Ok I know what you’re all thinking (“but she can’t say that”).. stay with me. Travel to East Java can be daunting for a Westerner at the best of times. There’s no Four Seasons Hotel to redeem my loyalty points with. I can’t track down a McDonalds for a familiar McNugget meal. Heck, I was lucky to find a toilet attached to a plumbing system.
Traveling to Jember, East Java this past month to spend time with my partners’ family, it was time for me to let go of my attachment to strong WIFI signal, to warm water, to privacy and to learn how to kick it Kampung-style for a week with the in-laws.
With my almond milk complexion, my wild sun-fried orange mane and eyes green like the rice pastures of Pererenan, this new girl stood out in the village like a black swan in a flock of white. Try as I might to assimilate (learning appropriate dress, respectful hand gestures, polite greetings), I was still a big fat bule (bule = foreigner, white girl) and yes, you will be called fat on nearly an hourly basis, but don’t worry – it’s a compliment.
And so inspired by this, I thought I would prepare some tips & tricks I devised, whilst trying to fit my huge white round rear end into their small square chairs (that old square peg, round hole adage in reverse!).
And so I give you:
The White Girls Guide to surviving travel in East Java
Tip 1. If you (literally) want to survive.. girl, get a plane!
Ok so honestly, I’ve survived the drive a handful of times – but it wasn’t without a handful of near misses! The road from Denpasar to Gilimanuk (Jl. Raya Denpasar-Gilimanuk) is an exhilarating 3 hours of drag racing the car that WAS in front of you, as your driver switches lanes, leaping in and out of the path of oncoming traffic with death-defying precision. I wish I was exaggerating. The worst experience I had was a door-to-door private transfer, from Jember to Canggu. 150,000Rp per person for a third of a seat-space, as 15 passengers cramped into a 12 seater van for over 11 hours of travel time. No air-con, and all 14 other passengers smoked, so it was a tobacco sauna and quite literally my worst nightmare come to life.
The OK experience I had was a coach from Ubung terminal in Denpasar to Jember.
At 110,000Rp per person, it was a lot slower and a lot more comfortable- with air-conditioning, reclining seats and hop-on-hop-off entertainment by local buskers singing to the strum of their ukulele. The road is still freaky as f**k. There’s no avoiding that. Even if your bus driver isn’t playing chicken with oncoming traffic, the oncoming traffic will be with you.
The best experience I had was flying from Denpasar to Surabaya, staying the night in a cheap hotel and flying Surabaya to Noto Hadinegoro Airport in Jember. Definitely the most expensive (and might I add privileged) way to make the trip, but you do have the upside of getting to explore a new Indonesian city for a night. I’d recommend this for Java beginners. The downside being, you appear a bit entitled and showy. Not really the look you are going for here.
Tip 2. Get red carpet ready.
Ok not really, but maybe consider packing just a face powder, mascara and coat of lip balm. Why you ask? Because you are about to become a celebrity sighting, wherever you may be, at any given time. This is no joke. On the bus, on the car ferry between Gilimanuk and Banyuwangi, in the middle of Jember city, at the local warung, at Pantai Papuma, in your mother-in-laws house, in the local village store. Anywhere, anytime – hoards of people wanting to get photo with you. You’ll wanna be selfie ready. It’s awkward, it’s embarrassing, but it’s happening. Trust me on this one.
Tip 3. When you dress sense is sah wrong, grab a sarong.
The fashions in East Java are conservative. Its not to say you need to cover your hair or anything – You are you, and your hosts will respect that. But let me tell you, you will notice how much your choice of attire once more singles you out.
Adhere to three basic rules; Nothing above the knee. No bare shoulders. No cleavage.
I had packed t-shirts without even considering the V-neck. My maxi skirt had a great big knee-showing split up it. Ditch the figure hugging body con dresses/skirts. You will be climbing on and off the back of motorbikes – Awkward for everyone involved.
Pack some cute sarongs as a cover-all, they will double as a bed sheet at night and make a great shower outfit (more on that later). By day two I had embraced the ethnic look and started using my sarong to wrap my hair – blonde is the first thing gawkers will spot when you visit the local market, which only means ten extra selfies.
Tip 4. Selamat makan!
Get ready to be fed. A lot. Prepare to be carb loading. Rice, rice and more rice.
Your hosts will consistently ask if you have eaten, and insist you have some more. It is a way of showing affection, to feed you. And after you’ve eaten, your arm chub will be poked and your bottom squeezed in celebration of how plump and healthy you are. What’s that? Self conscious? You’ll want to leave that behind at home, no opportunities for that here. Embrace the celebration of your new nasi curves.
Seriously, try the snacks too. They are so damn good. Don’t let their names fool you. I discovered that “Pis Pis” is just Bahasa Madura for glutinous rice filled with banana. Nothing suss.
Tip 5. Keeping it clean
OK, get ready. Living in the village means pooping the river. This is something you are just going to have to come to terms with. Think of like a giant constantly streaming bidet. Close your eyes and imagine you are camping, and that the entire population of the village isn’t in fact watching you poop. Remember to wash with your left hand, eat with your right. Never ever eat with your left. Crazy bule!
Bonus pro tip: Pack nappy wipes. They will literally save your life.
Ok now really get ready. Living in the village means showering in the river. Yes the same river. Don’t bother questioning logistics (but what if someone is pooping upstream?), your questions will be ignored. Nobody wants to think about that! Just bring an ultra antibacterial body wash with you, or I dunno, bleach. Ewwwwie.
Luckily I was able to find a “wet room” in the house I was staying in. It is the room for cold showers with a hose and a scoop (think ice bucket challenge three times a day), and peeing on the floor, into the drain. You’ll consider this quite the luxury after the poop you just had.
Use a sarong to cover yourself – tied at the front – and open it to wash. The young girls whose home you are staying in have never seen a white girl naked. Today could be their day.
All jokes and clichés aside, a trip to East Java could be just the thing the spirit-doctor ordered. It was for me. An opportunity to get comfortable being uncomfortable. To take a break from being an air-conditioner loving, hot shower-having, (quite frankly) pampered princess. To get over myself.
Equally enjoyable as it was humbling, I was genuinely sad to wave goodbye to my new village housemates on day five, and honestly can’t wait to go back.
Sampé tatemu pole Jember!