!

Back to the mundane! Before the wonderful home comforts, I cross the "motorway" over to the shopping plaza, to have a look about, and in the vague hope of some decent net access, and a reading book (I'm all out now, and guide book is getting tedious). The Tunjungan Plaza must be the biggest shopping centre in town, complete with Sheraton and other hotels in the complex. It's enormous, and doesn't appear to have any map or directory, so I wander about. I stop for coffee at Excelso, the local Starbucks equivalent. They let you choose your coffee beans for your drink, so I try the recommended Jamaican Blue. It's not bad. Not too strong, with nice flavour, though I'm really no coffee expert yet! I wash it down with their Green Tea Frappio. Need to keep an eye on what's out there competing with my beloved Green Tea Frapp!

Book shop hardly has any English books, apart from lots of tedious “how to be successful and win friends” rubbish, so I pick up Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which I think I bought for my Mum a year or two ago, but didn't manage to steal and read. Next, after much hunting about and confused head-scratching, I find the net café that I saw when I first came into the shopping centre. Seriously, it must have taken me about 20 minutes to find. The reason is that this part of the centre is being refurbished or something, so I kept missing it. Anyway, the net café is free! Yippee! Speed isn't great, but it's tolerable. I spend what must be a couple of hours uploading the HK pictures.

Back to hotel when laptop battery dies, and I go straight to take afternoon tea in the lounge. It's 6pm, when in theory they stop doing it, but given the number of people that seem to be about, I suspect I could ask for it at midnight without issue. Certainly they offered to serve it to me this morning at about 10am when I asked them about timing. I order one of the six sets available, the Surabaya, which comes with chicken sandwiches, potato fritter things, and nice cake. Oh, and tea, the girl adds, almost as an afterthought. I have to ask for milk for the tea. Come to think of it, there was no mention of milk for my coffee over breakfast either. There is obviously going to be live music here soon, some people are setting up. One smiles at me as he tests out the synthesizer, "live music yeah?" "Great!" I respond, convinced that the sarcasm will not translate.

By the way, I've come across an internet book publishing service called Blurb. It sounds like it might be something that I could use to print a tidied-up version of my blog at some point. Any takers? I'd have to charge a lot for the books, not because the service is expensive, just because I can only count on about 3 of you buying it, and it needs to fund my next year of travelling!! Anyway, google Blurb and see what you think.

It's Saturday night, and as the MO is deathly quiet, I head over the road (via motorway bridges etc) for a couple of beers at the Sheraton. They have a buzzing spot for youngsters, Hugo’s Club, which is dark, pumping and clearly the spot to be and be seen. I feel a bit old for all of that though, so head up to the OAP home upstairs to read Eat Shoots and Leaves and tut over grammatical mistakes. Back to mine, before the bar closes I squeeze in a portion of fries, which are perfectly done, with a slight dusting of salt, and of course some sambal chilli to dip.

Madura Island
Next day, I'm leaving, and have decided to leave my main pack here. As I'm not sure how long I'll stay on Madura Island, I don't have a future booking, which causes the hotel reception to worry I'll forget my pack and go home without! If only! Out on to my favourite P1 bus, roasting hot, just the way I like it, to the ferry terminal. There I take the next ACAS bus going on to the ferry, for 25,000r through to Sumenep, at the far end of the island, and where I want to go. On the 20 minute ferry we are free to get off the bus, and wander upstairs, where there is slightly bizarre live entertainment in the form of a woman singing backed with keyboard, and more importantly air-con!

So long Surabaya!

Ample seating for all on the ferry

The crossing takes about 20 minutes, then the bus heads off and bounces along across the island on the reasonably-good roads, taking 3-4 hours! My goodness. Half way across I am told I need to change buses, bus ticket is still valid. I sit next to a nice chap called Sadir and chat with him. It would seem that tobacco is the main crop of the island, and smoking is certainly a conversational theme - everywhere people yell "Hello Mister" then "Do you like smoke?". There are also large salt fields as we approach Sumenep. Apparently the town was the main supplier of salt to the whole Dutch Asian empire.

Walking from the bus terminal to town with Sadir, he fends off the Becak peddlers for me, which is nice, then I walk on my own in to find a place to stay. I am being stared at all along the way, it would seem that foreigners are very rare here. The first LP-recommended hotel is a total dump for 80,000. I try to haggle the price down to no avail, so give up and head back round the corner to the more glamorous-looking Utami Sumekar, where I take their standard room for 100,000. It's better than the other place, but not much. Haggling gets me nowhere, but they are quite friendly otherwise.

A chap goes off with my passport to take a copy. Goes off as in heads out on his motorbike and powers off down the street. Gulp. Meanwhile I am provided with a "welcome drink" of Java coffee. I take it the way the chap suggests, ultra-sweet. My room here is basic. I have a hard wooden bed with very uneven slats. It does have air-con though. And the bathroom is a tub in the corner that fills with water, and a bucket, either to scoop the water over yourself (i.e. a shower, or Mandi in Indonesian), or pour it down the toilet bowl (a flush). All good fun.

A “Mandi”

Time to head out for a walk. Everywhere I get smiles and stares. "Hey Mister!". It's bizarre how you can walk past 10 becak riders, and the 11th still seems to think it's worth pursuing you for a fare. I head to an LP-recommended restaurant, and find myself the only one in there. When do Indonesians eat? I never see anyone in restaurants, ever. Most strange. Here I'm given pen and paper and a menu of Indonesian dishes. I choose Nasi Kari Ayam, which should be rice - curry chicken, some of my Malay is proving very helpful!

Se Kopi Susu, don't know what it is. Turns out to be ultra-sweetened (susu = syrup perhaps) coffee, with a big block of manually cut ice in it. Alert alert, dodgy ice! What can I do but drink it quick and pray against amoebic dysentry! The curry is good. It didn't look like much, but by the end I'm full. Quite enjoying the Indonesian soap on TV, so he switches it to a tedious American documentary for me. Thanks.

All the way here for this…

Back to hotel under a beautiful sunset to plan my next day.

Basically this town is a dump, a nightmare for tourists. There are no other foreigners here for a reason. I need to get outta here!!

I get lots of smiles from girls around town, but you'd have to be an idiot to do anything here, you'd have the religious police kicking the door down. I’m always asked “speak Indonesian?", and English is very rare. Or today, the woman asked me if I spoke Arabic. Strange. Ingrriss? Yes I replied. Then she asked American? No.

Next day after being woken at 6am by loud banging on the door – apparently it’s breakfast time (!), I’m heading to Pulau Talango via a quick bit of internet access, at 4,000r per hour. Good price, but I need to get my laptop plugged in, and none of them allow it because the billing software wouldn't be monitoring the time and they don't have the initiative to work around this (like record the times themselves)

Breakfast enjoyed in the hygiene of my room, away from the swarms of flies in the kitchen

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