How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
How many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer my friend is blowing in the wind
The answer is blowing in the wind
A month ago I thought I would be back in India by this time. But on the traveling road plans are always changing and now I’m in Jakarta getting ready to fly to Thailand in a few days. I was supposed to fly to Malaysia at the end of February but canceled that plan after I proposed the idea of making a cross-Indonesian road trip to Cesar. Our original road trip had us going all the way to Sumatra (the western most island of Indonesia) to take a boat to Malaysia. But we scrapped that plan at some point after deciding that Bangkok was a more exciting option.
But before any of that, we had a road trip to complete to get to Jakarta.
And by a complex series of buses, boats, trains and bicycle rikshaws we made it from Bali and across Java, going from east to west. Some of the places we rested for at least a night: Banyuwangi, a couple of overnight buses, Cewang Lemono, Solo, Yogyakarta, Bandung and Jakarta.
Indonesia is so big (it’s as wide end to end as the US) that you need several months to see all of it. There are 17,000 islands in the whole country and I visited a total of 6, so I’ve only got a few more to go. The island of Java is about as religiously and geographically diverse as any place I’ve seen. Just on this road trip I’ve met Muslims, Hindus, Christians and even Jewish Indonesians. And they’re so religiously tolerant of each other that standing on a street corner in Solo I could see a mosque, a church and a Hindu temple standing side by side.
The terrain of Java is just as varied. There are countless volcanoes across the central spine of Java, beaches and fishing villages on the coasts, hot springs scattered throughout, and then of course the modern mega-city that is Jakarta. I had been prepared to not like Jakarta from the several travelers who had already been there but despite the smog and high population, I found it to be quite a comfortable place. It’s got a mix of the very modern with countless high rise buildings, 5 star hotels and luxury shopping malls selling Versace and D&G tshirts for a mere $1000. But just outside the mall you can by fried rice from a street vendor for under a $1, or one of my favorite dishes, Gado Gado which is a rice and vegetables covered in peanut sauce. And the street vendors make the sauce fresh right in front of you with chilis, palm sugar, tamarind and crushed peanuts and it comes out tasting like peanut butter. Most of the food in Indonesia is fried (pisang) so anything non-fried is a welcome change.
Prior to Jakarta I was in Bandung for just a day and that was probably one day too many. It’s a big busy city with lots of cars and smog and noise and I didn’t find anything too exceptional about it, although supposedly there are some good hiking trails and hot springs within an hour of it. The only reason I went was because I worked in Bandung back in 1998 and wanted to see the Holiday Inn Express that I stayed in back then. I walked around for an hour and finally found it, but now it is just a Holiday Inn and it is a super luxury hotel. Why wasn’t it like that when I stayed there? Or maybe when they saw my type staying there they figured they needed to price my kind out of staying there again.
I did meet a local Indonesian, Benjamin, at the train station as I was waiting for my train. He had converted to Judaism and wouldn’t stop talking about it. I was interested though because he was the first Jewish Indo I had met. He had just completed a two year study at the Hebrew University in Surabaya and then he insisted I take a copy of his transcript. I really didn’t want it but I could tell he really wanted me to have it so now I am traveling around Asia with a Hebrew University transcript in my bag. He got a 3.48 on a 4.0 scale. Nice work Benjamin!
For some reason I’m going backwards in time here…bear with me. Before Bandung we spent a few days hanging out in Yogyakarta where the main attraction is the 1500 year old Borbrodur Buddhist stupa (shrine). It is the largest Buddhist stupa in the world and is 5 levels high. You start at the bottom level and walk around its perimeter, climbing up to the next level when you’ve gone around once. In all it takes 5 km to walk around all 5 of its levels. On all levels the sides are rock carvings depicting various pictures and stories. The first couple of levels deal with the base human cravings and emotions and then as you get to the higher levels the stories begin dealing with enlightenment and breaking free from the base human desires.
As cool as the site was, one of the most interesting parts of the day was all of us being flocked by a large group of students on a field trip. There were a couple of Americans, Tristan and Nathan and an Aussie Mark and Cesar and I and for the next hour we were celebrities. I sat on a ledge and the girls would take turns sitting next to me, getting their picture taken, shaking my hand and saying ‘Thank you Mister!’, getting up and going and then another girl would sit down and we’d repeat the routine. I felt like Brad Pitt or David Beckham and I can see now why many celebs get annoyed with the constant attention and autograph seekers. I was ready to quit after just my first 30 minutes of fame.
Still in Yogya…I signed up for an Indonesian cooking class along with my new Dutch friends Alma and Eline. They were also on the same bus to Borbrodur but we didn’t get to know each other until we bonded during a burping contest at the bar that night. I usually win these contests hands down but the Dutch proved to be quite worthy opponents. The cooking class was in the semi-outdoor kitchen of a pretty fancy (by Indonesian standards) restaurant. We cooked for a few hours and learned how to make satay, chili sauce, chicken and tofu with more chilis, fried vegetables and coconut milk rice. The satay was finished in the first half an hour and I was ready to attack them right then but we had to wait for another two hours before everything was all done. Our teacher was Made, which means two things: she is from Bali, and she is the second child in her family. She was a real sweetheart and would smile and laugh the whole time. She was raised as a Hindu, but her husband is from Java and so was Muslim, but once they got married they both converted to Christianity. I guess somehow that’s meeting in the middle?
As is the case with most of Indonesia, outside of Kuta, Bali, most of the people don’t speak English, and this was especially true on Java. We took a 20-minute bicycle rikshaw ride to meet our friend Maya for dinner and the driver kept talking and laughing even though we had no idea what he was saying. Then we somehow ended up belting out Happy Birthday over and over as we road down the main boulevard of Yogyakarta called Marlioboro road. It wasn’t anyone’s birthday. It was the only ‘language’ we had in common.
And on our last night in Yogyakarta, we hosted a movie night with our new friends. We watched Slumdog Millionaire with six people crammed in two beds watching the movie on Cesar’s Mac laptop.
Going back in time once again, before Yogyakarta, we spent a couple of days in Solo. There’s an old Sultan’s palace that is still actively used and lots of shopping bazaars selling the local Batik arts and crafts. The president was speaking in Solo right next to our hotel and there was a large annual festival happening the same weekend we were there. But, I’m almost embarrassed to admit, I didn’t see any of those things or go do any of the shopping that Solo is known for. I spent a lot of time in an internet café working on my taxes. Woohoo. I wonder how many other Americans filed their taxes in Solo?
And finally, back to the start of the road trip. A volcano. The first site we saw was the Gurung Bromo volcano, an actively smoking volcano. When you climb up to the rim you can see the endless smoke coming out of the crater. And it reeks of sulfur especially when the wind is blowing it in your direction. We were planning to hike up to the crater rim but a Jeep ride followed by a horseback ride seemed much more appealing, especially given that we were starting at 4 a.m.
After being in Bali for a while, it felt really good to get on the traveling road again. And I feel in many ways I’ve gotten a second wind for continuing my travels and trying to win more burping contests and collecting more transcripts for total strangers in Thailand and India.