Arriving in Probolinggo (East Java, Indonesia)

Our morning is fairly uneventful. We use up all but ten minutes of our midday checkout from the hotel and walk to the Java Dancer Cafe where we are the day of the parade. With over three hours to kill before our train departs, we again order cheeseburgers and orange juice. Followed by iced chocolates to legitimise our sitting there using the wifi.

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The Malang train station is just a five minute walk from Java Dancer. We wait a few minutes for the train, board our economy aircon carriage and are off to our next city: Probolinggo. Paul sleeps and I talk with a local man who comes over specifically to check out the white folks. My few phrases of Bahasa Indonesia make him smile and encourage him to try to hold a conversation with me. After an hour he gets off the train and I settle in to write a university paper. I’m so engrossed that we almost miss our stop but, fortunately, another passenger tells us to get off just before the whistle blows for the train to depart.

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Exiting the train station we are met with the bright lights of the nightly “party” at the Alun Alun Probolinggo (Probolinggo City Park). It’s all happening here. There are brightly lit children’s rides that are operated by pedal power, a cute cartoonish train and many kaki lima (food stalls). It’s just fantastic and I am excited about our stay here.

We have organised to Couch Surf with A young guy called Wijaya in Probolinggo. I am always a little nervous before meeting a Couch Surfing host because I do not want to impose and want the experience to be good for them too. Also, I can be a bit shy with new people so it’s always tempting to retreat to the familiarity and privacy of a hotel room. But I needn’t have worried. Wijaya is a really cool guy and welcomes us into his home. He has had many Couch Sirfing guests so is used to this awkward first meeting.

We drop our gear in the room he has set aside for us and join him in the sitting room for some talking. After a while I feel hungry so suggest that Paul and I go to the Alun Alun to buy some foods to share. The Alun Alun is literally outside the house so it’s no difficulty at all. Our host apologises because he hasn’t had a chance to prepare food but for us it is nice to contribute something to his having is to stay.

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And how better to contribute that with delicious soto ayam (chicken soup). We also bring a few other things that we want to try ourselves so end up with a bit of a feast. More talking follows before a late night to bed for all.

Malang old and new (East Java, Indonesia)

We’re both feeling much better after “enjoying” traveler’s bellies for a few days. We’ve stopped eating street food to let our stomachs settle and that seems to have done the trick. So we’re ready to walk.  

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We start with a walk to the train station to buy our tickets for tomorrow’s trip to Probolinggo. At first the process seems complicated and slow because there are people standing around waiting for the numbers to be called. So we take a number and realise there are literally 100 people ahead of us. I watch people filling in forms so do the same. Google told us we need to change train in Bima so it’s good that we saw the customer service area and take a ticket to go there too. We learn there is a direct train to Probolinggo tomorrow afternoon that only takes about 2.5 hours instead of the 4.5 hours that Google recommended. Customer service completes our form and sends us directly to a counter with just two people before us. Easy.  

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Tickets bought we can relax. Sort of. I mean, we are walking around a Javanese city dodging heavy traffic. This huge park in the photo is actually a roundabout. It’s peaceful despite being probably one of the busiest intersections in town. I could probably lay on the grass quite happily with my eyes closed soaking up the atmosphere. Instead we continue walking. Behind our hotel there are quiet back streets with modern houses. These are a stark contrast to the hovels that line the filthy creek here in town. Here, these houses are mansions though some are probably no bigger than the house I sold last year. How life has changed. Living in such a huge house seems so unnecessary to me now.

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The military museum is nearby so we go there. Entry is by donation. The collection is extensive but uncurated. There is just stuff everywhere: guns, trophies, flags, an old car and these random old computers. The computers make me think about my dad who worked on some of the first commercial computers way back early in his career. He told me stories about computers that took up whole rooms so I bet he remembers these old clunkers too. They even have punch card.

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Leaving the museum we walk down Ijen Boulevard. It is a famous road here in Malang because the style is so colonial. I feel like I am back in Orlando, which I visited with my sister in 2012. I almost expect to see American pickups driving past instead of the zippy scooters.

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It’s hot outside and there’s a reflexology shop on a side street so we indulge. Sure, we have an appointment for tonight but at 50,000IDR ($AU5) an hour it can’t hurt to have another. Well, it sure can hurt. The massage men had sting bony fingers that found every tender spot on my feet and calves. I do my best not to pull my feet away; flinching often. The masseuse doesn’t speak or understand English so no point asking for softer. Besides, it’s probably good for my muscles.

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After 10km walking we reach Toko Oen (actually only 1km from our hotel but we like to explore on foot). It’s a colonial institution that has seen better days and the food is (quite frankly) terrible and expensive. But hey, you can’t come to Indonesia and not try experience colonialism. It’s part of the story here.

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Hunger not satisfied we stop at the Houtenhand bar. We’ve been eyeing this cute place off since we arrived. It is hipster cool done to perfection. This is definitely the future of Java. It’s creative, ingenious and stylish. The bar would be popular in any global city, particularly because it is not overpriced. And I want to make a cassette tape lamp fitting at home too like the one I saw here.

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We end our old and new Malang day back at the park in the roundabout. The flowers are lit up now and cheerfully smile on us. It’s funny how the smallest thing can bring so much joy.

Sidebar: Getting fit again

Before I started this adventure of travel, I was quite fit. I trained consistently in trail running, mountain biking and road cycling. I was able to ride a 200km Audax cycle even relatively comfortably within the 13:30 cut off. I had run a marathon and completed a 50km ultramarathon. My chosen sport was adventure racing and I could get around a 12 hour course comfortably.

But over the past year I have let my fitness slip. Yes, I cycle tour. But I tour slowly. I also hike but I haven’t done many long hikes over 10km (6 miles). And I certainly haven’t done any running. It’s like I’ve had a little over a year to decompress and learn a new way of living. But it’s taken it’s toll on my body.

When I look at myself in photos I am starting to see a return of the stomach that I had way back in 2011 when I started my past journey to fitness. When I look at the scales I see that I have gained 10kg (22lbs) in the past year. And when I buy clothes, I have gone from a 32″ waist to a stage where a 36″ waist feels very snug. It’s the result of a year of travel food, treats and intermittent exercise.

Life is good and I am enjoying it. But I have to find a balance. I love feeling fit and knowing I can tackle any adventure that comes my way. I wasn’t ready to pursue my fitness again until now. But now I am motivated and have established a new routine for when I return home to help me stick to it.

To begin, I am doing the Couch to 5km program. I have been making videos of each time I go running since week 1 day 2. And I will continue to do so throughout the program. Here’s my first five videos:

Week 1 Day 2 – I ran along the beach at home. Week 1 involved 5 minute warm up, 8 x 60 secs running and 90 secs walking, and a 5 minute cool down.

Week 1 Day 3 – I ran in Yogyakarta

Week 2 Day 1 – I ran in Malang. Week 2 involved 5 minute warm up, 6 x 90 secs running and 2 mins walking, and a 5 minute cool down.

Week 2 Day 2 – Still in Malang I ran a similar route as the previous session

Week 2 Day 3 – This morning I ran again in Malang. But this time I ran through quiet streets and along Ijen Boulevard.

My next run will be on Tuesday when I will start week 3. That will be in Semarang and will involved a 5 minute warm up, 2 x 90 sec running and 90 sec walking, 3 min running and 3 min walking, and a 5 min cool down. I actually feel a bit excited about the next session because it’s an excuse to make photos and videos.

A day out in Batu (East Java, Indonesia)

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Beep beep. Toot toot. Beep beep. Toot toot. The taxi driver attacks the horn as though his fare depends on it as he tries to race his way from Malang to Batu. He looks to be well over 70 but is probably only in his 50s. His fingers curl around the steering wheel as though they are cramped into that position. He sits forward in his seat peering out of the window, his head almost at a permanent tilt as he tries to see what is around the next bus or truck so that he can get past. It’s 45 minutes to Batu and I’m glad I opened my wallet wide enough to pay for an air conditioned taxi, rather than being squashed into a little blue mini van. It means we can take in the scenery along the road … mostly it’s urban sprawl. The taxi fare is about 75,000IDR ($AU7.50)-85,000IDR ($AU8.50) each way from Malang to Batu.

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We got the driver to drop us at the Museum Angkut (Transport Museum). I had heard about this place from my cousins who posted photos on their Facebook pages a few weeks ago from their visit here. But I still didn’t know what to expect. I was picturing a small museum. But that’s not what Museum Angkut is at all … it’s huge. And it has an amazing collection of transport including classic cars. Entry is 60,000IDR ($AU6) … beware of frauds trying to charge more.

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There is also a huge collection of interesting and unique transport such as a fire fighting bicycle from 1950 and a steam powered bicycle that predates most other steam powered land transport. These are vehicles I would probably never get to see anywhere else. And these are just a limited example of the hundreds of vehicles that they have in this museum – all lovingly restored and polished.

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But this isn’t just a museum where you can see cars. This is a fully interactive place like no museum I have ever seen before. You can stand right up next to some very cool vehicles and pretend you are the owner.

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But for me, the most fun part was riding all the cool motorbikes and bicycles. There are huge sets all over the museum. And I mean huge. Whole streets representing difference cities and countries like a movie set. There’s an Indonesian wharf, an Italian riviera town, a French cafe street, Berlin, Buckingham Palace and a Hollywood movie set.

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In the American gangster area I got locked up in jail but then redeemed myself by capturing a bank robber. And the fun thing here in Asia is that this type of caper is not something grown ups have to do on the sly. Nope – everyone visiting the museum today was an adult and everyone was taking pictures and selfies of themselves like this.

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One group of cheeky Indonesian girls even went a step further. They walked around this Bajaj testing the doors until they found one unlocked. It took all of three seconds for them to be inside the vehicle together giggling and taking selfies. Haha. I think if I were to describe Indonesian culture in one word I would say that word is “cheeky”. I notice this kind of behaviour everywhere. It’s done without malice. It’s just that people seem to want to have fun and that some rules just don’t apply. It’s the same with taking the flowers from the floats at the parade, the passengers standing on a plane as soon as it lands without waiting for the seat belt sign to turn off and they way some children still call out “Hello Mister” and then giggle when you say (for example) “salamat siang” (good afternoon) back. I think that this is what makes travel here on this loud, crowded, dusty and relentless island where a solid bowel movement is a rarity so much fun.

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Still at the museum we pay 1,500IDR ($1.50) to ride on these weird vehicles. They rock back and forward when you change direction and Paul is rough enough to find the stopper that prevents it going fully upside down. We are laughing hysterically the whole time as kitschy music plays. I think this must be so popular in Japan or Korea if they had one.

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In addition to the transport, there are also other interactive displays at the museum including this very clever mural where you can pretend to hold a paint brush and it actually looks like you are. And I got to sit next to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (Queen of the British Empire for those not from the Commonwealth). I felt like a school boy post was most appropriate for the occasion.

We also made a green screen movie. As you can tell, we couldn’t really understand the context well, just the directions we should face. It was fun though. We were given a DVD but I managed to film most of it on my mobile phone as they played it back to us because we don’t have a DVD player with us. I missed the opening credits but you get the idea from this clip.

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After spending a good two or so hours at Museum Angkut we walked to Kusuma Agrowisata (Kusuma Tourist Farm). The walk was almost all up hill. It wasn’t far: maybe 2km (1.25 miles). Along the way we enjoyed views of mountains and volcanoes. Unfortunately, the sky was too hazy to take a good photo of the massive volcano nearby.

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Kusuma Argowisata is a big tourist fruit farm. They grow a range of fruits. Today the guava and apples were in season. You pay 60,000IDR ($AU6) for a tour of the farm including (officially) two fresh guavas and two fresh apples, a yoghurt drink, a toasted bread and a cup of juice. It’s not cheap but it is a bit of fun. And (unofficially) you will end up with more fruit than just the two you are officially allowed. And you do get shown a lot. In the guava section we tasted about three different guava fruits to see the difference in age. We also were shown how to spot a fruit fly infested fruit and to select a ripe one.

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The apple orchard is large. We tasted the sour red apples that are used for juicing and other commercial purposes. They are organically grown because fruit fly don’t strike them as much. We also go to taste the sweet green local apples with a mottled brown skin. They are quite tasty for eating.

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It was worth the entry fee to learn about the crop and spend some time eating fresh fruit. Whereas on the walk to the farm my stomach was upset, by the time we left I wasn’t feeling the urge to run (and actually running) for the nearest bathroom anymore. We took home four guava and about ten apples between us.

After our day out we returned to Malang just on time to upload some photos to Facebook and then head to our massage appointment. We had our ear wax removed through ear candling and our legs and feet massaged. My masseuse was a bit rough; he didn’t understand what he was doing so it was more painful than pleasure. But I am sure it’s still good for my muscles to be stretched. We also went to a very nice Indonesian restaurant (Harmoni Cafe and Bar) that came recommended on Trip Advisor. After barely eating a proper meal in two days due to a gurgling stomach, it was good to sit down to a full meal of nasi goreng kecaps (fried rice with sweet soy sauce), guremi goreng (fried ocean fish like snapper), satay ayam (satay chicken sticks) and a mixed vegetable dish. Including drinks the meal (for two people) was 185,000IDR ($AU18.50). And we couldn’t even finish it all. I think we will return there again during our stay in Malang.

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Then we walked out to check out whether the purple mosque we saw yesterday was lit up at night. It sure was! This might be the most beautiful mosque I have ever seen. And again, a fantastic day ends with something beautiful to cap it off.

Indonesia 70th Merdeka Parade Malang (East Java, Indonesia)

One of the magical things about travel is that sometimes the coolest things happen when you least expect it. Today we had a late start, not heading out until lunch time. We’ve been staying up ridiculously late every night and now Paul has traveler’s gut so we just take it easy. Have I mentioned before that we’re here for a good time not extreme traveling.

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I do some Trip Advisor research and find a cafe that looks promising so that’s where we head for lunch. On our way there we notice that something is happening. There are more toy and food vendors than usual.

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A crowd lines the street that leads to the cafe.

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It just gets busier as we near the cafe and it’s obvious there will be a parade here today. We figure the cafe is probably a great place to wait. The cafe has a small menu with a mix of Western and Indonesian foods. We both order cheeseburgers and orange juice. Here’s the thing about Indonesia: you can buy cheap as chips street food on the one hand and delicious reasonably priced restaurant foods.

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And then the parade begins with an American style marching band followed by lots and lots of traditional floats. The music is live and the smiles real.

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The spectators are just as interesting as the floats. Scooters are parked everywhere and for the first half of the parade cars keep driving down the road.

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People steal flowers from the floats.

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And famous Javanese smiles abound.

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Almost two hours after it started the last floats enter the street and the spectators decide it’s time to leave. The traffic jam that ensues is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. People start riding their scooters away while there are still floats coming towards them.

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Whole families straddle their legs across scooter seats. This is the most economical family “car” there is around. I can’t help but wonder what these families must think of Australians’ general belief that motorbikes are dangerous and our unwillingness to take even one child on the back of a bike, let alone three. How different things are across our planet

Malioboro Ekspres from Yogyakarta to Malang (East Java, Indonesia)

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Our time in Yogyakarta has come to an end and it’s time for us to move on to Malang. Unlike my last trip to Java, we are using public transport to move around the island so it’s off to the train station.

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I expect chaos at the station but find order and calm. Mind you, this is Yogyakarta’s Executive Class station. We sprung the extra money for the comfortable train, rather than economy because we’re here for a good time and I rather pay $20 for a comfortable day than suffer away to save $10.

We board around 7:15am and take our relatively comfortable seats. It’s all very civilised really. There’s air conditioning, wait staff who bring a menu through the carriage so that we can order food or beverages throughout the journey. Security guards monitor tickets and passengers to ensure that we don’t have to worry about theft from strangers who have not bought a ticket. There’s even a power point to allow us to charge our devices throughout the 8 hour trip.

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We settle in. Paul sleeps and I work. As I do, I keep half an eye on the scenery passing by the window. The farmlands and jungles are pretty out there. I am grateful to be able to work on a laptop on a train, rather than with a hoe in the fields out there. And I know that it’s but for the grace of God that I am not out there.

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We arrive in Malang with only a half hour delay. That’s apparently not too bad for Java. The city is a jumble of old roofs, masses of scooters and bright signs. It’s definitely cooler here than Yogyakarta too, being about 400m higher above sea-level.

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We check into our hotel and the fact that McDonald’s is right next door doesn’t escape either of us. I mention that I could go the simplicity of Maccas given the nausea that is still plaguing me (at least the trots are mostly gone). He has been thinking the same thing and so we throw our gear in the room and head back downstairs to eat double cheese burgers and fries.

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We head out for a walk to the Alun Alun Malang. It’s fantastic. There’s a huge beautiful mosque across the road and people relaxing in the park.

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We then head out to find a massage. There’s a place about 5 minutes walk from our hotel and it’s fantastic. We get a 60 minute leg and foot massage with foot cupping to finish for 50,000IDR ($AU5). The massage place is modern, clean and turns out to be highly recommended on Trip Advisor – so it’s not a dingy back alley place. We end our day by making a reservation for a two hour massage tomorrow night. Welcome to Malang.

Pacitan to Malang (East Java)

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I wake early knowing I will have a big day ahead of me. I know before I leave that by the time I read a hotel tonight I will probably be feeling run down and cranky but still I commit to riding the 250km to Malang in a single day. It is a gateway city to the volcanoes of the east and I have heard they are amazing. Besides, I’ve been taking thing easy and need a challenge. So I join the mini grand prix that is taking place out on the roads of Pacitan. It’s an exhillerating start to the day and I can’t quite believe I am here doing this. A blessing I should have remembered later in the day when fatigue got the better of me.
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I am becoming used ot the way of the road here on Java. Contrary to the hierarchy of the road at home, here buses are the top dog but motorbikes rule the roost. We pretty much go where we want, holding up all the cars and mini trucks that happen to get stuck behind our humming swarm. It’s bedlam but if you look closely and immerse yourself in it, there is an order to the roads and you can ride through the pattern.
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Once out of the towns the traffic just disappears. I guess it’s like at home where the cities are busy with everyone going to work. But the rest of the roads between cities and towns are the place of travelers and delivery trucks. I love the riding here. It is brilliant. I know I will be back to ride here some more.
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I pass by picturesque farms of rice, sugar cane and corn with bark- or grass-topped shelters.
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Houses sit between fruit tree plantations where bare soil is slowly being recovered by weeds.
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Farm workers’ bicycles and motorbikes dot the side of the road as I pass below volcanic outcrops. In places I see the ocean off in the distance to the south. Here in the mountains of farms that ocean feels like a long way off when really it is but a few kilometers. So diverse is the landscape here on Java. Where one minute you are on the flats and the next you are riding a ridgeline with the mountain dropping steeply on either side and the only option for farmers is to work by hand because no vehicle could handle the drops.
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When I stop there is often silence. It’s a far cry from the bustling rush of cities and towns. Occassionally a mosque will be crying the call for prayers, a church will be playing Christian songs or a farmer will be playing music. But for the most the farms lands are quiet and calm.
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And then I am here. Malang. It’s loud and crowded after my few days in quieter places. It’s 2pm when I hit the city’s traffic about 20km from the centre. It will be 5pm by the time I find a hotel to call home for the night. In between I will experienc ethe gridlock that is caused when scooters and motorbikes are allowed to ride unchecked. As they sneak forward the cars are blocked and can’t get through the intersections, creating a bigger queue and more sneaky motorcycle shenanigans. I admit that I leave my Australian etiquette behind and weave to the front with the other bikes. To do otherwise would leave me stranded like the cars are. The motorcyclist in me loves it; my socially responsible public policy brain recognises that this mayhem is unsustainable. But oddly enough, despite the absolute chaos there is no rage being vented between the drivers, riders and miscelaneous vehicle drivers (there are some horses and carts, two touring cyclists, pedestrians and countless people pushing market carts).

I find my hotel and realise I’ve made a mistake. It has beggars on the porch, no reception and they can say “I don’t speak English” but don’t recognise the word “reservation”. Even “Kammer satu malam” is met with blank stares. Sure, all I’ve said is “room one night” but usually in hotels this is all I need to say. The odd part is that I actually have a reservation. So I try the words “Booking.com”, which has also worked for me here in Indonesia when I think the reception are asking whether I have a reservation. The hotels here all know Booking.com and Agoda. They even offer you rewards for posting reviews online so know the importance of those sites. But no, here it doesn’t work. And a part of me is relieved because I don’t really feel safe in this strange and dingy place. (And realise that trusting reviews when I know hotels give rewards is probably a mistake). Oh … if you are wondering, I don’t think they are so familiar with TripAdvisor – often the same people who write glowing reviews on Agoda or Booking.com write scathing or average ones on TripAdvisor so I recommend relying on that site instead … just don’t tell the hoteliers or they’ll fix that too.

I check Booking.com and find another hotel that has good but not glowing reviews across all websites. The lack of glow indicates that the reviews are likely to be genuine. I know which street it is on because it is near the traffic jam so I head back there. And then I do a round of the block and head back there again. But the hotel is nowhere to be seen. By now I have been in Malang for two hours and have moved a grand total of about 10km. So I make one final check on Booking.com and see a hotel has rooms for $30 a night. I know where this hotel is because I’ve passed it a few times but expected it to be one of the many more expensive places in town ($30 is expensive for me though because usually I stay in $10-15 dives). When I turn up there is a programming error and only one room is actually available in the whole hotel: a $40 a night superior double. I am tired, fed up and just need to stop. Besides, this is a nice Western-style business hotel with flushing toilets, fast wifi, clean western-style linen and hot water in the showers. Sometimes I just need to stop being as tight as a fish’s a**hole and get over it. So I do.
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After a week of cold showers and bucket washes the hot water splashing over my body is amazing. I can feel the road grime washing off me. I’ve bought a razor so have a shave. I examine the map and make a plan for the next day while remembering what clean sheets feel like (the beds in $10-15 a night hotels generally have threadbare and stained sheets that are best ignored). Then I walk outside, see a sign that says Ikan bakkar resto (Baked fish restaurant) and decide I must eat there. The food is AMAZING. I have mie goreng (fried noodles) with a fish dish baked in a kecap manis (sweet soy) sauce. It is sticky, sweet, salty and delicious. It’s all about the food – haha.