"Arctracer" Letters

Java, Indonesia, Oct 2005

We've just had a unique and wonderful experience with our friends Robbin and Warren of "Cuchara." They suggested that we join them on a trip to Java. After travelling with them around the Darwin area we knew it would be fun to join them to see some new-to-us sights.

We found some good-priced tickets ($20 per person each way) to fly to Yogyakarta (pronounced Jojakarta) in the middle of the south coast of the Island of Java. We were keen to go to the world's largest Buddhist monument of Borobudur which lies about an hours drive north of the airport. The Lonely Planet Guidebook said that it is Indonesia's single most popular tourist attraction and we wanted to learn more about Buddhism. Ninety percent of the people in Bali live a form of Hinduism, while ninety percent of the people on Java are Muslims. One hundred percent of the people on Banda Neira in the Mollucas were Muslim, so now we've learned a little more about three religions.

The only problem with the cheap airline tickets was the time of the flights. We set our alarm for 3:30 am to catch a taxi to the airport at 4:30 to arrive for the 5 am check-in. The Wings Air Boeing MD 82 advertised in large letters on the side of the plane "Fly is Cheap," but we boarded anyway. The one-hour flight left at 6 am Bali time and arrived in Java at 6 am Java time. On the return trip the plane left Yogyakarta about 8:45 pm Java time and arrived in Bali at 10:45 pm Bali time - way past our normal bedtime. We had been just a little worried about finding food on Java as it is now Ramadan and the most dedicated Muslims are fasting from dawn to dusk for 30 days. Apparently there weren't as many food booths open, but we found several choices of places to eat during our three lunchtimes on the island.

The name Borobudur means "Buddhist Monastery on the Hill," but this is a monument, not a monastary. Borobudur was built between 770 - 850 AD. It is estimated that it originally took 30,000 stonecutters, 15,000 carriers and thousands of masons between 50 and 75 years to build the monument out of hard volcanic rock. According to one guide book, from the air it looks like a three-dimensional tantric mandala (geometric aid to meditation). Some people think it is one of the power centers of the world, and Tantric Buddhists use it as a walk-through mandala. It was conceived as a Buddhist vision of the cosmos in stone which has panels depicting everyday life at the bottom and spiralling up to nirvana (the Buddhist heaven). The stupas at the top of the monument are a model of the cosmos. When the monument was originally finished it had 432 serene-faced Buddha images staring out from open chambers above the various levels. Another 72 Buddhist images were only partly visible in latticed stupas on the top three levels. Sculptors carved a detailed story of Buddhist doctrines and of Javanese life about 1000 years ago in reliefs on the lower levels. We saw ships, elephants, horses, musicians, dancers, warriors, and kings amongst other depictions. It was inexplicably deserted within a century of its completion and has undergone a long process of "rediscovery" and restoration. About 1815 the English Lieutenant-Governor sent an engineer to investigate the site. Uncovering the monument led to years of plunder and abuse by the locals. Some stones were taken for foundations of houses. In 1900 restoration was considered, but internal erosion was ruining the foundation. Several earthquakes after this left Borobudur in a sorry state, but UNESCO finally sponsored a fund-raising campaign and feasibility study. Finally in 1973 proper restoration got underway. With a lot of financial help from other countries the Indonesians spent US 25 million dollars from 1973-1983 to restore the temple. The monument was opened to the public in 1985 and bombed on 21 January 1985 by opponents of Soeharto. The explosion only damagegd part of the upper levels and that damage has been mostly repaired. According to our guide, Hari, 300 of the 504 Buddha statues are still intact. Many had their heads missing when they were placed back in their original positions. Because the base had to be reinforced in the reconstruction you can only see 4 of the 160 panels around the very lowest level now as they are covered by the new foundation. The Buddhas on each side of the monument represent different things. For example, on the south side of the monument the Buddhas have their hands out, representing charity.

After paying for our tickets and having our bags checked for food (none is allowed inside the monument) we walked through MANY aggressive vendors attempting to sell their wares to us. There were about 400 tourists everyday before the Bali bombing on 12 October 2002, but now there are only about 40 tourists a day. As we approached the temple with our local guide and two umbrella-holding locals to protect us from the very hot sun we proceeded clockwise around the monument as is done in all Buddhist monuments. The walk is about 5 km long, so we walked for two and a half hours while listening to the story of Buddha's life shown on the panels. We skipped the last three levels to go to the top to make a wish while touching one of the Buddha statues in a stupa. Our guide said that Nina could touch the leg to make her wish, while Jerry had to touch the ring finger to show respect. One guidebook said that reaching in through the stupa to touch the fingers or foot of the Buddha inside is believed to bring good luck (a little different explanation than our guide's).

We took a lunch break, saw a movie about the monument, and relaxed at our homestay until the sun went down a little before returning to see the levels that we hadn't seen. We had read that dawn and sunset were the best time to visit the monument to capture more of the spirit of the place, but the opening hours were 6 am until 5 pm - after sunrise and before sunset. We heard that you can see the sunrise and sunset if you stay in the fancy hotel called Amanjiwa in Borobudur for between $665 - $2450 U.S. per room (3 years ago), but we were content with our $10 U.S. room which included fan, toilet and shower. We had absolutely no problem finding a room. Also, it was no problem for our hosts to make breakfast for us before we started on our tour of the monument ( for the equivalent of 50 cents US each!). Jerry had the Indonesian equivalent of a pancake while Nina had fried rice with an egg, cucumber slices and tomato slices.

After a long day in Borobudur we took a "direct" bus (different than our definition of "direct") to Yogyakarta the following morning at about 7:30 am after having our free breakfast. The bus cost 8000 Rp per person ( 80 cents US) - much cheaper than the 160,000 rupiah ($4 US each) we paid for the private van ride from the airport. You might think this doesn't show much difference, but to our teacher friend in the Moluccas who earned $250 US per year it makes a big difference. We can always get a meal including a large bottle of mineral water for 25,000 rupiah for the two of us (US $2.50). It definitely doesn't pay to cook our own meals here. Western-style groceries are expensive in comparison. A small tin of butter costs US $2.80 for example. On the rides from the airport to the monument and back to the city we saw special tobacco being grown for cigars, water buffalo pulling a plow for a rice farmer, a woman herding geese down the road, large trucks loaded with new motorcycles, and people everywhere. Java has half of Indonesia's population of 220,000,000 people.

We had a taxi driver take us to an area of hotels that wouldn't be too expensive. It took quite a bit of walking around and looking before we found a place that met our criteria: cleanliness and reasonable cost. As in most cities it was more expensive than in the small village of Borobudur. The first price quoted to us was 250,000 Rp per room, but they quickly came down to 200,000 rupiah, and after a bit more negotiation we got very nice rooms with airconditioning for 175,000 rupiah. All the places need business so they negotiate prices in hotels just like vendors on the street. The prices of meals were double at the restaurant at this hotel, but again breakfast was included with the price of the room. It was really a very good place to stay.

After leaving off our small backpack with an extra change of clothes and our toothbrushes, we went outside and found a becak driver to take us the the HUGE Sunday market. A becak is a three-wheeled bike with a seat for two on the front. These men (we saw no women peddling) earn 5,000 Rp or 50 cents an hour. There are also horse-drawn carts available. As in other parts of Indonesia, Sunday is most everyone's day off and we think that the majority of Yogyakarta's people were at the main market. It is three stories high and as large as any mall we've encountered in Western countries. One gentleman was kind enough to show us the area where baskets were sold as Robbin wanted to look at the baskets. They were about a 15-minute walk from the Indonesian fabric section of the market and up two stories so we may have never found them without him. However, there was a catch to his kindness. He owned a stall where he sold batik sarongs and his sister sold batik clothing in a stall opposite his. Of course this was another 15-minute walk back to where we started. It was too bad that he didn't have anything that appealed to any of us, but we felt obligated to take a look anyway. Nina saw a piece of batik that she was really interested in near the baskets, but since this man said he had the same material she didn't negotiate a price there. However, he didn't have any material anywhere near the same so she returned to look at the material again. Since he had been with us he expected a commission (common in Indonesian markets), so the negotiations were much different than usual. It became a real hassle so we walked through some other parts of the market and then left to find stores with fixed prices and much more relaxing shopping.

We had a nice Indonesian lunch for under $ 2.50 before continuing our batik shopping expedition. Nina also wanted to see the batik process. At one street corner a man said we could see this just around the corner and only on Sundays. We hadn't yet learned our lesson, as after another 15-minute walk along a street filled with motorcycles in the hot sun of midday we discovered some batik cloth in various stages of the wax and dye process, but no demonstration and nothing but batik art in frames - not the sarongs or material we were looking for. Again, if we'd been interested in any of the artwork, the man who took us there would have received a commission and price negotiations would not have been as much to our benefit since we'd have to pay the commission. This was the last time we unknowingly followed someone to a shop. Before the end of the day Nina did find a 4-meter piece of silk batik with a matching scarf, and a sarong of cotton batik, but it took quite a bit of looking in shops to find something she liked.

The second and last full day in Yogyakarta we hired two becak drivers to take us to the Sultan's palace - the 200 year-old Kraton. Beside it is the Water Temple where underground tunnels connect the palace to an underground mosque and bathing pools where the old sultans could watch their wives and choose one to be with in a special chamber for a while. The present sultan, Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono X, has only one wife and five daughters. He was born in 1946 and became the Sultan in March 1989 after his father, the ninth sultan, died in 1988. Sultan IX had 5 wives and 22 children. At the Kraton we saw paintings of previous sultans. Some of the family trees were huge, but we didn't count the numbers of wives or children they had. The Kraton is a small walled city within the city of Yogyakarta. Many muslims consider the Sultan a god, as did our young attractive female guide. Twenty-five thousand people live within the Kraton and they all work for the Sultan. They don't have to pay the normal taxes on a house as they live in the Sultan's houses. The Kraton has its own market, including a bird market that we walked through. There were many homing pigeons and we saw several of them released. Near the Kraton we had our first opportunity to send a CD of photos to our friends in Banda Neira and a backup of photos to Ben. It was amazing how many stamps were needed to send the CDs to the States! They don't seem to have hand stamps for varying amounts here. Finding post offices here isn't easy either. We'd been carrying those CDs around for days.

After seeing the water castle and the Kraton we were interested in looking in more of the fixed-price shops for the famous Javanese batiks. The word Batik came from the Bahasa Indonesian words "Banyak Tiktik" which means 'many dots.' At the water temple we were very lucky to see two women putting hot wax in patterns on white material before any dying took place. We also saw several pieces of material in different stages. Since it was very early in the morning, most shops weren't open, but these women had started their day's work. They earn 7,000 rupiah a day from their boss (70 cents a day!!). They do the waxing and the boss does the dying. Some patterns require several wax applications and subsequent dying, with wax removal by boiling in water after each dying. These two young women didn't speak any English so it was our guide who explained things. Of course we were obliged to visit the shop of his aunt and uncle down a back alley before we could return to our becak drivers and continue our tour.

After lunch in the same place as the previous day, Robbin and Nina decided to look for more batik. Since many people had repeatedly warned us about pickpockets we carefully walked along the streets holding our bags so that if they were cut we wouldn't lose our money. We also kept our money in several places. Nina was interested in finding "batik tulis" (hand-waxed batik where the women use a very small pen-type implement with a very small cup for the hot wax to make small lines on patterns that are drawn on the plain material) while Robbin was looking for "batik cap" ( batik that is made by putting a copper patterned tool in the wax and putting that on the material for the waxing process. This process started in the late 19th century and really speeded up the production of batik materials. Robbin wanted to make some new sheets and found a great print and Nina found some cotton batik tulis from western Java that included a sarong and a scarf. It was VERY expensive for Indonesians - about $24 US or 240,000 Rp. Since it takes a woman about three weeks to complete a sarong at 7,000 rupiah a day this seemed like a very fair price in a fixed-price shop.

We still had a lot of time before having to pick up our luggage at our hotel and taking a taxi back to the airport, so Jerry and Warren spent some time at an email cafe while Robbin & Nina had iced-drinks and relaxed. Being a tourist is hard work and exhausting!! After a rest we looked around a huge modern mall, but didn't find much of interest. Jerry lost all of the emails he'd collected on his flash drive and then couldn't put anything back on it, so now we have to take the thing to someone who can check it. It might involve a virus, so we won't plug it into our machines until it is checked. Hopefully there is a competent computer guy in Kuta. After splurging on a 50,000 rupiah 14" diameter pizza at Pizza Hut in the huge mall, we taxied to the airport and flew back to Bali.

Today Jerry downloaded photos from camera to computer and started organizing them. Both of us have been working on letters to share with you. We're sure our next experience in Kalimantan (Borneo) will be entirely different. Our visas are good for over two months, but our cruising permit is only good until the first of November, so we'll need to get our anchor up soon here in Bali. We've discovered that we can't renew our cruising permit because of Ramadan. Almost all the officials are Muslim and it usually takes a month to get an extension even without special religious events.

(view Java photos)