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We were each handed a plate of what looked like luminous green baby food. “Force it down, no matter what,” muttered Caelen. He need not have worried. I too was very flattered by the invitation to visit Irma’s home to sample her favourite Indonesian snack, tape (pronounced tah-pay), and I certainly wasn’t going to offend her by turning my nose up at it. As we chewed a mouthful, remarking on the “interesting flavour” and “unusual texture”, Irma explained that her biology teacher had taught her to make this fermented rice dish, adding certain enzymes and leaving the mix to develop over several days. “Fascinating,” we murmured, struggling through our generous portions before finally setting our plates on the table with some relief.

As we left Irma’s house, she took my arm. “I want all my neighbours to see me with you,” she giggled. Westerners were an unusual sight in Bondowoso and even more so in this quiet residential area, and people came out to look at us in curiosity. Irma was delighted at the kudos she was gaining.

Our destination was the local high school, or rather the small climbing wall in front of the local high school, where a gang of young climbers were honing their considerable skills. Exploring the town of Bondowoso earlier that day, we had stopped to browse in a funky looking shop and were very surprised to find rock-climbing shoes for sale. Locally made, they were about a fifth the price a bottom of the range pair of shoes would cost at home. We got chatting to the sales assistant, Irma, who was astonished to meet western climbers in her shop. She introduced us to her friend Yanu, a keen local climber, and we left the shop with a new pair of rock shoes and a plan to climb that afternoon.

At the climbing wall we again saw some of the obstacles facing Indonesian climbers. Yanu’s rope was in tatters, its sheath completely worn through in places to reveal the strands of its core. We shuddered at the very idea of trusting it to hold a fall. Their safety harnesses were improvised from slings and the vast majority of them climbed in bare feet. We were happy to offer up our gear for communal use, and they were delighted to use it. Despite their lack of equipment, these guys were excellent climbers, practicing every day on their small artificial wall. We were delighted when they suggested we all go to visit their local crag the next day, and happily put back our departure for Bali.

Back at our hotel, we casually told them we would be checking out a day later than planned and were taken aback when they told us they were fully booked. Throughout our stay, the hotel had been virtually empty, but apparently at the weekend things were different. At the next hotel, the news was the same, and then the penny dropped – the coming Saturday was the anniversary of Indonesian independence, and the town would be packed with Indonesian holidaymakers. At the next hotel we tried, none of the staff spoke any English. It was clear to them we wanted a room, and they cheerfully showed us the prices and offered us a key. “No, we need a room for tomorrow night,” we explained. “You don’t want a room?” came the puzzled reply. “Yes, but for tomorrow night, not tonight.” “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English”.

Various members of staff were summoned, and a bizarre game of charades ensued, with us miming sleeping at one hotel, then waking up and moving to another hotel. Consulting the back of our guidebook we managed to find the words for “today” and “tomorrow”, but by then the situation was so hopelessly confused that it took some time for us to get our meaning across. Finally, with much relief on all sides, they deduced that we wanted a room for Friday night, and we ascertained that they did indeed have one available.

The jeep was crammed almost to overflowing as we headed to the Spikul crag the next morning. “I’ve told my teacher I’m sick,” laughed Yanu. “I really wanted to come.” Beside him, sharing the front passenger seat, sat a shy young girl in a veil. “Nurina doesn’t climb,” Irma whispered, “But she’d like to practice her English with you.” We were entertained when the veil was whipped off as soon as we left town and were beyond parental reach.

It was a beautiful day, bright, warm and sunny, but not uncomfortably hot. We lazed about, chatting and enjoying the weather and occasionally attempting the odd climb. The Indonesians were fascinated with Caelen’s trad climbing rack, and eager to try using it to climb something different – a large roof beckoned, but before we could climb it, it was time for a bit of gardening.

The roof had been climbed before, but with no bolts to protect it, it hadn’t been done often and certainly not recently. A nearby bush had expanded into the crack, grasses had sprung up wherever they could take root, and a covering of moss adorned the damper corners. A team effort soon had things cleaned up, and another team effort began.

Placing climbing protection on a route is normally the job of one person at a time – the person who is climbing the route. The Bondowoso gang didn’t get a chance to place “trad pro” very often, though, so they all wanted to be involved. As one climber tried to place a piece of gear in the crack, five more stood around commenting, giving advice or criticising the placement. Eventually, after several people had taken their turn placing gear, the roof was deemed ready for action. Some succeeded with style, others with desperation, and most not at all.

We were all tired after our day, and drifted off to sleep one by one on the journey back to Bondowoso. Caelen and I were leaving for Bali the next day, and we were glad that we’d got some climbing in on Java, another tick on the international list. Most of all, though, we were pleased to have met such a friendly, welcoming group of climbers.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of our friends in Bondowoso Java Indonesia travelogues
Photograph of climbing near Bondowoso Java Indonesia travelogues
The Bondowoso gang

Prepping the roof route

Picture of climbing near Bondowoso Java Indonesia travelogues
Photograph of climbing near Bondowoso Java Indonesia travelogues
Caelen on the roof route

Finishing the roof

Picture of a climbing wall at a school in Bondowoso Java Indonesia travelogues
Photograph of one our firends climbing near Bondowoso Java Indonesia travelogues
Caelen on the climbing wall

Nurina climbing