Java and out

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Life as a celebrity? No, it’s not for me. I knew there was a reason why I had never excelled enough at anything to the point it would bring me fame, and I realise now that I have lived a life content in mediocrity for a reason. I just can’t handle the attention you see. Our arrival in Banjarmasin the week before had been a shock to everyone it seemed – white people in town meant pedestrians crossing the road, cars stopping and shops emptying to greet us – that was fine, if a bit weird. Posing for pictures in Pangkalan Bun was good fun too, where a reciprocal deal took place exchanging our interest in photographing the stilted riverside homes for their interest in photographing the two odd looking foreigners with big noses. I’m all for interaction with the locals, it’s great most of the time, but this? Bloody hell, I’m about to snap. It might be because we got up at 3am for a sunrise that never happened, or it could be because we unwittingly chose to come to Indonesia’s premier religious site on a national holiday, but it’s most probably because I’m a grumpy bastard. For here we were on the upper levels of the ancient Buddhist temple of Borobudur, trying to take in the intricately carved walls that have survived 1200 years of volcanic ash, earthquakes, terrorist bombs and an eternity of footfall, and we can’t walk five yards without the same questions.

“Your name mister?”
“Ally”
“You’re coming from?”
“England”
“Ah Wayne Rooney! You know him?”
“I’m not an elderly hooker, so no, not personally”
“You like meatballs”
“Erm…”

The photographs are even more incessant than the questions, and it’s all I can do not to hurl the next spotty oik taking photos of Jamie’s backside off the side of the temple. I hate to grumble, I really do, and yes, I understand there’s cultural differences and all that malarky. But after hours of having our shirts tugged on, phones stuck in our faces and our privacy invaded beyond belief, I have now finally at the age of 29, given up my ambitions to be a professional footballer, a rock star or any kind of celebrity at all and will happily settle for lifelong anonymity.

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The strange thing was that we were now in Java, the most westernised of the Indonesian islands, and with Borobudur receiving over 2.5 million visitors a year, this was comfortably the most touristy spot in the whole country. So to receive such attention was bizarre, but never mind, the temple itself made it all worthwhile. We’d started early, making our way to the UNESCO World Heritage site in darkness in an attempt to watch the sunrise above it from a nearby hill, and the rewards were magnificent. Thick, grey cloud covered everything for as far as the eye can see, from beyond which a quite breathtaking layer of even more cloud rose behind it. Pah, weather, what can you do? Bleary eyed but not too disheartened we made our way onto the structure itself for a closer look, and it was here that the temple’s beauty became evident. Over 5km of intricately carved narrative stone panels and tranquil faced Buddhas wound up and around the squared temple corridors, before reaching the top, circular in design to symbolise a never ending state of nirvana. Mobs of camera clad locals was not quite the nirvana we were after however, so at that point we ran away and went back to bed at our hotel in Yogyakarta.

Yogyakarta, or Yogya for short, is a heaving, sweaty mess, much like any other Indonesian city we’ve found, however there is a tad more to it here. It’s history and culture is found in the Kraton, a walled city which has been home to Yogya’s Sultans for centuries and now houses a bewildering network of courtyards and museums offering an interesting insight into Javanese life though the ages. What it also offers is an interesting insight into the impressive lies you’ll be told in an attempt to deviate you elsewhere, generally an art gallery or batik shop they can get some commission off. “The Kraton is not open!” they’ll helpfully advise, “why not head here instead for some cheap and genuine souvenirs instead?” We actually fell for this once upon a time in Bangkok, where upon hearing from a kind hearted local that the Royal Palace does in fact close at 2pm on Tuesdays (it was 2.15pm then, how unfortunate!), we set off to see the Sleeping Buddha statue instead by way of a Tuk-Tuk ride (from the same friendly local of course) that took us via every silver shop, tailors and gem shop in town. It’s the oldest trick in the book, but hey, how nice those naive early days of travel were, when everyone you met was a friend. Nowadays we question everything and trust no one, and while we want to give people the benefit of the doubt and hope that maybe they are just being nice, it’s an unfortunate fact that 99% of the time they are not. They see you as money. Nonetheless, we traipsed around the main sights both here and at the former Royal Baths down the road, before grabbing a Becak ride down to the resident bird market. You can buy pretty much everything here – from puppies to parrots or chameleons to Komodo dragons – the slick gold toothed salesmen will inevitably have it in stock. Want a pure bred Golden Retriever or some bats? No problem. Fancy a pet cobra? Right this way sir. The bird market seemed to sum Yogya up quite well for us – a scattering of beauty, a devious sense of scheming and big dollop of utter madness.

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We were in need of some quiet time and cleaner air after Yogya, so we made for the seaside. Our first foray into the Indonesian rail network was a success, and from there we took transport which was ever decreasing in size onto roads which were ever increasing in potholes until eventually, we reached the small coastal town of Batu Karas. Now this was more like it. Surfing is the thing to do here, and when you’re not surfing, you generally layabout in a hammock or go and explore a spectacular river canyon nearby. We tried our luck in the waves, faring better than our last attempt but still generally worse than everyone else, but were mostly happy to sit back and watch the locals show us how it was done.

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This was to be our last few days in Indonesia and having traversed jungles, seas and an astounding amount of miles, we were more than happy to embrace our inner laziness. The four weeks we’d had here had been incredible, though not nearly enough. We’d barely touched the surface really, Indonesia is made up of 20’000 islands with many being so far removed from each other they could easily be a different country altogether. The distances are massive, and while travelling from place to place is hard work, the rewards are ridiculously worth it and there was variety everywhere. Whether it be the scenery, religion, food, people or wildlife – it is impossible not to find something new and wonderfully bizarre to experience no matter where you head in this broad and fascinating archipelago. From Batu Karas we made for our last stop of Jakarta, where we would visit a friend in residence before our flight to Sri Lanka, and it was here that the versatility of Indonesia really hit home. After all the nasi goreng suppers, the roadside sates and after dinner araks, our final meal was a coffee and croissant in Starbucks. And as western as it may have been, this was a real part of authentic Indonesia too – huge, air conditioned malls and international franchises are a way of life in Jakarta. So there we sat, three bule in a Starbucks, as western as western can be in the middle of Indonesia, completely unnoticed and for once, completely anonymous. Which was the most wonderfully bizarre of all.

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