Thursday, October 22, 2009

I woke up in my bungalow the next morning with a view of the Gunung Bromo. This is a small volcano in the middle of a vast crater ten kilometers across, and my bungalow is just meters from the edge of the caldera. There is a road from the hotel to the bottom of the crater. It's the world's biggest ashtray, filled with dark gray sand and a few sparse patches of brown grass. Gunung Bromo is an ash-gray mountain with its top blown off. A steep path, and then a stairway, lead up to the rim of its crater.

Bromo's crater is a few hundred meters across, and looks exactly like a crater is supposed to look like: crevices run down the sides to the bottom of the bowl, where craggy canyons can be seen through the mist. Gunung Bromo is an active volcano, and alternates between a single wisp of steam rising from the canyons, and eruoptions of steam that fill the crater with gray fog slightly tinged with yellow before it rises up in a big cloud like from a smoke stack. A strong smell of sulphur wafts up like memories of highschool chemistry classes. There is no lava.

It's possible to walk around the rim but the path is very narrow between steep slopes, and the crumbling ash makes it unsafe. Since I had no urgent desire to fall into an active volcano I went back down the fractured gray lunar landscape to the bottom.
The bus from Solo to Gunung Bromo National Park takes ten hours, plus a change of buses in Probolinggo. It's basically ten solid hours of risky passing maneuvers. The road is in excellent condition but has only two lanes, and there are many trucks that crawl along at 30 km/h. So long lines form, and the driver whose patience runs out first - often a big bus - will turn into oncoming traffic and cut back into some small gap in the line just before a head-on collision becomes inevitable. It's a game of chicken played with flashing headlights. And a large number of motorcycles swarm through little gaps like angry hornets. Saw a big truck laying on its side, still loaded with motorcycles.

For the first time since arriving in Singapore three weeks ago, I sleep in absolute silence.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Prambanan is a Hindu temple complex of enormous 7th-century stupas on a large terrace, dedicated to Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu. It's a Unesco World Heritage site and under extensive restauration; one stupa is all scaffolded and sevaral are closed to visitors. The stonemasons are clinking away on the stupas and on the ground to prepare large stones. They are nearly done in the central complex. Saw a worker free-climb one of the stupas, he looked like a small white dot on the massive structure. Prambanan is not as grand as Angkor Wat in Cambodia but gives a similar feeling of ancient majesty.

Solo is a small version of Yogyakarta, a nice working town with few tourist sights (and most of those, like the Kraton and the Pura, were closed). It's very relaxing that nobody wants to drag you into their batik galleries here and the rickshaw touts are too sleepy to annoy you all the time.

Met a guy at a food stall who works as an English tutor. We talked for quite a while about life in Indonesia and Europe, and he invited me to join one of his lessons. We went to a fancy house with a large terrace, garden, and iron fence close to downtown Solo, where two earnest but shy boys, and later a university student, joined us for the lesson. It's mostly about talking because English teaching at schools is very formal, but also about TOEFL worksheets. Everyone here wants to travel but the relative cost to leave Indonesia is very high.

Then my teacher friend and the student joined the English tutor gang at a street food stall where they often hang out at night, and they invited me along. We had great discussions, sitting on mats and sipping tea for many hours until after midnight. One of them sails on cruise ships to the Bahamas, and another is a professor who worked for two years as a waiter in the US. I loved it, getting to know people is time much better spent than checking off yet another temple from a list!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Went on the back of a motorcycle to Borobudur, a large Buddhist temple in a forest before a backdrop of green hills. It's a square of 120 meters at the base, with four square terraces topped by three round ones. The four square ones are walkways with very intricately carved panels on both sides, topped with (often headless) buddhas. The panels at the bottom show everyday life: people working, learning, dancers, houses, ships, animals, and a frieze of what looks like winged platypuses linked head to tail. Higher terraces show spiritual scenes. My crude estimate is some 10,000 people in deep relief, with millimeter detail but sometimes somewhat eroded. The floors look like a frozen tetris puzzle of carefully fitted pieces. There are two million blocks total, precisely fitted without mortar.

The round terraces have no carved panels, just 72 stupas with buddhas inside. You can reach in and touch the buddha, people believe it's good luck. Everything is crowned by a large central stupa. Much of the there time I didn't see any tourists because they all rush to the top, snap some pictures, and rush back down. Fools.

The whole thing feels like walking a giant mandala (a picture of the buddhist world). Except that all mandalas I have seen lack tourists with gaudy parasols and guides with megaphones in the center. I bet that when devout buddhists, after accumulating virtue on the wheel of incarnations, finally have their ticket stamped for nirvana, they'll get there and find chirpy tourists snapping pictures of them with cell phones. Bummer.

We continued to Magelang, a village and mountain pass with a vista point from which the Mt. Fuji-like Merapi volcano can be seen in all its glory. The volcano last erupted in 2006, sending lava down the slope and through a few villages. The panorama is beautiful, and so is the road there through rice fields and villages.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Yogyakarta's main street is Jalan Malioboro, a busy road with separate rickshaw lanes. It's one long shopping mall with clothes stalls in narrow dark arcades. It ends at the sultan's palace. The sultan lives there but a cluster of very large reception pavilions and smaller attached buildings that house exhibits can be visited. The central reception pavilion has an original beautiful wooden ceiling; all the other pavilions were lovingly fitted with flat pale green plastic ceilings with flourescent lights and loudspeakers. Well done guys. The overall impression is rather lame.

The rest of the surrounding kraton, meaning walled city, is rather nice, with alleys lined with trees and small residential houses not shown on any map, where children play and adults nap under tree shades. There are almost no cars there. The whole kraton reminds me of Hué in Vietnam, except they have a much bigger and more beautiful palace. The Prawirotaman neighborhood to the southeast of the kraton is very similar, except that many backpacker facilities like restaurants with "international menus" (that means pizza and spaghetti) are here.

The water palace neighborhood is different; the alleys here are narrow and twisty and people live in low wooden buildings open to the alley. Definitely no pizza here. Children call out, and I talked to a friendly local about life there. When I asked if he needs to leave as the muezzin called out for prayers, he said no problem, he is an atheist, although his ID card says "muslim" because otherwise he'd be branded as a communist and that's very very bad.

Rickshaws have two advantages: they are apparently not bound by any pesky traffic law at all, and while you are in one, you won't be hailed every 30 seconds by other rickshaw drivers. In Asia, you don't hail taxis, taxis hail you. All the time.
Spent 15 hours in buses. People here work with numbers loosely - eight hours become twelve, and 5,000 Rp is the same as 50,000 except when paying. And we spent over two hours just leaving Bandung's downtown gridlock. And the bus from Bogor to Bandung decided to flit by Jakarta. Arrived in Yogyakarta - or Jogja as people call it here - after midnight.

But the scenery of Central Java was great, even better than on Puncak pass. Many green hills, tea plantations, rice fields, and scenically placed straw huts and little villages. Except for the last two hours or so the two-lane road was snaking up and down the hills with hardly a straight stretch - children were retching into plastic bags helpfully hanging from the roof all around me. I only wish that I could have done only the middle five hours. I have very few photos, unfortunately.
Puncak pass is at 1450 meters, 25km east of Bogor. The scenery is beautiful - lots of very green hills with tea plantations to both sides of the winding road. Unfortunately much of the scenery in hidden behind something like the world's biggest shantytown strip mall. Only the last few kilometers allow some views.

The bus to Cipana on the other side of the pass isn't so much a vehicle as a mobile vending cart. There are very very long stops, and a procession of street vendors parades through the bus, trying to sell water, fried things, bags with edible things, candy, nuts, watches, tissues, and other stuff. Some put stuff in your lap and collect it later if you don't want it. Three different groups of musicians pass through as well. The minibus back to the pass later offers a miniature version of this circus; the music is supplied by a big man with a karaoke box.

The view from the terrace of the Rindu Alam Restaurant close to the summit is great. The fish is fantastic but extremely expensive: 3.50 euro for 500g. At home I'd pay that much just for the juice. Tried a new juice, Belimbing, very good. The nearby Telaga Warna, the Lake of Many Colors, is in a great peaceful setting that is more than worth the admission, although the many colors are all slightly different shades of greenish brown depending on the direction of the sun. Bright green tea plantations all around.