Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Endless summer in Indonesia

“Endless summer” is what I thought as I sat in the front seat of a blue mikrolet with the window down, the sun shining in and random Indonesian pop songs blasting through the speakers as we drove past countless palm trees and up and down curvy roads that hugged the coast.

Mikrolets are a type of mini-van used as public transportation between local towns and villages when the distance you want to go is greater than what can reasonably be covered by bentor. These mikrolets differ from regular mini-vans in a number of significant ways. Most noticeably, there is just a big opening where you would expect to see a side door. This opening encourages people to stand on the runner, hold on to the roof and ride to their destination with their bodies completely OUTSIDE of the car. Secondly, instead of a regular-sized steering wheel there is a mini steering wheel that is about the size of a small dinner plate. Then there’s the music. To entertain riders on the journey from one village to the next, drivers blast a playlist of the latest hit songs. The stereo equipment in these mikrolets seems to be the most advanced technology in the entire car. Finally, for reasons I have yet to figure out, emblazoned across the windshields in cursive script are random words that might be used to indentify each vehicle. Memorably, I have seen ones labeled “Sexy” and “Obama”.

On the road in a mikrolet:

I had been invited to accompany a literature class to the beach. The apparent purpose of the expedition was to lead the students to water and let them be inspired to write poetry in English. When we arrived at Olele Beach, we trooped over volcanic rock and mounds of abandoned coconut husks to get to a little platform where we hung out for about an hour. The two lecturers instructed the students to “be inspired” and then retreated to a bench to chat. The students, meanwhile, seemed more interested in taking pictures with me than writing poetry. But who knows, maybe I’ll be mentioned in their poems later! Stranger things have happened.

Here’s a picture of me with some of the students at Olele:

I had been looking forward to going to Olele because I had heard it was such a great snorkeling and diving spot. But the water was pretty inaccessible, unless you wanted to climb over lots of painful volcanic rock. There was really no beach to speak of here. So, when the hour was up we packed up and moved to Molotabu Beach.

But before I get into that, let me digress briefly to tell you about my unusual bathroom experience here. After traveling for at least an hour over bumpy roads and guzzling an isotonic drink called Mi-Zone, I needed to pee badly as soon as we arrived. Of course, there is no such thing as public facilities here. I briefly considered peeing behind a tree or a rock, but knowing that 40 or so students were watching my every move, I reconsidered and asked one of the lecturers instead if he knew where I could pee. He led me down the path to a fisherman’s house and asked me to wait outside while he asked if it was ok. Since coming to Indonesia, I have been ushered inside many random houses to pee. Facilities have ranged from very nice to just a concrete floor off the side of the house with a bucket of water. But this experience beats them all.

After getting permission to enter the house, I hoisted myself up the step stool to the elevated bamboo floor. The house is probably the simplest thing you could imagine. There was an entry room with a small space for sleeping curtained off in the corner. After this came an even smaller room with a loose stone floor, a table and several plastic chairs. Beyond this was a tiny kitchen. There is where I was told to pee. On the kitchen floor. The floor was made of wooden planks and right in the middle of one was a sort of crudely made hole. Next to this was a bucket of water with a plastic scoop. I peered dubiously into the hole, noticing the little chickens that were walking around underneath. But when you have to go, you have to go. So I squatted down and did my business, feeling bad for the chickens below who got an unexpected shower. I cleaned myself off and glanced around at the dishes drying next me and wondered if this was really where the family pees or if this was actually just a hole to drain their cooking and washing water. Chances are they go to the bathroom somewhere outside behind a tree but wanted to offer me, the guest, something nicer. I thanked them graciously on my way out.

View of the fisherman’s house through the palm trees:

And here are some fishermen at work:

Back to the mikrolets and on to Molotabu Beach. This place was everything I imagined the local beaches to be. There was an actual beach, little shady huts with elevated bamboo platforms for sitting, vendors selling bottled drinks and food, boat and inner tube rentals and plenty of accessible coral reefs to explore with my mask and snorkel. I was in heaven. I grabbed my disposable waterproof camera that I had picked up in Bali and happily paddled around for a long time looking at the underwater life. There were giant blue starfish; black, white and yellow bannerfish; tiny electric blue fish; rainbowy colored fish; long thin pipefish of various sorts; and numerous other things that I couldn’t quite identify. One of them looked like a pufferfish or a boxfish, but I’m not sure. Another one looked alarmingly like a barracuda.

Molotabu Beach:

Group shot in one of the little huts:

Some underwater life:

Two of my students swam out to join me:

Lazy days at the beach make it hard for me to believe it’s October. I see Facebook status updates and read emails from home that recount apple picking, drinking mulled cider, eating pumpkin bread, and other very typical fall activities. Sometimes I have a strong urge to throw on a thick sweater and cuddle up in front of the fireplace with a hot beverage on a cool, crisp autumn day. Other times I think how lucky I am to be living my endless summer in Indonesia.


  1. Very good post. Often toilet stories don't make for good reading, but yours did, probably because it had a real human element in it (help from the instructor, comments about the home you were ushered into). And the photos really work with with this blog entry.

    Thanks for posting.

  2. This is going to be such a nice keepsake of your trip. I hope you can find a way to print these all out nicely and have a book.

    I check to read about your adventures frequently.


  3. Love keeping up with all your adventures. And hey...it's 80 and sunny in So Cal! No snow, cider or fireplaces for me either!