The Sacred City

Day 439 – 13 May, 2016

The day before I was due to fly to Yogyakarta, or as it’s lovingly known by the locals, Jogja, I had flown from Flores to Bali with a stop for the night and an opportunity to change out some luggage that I was storing on the island. Sometime during the 15 minute ride from the airport to my hotel, I felt the familiar, yet dreaded, gurgling in the pit of my stomach and knew I must have eaten something bad. It was nearly a year to the day since my last stomach-turning incident in Bolivia and I immediately accepted it with indifference. I figured it was about time and Murphy’s law was holding true – when you have to fly, you will get sick. I’m not much of one for taking pills, but I’d been carrying around a packet of little pink antibiotics so without much hope, I thought what did I have to lose, right? To my surprise, I felt better within the hour as if it had never happened. Little pink miracle pills they were.

Jogja is located on the Indonesian island of Java. Java doesn’t see near as many tourists as Bali and therefore, the residents tend to be more conservative and more curious when a foreigner happens to be there. I had grown somewhat used to the staring (as used to it as you could ever be I suppose), but on Java, it was not uncommon for me to notice out of the corner of my eye that people were taking photos of me, or more humorously, taking selfies with me in the background. I had several groups of girls, perhaps courage in numbers, approach and blatantly ask if they could take a photo with me. I always agreed and added the caveat if I could take a picture with my camera as well. They loved that, yet they seemed nervous and giggled and tried to think of random things to say to me. Is this what it’s like to be famous?

There were two temples on Java that I wished to visit. The first was Borobudur, located just a short distance outside of the main city (but of course I arrived the hard way by taking two local trams, a local bus, and a mototaxi each way for a grand total of six hours commuting round trip – I do these things because I’m on a budget right? I might add air conditioning was not an included amenity except for the mototaxi because you know….). Anyway, I digress. I wanted to see Borobudur because it is the world’s largest Buddhist temple and one of the greatest Buddha monuments in the world. Built in the 9th century, it is stunning and I could see why it is Indonesia’s single most visited tourist attraction. Other than the fact that I was absolutely melting in the heat and there were hordes of people, it was everything that I hoped it would be.

The next day I went to Prambanan, a Hindu temple that was also built in the 9th century and much closer to the city center. This is the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia and one of the biggest in Southeast Asia. As a direct consequence of how little planning I am doing at this point, I had not even heard of Prambanan before I arrived in Jogja and I admit to feeling ashamed to that fact. It is an immense impressive complex of several temples each dedicated to different gods. An earthquake in 2006 significantly damaged several of the structures and even though some reconstruction work has been ongoing, the evidence is still apparent throughout the compound.  

I went later in the day because I wished to see the sunset, but as another testament to my lack of planning, I was completely unprepared for a torrential downpour as soon as I had arrived to the park. Faster than lightning, a few entrepreneurs were dashing around in the rain with barrels of brightly colored umbrellas to sell to the visitors that were taking shelter inside the narrow archways and soon the whole site was peppered with little pops of the rainbow. The storm lasted about 20 minutes and then the puddles made for some great photos.

My last day I decided to explore the city. As I was walking along the main avenue, I saw a man walking next to me at the same pace. I slowed down. He slowed down. I sped up. He sped up. Even though it sounds creepy, it didn’t feel creepy. It just felt annoying. I knew he was going to talk to me and I was more interested in walking alone and not being bothered. Finally, we both were stuck at a traffic light and before I could make the split decision to cross the road on the other side, he made his move and struck up a conversation. I am always weary of this approach. I tend to assume that they are trying to distract so their accomplice can pickpocket me or they want to sell me something or they try to trick me into revealing personal information. My initial response was definitely standoffish and I’m still not sure what made me soften. He was perhaps in his 60s and was accompanied by his son. When he told me he was an English teacher, the whole interaction seemed harmless. As it turned out, they were walking the same direction I was so over the next couple of blocks, we continued chatting and he gave me a couple of tips for things to see in the city. I had become at ease in their presence so when he turned to walk down a quiet alley and beckoned me to follow because he wanted to show me something, I took pause trying to use my good sense to decide if this was a bad idea. I scanned the street and there were a few other people, including women, loitering outside. With women around, I went with my gut and followed him. We rounded a corner and he proudly pointed out a shop where they make and sell batik, a technique of wax-resistant dyeing applied to a canvas or cloth. He added that I should never buy batik on the street (where it is prevalently sold) because it’s always more expensive than this place. I couldn’t tell him that I had no intention of buying batik so I went in the shop and looked around anyway. There were plenty of beautiful prints and I spent an acceptable amount of time looking so as not to be rude.

He and his son again waited outside for me. This time he said I must go see the Serimpi dancers that have been practicing this art since the 12th century. They only dance on Sundays at 11:00, which was luckily just minutes away. We took a shortcut to the Royal Palace entrance, which apparently no one can ever find and they told me they needed to hurry home because his wife and daughter were waiting for lunch. However, before they went, the man invited me to come to his school the next day and speak with his English students. When he promised to make me their special guest, I knew he meant it and if my other interactions with locals those past few days was any indication, I knew it would be a special experience. But sadly, I had to decline as I had an early flight the next day back to Bali. He warmly shook my hand and again wished me a pleasant journey. Let this be a lesson in the kindness of strangers.

I did as I was told and went to see the Serimpi dancers. There were two stages, one with teenage girls and the other with boys ranging in age from about 8-18. It was the slowest dancing I have ever witnessed, very methodical and sleepy, meant to symbolize the death moment. I didn’t exactly understand it as a spectator, but it was just fantastic watching the boys. The younger ones were still learning, and thus made several mistakes. The strong determination on their faces showed their pride and desire to get it right.

I can’t say Jogja was a “break” from the congestion of Bali because it was the same in that respect. What was missing was the touristy nature. Maybe this is what Bali used to be like before word got out that it was a tropical paradise? Hard to say for certain except that I liked this version of Indonesia. Thumbs up for Yogyakarta.

One thought on “The Sacred City

  1. mysukmana September 11, 2016 / 3:12 pm

    Thanks to visit our country, why u not visit plaosan temple, near prambanan


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