Sunday, December 19, 2010

Terminal Beach

I had the rare foresight to take last Monday off, giving me a solid four day weekend of good vibrations and sun kissed mosquito bites to enjoy. And so, at some ungodly hour on Saturday morning, I headed to the airport by taxi (I elected not to walk it this time) and the inevitable unannounced one-hour delay courtesy of Sriwijaya Airlines. I guess they were really trying to pique our appetites for the in-flight square of flaccid green cake, which looked like a moss covered slice of Battenberg.

I was headed around 300 km due north of Jakarta to the island of Belitung, which lies off the east coast of Sumatra, just next to the island of Bangka. Belitung is around the same size as Bali, although with considerably fewer Circle Ks and gentlemen clutching briefcases full of discount watches to enjoy. The island has traditionally been a big mining area. More recently however, Belitung has been trying to attract tourists to its calm, turquoise seas, bule white beaches and idyllic offshore islands.

Well, I'd never been in any case and four days of relative peace, off the information matrix, in order to try and reintegrate myself as a human subject seemed like just the ticket. Although having said that, I did found out that flies can operate mobile phone touchscreens on my travels. Those buggers have clearly out evolved me on that score.

A mere 40 minutes after takeoff, we touched down in the town of Tanjung Pandan and I got a local driver to ferry me up the coast for an hour to the main beach area. As my man tooled along the road, chain chuffing LA Lights, cranking the Dangdut up to teeth rattling volume and banging on about English Premier League football, I took in the endless Sawit plantations and empty roads and knew that I was in for a supremely and buttock unclenchingly stress free weekend.

Belitung has become well-known in Indonesia recently as the setting for the movie, 'Laskar Pelangi' ('Rainbow Troops' or 'Rainbow Warriors') which has certainly fared somewhat better than the Greenpeace ship of the same name. 'Laskar Pelangi' is, in fact, now the highest grossing flick in Indonesian box office history and is a well made, feel good tale of a group of impoverished schoolchildren and their teachers, as they struggle with poverty and their hopes for a better future. Arguably the prognosis for this better future is not very good if rapscallions like me have started frequenting the place, but there you go.

The movie has apparently helped to fuel a mini tourism boom on Belitung. And in fact, a musical of the film will be playing at the brand-new and rather swanky Teater Jakarta up at the TIM arts centre from the 17th of this month onwards, culture vultures.

I rented a scooter and headed up the coast. Belitung is surrounded by huge, monolithic boulders, which give it a moody and rugged feel and I soon found myself strolling through a maze of enormous rocks that lay behind a sign saying, "Lokasi Syuting Laskar Pelangi" (I just love that Indonesian English bastardisation, 'syuting').

Maybe more tourists will come, but as of now, the unspoiled beaches are immaculate, in contrast to more recent trips that I've made to Jakarta's nearest desert island getaway, the Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands). When I first hit the Thousand Islands [coughs] years ago, they were only lightly covered in crap, and in just a few places. Now however, ominous swathes of plastic refuse have made wading along some of the nearer shorelines to the capital like that scene in 'Star Wars' where they all fall into the trash room with moving walls and grasping alien tentacles.

Belitung remains a veritable Garden of Eden however (albeit one populated by Muslims) and the perfect destination if you're looking for a few quiet days away from it all. I should qualify all of this though by saying that if you're a pale face, then you should be aware that the, "Hello Mister! Where you come from?" factor here is off the scale.

Usually when I'm on tour, I have to confess that after the first few, Hello Mister! Where you come froms of the day, I am wont to go on a trans-global run around and start claiming I'm from Iceland or the Ugandan Minister of Trade, just for a bit of variety. In Belitung however, I managed to escape the surly bonds of the Earth's gravity altogether and, when one gobsmacked fishing family clocked my lanky, sweating, big nosed frame hiking along the coast through the tangle of mangrove roots, I claimed that I was from a neighbouring Galaxy.
"I'm from the planet Vlkarx in the Postlethwaite Nine system."
"I see, cigarette Mister?"
"I have no need for your puny earth cigarettes, as we Vlkarxians each have a nicotine membrane across our oesophagi."
Etc etc. 0h, I get so bored, I get so bloody bored.

A day-long boat trip to the surrounding small islands proved to be a winner though and included a slog to the top of a Dutch lighthouse that dates back to 1882. After this, I had a little sunbathe alone on my own stretch of private beach, like a lily-livered Robinson Crusoe waiting for a group of female Lilliputians to emerge from the undergrowth and soothe my furrowed brow with tropical oils. Alas though, this solo holiday proved to be short of loving (and praying, although the eating was quite decent).

I'd thoroughly recommend Belitung for your next long weekend if you're really looking to get away from it all. Check in at the Bukit Berahu, Kelayang Cottages, or the more expensive Lor In and kick back. Beep beep... incoming text message... throws mobile in the sea.