Jakarta airport won us over instantly with their whimsical fire extinguishers.
Everything that we had read about Jakarta suggested that we should spend as little time there as possible so we had arranged a car to pick us up from our flight and drive us south to the decidedly non-touristy town of Cianjur. We maintain that Cianjur is off the beaten track however it does feature in Lonely Planet as an “off the beaten track” destination so we weren’t exactly being intrepid voyagers. LP also recommends a homestay that will take care of absolutely everything for you, which is where we stayed. It took us nearly 5 hours to drive the 100 or so kilometres from Jakarta to Cianjur, largely because the traffic is absolutely appalling and the roads are little better.
Based purely on Lonely Planet we had expected Cianjur to be a sleepy village in the hills, a bit like what we had seen in Nepal. This turned out to not be the case, Cianjur is a sizeable town with traffic to match and our homestay was on a very potholed road 10 minutes from the town centre. We are going to get this out in the open right off the bat because our experience in Cianjur was mainly excellent but this needs to be said: Cianjur Adventure / Chillout Guesthouse has featured in the Lonely Planet for 10 years or so and in that time the prices have gone up, fewer things are included in that price and the standard of the rooms for the money isn’t really on par with the other places that we stayed in Indonesia. It’s possible that the steady stream of business that comes from LP readers and also from an arrangement that they have with a Canadian tour company have made them a little bit complacent. In increasing the size of the place it has also lost the family home charm that usually comes with staying in a homestay. That being said, whilst you pay for all of the day trips separately, Yudhi organises everything for you and his guide David is an absolute delight. Yudhi also sorted out our transfers, train tickets and sim card at cost, which saved us an awful lot of hassle. So, what we would say is that it isn’t so much a homestay anymore but you certainly get an all-round service.
Back to our story. We arrived and were fed and shown into a small room with a double bed, a vivid pink mosquito net, windows with gaps around the sides and a rickety old fan that blessedly worked perfectly. We were in the main building and our room faced directly on to the road so, what with the window gaps, it didn’t make for the most peaceful night’s sleep. We had planned to do some walking on our first morning but the guide wasn’t available so instead we had a bit of time to settle and plan our Indonesia route. We sat on the outdoor terrace and had the accompaniment of the bleats of a sheep tied up in the garden which we suspected was soon to become dinner.
We had chosen to do a cooking class and the kitchen was a hive of activity all morning in preparation.
We were still travel vegetarians at this point so we made corn fritters, vegetable curry and chop suey. We learned halfway through that we were actually making lunch for ourselves and a couple who arrived around midday, no pressure then. The corn fritters were sensational and kicked off a deep-fried food habit that has since followed us from Indonesia to Hong Kong to Vietnam. In fact, all of the food was tasty and Yudhi emailed us a whole ream of recipes to try when we are at home. These are unlikely to ever see the light of day if we are being honest with ourselves.
In the afternoon Yudhi asked us if we wanted to do something “very generous and helpful” and visit a local English language school and have a chat with the children. This isn’t usually our kind of thing as we feel quite uncomfortable being plonked down in front of a group of kids and asked to start a conversation but, the way the request was made and the fact that the two newcomers, Davide and Lise, jumped at the opportunity, meant that we couldn’t really say no without looking like dicks. Sure enough, we were dropped at the school and sat uncomfortably for a couple of hours whilst the children asked us questions. It wasn’t too bad in the end but we felt that their time would probably have been better spent doing an actual English lesson rather than asking us what our favourite food / drink / music / animal was and if we liked Indonesia. But for the most part they seemed to enjoy interacting with us and particularly liked the opportunity to take pictures with white people.
We had timed our arrival in the most populous Muslim country in the world perfectly to coincide with Eid Al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice. In Cianjur this translates into an enormous amount of noise, with voices bursting from the mosque loud speakers all night. In order to accomplish this feat of singing endurance lots of different people take turns throughout the night and we can say with authority that only a small proportion of them were able to hold a note and most resorted to simply screaming into the microphone. It was a very long night. Early the following morning, feeling slightly battleworn, we dragged ourselves on to the terrace and topped up on caffeine. Whilst we were enjoying our restorative hot drinks a man with an ominous looking knife was eyeing up the sheep which was looking back at him with extreme distrust. We were sure that they wouldn’t slaughter the sheep right there in the garden and remained where we were until it became abundantly clear that that was exactly what they were going to do and Caro dived back into the house. A very efficient butchery job followed and the head, complete with horns was handed to a little girl to play with. As she had filmed the entire thing on her phone, clearly, she had the stomach for this particular toy. The meat was carted off to be distributed to local, poorer families and we were promptly served breakfast.
The day’s activity was a rural village walk with David, a local chap who was an absolute sweetheart and ultimate do-gooder. Walking with guests is just his hobby (albeit one that he gets paid for) his actual job is as a science and history teacher and he does translations in the evening for some spare cash. When he isn’t doing one of these three jobs he teaches English to local children who can’t afford lessons and lends them books from his private library. David is also incredibly interested in his guests and is a font of knowledge about the local area, we had a lovely two days walking with him. He taught himself English by reading books and loves to collect them so we donated him our Malaysia Lonely Planet, which we had been kindly given by friends, and he was incredibly happy with it. We have absolutely no doubt that he has now read it cover to cover and is eagerly discussing Malaysia with anyone who has been there.
For our walk we jumped in a car, with David in the boot, and drove about 45 minutes out of Cianjur and into the sticks. We dropped straight off the main road and strolled through woodland, rice terraces, little clusters of houses and small farmsteads with many, many goats. The Javanese countryside is simply gorgeous.
We stopped for lunch in one of the villages in a stilted house made of woven bamboo.
Our hosts cooked us up a feast on a wood fire in the kitchen which we ate sprawled on the floor of their living room. After lunch they laid out pillows on the floor so that we could have a post meal snooze, a service which all restaurants should offer in our opinion.
Fed and rested we set off again uphill through changing scenery, first of tropical rain forest and then pine forest. Our path brought us to the main road from where David informed us we would be hitch hiking back to town.
Within a few minutes a truck stopped and the four of us jumped in the back. We rattled around for about half an hour, drawing stares from every single person that we saw. We cannot stress enough how few white people we saw that day (none) and how few white people some of the local people will ever see in the flesh (possibly only us). The reaction was the same every time: stunned face, complete incredulity, massive smile followed by the shout “Bule!”. Bule (pronounced boo-lay) means white man / westerner / albino and can be taken as a derogatory term but it didn’t particularly feel that way to us, it was just the only word they had to describe us.
Back in Cianjur we jumped in a local angkot back to the homestay. Angkot are tiny clapped out minibuses with bench seating and a Tardis-like capacity for passengers, so long as they are of Indonesian stature. Upon first seeing these vehicles, you could be forgiven for thinking that you may not get out alive but they are the primary form of local transport around towns and move so slowly and stop so frequently that your journey, whilst guaranteed to be uncomfortable, is unlikely to be unsafe.
On David’s recommendation we decided we would visit the local megalithic site the next day. David was very keen on this because it would allow him to tell his story about how a nearby local town was named. First thing in the morning we were at Cianjur train station for the 1 hour Journey to Lampegan. Caro was particularly taken by the AC solution on the trains.
Now for David’s story. Lampegan is a tiny village which happens to be next to a railway tunnel. In the days of Dutch rule, the Dutch speaking train drivers would shout the instruction “lamp aan”, meaning “lamp on”, as the train approached the tunnel. Locals living in the village heard this so frequently that they assumed it was the name of the town and it has stuck since.
David was keen we got the full experience and so we walked through the tunnel and back again. Not the most entertaining activity but it kept David happy and he was so nice, we did not want to disappoint him.
To get to the megalithic site we took ojeks or motorbike taxis. Caro has only ever been on a motorbike once, and that was riding pillion on the back of a Harley Davidson, which is essentially like sitting in a moving arm chair and no preparation whatsoever for hopping helmetless on to the back of a motorbike in deepest Java. Fortunately, the ojek drivers took it very slowly as we wound our way along the half-built road through tea plantations. It was a great way to experience the local countryside.
Safely deposited at the steps up to the Gunung Panang megalithic site we caught our breath before tackling the extremely steep steps up to the top of the hill.
Very little is known about the site and David is probably one of the most informed people around as he befriended a British archaeologist working there on one of his visits and has been in contact with him ever since. The fact that so little is known about the site is one of the things that makes it so fascinating, even its age is under question with estimates between 5,000 and 12,000 years old and no one has any idea what it actually is. It essentially looks like piles of enormous stone Jenga pieces but you must take our word for it that it is much, much cooler in person and the view is amazing.
The site was busy but not with tourists, locals like to go head up there for the breeze. The only other tourist there was an Italian chap who had used local transport to get there and it had taken him about 4 days. We were glad to be well off the beaten track but equally glad that we had paid for private transport to get us there.
After a local packed lunch of bacang, banana leaf wrapped rice and meat, we had a walk through the banana and tea plantations ahead of us. One of David’s friends joined us to walk home to his village. David’s good deeds extended to him doing a litter pick when he walks and so we collected several bags of litter along the way. The locals we passed seemed extremely puzzled as to why the bule were collecting trash.
The tea plantations are not as manicured as some of the previous ones we had seen but they still made a stunning landscape.
The litter picking came to an abrupt halt when Lise picked up some rubbish and a tarantula ran out. This excitement was swiftly followed by this enormous fella just hanging out and we all agreed that we had had enough nature for the day.
A passing truck offered us a lift, so we were soon riding along in the back of a truck again. We jumped off the truck to take another path through the tea plants, only to meet it again about an hour later. We jumped in and got a lift to the nearest town, before getting in another angkot back to Cianjur.
That evening we were relegated from the main house to the bamboo hut in the garden to make way for a tour group. Feeling like the naughty table, we ate dinner with Lise and Davide out in the garden whilst the newcomers enjoyed dinner on the terrace. The bamboo hut was exactly that, so our quality of sleep was even worse than the two nights previously. So, we wouldn’t necessarily sell the homestay on its comfort level, but the cooking lesson was fab and the two trips with David were fantastic and an excellent way to get out into the less travelled parts of Java.