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Into Dante's Inferno

Mount Patuha/Kawah Putih
Tangkuban Perahu

It can be fun being the one of the few, if not the only white guy around.

Now before you get your PC panties in a bunch, listen up. The Indonesian slang for Europeans and Americans is bule (BOO-lay), which is a bastardization of the word 'albino.' It literally means, 'white person.' And since I am constanly called bule, I think we can dispense with the self-righteous 'tolerance' crap.

OK, so when I leave the city, I often go places that most visitors don't go. Come to think of it, I live in the city in a place where most visitors don't go. Being one to travel the 'blue highways,' those seldom travelled back roads that tourists shun, I frequently find myself in unusual and fun places.

On top of that, I become a minor celebrity, of sorts. Just yesterday, a group of women wanted to have their picture taken with me. I was more popular than the horseback rides and only slightly behind the center of attention for the park we were visiting. But I'll get back to that.

Our weekend excursion took us to Bandung, which is about two hours east of Jakarta. It's a great little city in the Indonesian hill country, though increasing popularity has caused a mini-boom in the last few years. Bandung is famous for, among other things, its factory outlet stores. Here, you can buy designer-label clothing and accessories for pennies on the dollar, or fractions of rupiah if you will, compared to other parts of the country, and especially outside the country.

You see, Indonesia is the low-cost provider to America's low-cost providers. All those jobs that were jacked to India and China are then farmed out across Asia, with clothing and textiles being one of the mainstays of Indonesia.

You can buy Yves Saint Laurent, Burberry, London Fog, Giordano, and dozens of other 'labels' direct from the factory. I picked up a nice Burberry casual shirt for $2. Needless to say, Indonesians being the thrifty shoppers that they are, Bandung is very popular as a weekend get-away and shopping haven.

For me, the big attraction is not the city, cities are everywhere and they are pretty much the same throughout the world, but the natural beauty available just outside the town.

Our first stop Sunday morning was Kawah Putih, which means 'White Crater.' This is a beautiful nature park about two hours south of Bandung. It's on the pricy side, $22 for a car and 8 people (Rp.150,000/car and Rp.15,000 per person). You can park below for free and take an ankot to the top for only $2/person plus admission, instead of paying the car fee.

It's in the center of a forest preserve at the top of a mountain. It's particularly nice, because though there are vendors and hawkers, there are no shops and souvenier stalls, just open parking and restroom facilities (10 cents per use).

After parking, you stroll across the parking lot and climb over a ridge, then down into the crater of an extinct volcano. At the bottom is a lake that is ash grey and relatively warm. It is cradled within the steep walls of the crater and there is a sulphurous smell from escaping gases.  In fact, there is a sulphur mine in the area.

The day we were there, it was refreshingly cold with a stiff breeze. What made this humorous to me, was that the Indonesians were bundled up like Eskimos, while I was in T-shirt and shorts. I thought it was a long-awaited and refreshing break from the year-round heat of Jakarta.

There's a rough-finished landing that goes right up to the water's edge. The few trees near the water are scraggly and pitiful, but there is a lush forest just a few feet up. Around the area, local craftsmen play a traditional Sundanese musical instrument called a kecapi (kuh-CHA-pee). It looks something like a zither and is played with one hand strumming while the other plucks. It's quite a pleasant sound and made the atmosphere all that much more other-worldly.

Returning to the parking area, we went down a separate path. This one led to an excellent waterfall. The hike is somewhat arduous, espacially for flat-landers, but the sight is well-worth it. The falls are several meters high and cascade in a picturesque fashion down the side of the mountain. Warning: on a cold day, this place is even colder, due to the mist kicked up by the falls.

I should mention that these areas have absolutely no amenities for handicapped. Though 80% blind, I was able to manage fairly well, but wheelchairs will NOT have a chance.

After leaving the park, we turned further south and within 10 minutes, we were in the middle of a vast tea plantation. The bushes covered the area like a lush green blanket for as far as you could see. Along the road, we came to a stretch with very large old trees lining the sides. Here, a number of tent flies were strung up and vendors sold rice and noodles.

We had a pleasant 'second breakfast' on the roadside, looking at the tea fields. From our resting spot, we looked across the tea to a small hill in the near distance that had a number of waterfalls. The area is also famours for broccoli and strawberries. We bought 2 kilos of strawberries for less than $2.

After the break, we turned around and headed down the mountain again. Then we turned west to another park near Bandung, maybe one hour to the southwest. After climbing through endless villages and roadside vendors, we crossed an invisible barrier. Suddenly, we were into a beautiful old-growth forest, with massive trees and endless bands of monkeys watching us pass.

Near the peak, we turned into the main gate of Tangkuban Perahu. Entrance for a car and the same 8 people was only Rp.13,000/person, or about $1.50. The car was Rp.10,000, or about $1.20. They tried to charge me extra because I am bule, but because I can speak Indonesian and sing the national anthem, they relented.

After paying, we drove up the long and steep road to the top of the mountain. There were stunning views and plenty of monkeys to make the time pass quickly. At the top, we got down in the first parking area. A short hike brought us to the lip of the volcano, with a stunning view of the inside of an active mountain. It last erupted in 1983, so that adds a certain sense of excitement to the whole thing, thinking it could erupt and splatter you all over creation at any minute.

At the south end of the crater is a bubbling, seething pool of volcanic water, ash and effluvium. The sulphurous smell, called belerang in Indonesian, was quite strong here. The wind was brisk and powerful, nearly causing me to misstep more than once. A quick hike brought us to the very edge of the caldera.

The panoramic view is quite stunning. You can take in the entire crater, with its steaming, ash-gray lake at the bottom, and the steep sides that look as if they were sheered off by a massive chisel. A small, 3-foot high fence separates the visitor from doom.

After a few oohs and ahhs, and photo-ops with a dozen women in their jilbab, we drove down to the lower parking area to see Dante's Inferno from other perspectives.

Here, there are a couple dozen horses for hire, though most are ponies by Texas standards. Vendors wander around hawking every kind of oleh-oleh, or souveniers, imaginable.

Around the rim of the crater, there are dozens of precarious overlooks and each one offers a Kodak moment. There's also a tower with a panoramic view of the surrounding area, which is breath-taking, to say the least.  Wheelchairs can find a couple of perches that are accessable, however the tower is not.

From here, a wide path leads down to the Gates of Hell. Volcanos are considered by Indonesians to be dwelling places for powerful spirits. The sulpher waters have healing properties for folks with various skin ailments, as well, though you can't bathe in them. Your skin will boil off in short order. Folks dip out the water and cool it first. You can also buy eggs cooked in the heat of the volcano, which are considered to contain healing powers, as well.

The hike to the bottom is rather arduous, and the return trip even more so. The path is rough and strewn with rocks and loose gravel. At the bottom, you come to a large, roiling pool, and it's somewhat difficult to breathe. It's something like standing next to a 1,000 matches as they are lit.

Somwhere in the area, though I didn't have time to find it, is a sacred gua (GWA), or cave. People come to pray in the cave for all sorts of blessings. The volcano spirits apparently have the power to confer blessings and luck, as well as destruction if they are not appeased.

Along the way, there are dozens of shops selling every kind of craft imaginable. You will want to negotiate every penny, as prices usually double or triple for bule. Offer half of the stated price and walk away if he won't bargain. Two doors down is his cousin selling the same thing, and he WILL bargain since you didn't bite the first time.

After you've taken a few thousand photos, bought all your oleh-oleh and you can taste the sulphur in your mouth, it's time to go. The drive out is just as refreshing and relaxing as it was coming in, with monkeys inspecting your car as you pass.

Sun-burned, wind-burned and exhausted, we wound down the mountain and headed home. It really is amazing what you can find a quick drive out of the city. In both locations, I was the only bule around, so that made it somewhat more entertaining for me. My Indonesian friends just sat back and laughed as I spent a good half hour in photo session. And not a single tip did I recieve.

Exhausted, I fell into bed last night, ready to face another week in the rat race.

HINT: If you are asthmatic or sensitive to dust, you might want to bring a face mask, especially on windy days.  I spent a considerable amount of time cleaning dirt out of my eyes and nose, and one of our party, who is asthmatic, had trouble breathing.

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