Sunday, 10 September 2017

Escaping Jakarta

A couple of days was about as much as we could stand in the city, so the next day we decided to jump on an early morning train headed anywhere but Jakarta. By lunchtime, having exhausted several options for reasons that included everything from the trains being fully booked to them just not existing at all, we found ourselves back in Jakarta facing another night in the city. Jakarta had us in its grasp and wasn’t going to let go without a fight. Frustrated and fed up, we vowed to get out by whatever means we could and called an Uber to the smaller of the cities two airports.

We knew flights left that evening to Jogjakarta but unsurprisingly we were unable to book them online using our UK and Canadian bank cards. Our first two attempts at calling an Uber were cancelled by the drivers. A third attempt with an airport taxi started heading in the wrong direction before the driver demanded three times what we had agreed to for the ride. We got out in the middle of the road and walked away. At last, we found an Uber who deposited us just outside departures for a ridiculously small fee for the hour-plus journey he had had to endure to move less than 10km. Needless to say, we tipped him generously. At the office of Citilink, a small Indonesian airline, we secured $50 seats on a flight that departed a couple of hours later for Jogjakarta. Finally, we were out of there! 


Upon landing, we nervously expressed our concerns that we might find a city just like Jakarta outside. In fact, Jogjakarta couldn’t have been more different. Yes, it was touristy, yes, it was hippy town, but we immediately knew we were going to like it there. A taxi ride from the airport dropped us at Hotel Crisalit, an odd twilight-zone type hotel complete with a swimming pool for not-very-much money. The following day we rented scooters from a friendly, local tourist agency and set off to explore. First stop was the nearby service station for gas and some cash from the ATM (remember that…it’ll become important later) and then onwards to visit Borobudur, a ninth century Buddhist temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the world and of course, a UNESCO site.

Consisting of a series of stupas on multiple levels of a giant pyramid, it reminded us somewhat of the Mayan temples we’ve visited in Belize and Guatemala. The walls of the temple are decorated with long panels of carvings depicting stories, and housing over 500 Buddha statues, it really was an impressive place. Of course, it would have been even nicer had we been allowed to wander around it in peace and absorb what we were seeing, but again we were continuously mobbed by groups of kids either wanting to interview us for their school project or take selfies. You have to smile though; in a world where most kids are taught not to talk to strangers for fear of bad things happening, it was quite refreshing to be the subject of their excitement and enthusiasm for learning. The sun beat down and we found ourselves breaking frequently on the shady side of the temple for a little relief from the relentless burn of the sun. We finally reached the top with some relief and after admiring the view headed back to our bikes and on to our next stop, the nearby ‘Chicken Church’

Gereja Ayam is a curious structure. I remembered seeing photos of it at various times over the years so when I discovered it was just down the road from where we were, it was a no brainer really, we had to go and find it. We followed the rather vague instructions from Google Girl who instructed us to park up our bikes in front of a little wooden house in the middle of nowhere and take a track that led across a rickety bridge and into the woods. Sceptical, we started to walk and sure enough, a little way up the hill we saw signs to the church. Originally built in 1990 by a man called Daniel Alamsjah as a result of a dream he had in which God told him to build a ‘prayer house’ shaped like a dove on the top of a hill, the resulting ‘Chicken Church’ is part comical, part creepy, part beautiful and part downright weird. 

Unfinished, the church closed its doors in 2000 after funds ran out and for many years decay set in and it sat empty but for graffiti artists. I was hoping it would still be in this state when we visited, but it appears that local people have seen the obvious potential of the building and have begun in earnest to complete the work needed to bring it back into use. They are also, of course, now charging a small entry fee at the bottom of the very steep hill you have to hike up to reach it. At the top of the hill, we found a giant chicken, adorned with all sorts of kitsch accessories and inside a quirky space filled with anti-drugs murals from the short time it was used as a drug rehab centre. Climbing up through the various floors we eventually popped out on top of the chicken’s head! The views from the top were breathtakingly beautiful and impossible to capture in a photo no matter how hard we tried. The sun soon defeated us yet again and we made our way back to Jogja in the afternoon rush hour, but not before stopping to sample the complimentary fried cassava on offer at a little café run by a couple of local women that was soon to open on the mezzanine inside the church.

During the day I had received a message from a random guy called Bayu who had offered to rent us scooters for a week for less than what the ones we had would cost us for two days so that evening we swapped them over. Our new ones were older and more battle scarred, but perfectly fit for what we wanted to use them for. It was good to be back on two wheels again. For the price we were paying, a couple of $ a day, it didn’t matter if we went a whole day without using them, but it changed our mood significantly just to have the freedom that having your own transport presents.

It was at this point that we decided we really should make some plans as to how we were going to get back to Jakarta in a couple of weeks’ time to begin our long journeys home. After weighing up the options, we decided to head a little further east to Mount Bromo, before making our way up to Surabaya and then flying back to Jakarta from there. Knowing from previous experience that our cards wouldn’t be accepted online by any of the domestic Indonesian airlines, we stopped in at a little travel shop to book our flights. When Evan took his wallet out of his pocket to pay, he found the space where his credit card should be empty.

First thoughts that maybe it had been stolen or had fallen out were quickly dismissed when we mentally retraced our steps and remembered that the last time he had used his card was at the ATM at the gas station that morning. Surprised that the machine had given him 100 denomination notes rather than 50’s, he had become side-tracked and had completely forgotten to remove his card from the machine. Hopeful that the machine had simply swallowed it when he did not retrieve it, he jumped on his bike and tore back to the gas station. Sometime later after a protracted conversation with the gas station manager, who was as helpful and friendly as he could be when faced with an enquiry in a language he didn’t understand, Evan returned with a phone number he had to call to arrange for the bank to come out and try and retrieve his card. Several phone calls later with the very kind help of a local tour agent who made the calls on our behalf and translated, we were advised to visit the bank the following day and were given the name of the person we need to talk to.

The following morning we rode across town and parked up outside the bank. Upon entry, we were warmly welcomed and the security guard immediately went off in search of someone who could speak English. For the next hour pretty much everyone we came into contact with went out of their way to resolve the situation. Calls were made to the company responsible for maintaining the machine and we were promised that they would do everything they could to retrieve the card by the following morning. True to their word, the next day we returned to the bank to find Evan’s card waiting for us with the lady on reception, who was all smiles as she presented it to him. We pondered how differently the same situation would have been dealt with had we been back at home…

Bank card retrieved and sighs of relief breathed, we headed off to Prambanan, this time a famous Hindu temple to the east of the city and a little closer than Borobodur. With its iconic, black pointed temple buildings towering against a brilliant blue sky, we took a pleasant stroll around the site and afterwards through the deer park in which it is situated. It’s a much smaller site than we expected, although the architecture is impressive. Visiting the museums on site at both these temples we found it refreshing that no elaborate meanings had been applied to the existence of the temples or their construction. Where something was not known, this was simply stated. Their mystery, after all, contributes greatly to their appeal.

Back in the city, we moved to one of the greatest hostels we’ve ever had the pleasure of finding – The House of Nasi Bungkus. Named after previous inhabitants, a dog called Nasi and a cat called Bungkus, the hostel was an organic space if ever there was one. Built almost entirely of reclaimed materials and with graffiti art adorning every inch of wall, we knew as soon as we arrived that we’d found the chill out space for a few days that we’d been subconsciously seeking. With hammocks in the garden, a plunge pool and a working rice paddy next door, we spent several days doing little other than laying around reading, eating satay, making short trips into town to visit places such as the Water Palace and otherwise occasionally moving from the bean bag to the hammock and back again. 

One day I left Evan who was suffering a little from a negative encounter with the local food and went with Krizstina, a Hungarian/Irish girl also staying at the hostel, on a tour of the local countryside to a number of tourist sites mostly catering to local people. At most of these viewpoints, kitsch structures made of bamboo have been created to frame a beautiful backdrop for the perfect selfie. And boy do Indonesians like their selfies. It was as much fun watching the photo-takers in action as it was taking photos ourselves. Another day we spent a great evening in the company of Teresa, an American girl working in a local school whom we had met on the plane from Jakarta, and one of her fellow teachers. We had dinner at a local vegetarian restaurant and craft collective and chatted about life in the city and our plans for the future over bowls of homemade pasta and soup.

Jogja is a city covered from head to toe with art work. Down every side street and alley huge, brightly coloured murals cover the walls. We started to become familiar with the names of local artists – Anagard’s pigeon people that we’d first seen in Malaysia, and Lovehatelove. 

Towards the end of our time in Jogja we decided we really should make an effort to prise ourselves from the comfort of our bean bags and take one more ride out, so leaving in the relative cool of late afternoon, we headed south to the black sand beach of Paragitis. We wandered the length of the beach, occasionally being mobbed for the obligatory photo shoots that we had become so accustomed to by now, and watched the horses and carts gliding along the water’s edge as the sun slowly slipped down behind the horizon. 

Our last day in Jogja happened to coincide with Vesak Day, possibly the most important date in the Buddhist calendar; the day of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. Billed as a once in a lifetime opportunity, we decided to return to Borobudur for the festivities. Expecting to join thousands of pilgrims at the site and to witness the rituals and ceremonies of the festival, including the release of thousands of lanterns, we were a little disappointed to arrive at what resembled a carnival complete with vendors of tacky merchandise and far more tourists, both foreign and local, than worshippers. After finally managing to get inside the complex we wandered for a while, watching the various prayer sessions being led by religious leaders from across the country and dodging the hawkers. 

Unsurprisingly, there were various areas within the site that required an extra fee to access, the lantern launching ground being one of them. That was fine though, it didn’t really interest me. I was a little torn about attending at all given the harm that the wire structures of the spent lanterns can cause to wildlife, but the spectacle of the event and the desire to witness one of the biggest cultural and religious festivals in the Buddhist world at such an important site drew me in. When it came time for the first lanterns to be released, like the rest of the event I’m sad to say, it was somewhat of an anti-climax. Feeling largely underwhelmed by the whole affair, we decided not to wait another hour for the second performance and set off home on our little bikes, dodging the traffic and wildlife as we wound our way back to the city down pitch black country roads. 

In my last few posts, I’m very aware that I haven’t necessarily been positive and overly enthusiastic about every experience we had on this trip, but this shouldn’t lead you to think that I didn’t enjoy it, quite the opposite in fact. Indonesia, in particular, was a breath of fresh air – real, gritty and not always easy to travel through, yet still incredibly beautiful in every way. We had plenty of moments when frustration was in danger of getting the better of us, but that’s simply the reality of travelling without a plan or any prior research. Looking back now and remembering little things as I look through photos has left me with a near-permanent smile on my face and a renewed hunger for our next adventure.

Next up, Mount Bromo and our journey back to Thailand for our flights home…

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