Yogakarta to Jakarta

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

After a very long two days climbing Mount Bromo and crossing half the island of Java (pronounced Jawa by the locals, incidentally), I found myself waking up after a much-needed sleep in the city of Yogyakarta (or Joeg-jah for short). Thanks to a tour operator, I’d found a place just off Gang (Alley) 2 in Sosro called Lotus Guesthouse that I would never have found on my own for a good and reasonable 35000 ($3.50) per night. There were a lot of tourists in for Nyepi not to mention escaping the madness of Jakarta, and I’d been unable to find anything below six digits. But that’s how it works here, everyone on the street wants to help you do whatever you’re doing, and then when you’re looking for a tour or to rent a car or buy tickets or… they hope you’ll go to them. Certainly, I’d have a look, after all he’d earned it. I was comparing tour options and prices for the two local landmarks, Borobudur and Prambanan, when I came across another operator with a large poster from Kaliurang. The poster was a small village with the peak of the Merepi volcano looming over it and I was entranced. I booked a tour for the three for 60,000, checked out a batik gallery (and bought my first souvenir of Asia) and was asleep again.

I awoke to a knocking at my door – apparently, I was expecting to be on the tour an hour later than the actual time of the trip. So I threw my stuff together and, since the guide was early, we were still at the hotel for the two Malaysian girls also on the trip before 7:30. Our first stop was Borobudur, one of the largest Buddhist monuments in the world and constructed around 800 AD. It is a sort of concentric square at bottom with six levels, topped with three levels of concentric circle and one giant stupa atop. One the bottom levels are panel telling stories and teachings of Buddha decorated with over 400 statues (432 to be precise). On the top circular levels are many, many stupas (bell/dome shaped shrines) with Buddha inside them, I believe 72 in total. Crowning the monument is one giant stupa which, apparently was supposed to have a giant Buddha inside or atop it, but after sculpting it they couldn’t work out how to get it up there. It was impressive both in its scale and detail.

On display, in addition to this incredible monument, was a Canadian guy from Saskatoon, walking around and trying to mind his own business. I first noticed a group of girls (about 15 of them) walking a not-as-discreet-as-they’d-imagined distance behind me and giggling. Disconcerting. I turned the corner, stopped, and turned to greet them, then took a giant step towards them just as they rounded the corner. The poor girl in the lead almost shrieked and took a few panicked steps back then I laughed and they laughed and I turned and continued to admire the shrine thinking I’d sorted whatever it was out. Finally one of the girls came up to me and asked me for a photo with them. This happened again and again with young kids and even teenagers on field trips from rural villages coming and asking for photos and, on occasion, wanting to practice their English, apparently their school had given them some questions to ask us about Borobudur. I probably had my photo taken about 35 times, was interviewed in English twice, was asked to take photos of about 60 people (in groups, thankfully, not all individually), and had two toddlers come up and kiss my hand. It should’ve been annoying but I was too busy feeling magnanimous to mind.

Our next stop was Kaliurang, the village on the volcano, but it had started to rain a bit as we arrived and the volcano was nothing more than a black shape on the horizon. Whatsmore, we didn’t go to the village but instead to a lookout, which I was pretty choked about. We marched on eastward, after a much needed lunch stop to clear my headache – I’d been having minor headaches pretty much everyday since starting my anti-malaria doxycyclin pills and today was the worst – we were at Prambanan. This is a Hindu temple, or rather, collection of temples, and at least in terms of scale was more impressive than Borobudur. Located in the centre is the temple to Shiva, looming almost 50 metres over the valley and surrounded by smaller but still imposing temples to other Hindu gods. A thunderstorm was brewing in the clouds and made the whole scene all the more intense. Aside from these temples, which were restricted due to a recent earthquake having made them structurally unsound, there are smaller ones about 1km down a path which our guide recommended we check out. And wouldn’t you know it, we (me and the Malaysians) were at the farthest point from the van when the storm broke. We waited and were turned down a chance to hop on the little tourist train and it eventually abated slightly. We made it about 500m before it really broke out again and we were quite on the wet side. It was past the time we were supposed to meet our guide and we braved the downpour and returned to the van soaked to the core.

The next day I went to the sultan’s palace, the kraton, which was less impressive than I’d expected. It’s more of a community within the city where they live a bit more traditionally, and I went and learned about some of the Hindu gods and saw some leather puppets being made – they’re called wayang, which actually means mirror, and the puppets are intended to reflect on your soul. I also checked out the water palace, the sultan’s private pool(s) of olde. He had two pools, one for all his ladies and one for himself. There was also a tower above from which he could perv on them or at least watch and decide which one to take back to his private pool. And I suppose which to make into a wife. I spent that day wandering the streets of Yogya and the whole of the next day as well, feeling worse and worse from those pills and getting quite irritable. I snapped at one of the hordes of people trying to hustle me on the street where normally I find it a bit amusing or at least ignorable. I told him I HATE batik (which I don’t), that most of the people like him are selling fakes (which they are), and that I just want to walk down the street in peace. That was when I decided I couldn’t keep taking these pills. Grumpy, headaches, occasional dizziness and on that day, fever; If the symptoms got a bit worse I’d basically have the same symptoms as someone with malaria. No more doxy.

As I was still ahead of schedule, even with my extra day in Yogya, I needed to find somewhere else between here and Jakarta. I’d circled Batu Karas as sounding interesting back when I’d been reading excitedly at home and also Pangandaran. The former is a small village on the beach with three guest houses, the latter a city on a good surf beach. I thought I’d head to P first and maybe take a day trip out to BK if time warranted, and boarded a train on the 12th of March (Wednesday) for Banjar. Well, I waited for a train anyway. It was supposed to come to platform 3 at 9:30. While waiting, I met a Canadian couple from Toronto. 9:30 came and there was a train on platform 2 and I went to grab a snack thinking our train would be here any minute. Conversationally, they asked which train I was on and I discovered that the train on platform two was, in fact, my train and that of the Canadians as well, who were going to the same place as me. I double and triple checked quickly – the train was about to leave any second – called for the Canadians to join me and hopped on the train. They just made it.

I was more alert when it came time to disembark and watched for signs saying Banjar. Again, I saved the Torontonians. This paid itself off almost immediately as we were able to split a car to Batu Karas, checking out Pangandaran en route. I was torn about which place to go but thought I might as well take the car ride all the way to BK and then if I didn’t like it just come back the next day. But while Pangandaran seemed okay, a decent beach, good waves, but in a city, Batu Karas was a great little village on a perfect beach, quiet, clean, and exactly what the doctor ordered after the hustle of Yogya. The beach was volcanic, in a little cove, and had what have to be the best learn-to-surf waves I’ve seen. It was to become my favourite spot in Indonesia. Not only was it great, but it felt like a decisive step from the tourist trail. There are three places to stay in the town, most of which were occupied by Indonesians, a few Malaysians and Japanese, two Swiss, one German, an Australian couple, and now, three Canadians. That’s it to the whole town. When I went for lunch or dinner, I had a tab at the restaurant. Likewise to the little beach bar at the Australian-owned hotel.

I rented a surf board and surfed. It took a while to get my timing right and then a while more to remember how to get up, but with Tol (the Canadian’s) help, it did come back to me. In fact, by the fourth day – I loved it so much I stayed longer than intended – I was having a great time, getting up on 1.5m waves and able to maneuver my board enough to keep ahead of the wave the whole 700m to shore. THAT was a great feeling, and I did it three times (in addition to getting up on some 30 times) in the last two hours of my last day, as the sunset behind our bungalows on the beach. On that same day, I woke up and had a chat for about 1.5 hours with the Australian lady (her husband was surfing) next door. I went and had a great lunch and then two English from Pangandaran showed up for the day and we sat drinking beer while they had their lunch for a couple hours. Then my surf. After which, the Australian couple brought me dinner from a slightly bigger town nearby and I sat with them and had a great conversation for three hours. I walked to pay my tab at the restaurant afterwards then Paul, the Australian hotelier, invited me to watch the traditional dance that was going on at his bar that night. Truly one of the best days I’ve had since leaving Australia.

The only drawback to the whole Batu Karas experience was that my room, at only 40,000 a night and quite sparkling clean to the eye, appears to have been infested with bed bugs. Yes. I had avoided them in Europe. I dodged them several times in Australia, most notably Perth. And here, on this uncharted beach in the middle of the Pacific, the bedbug mob had found me and riddled me with holes. The first day I was convinced they were from little jellys and what the Australian guy, Russ, called “sea lice” that give a little sting in the water. The second day I didn’t swim, and on the third day they were still there and worse. Of course, by then I already had them, so what’s one more night? Plus it was the weekend, and the scant accommodation in the town was all booked anyway. All I can say about bedbugs is they itch like crazy, apparently can NOT be seen when you look at the stitching of the sheets, and I hate them. Anyway, it was time to leave my little paradise and make my way to Jakarta. I hopped on the back of a motorbike, backpack and all, as this is the only way out of the town. We took the scenic route across a very precarious bamboo bridge, and got to Cijulang, where I got a bus to Banjar. It stopped anywhere and everywhere that someone might want to get on or off, but we eventually got there. I’m pretty sure I got overcharged. I saw an old man in front of me pay 11,000 for his ticket to Banjar and, despite my many protests (at one point, the old man was ‘asked’ how much he paid to go to Banjar and he showed twenty-five) I had to pay more than double that. Oh well. From Banjar, a rickshaw to the train station whereupon I learned there wasn’t a train to Jakarta until 9 that night. So I took one to Bandung thinking there’d be connections to grab from there.

There were but en route I’d had another idea. Stay in Bandung that night, and hire a car to take me to Jakarta the next day via Pucack Pass and the Taman safari. This would essentially save me the cost of the train fare plus I’d see it during the day and I’d get to look around Bandung, too. I haggled and haggled and it seemed it was going to be very pricey but I finally managed to get the price down to 300,000, so I found a hotel and wandered the streets. I walked up to the famed Jeans Street, where every store deals in denim and has various heroes as its mascots, doubtless unlicensed. I actually bought a pair of jeans after sending mine home because without the anti-malaria pills I was going to need more long sleeve and pants to combat the mosquitoes. They were a bit pricey at almost $20 but seemed of good quality compared to the $5 pairs I was seeing. Then I walked down to Jalan Braga, grabbing a few skewers of sate on the way, for dinner, and then home to By Moritz (my hotel) where I chatted with a German backpacker about Malaysia.

The next day at 9AM, I was to meet my driver outside the train station but he was nowhere to be found. That said, there were other drivers some of which seemed to know my itinerary already. It became clear to me that he, knowing my situation and that I was either going to get on the train or pay no more than 300,000 convinced me to stay, knowing I’d be forced to pay more the next day since it would be the only way for me to squeeze in the safari before my flight. Now they wanted 500,000, some claimed it was impossible for less than 700,000 and one guy did say 400,000 before getting a look from his friends. I walked away from the lot of them, not interested in giving them a cent even if it were the price I’d already agreed on yesterday. I found another driver elsewhere who I managed to get down to 350,000 and we took off. The traffic and pollution were just unthinkably disgusting but thankfully that cleared soon enough when we left the area of Bandung. Up we went, up the mountains and into some beautiful scenery and cooler air known as Pucack Pass. We passed through some small towns, over a very high bridge, through endless hills of tea, and onward and upward until we were at last at Taman Safari.

The cost was 85,000 and worth every rupee. You drive through the wilderness of the park in your vehicle, and it is (obviously) divided into sections with different animals walking in the grass and coming up to investigate the cars, knowing as they do that you’ve brought a load of carrots to feed them with. The first stop was the zebras, which I petted and fed a few carrots. On we drove, past the elephants, llamas, and deer, and up to a black leopard, asleep on a perch in a tree above. We drive past some Asian type of bear and other African looking animals, bison, hippos, and giraffes, all milling about freely and quite unperturbed by us or our car, until we came to a gate. This gate was the first indication that we were about to enter the lion’s den – literally. It reminded me of Jurassic Park, this place, and we crossed the gate as it opened and then closed behind us, faced with another gate. Above, a guard tower watched and over the speaker asked us to shut our windows. We both shut our windows about halfway.

When the first gate locked closed, we were trapped between the two gates, then slowly, ponderously, the second gate opened. Sitting on a rock, watching us intently, was a lion. Now, it’s one thing to see a lion in a cage or separated by some barrier in a zoo. It’s another to have one sitting there, watching your every move, unchained and fully able to assault your car and rip you to shreds if you thought for some reason to open a door. I unconsciously rolled my window up some more, as though that barrier of glass could protect me, as though it wouldn’t crumble to dust at one of the lion’s mighty roars. We stared at it, and it at us. Finally, I got brave enough to open the window a bit more to snap a few photos, and we were driving again past the lionesses and into the tiger area. They left us alone, too, one pretending to sleep but moving its head imperceptibly as we drove past, no more than 4 metres from it.

The only thing that attacked us were some hungry zebras further in as we came back to African territory. Four of them thrust their noses through the crack in the window hoping for some carrots and one nearly chomped my hand while he was at it. Finally, we passed the orangutans and some very, very, very large hippos – I never knew how massive they were! – and we’d finished our safari. What a great way to pass the trip from Bandung to Jakarta, what a great way to see these animals. The only thing better would be an actual safari into the actual wild of Africa, and although that’s been at the top of my ‘todo list’ for years, the desire has been ratcheted up several notches.

There is also a zoo component to the park and while I skipped most of it (and the kiddie amusement park) I had to stop at the Baby Zoo. Here, for $1, you can hold and have your photo taken with the following: a lion cub, a baby cheetah, an orangutan, and last but not least, an adult albino tiger. My first stop was the lion cub. Very cute and all, but I tell you that getting close to it was all sorts of scary. And once it sat on my lap, the reason was clear. The power even in that little cub was palpable, and whatsmore, he was not in a good mood. He even bared his teeth at one point, about three of four photos in. It was only because I’d bought three tickets that I managed to get in with the cheetah, though it was much more relaxed than the cub, I certainly wasn’t. In my photos, it appears I have a death grip on the poor thing (though they do instruct you to loop an arm around its neck, you know, just in case). My third photo with the orangutan settled my heart down a bit, it was quite friendly and knew the drill. Arms around the human’s neck, look at the camera, done. It was in this false sense of security that I discovered the white tiger and bought a ticket to have my photo with it.

Not only was it another wild cat, but this thing was fully grown and well, if you’ve ever seen one hunt, getting anywhere within 200 metres of one is a bit scary. It was too big and heavy to get on my lap, so I sat beside it and leaned across its massive body instead. Just the paws on it, wow; Almost as big as my head. And here I was, like some idiot-tourist who gets killed in some random country, leaning across and petting it and almost sitting on its tail. But I survived to write about the encounter and have the photos to prove it, and this accomplished we were off to Jakarta. Here I saw the first high-rise I’ve seen since leaving Australia, and there was something comforting about it strangely. Here I also saw the worst traffic I’ve seen anywhere, and the driver let me off somewhere near the hotel and I went the rest of the way on the back of a motorbike. We drove on sidewalks to avoid the worst of the traffic and for a short while, the wrong way in traffic.

Jakarta wasn't as bad as I'd been warned. On the contrary, I didn't allocate myself enough time for it. The food was good, there were lots of cafes, and sure lots of pollution and so on as well, but show me a major non-Singaporean Asian city without it. My one full day there consisted of me running up to the National Monument, talking with a school group at the top and signing my name and writing all the kids personalized messages which they were able to read and understand in English. I was very impressed by this. Then back down to the largest Mosque in Asia for a little tour, a quick stop in a Catholic church for old times sake, trekking back to my hostel on Jalan Jaksa to pick up my things, grabbing a starfruit and strawberry juice fresh, and a bite to eat. Then sitting in traffic for 1.5 hours in a bus to the airport (about 12 km away) at which point I said goodbye to Indonesia and boarded my Emirates flight to Singapore. I've got to admit that while I have no complaints about the flight whatsoever, it was nothing special. Quite average food, service, and all the rest, but there, I've done it. I've flown Emirates. I waited in customs for almost an hour with the slowest line, another 30 mins for a taxi at the rank, and at last, I was at my hostel - yes, dorm rooms are back - in Singapore. It was 2 AM and time to sleep.

Yogya-Bandung Photos
Taman Safari and Jakarta Photos

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