|Friday 15th December- Thursday 21st December
We had changed our plans and instead of going to the Gilli Islands off Bali in Indonesia we flew two hours from Yogajakarta to Batam, a small Indonesian Island just off Singapore. We had thought of staying on Java and travelling back to Australia via Jakarta, but it was good that we didn’t as there was an earthquake at midnight on Java, near where we had been staying the day we left. This confirmed how natural disasters are a way of life there: earthquakes often followed by a Tsunami, volcanic eruptions, monsoons, floods and landslides. Indonesians just accept it and get on with it, knowing there will regularly be loss of life.
Getting to the Radisson hotel was easy, as Jane headed straight to the front of a long taxi queue and the man managing the queue, to my embarrassment, put us into the first car. The Radisson was one of only a few five star hotels on Batam. We had a really good last minute deal with a lovely room with a balcony overlooking the pool and the golf course. Not what we usually do but it worked out really well. We had been in Indonesia for almost three weeks and every evening had been bitten by something, so being in a luxury hotel was just what we needed.
All the more so, as by the the time I left Yabbiekayu it was obvious to me I had picked up a cold. In fact our host there, Dave, declined to shake my hand upon leaving, for fear of contamination. The plane journey was was both miserable and embarrassing, with every sneeze and snuffle making me feel like the ultimate social pariah.
The next three days were a bit of a blur. I made brief forays from my room but came to regard my bed as an oasis, away from the humidity, heat and rain showers, the only place where the streaming nose seemed to get under control.
As I recovered, inevitably, Jane got it and felt rough for the next few days.
In spite of these health issues, we enjoyed our time on Batam. We used the pool and went out most days to search out the magical tropical beaches we felt sure must be hiding somewhere on the Islands of Indonesia, beyond those at Bali.
However we soon discovered that Batam’s beaches are neither idyllic nor easily accessible. Indonesia is essentially jungle and finding the tropical beach of our dreams proved to be elusive. We learned that Batam is the escape island for Singaporeans looking for a break from the bustle of their overcrowded island. What they were looking for was a luxury hotel that they only chose to leave only for outings to any of the thirty odd malls. The Raddison ran a free shuttle bus service to four of these. The beach did not figure in their plans.
We didn’t initially understand why the ‘guest relations manager’ looked puzzled when we asked where the nearest or best beach was. She suggested getting a taxi to the Turi Resort Hotel and paying to use their beach. She was unable to provide a map of the island and Trip Advisor was strangely reticent on the subject of Batam beaches.
We took ourselves off to one of the malls served by the free shuttle on the basis that it was at the harbour and so might lead us to a beach. Not so. It was an industrial wasteland. Not attractive to someone with a streaming nose and thick head.
This and subsequent trips to the shopping malls was quite a bizarre experience. The temperature was roasting, late 20’s or 30’s and the shopping malls played “Frosty the snowman” “I am dreaming of a white Christmas “ etc etc which was felt both strange and comical. Indonesia is predominately a Muslim country and we watched people singing along to the Baby Jesus carols that were being played. There was no sign of the debates which rumble on in the UK about the need not to offend other religions and the scrapping of nativity plays and stopping the Happy Christmas greeting. Indonesia, apparently devoutly Moslem, was not bothered.
Th following day, still not in the best of health, we caved in and took ourselves to the resort hotel suggested by the guest relations manager, where there was reputed to be a beach. There was, of sorts, but it was narrow, with hard sand and an outlying marina suggesting fuel discharges from the berthed yachts. We were not tempted to try the water. I retreated home to my bed oasis at the Raddison.
Still hopeful, the following day we took more advice from the guest relations manager and took a taxi to a seafood food restaurant where we were assured there was a nearby beach. The restaurant was rustic to the point of rickety but served delicious and fresh seafood, even if the experience of seeing the creatures waiting for their death in captive tanks was a little unsettling. The adjacent beach was scrubland, littered with detritus from the sea. So it was a delicious lunch followed by a retreat to our luxury base with its lovely pool.
Never daunted, with me in improving health but with Jane succumbing to The Cold, we hired a car for half a day and took off to explore the extremities of Batam. By this I mean a series of five adjacent islands, straddled together by bridges. The best beaches, we were assured, were to be found after the fifth bridge. Although the beaches were shown on a tourist map we had, by now picked up at the harbour, they did not exist in their designated location. Two hours later, and after consultation with a few vey perplexed local residents, we finally found our first proper beach. Proper, because it had sand meeting ocean and was eminently inviting for a swim, but it was limited to about ten feet in depth. It was populated entirely by local people – families congregating and young men singing together. Many people were in the water but the women and girls all wore hijabs in the water. We had our swimming things on under our clothes but had no idea whether we would be an affront to common decency, exposing legs,arms and heads. We dithered around for a bit. Everyone was friendly, with the usual requests for photographs with us, but would they welcome the sight of our exposed bodies? Eventually we took the plunge, physically and metaphorically and got into the sea, which was tepid. The children were thrilled to have us in their ocean but communication was limited to say the least. When we emerged we scuttled off to the toilet block to make ourselves decent and acceptable again. I have no idea whether we offended anyone or not; this, to me, is part of the challenge of travel in places of unfamiliar culture and religion, having to be alert to the possibility of transgressing social codes but never knowing whether one has actually done so. However, we had, finally, managed a swim on a beach on Batam Island.
It’s true to say that our stay on the island was rather defined by our colds – one after the other – and by the mythical quest for a tropical beach but it was, in some ways the perfect place to be during our period of infirmity. The hotel was excellent and it had great pool. We might have laughed at the idea of shuttle buses to the shopping malls, but we took advantage and got to experience some interesting eating places and bought a few local items of clothing. Most importantly, we could retreat to our beds when overwhelmed by the fiendish cold virus. No insects, no reptiles, nothing biting, what could be better? Bali can wait to the next visit to Australia, when the volcano presents no threat and perhaps Peter can take some time off and come as well. I write this on the plane back to Perth. We left Batam on the early morning ferry to Singapore, a good way to start a day. Jane continues to cough and splutter but I’m nearly back to normal. Australia and Christmas here we come.