Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Planes, Trains and... Becaks?

Do you sometimes remember particularly vivid dreams? Through the haze of recollection you can paint a scene. A place you couldn’t pinpoint on a map. It’s tropical. At once familiar, but simpler, exotic.. and a treat for your senses.

Towering stone temples against a night sky that occasionally flashes with lightning, the air thick with humidity and the sound of insects. 

There’s a market – you’re taking in, tasting and smelling entirely new flavours. Deliciously imperfect fruits and vibrant, haphazard colours. Eating at night in an open air, thatch-roof bamboo hut while an equatorial thunderstorm rumbles in the distance and rain cools the air.

Palm groves silhouetted through morning mist. A city of creative, thoughtful, socially aware and impossibly friendly people. 

 ...Welcome to Yogyakarta.


I wish I wasn’t so jaded by the experiences of traveling - I could’ve given the benefit of the doubt to the man who found us, two zombies at Tugu station (fresh off a plane from Bali followed by a sleepless overnight train ride from Jakarta). With a easy smile and his best English, he asked us who we were; where we were going...did we know how to get there? 

It wasn't because of my irritable tiredness that I suspected he was a tout or a taxi driver. 

Nope. He lit a smoke and walked us through the trains, over the platform and showed us the way. Then he smiled, turned and walked away. 

Who was this man? Why was he at Tugu station at 4.45am? 

As I see it, he isn’t one in a million...he’s one of a million. If that sounds a little superfluous you’ll just have to come here and decide for yourself. There are touts, but a friendly human connection seems honoured above all.

I hope it goes without saying, after that gooey introduction, that this city isn’t perfect. I’m writing in my notepad right now, rather than look out the front window of our minivan as it’s doing the Indo-driver’s dance through traffic (but Kimee’s hand is keeping a running commentary on my arm). 

And I know the cows in the pickup truck beside us would have a starkly darker story to tell. However I reckon this place is worth an eight-hour detour if you can accept that some serious flaws exist, sometimes interdependently, with an accessible, engaging and fascinating grass-roots culture.

Do you know how refreshing it is to be offered, or stumble upon handicrafts that are actually made by the person selling them...or at least someone they know? Unique, imperfect and beautiful.

So what is the magic of Yogyakarta? I’d say everyone who comes here has different tastes of this town, but our Yogya soup was delicious! Here are some of the ingredients...

A blurry photo captured shortly after our 5am arrival
Becak rides.
Pedal-powered couches – Yogyakarta was our first real taste of Becaks. Rickshaws. Often brightly painted, theses rides are good for the rush of being in a bike-chair-hybrid alongside swerving busses and hundreds of motorbikes, but they can be bad for the soul. 

We met Timbul, a big smiling, big hearted, small-framed Becak driver when we took him up on his beyond-reasonable offer – us, all our worldly possessions (2 big backpacks plus extras), all crammed in the front of his ride, from the station to our home stay in the southern Prawirotaman district, 15 minutes away...all for loose change. Even with a great tip, you get out knowing you’ll never directly repay him his effort.

However not all Becak rides are that much work, and these dudes spend a lot of time snoozing with their feet sticking out over the side of their chairs, only interrupting their all-day siestas with the occasional half-assed solicitation.

ViaVia Cooking Class 

Our cooking class would be one of many activities collectively titled ViaVia if we’d had more time in Yogya. A collective of ‘Traveler’s Cafes’ from all corners of the globe including Belgium, Peru, Nicaragua, Tanzania and here in Indonesia, ViaVia was, despite it’s potential to be some hipster wank, a great portal to the local area and community (http://www.viaviacafe.com/). The place itself is primarily a restaurant, where we enjoyed more than a few meals for less than a price of a quarter pounder meal. 
Alongside the restaurant, in the community section, ViaVia’s course options were as tempting as the food menu, with courses in Batik (traditional Javanese cloth dying), silver filigree jewelry (also a local specialty), language courses and various community treks, tours and projects. For us, a cooking class was a no-brainer.

Made (pronounced Maddie), was our teacher, a 15-year veteran of ViaVia, a local, a very charismatic and interesting person and easily a blog post of her own. 
Getting started, Made threw us in the deep end with an early morning tour of the shoulder-to-shoulder hustle bustle of the local market. Kimee did really well to snap a few pics as Made bought the ingredients we’d need (freshly cleaved chicken...CHOP.., sticky tamarind, blocks of palm sugar, colourful chilies, herbs, leaves and fresh tempeh made from fermented soybeans, the packets still warm to touch as the beans fermented inside. 

All while Made showed us the disparity between local’s prices and...well...ours.

By 9am we were back at the ViaVia kitchen and it was already steaming hot. Kimee’s first job – grab the raw chicken legs with her bare hands, and cut them to the bone as preparation. I watched Kimee fighting every germ-aphobic instinct in her body, but she got stuck in.  

The knives were rustic...okay maybe a little rusty, but they’re sharp and Made’s a magician with them. It’s a simple but different twist on some familiar food, but we’d need a lot longer than five short hours to get Made’s flow and light touch that makes this stuff restaurant quality.

All the same, we’re learning – not just about food either – ViaVia pursued their vision though humble beginnings, and soon after moving to it’s current location they had to survive partial destruction in the magnitude 6.8 quake that hit in 2006 (we’ve heard similar stories elsewhere about the eruption of Mt. Merapi, Northeast of Yogya) – these are resilient people.

After a few hours of working with the knives, mortar & pestle and a hot wok, we had a great GadoGado (the iconic Indonesian dish of vegetables with homemade peanut sauce – this isn’t a place for people with peanut allergies), Ayam Goreng Kalasan (crispy, wok-fried chicken with sweet tamarind sauce, salad and handmade sambal), festive turmeric-yellow coconut rice and beerboard snacks of crispy tempeh, tofu, peanuts and cassava root. 

It’s hot as hell and twice as humid as we set this feast out on the table –we exchange doubtful looks. We’ve created quite the lunch assignment and neither of us can muster an appetite in the heat. Made joins us for the meal with glasses of iced tea and we don’t leave too much for the staff.

Ramayana Ballet at Prambanan Temple

We’d herd, read about and seen signs for this Traditional Indonesian Ballet. Tourist trap? Only one way to find out.

We knew the ballet was at a temple, but ‘temple’ covers a broad spectrum of buildings here. What we didn’t expect was to step out of our minibus and see the three towering spires of a beautiful Hindu temple, front-lit, majestic and ethereal against the night sky. The air was thick with pre-thunderstorm humidity and the sky occasionally blanketed with lightning. The ballet had a hard act to follow.

The show would’ve been a total mystery if not for the leaflet explaining the storyline. As it was it came a little from left field...

“So...that dude’s a white monkey warrior...and the dude who is the embodiment of evil turned his minion into that...golden deer?”

There were bows and arrows, bells on great costumes and a lot of colour, but it wasn’t gaudy. The dancing was intricate and nuanced, with hand movements and signs that we saw again the next morning in stone carvings that were over a thousand years old. 

We sat beside a Dutch couple, Anniek and Martij. After chatting with them during the break we learned they were staying near us, so we arranged to meet them for dinner the next night.

 Borobodur Temple

World heritage site! Ancient Buddhist temple! World Wonder!?? Hang on! Some of the hype around Borobodur went too far!

A 4am wakeup call started our Borobodur sunrise excursion. There were mandatory sarongs for the tourists at the door, guides waiting (ten deep) and the dudes with the same little Borobodur statues were everywhere (I almost wanted to reward the guy who was hacking away at the bottom of his little statues with a bit of metal, and eagerly looking around to see if any of the tourists had noticed the opportunity to buy an authentic, handcrafted Borobodur miniature. 
..or maybe he was just trying to get the Made in China sticker off the bottom.

It was harder here than elsewhere to connect with the raw, labourious, meticulous and magnificent detail of the temple at the heart of this tourist attraction. We got there for a beautiful, misty-post-dawn morning, but whether it was the tourist masses, the refurbished stone floors or the odd scaffold, we didn’t feel the same impact, even as we had felt at Prambanan the night before. 

Happy Movember!
An adjoining museum housed a traditional wooden trading ship that was recreated based on carved reliefs in the walls of Borobodur, and sailed to Africa along an old spice trading route. Even here, the human story was more tangible than at the spectacular seven-storied, millennia-old carved stone temple only a hundred meters away.

We wound out our time in Yogyakarta with our friends Anniek and Martij at Milas, a restaurant, volunteer community hub, library, organic garden and natural supplies store that is formed by a big circle of thatch-roofed bamboo huts, connected by stepping stones and bamboo walkways. It’s all hidden like some kind of secret garden behind a plain white wall – you’d never guess the gem behind the facade.

We sat cross-legged on pillows beside a low table and shared a great range of vegetarian treats – juices, teas with rosewood and lemongrass, soups with cassava chips and fresh, slow-food treats. The whole time a thunderstorm flashed and rumbled outside. Sa-weeet.

If you’re ever in Java, make the trip to Yogya. There are gems everywhere – an antique store by our home stay had an amazing collection of sextants, compasses, heavy steel tools and old colonial artifacts. And rest up at a home stay – there are many of them, and after the busy streets of Kuta and a few days on the road, a quiet, homely place that makes your breakfast and gives you tea and cake every afternoon is bliss. 
Yep – feed us, and we’re happy.

Kimee enjoying her afternoon tea

 Rather than statistics and requests this post, please enjoy our TP adventures (and a few other shots):

"I only wipe with Trendy"    
"I only wipe with Nice"

Kimee eating food cart snacks

Just one of the many heart warming moments we've experienced in Indo

Getting to BatuKaras!

Love from Batu Karas,
Kimee & Hedge


  1. Andrew....put a shirt on!!!!

    What a pleasure to read this!! hugs....

  2. OMG....I didn't read Ken's comment when I wrote mine.....that is so funny......xxooooxxxooooxxxoooo...

  3. Absolutely amazing guys. We miss you, but I'm glad you're having an incredible journey over there. I'm jealous!