Sunday, 26 May 2013

His name was Premchand

This piece was first written on 21st March 2010

The train was waiting at the platform from as early 1620hrs. We’d actually made it on time to Kalka after a slow descent from Shimla on the toy train, considering the Himalayan Queen left the mountain town 25 later minutes than scheduled.

It was soon to be a 6-hour ride in the second sitting compartment to New Delhi. My mum and I settled ourselves into our seats next to the window. Actually, I was to rest my butt along the aisle because we were to have someone in the middle. A quick look at the passenger list next to the train door before we’d boarded gave us an idea of who was going to be our t ravel companion: a man named Premchand. I did not not take note of his age, which was likely printed in the very next column. All the name gave us was an indication of what the seating arrangement was to be like, and fodder for my often fertile imagination.

I got busy trying to figure out which one of the men climbing into the compartment might be Premchand. I pictured him to be someone mature. Then again, he could have easily been a young man with a moustache in a neatly pressed shirt and pants. But the number of elderly men that kept coming in began to chip away at this image.

Could it be this old man, with snow-white hair with glasses perched on his relatively sharp nose? Or the friend of the family sitting behind us, whom we’d seen loitering around on the platform earlier? I just hoped it would not be the man standing near the door whose mobile phone conversation was no longer secret.

At 1650hrs, the train started pulling itself out of the station as lazily as the sun was being swallowed up by the horizon. But where was Premchand, I turned and asked my mum? Could he have missed the train by a whisker (maybe he was dragging heavy bags)? What if someone else hops on and tries to claim his seat? Should I save it for him? But how do you do something like this when you don’t even know who it is you’re helping? My mum pointed out that he might be boarding at a later station. Fair enough (I don’t know why this thought had not crossed my mind in the first place).

A stop or two later, a man in a white shirt calmly squeezed past a group that was trying to get off the train. He had glasses on, and a moustache. Planting himself comfortably next to me, he gave himself all but two seconds before turning to me to ask for my seat number (I was in his seat). Before I could finish explaining my trespass, he understood that the lady next to the window and I were travelling together. ‘No problem,’ he said, before whipping out his mobile phone to inform someone at the other end that he had gotten into the train. At this point, I turned to my mum, and as discreetly as possible, pointed my right index finger in his direction: ‘Premchand!’

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Akhirnya ke Bromo juga (finally made it to Bromo)!

The first time I came across Mount Bromo was on a postcard I'd bought in West Java during a school trip in 1996. I remember being fascinated by the extraordinary image on the card. But at that time, there was no definite desire to ever visit the volcano and I suppose this was partly because I'd been disappointed by Tangkuban Perahu, another fiery mountain near Bandung which we made a trip to (it did not look like a 'conventional' volcano to me).

Fast forward 12 years and I found myself staring at Mount Merapi near Yogyakarta, smack in the middle of the 2006 and 2010 eruptions. The problem with Merapi was that it was in a bad mood for the most part of my trip to Central Java.

We drove from one location to the next in the hope of getting clear views of the mountain, which we eventually did at the Kaliurang lookout point. Merapi offered itself for scrutiny for all of 10 minutes. As it rumbled gently and breathed smoke, the volcano slowly drew the clouds hovering nearby to conceal it from view. What if it erupts right now, I wondered...

A fleeting urge to see Mount Bromo germinated sometime around here. But as the attraction grew, so too did the obstacles: two eruptions in 2010 and 2011, and roadblocks in the planning phase. Sometimes it was a matter of not being able to sync free time with a travel companion, otherwise it was the impulse to fly somewhere else. And even after having flown into Surabaya and getting into the nearby town of Malang, things looked less than certain because our hotel, which was helping us arrange the tour, informed us that no more jeeps were available for the drive around the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park.

Bromo-Tengger-Semeru as seen from the viewpoint
at Mount Penanjakan
the bubbling caldera
But as the cliche goes, all's well that ends well and every bit of inconvenience was worth it: the wait, the little sleep (if any) I got before pushing off for the National Park at 1.30am, and being thrown around the jeep every now and then. As we snaked our way down a neighbouring mountain, I fell into slumber, contented.

the lunar landscape as caught
on the way up to Mount Bromo
How to get there?
The closest airport is at Surabaya. The city is well-connected by regular domestic flights and can be reached via some regional countries including Singapore and Malaysia. Surabaya is also accessible by train from Jakarta, Bandung and Yogyakarta.

To the park
villages dot the landscape on the left
There are three routes and the one from Probolinggo is by far the most common. The other two are from Pasuruan and Malang. I'd suggest asking your hotel/hostel or tour agencies around these places to help you with arrangements. My transportation was organised by a friend who lives in Malang. Make queries too about specific travel plans. For example, if you want to a return ride to Probolinggo or travel onwards to Surabaya or some place else. The car rental services usually have no qualms taking you to a different location you started out from, but it's best to settle the price beforehand to avoid any unpleasant situations. Note though that the car from one of these towns take you to a transfer point somewhere up on Mount Penanjakan for a jeep which will take you further up and to Mount Bromo afterwards. Also, how much you pay for your transport arrangements depends on how many people you make the trip with. If you're alone, try asking around at the hostel/hotel if anyone else is heading Bromo's way.

The vast plain that is the Sea of Sand, where the volcano sits
Generally, your tour should be something like this:

1 or 2am: push off from your hotel/hostel, depending on where you are
4ish: reach Mount Penanjakan where you wait for sunrise. It gets pretty crowded up here so please do not, under any circumstance, expect to be isolated from the world while watching this spectacle of nature.
5ish: sun comes up, cameras click away ad nauseam.

Contemplating the scene before me
The jeep takes you down Mount Penanjakan towards the volcano once you're ready to pull yourself away from the lookout point. By the way, visit times are restricted to 7am-5pm.

Apart from the volcano..

panorama, with Mount Semeru dominating the frame

If you have your own transport, you can easily reach the Madakaripura Waterfall. There are seven waterfalls here (some of them drop over the access path during the wet season so bring an umbrella). Legend has it that bathing in the waters is an elixir of life. The water is regarded as holy by the Tenggerese and is used in their important ceremonies.

The Poten: a Tenggerese Hindu temple that sits in the Sea of Sand close to Mount Bromo. It's open only during prayer services.

Things to take note of
It can get quite chilly up (temperatures hover around 10 deg C) so bring something to keep you warm.

More importantly, Mount Bromo is an active volcano so do check its status before planning your trip.