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Getaway Dream Turns to Ashes

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"So there I was eight years ago. Lying on a white sand beach shadowed by a lush green forest backdrop behind me. Birds were singing and the monkeys were quarrelling over the peanuts I had thrown into their playground - a labyrinth of green mould covered stumps. The deer shyly peeking from behind the bushes - curious about the woman on the sand wearing a brightly coloured bikini that was admiring their strongly built long horns. The huge waves from the middle of the ocean hit the under water coral wall in silence and broke into smooth crystal clear streams. It washed onto the tiny white shells spread on the beach - leaving them to sparkle in the reflection of the sun," I said to my girl friends one Saturday morning. They tried to picture my story - their eyes were stuck on Jakarta's greyish smoggy sky.

"And then my friend Jenny pinched my arm. She was staring at something in the distance. That something had slowly taken shape - it was a man sitting on a wide blue towel. His tanned skin was gleaming wet. Suddenly he turned his head and stared back at Jenny with his deep blue eyes. Jenny went to see him only to come back five minutes later. 'He's an Aussie window washer on holiday', she said - sighing. 'If he was a big bucks lawyer working in Jakarta then this holiday would be perfect,' she continued.

Whoa! Men, sand and a suntan - who could refuse such temptation? Though it doesn't have to be in that order, of course. Back to reality... this place I'm talking about, Pangandaran beach, is just seven hours by car from Jakarta, near the border of West and Central Java. The hidden treasure of the South Seas! "We have to go there this long weekend," I convinced my friends, then minutes later everybody excitedly got up and started packing.

After making sure that my car was in perfect condition, my friends and I left Jakarta the next day. Driving the car myself, after the first hour we started to think that the journey to the beach was not as smooth as we had expected. Since it was the holiday season, a lot of buses were playing king of the road. At high speed, the buses overtook smaller cars on blind curves, cutting them off like they were a bunch of meaningless, lifeless toys.

In some small towns, the street signs were so confusing that we ended up driving in circles only to enjoy the view of the town halls more than a dozen times. When we reached the two-thirds point of the trip, in a small city the name of which we couldn't even pronounce, the road seemed to transfer itself back to medieval times - more like dry rivers to be precise. Huge potholes the size of meteor craters were decorating the road at three-meter intervals. My cursing lasted only for the first five kilometres of the adventure-filled drive. I had to drive in frustrated silence for the next 100 kilometres. But the thought of the beach getting nearer and near kept our hopes afloat. We didn't want to let little obstacles destroy our dream holiday.

The black-fumed roadrunners and the bottomless potholes were not all we had to face. Near every small town we had passed, there was always a 'slow down' notification scribbled on a piece of old tin roof - attached on the back of a chair, which was located in the middle of the heavy traffic. It finally occurred to us that the local people had found ways to raise money to spend on their weekends. The first trick was to have a bunch of people standing in the middle of the road with baskets in their hands (which you're supposed to drop your money into) while a religious sermon or song blasts from a boom box. Oila! Then it suddenly became an official request for a religious charity program.

The next trick was found on the broken road around the city of Banjar all the way to the beach. Teenagers with bamboo baskets - again - stood at the roadsides around potholes which were filled with dirt and rocks. They claimed they had fixed the potholes therefore the travelers should be thankful and were to give money to them.

"O, have a look at those kids. They made our journey smoother - they fixed the potholes. How sweet! Come kids - here's some pocket money for you all!" I said - affected by the idea that the beach was no longer far away - I cheerfully gave them more than enough of a donation to fix a hundred more potholes.

A few hours later we finally arrived at the would-be four-star beachfront hotel we had booked. What the staff called a suite consisted of two rooms with a connecting door in between. The living room was full of stuffy vinyl furniture and a 14" TV that only had limited local channel selection. A blanket smelling of sweat covered the double bed in the other room. There was even a red plastic bucket half filled with water complemented with a dipper in the bathroom. Very civilised indeed!

But my friends and I didn't want to let the hotel's scanty condition spoil our holiday. "Let's go to the beach!" I shouted enthusiastically.

So we walked along the beach toward the protected forest area. We had to walk over a hill in the forest to reach the famous white sand beach. On the way to our destination, we stopped by at the various shops along the beach. Most of them sold colourful Bali-style sarong and shirts. Other shops sold souvenirs, from seashell wind charms to dried blowfish with their bloated bodies, on guard against their attackers had they been alive. Obviously the trick didn't work.

"Look! Deer - five of them just behind that huge tree!" whispered my friends when they finally reached the white sand beach. For a minute we were mesmerised by the beauty of the huge brown creatures, only to be distracted by some noise. A group of teenagers who were sitting on a tree branch nearby shouted and started to throw rocks at the deer.

"What on earth did you do that for?" I asked - desperate and shocked.

"They were going to eat my snacks," said the twenty-something-year-old local guy calmly - his hand was reaching for a plastic of biscuits he had left on the ground.

We couldn't believe it. "This is their forest - their home! You are the intruder - so you are the one who should get out of here!" I felt like screaming. But we knew that it was pointless to argue with them. A proper six-month education about the environment was what they needed. Well, because of that ignorant attitude, even the monkeys had disappeared deeper in the forest.

Later on, we could hardly stand the disappointment when we saw with our own eyes how pathetic the condition of the 'coral park' had become. The coral had become barren and had turned black compared to the bright green and red I had witnessed on a previous trip eight years before. But the worst incident happened while we were sunbathing and dozing lazily on the beach. The sun had suddenly disappeared! We opened our eyes and frantically screamed. Three Indonesian male tourists were standing in front of our towels - blocking the sun - starring at our chests!

That did it. We packed our bags the next day and jumped into our car - to go straight home.

On the way back, we couldn't avoid the charity kids' tricks. But this time my reaction wasn't as sweet as before: "Move away you low life scoundrels! Pretending to fix the potholes while standing behind the same bloody pothole for the last three days. Get a life, will you!"

First published in the Jakarta Post

Housing and schooling information for expats in Indonesia expatriate website for Indonesia Indonesian language translation of article

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