“Apa mbak pernah ke Belitong?”
Belitong... hmm, why does the name sound so familiar? Wait…
“Laskar Pelangi!”, I exclaimed giddily, as if I just answered a question in a quiz show.
She smiled. The person asking was a fifty-something Ibu Kartini, a Javanese settled in Bali, who was wearing a flowery top much like a baju kurung Kedah and kain batik. Besides her was her shy six-years-old granddaughter who barely spoke through our thirty-minute ride together. The three of us were sitting on the rear seat of a bemos; I was on my way back to the airport on the last day of my vacation, and they were off to Kuta beach for some school-holiday fun. It was quite a sight when I looked around at the other passengers: one lady was carrying pots and pans, another was holding a basket full of undergarments (brand new, thank god), and another with fresh vegetables and groceries. From what I read, you can also bring on board a clucking, alive chicken, and no one will question you.
Traveling alone means that you get all the ‘me’ time in the world. It was what I was looking for in the trip, but truth be told, it does get a bit lonely when all you can talk to is your own inner voice. Thus I savored my time on the public transport, especially on a bemos, that rickety old van the locals use to get around. The old ladies especially seemed very fascinated to converse with me when they know that I was traveling alone. I was at first shy, but all it took was one smile, and you’ll discover hospitality like no others. The conversation ranges from family (Ibu Kartini’s just returned from a family wedding at Belitong, hence the conversation), marriage, food and the idea of serumpun between Malaysia-Indonesia, to Siti Nurhaliza, Kris Dayanti, Ashraff and Bunga Cinta Lestari.
There are so many transportation options in Bali. Renting your own car is the best option if you are traveling with family or a group of friends, because after splitting the cost, it is the cheapest and most convenient option. Otherwise, to get to the popular tourist regions like Kuta, Ubud, Lovina and the Nusa Islands, you can depend on the reliable service of the tourist shuttle company, Perama. It is a few times more expensive than taking the bemos, but when you consider the inefficiency of a bemos and how many times you might have to change to get to your destination because there is no direct service, you might as well take the tourist bus.
Take for example my attempt to get to Tanah Lot from the airport. I decided to shoot straight for the famous seaside temple upon arriving in Bali, and I was determined to ride the bemos for the first time (when I first visited Bali two years ago, I only used taxi and Perama bus). The bemos has a fixed route, but you can hop on and hop off anywhere along the way – there is no such thing as a bemos stop. At the end of each loop, the bemos will stop at a bemos terminal, from where they will start the journey all over again. The bemos are also painted according to their route: as example, the Nusa Dua-Kuta-Denpasar bemos are dark blue, and Sanur-Denpasar is dark green. They do not move in a fixed schedule, and sometime the waiting time is a lot longer than the traveling time as the driver wants to have as many passengers as possible.
(Note: The moment you entered with a backpack, or ask the driver “How much…?”, your fee will shoot up. I observed that the locals paid much less than the price quoted to me. It seemed that the drives will inflate the tourist price. You definitely can bargain the price down – I suspect they were trying their luck to get some extra money from a clueless tourist, and there is no reason why a tourist has to pay more - or ask the other passengers how much they are paying, and then pay the same amount)
After changing the bemos three times (Airport- Tegal, Tegal-Ubung, Ubung-Kediri) and two-hours later, I found myself at a roundabout of a small town of Kediri. I was supposed to catch the final bemos from here to get to Tanah Lot, but after waiting for twenty minutes, I decided to start walking. My first bemos lesson: the further you are from the densely populated town, and the later it is in the evening, the less frequent your bemos will be. In this case, it was almost non-existent. What a luck that I arrived in Bali in the midst of Hari Raya Galungan, a festival during which the spirit of the dead ancestors came back to visit their family. The roads were lined with penjors, a curving bamboo and coconut leaves construction, with a small niche for offerings. The temples were busy with prayers, and the procession of beautiful Balinese ladies resplendent in their kebaya carrying offerings on their heads was an attractive sight. But unlucky for me, it also meant that most bemos drivers were on holiday.
I referred to the guide book. It said that I was still 25 minutes away by car to Tanah Lot. Hmm... how long will it take to walk? One hour? Two hours or more, especially with my backpack which heaviness was already digging into my shoulder? It was 3pm and I was convinced that I will make it there by sunset, no matter what!
But suddenly, it started to drizzle. The cloud had turned a threatening grey. Oh oooo.. Dear god, I know I asked for an adventure, but can at least it involved being stranded with a hunky Australian surfer on some isolated beach, under a sunny tropical weather?
I’d walked for two kilometers when a motorcycle stopped besides me. “Ojek, mbak?”, the old uncle asked. So ladies and gentlemen, let me now introduce you to another unique way of traveling in Indonesia – the ojek. When I returned to Kuala Lumpur, I asked my Indonesian colleague to explain the idea of ojek. She basically said wherever you want to go, when the bus or a taxi can’t take you there, an ojek will. It is the last bastion of vehicles that will ensure that you will arrive at your destination, via motorcycle. Motorcyclist will offer you a ride and you pay them. Simple. It is an informal system – almost every time I was walking, there will be a bike slowing down and offering a ride – but one that can also had it’s own station (you can bet a group of men relaxing under the trees are waiting for customers, but I did saw in passing a small warung with a sign ‘ojek station’).
So I asked the uncle how far off is the temple. When he said 12 km, I was all no-way-I-am-going-to-walk-that-far-under-this-weather-and-carrying-this-much-weight. After bargaining the price (I managed to get it down from Rp30,000 to Rp 10,000), I hopped on his bike, and off we went towards Tanah Lot, zipping through the village and some of the most beautiful terraced paddy fields – take that, Julia Roberts and Eat, Pray, Love! It was he who regaled me with stories of Galungan and Kuningan celebrations.
These personal experiences won’t be gained if you did not go out there and mix with the locals. The tourists riding the Perama bus, once onboard, usually kept to themselves. It seemed like the bemos had a power to connect people, even among the rare tourists who are adventurous enough to unravel the intricacy of riding the bemos. I made friends with the only tourist I encountered on a bemos - three daring Spanish girls on a mission to travel around South East Asia. We shared stories of travel experiences to kill time, and at the end, they were comfortable enough to ask my help to bargain for a bemos for their onward journey that they want to exclusively chartered (you can totally do this, chartering a bemo to a specific destination outside of its usual route, provided that the driver is willing to send you there. You will pay higher than the usual fee, but if you were traveling in a group, this is another very cheap option). They spoke to me in English, and I helped to translate into Indonesian for the driver.
But to me the validation of traveling like a local came when another lady, upon hearing my conversation with Ibu Kartini on my final bemos ride to the airport, chirped in, expressing her surprise that the bemos actually passed by the airport: “Waduh, saya yang tinggal di sini pun ngakk tahu yang bisa ke airport dengan bemos. Ambil teksi aja kalau mahu kesana. Bagaimana nih, orang luar pun lebih tahu, malu dehh…”. Ho yeahhh…