Call it divine retribution. A room in earshot of the surf had seemed insurance against being woken by the 4am call to prayer. Java rises early: a crowded island in the world's largest Islamic state, its 100 million inhabitants are served by the requisite number of mosques with omnidirectional loudspeakers. Of course, if you consider disorientation an intrinsic quality of the Orient, disrupted nights and dawn rises can only add to it.
Fortunately, these are the only disturbances you're likely to encounter this end of Indonesia, seemingly worlds away from East Timor where the massacre of pro-independence demonstrators took place in November 1991. The violence reminded us of the sort of regime in charge here, easily forgotten in the benign atmosphere that prevails on other islands.
Java, in any event, not only confounds one's assumptions about dictatorships but turns expectations about Islamic states and developing nations upside down. Take New Year's Eve in the city of Bogor. I supposed that the shift from one annus Domini to the next would be of as much significance to Bogor Muslims as Ramadan might be to Bognor Methodists.
But no: Christmas and New Year are public holidays. We ate in a packed restaurant where ethnic Chinese drank beer; a gamelan orchestra played traditional music, to which a man danced the cha-cha-cha. Down the road the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise was doing big business. At midnight, church bells clanged out the old year, Chinese firecrackers welcomed the new, then a disco pounded into the small hours. The muezzins were upstaged.
Then there was the journey to Pangandaran. Through the 'impoverished rural sector' perhaps? Our bus was fairly impoverished but whatever rurality there was was obscured by weekend homes and hotels for wealthy Jakartans, for a good 10 miles beyond Bogor. Traffic turned the highway into something resembling the M25, except that rush-hour here was a good deal sprucer, with smart new Toyotas and Hondas.
Once beyond the reach of weekenders, small bamboo and plaited- leaf houses began to appear between concrete villages, and on every square foot of land something was growing. We were at last in 'textbook' Java, where 93 per cent of the land is cultivated, and one square mile might support more than 2,000 people. At times it seemed that the road we travelled was the only dry ground for miles, since paddy fields in various states of inundation spread as far as the plain could take them towards the mountains. Even as the land shelved up into rain clouds, rice terraces followed as high as they dared up the slopes. On almost every horizon in Java a volcano looms - 115 on an island the size of England, 15 active.
The watery landscape was like a mosaic of mirrors, silver-grey with the reflection of clouds and patched with the green and gold of ripening rice. Rags flapped like forgotten bunting over the fields to scare the birds; small figures in conical hats spread ripples in their reflections as they bent to plant seedlings; elsewhere sinewy old men trailed with ploughs behind water buffalo, churning the dark mud that is rich with centuries of volcanic ash.
Every now and again on the way to the coast someone asked with a smile 'Where you going?' as they made their way to their seats. We came to realise that it was roughly the equivalent of 'How are you?', requiring no particular response. The trip lasted a good 10 hours and was peopled with a non-stop parade of characters. Frail old ladies climbed on, wobbling under the weight of laden baskets; young women came aboard with toddlers, then unwrapped further infants from the sarong tied round their shoulders. Labourers came and went with scythes or choppers; aspirant white-collars, travelling importantly with single envelopes, were occasionally outclassed by an attache case. The strangest sight was the man wearing a T-shirt which proclaimed: 'Life's too short not to be Irish.'
Traditional Javanese courtesy went out of the window as the drivers increased pressure on the horn in proportion to the pressure on the accelerator, thereby assuming that the overspill of insouciant pedestrians and carts drawn by equally unflappable bovines would not be touched. And they weren't.
After about four hours, we were to change buses. A lad leapt aboard and said 'Where you going?' We nodded by way of a 'Fine, thanks'. 'Where you going? Where you going?' he insisted, grabbing our bags. He was a tout for our connecting bus. We just had time to visit the public toilets where, included in the facilities, was the use of a public comb hanging on a wire.
Pangandaran, set on a narrow peninsula, is a shabby little fishing town hemmed in by rows of traditional-style bungalows and hotels facing out to the Indian Ocean west and east. It is busy with thousands of middle-class Javanese, a far cry from the sort of conceived-in-concrete resort catering to thousands of packaged foreigners that has afflicted a small corner of neighbouring Bali.
Our bungalow neighbours were a shy couple from Bandung with giggly daughters whose favourite time for playing their Phil Collins tapes was 6am. On the other side was a Canadian academic, taking a break from his research project in Jakarta on 'The participatory approach to improvement in the social fabric of the urban sector'. Further along lodged a jolly Chinese-Indonesian family who, when not eating or drinking on the veranda, were out haggling for melons, coconuts and seafood which they ferried back to start all over again.
It was typical that only we and the Canadian went in for a swim. The Javanese have a love-hate relationship with the spirits of the sea: I spotted a family casting flowers on to the waves instead of themselves.
Not a bad idea, I thought the next day, when I spotted the pipes that run down into the water from the hotels. On the west beach, however, where strong winds assured a good turn-over of water, young lads still played in the shallows rather than going out for a good swim. Surprisingly, girls were there too, splashing in T-shirts and baggy Bermudas. They - or Islam - draw the line at swimming costumes, but the T-shirts got so wet they lost their purpose.
In Pangandaran 'Where you from?' often greeted us in the street. When my husband replied 'From France' one student responded 'Ah yes, Mitterrand.' 'You from England?' another asked me. 'Ah, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal . . .' We repeatedly came across people speaking more than passable English, considering they relied on tourists for practice. Then there was Eddie in Yogyakarta, who habitually engaged Westerners in conversation with 'Are you in good nick today?' or 'How's your trouble and strife?' Our efforts to pick up a few words of Indonesian began to look a little lame.
Our pretensions to modest living fell a bit flat, too, when we found out that the pounds 4.50 a night for our beachside room, with shower and terrace, equalled about two weeks' salary to the young men who looked after the place. Working long hours, they provided us with the life of Riley over 10 days, becoming successively waiters, cooks, cleaners and night watchmen; padding along the spotless veranda barefoot to bring breakfasts of banana pancakes and free hot tea throughout the day, and cooking our lobster and shrimps.
Slowly, however, the routine of indolence began to make the alien familiar. Disorientation was endangered. Occasionally we roused ourselves to go off in search of the unexpected: in the coconut plantations, or the forest on the headland where monkeys played the fool.
But it was usually too hot to be surprised at anything. Drenched with sweat and pockmarked with mosquito bites, we'd return 'home' to tea.
Then an English lad and his New Zealand chum arrived one evening, clumping across the shiny veranda in their big boots, trailing dirt and sand. They sat down and, in earshot of the staff, bleated loudly on into the night about Indonesian 'rip-off merchants'. 'I mean,' said the English chap, 'if a foreigner got overcharged on a bus in England, the other passengers'd make a fuss, wun't they?' The 'whingeing Pom' was upon us. It seemed time to buy another bus ticket and be up with the muezzin and away.
GETTING THERE: KLM (081- 750 9200) flies direct to Jakarta from London. Return fares (with restrictions) cost about pounds 950. The national Indonesian airline, Garuda (071-486 3011), offers discounted fares. For current offers, contact Trailfinders (071-938 3366) and STA Travel (071-581 8181). UK citizens do not need visas, but passports will be stamped on entry with a two-month 'tourist pass' which is not extendable.
TOUR OPERATORS: Exodus (081-675 5550) offers Java tours from pounds 1,490 for 15 days including accommodation and flights from London. Ocean Cruise Lines (071-723 5557) includes Java on Indonesian cruises, from pounds 2,295 including flights from London. Explore Worldwide (0252 319448) offers a 22-day trip to Java, pounds 1,165 including flights and accommodation. Kuoni (071-499 8636) and Thomas Cook (071-499 4000) also offer tours. The best time to go is between May and September.Reuse content