I flew from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and stayed the night at an airport hotel. This was a bit of a splurge for me on this trip - $80 for one nigh!t! But the descriptions from other travelers of getting to other nearby hotel seemed inconvenient. "Take the overpass across the freeway and walk 10 minutes to the place where you pick up the key and the hotel will be about a block away." Not happening with my big backpack. (This is one time when I properly answered the question "WWDTFD?")
My morning flight took me to Jakarta. My sister, MA, and I had plans to each get a local SIM card then find a place to meet via WhatsApp. But as I was waiting in baggage claim, I looked over to see that that the flight next to mine was coming in from Singapore. And standing there, waiting for her bag, was MA herself. I was so happy to see her!
We had no plans for that afternoon, which was good because dealing with MA's phone was harder than we anticipated. It turns out that MA's first phone was locked, and her back-up phone would not accept an Indonesian SIM card. So we were going to have to stick together for this trip.
Getting from the airport to the hotel gave us our first taste of Indonesian diving. It was awful! In the short, two kilometer trip from the airport, we learned that there is really no right-of-way. At one point, our shuttle driver was pushing his way for space against a large truck. Somehow, we won (yay!) but it came at the expense of a commingling of our sideview mirrors. The guy who was "directing traffic" (I was told that these guys are "self-employed" and rely on tips from drivers) untangled the mirrors from each other and the truck driver gave him some money, and we each went our separate ways. There were no raised voices; no threats;. It was a very civilized way to settle a conflict.
We arrived at our hotel and we finally had a chance to talk about our plans for the next few days. I had given MA responsibility for planning the Indonesia part of the trip (after all, she was the reason that we were in Indonesia). All I knew was that we had an early morning flight to Tanjun Pandan - Belitung. But I had no idea what we would be doing once we arrived.
For a bit of background, Belitung is an island east of Sumatra, one of Indonesia's five main islands. Its beaches are known for their granite boulders and calm, clear water. The town in which we were staying is a jumping off spot for catching a boat to see the smaller surrounding islands and snorkeling.
MA had been told about a book called Rainbow Troops (Lasker Pelangi), which had one the New York book award for fiction in 2013. The author grew up on Belitung an wrote the book as a fictionalized account of his and his classmate's struggle for an education on the island. The tin mining industry, in which 60% of the island inhabitants work, wanted to limit education opportunities for locals. The book has been made into a movie, but neither of us had either read the book or seen the movie.
I am open to exploring new places, but I like to have a bit of knowledge about where I am going. So we pulled out Lonely Planet to do a bit of research. There was absolutely NO mention of this island in the whole book. Not a good sign.
But our reservations were made, so we would just have to visit the tourism office when we arrived into town. Flexible Maggi 2017.
Our flight was short but they actually fed us! Just a muffin and water, but better than six peanuts in a bag. Take that, US airlines!
We landed and headed to baggage claims. One of us would wait for bags while the other would visit the tourism desk. But there wasn't a tourism office so we would just have to wait until we got into town. My bag arrived, but MA's did not. Oh well... we arranged for MA's bag to be sent to the hotel and headed into town.
The hotel was nice but I was not really seeing much in the area. There were no elephant pants roaming the streets so I got the feeling that there were not many tourists here.
We got settled in at the hotel, found the tourist office on Google maps, and started walking to the beach. It was overcast but not really raining so it felt good to walk! We continued for a while before I realized that we must have passed the turn-off for the tourist office. We re-traced our steps and consulted the map again. We should have been standing right in front of the office, but all we saw were chickens! Perhaps it had moved??
We finally found someone who spoke enough English to explain to us that the tourist office had closed. I now understood why Lonely Planet had left this place out of their guide.
As we walked on towards the beach, we saw a sign for a museum. It was becoming more cloudy so we decided to tuck in for a break and to buy some postcards.
The Museum Maritime Bangka Belitung was very well staffed, but no one there spoke English. We paid our 2000 Rupiahs (about $0,15) and went inside. It was soon clear that we had overpaid. The whole museum consisted of two rooms - one with swords and a few other pieces of military equipment and the other was full of items discovered in archaeological digs in the area. All the signs were in Indonesian so I cannot tell you ore about what we saw.
As we were preparing to leave, I noticed what appeared to be a park out back. So we went to look around. This space was actually what I will call the saddest zoo I have ever seen! There was one sad crocodile who was stuck in a pen in which he could barely move, a boa constrictor curled up in the corner of his cage, a rooster (which was particularly odd since chickens roamed freely around this island), and a few other assorted animals. I could not wait to get out of this place! And no, I did not take any pictures. There were no postcards.
We wandered on towards the beach and found a place for lunch. Since we had one more full day on this island, we needed to figure out what to do. So we went to Google for some ideas.
The few articles we could find suggested going to the Andrea Hirata Museum about Rainbow Troops, and renting a boat to take us out to the islands. They provided suggested prices, but told us that we would need to negotiate in advance. At least we now had a plan.
We tried again to get MA's phone fixed - after all, we had plenty of time in our day. While trying to get the local cellular agent to fix the phone, Buon walked up ("Buon - not James Bond") and asked where we were from. He then offered to put together a tour for us for the next day. The prices were all in line with those that had been suggested, but he was riding a motorbike (these are very popular over here) and he needed to find a car. At least we had an option..
They were unable to fix MA's phone, so we continued exploring the town. There was not much to see. We finally came across a travel agency so I suggested we talk with them about arranging a tour (and perhaps getting a map - what a concept!).
The travel agent was very nice and agreed to put together a tour for us, and arrange for a car and driver. We had a plan for the next day, but still no map.
As we walked home, it started to rain. This couldn't last long. After all, it was the dry season. But it rained, and rained all night long. The weather forecast showed that it was going to continue to rain for days. Not my idea of boating weather, particularly in a small boat that rides right on top of the waves. Visions of Gilligan's Island went through my brain.
Our driver arrived and we discussed our options. It was pouring! We asked if we could go to the Hirata Museum before getting on the boat and he agreed. Our first indication that we may have to work harder to communicate effectively when we pulled up outside the very same sad museum that we had visited the day before. There was no need for a second visit to this place.
We were finally able to communicate where we wanted to go. Our driver, Fendi, explained that this museum was on the other side of the island. If we went to this museum, we would not be able to go on the boat. It was still pouring so we decided that the museum was a better option.
The drive out to the other side of the island was interesting. The roads were surprisingly good but there were areas we could see where the water was collecting. We didn't think anything about it.
Our first stop was the museum. I am pretty sure that our guide expected us to spend about 30 minutes at this place before we were ready to move on. This was not the case.
The museum itself was small. But it was delightful! The walls were multi-colored and there were reading nooks throughout. Andrea had covered the walls with quotes from his favorite books from around the world. Many of his chosen works had similar themes and we enjoyed reading through them Each of us took away an author and a book that we will read when we return. MA bought a t-shirt, but there were no postcards.
After leaving the museum, we headed towards the beach for lunch. The rain had let up a bit, so we were looking forward to spending the afternoon exploring this part of the island.
For lunch, Fendi took us to a local place along the water. He helped us to order - why must they serve fish with the heads and tails on??? And I got to have a beer. This was a treat for me as alcohol is not easy to find in this Muslim country.
After lunch, Fendi took us to the tourism office. Oddly, this exists far from where most tourists would visit. You could tell that they did not have many visitors by the fact that we had three guides to take us around the place. And we were finally able to get a map. But not postcards.
The tourism office showcased a history of the island along with a caged crocodile (once again, in far too small of a pen), a Tarsia (the world's smallest monkey), and some snapping turtles. They also had some exhibits where you could see many of the traditional items from the area.
At the end of the tour, we were asked to take a quiz on all we learned. With a little help from our guides, we passed. Then they asked if they could take our picture. Did I mention that they do not get many tourists to this place?
As we left the tourism office, the rain picked up again. As we drove around to see more of the island, we drove through spots where the road was completely flooded. But I wasn't nervous becaue Fendi did not seem nervous.
Our last stop on the tour was at a coffee shop. Bitung, the town in the part of the island, is known as the land of 1,001 coffee shops (though this does seem to be a bit of an exaggeration). So we had to stop.
We had coffee and Fendi decided that there was one last mosque that he wanted us to see. As we were driving to the mosque, Fendi showed his first bit of concern. After driving for a bit, he decided that we probably ought to head back to our hotel lest we get stuck on this side of the island. We had a two hour drive ahead of us.
We drove for a while and made it through some mighty deep puddles. Fendi had decided that as long as we were in a caravan behind other cars (and were not first!), we could go through these long stretches of flooded waters and would be fine. I don't know that science would support his position...
After traveling for a while, we came to a place where all the cars were stopped. Fendi said that he would check in with the other drivers, but we might have to stay on this side of the island and make our way back on Sunday. This was a bad alternative since our flight left at 7 am on Sunday. I needed to be Flexible Maggi 2017.
Fendi came back and showed us photos of the road - well, at this point, it was a river. There were people rafting in this section so we were not going to attempt to drive across. Fendi told us that one of the guides had another route we could try. This seemed like a plan. Both MA and I started to pray.
After another hour of driving, re-tracing our route through Tandung, I was starting to relax a bit. That was until Fendi pointed out that we needed to be concerned about crocodiles if we were to get stuck somewhere. Seriously!
Now I was really nervous. Each puddle we passed through seemed deeper and it was still raining. I was watching for crocodiles (though it was far too dark to see anything).
About an hour later, I started to believe that we might actually make it back to the hotel. Fendi asked if we needed a bathroom break. I did but I did NOT want to take a chance on losing the caravan and meeting a crocodile. So we continued.
Around 8 pm, Fendi breathed a sigh of relief and announced that we had made it to the airport. We were about 20 minutes from the hotel so we would make it home! I could finally relax and Fendi announced that he would need to make a bathroom stop before he dropped us off. Of course!
We made it to the hotel and Fendi graciously offered to pick us up to take us to the airport in the morning. He would not take no for an answer so we called it a night. Our two hour drive had taken 4 1/2 hours, but we were safe.
As I prepared to finally write this post, I Googled Belitung and came across two great guides to the place. Apparently, we missed out on white sand beaches and crytal clear water for snorkeling. I'll have to take their word for it.