Finding My Way In Yogya
Jan 20, 2014
|Yogyakarta in Java and Ubud in Bali may exist in the same country but I'm not convinced they're on the same planet. Quickly, the straightforward beauty and complex culture has morphed into a strange world that a week is nowhere near enough time to figure out-- but just enough to start appreciating it and settling in.
Again writing in transit as I utilize my third of six one-way tickets in Indonesia, it's amazing to reflect on how much one can experience in just seven days. Unlike my previous posts where I've mentally dumped out all my thoughts, sorted through them and shared as a cohesive message, my time in Yogya has been comprised of so many jumbled activities and emotions, I think I'm going to try a new approach and go through each day as I lived it to bring you all along on this journey in a more accurate way. I'm pretty sure this will result in being disjointed and all over the place, which will be pretty indicative of the last week.
Day One: Bumpy landings to say the least. Getting from the airport to the city was easy; everything after that was more challenging. I arrived at my hotel around 9am to not only learn that English (however broken) is not at all common here, but also that check-in wasn't until 1. Awesome. Luckily after much fumbling of words and charade-esque gestures, they agreed to hold my bags for awhile. I set off to find breakfast, noticing the streets definitely lacked Bali's charm. After wandering for a good half hour I had yet to see food anywhere but iffy looking carts and hidden inside a few hotels. Fine, probably wouldn't be my best meal but with so much time to kill, it would be nice to sit for awhile and finish my last blog update. I kinda realized I wasn't in Kansas anymore when I saw the giant buffet spread and realized I recognized nothing except hard boiled eggs, some fruit and toast. Then it was off to Malioboro (where i had strategically booked my hotel very close to) a famed, albeit touristy, almost mile-long market with one side heaped with batik clothes, jewelry, bags, shoes, crafts, jewelry, etc. and the other filled with various foods. Holy crap, what a chaotic, overwhelming, nerve wracking place. Think if Times Square merged with Canal St and then put that on steroids and shove it into a partially enclosed, 100 degree area. It is so filled with people you can hardly breathe and as I was literally the only white person in the entire vicinity, quite a target for people who want to sell you goods, transport and all kinda of b.s. Clearly not yet in the swing of this backpacking in a totally foreign country thing, I was a little freaked out and frustrated and not sure I like it here, all amplified after getting caught in a torrential three hour downpour a solid half hr walk from my hotel. All I kept thinking is, why was this city recommended to me?
Day Two: I'm awakened to the sounds of major construction which kinda rattles me because it's shaking the room a bit and because it's dark out.. which is because it's 4am. I finally give up around 7 and discover construction is taking place in the hotel hallway almost directly outside my door. I then pass the kitchen on my way to the breakfast area just in time to see a cockroach scurry across the floor. And I'm done. This place is definitely on the pricier side (already I think $40 a night is extremely expensive) due to its 'prime' location, which I happen to hate; the combination of all these factors drive me to something I normally never do: check out early (only possible to work out with the staff thanks to the wonder of Google Translate) and get the hell out of there. I read about an area that's more popular with Western backpackers and a quick consult with Agoda shows a very well reviewed hotel is 40% off and $100 total cheaper than my last place. Done. As the taxi heads out of Molioboro madness I start to see things calm down. About fifteen minutes later- I don't think its much more than 2 miles away, but traffic here is horrendous- we turn down a street dotted with little cafes, I already start to feel better about things. And when I get to an absolutely gorgeous, immaculate hotel, I'm ready to give Yogyakarta another chance. My future inner backpacker is in awe of this luxury, but I shake her off. Do I feel a little like I'm taking the safe approach and cheating by being in a location that's so clearly not geared for Indonesians or Asian visitors? Yup. Does it occur to me that staying in grotty, noisy, locally-driven accommodation is something I need to get used to and I'm setting a bad precedent by doing this? Oh yeah. But I'm happier here, so whatever. I decide to explore the neighborhood. It is much more my speed than the insanity of Molioboro district, but still quickly develops an edge just steps away from the hotel's street. A very different world than Bali. More urban and run down. Louder and more chaotic. Void of nature. Harder and more prickly in every way. Rickshaw drivers line the streets, harassing you for "transport" every few steps. When you say no they follow you, continually dropping the price for a solid block. People constantly stare at you. Quite a few of the men want to chat and it's hard to shake them after a quick conversation; their words and tone are friendly, but something about most of them makes me feel a little uneasy about the prospect of jumping on their bike and sightseeing an hour away with them. Quite a few Muslim girls approach me at various points and they're adorable. So sweet and friendly, they want to ask all the questions they know how to say and have a photo taken with you. The staring continues to weird me out, but I find if I just smile, I get a grin and "hello!" in return. I also learn that unlike the majority of the world, Indonesians generally love the US and Obama in particular (who just left the country a few weeks prior). After a delicious dinner and fresh vegetable juice, I'm feeling okay about the five days ahead.
Day 3: Felt like I should actually see some of what Yogyakarta is known for, so I hop on the back of a motorbike for the Sultan's Palace. There's a whole lotta buzz around this place but it's pretty unimpressive. There's some really beautiful architecture and I caught part of a Javanese puppet show, but unless I was touring it wrong it's mostly a large lawn maze with random photos and items in a bunch of small, dusty museum buildings. Every two seconds people asked to take a picture with me, which is really strange yet cute, but makes it difficult to do anything. I took almost three hours to complete what normally would've been an hour or so visit. The Palace is a close walk to Molioboro, so I decide to see what I think of it after 24 hours of a fresher perspective and walk through on my way to a Batik gallery. It doesn't seem quite as bad today; still not my favorite place by any means but I don't feel like it's giving me a panic attack anymore. I stroll back to my new digs and spend the next few hours wandering around in the other direction. I'm fascinated by all the little stands, homes/shacks and people I see. There are little food carts everywhere, lining the roads, each one offering a different array. I'm in hell because I've had some unidentified food allergy issues my first week and was instructed not to eat anything new (or with shellfish) until I can get tested in KL. Which has made for some great tasting, though unexotic meals at restaurants where there are English descriptions on the menus and I can ask the waitstaff about ingredients. With my nonexistent Indonesian, trying all of the tempting things taunting me every two seconds isn't a great option.
The locals continue to be friendly, almost too friendly at times. The women all seem sweet and harmless but with the exception of the schoolgirls, too shy to talk to you. Some of the men are tricker, almost impossible to disengage once they have you in conversation and often following you after you've asked for directions. I can't tell if they are just genuinely nice people or totally creepy. Even with the constant barrage of "transport transport, where you go? I take you cheap" my aimless walks are one of my favorite activities here, but can get little uncomfortable and claustrophobic at times. I simultaneously feel enthralled, frustrated and heartbroken by this city. Like an ugly sister applying layers of makeup to mask her flaws, it tries so hard to be pretty with murals, makeshift decorations, bright colors and designs obvious among the grime, broken-down buildings and crowds. However futile, these attempts are strangely beautiful in and of themselves.
As it starts to get dark, I head back in direction of dinner and am halted at the crossing of a busy street. Traffic here is insane and there seems to be no rules about pedestrians. After waiting what feels like ten straight minutes, a Western woman around my age walks past me, hesitates a second and then just goes for it. Seeing an opportunity, I quickly follow her so that I can make it across the street before midnight. I thought I was being discreet, but she starts to laugh at the other side and says "it took me ages to figure out how to cross. Just go...they'll stop." Turns out she's from New Zealand, in Java as a diplomat for the NZ embassy. So friggin cool. Though based Jakarta, she is here for a few months to take immersive language classes. After chatting for a few, she asks if I want to get dinner with her; it's been awhile she's had a decent chat in English and doesn't meet many people. Yes I obviously do and it's a lot of fun. Afterwards, we agree to meet again soon. Particularly after almost three complete days of not really speaking with anyone for more than a few awkward minutes, it was a really great time and very nice way to end the night.
Day 4: My alarm jolted me awake at 3am. Sleepily I threw on some clothes and brushed my teeth before getting into the van. Staring blankly out the window, I shook myself out of of my fog, as we passed through a tiny village where a morning market was being set up. Shadowy figures of carts, stands heaped with produce, giant cooking vessels and merchants only added to my dreamlike state. I kind of wanted to stop and scope it out, but ignore the urge to ask, since 1. that's dumb and 2. I need to make it somewhere by sunrise. Another half hour or so later, the van rolled to a stop and I was silently pointed to a narrow path about 100 feet ahead. Stumbling slightly up the almost pitch black incline, I climbed without a clue where I was headed or how long it would take, only knowing I was enroute to a viewpoint to watch the sun come up over Borobudur. About a half hour later I made it to the top just as light slowly began to tinge the horizon, haze seeping into jungle below The entire day was thick with fog and apparently it obscured a spectacular sight, which sucked but explained why I wondering if this lovely but not completely remarkable cliff was really worth the early departure. Then it was off to Borobudur itself, a giant Buddhist temple with a history I which I won't get into, but I highly recommend briefly researching. I wish I had pictures (and trust me, I took plenty) or words to accurately describe it, but absolutely nothing could do this justice. The archeology itself overwhelmingly exquisite and otherworldly, framed by rolling green hills capped by misty mountaintops. Sitting towards the top of this massive monument of faith and the raw untouched beauty of nature, I have never felt so small. In the stillness of early morning, seemingly so far away from dirt, noise and pressure of Yogyakarta, I finally felt like I've connected with this area. By mid morning the crowds were beginning to form, which meant a steady stream of photo requests as I made my way down. Luckily I felt so at peace by the prior experience, it barely got annoying. Barely. Then, there was a hour journey to Prambanan, another UNESCO heritage site and a gigantic Hindu temple (again, look it up). I was drifting off on the way there; thank goodness for the complimentary coffee at the entrance or I'm not sure I would've have been able to do it! In a different but equally majestic way, the architecture, design and sheer size is absolutely incredible-- especially considering its only partially standing. Hard to imagine what the scale would be if all the rubble was fully constructed. Despite its over-the-top beauty, the magic was kind of broken by a barrage of photo and 'interview' clamors. A bunch of schools were visiting and no sooner would one small group walk away then another would approach. Once one of them asks a series of basic questions, there's usually a shy request for a photo. Suddenly you have like twelve kids completely surrounding you to be in the picture and each of them wants a shot with their camera. Once observing adults realize the children are getting away with it, then they start to ask on their own. If you Google image search me I will probably appear in 400 pictures from the two and a half hours spent there. Oh yeah people, ignore the amazing construction before you and focus on the weird white chick instead. Yes, I know I sound like a jerk. And yes it is sweet and I guess kind of flattering though bizarre. But it's also incessant. This whole area feels like a constant harassment between the pictures,haggling, fighting off rickshaw drivers and avoiding creepy chatterers, and the whole thing starts to grate on your nerves. I'm sure the lack of sleep amplified my crankiness, but after a few days of being nice and responsive, I was starting to snap. However the vestiges of irritation fell away during a late lunch back in town. Sitting at a cafe, two guys walked in who were also at Prambanan and recognized me. They came over, asked if they could sit and a few hours later, we were still chitter chattering away. Once is from Holland and spending six weeks in Indonesia during his grad school winter break. The other actually lives in Kuala Lumpur and here on a short holiday, which is pretty exciting since it means I'll actually know someone when I arrive. Both are really interesting and just awesome guys in general. I mentioned a bird market I had heard about and planned on checking out after lunch, and the Dutch dude wanted to come (KL needed a nap). We got kinda lost, turning a half hour walk into almost a two hour one filled with flowing conversation and lots of cool little sights. The bird market itself (called Pasar Ngasm) is incredibly weird in a fantastic way. It's a large outdoor complex situated back from a road with a bunch of little shacks, each one filled with a different type of bird. Cages are hung from every available space outside and there's what looks like an auction area. I talked Dutch out of purchasing a canary as a travel buddy and then rushed back to meet the diplomat from New Zealand for dinner. All in all, a pretty fantastic day.
Day 5: My time in Yogyakarta just keeps getting stranger and cooler. Through a completely amazing hostel called ViaVia, I signed up for a 12 pm to 11 pm Spiritual Java tour. Most people on Java are Muslim (with some Hindu, Buddhism and Christianity too) but there's also a kind of mystical pseudo-religion that many people also practice. Two other girls were there as well, which I was psyched about: one because doing this alone would've been, let's say, interesting and two because they are 100% awesome. Erica is an Australian med student who took a year off to gain experience at hospitals in third world countries. On top of a lifetime of extensive traveling, she's now going to 28 countries total and has already seen some truly horrifying things. I am so impressed with her in general, but also her commitment to really getting hands-on medical practice in such a real and extreme way. Oh and did I mention that she also has a law degree? Heather is British and worked in environmental regulations while living in Brussels. She got a law passed and then quit her job in celebration, embarking on six months of backpacking. Unlike me, she's staying in each place for awhile (which sounds like a really good way to do it) and she's also not doing any flying. Yup, her entire journey is comprised of trains, busses, bikes, truck beds and boats... including a month on a cargo ship from Spain to Singapore. The way she's approaching her journey- both in activities, dedication to sustainability, and unconventional experiences that have resulted from each- amaze me and cause a good, hard think about the impact of my travel choices. Each of these ladies are hilarious, incredibly intelligent, curious, sweet, fun and altogether inspiring. It's absolutely mind blowing to me how well-traveled both are, and come to think of it, same with the other two guys. Seems like everyone except (most) Americans does a whole lot of country exploring. It's so fascinating to hear everyones stories and how they got here.
Anyway, very brief recap of the tour: went to a market for a variety of herbs, flowers and banana leaves to wrap them in. Then stopped at a royal graveyard, where we had to change into traditional clothes before going to the inside part of the cemetery (all above-ground coffins/tombs that we spent the whole time practically sitting on) with a priest lighting incense and chanting for a good 15 minutes. We then sprinkled flower petals on one tomb and went outside to a holy 'pool' where people go to splash themselves with water as a way to secure wishes, cure illness, etc. Next, was a series of driving to holy places, meditating as a priest chanted, getting a brief but confusing explanation of each site's relevance and related myth, finally ending at a holy hot spring, which turned out to be stored in a large rusting tank then funneled into grimy, moldy bathtubs. Even I balked at this and refused to go in. [Sidenote- as a whole, I'm getting progressively more disgusted by the sanitary conditions here. As just one example, I went to use a bathroom (read: a slanted room with a small hole in the soaking wet floor and a drain, reeking of human waste and darkened with mold), told it was necessary to enter barefoot due to local religious customs. As I'm trying to convince myself that I'm just being a baby and people do this all the time and it's not like thousands are dying from it, I was gently reminded by the doctor in training "ummm yea Cor, there are"]. The three of us made dinner plans the following night on the way back, and I mentally hugged my entire clean hotel before falling straight to sleep.
Day 6: Oh happy day; my first international cooking class! I'm not sure if I mentioned this earlier, but I plan to take one in each country. It started with a morning trip to a local food market, which was amazing. Tons of (fresh, dried and cured) fish, freshly butchered chicken, all kinds of vegetables and fruit (some I was familiar with, some I've neve even heard of), spices, bottles of medicinal brews, blocks of sugar cane, stacks and stacks of different homemade crackers, fresh tempeh and tofu, arrays of doughy pastries... a feast for the senses. Everybody wanted me to try everything, which I had to refuse most of because of the dumbass allergy situation and we left with a large basket heaping with goodies. Back in the cutest little kitchen, I learned how to make all kinds of things. My favorite was fresh coconut milk (like I actually took a whole coconut and turned it into milk), three kinds of spice pastes, a (shrimp paste free) sambal, tempeh two ways, a lemongrass and curcurma nut vegetable curry and a pumpkin/spinach/ tempeh satay with a chili sauce. Plus she added a light cucumber, carrot and cabbage salad with a chunky vinaigrette. Everything was SO good; even as an avid cook I couldn't believe how delicious such relatively simple flavor combinations could be when you do things by hand and without shortcuts.
Afterwards I wandered around a new area for a few hours and found another crazy (but less touristy) market of mostly clothes and fabric before heading to meet my tour buddies for dinner at an amazing vegetarian restaurant I discovered hidden in an ally a few days earlier. On the way we passed the first actual supermarket I'd seen since arriving in Indonesia, and since we all needed to pick up something, stopped in. Ok first of all, foriegn supermarkets are fun. Since there's such a heavy European influence in Indonesia, a lot of UK and Australian brands were there (which was exciting to them because it's a home thing, and exciting to me because it's just cool), not to mention all of different types of produce, proteins and products. Then we acccidently stumbled upon the condom aisle, the boxes of which were decorated with the most amazing 80's romance novel style graphics ever, leading to a full-on hysterical laughter fit which probably doesn't seem nearly as funny when you read about it.
Day Seven: My last day in Yogyakarta which was lovely but relatively uneventful. I brought all three of my new friends together for one final market trip, this one a Sunday-only event at a university. In addition to the clothes, jewelry bags and ever-present food, there were also a bunch of curious objects-- an entire stand of mini sewing machines, giant brightly colored stuffed animals, mouth/nose masks in all colors. It was crowded but not overwhelming and best of all, the first time people weren't staring like we had10 heads. On our way to stop for coffee, we found a student art exhibition of batik and oil paintings, which were phenomenal. And then it was time to say farewells.I'd already done the goodbye thing with the two guys but as I'd spent lots more time with the girls, it hit me even harder how transitory my life will be over the next eight months. Meeting people and bonding over just a few short days (or even hours) only to part ways, immersing myself in places without ever really belonging or being a part of them, getting attached quickly and then moving on just as quickly. So I leave with seven new email addresses, five new phone numbers (not counting all the random guys who gave me theirs to call for transport, sightseeing, or practicing their English), two new bogs to follow, plus more memories and thoughts racing around my brain than I've ever had in one week.
Sumatra is fast approaching and I'm anxious in many ways. In one sense, it's my most anticipated destination in Indonesia for its legendary beauty and utter wildness. On the other hand, it's the place almost every Balinese and Javanese person has told me to be very careful in or straight up suggested I not go. I've gone back and forth between wishing I had more time to explore more than two places on this giant island (roughly the size of California) and wanting to bail on it completely. The plane is actually beginning its descent and the view from the window is breathtaking. I can already make out the treetops of the jungle and mountain peaks on this emerald covered landmass surrounded by white sand and sparkling blue ocean. So that's my cue to wrap this up. Talk to you next time!