Adios, Jakarta

Our hotel in Jakarta was full of Formula E racing technicians. We learned what that is when Steve chatted up one of them at the breakfast buffet. Turns out they work on Formula One-style race cars that are powered by electric batteries; one of their big global competitions was taking place in the Indonesian capital June 3 and 4. When I tuned the TV in our room to one of the local stations, the meet seemed to be getting non-stop coverage.It looked like the race would take place at some course near the sea.

I knew nothing about this, of course, when I booked the hotel for the last two nights of our Indonesian stay. I picked it because of its location in Jakarta’s historic center, the decrepit neighborhood from which Dutch overseers long extracted riches from these spice-rich islands. It takes some effort to imagine how cool and trendy the area might be if someone poured vast amounts of money and effort into fixing it up.

The old town even has canals a la Hollandaise.

For now, however, the area’s main attraction is the stone-paved Fatahillah square, lined with imposing buildings from which Dutch bosses once wielded their power.The town hall was built in 1627.That building with the red tile roof now houses the Cafe Batavia, where we ate dinner.

We spent some time Friday morning prowling around the old square, then walked to the grand old train station nearby, now serving only commuter trains.In a different latitude we might have hiked the 2-3 miles from there to central Jakarta, but the heat and humidity made that unthinkable.Instead we enjoyed a tuk-tuk ride that gave us insight into Jakarta’s infamous traffic.

Overall I felt we amply fulfilled our touristic duty. The tuk-tuk took us to the enormous park surrounding Merdeka (Independence) Square and its dramatic national monument.We abandoned our plans to climb to top when we learned it would probably take three hours to get up there, the line of locals already was that long.

The nearby national museum was less crowded. We could have spent hours, had we more time and energy but instead mostly marveled at the galleries focusing on Indonesia’s paleoanthropology. Somehow homonids who walked upright made their way from Africa to these islands a million and a half years ago. How did that happen?

After a delicious lunch in an atmospheric restaurant, we returned to the hotel, where I got my second (and final!) Indonesian massage, and Steve sought insight into the Formula E event from Google. Among other things, he found a video clip starring an ultra-perky Formula E hostess who obviously had been assigned the task of doing a piece that would make her TV viewers think Jakarta was the coolest imaginable site for the event. She and we had gone to almost all the same places! But I was flabbergasted to see how clean and colorful and exciting it all looked onscreen. Somehow Miss Booster’s footage omitted any view of all the squalor I couldn’t help but notice.

Steve and I ate our final dinner at Cafe Batavia, housed in a 200-year-old building built of teak, and I confessed to souring on the capital. Sure, we’d had a good day cutting touristic notches in our belts, but if I had to live here, I’d consider blowing my brains out, I declared. This corrupt, ugly home to 28 million is sinking rapidly into the sea, and although Indonesian President Joko Widodo has a grand plan to move the capital to Kalimantan (on Borneo) and make it a green paragon, I can’t imagine this will work out as planned.

Steve had a slightly different take. He gestured to the scene visible through the second-story window adjoining our table.It was a bit before 7 pm, and people were wandering into the square and plopping down on the stones. You could feel all the energy pulsing through the place, Steve insisted. And it emanated from some of the sweetest people we’ve met anywhere.

As if to underscore his point, our waiter came up to the table and started chatting with us about our trip. What did we think of Indonesia? Where had we gone? What about the weather — was it hotter than California? This went on for at least 10 minutes. I felt bad for the other diners who were being ignored but deeply charmed to be in a place where waiters could be so curious; could feel so free to learn something from some outsiders.

We left the restaurant to explore the scene further. I don’t want to be another Miss Booster and try to make you think you’ll be missing out if you don’t hop on a plane to join in. It was still hot and humid, though no longer unbearably so. We found infectious live music on all four corners of the square and along other nearby walkways, but none of the performers were good enough to make me want to plunk myself down on the hard rough ground in the dark.Still it all looked extraordinarily convivial. Little kids tossed lighted twirling things into the air or blew bubbles. Their parents snacked on chips and drank soda. I saw a few folks getting their pictures taken with the living statues.

I also saw a bunch of the wannabe photo props bored by the lack of business.

It made me feel more sanguine too. I still don’t want to live in Jakarta. I can’t imagine I’ll return for another visit. But I did amble back to the hotel feeling what I’ve felt over and over on this trip —profound gratitude that I had this chance to glimpse what it’s like to live on the Ring of Fire.

PS: I shot this from my window seat on the plane going into Jakarta as we were flying somewhere over Borneo. But it’s the closest we got to any big geological events. We didn’t feel so much as a small jolt. That was fine with me too.

Chasing dragons

The news was discouraging when we landed on Rinca Island Tuesday afternoon. No one had spotted any Komodo dragons that entire day — nor the day before. I tried to resign myself to the same fate. When you seek rare animals in the wild, it’s not like buying a movie ticket. You’re not guaranteed a show. But we lucked out.

Almost immediately after we paid for our admission to Komodo National Park, the friendly park ranger to whom we were assigned urged us to run — toward a dragon that had just ambled into the entry complex from the nearby forest. She was a female maybe 7 years old, he estimated, and thus maybe only half the size of a full-grown male. Still, no one who saw her could doubt she and her kind are the biggest lizards in the world. If they were any bigger, you’d be looking at a dinosaur.

As lethal as her claws appeared to be, they’re not her main weapon. Each Komodo dragon’s jaw holds 60 teeth, and sandwiched among them are glands loaded with toxic venom. A single bite won’t instantly kill a deer or buffalo (or human), but the venom promotes bleeding and dreadful infection to which victims succumb after a few days or even hours. Adding to their charm, the dragons are cannibals, eating each other and even their unwary young. Smarter youngsters hide in trees for several years to avoid being munched.

I’d rank them as the least lovable of the world’s big flashy animals. Nonetheless Steve and I had a blast on our two brief forays into their world. That first afternoon, our ranger, Masakao, led us on a hike into a tangled forest that’s also home to spitting cobras and other venomous snakes. The plant life looked different from what we’d seen in the forests in Bali and Sumatra. That’s because when we had flown east from Bali, we crossed the Wallace Line. Eons ago, the continents of Asia and Australia had broken apart along that conceptual demarcation, and so today the plant and animals on either side of it have different evolutionary origins.

We moved down the dirt path and soon approached a small abandoned building that once housed a power generator. Masakao motioned for us to stop while, armed with a long forked stick, he crept up to the doorway and peered in.Another score! The ranger asked for Steve’s phone and recorded the temporary occupant: a male whose big belly testified to recent consumption of a meaty feast. Now he was digesting in the cool comfort of the man-made shelter.

In the course of our ramble, we came across another big male. That one even gave us a look at his fearsome choppers…

…before crossing the trail and moving into the underbrush, long tongue flicking.

I felt jubilant as we returned to our quarters for the night, a wooden ship of eccentric design that’s common in these waters. To see Komodo dragons you need some kind of a boat. The famous reptiles live almost exclusively on five islands off Flores (a bigger island originally colonized by Portuguese and thus home today to one of Indonesia’s only significant Catholic populations.) You can take a speedboat from Flores out for a frantic, grueling day of dragon-hunting, but most visitors opt for a one- to three-night cruise. Steve’s and mine was a private one, and included the services of a conscientious guide named Robert and four young men who ran the ship and cooked.

It was far from fancy. Here was the single toilet/shower stall shared by the 7 of us:

…and the galley where the cook whipped up meals like these:

This lunch included rice (in the covered dish), tofu sautéed in a soy sauce, stewed cabbage and carrots, and squid prepared two ways.

This was breakfast the second morning.

If basic, the food was edible, and it didn’t make us sick. Our cramped cabin also had an AC unit that cut the muggy heat. I kept reminding myself that the sojourn was less grubby than tent-camping in the tropics. Slightly.

The second morning, Robert, Steve, and I left the ship before dawn to join the stream of visitors climbing the 815 steps up tiny Padar Island.The view from near the top, taking in three different-colored beaches (black, white, and pink) is so famous it’s on Indonesia’s 50,000-rupiah bank note. Indonesian tour groups pressed for time will often choose to visit it and skip the Komodo dragons, according to Robert.

But who would choose a landscape selfie over what we saw later that morning? I can’t imagine.

Once again, luck was with us. We motored to Komodo Island, and on the beach we immediately found a young dragon, risking its life to come down from its tree and hunt for breakfast.

Not far from the juvenile, an alert-looking adult female was identifiable by her head and tail, shorter than than what males are equipped with.This time our park ranger, Dula, took my iPhone and shot the wonderful video footage I will try to incorporate here. I hope it’s viewable on the blog; part terrifying, part comic, it’s documentary evidence of one of the most unforgettable strolls of my life.

We encountered several more of the dragons during our visit. Then it was time to board the boat again and motor on; reptiles weren’t the only animals on our itinerary. The turquoise waters that surround the dragons’ islands conceal choral reefs and a wondrous community of aquatic life. We didn’t succeed at seeing all of it. The wind blew hard for a few hours on our final morning, whipping up white caps that drove the local manta rays and sea turtles to deeper water. But we did manage to snorkel three times in calm water, and each outing delighted me. The sea was clear and warm, and I felt as close as I will ever get to flight, gliding effortlessly over the landscape of coral and anemones and rocks, in the company of neon-colored fish, many dressed up in astonishing patterns. At times we sailed by rivers of fish; into clouds of them. Once I started to laugh out loud at the concentrated beauty but was quickly reminded that’s not a great idea when you’re breathing through a snorkel.

Our first night on the boat we made one other wildlife stop that caused me exclaim with awe. It was close to sunset when we anchored on the eastern side of a long flat island composed almost exclusively of mangroves.We watched the molten tangerine sliver of sun shrink to a dot and disappear and the color begins to drain from the sky. Several long moments passed, but enough of a glow still remained that I could make out the strange thing that began to occur — a stream of tiny black objects rising out of the mangroves like cinders flowing up from a campfire and dispersing.The stream thickened and grew; that’s when I cried out. These were fruit bats, a vast horde of them, ranging out by the millions to hunt insects in the night.

People sometimes call them flying foxes, but as they passed overhead their iconic shape was unmistakable, flapping, gliding, graceful.

More and still more bats continued to pulse out of the mangroves; they reminded me of the grand finale of a fireworks display, not as bright or colorful as the tropical fish or fireworks, but as magnificent in their ability to dominate the space with their movement. I know some folks find bats terrifying. In that they’re like the Komodo dragons, who certainly got my adrenaline flowing. Both are creatures almost mythic in their ability to inspire fear. But in the right circumstances, the sight of them can fill me with awe and happiness.

Our home in Bali

For our week in Bali, I used Guest Points we’ve acquired on to stay in a private villa. I thought this would have a couple of advantages beyond the obvious one (free lodging). The villa’s owners would be on the property, and I hoped they would share some insider knowledge. We’d also get a sustained peek into ex-pat life on this most famous and glamorous of Indonesia’s islands.

Of our two hosts, Steven was the real ex-pat. Born and raised in New Zealand, he was working as a commodities trader in Hong Kong about 10 years ago when he met Christina, an Indonesian who grew up in Malaysia. With Covid and its lockdowns, the pair decided to work out of a home base on Bali. They bought a piece of property surrounded by rice fields north of Bali’s capital, Denpasar. The morning after our long journey there from Surabaya, my Steve and I toured the beautiful compound they have built — four separate structures arranged around a series of ponds filled with plants and fish, more open to the elements than any other dwelling I’ve ever personally experienced.

The structure housing their living room, dining area, kitchen, and sitting room was open on three sides.

We traversed part of the property on stepping stones across the ponds.

This was one lovely sitting nook in the common space.

The bathroom attached to our bedroom also was open to the elements. That’s the shower next to the plants against the wall, with the sink inside the little gate. The toilet was behind me to my right.

Here’s the view from the living area of the building containing Steven and Christina’s bedroom.

Staying at Steven and Christina’s place had one significant drawback. I’ve learned over the years that house trades work best when we can use them as a base and range out to do a variety of activities. Judging from what I saw on Google Maps, it looked like it should be easy to get from our digs at Villa Zealandia to a myriad of temples and natural wonders, beaches, and shopping opportunities. But I hadn’t factored in the traffic, which makes even relatively short trips feel like long journeys.

When it sunk in that we couldn’t actually visit the town of Ubud, an important center for visitors, as a day trip, I booked us one night in a hotel there. We hired a local driver and hit the road Thursday morning, heading north.

The landscape soon changed dramatically, becoming mountainous and blessed with cool breezes, lakes and volcanoes, and a panoply of waterfalls. We hiked to a couple, and I wished we had more time to bathe in their pools and discover other spots.

The next day we took in several other important sites. Bali’s fantastically terraced rice fields, a World Heritage Site, are scattered throughout this region, and our driver dropped us off at one of the most commercialized viewing areas. No amount of kitschy trappings could detract from the beauty of the fields. And almost equally entertaining were all the photogenic perches and swings where young ladies can rent dresses with glorious trains to wear while soaring before the camera.

This was one of the free photo opp sites.

Not far from the rice fields, we wondered why more tourists weren’t visiting Gunung Kawi Sebatu, a Hindu temple complex dating back more than 1000 years.To get in, we had to don proper Balinese garb, i.e sarongs (which we borrowed for free from the temple.)

The gardens and pools and temple structures looked amazingly well-maintained, testimony to the continuing commitment of local devotees.

On our way back to the villa, I didn’t want to miss the infamous Ubud Monkey Forest, a heavily wooded park inhabited by hundreds of Balinese macaques. The property also contains a temple used daily by Hindu worshippers, and the monkeys are believed to have some religious or spiritual significance. At least I think so. As usual for Indonesia, educational and explanatory material was non-existent. Many signs warned visitors not to get close to the monkeys, who could be aggressive and malicious, according to the warnings, stealing glasses and cell phones and the like. So it cracked us up to see that for the equivalent of about $3.50, you could pay to have a park employee entice one of the monkeys onto your lap and photograph you.We resisted, but managed to capture a few images of the adorable baby macaques without making their moms mad (as the signs claimed could happen.)Despite being tethered to the villa, we packed in a lot throughout the rest of our stay. Most fun was the morning we spent with Chef Mudana, who offers popular classes in Indonesian and Balinese cooking. We met him and our only fellow student (a network security expert named Sanjay from Sydney) last Saturday morning at the Jimbaran fish market, a wonderfully chaotic, stinky warren of fishermen unloading their wares and vendors selling the staggering variety of protein from the sea.No doubt about the freshness of this stuff. We watched it coming off the boats.Some of it looked too beautiful to eat. Mudana purchased a beautiful piece of mahi-mahi, and we made a quick run through the adjoining produce market to pick up what we needed for the class.Then we drove to his base in the community of Sanur, a combination of family home, restaurant, and the classroom in which Mudana teaches foreigners how to cook like a Balinese. Here’s the street front:And the room where we had our class.

It felt like magic. In about three hours, we enjoyed a traditional Balinese breakfast, then learned to transform a host of raw ingredients……into a delicious seven-course meal. I plan to try to do this at home in San Diego.

I’ve thought about whether I made a mistake in basing us in the Bali villa. Certainly it would have been less stressful to spend 2-3 nights serially in communities like Ubud, Sanur, Ulu Watu, and Seminyak. On the other hand, had we done that, I doubt we ever would have noticed the objects far above Villa Zealandia. We saw them every night, and Steven explained they were kites, a Balinese passion. They fly super high and sometimes folks attach lights to them.

From the villa, we learned the way to a charming cafe where we ate breakfast almost daily and had good dinners twice. We walked to the tiny laundry where the sweet proprietress works every day of the week and charges a pittance to wash, dry, iron, and fold your grubbiest clothes. Christina told me about the spa where she gets great hour-long massages for less than $7. I wanted to try it out but we were so busy I never squeezed it in.

We also noted with some alarm the huge construction projects taking shape on two sides of Steven and Christina’s villa.One small patch of rice field still meets up with their property, but in just the last two years a stunning amount of development has gobbled up the rest of their bucolic surroundings. This has occurred despite the lack of such basic infrastructure as sidewalks and water services.

It was impossible not to wonder how it will all play out. Will folks fill in the things that are missing, as they have done in so many places over the last 100 years? Will the wild building spree continue and then implode when the rice fields have all disappeared and the fish all been hauled out from the sea and people face the choice (as they have throughout human history) to leave or starve?

I probably won’t return. But when I hear news about Bali — or Indonesia — in the years to come, I’ll be paying closer attention, thanks to our Balinese home away from home.

American and Un-American

Sometimes I’m thrilled to find the footprint of American culture far from home. Sometimes I love when it isn’t where I’d expect it. We’ve already experienced both in Bali.

Ride-sharing is the American export I love more than words can express. Uber doesn’t exist here, but one of its Indonesian offspring, Gojek, has been serving us daily. It liberates us, a mind-blowing improvement over the ways we got around last century. As long as we know where we want to go or can pick a landmark in the general area, we just type that into the Gojek app,and a driver in a clean, air-conditioned vehicle materializes, usually within five minutes. We never have to worry about finding a taxi, a constant source of stress in the bad old days. The rides typically cost $2-$3 for a 15-minute trip; maybe $10 for one that lasts an hour or more.

Alas, even though Bali looks tiny on the map of Indonesia, we’ve learned that far too many rides anywhere take at least an hour. I started writing this paragraph on a 40-mile journey from our home-exchange berth to the Banyu Wana Amertha waterfall in northern Bali. In Southern California it might be a 60-minute jaunt. The Gojek app predicted it would take two hours here, and it wound up being two and a half. Neither Steve nor I can think of any place we’ve ever visited that matches this level of vehicular constipation — the result of unloosing hordes of motorcycles and scooters and cars and trucks on narrow, two-lane roads (almost all there is on the island). Slogging through that in a Gojek car isn’t a lot of fun, but my mind reels at the alternative: being tempted to rent a motorbike. That would almost certainly lead to our death or permanent incapacitation.

We took Gojek cars Tuesday to and from the spiffy beach community of Seminyak, where we prowled the shops, popped into a super-fancy hotel, and spent two blissful hours hanging out on heavily padded chaise lounges under a big red umbrella on the wide sand beach.

Wednesday we took a Gojek to the Garuda Wisna Kencana “cultural park” in Bukit, the pendant of land that hangs off the southern end of Bali’s most populated region. We’d heard a bit about the center and hoped it would introduce us to some of Bali’s history and artistic traditions. After suffering through 80 minutes of ghastly traffic, the driver took us deep into a beautiful wooded area and deposited us at the entry complex of what appeared to be a theme park.

This map posted near the ticket booths provided as much information as we would find anywhere. It’s not much. We paid about $8.50 each for all-day tickets, then spent the next four hours exploring what turned out to be more weirdly, wackily different from the Anaheim and Orlando institutions than even Walt could have imagined. What we figured out by the end of our stay is that you go to GWK for two main reasons.

One is to see the giant statues of Hindu gods. These are colossal bronze creations. The biggest, Vishnu riding his eagle Garuda, stands taller than the Statue of Liberty or Christ the Redeemer in Rio.

The park contains a couple of other representations of Hindu superheroes. This Garuda looms over “Garuda Plaza.”

You also come to watch the 30-minute performances that take place every hour in a shaded amphitheater. These were delightful, including samples of both a sinuous, flashing-eyed duo…

…and the comic lion-dog barong dance, accompanied by gamelan players who appeared to be having great fun.

Besides gaping at the foot of the statues and watching the dancers perform, Steve and I also checked out the gift shop… …and ate a basic lunch on a pleasant terrace overlooking the city. We were very excited about catching a 35-minute film that screened every hour in a little movie theater; surely it would fill in some of the blanks in our understanding of Bali and its history, I thought. But the film instead was an animated drama that depicted how Arjuna came to be Vishnu’s airborne chauffeur. The drama centered around young Garuda’s having to free his mom who was tricked into being enslaved by the evil witch, Kadru. It was cute and fun but about as educational as a Saturday morning cartoon.

We also spent a lot of time searching for information about the megalithic stones that to me made the whole complex feel a bit like a modern art installation. Why were THEY here? What were they? Our 2021 edition of Lonely Planet Indonesia, incredibly, didn’t even mention the GWK cultural park. In the first-floor lobby that underlies the gigantic statue of Vishnu riding on Arjuna, we found some historical photos that hinted at why. The center apparently was only inaugurated in the fall of 2018, and we imagine the guidebook went to press before that. After our visit, we found a bit more information on Wikipedia, which explained that the park began as a government project, then construction shut down when the Asian financial crisis hit in the late 90s. A Balinese real-estate developer finally stepped in to take over the project and finish it. But nowhere in the park or online could we find an explanation for those monoliths. (Our theory is that the land originally was a rock quarry, and the monoliths were remnants of the original stone. But we don’t know if that’s right.)

Americans don’t do theme parks or other tourist attractions this way. We give visitors lots of explanation and information. The absence of that at GWK didn’t bother me. I liked the reminder that I was immersed in a place very different from the one back home.

Love letter

Dear Man in Seat 61,

I don’t remember when I learned about you, but it didn’t take long for me to love you. I assume you must have started your eponymous website by reporting on train travel in the UK and Europe — time tables for the major routes, how the system worked in each country, how to buy tickets, and so on. Pretty soon you had expanded to cover the whole world (as far as I can tell). Thanks to you, I’ve been able to plan train trips that took Steve and me from Singapore up the Malay peninsula (2016); from Tibet across China to Beijing; from Kars to Cappadocia in Turkey; and many others. Your wise words guided me in 2018 when I was figuring out how to get us around India, a country whose railway system contains countless traps for the innocent. Thanks to your passionate recommendation, we rode the World Heritage Bernina Express from Switzerland to Italy in the fall of 2021. (That was the ride on which Steve actually GOT Seat 61! Talk about channeling your spirit!)

And thanks yet again to you, on this trip I figured out how we could travel from Yogyakarta to Bali by train and ferry.

Whenever I follow your guidance I’m astonished by how detailed and accurate the information is. All the photos (and often videos) help manage my expectations. For example, I knew that the Argo Willis, which would carry us from Yogyakarta to Surabaya (Indonesia’s second-largest city, on the eastern coast of Central Java), was a premium (“Eksekutif-class”) train.Its comfortable reclining seats, clean toilets, and functioning power made that ride a pleasure. I knew that to continue on from Surabaya to Ketapang on Java’s eastern tip our only option was an “Ekonomi-class” line but those trains were “perfectly safe and comfortable,” you assured us readers.The bench seats on the one we took were plain, and it was all but impossible to avoid playing kneesies with the plump young woman who faced me for the first four and a half hours of the ride. But any train that posts a photo of its conductor has to make you feel you’re in competent hands.We left Surabaya just three seconds after 5:30 a.m. and pulled into Ketapang six hours and 59 minutes later — a minute ahead of schedule.

I had printed out your instructions for what to do when we got off the train and they enabled us to roll our suitcases to the Bali ferry (a few blocks away) as nonchalantly as if we were regular commuters.

More recently I’ve noticed that in addition to all the train info, you sometimes have interesting opinions about hotels. I don’t always follow your advice, but I was thrilled with the result of doing so in Surabaya. The cleanest city in Indonesia and an important commercial and industrial center, it alas offers little in the way of tourist attractions. We only spent two nights there to break up the long overland (and sea) journey to Bali. You had written that the Majapahit Hotel was THE place and stay and added,, “Don’t argue, trust me on this.”

Built in 1911 by the son of the man who co-founded Singapore’s legendary Raffles Hotel, the Majapahit today remains an oasis of glorious gardens, murmuring fountains, and gleaming hard wood.In 1945 it also was the setting for a key event in the birth of Indonesia as an independent country. So when you declared, “Even if you’re on a budget, splurge here,” I complied. What a bargain splurge it turned out to be: $89 a day for a lovely suite in a setting that enticed us to abandon our normal hyper-driven sightseeing and spend a whole day chilling out.

We took dips in the pool and lounged next to it, napping and writing. We marveled at the enormous variety of choices at the breakfast buffet. In that elegant room, we ate all our other meals, and I enjoyed a superb massage in the hotel’s spa. We went to bed early and awoke feeling refreshed and ready to face Monday’s long journey.

From the ferry dock in Bali, sadly, we had to take a Gojek car, All our Indonesian train rides are now behind us. As long as I can ride the rails, I can only hope you will carry on, continuing to serve those of us who still love this transportation niche; who still think it’s one of the most interesting ways to move through the world.

Sincerely yours,


Holy Yogyakarta!

I feel bad about shortchanging the magnificent temples we visited Friday; I mentioned them so briefly in my last post. Steve says the one at Borobudur was the most impressive religious structure he has seen anywhere. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I’d put it at least in the top five. To make up, here are a few postcards from the day.

We spent the morning at Borobudur, built more than 1100 years ago and woefully vulnerable to the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that regularly devastate this area. For centuries it survived only as a pile of rubble buried by jungle. People started reconstructing it about 200 years ago, and although that’s still a work in progress, the largest Buddhist temple on earth has now been largely resurrected.

We lucked out by being assigned a great guide. Hatta grew up playing hide and seek with his friends in the ruins almost daily. Today he’s great at explaining Borobudur’s sophisticated architectural design, essentially a pyramid composed of several distinct levels. Thousands of carved stone panels line the lowest ones, and they tell the complicated story of Siddhartha — how the Indian prince become the Buddha and how his teachings reached Indonesia. The structure thus functions like a gigantic graphic encyclopedia, rendered three-dimensional in volcanic stone.

As you climb up the stairs through all the levels, they become shallower, another lesson: the more one learns, the easier it becomes to progress. At the top two final levels are filled with a forest of stupas, each stupa sheltering a Buddha, except for the huge one that crowns the whole magnificent construction. (It contains nothing.)

Nowhere in the complex is there any place to sit and meditate. Meditation takes the walking variety, weaving through the stupas, where the mind quiets and turns to the surrounding landscape, a mix of vibrant green life and potential violent death.

Now I’m going to short-change a temple again, this one Prambanan, the complex we visited in the afternoon.

It’s also more than 1100 years old. Its buildings are enormous. Some say they’re the most beautiful Hindu temples on earth. That may be so, but it was the Buddha’s stone cathedral that stole my heart.

Ups and downs

Yogyakarta is the cultural and religious heart of Indonesia, the ancient power base from which Javanese overlords long dominated much of the archipelago. Rich temple complexes and brooding volcanoes surround the city, and a sultan still lives behind palace walls fronted by sacred banyan trees. We couldn’t miss all that, so I built a two-and-a-half-day visit to Yogya into our Indonesian itinerary.

Getting there Wednesday from our lodge in the Sumatran jungle was an ordeal. We left in the dark (5:45 am), and although traffic was a bit lighter than on the inbound trip, the ride still took almost three hours. Our two-hour flight to Jakarta was on time, but we had to wait more than three hours to board a second flight, then sat on the runway for a long time before we could take off. We thus landed a half-hour late, around 7:15 pm. Until four years ago, getting from Yogyakarta’s airport into the citwas easy but then the government built a fancy new airport on the sea shore, far from town, without giving much thought to how passengers would get back and forth. There’s a train, but it runs infrequently. (Being late, we missed it.) The other alternative is by car.

Gojek and Grab are the Uber and Lyft of Indonesia, and I had downloaded apps for both to my phone. While Steve waited for our suitcases to tumble onto the carousel, I tried to input my Chase Sapphire Visa info into the Gojek site. It seemed to accept the information — but it wouldn’t store it. A small consolation was that the bags did show up, and we headed for the exit, where a phalanx of taxi and other ride touts shouted invitations. I spotted a slender young man in a Grab uniform, opened the app on my phone and asked if he could help us. To my delight, he showed me which buttons to push to call a car, led us outside to the spot where it would arrive, assured us we could pay the driver in cash, and helped us into it. That was the good news. The bad came from Google maps, which said the ride to the Airbnb unit I had booked would take more than an hour.

It was almost 8 pm by then, and Steve and I hadn’t eaten anything in hours. The road was narrow, and cluttered with construction, a shocking amount of traffic, and countless stoplights. I spent much of the ride berating myself for not having reserved a room at the fancy hotel friends had recently stayed in and loved. The Phoenix would have a nice restaurant that was still serving, I felt confident. But I had picked a place on Airbnb in the hope it would put us closer to daily life in a vibrant community. Indeed when we finally reached our street, a head-spinning number of people still jammed it. I took this photo looking up our street around noon the next day, but it was just as crowded well into every evening.

When we pulled up it the first night, many folks were hunkered in the dark around street-food vendors. But neither Steve nor I felt bold enough to forage for dinner among them. The Airbnb unit proved spacious, cool, and immaculate, but its only cooking instrument was an electric kettle. I suppose we could have just showered and fallen into bed, but we were starving and afraid of being awakened by even sharper hunger pangs at 2 in the morning. So we entered the convenience store next door and prowled its four aisles searching for anything we could imagine dining on. (Candy bars? Nope. Dried sausages? Maybe but ugh.) I finally spotted a sign advertising chicken chili dogs. We ordered two, watched the uniformed Indonesian teenage checker warm them in her countertop microwave. Back in the room we wolfed them down with some chips — the lowest culinary point to which we’ve sunk in years.

The next day, as if by magic, everything we tried worked splendidly. We used the Gojek app to take us across town for less than $2.50 (again paying in cash). We enjoyed a delicious breakfast in a cafe recommended by Lonely Planet, then walked a block or two to a travel agency where a charming young woman (Daisy) helped us arrange a day trip Friday to the two most important temple complexes in the region.

Daisy said the finger symbol signified wishing each other good luck.

She also told us how we could put money on our Gojek account at any Indomaret or Alfa convenience store (which we did easily later in the day). For sightseeing in the city center, she suggested starting at the complex known as the Kraton — the official residence of Yogya’s reigning sultan.

We had figured we would walk, but it was after 10, and the temperature was already well into the 80s. So when a tuk-tuk driver called out to us and said he’d take us there for a little over $3, it seemed irresistible. The ride reminded me how much fun it can be to tear across town in a tuk-tuk. Seated in front of the driver, you feel reckless and exposed and you try not to think about what would happen if you were to crash. Instead you savor the cool breeze and conserve energy while seeing almost as much as you would on foot.

By the time we got to the palace, Mario had convinced us he’d be thrilled to wait and chauffeur us to wherever else we wanted to go. He urged us to take as long as we wanted to explore the Kraton. It’s worth some sustained attention. We couldn’t enter the sultan’s living quarters, but the public spaces are enormous, a bit run down but reminiscent in their scale of the Forbidden City in Beijing. A few nice little museums provided insight into some of the sultanical rituals. Most diverting was the performance by a full traditional Javanese (gavelan) orchestra that was accompanying a classic shadow puppet performance. The stage was arranged in such a way that you could watch the shadowy action on one side of the screen…

…then move to observe the puppeteer doing his complicated work on the back side. I’m not sure we’ll see another such show while we’re here, so I was grateful for this glimpse of Indonesia’s iconic art form.

We crammed a whole lot more into the 24 hours that followed. Much of it was marvelous or at least exhilarating. We soaked up the levels of beauty and meaning in the temple complexes in Borobudur and Prambanan. Prowled the network of narrow byways that cut through our neighborhood and other parts of Yogyakarta. Shopped in a superb batik emporium. Found a tiny laundry that for $6.50 washed and ironed and folded close to 4 kilos of our sweat-drenched clothes.

We had a few more dark moments too. One night we got lost on a long, ill-conceived walk to a restaurant that, once we got there, was too full to admit us. Too late we learned you have to make a reservation at least a couple of days before you want to dine there on the classic Javanese cuisine overseen by a famous Yogyakarta transvestite. Her image is on the billboard in this photo:

For a few nightmarish moments, I thought we might wind up facing more mini-mart chili dogs, but we found an okay alternative. We fared worse finding a good place to eat the next night.

I’ll just say for me the low points of independent travel interweave with the delights to enrich the overall fabric of my experience. If there are moments I’m not happy, I’m always paying attention. I am never bored.

The man of the forest and the folks just outside it

Monday night over satay chicken and fried tofu and a bottle of Bintang beer, Steve and I talked about the orangutans of San Diego. The zoo has a big colony of them, located not far from the entrance plaza. Over the years I’ve probably passed their enclosure dozens of times; I know what they look like. But I had only the vaguest notion of where they came from. Now that I’ve been there, I can tell you: orangutans in the wild are much more beautiful than I could imagine; of all the great apes, they look the most like movie stars.

Getting to them also defied my expectations. It was much harder than I braced for. The Sumatra Orangutan Discovery center’s website had described its full-day trek as “moderate” and suitable for families. What they might have added is, “Be prepared to spend several hours climbing up and down narrow, extremely steep and vine-choked paths that are especially treacherous after a heavy rain.” We’d had a brief but thunderous downpour Sunday night, so the ground was still soaked and the sky still gray when we set off around 9 am with a 27-year-old guide named Dani and his assistant, 25-year-old Dian.

That’s Dian on the left; Dani is on the far right.

At first the going was delightful, the path flat and wide. It wound past fish farms and vegetable gardens and a couple of guys harvesting palm-oil nuts.

We crossed one of the many bridges spanning the Sungai Bohorok River,and Dani explained how the infamous fruit of the durian tree (wildly popular throughout Asia) is grown and marketed.

It starts as one of these innocent seeds but grows into a spiky, smelly monster.

The terrain got rougher as we entered a rubber plantation, where locals still tap every tree every day in order to extract what appears to be a ridiculously small amount of latex.The forest smelled delicious and it thrummed with a symphony of percussive insects.

At the start of our trek, Dani had told us it would take 30-45 minutes to reach the entrance to the national park. It actually took an hour and 45 minutes (another example of the elasticity of Indonesian schedules? Or were Steve and I just pathetically slow?) By the time we passed through the gate, we were climbing in earnest.Within minutes Dani pointed to some orangutan nests high overhead, empty at the moment but recently occupied.Soon we came upon a small knot of people murmuring with excitement at the proximity of two bright orange forms moving through the nearby trees.

Orangutans — their name derived from the Malaysian words for man (orang) and forest (utan) — are the most solitary of the great apes. Once the males mature, they’re like bears. They spend almost all of their lives alone, hanging out with females for only a week or two to breed. And single, receptive girls are mind-blowingly few and far between. Both partners lose interest in sex once the female becomes pregnant, after she has given birth, and throughout all the time she is teaching her offspring everything it needs to know to survive on its own — a process that takes roughly 6-8 years. The youngster we came upon was several years old, swinging through the canopy for the sheer jolly fun of it.

Mom never let him disappear from her sight, but she also kept an eye on us. When she descended the tree and looked like she might approach us, all the guides urgently ordered everyone to move back. Some part of my brain thought, “She’s probably strong enough to rip me apart,” but another part felt riveted by the shocking intensity of her glossy red fur.

We watched the pair for a long while, then hiked on, stopping for lunch at one point. That’s when I discovered the red stuff dripping from a couple of spots on my lower legs. Leeches had profited from my failure to wear long socks. (“Blood donation!” Dani crowed.)

More tough climbing followed. I was ready to beg for directions to the quickest route down the mountain. But I couldn’t resist one last detour to see another orangutan mother with a much younger baby, this one even more adorably fuzzy.We finally broke away and descended in earnest around 2 pm, my knees by then grievously annoyed by what I’d put them through.

Happily, we didn’t have to walk all the way home but clambered into big tires lashed together for a tube ride back to town. Sadly, our cameras were packed into a big plastic bag so we have no photos from the raft, but this is what the river looks like.

We had considered venturing out on another trek on Tuesday to see the largest flower on earth — the so-called “corpse lily” (Rafflesia arnoldi) that blooms in a forested area about 10 miles from Bukit Lawang. The bloom had ended, however, a few weeks earlier, we learned, so we opted to spend our second morning in Sumatra instead touring a couple of the nearby non-touristic villages. This turned out to be an excellent choice. The morning was cool and sunny when Steve, Dani, and I piled into two “tuk-tuks.” Steve and I have ridden in similar conveyances throughout much of the developing world, but we’d never seen anything quite like the Indonesian variety — basically overgrown sidecars grafted onto motorcycles. They’d be hellish on any real Indonesian road trip, but they were comfy enough for our purpose.

We buzzed along the wide irrigation channels that run through some of Bukit Lawang’s villages. Naked little boys swim in them; ladies in dresses and headscarves stand in the waist-high water washing clothes.We rode for a bit, stopped and strolled, took in the spectacularly fertile landscape around us. Dani pointed out the rows of sprightly peanut plants growing along the edge of the rice fields. He explained how to tell when the rice was ready for harvesting — only three months after the seedlings are stuck in the flooded fields. Besides rice, so many things grow in this rich volcanic soil you could probably spend a week taking it all in. We saw fields of cassava…

,,,and cacao trees…

…little girls harvesting palm-oil tree fronds to be made into roof thatching…

…palm-oil frond stems drying in the sun to be made into brushes.

We made a quick stop at the home of a tofu-making couple, but we spent more time visiting one of the local brown-sugar artisans. He owns a small parcel of land containing a number of sugar palms. These have to be climbed daily to collect the clear sweet juice.

You go up the tree using a bamboo pole cut with toeholds.

If someone were not a pious person living in a very Islamic neighborhood he might ferment the liquid and turn it into palm wine. Here, however, the juice has another mission.

Cooked in a wok over a wood fire for several hours, it turns a dark caramel color. We watched as the master completed a batch. He set up bamboo forms while stirring the wok and checking the consistency of the syrup.When he judged it to be just right, he poured the thick goo into the molds…and it soon solidified into a puck of concentrated fruity sweetness.I found it delicious, not as crunchy as the brown cane sugar in my kitchen at home, but containing more complex layers of flavor.

Dani told us the sugar-maker wraps his sweet disks in banana leaves and sells them to some of the local shops. He makes very little money for all this work. By world standards, he’s very poor. So are most of the residents of rural Sumatra, but for what it’s worth, by the end of the day Steve and I had concluded this was the nicest place to be poor we’ve ever visited.

The local orangutans strike me as somehow similar. They’re critically endangered. Less than 14,000 are thought to remain on Sumatra. Given all the factors that threaten them, given their agonizingly slow reproductive rate, experts think they’ll be extinct within 50 years. It’s depressing. But for the moment, if you’re an orangutan, you wouldn’t want to trade your paradise for San Diego.

The road to Bukit Lawang

I did not come to Indonesia to do road trips. But now that I’ve done half of one, I can say at least they’re educational. If like Dorothy, you want visceral assurance you are NOT in Kansas, a drive through parts of Sumatra delivers. Our experience Sunday afternoon also solved a mystery for me, namely I had been unable to imagine how it could take four hours to go 65 miles in a nicely maintained Toyota SUV. Now I know.

We wound up on the road trip because we wanted to see orangutans in the wild. Steve and I have tracked both chimpanzees and gorillas (in Uganda), and we’ve hung out with bonobos in a sanctuary in the Congo. There’s only one other species of great ape in the world — orangutans — and they live only on two Indonesian islands. My first impulse was to seek them in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, recommended by Lonely Planet as the best choice for observing the hairy orange guys in the wild.

When I started planning this trip back last October, it looked like we could easily fly to giant, exotic Borneo from Java (the island that has long been the center of power in this country). Connections on one of the best of the many small domestic airlines were good, and I found a trekking outfitter who seemed respectable. This all fell apart, however, when the flights on the good airline vanished from the Internet (and for the month or two in which I was obsessively checking, they never reappeared. Who knows why). We could only fly to Borneo on a mediocre airline at an inconvenient time. Frustrated, I shifted gears and set my sights on the jungles of Sumatra.

I learned we could fly from Jakarta on one of the better outfits (Citilink) to Medan, the biggest city on Sumatra (and the third largest city in all of Indonesia). I also connected with a well-reputed outfitter just outside Gunung Leuser National Park — one of the richest rainforest ecosystems in the world. (It’s home not only to orangs and other primates but also tigers, rhinos, elephants, and leopards.) I booked a room in the Orangutan Discovery lodge ($23 per night). For an extra $50, the manager said a driver would pick us up at the Medan airport and transport us the 65 miles to the lodge. This seemed reasonable.

Happily, all our travel connections went flawlessly, until we walked out to where the driver was supposed to be holding a sign with our name. There was no sign of him…

Sadly, we were not from the Fuso shop.

…but he did show up after an hour, apologizing and explaining that a truck had overturned on the highway. We piled into Hari’s small SUV, and he announced the drive usually took four hours. This sounded astonishing but also kind of fascinating. How could it?

At first the mystery deepened, as Hari bombed along at 60 miles per hour or more on a well-maintained tollway. But it wasn’t long until we left that and turned onto the main (maybe only?) highway to Bukit Lawang, our destination. The asphalt wasn’t in horrendous condition but it threaded through one human beehive after another; moreover most of the bees appeared to be buzzing around on some kind of wheeled contraption: bicycles and cars and trucks and buses and a vast army of motorbikes, each carrying between one and five people between the ages of newborn and ancient.When you’re all barreling over two narrow lanes, driving becomes vastly more freestyle than anything you ever see in the US or Europe, People thread their way up the wrong side of the road. Many folks favor straddling the faded middle divider line, probably to enhance their readiness for passing. Not passing is NOT an option. You simply must get around all the barely motorized vehicles carrying improbable loads.All this chaos feels remarkably dangerous, and we saw direct confirmation that, yes, it is. We passed the large truck whose crash had delayed Hari. Someone had somehow got it upright again, but it was still stuck by the side of the road. Further along, we whizzed by a demolished motorbike whose driver was still struggling to get up from under it.

Apart from all the scary bits, it was an interesting ride. At times we drove through palm-oil forests. Vast tracts of native rainforest have been torn down to make way for these squat, heavy-crowned trees bearing seeds from which oil is squeezed to fry all the zillions of tasty Indonesian tidbits. If I hadn’t know that Indonesia contains more Muslims than any other country (and Sumatra is known for its especially religious ones), the ride would have educated me. Every minute or two, we passed another roadside mosque — many topped with amazingly colorful and/or flashy domes that contrasted sharply with their homey bases. My head swiveled, too, at all the broad rivers we crossed, most the color of coffee with cream.

The further we drove, the more the road condition deteriorated until at times we had to slow to a cautious creep over the most busted-up sections. Around 5:35 the light was starting to dim and I cringed at the thought of it vanishing altogether as we rattled along for another 75 minutes. But then Hari piped up that we were almost at our destination! Indeed we bounced over dirt road for only a few minutes, entered a jungly stretch of road, and then stopped at a sign for the lodge next to a dirt path leading into a thicket of green. The sun still hadn’t set when we greeted the owner.

For all the ruined stretches of pavement and the death-defying traffic, just a bit over three hours had passed since we left the airport. So why had Hari told us it usually takes four? I suppose it’s possible he was trying to prevent our being disappointed if an eastbound truck turned over like the westbound one that had delayed him. I think it’s more likely, however, we’re in a part of the world where people relate to the interval between numbers on a clock differently than they do in San Diego. I suspect time is vaguer here; less precise. If so, that’s a good thing to be reminded of at the start of our sojourn.

Departing soon for one of the spiciest, shakiest places on the globe

That would be Indonesia, land of thousands upon thousands of islands — 14,000? 17,000? I’m not sure anyone knows. Also home to more humans than only three other countries (India, China, and the USA.)

Situated on the Ring of Fire that rims the southwestern Pacific Ocean, Indonesia also is arguably the planet’s most geologically unstable country. Earthquakes, killer tsunamis, exploding volcanoes (Krakatoa!) — it’s all routine. That’s not why I had no strong desire to go there for a long time. It was more just ignorance. I had no clue what was there.

Now that Indonesia has worked its way up to the top of Steve’s and my Want to Visit list, we’ve been reading a lot and getting more excited the more we’ve learned. Varying wildly from one island to the next, I’ve come to wonder if Indonesia won’t feel a bit like Poseidous, the watery planet Steve and his co-author Roy Wysack created in their (fictional) guidebook for exoplanetary settlers (the Handbook for Space Pioneers).

Over the next three weeks, we’ll barely scratch the surface of the place, sleeping on only four of all those islands (Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Flores). We’ll make our way among them on airplanes, trains, boats, cars, and motorscooters. With luck, the land and sea will behave themselves throughout the course of our visit. But whatever happens, I’ll do my best to share some of what we experience.