Tuesday, April 17, 2007

From Bali to Worse

I left Lovina on an overnight bus to Probolinggo in East Java with the intention of catching a ride to the volcanoes at Mount Bromo. An afternoon spent trawling the Internet for information about Java turned up an interesting thread on the Lonely Planet discussion board about the most popular scams in Indonesia. The most popular scam is shortchanging tourist when they change money. But what caught my attention was a devious little trick carried out on passengers arriving in Probolinggo. A number of posters warned travelers to make sure they are deposited at the bus station in Probolinggo rather than at a travel agency, where nasty nasty people will them extort exorbitant fees for onward travel.

Armed with this information I boarded the 7 pm bus and settled in for the ride. The movie was terrible, a rather garish and, frankly, racist, cops and kung-fu movie from the late 1980's. I was served a snack and there was a stop at a restaurant after crossing to Java on the ferry.

All was going well until we reached Probolinggo, at about 1 am. I don't like to arrive in a new town at night, but in this case I really wanted to get out of Bali and the only transport from Lovina was the night bus. I was told I'd arrive at 4 am, a reasonable time for a traveler willing to sit back in the bus station for a few hours until the workday starts. This, like so many other things I've been told here, was not true.

We pulled up in front of a travel agency and the bus driver and his three (yes, three) assistants told me we were at the Probolinggo bus station. They grabbed my bag and hustled me outside the bus. I knew the scam was in progress and told one of the bus employees that I wanted to go to the bus station. His reply was that the bus station was too dangerous for me. The other bus employees all swore up and down that this was the bus station and that I should go inside a place called Mahabarata Travel and talk to the man behind the desk.

After making it clear that I didn't believe them, that this was definitely not my destination, I realized they had formed a barrier between me and the bus and I was now snared in their web.

Before I go any further, I have to make clear that I never for an instant felt like I was in any danger. These people have practiced and perfected this scam on countless travelers and wanted nothing more than my money. The hour I spent in their presence was more a game than anything else.

I paid the tourist premium for the ride up the mountain to Bromo. This morning I paid about an eighth of that price for the ride back down.

The headline on this post, From Bali to Worse, isn't entirely accurate. Once I arrived in Bromo (actually a small village called Cemoro Lewang, but Bromo sounds cooler), I immediately ran into a Swedish couple who had also been scammed in Probolinggo. We joined forces at one of the town's hotels and decided to rent a jeep together for a ride to the top of the tallest peak to watch the sunrise. If it were not for Joel and Lena, I think I might have gone insane with the rising sun. The hotel's facilities were beyond spartan and I was in no mood to walk around to look for something better.

We haggled with a jeep driver, settled on another exorbitant price, spent 20 minutes looking for fuel and missed the sunrise. Still, being on top of that mountain, looking down on two active volcanoes and a handful of dead ones, made up for the sorrow of the previous 24 hours. Once the sun was well into the sky, we hopped back into the jeep and headed to Mt. Bromo itself, one of the active volcanoes. A grueling hike up to the crater's rim for a view into the abyss rounded out the morning.

Matt and Gunung Semeru

Gunung Semeru, rear, and Gunung Batok

The Steps to the Crater Rim at Gunung Bromo

The ride down the mountain delivered my first taste of local, Asian travel. The minibus was crammed to the gills with travelers and locals, everything but chickens. I met a few more travelers and enjoyed being on the road.

I was dropped off at the bus station (the real one this time!) and encountered a genuine travel agent who treated me with respect and seems to be completely on the level. I've booked another overnight bus, this time to Yogyakarta, with drop off at the hotel of my choice. And I've come out of my shell a bit, exploring an unknown town, Probolinggo, while waiting for my bus to Yogya.

Travel has its ups and downs, sometimes hour to hour. The last 24 hours have shown me that pushing through the hard times to find the good is the only way to go. Hopefully I've gained some more confidence and a little trust. If nothing else, I had fun today. That counts for a lot.