Freak Show Scammers

We headed toward Tengger-Bromo-Semeru National Park from Yogyakarta on the morning of December 14th. The park houses the 10 km wide Tengger volcanic crater, Mount Bromo, Mount Semeru, and a few other volcanoes. Many people book whirlwind 3 day minibus package tours from Yogyakarta to Mount Bromo, then to the Ijen Plateau on onward to Bali but we had done a bit of homework and couldn’t help noticing all the very negative reviews on Tripadvisor and on several blogs warning travelers not to partake in such a tour. Apparently the route is fraught with unscrupulous tour operators that take no shame in grossly overcharging and scamming tourists via a plethora of ridiculous tactics. Some reports talked about mysterious breakdowns in the night in the middle of nowhere beside a conveniently placed, grungy hotel with extortionate prices. Others referred to hidden charges, bags being rifled through, belongings being stolen, and to people being dropped off somewhere other than where they were told they were going. One particularly irate fellow from the UK wrote a rather hilarious, lengthy review of a nightmare trip from Yogyakarta to Bali that we would be soon to recall. Apparently his minibus stopped in an unknown city before Bromo at an “information center” where a very short, squat man and another man with one eye promised him and the other tourists amazing adventures and great times over the next few days. From there his trip descended into what sounded nothing short of chaos involving all of the scams and annoyances I mentioned above and more.

With all this in mind we booked only the minibus transfer from Yogyakarta to Bromo and hoped opting out of the package tour would save us some grief. We were delighted to find that our minibus was only about half full and we had loads of room to stretch out (kind of), that the AC worked (a little bit), and our driver was friendly (sort of) if I talked to him in Indonesian. The other tourists along for the ride had all booked full packages to Ijen or Bali. About 9 or 10 hours into the trip our driver informed us that he was tired and that we would soon stop at an information center where we would be briefed on all the amazing adventures and great times that awaited us at Mount Bromo, and then transfer to another van driven by his friend for the one hour long drive up to the village of Cemoro Lawang inside the national park. Needless to say Emily and I got a little suspicious at that point. We managed to decipher from road signs that we were in the city of Probolinggo, an hour from the park. We pulled up to the “information center,” piled out of the minibus and waited in the insect infested office for a few minutes. We were tempted then to walk across the street to a hotel we could see and just take public transport to Cemoro the next morning, but seeing as how we had gotten friendly with the other tourists on board we decided to wait and see how things would unfold.

It was then that an assortment of odd looking characters, otherwise known as tour company employees, graced us with their presence. Emily immediately motioned at a couple of them and whispered something to me about the funny Tripadvisor report we had read. There in front of us stood a man that looked strikingly akin to a short, fat hobbit and another who was short one eye. It was like seeing the pages of a book come to life. After a useless spiel about what we could see at Mount Bromo we piled into a new van and took off into the night. About 10 minutes later the driver stopped, turned around and sped back to the tourist office without saying a word and told us that we now needed to unload our stuff again and pile into yet another van, this one already crammed full of another group of tourists. I asked him in his native tongue why, and he told me smiling that the electronics had broken on his van so we needed to get in this other one. I’m not sure what the scam was going to be exactly – maybe saying we got there too late to check into our hotel of choice and being dropped off at another terribly expensive one in the middle of nowhere  – but when Emily suggested maybe we grab our bags and say goodbye to our new friends I gladly obliged. We ended up staying at the very nice and reasonably priced hotel right across the road from the tour office circus.

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