WPLongform

Deluxe in Lux

It’s a pleasing moment when a journalist receives an invitation to eat something delicious, sleep somewhere beautiful or participate in something fun (often we are chained to writing articles of our editor’s choosing) because it provides us with a blank page on which to run with any narrative theme.  For me, on this occasion, the theme is LUXURY; pure, indulgent, gratifying luxury.

As a shoe-string-backpacker at heart, the prospect of some occasional luxury remains a delightful treat.  When travelling, I’m more likely to be heard asking “Would it be possible to get some sheets on this bed?” than “Are these sheets 100-count Egyptian cotton?” but make no mistake: I know 5 Star.  I have stayed in some of the best hotels around the world, received some of the best service and gorged myself on the best pillow mints in existence, so when I give somewhere the thumbs up, I do not do so lightly.

The fairytale town of Clervaux, Luxembourg

I was pondering the concept of luxury as the chauffeur-driven car (a shiny black Jaguar, to be accurate) wound its way through dense forest, circling the basin in which lies the picturesque town of Clervaux, Luxembourg, where I was about to spend two nights reviewing the boutique and design hotel, Le Clervaux. Through small gaps in the trees I caught frequent glimpses of steeples and spires, of turrets and 12th Century architectural detail; the town appeared to be the setting of a medieval fairytale.  It also appeared to be a well-kept secret, quietly nestled into a beautiful valley, typical of the Ardennes region, and I wondered how long it would remain so undiscovered.

A hidden gem

Arriving at the hotel stirred a mixture of awe and childlike excitement within me.  The design was instantly striking; both sensitive to the building’s history and in keeping with modern aesthetics.  Architecturally, the façades of the conjoined buildings demonstrated perfect union between old and new, and woven into the strong interior design was a dynamic fusion of masculine and feminine.

Interiors by JOI-Design

Moody greys and sultry blacks were accented by blocks of bold, fiery red.  Here, a touch of elegance in the wallpaper print; there, robust angles and clean lines.  The design spoke of glamour, of European chic and of smoldering beauty, with a distinct fashionista edge.  It was the most remarkable hotel interior I’d seen.

Interiors by JOI-Design

Best described as deluxe, my suite was no less impressive, with picture-perfect views of the castle.  The attention to detail within the design and layout was notable, and the amenities were superb.  It seems the thrill of the miniature kettle is a thing of travel past; Le Clervaux has raised the bar with individual Nespresso coffee machines.  Inside the undeniably sexy en-suite, an assortment of divine-smelling Fairtrade toiletries prompted me to let out an involuntary squeal, which echoed against the high ceiling and sounded at odds with the peaceful silence of my surroundings.

Interiors by JOI-Design

Interiors by JOI-Design

Despite the enormous bed luring me into the embrace of an afternoon nap, the wellness centre was calling me louder.  With a comprehensive spa menu and therapists of the highest quality, it was clear these facilities were one of Le Clervaux’s key assets.  I experienced head-to-toe treatments: a whole-body sea salt scrub (which left me with cashmere-soft skin), a deep cleansing facial and all manner of massage techniques. Forget Hot Stone Massage; at Le Clervaux it’s all about the Hot Ball – a heated balloon which is rolled at just the right pressure over your body, accessing every inch to loosen the muscles and lull you into a helpless state of relaxation.  As someone with sensitive skin and a strong environmental conscience, it is also crucial that I mention the wellness centre’s important choice of beauty products: Thalgo.  Created from naturally occurring minerals and nutrients found in the sea, these marine-based beauty products left neither a blemish on my skin, nor unnecessary impact on the environment, thanks to the brand’s core commitment to minimising its ecological footprint.

New levels of luxurious relaxation

Outside of the treatment rooms, there was an abundance of facilities to profit from – mood-enhancing, colour-changing lights in the pool, a decent sized jacuzzi and a relaxation room of ample comfort – but it was the hot zone I found the most enthralling, with its dark, enigmatic design and unusual variations on the classic sauna and steam experience.  Acutely aware of European spa protocol (namely the insistence of complete nudity) I let go of my inhibitions and de-robed into my own unashamed nakedness.  Admittedly, it did enhance the experience somewhat, allowing the skin to fully benefit from the steam, salt vapour and other glow-inducing atmospheric conditions.  But a friendly warning: if you’re averse to witnessing the unclothed form of the opposite sex in close proximity, some prior mental preparation is in order.

Post-pampering, it felt a shame to spoil my newly cleansed skin with unnecessary cosmetics, so I was relieved to note at dinner that whilst the hotel itself oozed glamour, there was no pressure on its guests to follow suit.  As a pescetarian, the hotel’s most prestigious restaurant Rhino’s Steakhouse was sadly wasted on me, however I can highly commend them on their extraordinarily generous crayfish salad and wood-fired pizzas, and with regards to the meat, let me say this: as someone who once was a carnivore, the steak menu was something to behold.  Meat lovers, eat your heart out because the choice of quality cuts, sauces and sides is extensive.  The hotel’s other restaurant Da Lonati served me the most tender, flavour-rich melanzane parmagiana of my life – which is saying something given how many times I’ve eaten this dish in Italy.  If you can resist the temptation of sinking into the world’s most comfortable bed for just a little longer, it’s worth pausing in the Cabana Lounge for a nightcap.

A wonderful welcome at bedtime…

In my humble opinion, the mark of excellence at any hotel is the standard of the breakfast – I’m looking for quality, creativity, variation and abundance – so I was delighted to discover Le Clervaux excelled on every point.  Each morning I was greeted with “Voulez-vous du Champagne?” (note: never in life is the answer to that question anything but “Oui, merci”) and a mouth-watering buffet so broad I deemed it necessary to wear stretchy pants to allow for my inevitable over-indulgence.  It was a breakfast-lover’s paradise; farm-fresh, locally-sourced, hot from the oven, freshly-squeezed, decadent, vitamin-rich and always beautifully presented.

How could I resist?

It intrigued me as to who would visit this wonderful little gem, so discreetly tucked away in the Luxembourgish forest, but as the Marketing & Communications Manager, Nicole, explained during a tour of the facilities, the town of Clervaux is situated amongst some of Europe’s best rural hiking routes, and is especially blessed in historical buildings and landmarks.  It is also a town of unique character (exhibit A: the mayor recently “handed over the keys” to the town and red carpets were laid along the small streets surrounding the hotel, upon which were held a delightful little festival for all to enjoy).  Add to that the superb business and conference facilities of the hotel itself and the aforementioned spa heaven and you’ll start to understand, as I did, why this well-kept secret is quickly gaining recognition as a travel destination.

The Family of Man photographic exhibition at Clervaux Castle

Go for business, go for golf, go for the cuisine and the fine wines, go for history, go for hiking, go for your physical wellbeing, or simply go for your sanity – because at Le Clervaux the stresses of your daily life will simply melt away, and in my experience that’s the greatest luxury of all.

The best views in town

I departed the charming streets of Clervaux the same way I had arrived – in that shiny black Jaguar – sad to leave behind the romanticism of the Rapunzel-esque town, but sure of one thing: if you are somebody well accustomed to luxury of the highest order, Le Clervaux will more than meet your expectations, and if you are somebody for whom luxury is a rare treat, it will simply blow your mind.

Visit www.le-clervaux.com to book your own blissful break

 

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The Root of All Evil

When I travel in developing countries I’m reminded of the pitiful state of the global economy, and of our sad attitudes surrounding money.  We live in a world of financial abundance – there is enough for all humanity if only we learned to resist greed – yet somehow man has created dramatic inequality.  The monetary system is such that whilst the elite minority thrive on their riches, millions of others languish in life-threatening poverty.  We have all the tools to fix the problems of the world’s poorest countries but we, the rich countries, choose to keep them in debt, eternally dependant on us.

On the global wealth scale, Indonesia does not rank high.  Within minutes of your plane landing or your boat docking you will see financial scarcity in evidence all around.  I’m not talking about “poverty” we see in the West which somehow still allows for the purchase of expensive electronics, designer trainers and cigarettes.  I’m referring to an extreme level of destitution, where malnutrition is commonplace and starvation is a threat.  Millions of Indonesians, of all ages, work long hours in physically demanding, dirty or undesirable jobs for little remuneration, simply to survive.

Anyone with an ounce of compassion would recoil at the sobering statistics of third world hunger and disease, yet it’s often wrongly assumed that one person alone cannot help the gravity of the situation.  One of the many reasons I travel in Asia is to spread my relative wealth amongst poorer communities; perhaps on a subconscious level it eases my guilt over being born to more fortunate circumstances, but primarily it is because I believe with great conviction that whilst governments continue doing little to help the world’s poorest nations, we should each do what we can.

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And yes, from my perspective we are talking about very little money.  Think about thirty pence or the equivalent in your currency: what can that buy you in the western world?  In England it won’t even buy chewing gum, but in Asia it equals lunch from a street cart or half a tank of petrol for a moped.  Add an extra thirty pence to your accommodation budget and you get a swimming pool.  Leaving my pocket that amount is unnoticeable but, for the Indonesian whose pocket it lands in, thirty pence can mean the difference between a full belly and an empty one.

A recent encounter in Bali reaffirmed my belief that individuals can make a difference.  At the end of a hot day exploring rice paddies and villages we passed a roadside display of colourful hammocks.  Buying a double hammock had been high on our agenda, although we had not yet agreed our budget or considered whether we had space within our backpacks.  The hammocks were perfect – recycled from vibrant parachute silk, thus also ticking the eco box – but our tiredness, hunger and thirst felt more of a priority at that particular time and we began to walk away.  So what turned us on our heels?  Compassion and guilt; the shopkeeper begged us for the sale.  She clasped her hands together, and she simply pleaded.  She expressed her own tiredness, hunger and thirst, and it put ours to shame.  Her face conveyed years of struggle.  She did not need to labour the point about feeding her many children, because when we looked into her eyes we saw genuine fear.  How many family members relied on that sale for food, health, education?  In that moment, our deliberation ceased and the hammock was sold.  The relief that rushed through her was visible, and a lump formed in my throat as she hurriedly wrapped our purchase, including extra rope to show her gratitude.

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DSCF2445Lying in that parachute silk I always think of that woman and it comforts me that, if only for one day, we made a difference in her world.

Of course, not all of our monetary exchanges were as heart-warming.  We frequently got ripped off by Rupiah-hungry locals using underhand tactics to scrounge profit, and I admit some situations bothered me.  I have noticed that in Asian countries capitalist values are taken to extremes and, sadly, somewhere in the rat-race to wealth the original value and meaning of life, of honesty and connection to other human beings is getting lost.  Poverty is debilitating and stifles the progression of developing nations, but it’s a shame when lives become utterly consumed by the constant drive to increase material wealth.

Yet it’s worth remembering that it is the Western world that has bred this commercial ideology of aspiring to greater wealth.  If we ourselves demonstrate that “more” is never “enough”, how can we feign surprise when greed, dishonesty and ruthlessness become commonplace in poorer countries which are simply trying to better themselves financially, just as we have done?  If a Hollywood sit-com actor can demand six-figure-sums per episode, what example does that set to the rest of the world?  What if, instead of indulging our selfish appetites in a continual quest for more money than we could possibly know what to do with, we found a happy medium where nobody had too little, nobody had too much?

One afternoon in the Gili Islands, sitting on a cushioned bamboo beruga, we watched as a local man knelt down on a board and paddled out to sea with his fishing rod, where he remained for some time, patiently awaiting his catch.  Seeing this, we recalled a story which epitomises the message the West sends the rest of the world about money.  In the interests of my word-count I’ll condense this tale, but you’ll get the idea:

A wealthy American businessman meets a fisherman in a small Mexican fishing village.  The businessman learns that the fisherman leads a simple life, catching only enough tuna to feed his family, and spending his spare time laughing with his children, playing the guitar and drinking wine with friends.  The businessman scoffs: “Why don’t you spend longer fishing, sell your catch and with the revenue buy several boats.  As your business grows you could open a cannery, and eventually a global enterprise.  You could move to New York City and sell your company shares on the stock market.  In 15 years you could become a rich man!  Then you could retire and move to a small Mexican fishing village where you would spend your days fishing, laughing with your children, playing the guitar and drinking wine with your friends”.  The fisherman simply smiles and asks, “Isn’t that what I’m already doing?”

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I’m certain most financiers would recoil at my suggestion that we – the rich West – do more to help struggling nations free themselves from deprivation, and whilst I don’t claim to have the answers to the world’s economic problems, I do believe this: as inhabitants of this extraordinary planet we have a responsibility towards each other.  If we are to see any improvement to poverty, we must first see a change in attitudes.  What if the current emphasis on personal wealth gave way to the importance of sharing?  What if the message we teach our children became this: “It’s not about what you own; it’s about who you are”.  What could that wealthy businessman learn from the poor fisherman about life’s true riches?

As a wise man in my life recently said, “I would pay any amount of money to see the monetary system fall” but until then I’ll continue to turn my Sterling into Rupiah, Ringgit and Rufiyaa in the knowledge that individually I can make a difference, however small.

Searching for The Place with No Name

There’s a common perception that in paradise all is perfect.  DSCF2377Yet many fail to appreciate that to find utopia, and furthermore deserve it, you must often overcome great obstacles.  It can be a test of endurance, tolerance and desire.  Never was this more impeccably illustrated than during our exploration of the Gili Islands. These three tiny droplets of white sand are nestled amongst some of Indonesia’s finest living coral reef, and are so remote they barely register on the map.  Each famously promises a plethora of exotic experiences, but can be stubbornly unyielding with their treasures until you have earned them.

Arriving in Gili, some ground work was required to manifest our shared vision of simple island life.  Suffering from bad guts and hindered by heavy backpacks we traipsed along miles of rough sand tracks, scouring the coastline for the perfect beach hut.  We viewed dozens of theoretically viable bamboo shacks but each presented deal-breakers (the dead animal mounted on the wall was a particular low point).  Our bodies ached and our patience thinned in the heat.  Misguided by sweaty exhaustion, we stopped at a shabby collection of huts called Lucky’s, and quickly regretted it. IMG_6850 But it brought to light an important issue of life on the road: hygiene.

As a traveller you become at one with dirt.  Daily, you contend with unwashed hair, sea salt, chlorine, sweat, road dust and other unidentified grime.  You pass an acceptable level of filth and simply stop caring.  The question “Do I stink?” is met with the response “To what degree?” and you wear rancid smelling clothes which under normal circumstances you would throw away.  Contrary to my reputation amongst friends as a neat-freak, as a backpacker I’m reasonably resilient to muck, but Lucky’s certainly tested my tolerance.  Forget the thick coating of dust on every surface, the gritty layer of sand covering the rotting floorboards, the stained sheets or the musty mosquito net suspended from the cobwebbed ceiling – what I most objected to was the stench of sewage.  As I cowered in the bathroom doorway with a sarong covering my airways, Ben located the source: a huge, festering crap blocking the toilet.   Human faeces: in abundance.  It also transpired there was no functioning plumbing, no running water to abate the problem.  What use was there in alerting the owner?  He was stoned, had been napping on our bed when we arrived and I suspected was also the perpetrator of the crime.  My skin crawled.

To escape, we wandered to the sea.  But low tide exposed a bed of razor-sharp coral thwarting any ideas of a cleansing swim, and we learned that on this southern tip swimming was only possible during a short window each morning. IMG_7090 Was this really what we had travelled 8,000 miles for?  We felt disheartened that having planned to spend a significant portion of our trip there, paradise had shown us such hostility.  Crestfallen, we killed some time in a dicey café where the food was coated in warm, salmonella-inducing mayonnaise, and where I helped some locals revive a woman who appeared to have died at her table (incidentally, she had merely drunk herself into a shallow coma, no doubt to numb the disappointment of her surroundings).

When we could avoid our festering hut no longer, we surrendered to Lucky’s and endured one night in that disgusting room, lying fully clothed, trying not to inhale too often, both promising that at first light we would bolt. IMG_6822

A few hours later we rose to watch the sun bleaching the full moon from sight against a backdrop of a magnificent volcano.

IMG_6834The rays of this new day cast a different light on the island as it awoke and opened its arms to us.  We had survived Gili’s ugly side.  We had passed the test.  Later that day, our search for seventh-heaven ended at The Place with No Name: a beautiful, hand-carved wooden hut overlooking azure, swimmable waters.  A large veranda hugged the exterior, housing a hammock and a day bed.  Relieved, we relaxed and became absorbed by an uncomplicated lifestyle.  We showered outdoors in a stone-walled bathroom under stars, or rain, or shine.  In the mornings, shards of sunlight seeped in and filtered softly through the mosquito drapes onto our four-poster bed.

IMG_6896Time slowed down, and the surrounding paradise gently unveiled all its promised joys.  Life became a string of simple pleasures, of sensations shared and savoured.  From life at The Place with No Name, here is what my senses recall:

The sliding, silky coolness of the sea against my sun-parched skin.  The itch of a mosquito bite.  The constant roughness of sand between my toes and sheets.  The breeze on my face as I slept.  The brightness of the moon and stars.  The daily shock of colours before my eyes: blood-orange sunsets, sapphire waters. IMG_7410Snippets of conversation and laughter from women transporting concrete blocks on their heads.  The squeals of joy from a boy, jumping from his father’s fishing boat.  The sweet scent of frangipani flowers, fallen from a tree.  The faint waft of diesel around the jetty, or pungent manure from clip-clopping horses.  The silvery sheen of an overcast day.  The sound of geckos late at night, of thunder and hammering rain.  The fiery shock of chilli hitting the back of my throat.  IMG_6930 The jagged edge of a distant volcano silhouetted against the sun’s morning display of colour.  The sticky feeling of aloe vera smoothed over burnt skin at dusk.  The peacefulness of an island with no cars.  The shimmer of a school of fish flying clear out of the water.  My head submerged in crystal waters, the buzz of a motorboat all around me.  Glimpsing sunrise through my open bedroom doors.  Never wanting to leave.

A palm-fringed island may be exquisite to the eye, but I have found its true beauty lies in the slowing of the clock, the calming of the mind and the peace that comes with simplicity.  Give it time and a small island can teach you so much.  It teaches you to pause, to breathe, to appreciate and to reflect.  It offers you the chance to daydream, the space to discover.  It permits you to be still, silent.  It encourages you to explore – the land around you, yourself and each other. IMG_7027

And it teaches you this: Sometimes paradise is a rough diamond, a jewel whose sparkle is hidden until earned.  But polish it gently and exercise patience, then you will see it shine like a thousand stars.

No waves, no glory

Around the world, and around the clock, surfers are riding the waves.  For some it’s a relaxing hobby, a way to connect with nature and disconnect from technology.  For others it’s a drug so addictive they devote their lives to hunting the perfect wave, the perfect high.  Big waves, small waves, fat waves, messy waves, reef breaks, beach breaks, lefts, rights, barrels and tubes; the winds and tides work mysteriously together to create an aquatic playground for the world’s adrenalin junkies.

Until now, and despite the Australian component of my upbringing, learning to surf has remained an elusive dream, with timing and circumstance never quite working in my favour.  Consequently, I’m two years behind Ben who already has some impressive moves (he’ll deny this in typical modesty, but I’ve witnessed it).  In Indonesia the surf is world-class.  In other words: bloody terrifying.  The epic waves are for big-timers, and if you’re inexperienced you’ll be out of your depth, metaphorically and literally.  Broken boards and broken limbs are commonplace.  Given this, you might consider it an insane place to learn, but challenge and opportunity lured me in with their sweet vice grip.

Our search for a learner’s wave was frustrating, with lacerating coral and dangerous currents often standing in the way.  A West Lombok beach eventually delivered the mellow waves we sought and with tremendous patience Ben coaxed the surfer out of his English-Aussie girl.  Exhilaration shot through my veins, and being taught by someone so close made it all the more special.

I soon learnt that dedicated board riders spend hours, days – even weeks – patiently waiting for the right conditions.  When the water goes flat it comes down to this: watching the ocean, eating banana pancakes, checking swell forecasts, moaning about money wasted on board hire and, in my case, whimpering about the physically punishing effects of such a hobby.  I also learnt that surfers are generally only capable of conversing about one subject – you guessed it.  It’s a common joke that there’s nothing more boring than an accountant talking shop (no offence meant to any accountants reading; many of us mathematically challenged idiots would be lost without you) but I beg to differ, because talking about surfing to the exclusion of all other topics can be equally dull.

Our quest for surf perfection next lead us to South Lombok, a magical and empty land untouched by commercial development.  Impossibly green rolling hills stretch across a vast and remote landscape, densely covered in trees and thick grass, dotted with cattle.  The landscape is visually reminiscent of England or Scotland, except these hills and knolls tumble down into tropical bays of palm-fringed white sand, vivid turquoise waters and – crucially for us – flawless waves.  Whether you’re a pro or novice, happy days await you in those waters.  Learners are promised first-day-success from bored locals who offer lessons and it’s common to hear foreigners exclaiming in thick accents “Yesterday I had never seen a surf board in my life and today I can ride one!”

In a bid to join them in their elation, I signed up.  A gruff man with poor manners took me 45 minutes west on his bike to a dazzling cove where the beach was peppered with cows, children and the colourful buzz of daily life.  A few shacks lined the sand serving street food from make-shift kitchens while old men sat around spitting.  Whilst I could happily have indulged in a morning of cultural observation, I was there to surf – but evidently my teacher had missed that memo.  It’s no exaggeration to say that he spent the majority of my lesson eating, smoking and waving knives at screaming children.  When he wasn’t being a total disappointment he dutifully pushed me onto waves, but he taught me zilch; no praise, no criticism and no tips on technique    Time after time I emerged from the white foam, hastily re-arranged my bikini under the watchful eyes of school boys gawping from the shallows, and turned around expecting encouragement.  But he wasn’t watching; he simply didn’t care.  Feeling financially cheated, after three hours I pulled the plug.

Finding an alternative teacher was labour intensive.  Every contender seemed unlikeable or untrustworthy, and I’d all but given up when along came Yo-Yo, a skinny 19 year old with a charming grasp of the English language.  Physically he resembled a whippet, so slender and light, and in comparison I felt like the water buffalo that roamed the surrounding hills.  But through Yo-Yo I discovered the buzz that all surfers speak of.  The drill was this: negotiate a price to secure his time, hire a boat in the village to access the ocean breaks, surf for three hours then collapse into the wooden longboat, burnt, dehydrated, exhausted, but on top of the world.

Surfers are famously territorial, but out on the water with Yo-Yo at my side I was part of the club.  It goes without saying my paddling technique was appalling and I spent most of my time floundering in the fury of the white water, but I also improved.  Sometimes the waves towered overhead and I felt inadequate in comparison to the big boys, but Yo-Yo gave me guidance and I felt safe.  His friends would joke with me and whoop with delight at each wave I caught.  Ben and I developed a routine: mornings were for surfing, afternoons for recovering.  A week passed very quickly in this way.  We began to recognise faces and learn names.  It felt like a community.

At sunrise on Valentine’s Day we rose at 5am and joined this community for one last session.  The water was like a sheet of glass as our boat motored through the bay.  Wisps of cloud caught the rising sun, and the fins of our surfboards silhouetted against a backdrop of pink and orange.  The air was completely still and for a long time we surfed alone, in peace, until the sun climbed higher and others came for their share of the fun.  After my final ride I retreated to the boat.  My kidneys ached from the previous day when a rogue wave had driven the point of Ben’s board hard into my lower back, and I was physically broken from head-to-toe, but I felt so alive.

With the cruel clock of our 60 day visas ticking by, it was time to move on.  As the boat took us back to the village I surveyed the seascape around me and felt a huge sense of achievement.  Surfing is a testing sport, demanding and often brutal, and I had faced everything the Indonesian surf churned up, not only surviving the experience, but delighting in it too.

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New Year’s Eve: best night of the year??

The first two nights in Jakarta passed in a vague blur of climate adjustment, jet lag and psychotic dreams, induced by anti-malarial medication.  Hair raising rickshaw rides on 8-lane highways aside, the city held little intrigue.  In the backpacker district of Jaksa we got a taste for Bintang (local beer) and delicious Indian-inspired snacks, but generally we were unenamoured.  Our one attempt at sightseeing found us stood at the base of a tall, architecturally dull monument, in a swarming sea of short Asian people pointing timeworn camera phones in our faces, giggling and shuffling around us as they each awaited their turn to pose alongside the strange white couple.  Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie themselves couldn’t have drawn more attention.

We escaped the polluted sprawling mass of the capital (population: ten million) as fast as the train would take us, moving out of the city’s traffic-plagued centre and crawling leisurely through a vast area of slums, flanking the filthy river banks.  Sighting such poverty from within the train was heart breaking, and I wondered how it would feel to be amongst it.  Maybe one day I’ll find out.

Late at night we reached Cirebon, a small city on Java’s north coast, known for masked dance, a thriving batik industry, and an abundance of walled palaces where sultans luxuriate in wealth.  Yet these are not the elements of Cirebon’s character now etched to memory; the experience of welcoming 2013 in the presence of 200 robed men chanting Islamic prayers before their Imam is unforgettable.  Whilst we’d been keen to experience a different kind of New Year’s Eve, neither of us could have imagined what would come.

With much of Indonesia being predominantly Muslim, alcohol is scarce.  In anticipation of the presumed forthcoming party, our evening started in the city’s sole watering hole – a smoked filled, caricaturised Westernised bar where 90s music and onion rings were coveted novelties.  We sank a few beers, played some pool and tolerated the fact that we were (temporarily) completely devoid of culture.  Before making our exit I got chatting to some local girls who couldn’t comprehend our intention to leave the ridiculously clichéd bar.  They looked at me sombrely and warned of “many traffic” and madness on the streets outside.  I was undeterred.  What did they know?  They were clearly only staying in the bar because it allowed them to dress minimally and dance drunkenly for the night – behaviour not tolerated in their everyday lives.

Strolling out onto the street, tipsy and eager for celebration, we found the sobering reason for their warnings: motorbikes, covering every possible inch of road and pavement, from here to eternity.  The width and length of the main street was rammed, with barely an inch between each.  On each bike sat three, sometimes four passengers, all at standstill.  Engines revved aggressively, horns honked relentlessly.  Believing we could cut through to find an alternative route, we submerged ourselves amongst the petrol heads, soon realising it was too late to make an escape.  The bikes closed in around us and we were trapped in the throng.  The fumes were hot and suffocating.  Every bike pointed towards a large park a mile further, which housed a huge stage (the location of the free public event we so keenly anticipated) but nobody was moving.  It was total gridlock.  As we attempted to weave a passage through the mayhem without losing a layer of skin on the burning exhaust pipes, I pondered whether these people expected to make any progress or whether they were content to sit amongst the pollution and searing engine heat all night.

Through the haze of my beer-buzz I observed something about the crowd I hadn’t seen at first: it was formed of gangs.  There didn’t appear to be any trouble yet but the vibe was menacing.  Each gang we passed eye-balled us, the only white faces in town, and there was an air of intimidation.  I know little about biker culture, but Ben’s ardent wish to escape said enough.

Over the course of an hour we made little progress, the gargantuan traffic jam had not eased and we were barely closer to our goal.  A dirty piece of metal cut into Ben’s foot, protruding up from a pile of putrid rubbish which occupied the only small parcel of land not already claimed by a revving engine.  Morale was dipping.

Sometime later we entered the park, bleeding, sweating and nerve-wracked.  At least now we were out of the chaos we could enjoy a beer and some live music.  Correction: we could enjoy a serious and sober night of Muslim prayers.  I don’t think either of us spoke for a few minutes while we tried to take in the scene before us.  On the stage sat a swarm of men in traditional robes, chanting what sounded like the same prayer repeatedly and monotonously (although I’m willing to accept that my lack of religious knowledge could render me completely mistaken).  As far as the eye could see, multi-generation families gathered to pray before them.  There was no song, no dance, no jubilation and no countdown.  At the stroke of midnight nothing happened to signify the start of a fresh year.  Nobody embraced, and even amongst the younger couples nobody kissed.  Now it was obvious why those girls stayed in the bar drinking mojitos.

Unsure how to conduct ourselves in this situation – we could neither participate nor celebrate – we simply observed from the shadows, our pale skin a beacon to inquisitive eyes.    The community of Cirebon does not see many tourists; I imagine our presence at such an event was beyond unusual.

At around 12.06, as the prayers were winding down and families were filtering out of the park, we beat a hasty retreat down a quiet side alley, unable to face the main street and its Hell’s Angels wannabes.   Sitting on the pavement to compose ourselves we shared our first discreet kiss of 2013 and contemplated the night’s atypical events.  Within moments a surge of bikers tore through the silence, shrieking as they sped past.  On foot, huge crowds of youths swarmed around us in a 360 degree frenzy of excitement, shouting and high-fiving us, demanding to know our names and touching our white skin, departing as rapidly as they arrived, making room for the next group.

New Year’s Eve: best night of the year?  Certainly the strangest.

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