Sidebar: Couch to 5km week 3 (Indonesia)

Week 3 of my Couch to 5km was tough. Not because of the running but due to the gastro. This week’s regime was:

  • 5 minute warm up walk
  • 90 seconds running, 90 seconds walking
  • 3 minutes running, 3 minutes walking
  • Repeat the two run/walk sets once
  • 5 minute cool down walk.

I took videos of my sessions, which I am sharing to show you the cities where I have been.

It all started really well last Tuesday with a run through the streets of Semarang. I enjoyed running along the wide footpath between our hotel and Simpang Lima.

Then I got sick and my next run wasn’t until this week Monday when I finally had enough strength to get back out on the road. I felt lethargic running the session on Monday but I am determined to get fit again so did it.

I backed up on Tuesday with a morning run in Solo. Here the roads were busy but I again found a wide footpath for most of the run.

King Hoo Ping ceremony (Semarang, Indonesia)

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The scent of incense and sounds of chanting and chimes fill the air. We on’t now what will happen next but we watch to see. The air was still a moment ago but since the prayers started it has become windy. My cousin tells me that the wind comes because it is the souls of those passed coming back for the ceremony. Flags that were still a few moments ago wave as the wind gusts the table. The souls have come to join us for the annual King Hoo Ping ceremony at my uncle’s old house in Semarang’s China Town.

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After attending church with one of my cousins this morning, we have been invited to come to the King Hoo Ping ceremony from midday. Naturally, we agree enthusiastically. It turns out this is an important ceremony for my family and their friends. My uncle was raised by a Chinese family and my cousins grew up in the heart of Semarang’s China Town area, spending their days playing in the many temples that abound here. They uphold the Confucian tradition of King Hoo Ping to honour the deceased every year.

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The tables are set with an abundance of food. There are bowls of rice, birds, vegetables, fruits, beers and all manner of foods I don’t recognise. People stand and sit around the tables talking and watching the ceremony. I realise we are actually just partying in the street of the kampung with a big tent over our heads for shade from Semarang’s searing heat. Everyone is festive.

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My uncle arrives just after we do. This is the first time I’ve seen him among people other than the family. I see how well respected he is. And how many laughter lines he has around his eyes. Every time I look he is smiling with someone. He asks me to take photos of him praying at the head of the table. He is one of three sponsors of this ceremony, which is a great honour. To be a sponsor you must receive approval from the spirits; it is not something just anyone can do. My cousins tell me that about a decade ago someone tried to move this ceremony to another nearby location. My uncle was a sponsor and said “okay but you must first ask the souls for permission”. The people didn’t ask the souls and moved the ceremony anyway. That year during the King Hoo Ping ceremony the winds came and blew the tent and tables away. So now the ceremony is back outside my uncle’s house where the souls seem to be happy.

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As I stand there watching the incense rise from the sticks standing in the food offerings something strange happens. Someone special to me appears beside me and touches my shoulder. I know she is here just as she was with me on Kumano Kodo back in Japan. On that occasion her message was that I should not walk the Camino de Santiago di Compastella. A decision that led me to the wonderful experiences I had in Hungary.

On this occasion her presence is again linked with an important travel-related decision I have made. See, last night I decided to end my nomadic life after Turkey. I have enjoyed the experience but am ready to have a new more balanced way of living. One in which I am not just wandering aimlessly but in which I have a home from which I take specific adventures. A life in which Paul and I travel together to see new places and have new experiences, both at home and abroad. I had booked flights to Cambodia in November but have decided not to board that flight. Instead, I will be home with Paul from mid-October to late-December when we head to Europe for the winter. I need structure in my life so from 1 September I have increased my workload to 3 days a week and committed to attend my office on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays when I actually am in Brisbane. That still leaves me the luxury of a four day weekend every week. And I still have the flexibility to travel whenever I want and work my three days a week while traveling. But I think for a little while I want to enjoy some routine of work, fitness training, weekend adventures and road trips with Paul. I hope we can still travel overseas for 2-3 months a year because there is so much more we need to see and experience. But I want to do most of it with Paul; not alone. And, as the spirit of my friend stands behind my at the ceremony, I know that I have made the right decision. Because suddenly I feel at peace and after this day the gastroenteritis will suddenly clear.

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And that’s how I find myself at the Matahari in the evening buying three pairs of business pants and three business shirts at a buy two get one free sale.

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I also buy the first pair of jeans I’ve owned in almost exactly a decade to signify that my wardrobe can expand a little beyond lightweight traveling clothes.

I am excited about the next chapter. I look forward to dropping the two trouser sizes I have gained this past 18 months and feeling attractive again. I can’t wait to have friends around for dinner more regularly and to spend more quality time with my family. It will be fun to have work colleagues and a professional life again in a more regular part-time capacity. And I get goose bumps knowing that Paul and I will have more time together instead of having our relationship tucked into my travel schedule.

Holy Stadium Semarang (Central Java, Indonesia)

The leader of music and worship gees up the faithful. He jumps and claps and dances. As songs begin he calls out “1-2-1-2-3-4” as though we are at a rock concert. And the congregation respond. They sing songs to praise Jesus and the Lord (who, by the way, is Allah in Bahasa whether you are Muslim or Christian). For an hour the faithful stand and sing their lungs out at the encouragement of the Music and Worship Leader. Costumed dancers perform various liturgical dance routines on stage. There are three or four groups: purple, golden, cloth-winged and flag bearing. Unlike the droll songs in the Catholic  and Anglican masses with which I am familiar, there is no missing this beat today. You would have to be very determined not to tap you toes or sway your body so it’s easy to see why the faithful are waving their hands in the air, clapping and singing with gusto. Their intent is genuine. Their song a massive huge prayer.
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I’ve come to the Hillsong Holy Stadium in Semarang with one of my cousins and her family. They have been members here since 2008 and appear heavily involved in their church. The stadium can hold 12,000 people (no, that is not a typo). Today it is half full. So that means I am among about 6,000 people here today. That’s a huge number of people in church on a Sunday. And another 6,000 will come tonight, many of whom are not here this morning. I doubt the average Anglican or Catholic Church at home could even seat 200 people let alone 6,000 with room to spare.

God is definitely present in the Holy Stadium. Of this I have no doubt. I feel his presence throughout the service even though I am not a Hillsong follower. I can see why so many people are drawn to the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. Personally, I am more a blue sky cathedral kinda guy (see this Adam Brand song for what I hear when I say this) but I can respect that others pray in churches with communities and appreciate the way the spirit fills spaces where such prayer takes place.

A pastor from America gives a teaching. He talks about the need to give money to feed and cloth the poor. Prayers alone are not enough he says. You must tithe and give money to buy the food and clothes. In a way he is right. We can’t solve world hunger merely through wishes. It takes money to buy food. And I do believe every working person should donate a portion of their income to charity. Interestingly it is only since reducing my income that I have found myself more committed to this. I used to donate sporadically and only less than 0.5% of my annual salary – quite abysmal really. But I have changed that during my Looking For 42 experience – without the need for a church to demand it of me. There is also a dark side to that call in that it could cause members of the congregation to give more than they actually can afford, leading to marital tension and other problems. Not to mention the issue of the way some churches spend money on material goods and high salaries. So there are definitely ying and yang issues here.

I feel grateful to my cousin for allowing us to attend her church. It was a positive and educational experience. It felt good to be in a place of worship. I probably needed it because it’s been a while. And I do leave feeling as strong in my faith as ever (I may not belong to any church but I definitely know myself to be a man of faith).

Ice cream fondue and Semawis market (Semarang, Indonesia)

I’m feeling a bit better this morning. I actually slept last night and we don’t get picked up by my cousins until midday. That leaves plenty of time for sleeping. I have a few dry sweet cookies that Paul bought me last night with a hot unsweetened tea for breakfast in our room. We watch the IAAF Athletics World Championships on the television and relax. I feel a little more human today. 

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We’ve arranged to take my cousins and their kids to Hagen Daz for ice cream fondue. This is the only place I know where you can buy this wonderful treat made with real melted chocolate, not a mere chocolate flavoured sauce. I’ve been looking forward to this all week and am so grateful to be starting to feel better. We talk and laugh and eat ice cream. The children are especially excited by the experience, even though they are still wary of this strange blue-eyes white man they are told to call “Oom” (uncle). ( Note: Credit for the beautiful photos to my partner Paul)

We stay at the Paragon Mall together all afternoon because we have lunch there. I can just get down about three or four mouthfuls of nasi goreng (Javanese style fried rice). But at least my relationship with the bathroom isn’t as strong anymore. 

It’s after 4pm when my cousins drop us at a massage place near our hotel for reflexology. We have been missing this part of our trip in Semarang with me being sick. The shop only has one therapist so we take turns having a one hour treatment each. If you are in Semarang I cannot recommend SyncQ’s Massage in China Town strongly enough. The guy is fantastic and trains his staff so they will be good too. It’s the first time anyone treating my feet has noticed and worked around my heel spur or tight painful Achilles’ tendon. And I had to stifle a laugh when he mentioned that my feet have the same structure as a woman’s feet. Hahaha. I guess he knew what he was talking about but not why. 

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Feet massaged we walk back to our hotel. It’s now after 7pm and the Semawis Market is in full swing. We take in the sights and smells but I am not yet ready to risk local food. I am feeling about 85% of my usual self and want to be 100% tomorrow for our last day in town. So, instead we drop off our gear at the hotel and take teo becak (trishaws) to McDonalds (don’t judge … It’s  only food). The good news is that I am feeling hungry for the first time in days so have no difficulty eating my double cheese burger then stopping at Baskin Robbins for dessert (I didn’t eat much of the ice cream at Hagen Daz). 

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We end the night on a high note when we find a bookshop. Despite my being so ill, we have decided to return regularly to Indonesia. We both love it here, it is so close to home and we have enjoyed spending time with family. We have already made an arrangement with one of my cousins that we will all three train so that next year we can hike up Gn. Muria, Gn. Ungaran and Mt. Telemoyo. I might also try to organise a hike of Gn. Merbubu during the same trip. But to really enjoy these plans we need to speak some Bahasa. So we buy some children’s books, a phrase book, a dictionary and a teenage fiction book. The last one is just a personal challenge for myself. It will help me measure my progress as more of the words in the book become familiar. My vocabulary has probably tripled already since last year to cover more words and three separate base sentences:

  • A is from X (e.g. “Saya dari Australie” or “Saya sepupu dari Semarang“). 
  • B likes Y (e.g. “Saya suka coklat” or “Kau suka pisang?”)
  • C wants Z (e.g. “Saya mau tiket keretaapi” or “Nina mau minumum dingen?”)

I also know the greetings for morning, afternoon, evening and night time; how to say and respond to “How are you?”; how to ask price; my numbers up to 99 (learned the hard way after making a mistake on a bargained price by a factor of ten … Haha); mother, father, cousin, child, grandmother; many foods including hot, cold, sweet, unsweetened, salty and sour; and of course the important yes, no, thank you and delicious. It’s not enough for a conversation but just writing this I realise I have learned a lot in just two trips here. Imagine how much Paul and I can learn in a year by speaking some Bahasa together at home.

I feel good for the first time in a week. Last night I just wanted to go home. Tonight I am happy (saya senang). 

A day around Semarang (Central Java, Indonesia)

After almost not sleeping at all I try to perk up in the morning. My cousin is coming to take us to some cool places. He arrives at 11am and I am armed with lots of bottled water for the day. 

Our first stop is lunch. I have taken the anti nausea tablets so try to down some swikee (frog) and fried goose. It’s a struggle but I manage a few mouthfuls of frogs leg and fried goose. It tastes delicious but soon my stomach is angry with me again. For the rest of the afternoon I will become an expert at squatting and washing in the traditional way. Not a skill you want to have to master. 

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We go to Masjid Agung Jawah Tengah (Big Mosque of Central Java). Like the other places we visit today, I came here last year with my same cousin. But Paul hasn’t been and now it is dry season so will be totally different. The views from the tower next to the mosque are vast. Semarang sprawls into the distance as a mix is red tile roofs. I find it mesmerising, even in my weakened state. 

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I fall asleep in the car en route to our next stop: the monkey forest. The air con is soothing and I feel so week from almost not eating in two days. But the monkey forest cheers me up. It’s fun to watch the cheeky creatures at play. They steal food from shops and every person carrying a plastic bag becomes a target of their greed. The males are big and bossy compared with the tiny females. Many have babies and we laugh as a male shows us why. There is no romance involved at all; he just mounts the unsuspecting girl and has his way. 

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Our route home takes us past Sam Poo Kong temple. It’s big and red and magical. I don’t take in much until I am swamped by a crowd of school children. “Hello Mister. What is your name? Where are you from?” It’s the only three phrases anyone here knows. I answer and agree to pose with the children for a photo. I’ll never get used to this part of travel in Asia. But I am learning to smile about it. 

I cancel dinner with my family because I am just too unwell. And the idea of street food makes me want to retch. So Paul very kindly takes a taxi to McDonalds to buy me a burger. We could phone order but even people who speak good English struggle to understand us over the telephone with many frustrating misunderstandings being common. And so I resume my position on the shower floor while Paul is out. I force half a double cheese burger down my throat and fall into a horrible half sleep, waking about twenty times to continue my relationship with the toilet. I am ready at this point to get on a flight home. I don’t want to be in Indonesia anymore because I just feel so sick and weak. 

Movies and Lawang Sewu (Semarang, Indonesia)

I’m as sick as a dog. I barely slept last night and spend the morning “enjoying” an intimate relationship with the toilet. But at some point we just have to go out.

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We take a taxi to Paragon Mall where there is a XXI cinema. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is showing and is starting now so we buy tickets, popcorn and a drink. The movie is rubbish but the seats comfortable and popcorn is the first food I’ve been able to stomach in about 30 hours so that’s a good thing. 

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The movie ends and we know we should eat but I can only face Western food. The thought and smell of local food is making me gag after having caught a bug yesterday. I decide McDonalds, thinking there is one close by. It’s not healthy or glamorous but when I am sick it’s familiar and comfortable. But McDonalds isn’t close by at all and there is a political demonstration of sorts going on outside. It is peaceful with music and dancing so we carefully walk past it away from the shopping mall towards where I believe McDonalds is located. We have little other choice because the demonstration blocks the entire road. 

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There is no McDonalds but we do come to Lawang Sewu (Place with 1000 Doors). While I don’t feel up to going in we are here so I suck it up. We pay for a guide and set off to hear all about this place that was once the headquarters of the Indonesian railway company. The guide tells good stories and takes us through to look at the stained glass window,any doors and attic. Unfortunately, the scary basement with its prison ghosts is being renovated and off-limits. Maybe next time it will be open. 

The demonstration is over when we leave but it proved challenging to find a taxi who will stop for us. They are also not stopping for locals so must be pre-booked or ending their shift. By now I have overdone it in the heat and am feeling feint. I am so glad when a taxi finally does stop and take us back to the hotel. 

At night my cousins take me to a clinic. The doctor diagnosed bacterial gastroenteritis and prescribes a concoction of antibiotics, anti nausea medicine, anti reflux education and something else that I’ve forgotten. I take the medicine with food at my uncle’s house and feel a lot better. It allows me to enjoy the time with my family. 

The trouble starts when I get back to the hotel. I endure a horrendous night of extremely watery stools and I even have a disgusting accident in my sleep … That is how sick I am. Dr Google tells me that it is probably a side effect of the antibiotics. They can kill good bacteria indiscriminately, causing worse problems than they are intended to cure. All I know is that I spend rest of the night alternating between the toilet and lying in the foetal position under a warm shower trying to find relief. It’s grim. 

On poverty (Central Java, Indonesia)

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It’s stinking hot outside as we set off to walk around Semarang’s Old Town. We have no idea what to expect. Last year when I was here, I rode on the back of my cousin’s motorbike to check everything out. So this gave me a certain impression of the city. One in which places were discrete entities and the gaps in between were invisible. But walking doesn’t allow you the luxury of tuning out from your surrounds. Especially not when you take a turn down into the less wealthy parts of a city. And this brought home to me a harsh reality of life for so many people in the world (not just in Indonesia). A reality I want to share. This is not the usual travel blog post. This is a harsh post with graphic images. Don’t read if you are easily offended or want to pretend that our wealthy Western governments shouldn’t send aid money abroad.

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Let’s start with those who are more fortunate. At least becak riders have some source of income. They can take passengers around the city’s narrow and congested streets to earn a crust. But their life is not so easy. I have done some reading about becak drivers. Many are homeless, living in their becak. The bike costs about 1,000,000IDR ($AU100), which is a small fortune here. And most have to pay their becak off at a rate of about 3,000IDR ($AU0.30) a day) The average wage for a becak driver is between 5,000 – 25,000IDR ($AU5-25) a day in Jakarta but earn less in other cities. So the difference between renting the becak and earnings is very low. Especially given the harsh working conditions of having to pedal a 120kg (264lbs) bike plus passengers through congested and polluted streets.

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The next “lucky” guy we saw was this water carrier. Or at least, I think he had water in the square metal tins. It didn’t look like cooking oil. I can’t imagine he earns much either for the effort of pushing the cart around. I saw lots of empty cans in piles outside houses, so he must sell to them to the houses (I can’t find anything online about water sellers). Obtaining fresh drinking water in Indonesia is something of a luxury. Bottled water costs about 2,500IDR ($AU0.25) for 600ml. That’s a big proportion of a becak driver’s wage. It is cheaper when you buy it in bulk. But still, many people do not have ready access to clean drinking water (as can be attested by any foreigner who has eaten street food and had the nasty side effects of the various forms of gastro that tourists frequently catch).

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Further down the chain of fortune are homeless people who collect rubbish and plastic bottles in the hope of selling them for a small income. They often push these huge carts through the streets desperately collecting and crushing plastic bottles. I’m not sure but they must get some money back for these because otherwise they wouldn’t be collecting them. But I can’t imagine they get much.

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Beggars can be seen everywhere in Indonesia. Sometimes they play music with plastic children’s tamborines or small guitars. Other times they sell newspapers or dance at the traffic lights. But more often than not, they sit on the street like they do everywhere in the world. It’s sad to see and difficult to know how to respond.

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Homelessness looks like a fact of life here. It’s a reality everywhere. My home city of Brisbane has a relatively high homeless population for Australia due to the warm weather. But here it’s more visible. In one street we walked down, I counted about 15 people sleeping like this man was.

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At least the person living in this crumbling building had a home to sleep in.

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As did the person living in the shack across the creek. A shack with dirt floor and that unlikely had any power or running water.

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And, as for this creek, do not let yourself come into contact with it. Two days in a row we saw men pooping into it. So I can only imagine how desperate the men you can vaguely see in this photo must be to earn some sort of income because they are standing in the sewer.

I don’t share these stories and images to depress anyone. I just want to show what I experienced on yesterday’s walk. Balance is important. And balance includes showing the darker side of life that we often try to ignore.