Friday, September 17, 2010

Bintan: For the Solitary Soul

The first long weekend arrived, and we went to Bintan, Indonesia with Ed who was visiting us for a week on his way back home from Australia. The Muslim holiday, Hari Raya, marked the end of thirty days of dawn-to-sunset fasting during the entire month of Ramadan. After that, I’d want a party too.

We left Thursday night, on the 8pm ferry from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal, which is conveniently quite close to our home. After a quick meal of the usual noodles in soup, we hopped onto a small ferry, laid out somewhat like an airplane, with a few rows of seats broken into three sections. We were entertained by a Rowan Atkinson biography and a few cans of beer and 45min later we arrived in Bintan.

The immigration line was surprisingly long, as we found ourselves at the end of it. Luckily a border agent approached us and hurriedly brought us to the front of the line. We were unsure of why we received this special treatment, until he took our passports, stamped them quickly with what I might add was a very nice looking visa sticker, and expectantly requested a tip for his good deed. For the $5 between us it was probably not worth his while, but we were on the other side and ready to go! Our driver from the hotel was waiting, sign in hand, as we walked from the terminal, and we were in a van and off to our destination.

Our accommodation, Bintan Lodge, seemed to be set up in an apartment complex. It consisted of 20 rooms, which must have been rented from the units. The suite was a decent size; two bedrooms, a kitchen and living room, and came with a friendly cockroach to welcome us home.

The village we were staying in was about a ten minute drive south of the main resort area. It consisted mainly of a hawkers center (outdoor food court), a couple outdoor mall areas which were mostly restaurants, small stores selling trinkets, and an abundance of single story apartment-like buildings; many of which were abandoned. We could walk the entirety of it in under 10 minutes. The first night we headed out in search of the nearest pub or bar. We found that very little was open, due to either the time of night or the holiday, even the locals we ran into were unsure.

After a brief search, and a short discussion with Tino, a security guard for one of the mall centers, we found a pub that was open until 1am. There was more staff at this place than patrons, but when questioned we were assured by the staff that Saturday night was going to be a big party. We ordered some mediocre food and a few drinks before heading back to our room for some shut-eye.

The next morning we woke up and headed back into the village for breakfast. Of the few people we encountered, most of them approached us with enthusiasm and suggestions of where we should go, what we should do, and where we could eat. Undoubtedly they had agreements with the local businesses, as a few men seemed to purely wander and scout for potential customers. When we ran into Tino, he was very excited to see us. “Where are you going today? Go to the beach?” he asked, running up to us and following as we walked towards a restaurant. “If you come back tomorrow... (a long pause ensued, as the suspense was building)... you can see me!” We got the feeling many of them were bored.

Later that day it poured; so much that it prevented us from leaving the room at all. We watched amazing Bollywood shows and children’s cartoons for a couple hours while waiting for the storm to pass. Once it cleared, we decided to head back down to the village for Balinese massages. $31 for an hour; unbeatable! Jenn’s favourite part was when the tiny Indonesian girl karate chopped her forehead.

The next day we rented a car with a driver to drive to the local town, Tanjung Pinang, then onwards for a swim at what was described as the best beach on the island. This was one funny trip. The driver seemingly didn’t understand what we wanted; to walk around town and see how locals live in Bintan.

He first took us to the dock of a $30 ferry that travels between Bintan and another tiny island only 15 minutes away. He talked up the island a little, so I think it is the place to go, however we passed on it due to the price tag. After a few photos and a brief wander down the street lined with vendors who were quite interested in us, we went back to the car to explore the rest of the island. We asked to go into the downtown area, which he didn’t seem to understand, so we gave probably the inappropriate word of “shopping?”

He took us to an oversized K-mart, or at least what we thought was a K-Mart. It was filled with cheaply made clothing and shoes, a food court, dodgy bathrooms and some sort of children’s play area. We didn’t buy anything, and at this point were mostly laughing about how everything on the trek so far were things we didn’t want. While browsing on our way out of the store, Jenn noticed two young local guys following her. After ignoring them for a moment, they approached her with an awkwardly nervous request for a photo. They must not see many white people. She accepted, feeling strangely like a celebrity, but also slightly uneasy about the experience.

Finding our driver once again, we gave up on the town and asked to see the beach; which resulted in an hour and a half drive north. The driver stopped in a grassy parking lot and asked if we wanted to take some pictures. Ed was quite frustrated at this point, wanting to go swimming and having nothing to do with this touristy photo-taking. We took a few shots before getting back in the car and demanded to be taken to a swimming beach! “Oh!” he responded. “Beach is back that way” as he signalled in the direction we had just been coming from.

As we drove, yet again, confused and a little irritated (but also slightly amused) we questioned further “Are you taking us somewhere we can go swimming?” He made a few phone calls and asked, “You want to go swimming?”

A resounding “Yes!”

“Back where we were you can swim!”

Universal eye roll and we turned around once more and headed back to the picture beach; where we managed a twenty minute swim. “Just take us back to the lodge.”

That night we had an epic dinner from Aura Resto, a small restaurant back near our lodge. We ordered double what we would normally eat, half to go, in preparation for the return from our expectantly crazy beach party. After a few beers back at the lodge, we were driven to the beach party happening at one of the bigger resorts. Finally; people! Well, other tourists. Our driver, Roja (we pronounced his name: Roger), joined us for the festivities. We skirted through ‘security’ (one guy standing casually near the parking lot) without paying the $10 cover and stood by the bar. Moments later Roja appeared with drinks for us! Super nice guy! He hadn’t had a drink in four years, so he told us, so we bought him a couple cokes until he broke down and finally had a proper drink with us.

The outdoor, yet covered, dance floor was facing the beach, with an enclosed DJ booth housing a young Asian girl who Teen seemed enamoured with. There were three Indonesian dancers who entertained the dispersing crowd for a few songs, before joining us by the bar. They had used dancing to escape Jakarta, a larger but depressed city in mainland Indonesia. One girl, who somewhat reminded me of an Indonesian Alicia, stole one of Ed’s sandals when he for some reason had taken them off to go speak to Roja. She hid it under the wooden dance platform, and when he returned, laughed hysterically at his confusion. Finally, after he repeated her name three times with his eyes closed, as requested by her, his shoe magically re-appeared.

Since the party was quickly dying down, Roja recommended another club. In this place, complete with a live band, dim lighting, and a sea of men, Ed tried to find Roja (who by the way was a quiet, slightly awkward nerdy guy) a girl against his will. We just shook our heads and laughed as we were two of five girls in the whole club.

Roja ended up staying on our couch because he had to work in the morning at 7am, and was alternately going to sleep in his car. He told us that at about five thirty in the morning there are monkeys in the parking lot if you leave food out for them, which Ed was determined to do. By the time we got home it was 3:30am, and for us was out of the question. We woke up to a very tired Ed, sitting at the end of our bed, regretting he couldn’t wake up in time to see the monkeys.

That day we took pretty slow and just got a ride to the local resort beach. It cost $10 a piece, plus a $15 cab ride for all of three to get there but we still had a great time!

That night we headed back to Singapore, spending the ferry ride with two Kiwi girls who had taken the day to ride their road bicycles around Bintan. We exchanged numbers with our new friends as we parted ways. They biked home while we waited for an hour and a half at the end of another long line for a taxi that never came. We finally hopped onto a bus, then onto the last MRT train (which we ran to get and arrived at the platform just as the doors opened) and finally home by midnight.

All in all, it was a great weekend; not what we had expected but a fun experience nonetheless.

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