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June-September 2012 -- Before I begin: This might be due to the fact that I didn't spend nearly as much time in the country as I should have - only about four months - but Indonesia remains one of the countries that I understand the least. But first things first.Lacking any other option, the van and I cross the Malacca Straits on a landing craft from the Malaysian Port Klang to Dumai on the Indonesian island of Sumatra - an expensive and exhausting undertaking. Crossing the only 100 kilometre-wide Malacca Straits takes an entire week. It's extremely hot, there's no shade and nothing at all, really - except for about a thousand concrete steel pipes. Here's the best thing: Only off the coast of Somalia would the risk of falling victim to pirates be any higher. And then they unload the thousand steel pipes first (one-by-one, by crane, which breaks down every now and then) and only then is it time to unload the car.

A small step for a barge, a giant leap for a vanBy crossing these waters, a new and very different world opens up - an empire of islands, the biggest economy in Southeast Asia and the world's biggest Muslim nation. Indonesia lures its visitors with rainforests, volcanoes, paradise beaches, and its distinct culture. In short: there's a lot to discover, on a mostly unbeaten path. For four months, I did not come across any foreign vehicle.Following a big loop across Sumatra, I make my way east 8000 kilometres all the way across the densely populated island of Java, to the holiday islands Bali and Lombok. In Bima, the island capital of Sumbawa, from where it's just about a thousand kilometres to Australia, I reach the easternmost point of my journey. From there, I drive back to the port city of Surabaya (Java), where the van finally leaves Asian soil.

Indonesia contains the syllable 'indo', already indicating Indian characteristics. That's true not only for historic commonalities. Like India, Indonesia is a very intense experience and very stressful. Traffic is a pure disaster. Human curiosity knows no boundaries; the concept of privacy seems to be unheard of. Indonesians often leave an extreme impression many prove to be phenomenal hosts, most to be very touchy, but some to be aggressive and disrespectful.

Hello Mistaaah!'Wher come from, wot happen? Take picture!' - Whoever always wanted to be stared at, adored and cuddled like a superstar will find their stage in Indonesia - easier, more promising, but probably also more stressful than taking part in any casting show. Just about everybody wants a picture with you, be it only while eating or filling up the car (while peeing or showering would be the jackpot). 20 photo shoots per day is nothing special. Someone slept beside the van all night (autograph session had already been over at 10 p.m.) to finally get his interview and photo the next morning.

While all this VIP treatment might be quite flattering sometimes, all too often it crosses the line to annoyance or harassment. After a few days, you realise how Brad Pitt must feel when he just wants to stop to get some ice cream, why stars have bodyguards and drive fast cars with tinted windows.Many locals share the bad habit of pointing their fingers at the just spotted white man and shouting out 'boolay'! (foreigner!), so the village may gather to gaze at the rare species. Uttering animal sounds they then try to get the exotic stranger's attention. I do know a few bits of Bahasa, but my understanding of barking, hissing or whistling equals zero.So why all this fuss about the foreigner? We don't know. Like this, however, some villagers waste their chance to observe the wild, wild Westerner from up close. Because he couldn't be bothered to stop in the first place.

Cudgels in the SackAt the same time, locals here seem to be more sceptical than in other countries. All the time I need to show my passport. Critical situations arise on occassion. One time the farmer next door insists on searching the van for a bomb before he would let me put up camp. Another time ten guys with large, massive sticks take position around the van at night. And another time a rude mob violently tries to get inside the van, claiming I would transport weapons, just when I am already fighting a stomach bug.

Island HoppingIndonesia's almost 14.000 islands stretch between Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, between Australia and the Philippines. They are home to nearly a quarter billion people from different tribes, colours and cultures, most of them Muslims. Widespread bitter poverty and sprawling slums do exist, as does a growing middle class. Nowhere else on the planet are Facebook and Twitter more popular than here.Obviously the life of one Indonesian doesn't necessarily have much in common with that of another, they often live in different worlds - and only a snippet of those do I get to catch sight of.

Sumatra, the westernmost of the big islands, and initially covered entirely in sheer endless rainforest, today is a patchwork of forest remains, farmland and giant palm oil monoculture. The last Orang Utans are just being actively eradicated.Thanks to an extensive mountain range there is often a chance to flee from the tropical coastal climate, something that was rarely possible in Thailand or Malaysia.The distances between points of interest are substantial, and for longer trips, no sober-minded person ever takes the car. You're just not getting ahead on the road.

Java is Indonesias economic powerhouse, its population density four times that of Germany. You drive through towns and villages almost non-stop, mostly at walking speed. Java is home to more than 100 million people, greater Jakarta alone to more than 30 million. The mega city is low in tourist attractions but high in typical problems associated with so called developing countries. Massive pollution, urbanisation, poverty and gridlocked traffic are not limited to the capital, however.As the cultural cradle of the country, the island also boasts big Hindu and Buddhist temple complexes. Unfortunately, due to noise, dirt and overcrowding, they radiate only little originality these days.

Bali is the most diverse of the big islands. Arts and culture are more vivid than elsewhere; Balinese architecture creates impressive temples and palaces.Gorgeous beaches attract surfers and beach bums alike, you can climb volcanoes or stuff your tummy with international, Balinese, and, if absolutely necessary, also with Padang cuisine (from Sumatra).The climate is pleasant, the standard of living is higher, the Balinese (mostly Hindus) seem more educated, open-minded, laid-back.The island might be Australia's equivalent to what Mallorca is to Germany (or Ibiza to the UK, Cancun to the US). But after a few years on the road, it is no doubt a treat to flip through a German newspaper and have a Schweinebraten with it. Like anywhere else in the world, mass tourism on Bali remains a two-edged sword.It is here that, for the first time in Indonesia, it's possible to relax, so I spend a few paradisiacal beach weeks on the island's south coast. Thanks to a few wonderful encounters I soon feel like home, far away from home - once again.

Woops...One late evening a sudden stumble of my heart causes some serious tension. In the days before, I had felt a constant twitch in the chest. Right after the unusual heart beat my left arm starts to feel numb. A suspected small heart attack earns me an uncertain night at the emergency room and a series of examinations. Finally, the whole thing turns out to have been a harmless one-off incident and I'm allowed to carefully continue my journey.The further you wander east of Bali, the more likely you are on your own, the more deserted are the beaches, the more unhurried is the travelling.

On the island of Lombok, I get to watch gold diggers doing their dangerous job. For a yield of three grams, they will, at the end of the day, get rewarded with about 100 Euros - after having washed the gold with their bare hands in a highly toxic mercury solution. Everywhere in the area the cylinder-shaped wash drums are turning. Since a few years ago, the former farmers have fallen for a real gold rush. The idle lying paddies? The high risk for health and life? The wife's complaints at home? Who cares?

On Sumbawa island only few people cross my ways outside the settlements, not to mention foreigners. Awesome lonely beaches get quickly converted into parking bays. The locals here live off farming (rice, corn, teak woods) and their animals (horses, cattle, buffalos).

I am sailing (Malacca Straits)


Captain Mulyono at work (Dumai/Sumatra)

Eris loosens the ropes.(Dumai/Sumatra)

One of countless parades (Balli/Lombok)

Gold miner with a find (Lombok)

First time crossing the equator(near Padangsarai/Sumatra)

Impressive, huh? The equator line.(near Padangsarai/Sumatra)

Car ferries connect the big islands. (here: Bali-Lombok)

Students in Medan (Sumatra)

Wedding photo shoot with bus (Balangan/Bali)

Kids of the Batak people (Samosir Island/Toba Lake, Sumatra)

No SIM card without a picture with the staff (Dumai/Sumatra)

Aren't the two in the centre some famous movie stars? (Bogor/Java)

From Jakarta to Bali Antje is on board. (Taman Safari, Bogor/Java)

She gets her share of pictures, too. (Borobudur/Java)

Grin and bear it: Driving in Indonesia is nerve-racking.(near Palembang/Sumatra)

The whole staff of Pengandonan police station wishes a good morning. (nahe Muaraenim/Sumatra)

Staring at tourists: Monkey see, monkey do (Pengsong temple/Lombok)

Nightly ritual: a toad taking a shower underneath the waste water outlet. (Balangan/Bali)

Only rarely do wild hoards of locals still chop off the heads of blonde surfer lads. (Mekaki Beach/Lombok)

Tranquility, finally: Bay near Plampang (Sumbawa)

Houses of the Batak on Samosir Island (Toba Lake/Sumatra)

Chariot race (Sumbawabesar/Sumbawa)

Will erupt shortly after my climb: Mt. Sinabung volcano (near Berastagi/Sumatra)

I only get to see and smell sulphur clouds at the summit. (Mt. Sinabung/Sumatra)

Taking it easy, already locked inside his compound: Orang-Utan (Taman Safari, Bogor/Java)

The last tree is still smouldering: room for more palm plantations(near Bandar Lampung/Sumatra)

Relic of the world's largest vulcanic eruption of the last two million years: Toba Lake (Sumatra)

Batak sculpture(Ambarita, Samosir Island, Toba Lake/Sumatra)

Rice paddies in Harau Valley(near Payakumbuh/Sumatra)

Village houses in Harau Valley(near Payakumbuh/Sumatra)

German pasta? The chef just happens to have the tools. (Samosir Island, Toba Lake/Sumatra)

Cultivated landscape in central Java (near Garut/Java)

Welcome to the capital (Jakarta/Java)

Canal = dump (Jakarta/Java)

Sunda Kelapa, the port of Jakarta, once built by the Dutch colonial masters (Jakarta/Java)

Prambanan, one of the biggest Hindu...

... and Borobudur, one of the biggest Buddhist temples of Southeast Asia, are both located on Java.

Surfers' bar (Balangan/Bali)

Infinity pool (Padang-Padang/Bali)

Franconian get together: Werner is from my home region and has been living on Bali for years.

"Big Swell": giant waves lure the surfers to the shore. (Balangan/Bali)

Rough seas (near Tanah Lot temple/Bali)

A cremation ceremony is due to begin. (Ubud/Bali)

Elaborate giant figures and a large tower are being carried through town.

Then everything is being set on fire...

...but for the skull cap we'll need the flame thower.

It's a social event. (Ubud/Bali)

Nordwest coast of Lombok

Digging for gold is a tough job. (Lombok)

This way toIndonesia - part 2

Gold miner (Lombok)

Fishing catamaran (Lombok)

The catch drying in the sun(near Sumbawabesar/Sumbawa)

Fishermen's village(near Sumbawabesar/Sumbawa)

Afternoon in Bima (Sumbawa)

Kids posing in front of the old Sultan's Palace (Bima/Sumbawa)

fabian pickel