East Java – the fiery breath of the Earth


The volcano Bromo


We are ten kilometers away from Ngandjuk. After breakfast we start hitchhiking. A strange couple takes us – a transvestite and a young driver. Magy doesn’t even realize that this is a man and believes that the driver is his/her son and that s/he has three more as s/he tries to convince us. Anyway the people are nice. After that we start hitchhiking using the new method: walking and waving. One car tries to stop, almost causes a crash, and then continues. In a while it comes back, forms a traffic jam and takes us. Inside is an amiable family from Madura. They will takes us directly to the incredible Elizabeth, our host from Jakarta, who is now in her hometown Surabaya. This time we travel really fast and take the 100 km for just 6 hours 🙂

The family is really nice. They treat us to water, soda, biscuits and at the end take us to the shop of Elizabeth. She receives us wholeheartedly… and like this starts our life of Chinese traders in the small shop  🙂


Visiting Elizabeth’s mother


Leo, Elizabeth’s brother, take us in his car to go around the city. We expect again that the three million megalopolis, the second biggest after Jakarta, will be as crazy and dirty as the capital, but it turns out the place is not bad at all and the central part is quite pleasant. We enter a coastal park with many Chinese temples where they even have a replica of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. The park is privately owned by a Chinese millionaire. In the old city there are preserved houses, old cathedral and colonial buildings. Our last stop is the House of Sampoerna – a house-museum of one of the biggest tobacco magnates in Indonesia. The factory for hand-rolled cigarettes with clove – kretek, is still working today. The Chinese family Sampoerna moved to live in Jakarta. The members of the clan are so influential that until recently in their theater, one of the most modern for its time, acted Charlie Chaplin himself. All the people on the black-and-white photos look like actors in a M. Scorsese movie or like members of the Shanghai Triads.

It is no wonder their business is so successful. People in Indonesia smoke a lot. Even the Balkans pale in comparison. People sometimes smoke even in the buses, not to mention the cafes, Internet clubs and other indoor places.

We go back to the ironware shop where the mother of Leo and Elizabeth had prepared delicious meals.

magazin4eto-za-lelezariaThe ironware store “Toko Ojolali”


Early in the morning we go to the immigration office to extend our visa for one month more. The queues are enormous, thanks God that foreigners are on a separate queue and we don’t have to wait. All goes well. In three days we have to go back, pay 35 dollars per person, give our fingerprints and photos. In four days our visa will be ready. In the meantime we plan to go around with the motor-bike that Leo gave us.


The central mosque of Surabaya

On our way back we visit the central mosque, which is much more beautiful than the one in Jakarta. We even manage to see Muslim wedding. The bride has exquisite dress. It is a mix of European wedding dress and traditional Indonesian sarong in silver.


Muslim style wedding

In the evening we go to eat nasi pecel in a local restaurant – it is rice with pea-nut sauce and curry.


Our plans to visit the near-by island Madura fail. It is connected to the main island with a 5 km. bridge over the sea. The island is inhabited by the ethnic group Madurians, traditional Muslims with their own language and culture. It is one of the most overpopulated places in Indonesia and has a specific dry climate. The reason to not go is a strange bite on my foot, which caused an infection and swelling and I cannot step on it. We spend the next three days in front the PC at the shop. After putting various medicines and antibiotics on the foot it starts going back to normal slowly. I suspect I was bitten by some poisonous spider.

Except a visit to the mall where Elizabeth treats us and going to the immigration office we stay at home. We cannot sleep at night because it turns out we are not used to closed spaces anymore. If we don’t turn on the air-conditioning the room fills with mosquitoes and if we put it on we catch cold, and the same is valid even for the fan. Without the air-conditioning the temperature inside is 28-30 degrees Celsius (82-86 Fahrenheit). We secretly want to pitch our tent on the terrace but we decide not to.

One of the days Mr. Shushtari goes to visit a barber, but the result is as the last two time he did so in Malaysia. Because of lack of experience how to deal with thick beards the visit at the barber results in uneven shaped beard, a little Arabic style. Only the Indian barber in Pinang, Malaysia did well, though afterwords Mr. Shushtarti looked like a real Bollywood actor.


In the morning Leo drives us to the highway, 20 km away from Surabaya. We say goodbye to him, his mother, the ironware shop Toko Ojolali and the family’s orange house.

In short luck smiles at us and a small truck takes us at the open bodywork behind. It goes directly to Semarang, 300 km away from Surabaya. The highway turns into a normal road and the horrible traffic jams begin. The sun roast us, the dust chokes us. I was already not feeling well from the air-conditioning and the smoke I inhale makes me feel worse. I lie on the floor of the bodywork, cover myself with an umbrella, which amazes the other drivers on the road. We travel for six hours and make only one stop to eat at a local restaurant.

Maybe you guess what we eat – the favorite of every Indonesian meal, be it for breakfast, lunch or dinner: rice and curry, shrimp chips (krepok) and tempe (pressed, fried soy beans). After we get off the truck we feel dismayed. My voice disappears and my throat starts hurting badly. We have left at 11 a.m. because of the rain and reach Semarang in the evening. The truck leaves us 10 km away from the huge city, which is also the main industrial center of Central Java.



The miracle of giving (signs from fate)

We are in the middle of nowhere, the traffic is heavy and we wonder whether to continue hitchhiking or to look for a place to sleep. We are on a tight schedule as we have to go back to Jakarta to visit the Bulgarian Embassy in order to issue new passports, so we have to hitchhike. Tomorrow we have to be in Jakarta and there are 500 km left to cross. It is hard work having in mind the average speed of the vehicles here.

We are saved by magic. In ten minutes a nice car stops. The man travels to Karawang, a satellite town of Jakarta and is happy to take us. The traffic jam after Semarang is even worse. We travel the next 60 km for two hours. Late at night we stop for tea and dinner. Our driver is prepared to travel for the whole night or till he has stamina left. His stamina is over at 3 a.m We go to sleep for several hours. We lie on the back seats and he goes to sleep at the rest area of the mosque.


We are on the road again at 6 a.m. Little before Cirebon the highway begins and we travel at lightning speed – 250 km for 3 hours. The man leaves us at the exit of the highway and a young couple takes us to Jakarta itself. They don’t plan to go to the center and till we know they buy us tickets for the metro-train (it is kind of hybrid of both). So at 10 a.m. we are back at our favorite couchsurfing.org host Elizabeth. This is our personal record for Indonesia: Surabaya-Jakarta, 800 km. for 24 hours, on top of it doing it after everyone comes back home after the Ramadan.

We are back on the street of Elizabeth, where all the neighbors watch TV on the street, cook in front of their house and practically live on the street itself. Our first job is to sleep of course.


In the morning we apply for new passports. We get to know the consul, a really nice woman, and as we haven’t spoken with Bulgarians for month we chat a lot. We start living like mice in the house. My illness gets worse although Elizabeth gives me various Chinese medicine with unheard of ingredients. We go for some short walks in the neighborhood, but this makes my cough even worse. Only by thinking of how we have to cross the 800 km. in the dust back to East Java makes me cough uncontrollably.

So we decide to take a train and save ourselves the misery. After spending six days in Surabaya and seven in Jakarta I start to think that living in the city is what makes me sick.


We leave at 2 p.m. with the cheapest possible train back to Surabaya. The price is 165 000 Rp. (10 Euro). We travel 12 hours in seats. The train is full, the air-conditioner is working. After China this voyage seems like a moment to us (there we often traveled 42 hours).

We arrive at 1:30 a.m. and have to reach the other train station where to catch the train to Probolingo. We catch a cab as we don’t want to walk an hour at night in Surabaya. We sleep 2 hours in front of the train station and at 4:45 a.m. we catch the train (29 000 Rp – 2 Euro). Here as everywhere in Asia is perfectly normal for the person sitting in front of you to stretch their legs on yours or sometimes lie on your shoulders though you are strangers. This is a little bit tough to accept for a westerner 🙂


We arrive at Probolingo early in the morning and the streets are empty. We walk half asleep to the end of the town, but it turns out it is further than we thought and catch a public bus to the road where we plan to hitchhike. The bus leaves us 2 km away though and we continue walking. I start coughing again as the air is very dusty. The sun starts rising and we are hungry, sleepy and procrastinating the overpopulated Java. We dream of nature and lonesomeness. Luckily our next destination is in nature. We head to the biggest landmark of the island – the volcano Bromo.


Tengerian woman carries grass

In 15-20 min. a nice driver stops. he drives a car that hires to tourist. He has a meeting with his clients in a village 4 km. away from the volcano and takes us with him. The road is winding up the slopes of the giant mountain. Soon we reach the village and start walking on the edge of the giant caldera Tenger where the tourist village Cemoro Lawang is situated. We run out of stamina after walking one kilometer and encounter a Hindu sacred place with terraced slopes and lie under the shadow of a pine tree in the front yard. Finally! No people, silence, clean air and amazing views towards the forest. We are overjoyed. Once again we come to the notion that we don’t feel well in cities.


After sleeping for a few hours and eating some noodles we continue walking on the edge of the caldera. My illness disappears more and more with every step in the cool mountain air. We reach Cemoro Lawang. Local Tengerian women sit in the sun in front of their small houses.


Interesting to know…

Near Bromo live the last Hindustanis on Java after the mass islamization during 15-the century. The Hindu princess Roro ran away high in the mountain and established the kingdom of Tenger where people are still Hindus.


The temple Poten

We lean on the edge of the caldera and see Bromo – moon-like, spewing sulfur fumes, incredible in the final rays of the day. (The caldera is a volcanic formation appearing after the crater collapses inside itself). In its foot is the most important Hindu temple in the region Poten where they still perform pujas (prayers) to appease the volcano. We are ecstatic. The low temperatures make us shiver. We start walking on the narrow path on the edge of the slope and find a nice glade with perfect views towards the crater.


The edge of the old caldera

Sunset. We pitch the tent. Though the night will be cold, at last we will spend the night in silence, with no mosquitoes, fans, air-conditioners, car noises, shouts on the street and singing from the mosques…


The smoking crater of Bromo 



Smoke and dust over the caldera

We greet the sunrise at the tent. The view is still surreal. Today Bromo is very active and spits huge clouds of smoke constantly. The whole caldera is enveloped in dust and smoke. Soon the sun hides behind the clouds. We spend the morning stitching our rucksacks and pants.



In the early afternoon time clears and we go for a hike. We leave our rucksack at the house of people living here. There is a path leading to the  caldera. We go down on the so called sea of sand, i.e. the bottom of the caldera, which is covered in ash from previous eruptions. We walk for 15-20 minutes over this moon-like landscape with almost no vegetation.


Rider in the sea of sand

We go around the parking with SUVs and sailcloth tents used as restaurants, head on an alternative route and start climbing Bromo as we don’t know where the ticket sale point is.


Ash dunes

The price for foreigners is 200 000 Rp. (13 Euro). Later it turns out that there is no official sale point in the caldera and the official entrance is up in the village before you go down. Entering is easy and other people have also told us that there are many alternative paths.


The path to Bromo


So close to the crater

Climbing is easy: it takes 10-15 minutes on covered with ash steep staircase. We come in the perfect moment as there are no foreigners except us. Coming closer to the edge we hear the fearsome eruptions of ash getting louder. We almost run the last few meters and step on the tiny, ashy edge. We face a mind-boggling view.


Bromo being highly active

We are in stupor. The walls have turned green from the sulfur and go steeply down to a round unreal hole from where smoke erupts with thunders. We are witnessing something incredible – the eruption of a volcano. It is not possible to not be in awe seeing the power of the Earth’s bowels. This is the most incredible thing we have ever seen!


The edge of the crater

We step enchanted near the stone wall over the edge not so sure if this is a good place for nonchalant walks. In some other country maybe bigger area will be closed for tourists, but Indonesia allows more. Though this looks like a life-endangering situation we can’t leave. The feeling is so intense. This direct contact with the strong forces of Nature makes us think how fragile the human being is. Little statue of Ganesha with offerings in front of it tries to appease the volcano evoking feelings of admiration in local people for centuries.



We manage to leave the magnetic crater and head back down to the sea of sand. The Hindu temple Poten is at the foot of the volcano but sadly is closed so we cannot visit it. We slowly head to our glade. In seconds weather changes. It starts raining slightly. Mist envelopes the plateau. We enter our tent in the silence of the misty afternoon.


Tengerian horseman


Back to the bivouac



Morning view

Today we plan to reach the most eastern town in Java Banuyangi. It is 250-300 km. away. In the morning, while we are watching the white, thick mist enveloping Bromo, we don’t suspect what hitchhiking horrors has the island prepared for us for one last time.


Breakfast: fries, coco-nut and red banana

It all starts with the walk to the village down 5 km. away and after it a SUV full of fans passes by and takes us. Then a water cistern takes us on a hitchhike. Half way to the plains we stop. The last 20 km. to Probolingo we pass inside the bodywork of a small truck. We have again the rare opportunity to enjoy the dust, exhaust gases and overheating. Welcome to the plains. Hitchhiking goes on in a truck loaded with oranges and a family with deaf daughter who leaves is in the center of Jember. Every hitchhiker knows the horror of being left in the center of a big city you don’t want to visit. This usually results in an hour or two of walking or trying to find a public bus which in Indonesia also means you have to bargain a lot about the price. We catch a mini-bus to God knows where but luckily it goes in our direction and takes us out of town.

Outside is already dark and we try night hitchhiking. An old man with a truck loaded with oranges takes us. The road conditions are as always crazy – broken bus causes horrible traffic jam which thanks God is in the other lane. Further on two trucks are turned over on their side and then we see some road racketeers who have put sand on the road as if they are fixing it and gather money. Motor-bikes and buses overtake us with suicidal maneuvers. Along the narrow road there is an endless row of houses, rice fields, sugar cane plants and oranges. The air is grey of the smoke from the burning fields.

We really hope that the other islands are not so densely inhabited. Overpopulation is a real plague to the Earth. The old man leaves us in some village 30 km away from Banuyangi. It is 9 p.m. and hitchhiking doesn’t go well. We can sleep in the yard of a nearby mosque (not a good option though because the Muezzin will start singing at 4-5 in the morning) or in the house of a strange young man wearing a traditional chalk on his head. Every time we lift our thumbs he starts shouting that it is impossible that someone stops and at the same time tries to stop a bus for us and simultaneously invites us to sleep at his home.

Seeing all this we decide to hitchhike till the end. Magically (as usually :)) in an hour we are saved. Two shiny white cars stop by and ten men in uniforms go out of them. They are going to our final destination Banuyangi. After some time they are so impressed by our travels and stories that they decide to digress and leave us near the last landmark we want to visit on Java – the crater Ijen. They leave us in a nice coco-nut palm forest a little worried how we will survive in the middle of nowhere, but this is the best place for us.

We pitch our tent in the dark. It is 11 p.m. The summary of the day is 300 km hitchhiking done for 12 hours without stopping to even eat and embarking on 8 vehicles in total.


Camping in the middle of nowhere


While we are having breakfast a waiter from the nearby restaurant comes and invites us at their place and tells us we can take a shower there. We gather our stuff and go there to bathe. A big surprise awaits us. The restaurant is in the middle of a forest and looks heavenly. All is in green plants, beautiful flowers, palms and perfectly arranged bamboo shelters. The music playing inside is traditional Javanese. We haven’t seen such a place on Java. We are surprised by the low prices and the exquisite dishes they serve here.

While we are charging the camera the waiter comes and says politely: “we have a free menu for you. What would you like to order?” Our jaws drop. They bring us rice with vegetables, tempe (fried soya) and ice tea. All is so delicious! How this fairy-tale miracles keep happening I cannot tell!. Here is the address of this incredible place if you happen to be here: “Pondok Indah” km 8 Jalan Raya Licin. It is on the road to Ijen.


Magic breakfast

We go out on the road and in ten minutes four youngsters from Bali take us. They are headed to the crater. Like this we cross the last 30 km. thorough villages and wild jungle like we have not seen yet on the island. We get off before the barrier as we have to enter secretly again. The entrance fee for foreigners is more than 100 000 Rp (6,50 Euro). We step on a leafy path that soon disappears. We start cutting plants with the machete. Form time to time we see trails of tapir – one can easily notice the funny marks of his big paws.

In an hour, covered in twigs and dry leafs, we manage to connect to the main path literally 100 m. after the barrier. We walk rapidly so no one sees us. the pathway is wide winding in the pine tree forest. It is very silent. The last 5-6 Indonesian tourists descend and we are the only one in the mountain now. Views are awesome. Below us is a sea of clouds. In one and a half hour we reach the crater itself.


First encounter with Ijen

Ijen makes us literally dizzy with its beauty and with its smelly gases. At the bottom of the caldera there is a green acid lake which we barely see because of the smoke. On the narrow path going down the lake there is a sign that prohibits tourist to go down because of the poisonous gases. The only frequent visitors here are the workers carrying giant pieces of sulfur on the huge uneven stairs.


Workers carrying sulfur

Interesting to know…

The workers carry bamboo baskets full of sulfur that weigh 70-90 kg (!!!) Everyday they go down and up the craters edge at least two times (without carrying this weight the journey takes 40 min and the displacement is 300 m) enveloped in sulfur smoke. From the edge the sulfur is put in bags and is then carried to distribution points where it is weighed and payed for.


The impossibly heavy baskets


Layers of sulfur

We sit enchanted in the moon-like yellowish landscape. Mr. Shushtari tries to lift one of the baskets and fails. How do this thin men do it?! At this time of the day all are resting in the barracks half a kilometer down the path. Suddenly two workers arrive carrying food and water and head down the horrible sulfur smoke. It turns out they are the guards who will sleep down.


Workers down the crater

The scenery seem pretty scary to us just to visit let alone sleep. We start talking to them and with coughing they start telling us about their everyday life. Most of them work here form 10 years and are happy because they make more money than the average Indonesian worker. They make 5 million rupee per month (325 Euro) but this costs them shortened life and pulmonary diseases. Later the guards disappear in the smoke and we wonder what exactly is down there to guard?


The night guards



We climb a hill away from the smoke and pitch our tent near some low bushes. We have an amazing view towards the crater and the nearby volcanoes. Night falls on us, the guards and Ijen. Temperatures fall down as we are at 2300 m (7550 feet). We set fire to warm ourselves and cook. Soon we will embark on an adventure. We will descend the crater without masks in order to see the “blue flame”.


Interesting to know …

There are only two volcanoes in the world where one can see the phenomenon called “blue flame”, a chemical reaction where the sulfur gases burn in blue and could be seen only at night.

It gets dark and we see blue shining down. It is absolutely magical! We put on our head lanterns and some cloth on our faces and head to see this miracle of Nature. The wind blows in the right direction so the smoke rises up and we can see the path. We step on the giant stones and in 15-20 min we are down. Last curve and we see the “blue flame”. It is incredible! The flames are over 3 meters high and look like huge blue dancing ghosts. The smell of sulfur is unbearable. We try to catch the “blue ghosts” on camera but with little success.


The blue ghosts

A shadow of panic crawls in us. In the middle of this hell scenery I pull Mr. Shushtari’s sleeve and tell him we have to get out. Everything inside me screams to leave right away. Smoke starts going up from a hole 10 m. away from where we stand. The wind changes direction and the smoke chokes us. We start running up the path which is now hard to see because of the smoke. Our hearts beat rapidly. We cough and stumble on the stones. At the end we go out without being suffocated. Every step of the way I think of the workers who go down there every day (maybe until recently they didn’t even had masks) and the guards who sleep somewhere down the sulfur holes.




4:30 in the morning. Organized group tours start arriving in the dark. Tens of westerners come to see the blue fire before the sunrise. In our sleep we hear comments of astonishment in French, English, German, Spanish and Russian… “Look a tent! Someone is camping on the edge of the crater!” Only if they knew that down there the crater there are people sleeping their jaws would have dropped. The wind blows in our direction and the smoke chokes the tourists, making them cough at every step, but we don’t feel anything inside the tent. We wake up in an hour or two. It is still cold and gases are in the air. Because of the smoke one can’t see the lake nor the flame. Most of the groups have already start descending sad that their tour failed and they didn’t see anything.


Wild cock

At nine there are only a few people left. Wind changes its direction and we see the beauty of it all and the sparkling green acid lake. A gift for breakfast!



The acid crater lake

We descend back to the base and decide to go through the barrier counting on the fact that there are many tourists and no one will remember who went through there in the morning. We go out on the main road. There are no cars passing by except some SUVs with tourists inside. We wait for an hour and a French girl with a hired car and a driver takes us directly to Banuyangi. The woman is very amiable, she is a designer from Paris. They leave us at the main road. From here we have to cross the last 20 km. to the port. Soon a young family takes us and they decide to get us to the port, though they are going somewhere else. This is the last hitchhike we do in Java. We eat nasi pecel (rice with peanut sauce) at a nice restaurant near the port, which costs us the dazzling 5000 Rp. (0,32 Euro) 🙂

We head to the loading dock where trucks go inside specially designed ferries. After asking many drivers we finally find one who is OK to take us inside his cabin. Like this we enter the ship for free and our mission to reach Bali hitchhiking is complete 🙂

We leave the quay. We visited some unique places on Java, but feel tired by the overpopulation, the garbage, the dust and the constant waiting on the filled with vehicles, bad roads. The two months and a half we spent on Sumatra and Java took their toll on us. We really hope that the islands we plan to visit next are different as they are much smaller and less populated. We urgently need some rest and we put all our hopes on Bali 🙂


Bromo – is this real? 🙂




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