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.

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