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.

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.