The Vitals

Date: April 2 – 9, 2018

Location: Surabaya, Indonesia (and Bali)

Purpose: Work, but with time to be a tourist


In the past two years it seems that every few months there is a sudden, immediate need for me to travel somewhere international for work. This time around it was to the second-largest city in Indonesia: Surabaya.

I had a small amount of control over the timing of the trip so I delayed by two weeks in order to make a quick ski trip up to Sphinx Hut at Garibaldi Lake on the Easter long weekend. Then it was onto a plane at 2:30 a.m. (actually delayed to 2:50 a.m.) and a 25 hour itinerary to Indonesia including a 6.5 hour layover in Hong Kong.

A few short hours before getting on the plane.

A few firsts for me on this trip: first time south of the Equator, first time to Indonesia, first time to Hong Kong (short as it was), first time swimming in the Indian Ocean, first Mangrove forest.

I may have mentioned before that travelling for work in many ways can be less stressful than travelling alone. Since work travel always takes place in hotels and transportation is usually arranged by a local colleague, there is a lot less of the uncertainty that comes with couch surfing and taking public transit.

Before the trip, I researched the city of Surabaya to see what I might be able to do outside of work hours. The summary on the Lonely Planet website begins with “Your initial impressions aren’t likely to be great.” and seems perfectly set up to turn the notion around with a “but…” except it doesn’t. It’s the most pessimistic description of a travel destination I have seen and had me grumbling.

However, I was never bored once I arrived. The simple novelty of mid-30’s temperatures and thick, green foliage that looked like it was encroaching on every surface in real-time was enough to  keep me wide-eyed for the duration.

After working at the factory for three days (with temperatures reaching 43 C inside the buildings) there was no longer a reason to stay at the site but I still had two more days before my flight back to Vancouver. I wrestled with how to spend the time but ended up booking two flights to nearby Bali (less than an hour gate-to-gate) that would see me on the ground for a mere 25 hours. This was enough time for me to walk the main beaches, swim in the sea, check out some Hindu temples, and watch the sunset on the beach.

I noticed a lot of pet stores in Bali and later learned there is a neat local breed: the Kintamani. A lot of these dogs looked feral but had collars on and didn’t act distrustful like a feral dog. They come down to the beach in the evening without their owners (though they have collars on) and hang out in the sand.

Evening on the beach

When I got back to Surabaya the next morning, I still had most of a day to kill so I visited the Mangrove forest. It quickly became apparent that this was an unusual foreign tourist move. I was there on a Sunday and the place was packed with families, couples, and groups of friends but I appeared to be the only foreigner. Whenever someone noticed me, they seemed to really notice. Many people speak some English and, when I was asked if I was there alone, I was warned to “Be careful!”. That advisory put me on edge because I didn’t know the source of their concern. Was the forest dangerous? Was I going to be targeted? While I uneasily walked around the boardwalk (marked “Jogging Track”) people started to request pictures with me. First a person would take a picture of me with their friend, then the friend would take a picture of me with the first person. There were also groups and families. It was very surreal and it wasn’t helping my uneasiness though everyone seemed satisfied with just a picture.

I decided to just head back to the known-quantity that was my hotel, but as I passed the boat launch I saw one was about to leave. I settled on paying the $2.50 admission to see the forest from the water while thinking, “No one can mug you on a boat”. I had thought the boat tour was just a circuit but it actually drops you off out at a network of bamboo boardwalk and pavilions at the edge of the ocean. Everything is built on bamboo stilts and the deck of the boardwalk is actually a weave of bamboo that is very springy underfoot.

There are no businesses (like a food stand) out here so I suppose the boat tour company has built and maintained it. While I enjoyed the sea breeze and watched small fishing boats go by, another family asked for a photo. After the photo they asked if I wanted to try Indonesian food so I got to share their picnic lunch of fried catfish, rice, beans, various snacks (Javanese-style cooked bananas) and cake (always cake here). I was very hungry so I very much appreciated the offer.

Back at the parking area after catching the return boat, I asked the guys collecting parking fees if there was a taxi. They didn’t speak English but after some use of Google Translate and consultation with each other, they tried to order an Uber. I’m not sure why they changed their minds, but they then asked if one of them could just drive me back. Based on my earlier uneasiness, I was still skeptical, but I agreed once the price was set as equal to an Uber (less than half of what a taxi would be). After the guy returned with his car, another of the group joined us for the trip to my hotel. I wasn’t sure if I was putting myself in a bad situation so I was very intently watching where we were going and double-checking on my phone’s GPS. Once we were halfway to the hotel it was clear they had no ulterior motive and I relaxed. At my destination I gave them about $15, 50% more than we had agreed on, and they tried to refuse the extra. I was feeling sheepish about misjudging their kindness and insisted. Probably anyone who has traveled knows that feeling of standing out but, for the most part, people are good.

Bamboo walkways amongst the trees
Bye bye mangrove forest. Bye bye Indonesia.