Going basic in Banyuwangi
Overwhelmed. That is the feeling I get on arrival at the guesthouse on the outskirts of Banyuwangi. We have just finished a six and a half hour train ride from Surabaya, and the owner tells us we can get a better deal on a hike to Ijen if we decide to go that night – which means leaving at 1:00am.
Our threadbare room is right opposite the reception. The door is surrounded by windows on two sides – one of these cannot be closed completely. Bama and I can hear every conversation outside, from the owner boasting of his cheap tours to a businessman, to a group of backpackers asking for the price of a trip to Bromo. Though we can’t see the traffic, the sound of passing motorbikes and larger vehicles drifts in from the main road.
The bathroom reminds me how much I have been spoiled as a city dweller. It has a working shower, but as I find out that night, the water is freezing cold. The guesthouse has installed a western toilet without a tank; instead there is a separate tap for filling up a bucket to flush it manually. I am more distressed by the absence of toilet paper, and wonder why we didn’t have the foresight to bring a roll or two from Surabaya.
I sit down for a minute to focus on the positives. I still have a single packet of small tissues, and if need be, two napkins from a donut shop, emblazoned with a peacock logo and the words “Nothing is sweeter than the togetherness we share.” The room is relatively clean, with a brand new air-conditioning unit, and nets over the windows and bathroom vent to stop mosquitoes from coming in. We have the luxury of a sink to brush our teeth and wash our faces. There’s even a wall-mounted TV to distract us from all the noise outside. After a brief discussion, Bama and I agree to rest and schedule our hike to Ijen the following night.
Depending on your perspective, Banyuwangi sits either at the beginning or the end of Java. It is the most easterly major town and the last stop on the railway network that meanders across the island. Minutes before we pull into the station, the wild, serrated hills of West Bali rise above the narrow straits. Over there, on Indonesia’s most famous island, the clocks are one hour ahead. Banyuwangi feels left behind – its nascent tourism industry is centred on the crater lake and sulphur mine at Ijen, the surf at G-Land and a string of beaches to the south.
Banyuwangi is built along a main road running parallel to, but not directly along, the coastline. From our guesthouse Bama and I catch an angkot, a smaller and rougher version of the minibuses found in Hong Kong. We crouch through the doorway into the back, where tattered seating runs the length of the van. The windows have been pulled back and the door left wide open; a cool breeze blows right through the angkot.
In the centre of town we visit Taman Sritanjung, a beautiful, well-maintained park rivalling those of Indonesia’s bigger cities. A neat procession of warung (eating places) runs along one side, separated from the park by a permeable wall of creeping vines streaming down from alternating rows of planters. Children run and cycle along the pathways or frolic in the grass. By the central fountain a vendor waves a broom-like contraption in the air, releasing clouds of bubbles. Banyuwangi’s main mosque stands just across the street, crowned by three brilliant turquoise domes that glint in the sunlight. With its scales and elongated shape, the biggest one resembles a salak fruit.
Taking the angkot into town also serves another purpose. Near the terminal we find an Alfamart, a convenience store where we stock up on cold drinks, potato chips, and much to my relief, individual rolls of toilet paper. ◊