Surabaya on Two Wheels

SurabayaI had been told by many that the second largest city on Java was very much like it’s overgrown big brother Jakarta, in all ways bad. I found a large city for sure. I found a city with a lot of noise, a lot of traffic, a lot of people, and all the issues that go along with that.

I also found a city in contrast, battling between historic and modern. A city of wide open boulevards, charming neighborhoods, and a diverse population.

I may be repeating myself and if so that just gives credence to the point that Javanese are friendly and not shy about introducing themselves.

My stay in Surabaya brought me in contact with people that wanted me to experience Surabaya like the Javanese. They wanted me to see all the highlights of the city and they wanted me to have an adventure.

I was about to have one!

Riding through town on the back of a motorbike maybe an everyday occurrence for most in Java but for me the experience proved… “enlightening”. 

I arrived in Surabaya by bus after schlepping through a traffic jam for about an hour. Like most traffic jams this one was man-made but unlike most traffic jams this had little to do with drivers having accidents, crazy drivers, too many drivers, injured drivers, etc.

This had to do with one of the worlds largest man-made disasters.

I am not joking.

This and the oil disaster in the gulf are right up there looking for top spot. Both were caused in the name of “bubblin crude, oil that is, black gold, Texas tea”!

“Lusi” as the flow is termed is the result of drilling.

You poke the earth in the right spot at the right depth and you may find the gold you were looking for has turned to mud. This is what happened back in 2006 and it is not going away anytime soon.

The amount of mud being released is measured at 1 million cubic feet ; equivalent to a dozen Olympic size swimming pools and this is per day over the last several years.

The kicker is that the life expectancy of this gusher is another 10 to 30 years. As you drive along the highway to Surabaya there are massive levees continually being added to in order to contain the mud.

These levees currently stand about 50 feet high!

I am not a motorbike rider.

When I was in my early teens my friend did have a 50cc minibike that we would zoom about on but I don’t think that counts. Especially since the side streets of Manurewa, my home town, are considerably less trafficked than the main streets of Surabaya.

Once I got inside the city and transferred to my two-wheeled form of transport we headed for the old part of town; taking in the colonial district, town hall and old residential villas.

Then we moved on to Chinatown, the Arab section, and Ampel Mosque. 

All of these areas were crazy chaotic yet we sliced through the crowds with ease. Horn constantly tooting, brakes constantly being applied causing my helmeted head to collide with the drivers, and swerving dodging weaving all in mockery of our four-wheeled counterparts.

This mode of sightseeing although exciting does have a major drawback. Photo taking is difficult and potentially very dangerous.

I did mention earlier that the ride was enlightening. It was.

The chaos I had always witnessed on the roads now turned into a very fluid easily manageable river of combustion. As long as you adhere to the rules of the chaos then everything goes along fine. If you deviate from these rules and say, try to drive like a westerner; that’s when you become out of sync and collisions happen.

No-one can anticipate your next logical move. The established road rule of chaos!

From Jakarta to Surabaya, Java is an island of incredible beauty, diversity, and history.

My days are always full. Whether planned or by surprise I am never at a loss for something to do. Markets, mountains, restaurants, temples, colonial neighborhoods, heritage sites, cultural experiences of dance, music, and batik.

Java is an island I find difficult to leave; but with that said I am looking forward to my arrival in Bali.

For photos of Indonesia click here.

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41 thoughts on “Surabaya on Two Wheels

    1. It does seem crazy at first but after a while you realize it is pretty much the norm. I have seen as many as six. The picture in the post actually has five people on it. You can only see the foot of the youngest in front of the mother.

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  1. Have you heard the song “Surabaya Johnny” by Kurt Weill? It’s sort of a torch song, very dark and morose, about a sailor. I always wondered what the real Surabaya was like, and how it could have inspired the song. Thanks for giving me a snapshot of this place – it seems like a surreal and exotic adventure.

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  2. Hey Tim, interesting to see some of the similarities of your post with my experience of last week in Uganda especially on the motorbiking front. I would have loved to see a picture of you behind that bike there.

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  3. Being on the motorbike is an adventure in itself. The cities you have gone to are amazing. I am enjoying the stories as well as the pictures. I can’t wait for your trip to Bali, that is on my list to top favorites to visit.

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  4. This reminds me of when we lived in China. You were taking your life in your hand anytime you tried getting through the streets, but the people living there didn’t blink an eye. I guess the chaos made sense to them. Love the photo of the two girls on the blue bike!

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  5. Hi Tim,
    I could almost see myself there with you as where sharing your story. I can’t imagine riding motorbikes in that environment. Yet, it looks like it might be a lot of fun.
    I’ve only ridden a motorbike once and I was 9 years old.
    It’s really fun watching you on your journey. Isn’t it funny how something is never how you imagine it in your mind?
    Thanks for sharing your journey!!!
    ~ Don Purdum

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  6. I went to boarding school for my sophomore year of high school and my roommate was from Indonesia. I’ve only heard her stories and have never been myself. I loved the story of you zipping through the city on a motorbike. I can imagine why you wouldn’t want to be fiddling around to much with a camera in that situation! It must have been a memorable experience for sure! I especially love the picture of 4 people on 1 bike. What a way to travel!

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  7. Another wonderful glimpse into your adventures, good and bad. It pains me to think that while us humans are digging for gold/oil/water, we are also destroying the environment and might not even know it. I think Mother Earth is angry and will only continue to stay that way if we don’t try to take better care of her. Anyway…your account of two-wheel traveling makes me think of the phrase ‘organized chaos’ that apparently is taking place in Java! As always, will be looking forward to your next story!

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  8. I always enjoy your blogs, and the places you see are incredible. I was wondering, being on a bike compared to a car, does it feel like you are more connected to the place you are in? I was asking because you are eliminating the car door and window etc, when you are on a motorcycle

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    1. You are right William, you do feel more connected but then you have the safety issue, bedlam, chaos, and impending death that awaits you at every corner. It’s a toss up as to what you want to experience 🙂

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  9. Travelling on a two wheeler is the best way to experience and remember places you visit. However, the traffic rules here seem to similar to India’s – organised Chaos!! I don’t think I would survive on those roads.

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    1. I have stayed away from the motorcycle form of travelling as well. I have seen too many scrapes and breaks on others while in Asia to make me think it’s probably not the best idea.

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  10. Fascinating! Travel is such a marvellous way to open our eyes, hearts and minds. Your blogs and photos take me to places I might never visit. Lusi, oh my. (In Canada’s north we have the man-made desecration known as the Alberta tar sands.)

    As regard motor vehicle travel, in the event of an accident involving a foreign motorist, the foreigner is pretty much always considered at fault is what I’ve heard. “We” are simply inadept with and ignorant of the “rules” of the chaos.

    Thanks for sharing your words and your photos.

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  11. Lusi is unbelievable – not sure I’d want to see that. But what I did enjoy seeing were your pictures of Indonesia – amazing, beautiful and like another world, going back in time. On your travels don’t you sometimes feel that way, Tim – that you are traveling backwards?
    Lenie

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    1. Yes, many times when traveling through countries you get a sense that time has stood still; then you see someone on a cell phone and you realize things are catching up.

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  12. I didn’t know there were rules for chaos. Good thing you learned about them! It made your exploring workable. I also didn’t know about Lusi. It sounds and looks like a nightmare. Thanks for teaching me 2 things today!

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  13. The pictures of the “Lusi” and the levees to hold back the flow are incredible. Such a sad thing, so much work to keep the mud back. Like some of your other commenters, I’m not sure I’d want to be on 2 wheels in Surabaya.

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  14. First of all to the above: Enjoy Dunkin Donuts in Australia! It’s by far my coffee of choice…I brew it every morning:) It’s unfathomable, the amount of mud being spewed! I mean 50 feet! I really didn’t enjoy Jakarta so much, so I have mixed feelings about wanting to travel to Surabaya. Either place, 2 wheels wouldn’t be a good option for me:) Grand pictures!

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            1. Per Wikipedia…something to look forward to : ) “Dunkin’ Donuts is expected to re-enter the Australian market in 2013”.

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      1. hello 😊! that building with the tutti frutti sign still exists, with a few changes on the building facade. it’s the oldest (and first) ice cream parlour in surabaya; zangrandi. i live in surabaya so i passed by that place every now and then.

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