From Jakarta to Remote West Java — A Road Trip in Indonesia

Friends will always be friends and that is specially true when you’re 13 thousand kilometres away from home and one of your best friends drops by for a visit. A few dinners and a lot more beers later we decided it was time for our first road trip together.

Most people would have chosen to go to some paradise island like Bali or Koh Samui, but not us. We were young, strong, foolish and honestly, way better than that! So ahead of us it was no more no less than a cross country trip across the Java island in Indonesia!

That’s right, after some very poor packaging, even worse route planning, and a villa booked in the west of the island, we landed in the hot, unbelievably dirty, underdeveloped and chaotic Jakarta.

First order of business was to rent a car, nothing wrong with that right?Wrong, nothing in Southeast Asia is as simple as one might think. After a long time trying to find someone that speaks english, walking the airport end to end, our agency was nowhere to be found (that’s what happens when you go for the cheap deals!)

Finally when we were about to give up, between Avis and some other very well known company, there it was: an empty chair from where our guy was conducting is business by renting out his own car. A lot of angry phone calls and 3 hours later he finally shows up right on time for us to start the engine and head south to our small adventure, hopefully still making it to the resort before dinner, with the bonus of being the first driving experience on the opposite side of the road with zero training… In Jakarta!

I can’t even start explaining how wrong I was about Indonesia. I had this preconception of Indonesians being very closed and unfriendly, maybe supported by the news I saw as a kid about the excessive violence used during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Portugal was right in the middle of this civil war which was caused after the 1974 revolution and the consecutive proclamation of independence of the former Portuguese colonies. A sad chapter in history that was only truly solved by 1999.

In front of us we had an amazing country with a lot of ambition, full of generous people that was always ready to help us through the most awkward and unpredictable situations:

  • Suddenly our gas tank enters in reserve and the tarmac becomes a bumpy totally swamped dirt road and we had to drive our small van for 30km at a speed of no more than 10km/h, with no clue of where we were. Promptly people passing by us indicated the nearest gas station where some of the kids saw for the first time a blond woman and didn’t let us leave without touching Cristina’s hair.
  • Again the road ends in what it looked like a hole caused by the rainy season forcing us to even consider turning back. No need, immediately someone showed up out of nowhere with a wooden board to help us get across.
  • We got lost again and for the first time we started picturing ourselves spending the night in the car somewhere in the jungle with nothing to eat. We then found on the side of the road this super welcoming family that sold us some food and allowed us to use their bathroom (where I’m also sure we could spend the night if things came to that).
Our beloved Indonesia, the most overwhelming and rewarding road trip

After the full day driving, we finally managed to arrive to the promise land, a completely empty resort by the west coast and crash in our villa for a well deserved rest. The next couple of days were spent exploring the resort, the wonderful nature and small towns around, enjoying the food and the wild beauty of the island.

For the trip back we decided to take the highway, no more “getting lost in the forest when its dark” experiences for us during this trip! However, what could look like a smooth drive back to Jakarta was about to get way more interesting when our car battery died at the entrance of the city. We got completely stuck in a middle of a 3 lane road with hundreds of bikes and cars driving around us, just waiting for the first one to smash against our rear window.

After strolling the streets looking to buy a local SIM card to call our “rent-a-car” agent, we finally managed to get ahold of him and hear a re-assuring “Don’t worry, I come to you and we push”. What?!? How do you push a car in the middle of one of Jakarta’s most over-crowded roads? We were about to learn that not only it is possible but also a lot of fun! With the heart racing and Cristina at the wheel about to have the time of her life we pushed it off the street and all the way down a side alley. The engine started just in time before the road ends and off we go to try to find our airport hotel!

It looked like the day was over and no more emotions would stand between us and our hotel beds… Wrong again, our GPS ended up sending us through some weird secondary streets right into a dead end, right in the heart of a slum. I’ve turned on the high beam headlights and this is when we realised that around us were dozens of people ,looking as surprised as we were, just sitting there in the dark and living in what it looked like to us below poverty line conditions.

There we were, three naive europeans with a car, cellphones, packed wallets and photographic cameras ready to learn a lesson that would end our trip very sourly. This was when we received yet another gift from the Indonesian hospitality with them immediately coming to the rescue and helping us navigate that extremely narrow and pitch black alley to turn our car around and find the way back to the main street.

This was definitely a weekend full of emotions and we’re very much looking forward to one day go back and explore more of what this amazing country has to offer!

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