Today was my first day on the motorbike. I have borrowed it from my cousin for 10 days to explore some of Central and East Java. The bike is a 160cc Yamaha sports-style bike. It’s fairly new and rides beautifully. I brought my own helmet from Australia so that I didn’t fill anyone else’s with sweat and so that I have a built in sun visor. For the rest I am just wearing my regular travel trousers, t-shirt and joggers. On my back I have a backpack with my clothes and some water in it. There’s no real need to carry any food here in Indonesia because you can buy food at stalls everywhere for less than you can buy snacks at the supermarket.
The direct route from Semarang to Solo is about 100km or 2-3 hours of riding depending on traffic and stops. For the first hour I worked my way through heavy traffic on the busy Semarang-Yogyakarta road. There is a tollway that runs almost parallel to the road but I decided to have the full Javanese road trip experience. And, besides, every rupiah I spend on tolls is a rupiah I can’t spend on food. The longer I rode the more I saw the patterns that exist in the flow of the traffic. The toots of horns are people behind letting you know they are overtaking. I managed a few right turns and worked out that you just have to turn on your indicator and slowly start moving because so long as no one is trying to overtake you they will let you in. On roundabouts you just slowly all work your way through with a bit of weaving, patience and creativity. At least everyone drives on the left side of the road, rather than all over the place. At one point I noticed bikes turning left down a road and stopping close to the intersection. I went straigh ahead but noticed a carpark of bikes had developed. Naturally, I too felt the urge to join them. This is rubber necking on a grand scale; everyone had stopped to look at the remnants of a bad car accident.
At almost every road junction there was a small village or town. Each had a row of shops along the street. This one was one of the smaller ones where the stalls were just open to the street but others were more developed (“more developed” being a relative term when comparing the bigger and smaller stalls; do not picture western-style shops).
Just after the bustling town of Salatiga I turned off the main highway onto a random country road. I did not know where it would lead me but decided I wanted to see some of the countryside. To the west was Gn. Telomoya and Gn. Merbabu; two volcanic peaks that watched over me as I rode along the highway. They rise abruptly in front of you as you drive or ride out of Semarang but there are few places to view them from the main road. I would have liked to have explored near them but wasn’t keen on turning right across the traffic on the main road so decided that I can always see them on my way back to Semarang next week.
The country roads took me up into some jungle covered hills where deforestation is occurring in ernest as Indonesian farmers seek a way to make a living and feed the nation’s people. Everywhere men were felling trees or processing the timber. And around them people worked to plant tropical fruits in the newly created fields. As I rode I thought about how these scenes would cause anger amongst some hard core environmentalists. But riding here and seeing how basic some farm houses are and having done a little bit of research now about wages in Indonesia, I can see there are always two sides to a story with neither being totally right or wrong.
I like agricultural landscapes so enjoyed my ride through the countryside where farmers and labourers worked the fields. Unlike Korea where the rice was in the middle of its harvest, here it seems to be still growing with plenty of paddies submerged by water. I do think that, just as the autumn colours and golden rice fields were my strongest visual memories of Korea, the banana tree will be what I most think about when I picture Indonesia. I have been surrounded by them all day and it is only my first day on the bike.
The country roads lead me through hidden jungle villages set amongst the banana plantations and forest. They come out of nowhere and disappear back into the jungle once I pass them. The villages feel rather isolated here in the jungle where it can take an hour to ride or drive just 30-40km on a motorbike or in a car. Despite seeing the villages with my own eyes, I can’t even begin to imagine what life must be like here.
I reach a small village and see this small warung (stall) selling caramalised pisang (bananas). I screach to a halt (well, I didn’t quite screach but you get the idea), throw a u-turn and pull my wallet out of my pocket.
Soon I am eating two delicious bananas that have been cooked in a sticky and sweet spring roll-style outer. The caramelization stuck to my teeth and the goey banana exploded in my mouth. This is a food that I will definitely seek stop for every time I see it.
After an hour or two on the country roads I reach another main road that will lead me into Solo. It’s just one lane in each direction and is crammed with buses (both coaches and mini buses), trucks and private vehicles. The going is slow and the final 10-20km into Solo takes almost an hour. Along the way I see many shops with kerupuk (prawn or shrimp crackers) drying in the sun. It reminds me of being a child when my mother would do the same before deep frying them for dinner. There are many shops drying the kerupuk along the side of the road but at least they are on the side of the road, not like the Koreans and their rice.
The long slow slog into Solo and my hotel finally comes to an end near a statue of some man in the middle of a roundabout. No way am I going to walk out there to check whether there is a plaque because, even if I made it there alive, I doubt I’d be able to get back off the traffic island. So I have to make do with observing that while he looks like he is directing traffic, no one is – the traffic is doing it’s own thing on the roundabout.
The Hotel Griya Surya Solo is on the outskirts of the city in an area that is currently being renovated. Workers are building a concrete footpath on the street and the garden around the statue is being landscaped; the artist’s impression on the large sign along the road shows a lovely garden will become the centrepiece of the chaotic roundabout. The hotel itself is clean, quiet and relaxing. I arrive and am offered a 20% discount despite my already having made a booking. I certainly can’t complain given this was already the cheapest hotel that I could find online in Solo. It has an undercover carpark for the motorbike, a large common area for sitting and watching television, televisions in the rooms, a study desk in the rooms, a well-placed powerpoint near the bed, western and squat toilets, and the necessary airconditioning in the room.
The far from main street location does not bother me because I just need a place to rest and work that is close to food. And in Indonesia, every place is near food. The first thing I do is go for a walk to the nearest warung makan (food stall) and buy myself some lumpiah (Indonesian spring rolls). Then I go to another (pictured above) where I buy a big plate of rice, noodles and mystery topping, followed by two pisang goreng (fried bananas). The meal costs rp5,000 for those reading who are curious about the cost of travel here in Indonesia. I have learned from hanging out with my cousins that you just sit down, order something to eat then take any extra items you might want (like the pisang goreng). Afterwards you tell the shop keeper what extras you took and they tell you the total price. Don’t bother asking for a price up front because the shop owner will be confused. The prices seem to be fixed because I am paying on my own the same prices as my cousins paid when we were together and they are Javanese taking me to places they regularly eat. And it’s not like you are going to be stung with a ridiculous bill at the end like you might in some countries.
So that’s me for the day. I am doing some work in my room and will go out for another walk later for some more food.