Saturday, 12 January 2013

Dirty Magazine Pt. 3: Surabaya

world-map surabaya


This week’s installment sees me in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second city with highlights of an Arab bazaar and a Soviet submarine. Moving onto more contemporary issues though, my Indian visa came through today so I’m now getting really excited about my next big trip! Amritsar here I come!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all the parts of this travelogue

Pt. 1: Seoul

Pt. 2: Jakarta

Pt. 3: Surabaya

Pt. 4: Sumbawa and Lombok

Pt. 5: Bali

Pt. 6: Yogyakarta

Pt. 7: Jakarta and home…



At what time the train finally pulled into Surabaya, Indonesia’s second city I know not, but it had already been dark for some time that made me suspect that it was sometime later than the scheduled hour of 18:30. I took a taxi to Hotel Paviljoen, the hotel that I’d picked for the night out of the guidebook. I’d chosen that establishment precisely because it wasn’t the one recommended, and what’s more it was described as having a colonial air, which sounded rather nice. I might have missed the era where an Englishman, (or in Surabaya, a Dutchman), could stroll around in a crisp white suit and straw hat as if one owned the place, (because one probably did own the place), but it was nice to pretend nonetheless, even if I was lacking a crisp white suit.

I was not disappointed. The building was well kept, grand and imperialistic, a fitting home for Lawrence of Arabia, Clive of India or any other of the ‘Old Boys’. On top of that the owner, a wizened old Catholic gent, was extremely polite and friendly and the room was fine; certainly an improvement on the Djody.

Hotel Paviljoen

Hotel Paviljoen

After depositing my stuff and showering I decided to explore my surroundings. I was not far from the city centre so I strolled in. Surabaya seemed typical of many South East Asian cities; streets filled with traffic, a few smart new buildings, a lot more broken-down older ones, and smack in the middle of it all, a huge Shopping Centre. I figured that this might be the place to head since I was looking for an Internet Café and boy was I not mistaken! Not only did this place have several Internet Cafes but it seemed to have several of everything else on earth too. It was enormous; six storeys high and a multitude of annexes. At the centre of it all was an ice rink, filled with adolescent girls holding hands and sagely observed by six floors of interested shoppers. I later learnt from Wim, (I’ll come to him in a bit), that this was reputedly the largest Shopping Centre in South East Asia. I could believe it, certainly no other complex that I’d seen anywhere else on earth, came close. The question that remains in my mind however, is why build it in Surabaya?

Huge the Shopping Centre may have been, but I doubt that the revenues earned are so mighty. Virtually everyone there seemed to be just walking around, enjoying the sights yet not doing a lot of shopping at all. The reason, I imagine, is a simple one. With the average wage at around eighty pounds a month, most of the products on offer are quite simply out of the price range of the average Indonesian.

Upon returning to the hotel that night I found the entire staff seated around a T.V. set that was showing Manchester United versus Middlesborough at Old Trafford. It was nearing the end of the season and once more the Hated Reds were in pole position to take the title. This time however, both Arsenal and Liverpool were hot on their tales. I settled down to watch and then noticed another white man across the room. He nodded hello and asked where I was from. Upon my answer of “a place called Stoke on Trent in England, have you heard of it?” he laughed. This puzzled me a little, telling folks that my home is the pottery towns never usually results in mirth, but the reason soon became clear.

“Have I heard of it?” he said. “I’m from Longton, youth.” Longton is less than five miles from my home.

His name, (which turned out to be a source of irritation to him), was Clayton. “Who else do you know called bloody Clayton?” he asked.

I knew no one.

“I’ll tell you why, ‘cos there hardly ain’t anyone else called Clayton. I’ve met one bloke, and funnily enough that was here in Indonesia. I was in this bar in Malang when this big black bloke from New York comes up to me and says ‘I’m here to pay respect to my brother!’ Wondered what the hell he was on about like, I mean do I look like his bloody brother or something, but then it turns out his name was Clayton too. Shame, ‘cos he was a real annoying bloke an all and he wouldn’t leave me alone after that!”

Clayton turned out to be an English teacher working in the nearby city of Malang.

“How are the Indonesians for learning English?” I asked.

“Pretty shit hot, I can tell you. Better than the Turks where I worked before. They pick it up dead quick like.”

I was planning to go to Turkey the following year; this was an acquaintance to develop! Thus we spent a pleasurable evening, talking football, watching football, talking about Stoke, and Japan, and the joys of travelling in Eastern Turkey.

And to top it all off, Middlesborough won one nil!

I awoke late the following morning, showered and dressed leisurely. I then headed out to enjoy breakfast on the colonial terrace, (feeling just like George Orwell in ‘Burmese Days’), and found lodged beneath the teapot, a note from Clayton urging me to come and stay in Malang for a night or two. I also met a Dutchman in Reception named Wim who came from Vlissengen in Zeeland. Zeeland is an area of the Netherlands that I know well, having stayed with a Dutch friend of mine at his hometown of Zierikzee in the province many times. Wim was an old Indonesia hand, this was his ninth visit to the archipelago and he spoke the language well too. He was however, rather cold and blunt which at one time of day I would have taken as unfriendliness. But the Dutch can be a strange people, and this I suspected was just the Dutch way, and so it turned out. Upon returning to the hotel that evening, he went out of his way to stop me for a chat and offered to go with me to the Pelni office the following morning.

My task that day was to explore Surabaya, but first I wanted to organise a sea-voyage. On my last travels to the Philippines, I and Ryan had undertaken a long trip on board a ship from Cebu to Manila and I’d enjoyed it immensely. What with Indonesia being another such nation of islands, I figured that I’d probably need to take a ship sometime anywhere and since my last voyage had been such fun, another might be just what the doctor ordered. As to where the boat was going, I didn’t particularly care.

I took a rickshaw to the Pelni office in the northern part of the town. Pelni is the state-owned shipping line and its offices were housed in a fine 1930s art-deco structure. Unfortunately for me however, that fine structure was shut when I got there, but a small man with an air of authority and a smattering of English took me to his office at the back and informed me that whilst he could not sell me any tickets, he could help me decipher the schedule.

‘Ok, fine,’ thought I, as I sat down and explained that I didn’t mind where I went so long as I could get back by about April 2nd at the latest.

“Ok, but where you want going?” replied the puzzled little man.

“Hmm.” I looked at the map. “Kalimantan.”

“Kalimantan, ok, leaving tomorrow, back Surabaya fourteen days.”

“No good. What about Sulawesi?”

“But you wanting Kalimantan, mister. Sulawesi not Kalimantan, different place.”

“I know that, but I don’t want anywhere in particular. Only I must be back in Jakarta by April 4th.”

“April 4th?”

“Yes, I am going to Tokyo, Japan, on April 4th.”

“I’m sorry mister, no boat going to Tokyo. Only we have boats going in Indonesia. Tokyo, very far this.”

“Yes I know that, I only want a boat to Sulawesi.”

“No Tokyo, Japan.”


“No, Kalimantan?”


In the end, after explore virtually every route that Pelni offered I was very little the wiser and the Pelni man was more confused than ever. I did however find out that one destination open to me was a place called Badas on the island of Sumbawa, onboard the M.K. Wilis. The Wilis did not return until two weeks later, but I could make my way back to Java via bus and island ferries.

I now had the rest of that gloriously sunny day ahead of me to explore the delights of Surabaya City and so I ordered the rickshaw man to drop me off at Kota Railway Station, the other station in the city to the one that I’d arrived at the other. I’d decided to go there for several reasons, firstly it was near the main sights and secondly because I wanted to check how far Malang was should my ferry idea fail miserably. Mostly however I wanted to go there because it was, well a railway station and I, being a bit of a sad old git, like looking at railway stations.

Not that Kota turned out to be anything special mind, although it did have regular trains to Malang, a place that turned out to be not far away at all. With my backup plan sorted I then headed out into the sunshine and through some back alleys full of ‘Hello Mistering’ children to Surabaya’s old city which was declared as being the highlight of the town. Old, it largely wasn’t mind you, but it was an interesting place nonetheless. There were a few Dutch-type buildings dotted around but what most gave the place a special flavour was the large number of Chinese immigrants. I came across a small Taoist/Buddhist temple and stepped inside for a quick look.

Bright and gaudy on the outside, inside the place was dark, packed with people and the air suffocatingly thick with incense. A dumpy Chinese-looking lady at the entrance greeted me and then introduced both herself, (‘Madame Ling’), and her temple in English. She took my hand and guided me through to a back room where I was given a seat, a carton of orange squash and commanded to watch. A strange band of robed figures were stood in front of the main idol chanting and banging gongs, whilst scores of onlookers held sticks of sweet-smelling incense in their hands. “Today is festival of dog,” explained Madame Ling.

I was blinded by the sunlight as I left the dark confines of the temple, back into Indonesia from a trip to the Orient. Next I entered a covered market or pasar. I always like visiting markets abroad even if they do bore me to death back home. This one was almost biblical, full of wizened old crones surveying piles of rice grains and young ladies shouting “I love you!” from behind their vegetable stalls. Almost everything and anything could be bought here, from cheap plastic toys (‘Made in China’), to live chickens, and dead chickens to chilli by the kilo. The Chinese influence was still apparent here in the skin and eyes of the stallholders, and I wondered why I had not come across a single Chinese character outside the temple. I later learnt the reason, writing in anything other than roman letters or Arabic is banned by the government.

A few metres on the Chinese disappeared and the Arabs took precedent. There have been Arabs in Java for centuries and it was these hardy seafarers who converted most of the population from Hindu to Islam. Around the Mesjid Ampel, the city’s foremost mosque, they’re still to be found, hawking pictures of Mecca and Muslim holy men, skullcaps, jilbabs and other religious paraphernalia. I made my way slowly through the narrow streets, which were not altogether different from those of their occupant’s ancestral homelands, stopping to buy an embroidered skullcap en route. At the mosque however I was stopped, entry denied. Not that they minded foreigners or non-believers inside, but short trousers, now that was a big no-no.

After having sampled the delights of the Old Town I then hailed a rickshaw to take me to a very different sort of tourist attraction, Monumen Kapal Selam. Despite the name, Kapal Selam is not really a monument. In fact, it’s actually an old Soviet submarine that was sold to the Indonesians in 1962. The guidebook described it as having some ‘Boy’s Own’ appeal and right they were too! I spent a happy ten minutes or so, (subs are not very big inside at all you know), exploring what was the first submarine that I’d ever been in. It was great to see the Russian Cyrillic writing and imagine that you were some Soviet-type Bond about to blow the capitalist oppressors out of the water. What’s more, the staff there were all female, all rather attractive and all wearing a rather cute sailor uniform which just about perfected the nautical aura of the place. And with that, my sightseeing was done, so I settled into the Kapal Selam’s cafeteria, got out a book, (the one on North Korea: all good military stuff), and enjoyed the scenery for an hour or so. Eventually I returned to the hotel, where I spent a quiet evening, only popping out to buy some food from the street and to visit the Internet café at the shopping centre. There was no English football on that evening so I called it a night, staying in my room and reading before settling down for, bed, remembering to set the alarm clock ready for my liaison with Wim the following morning.


Monumen Kapal Selam

I was most excited by the prospect of voyaging by sea once more, although my pessimistic Dutch friend had got me a little worried. “It leaves at eleven and the office doesn’t open until nine. Ahh, I don’t know,” mused the man from Vlissingen. Nonetheless, I awoke early enough and boarded a taxi which got us to the office in plenty of time. Despite the pessimism, Wim was a useful guy to have around. His knowledge of Indonesian was good and his understanding of the Pelni schedules even better. I reckon myself to be a pretty mean decipherer of timetables, something that leaves many people stranded at first base, even when they are in their own language, but I must admit that Pelni managed to get the better of me, and I was as lost as the proverbial sheep. Coupled with that there was also the problem of the Indonesians not really understanding where and why I wanted to go. I related the conversation of the previous day to Wim.

“Ja, that does not surprise me,” he said. “To come to the office and say that you don’t know where you want to go, you have no fixed destination, that is incomprehensible to the Indonesians. They use these boats to get from A to B. To do otherwise, he cannot imagine this!”

Whilst waiting in the queue with nothing better to do, I decided to pick his brains since Wim obviously knew a lot more than most about Indonesia. Not only that but he had a command of English sufficient to get his knowledge across to me.

“The red roof tiles,” I said. “Did they come from the Dutch?”

“Well, these here no, they make them themselves, sometimes you can visit the places where they bake them. But originally, ja, the Dutch brought them. Before the Dutch came in the 1600s they were using palm leaves for the roofs.” He sounded the ‘l’ in ‘palm’, which sounded really cool. I made a mental note to try and do this sometimes in the future.

Despite some serious waiting around in the art deco Pelni office, (“Built by the Dutch,” Wim said), and a lengthy taxi ride, I still got to the port with time to spare. Plenty of time indeed it turned out; the ship was over an hour late in boarding anyway. Waiting in the cavernous Surabaya Port terminal building was not the most pleasant experience of my life I must admit. For a start, it was hot. Indonesia is of course a tropical, and therefore very hot country anyway, and Surabaya is renowned as one of its warmer cities. And on top of the heat, I was beginning to get serious ‘Hello Mister Fatigue’, and in the terminal there seemed to be more Hello Mistering individuals than anywhere else in the archipelago. It started off with a security guard who invited me to sit with him, and then Hello Mistered me in the typical manner; thus:

“Hello Mister!”


“Where are you coming from?”


“England. David Beckham, Michael Owen.”

“Yes, we like football.”

“Liverpool, Manchester United.”




“You can speaking Indonesian?”

“I’m sorry, no.”

Of course, I wanted to say, ‘And why the hell should I be able to speak Indonesian? I’ve only been here about three days! And besides, what use will it ever be to me?” But that would have been rude, and of course I did feel stupid because I couldn’t speak a word, whereas Wim had been almost fluent, (surprise, surprise, a Dutch guy who’s good at languages), and even Clayton spoke a bit. That’s the soul-destroying thing about languages you see. You can spend years honing your skills in a particular tongue, and then bang! You go to the neighbouring country and you’re back to the speech levels of a baby!

After a short conversation with the guard, I excused myself and moved elsewhere, yet wherever I sat, a new Hello Mister! appeared out of the blue and started to name Premier League sides. Some did actually speak English however, which would have been alright except for the fact that there was a band situated in the middle of the concourse playing Indonesian and Western Pop very loudly and badly. Any attempt at conversation, even with a fellow Stokie, would have undoubtedly failed, the noise was horrific and you couldn’t hear yourself speak, let alone anyone else. Needless to say, when the guy came round asking for donations for the entertainment, I did not dig deep.

And so I sat, sweltering, sweating and being bombarded with the names of Liverpool stars.

Eventually we boarded the Wilis and I located my cabin, which despite being 2nd class, was better than anything that I’d experienced on a boat before and certainly preferably to the bunk that I’d been allocated on the Cebu to Manila ferry in January. Actually, as I mentioned before, it was that trip that had inspired me to take a long boat ride again, and subconsciously at least I expected the experience to be similar. After all, both would be long journeys on ferries in third world South East Asian countries. The two experiences however, turned out to be rather more different than I expected. The cabin, (I actually got a cabin this time you see), might have been better with it’s ensuite shower and toilet, but other aspects weren’t up to the same standard. The Wilis was a small craft which meant no disco or restaurant. Ok, so there was technically a restaurant, but it was for the 1st and 2nd class passengers only and only open at mealtimes, when you went and ate what you were given, no alternative offered. Missing too were the swimming pool, onboard shop, (although the Wilis did have a kiosk that opened infrequently), and the chapel. On the positive side however, there was no annoying music blaring through the loudspeakers in the morning. To make up for it however, there were the five daily prayers instead, which consisted of a lot of ‘Allah Akhbaring!’ piped directly into my cabin at times when I wanted to sleep.

indonesia 08

Onboard the MK Wilis

Now, not wanting to sound a little bigoted, but I soon began to feel that proclaiming the five daily prayers over the loudspeakers was actually a little bit out of order. Not that I mind Islam particularly, nor should you think that it was the fact that I was continually being woken up that turned me against it, (although that didn’t help I must say), but what made me think that it was a little out of line, was that it was being relayed to a boat filled with mainly Christian passengers.

I’d not realised that there were many Christians in Indonesia, and as a percentage of the overall population, they are not high, but I soon learnt that the islands east of my destination, Sumbawa, (which is staunchly Muslim), were all overwhelmingly Christian. In fact the religious situation in the region is rather strange. If one hopped from island to island, starting in Java and terminating only four islands later, (the distance between the islands is very small and all have ferries running between them), in Flores, then you would encounter three of the world’s major faiths and a variety of lesser ones. Java is Muslim, Bali is almost entirely Hindu, (albeit a unique Balinese form of Hinduism), Lombok is largely Muslim, though there is a large Hindu population on the western side of the island, Sumbawa also is Islamic and Flores is Christian, (mostly Catholic). On top of that, many of the islanders, particularly in the Christian areas retain rituals from their ancient animistic beliefs and all islands contain minorities, often Buddhist, Hindu, Protestant or Catholic.

I met Mario, a Catholic from Flores who provided me with company for the journey and an address when it finished. He was a university student in Jakarta who was hoping to set up his own tourist business on Lombok. In the meantime he was returning home to his family for Easter. We sat and talked of many things, from Christianity to the M.K. Wilis, and Indonesian politics in general, and the journey passed more quickly than I expected. It seemed like no time at all that we were rolling up to the small harbour at Badas and I bade my goodbyes to Mario and his friends.

Next part: Pt. 4: Sumbawa and Lombok

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