Jan 13, 2008
|Usually we avoid package tours like the plague, but in this case we went with it and it turned out well. For 75,000 rupiah ($8), we bought a trip to the Buddhist temple of Borobudur and the Hindu temple of Prambanan, instead of the cheaper but much more hassle do-it-yourself public transport version. Plus, the tour got us discounts on the temple entry fees, which are usually over 100,000 rupiah each.
We were up before the sun, walking through the alleys around our hotel in a light rain, hoping it would clear up. We met our driver in the lobby of a backpacker hostel, along with two Dutch guys who would accompany us. After a pair of hot teas, we headed out. The van was plush, clean, air-conditioned and the driver kept to himself - a welcome relief. We chatted with the Dutch guys, who were traveling for a few months like us, and watched the sun rising out the windows. We wove our way through suburbs and into rice-paddy country, along narrow country roads lined with people on motorbikes on their way to work, raincoats on backwards across their chests to keep out the rain.
The curio/tourist trap market outside Borobudur was just waking up, so we missed most of the touts and sellers. Our guide led us to the entrance and set us free as the gates opened, so we were the second couple to make it to the temple. Along the cobble path, several men offered services as guides, and one guy held small carved stone Buddhas in our faces, saying, 'see me on your way out.'
Then the temple, and we were nearly alone. Borobudur was built in about 900 A.D. and has nine levels, each supposed to represent a level on the path to Enlightenment. Thus the bottom three levels are the most interesting, depicting the activities spurred by desire - sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. The next three levels are still pretty neat, and the top involves seated Buddhas inside their own stupas, which look like bell-shaped bird-cages made of stone. The stones were brought to the site and laid without mortar, then the reliefs, which cover the walls of the various levels, were carved in place. They show fantastic varieties of scenes, from wars to sailing ships being attacked by kraken, to parties and monkeys and processions and meditating queens. We started calling the female meditators 'female Buddhas,' deciding that the ancients must have known that women, too, can reach enlightenment and don't have to wait to be reincarnated as a man to be capable of that feat.
We wandered the corridors of each level, skipping a few parts (the guide book said that if you walked every level in its entirety, you'd end up going more than 5k), and headed out as a huge tour group of schoolchildren hit the temple. We exited between groups of giggling girls and snickering guys, dressed in our matching blue ponchos. The way to the exit was lined with carving and postcard sellers, persistent as usual. By this time it was a matter of principle for me, and I definitely missed out on some deals. But I was so sick of people pushing items in my face, cajoling me to buy, buy, buy, cheap, cheap, cheap, that I denied everything.
We sat down for a bit of breakfast - tea and a pancake, plus a boiled egg and some toast, waiting for the Dutchmen to return. The rain came and went, and a little girl played around the kitchen beside us.
When everyone had arrived, we set off again, stopping at the Candi Mendut, which was a giant square temple, not anywhere near the size of Borobudur, but still impressive. There was a giant bodhi tree next to it that was just as impressive.
"It is quite fascinating," said one of the Dutch, Erik. We talked of our experiences, and he mentioned how sad it was to read about the history of the Dutch here in Indonesia (much of what is now Indonesia was a Dutch colony for more than 100 years). The Lonely Planet likes to go into great deal about the oppression of the locals, apparently in the Dutch versions as well as the English ones.
We drove on, along narrow back roads through small farming villages: chickens racing out of the way, motorbikes loaded down with straw, people bent over in paddies planting rice or digging it up. The next stop was Prambanan, a slightly older Hindu temple. Buddhism incorporates many of the gods of the Hindu tradition, similar to the way that Islam is built on the foundation of Judaism and Christianity.
This temple had been damaged by an earthquake in 2006, and was still being repaired, so we were kept back by wire fences, something of a disappointment after being up close at Borobudur. We were approached by a group of schoolgirls in white headscarves who wanted to practice their English on us. They had lists of questions, apparently as part of a school assignment, so we took on queries like "how old are you?" and "where are you from?" and "what is your education?"
It all went pretty normal until they asked us about American culture and food.
"Well, pizza is American," I said, which confused them.
"You are Italian?"
"No, well, it's just American." I had trouble explaining that Italians had invented pizza, but it had reached perfection in America, with regional variations and cultural attachments. Even though it is "Italian food." But that's hard to explain. So for culture, I said, "You know Michael Jackson?" and did the moonwalk, and they understood that perfectly well. So we were able to help spread U.S. culture around the world with the moonwalk and pizza. It made me think more about our culture, which seems very borrowed in some ways, but is also distinctly American, for no reason that I can yet understand.
We wandered a bit more and were accosted by another school group who had the same list of questions, and then we began to avoid them. A little girl walked up to us and took Bean's picture with her camera phone. When she turned to me, I drew my camera and she got a shot of me taking her photo, which made her smile sheepishly.
Then we braved the postcard sellers and boarded the van for Yogya, and took a nap before our evening entertainment: shadow puppets.
The Ramayana is an old Hindu story about gods betraying and murdering each other. The full puppet enactment of the story takes all night, from 8p.m. to early the next morning, but the Yogya museum has an abridged version every night, so we went to that instead. The puppets are very stylized, with gruesome bug-eyes and lots of decoration, and are held up to a back-lit screen in front of the audience. There's an entire band behind the screen, too, and a man moving the puppets around and doing their voices. From our perspective the novelty wore off in about 15 minutes, even though you can watch the show from behind the screen: the puppets don't move much, the story is told in an incomprehensible language, and the background music and singing is slow-tempo and often screechy. I can understand that back in the day, when there were no tvs or radios or much of anything, it might have been more the thing to spend a few hours on, but for us it became torture. So we ducked out and snuck back to the hotel, settling in for another night.