David Volk, International Man of Stupidity
“Don’t buy anything here.”
–Note written on wall of losmen near Penelokan.
I’d heard the horror stories about riding in bemos heading uphill or downhill and the trips I’d taken in them had convinced me that the tales about the perils of local transport weren’t wrong. Still, it was one thing to hear about white-knuckling it up and down hills and quite another thing to experience it. The van really did careen and swerve in and out of traffic as it barreled downhill, hugging the edge of the road so often that I was glad my rabbi had given me a copy of the prayer to say before departing on a long journey because it seemed like one of those moments in life when prayer just might help and I literally wouldn’t have been able to remember one to save my life without it. Each time we veered to the far side of the road I could see the corpses of bemos that plunged hundreds of feet below on the side of the mountain after missing the same turns.
I don’t know if praying helped much. After all, I’ve always believed that when it’s your time, it’s your time. This observation doesn’t address the issue of what happens if your number isn’t up, but you’re on a plane or a bus with someone whose is, though. Do you have to die along with her? And more importantly, if one synchronized swimmer drowns must all the rest do so, too? All these thoughts were still swirling in my head when I finally found enough strength in my wobbly legs to get out of the shuttle and kiss the ground once the ride into the valley near Lake Batur was over.
I may have made it down in one piece, but I was pretty sure I’d left my stomach back at the precipice overlooking the area. We may have been on one hell of a ride, but it was nothing compared to the next one. It wasn’t a physical trip along a roadway, however; it was more like a quick jog up a highway: Highway robbery.
Although I’d already suspected that I would find places where tourists were seen as walking dollar signs with targets painted on their wallets, this was the first time it was so blatant. Chris and I had asked the bemo driver to drop us off at a central location, and he did–if you consider the middle of the losmen driveway at the far edge of town centrally located. The losmen owner had us all but checked in the moment the van door opened.
While I had a suspicion the driver of New Zealand’s Magic Bus (or the company itself) may have been getting payoffs from the places he stopped (how else could he have justified staying a tour guide after graduating from law school, unless it were more lucrative?), I could never definitively rule out Andrew enjoying his job enough to be willing to forego high pay in favor of fun work. There was no such doubt in Penelokan. I never saw money change hands, but it was too much of a sweetheart deal not to be a put-up job. The van didn’t stop anywhere else before heading back up the hill and the driver parked so far up the losmen’s driveway that other losmen owners couldn’t even solicit business without incurring the owner’s verbal abuse, or worse. And the owner looked like the type who would do far worse. The only reason we put up with the unethical behavior was that the place we’d stopped was convenient and cheap, which isn’t so surprising. It’s pretty much a given in highly touristed areas such as Lake Batur that owners don’t make money on lodging. Instead, they earn their profits on food and any other services they can sell their guests. In this case, the add-on came in the form of a guide for the hike to see sunrise at an area overlooking the volcanic crater at Lake Batur.
These guys are no dummies. They know tourists aren’t there to see the most interesting plays or the latest movies in this Indonesian equivalent of a one-horse burg. There aren’t any water puppets, cockfights, or native dances to be had for miles around. No, the sunrise hike was the only game in town and selling guide services was the key to making major money. Owners know that most guidebooks agree it’s a good idea to go before dawn–not only because sunrise at the crater is beautiful, but because it’s too hot to hike once the sun is up. Still, I think getting up at 3 a.m. to avoid heat stroke is taking this caution thing way too far. I’m not sure whether such an early departure is a device designed to create an artificial need for a guide or not, but Lonely Planet insists the guides are necessary. The book also advises against being macho and trying to find your way up the path to the crater on your own. (What the book doesn’t say is that if you want to be sneaky, you can get up early, hide, and wait for a group of flashlight-toting tourists to wander by, then follow them.)
Booking a room is a mere formality before getting down to the nitty-gritty of negotiating for a guide. Before we could even move our bags to our room, the owner showed us a book with English descriptions of what we would get for our money, which was not much, really: someone to show us where to walk, breakfast (hard-boiled eggs, bread and tea) and a nice view. Then he showed us testimonial letters in English that seemed dubious. The reviews talked more about views than the guide’s abilities and used the word “interesting” a lot. (Like the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”) Then came the final page, complete with the price: An incredulity inspiring $45 US per person.
At this point I was tempted to get up and yell, “Forty-five dollars? Forty-five dollars? Nothing in Indonesia costs $45,” but I didn’t because the key to such negotiations is remaining calm. If the seller names a ridiculous asking price, respond equally outrageously. Say, 20 cents, for example. After much huffing and puffing on the seller’s side, he cut it to $20 per person but said it was a special price and to keep it to ourselves because he didn’t want anyone else to know.
I soon found out there was another reason not to tell our neighbors what we paid: sheer embarrassment at how badly we’d been fleeced. A quick look at my guidebook indicated we shouldn’t have paid more than 6,000 rupiah each (approx. $3 US). Not too surprisingly, we weren’t the only ones who’d been flimflammed. Two German women in the room next to ours also paid $20 each. A British couple on the other side of our room was paying $20 total, however. We didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on our stupidity because it was a done deal and we needed to get to bed early so we could get up at 3 a.m.
My first indication sunrise walks are overrated came when we hit the hills half-hour into the hike. The first part of the walk had been easy; but once we reached the incline, Chris and the guide moved at warp speed, leaving me in their cold, dark dust. The farther ahead they got, the more difficult the going became because I couldn’t benefit from seeing where their feet were going, As a result, I couldn’t see what I was tripping over. In addition, it wasn’t long before I felt pressure from the people following me–I had fallen so far behind that I was slowing down a whole different tour group. I didn’t want to be a complainer, but I wanted to remind Chris and the guide that we weren’t in a race, we had lots of time to reach the top. Fortunately, at about this time they noticed my absence as well as an increase in what could only be described as falling noises, as in: crash, slide, ouch, shit. Their first strategy was to wait and rest until I showed up, wheezing, then take off, rested and relaxed, before I had a chance to catch my breath. When this tactic didn’t improve my speed (to their utter befuddlement), the guide seemed to think putting Chris behind me would make more sense because that way our fearless leader seemed to think he wouldn’t have to slow down. This logic still baffles me. I would have preferred being sent to the back of the line of the entire group of hikers so I could walk at my own pace and maybe talk with the stragglers ahead of me rather than spend all morning being Wheeze Boy at the head of the line slowing down everyone behind me.
Then, our guide decided to add insult to all my huffery and puffery by looking at me and saying, “We had an older English couple do this walk two weeks ago in just an hour. They only stopped twice.”
Considering we had been hiking for two hours, I’m still wondering why he thought this would be encouraging.
We finally made it to the top of the crater just in time to see sunrise. . . . On July 5, 2008.
The vantage point might have given us a beautiful view were it not for the haze and low-hanging clouds. In fact, it not only made me wonder why I’d worked so hard, it also made me understand why there was a guy in New Zealand who pours soap flakes into the Lady Knox Geyser so it will erupt at a specific time. The tourists, they get spoiled by so much beauty, and they want to see it all. Right now. In my case, I wasn’t being spoiled by Indonesia’s beauty. I was just irritated that such an average place was over-hyped and not worth all the effort that went into getting there. I will admit that the practical joke after we left our vantage point didn’t help much.
As the now group of hikers walked by an area where the volcano’s heat was so close to the surface that water filled bottle dropped into inch-deep holies in the ground quickly became hot, our guide said he saw something he thought would interest me and called me over so I could see it. He then had me bend over a bottle in the ground and look at it as he twisted the bottle out of the hole, producing a cloud of steam that did more than catch me unawares, it also amused on-lookers no end because it fogged up my glasses.
Yes, that’s me. David Volk, international buffoon.
A breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and banana sandwiches cooked with heat from the volcano followed the incident. A good time was had . . .. by some. After hours of slipping, skidding, sliding and running we finally reached flat ground around 9 a.m., and were in the middle of pressing engagements with our pillows within half an hour.
Apparently, our losmen owner was still not happy with the huge amount of money he was making from us because he did everything he could to make more the rest of the day. The effort started shortly after all of us woke from our collective, semi-comatose state and marshaled enough energy to. . . walk to the porch, sit in a chair and talk. It may be my overactive imagination, but it seems more than slightly coincidental that one of the owner’s underlings came to the porch and interrupted our conversation just as we began talking about the hike. It wasn’t enough for this guy to change the subject, however. No, Windy Boy spent the next hour horning in on the conversation with pointless, rude observations that had nothing to do with anything. First he talked about my John Lennon glasses and how Lennon had stayed at the losmen and how Saddam Hussein had stayed there, too. He also commented on how much he hated the book I was reading, how America had no language of its own and how he loved the book I was reading. He then read reviews from the back cover while we continued our conversation.
I eventually took my book back from Windy Boy and told him he was rude and not welcome. He finally took the less than subtle hint and left. Three years later.
The group of eight of us remained in front of our rooms talking until nightfall when we left for dinner at a nearby restaurant. This decision did not sit well with the owner who, based on the vehemence of his reaction, must have already spent the money he expected to get from us for dinner in his restaurant. “You will bankrupt me!” He yelled after us as we walked to another restaurant. Hey, this wasn’t our problem. If he hadn’t priced himself out of the market, we would have stayed, but we had already eaten two awful, over-priced meals in his restaurant. The only nice thing he had to say was that the American in our group (me) would never have allowed such a terrible thing to happen. I still regret not telling him I was the instigator.
When we told the owner we were looking for a restaurant with a television that would show the Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno fight, he said the fight would be on that evening in his restaurant. That’s no mean feat considering it was scheduled for the next afternoon.
The food next door wasn’t much better, but it was cheaper. Although the restaurant had a TV, the owner told us he could not receive the fight on his set. Fortunately, the owner of a small store across the street said he would be watching it and we could join him. Unfortunately, when Chris and I stopped by the following day just hours before the fight he told us his wife had already commandeered the set, would be watching her favorite shows, and didn’t want to be interrupted. It was the same story no matter where we went so we gave up and caught a bus back up the hill in hopes of either finding a television showing the fight, or buses to our next destinations: Chris was going to the black sand beaches of Lovina and I was headed back to Kuta on my way to of Java, just ahead of a major holiday that was supposed to shut down all of Bali.
I’m still not sure why I wanted to see the fight. Although it was Tyson’s first since leaving prison, I had never been a fan or even a fight lover. If someone hadn’t told me the fight was being held that weekend I never would have known it. The best I can figure is that I was still hankering for a taste of a U.S sporting event that went unfilled when I was in New Zealand and wasn’t able to get the Superbowl broadcast on my short wave radio. I didn’t want much. Just a taste of American sports. Hell, I didn’t even really care who won. Just a taste was all I asked.
As it turns out the chances of seeing the fight were quite good because Tyson became a Moslem while he was in prison and Indonesia is a Moslem nation.
Once we got out of the van, Chris sprinted into a nearby restaurant and yelled that he had found a place to see the fight before I’d even gotten my backpack off the overhead rack. When I finally got off the bus, he wasn’t even in the restaurant. One of the employees noticed the confusion on my face and pointed to a stairway leading underground. I was nervous because I had heard numerous horror stories about backpackers being invited into people’s homes then being drugged, having their money stolen and ending up wandering the streets, penniless. So, I reluctantly took the stairs and found myself in some sort of living quarters where a family was washing their lunch dishes while an American couple and Chris sat on a bedroom floor in front of TV waiting for the fight to start.
It was not a short wait.
Apparently, the U.S. isn’t the only country where a televised major sporting event is justification for hours of analysis before the beating commences. Indonesia’s talking heads blather on for quite some time as well. I’ve never particularly liked pre-game shows before the Super Bowl or the World Series and I liked this one even less because it was in Indonesian and I couldn’t understand a single word. I was, however, amused by the fact that the show was so hard up for sponsors that every commercial break featured the same two ads. One was reminiscent of the U.S. ad for Teen Spirit deodorant, which shows girl basketball players running up and down the court. The second was for a company that made sarongs for men. I don’t know if I was hallucinating, but I would swear it was Fruit of the Loom. The deodorant company (or whatever it was) must have run out of money early, however, because once the fight started, only the sarong advertiser’s commercials were aired between rounds. Instead of showing just one sarong ad per break, for some reason I have yet to figure out, the network thought it would be a good idea to show two commercials per break. So it showed the same ad twice.
None of this pleased the young child in whose bedroom/living room we were camped out because it was putting a serious crimp in his cartoon-watching time. We eventually reached a compromise where he would watch his show during the commercials and we would get the television back at the end of the break. Each time he got the remote, it took longer to wrest it from his control. He knew the agreement ended once the fight started, however.
Even now, the idea of commandeering someone’s living room and displacing a child from his favorite TV shows seems surreal. Granted, the family was involved with the restaurant upstairs and it was understood we were paying to watch the fight, but that didn’t make it any less awkward.
All that seemed to be forgotten once the fight started and even the parents joined us yelling and cheering.
And then the fight was over.
After almost two hours of waiting, we saw Tyson dispatch Bruno in little more than two rounds, clocking in at about four minutes and 50 seconds.
This pretty much says it all. Hours of waiting, all for 4 minutes and 50 seconds.
The fight may not have been long, but it was just long enough for me to miss my bus to Kuta. As a result, I had to wait two hours for the last bus to Ubud and stay there overnight. In the interim, I hung out with the American couple and played basketball with some of the local children, who proceeded to beat the pants off of us until the kids realized we were so bad that they lost interest.