East Java, known locally as Jawa Timur or Jatim (Indonesians love abbreviations), is home to four Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) for 2016-17. Yours truly is in Sidoarjo, Krupa is in Surabaya, and the charming Shreya and Caroline live in Malang. In October, Shreya and Caroline came to Surabaya for the day and helped host a blow-out potluck. So in November, Krupa and I decided to return the favor and pay them a visit.
To do so, we called upon the services of Pak Didik, our one-time Uber driver-cum-private chauffeur. On the appointed day he arrived at my house at 05:20, an impressive 40 minutes earlier than the pick-up time we requested. He assured us that we should be santai aja and just relax; he would wait for us to get ready just as he would wait for us while we explored Malang the rest of the day. What a luxury to have a private driver! This is one of the many things I love about living in Indonesia.
Krupa and I had a sleepover the night before so we gathered our things, packed up the car like we were going to be gone for a week instead of just a day, and hit the road. We drifted in and out of sleep in the early morning light during the 2-hour drive to Malang. We passed the majestic Gunung Semeru and slightly smaller Gunung Arjuna, towering volcanoes that puncture the flat urban sprawl of Sidoarjo. Further along we passed small, tidy towns bustling with children in school uniforms and cotton candy-colored hijab-wearing women on their way to work.
Before long, we found ourselves circling Malang’s alun-alun, the park that is a central feature of even modestly-sized Indonesian communities. Malang is definitely an urban city, though the trees were as high as many of the buildings. Surabaya has a few tall towers to its name, though neither city can compare to the burgeoning mass of concrete and humanity that is Jakarta.
We activated Google Maps to help us navigate our way to Shreya. She lives and teaches at SMK N 7 Malang, which is south of alun-alun and has an impressive campus. The campus was full and lively as Indonesian students have school even on Saturdays. Next we made our way back to alun-alun and beyond en route to Caroline’s kost, or boarding house. Our group was complete and craving caffeine so we went to the one place you need to visit to turn a normal drive into a bona fide road trip: Dunkin Donuts. Yup. Indonesia has Dunkin Donuts and many competitors to boot.
Finally complete and caffeinated, we set our sights on the first destination: a waterfall in the nearby town of Batu. Shreya and Google Maps were our guide and Pak Didik and his car our trusty steed. Following the map, we made a turn off the main road. This second road took us through a village and the way itself got progressively narrower and bumpier. After we crept along with no sign or mention of a waterfall, Pak Didik got out to ask for directions. The locals had no idea what he was talking about. We made a 7-point turnabout on the cobbled village road and tried our luck on a different road. This one quickly turned to dirt and led us over a bridge which, by some miracle of physics, allowed us to cross. After crossing we reconsidered our plan. The road ahead was not really a road… It was more like an overgrown cow path that possibly allowed farmers’ pick-up trucks to pass on a prayer during the dry season. It is a wonder how Google Maps knew about it in the first place.
We stopped and discussed our options. Should we get out and walk and hope that we would find the illusive waterfall? Should we try again on a different road? Should we give up our explorer’s inclination’s and just go to Cuban Rondo like all the other tourists? In that moment, an answer came jostling up the path toward us from the direction of the waterfall. Three men of indeterminable age were riding one motorcycle, hauling heads of lettuce through the knee-high grass. They all managed to smoke cigarettes and appear at ease despite their close quarters. We waved them down to ask for directions. In unintelligible Javanese Pak Didik and the farmers conversed, though through their gestures it was clear that these men did not advise us to continue on our path. After an outpouring of round vowels, hard Gs, and glottal Ks, Pak Didik waved them and informed us, in clear Indonesian, that these farmers had offered to guide us to our destination. Such is the kindness of Indonesian people!
We turned around and once again crossed the perilous bridge in safety. Back in the village, we passed houses with stockpiles of carrots and lettuce and onions on their porches. So this is where all those market veggies come from! Our new friends appeared once again from a narrow lane–this time on two motorcycles–and led us on a drive with an uncertain destination. About 20 minutes later we ended up in another village. We made several turns–left right, straight, left again–and rolled to a stop at a dead-end in the neighborhood with nothing but trees and carrot greens ahead. 4 kilometers that way, one of our new guides pointed up to where the trail disappeared into trees and mist. I wasn’t so sure… The four of us had asked for an adventure and thus far the day did not disappoint.
We conferred, bought up the neighbor’s supply of bottled water, and decided that we would give it a go. But then a new offer came up: the very same guys that had guided us here would also take us to the waterfall. Get on the back of a motorcycle of a guy you just met who promises to take you deep into the woods? My mother is surely cringing as she reads that this is exactly what we did. Shreya and I rode with one guy named Yongki (sincere apologies for any misspellings!) and Krupa and Caroline rode with another man we shall call Fikri. At long last, once we were underway on this winding, wooded road, did we finally see signs pointing the way toward a waterfall! 3 bumpy, slippery kilometers to go until we reached our mystery destination. Navigating the mountain trail with the cargo of two foreign ladies was certainly not something that happened every day, for which I am sure Yongki and Fikri were grateful. I was perched between Shreya and Yongki, holding onto the latter’s shoulders for support, and I could feel him straining with all his might to keep the bike upright. We did take a small spill on one particular slippery uphill stretch, but it was tidak apa-apa [no problem] and we were immediately back underway.
Several smoke breaks later, we made it to the “parking lot” for Coban Supit Urang, our final destination. Fikri stayed behind with the bikes and his pack of cigarettes while Yongki accompanied us to the waterfall. It was pretty nice and somehow already inhabited by die-hard tourists thirsty for selfies. We avoided the gaze of their camera lenses and waited for our turn to take goofy photos in front of the waterfall. In the meantime, a ladder leading to the top of the waterfall stirred our curiosity. We investigated and Caroline proclaimed that it “looked sturdy” and so she ascended. Yongki assured us that it tidak ‘kan pacah, it wouldn’t break. But as he set his foot on the first rung it split in half. He shrugged and laughed and climbed the rest of the way with the agility of a monkey. Despite our best Fulbright judgment, the rest of us followed suit (though with discernibly less grace). Nothing but water, trees, and mossy rocks was at the top so our visit there was brief.
Back on the safety of the sturdy ground, we made our moves toward the waterfall as the mist turned to drizzle and the drizzle turned to rain. We got our group photo (which we all agree is pretty dorky) and told Yongki we were ready to make our way back to the village. We paused at the parking lot for a salak [snakeskin fruit] snack break before continuing on our wet journey. The rain had turned the previously treacherous paths into a mud soup, so our return trip was made on foot. Yongki was barefoot the entire trip, though Krupa also shed her shoes for part of this journey. When the rain became a downpour, we took cover under a pondok [farmer’s hut] where we found Fikri was already making a small fire. Despite the tropical heat you usually find on Java, cold rain in the mountains had chilled our bones and the fire was welcome. We waited for the downpour to subside while Fikri and Yongki chatted in local Javanese, laughing and smoking miraculously dry cigarettes. Us ETAs snacked again–this time on hard-boiled eggs.
Once the rain on the roof when from drumming to pattering, we ventured out once again and continued our trek. The rest of the walk to the village was largely uneventful. Krupa slipped a couple times, we saw many carrots, and I marveled at how Yongki walked over gravel and brush in his bare feet. When at last we made it back to the car, Pak Didik greeted us warmly. He, or perhaps our farmer friends, had already spoken with a local family who offered us the facility of their toilet to wash our feet. The bathroom was behind the house and had a roof, though only a half-wall separated us from the cow pen. The family cows eyed us curiously as we lathered and rinsed our feet. As Indonesian hospitality dictates, we were fed (jack fruit) and offered a beverage (coffee). After some whispered debate, we decided to give Yongki (Fikri had disappeared again) 160,000 IDR, which is around $12 USD. Not a miraculous sum, but certainly more than he would have made toiling in the fields. He had assured us that we needn’t pay but did not refuse what was offered.
Back in the car, we unanimously agreed that finding food was our top priority. We drove back to Batu (no motorcycle escort this time) and parked at Batu’s alun-alun. A quick wander led us to a decent-looking restaurant where we scarfed down rice and its various accompaniments. Exploring is hungry work! The rain picked up again while we ate so we called Pak Didik to pick us up at the restaurant.
We made our way back to Malang with no clear destination, though we agreed that massages would be nice. Ultimately we ended up at a mall and got foot massages in one of the many massage parlors on the top floor. 30 minute foot massage for 40,000 IDR (~$3 USD)? I’ll take one every day of the week, please! The sun had set long ago by the time we emerged from the mall, so we followed our late lunch with dinner at one of Shreya and Caroline’s “hipster” hangouts. We had to-die-for calzones and tall glasses of Bintang to toast our successful adventure.
Pak Didik then drove us all back to our respective homes. Not once did he complain or otherwise appear displeased–he just assured us that we should be santai aja and that he would be happy to keep driving us until tomorrow. For his services we settled on 700,000 IDR (~$50 USD and some odd change) with a 10% tip because we’re American and we can’t help it.
Above is the video of the Snapchat story I made while on this trip–check it out!