It’s been a month since my last post. I’m sorry about that. Needless to say, a lot has happened in the past month. I had intended to have another post up before I left for my trip to Indonesia. Trip planning got a little more intense than I expected, though, and that post never got written. I then wanted to have a post about my trip up within a few days after getting back. Obviously that didn’t happen, either. And then for the past week and a half or so I’ve been dealing with a good deal of schoolwork. Long story short, I’m still alive, I just haven’t had time to update the blog in awhile.
The past month included one of the craziest things I have ever done in my entire life. As a quick recap, everyone at my university gets one week off of school in the middle of the semester. Many of the local students use this time as a chance to catch up on studying and working on projects. Exchange students almost always flee to another country for a week of adventure and relaxation. That’s exactly what I did. I spent eight days in Indonesia, and I have no hesitation in describing those eight days as the best and most rewarding eight days of my life.
Get ya passports ready ’cause it’s about to go down
We began planning our trip several weeks in advance. We knew roughly where we wanted to go and how to get there, and we had a list of some possible places to stay along the way, but everything was really left up to on-the-spot improvisation. The few days before we left were frantic. I spent the entire Friday before we left printing off maps, travel guides, and lists of phone numbers to call in case we needed them. Better safe than sorry.
After three hours of sleep, I woke up around 6:00am, showered, shaved, grabbed my pack and headed out the door. Seven of us (Alison, Kelly, Dina, Sebastian, Judy, Tin, and myself, all sleep deprived) met up to catch a cab to the airport. The other two, Lisa and Cynthia, were on an earlier flight out of Singapore and we were to meet them at Yogyakarta late Saturday night. Working our way through the airport was unremarkable and boring. There was a good bit of standing in line, making our way through customs, and more standing in line before we walked across the tarmac to board our plane.
Our first flight was only to Jakarta from where we would board a connecting flight several hours later to Yogyakarta. After about an hour of jumping on random buses and walking in random directions, we arrived at what we hoped was our departure terminal and settled in. Here is where we had our first encounter with truly authentic Indonesia cuisine: a plate of Nasi Goreng. Essentially just a plate of fried rice, egg, chicken, and vegetables, it wasn’t anything incredibly special, but it was delicious.
We killed a few more hours by playing card games and teaching each other random tidbits of our respective languages. I gave Tin a crash course in Spanish, and Dina taught me a little bit more Russian. Our flight was about an hour and a half late, which meant we had to spend more time at the miserably uncomfortable departure gate. More time to catch up on sleep, I guess.
If We Get There…
Our flight from Jakarta to Yogyakarta was with a regional Indonesian airline. Fun fact: up until this past summer, all Indonesian airlines were banned from flying within the European Union because of low safety standards. That might give you a vague idea of what the terrifying flight was like. It was a small, dingy Airbus A319 that made an unusually high number of creaking noises. Our seats were right above the wing, and we had a short discussion about whether or not being above the wing gave better or worse chances of survival in the event of a plane crash. I don’t think the other passengers really appreciated us talking about plane crashes while in the middle of takeoff. Oops.
Yogyakarta’s airport was much smaller than Jakarta’s, which meant it was much less confusing. We exited the plane and walked for about 10 minutes across the dimly lit runway to a small gate which led to the arrivals area. Here we were supposed to meet a driver I had contacted to take us to our hotel for the night. Our driver was nowhere to be seen. Great.
I made a few phone calls, negotiated with a few pushy taxi drivers, and waited around for another hour. Finally our driver showed up to take us to our hotel. The drive lasted about an hour. It was an hour of terrifying swerves into oncoming traffic, speeding around motorcycles, and taking sharp turns much faster than they should be taken. Driving in Indonesia seemed, as a whole, extremely dangerous, though the locals were very, very good at their style of driving.
We stayed at the Manohara Hotel, only a few footsteps away from Candi Borobudur. Candi Borobudur, or Borobudur Temple, is an ancient Buddhist temple complex built sometime in the 9th century. The entire temple is essentially a giant stone storyboard that, through a series of carved reliefs, tells the story of Buddha. For some reason, the temple was abandoned in the 14th century and was lost to the world until 1814 when the British heard legends of a stone temple in the forest and went searching for it.
Everyone and everything had told us that the best time to see Borobudur was at sunrise, so that’s what we planned. We woke up at four in the morning, grabbed flashlights, put on sarongs (required to enter a Buddhist temple), and trekked over to the temple entrance.
It was dark. You couldn’t see much farther than a few steps in front of you, and our flashlights were puny and not much help. What you could see, though, was a stone monolith towering above the landscape. Borobudur’s presence commanded respect and reverence from all of its surroundings. It was HUGE. I can’t even imagine something like this being built in the modern day, let alone in the 9th century. How in the world did they accomplish this? The structure was built out of stones stacked on top of each other with insane precision. Tiny slots in some stones fit perfectly with small protrusions in others, and the weight of the massive walls was supported by columns that seemed far too tiny.
Freshman year of college I took a class on architecture. It was one of the most interesting classes I’ve taken, mostly because we spent the large part of semester studying structures just like the one that I was standing on now. In fact, that class was a large part of the reason I decided to study abroad. (UT friends: seriously, take ARC 308 with Speck. It’s incredible.) Because of that class, I consider myself to have an amateur interest in architecture, and being able to see and walk around Borobudur was like a dream come true.
More amazing than the temples structural integrity, however, were the carvings. Borobudur consists of six square platforms topped by three smaller circular platforms. Each of the bottom six are adorned with statues and intricate carvings. If you start at the very bottom platform and work your way clockwise around the temple, the carvings tell the epic stories of the Buddhist faith.
It’s very hard to get a sense of just how incredible these carvings were. According to Wikipedia, there are around 2,670 panels of carvings, each one more than ten square feet in area. And each one was carved by hand. The amount of work that had to have gone into building this temple is immeasurable.
Atop the square platforms, at the end of the narrative carvings, stand three circular platforms decorated with many stupas. A stupa is a hill-shaped statue that were, in the case of Borobudur, built with heavy stones arranged in an intricate (everything about this place is intricate) pattern. Inside each of these stupas is a statue of Buddha.
Unfortunately we were not allowed to go to the top three levels of the temple because of ongoing repairs from the damage caused by a volcano eruption less than a year ago. Mount Merapi, one of the most dangerous and active volcanoes in the world, is less than 20 miles from the temple complex.
Because we went to the temple so early, we were some of the only people around and got to wander the complex in relative peace and silence. The sunrise from the temple was nice looking, but because of intense cloud cover, it wasn’t as nice as it could have been. It was still more than worth waking up early for, though.
As more and more tourists started to arrive, we made our way to the base of the temple to head back to our hotel. We ran into a large group of elementary-aged kids that I believe were on some type of field trip. They crowded around us while trying to move into the temple and some of them seemed amazed at our presence. Wading through them was entertaining as some of them would grab you and smile as big as they could at you, hoping to get some kind of reaction. They were cute.
It was only eight in the morning at this point, so we retreated to the hotel and enjoyed an amazing breakfast of fruit, toast, eggs, soup, noodles, rice, and other Indonesian cuisine. Somehow we started talking about altering the planned schedule of our trip, trying to arrange more time on the beach in Bali and less time sleeping in hotels along the way. The night before, Cynthia had met a guy who offered to drive us around all of Yogyakarta for the entire day, taking us to any sight or monument we wanted to see. Not only would it put us a day ahead of schedule, it was pretty cheap, so off we went.
Yogya in a Day
Our first stop was Mendut, a much smaller Buddhist temple than Borobudur, but just as impressive. However, Mendut was plagued with a row of shops with owners that would follow you around barking at you to buy their cheap souvenirs. Annoying.
After about half an hour at Mendut we hopped back into the car and headed to the sultan’s palace in Yogyakarta. It was different from the other palaces I have seen, mostly because this one is apparently still used for the region’s governmental activities. There were still a lot of displays of ancient wares, artwork, and icons of Javanese culture. Unfortunately all of the descriptions were in Indonesian and we decided to be cheap and not buy a guide, so it was difficult to understand what most of the stuff was. We were able to catch a traditional Javanese dance performance, though.
Not far from the sultan’s main palace was the sultan’s “water palace”, used in ancient times as a place for the sultan and his family to bathe in naturally occurring springs. We found a tour guide for the water palace and he quickly showed us around the place. It was interesting, but the water palace itself looked as if the local authorities had tried to restore it by filling it with modern tiles and piping systems, but then abandoned it. The structure had lost its ancient and authentic look, trading it for a slummy, run-down appearance. Unfortunate, considering its history.
We left the water palace and continued our whirlwind tour of Yogyakarta by heading to Candi Prambanan. Prambanan, like Borobudur, is a massive temple complex and is one of the main reasons we came to Yogyakarta in the first place.
Prambanan has a curiously similar history to Borobudur, despite being a Hindu temple rather than a Buddhist temple. Built around the same time as Borobudur, Prambanan was also abandoned early in its history, most likely due to nearby Mount Merapi’s volcanic action, and was lost to the world until the British stumbled across it while searching for Borobudur.
As incredible as Borobudur was, there was something about Prambanan that made it many times more amazing to me. It was just as intricate and detailed, had just as impressive architecture and history, and if the surrounding ruins are included, was much bigger. But something about it, it may have been sleep-induced hysteria or something else, I don’t know what, but something about it made my time there almost surreal. At the risk of sounding a little crazy, walking around Prambanan was the calmest and most peaceful experience I’ve had in a very, very long time.
I had a funny little run-in with some local tourists while squeezing through a small doorway in Prambanan. I was trapped alone in a small room inside the temple, and a group of Indonesians had gathered at the entrance to see inside. I tried to move through them, but one of them tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to see who it was, and as I looked around I noticed that every single one of them was staring at me. The man who tapped me was glaring at me with a huge grin and had his hand outstretched towards me. Not one to ever turn down a handshake, I gave him a friendly shake and a broad smile.
The crowd erupted in applause. I was confused. The man was ecstatic. I laughed a bit, he thanked me with a bow, and I bowed back. I went back to trying to make my way through the crowd. As I moved between the onlookers, many of them reached out to touch me on the shoulders or head, and one man with a small girl placed his daughter’s hand in mine, holding it there for several seconds. The crowd erupted into applause again. I finally made my way outside as they continued to watch me. I joined back up with my group, but the gawking didn’t stop.
I suppose white people are a relative rarity in Indonesia. Our guide explained to us that Indonesians love white people because we are “so beautiful.” People were blatantly stared, many openly took pictures, and a few actually asked to take pictures with us. It was a weird and sometimes uncomfortable experience, but it’s one of those things that you just have to take in stride.
We made our way out of Prambanan and decided to hurry to Mount Merapi to watch the sun set. Mount Merapi erupted only a year ago and once we got a little closer to the observation point it was very apparent how serious such eruptions were. Volcanic ash covered nearly everything. At the observation point were small benches and swing sets, each caked in a decent coat of ash. It was again too cloudy to really see the sunset or even the peak of Merapi, but from our cliff side vantage point we were able to look down in to the valley surrounding the volcano. At first we saw what we thought was a river, but quickly realized it was actually a river of ash. Ash was literally everywhere.
From Merapi we headed back to town to eat dinner before hopping on an overnight train to the other side of Java. While wandering through a small alley, we just happened to run into another group of students from Singapore! It wasn’t exactly unexpected, as we knew a lot of people were heading in the same direction we were (a few people had asked for my help to plan their trip and were actually following the exact same route I was on), but it’s still always nice to run into friends when away from home.
We found a small restaurant that served decent looking food at decent prices. I had fried chicken. It tasted like normal fried chicken but thanks to some unknown spices and sauce, had an Indonesian twist. Sebastian got a plate of cobra meat. Yes, cobra meat, as in snake meat. Apparently it’s common here? It tasted a bit like chicken, actually.
We killed a few more hours talking and joking around at the restaurant (our train didn’t leave until 1:00am). At the train station, Cynthia and I spent about two hours bargaining with a travel agent to book us a driver from the train station in Surabaya (our next destination) to Mount Bromo. Looking back, we spent two hours to save approximately $6 USD per person, but a penny saved is a penny earned I suppose. It was a good way to kill time anyway, and we ended up becoming good friends with the travel agent by the end of it all.
Our train was late, so we spent some time laughing about the previous days’ events while deliberately avoiding sleep. We figured we would be able to sleep on the train.
We were wrong about that. We were very, very wrong.