Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Musings on Indonesian crafts and food

Eventually, D replaced her broken thongs. All in all, in the space of a few days in Solo and Yogya, D bought three pairs of thongs and one set of sneakers, for around Rp120000 in all. The great worksmanship meant that only one pair of the thongs remains. The rest has fallen apart, while the sneakers' inner sole was so well made that she walks on a wide spaced plastic grid that cuts into her feet by now. Our two tries to buy portable water heating spirals met with similar disaster when the plastic handles (allegedly bakelite) melted during first use - we got two lukewarm cups of water out of them. My first batik shirt has no buttons and is starting to unravel at the buttonholes, the second one is coloring any water it comes into contact with as well as my sweat so blue I'm surprised the colors are not all gone yet. I'm afraid that if you want something to keep, I must advise you not to buy Indonesian - unless there's some trick we've not found out yet.

Food on the other hand, is quite good even at street level. In fact, the best gado gado we've had are from street vendours. One restaurant in Yogya was too busy arranging the veggies in a pretty tower to not overcook them, or to make a decently hot peanut sauce. The live jazz band was a nice touch, though. The only drawback is the preponderance of fats and oil in everything. Also, unless they're used to westerners, the only vegetarian option is often nasi or mie goreng (fried rice or noodles), which is rather monotonous and, of course, oily, with time. My usual standby in these cases was bakso, chicken meatball soup, until I got fed up with it during the long trip from Jakarta to Bukittinggi.

It can be surprisingly difficult to get fresh fruit, considering that banana, coconut, mango and other fruit trees are everywhere. It is often necessary to find a market, which could as well be impossible when you're staying in some small village.

By now, we've also started eating at tourist restaurants, especially at Liberta Homestay in Tuk Tuk (my blog'll get there, sometime), and enjoying such things as vegetable tacos (taco means fried canneloni-like dough in Indonesia) and avocado salads, and I'm also quite happy with those.It's especially nice to have something that seems like breakfast (omelet or porridge), since Indonesian breakfast is usually leftover nasi goreng. Only bubur ayam, rice porridge with chicken, even remotely seemed like breakfast to me.

The most interesting food must be Padang cuisine, which is basically an assortment of mystery dishes (Indonesia speakers could probably find out what's on the plates) that are arranged before you, and you choose which ones you're willing to try.

Fresh juices are great, and often available. I think I've written of es kelapa (iced coconut juice with strips of coconut flesh, syrup and, if you're lucky, lime), jus apocado (avocado juice, made with milk), jus melon. We've also had good mango juice, and passion fruit juice. The local beer, Bintang, is all right, but rather expensive at Rp 20 000 - 30 000.

Central Java and Yogyakarta


We moved on to Solo and Yogyakarta., where we generally did the tourist trek: Candis (temples) Sukuh and Cetho,  the two kratons (palaces, though only one is really called kraton, the other usually pura), and the museum in front of the excavation area where a couple of homo erectus skeletons were found in Solo. In Jogja, we checked out the kraton, and the two massive temple complexes of Prambanan and Borobudur. I also bought some cheap batik shirts to complement my wardrobe. One's falling apart, the other loses color as quick as I can sweat into it, which is quite fast around here. The last stop near Djogdja was climbing Gunung Merapi, another Volcano.

The kraton is the old palace of the sultan of Surabaya (= Solo), who moved here and founded the  city in 1750-something because of divine guidance - Allah had obviously decreed this a most auspicious place.  The sultan, however, died within a few years, and his son immediately lost half the sultanate to familial infighting: the old sultans nephew managed to get the dutch, Indonesia's colonial overlords, to give him the rest, which is the reason for the two  palaces built inside the city within 10 years. The kraton is rather shabby and run down, and having perhaps rashly turned down the offer of a guide, we found the grounds and the collection of sultans europeanized carriages, dishes, silverware and indigenous wayang puppets that are labelled "museum" rather unimpressive. The most remarkable piece of architecture is the meditation tower, mixing styles of dutch houses and a light tower, of all things.

The pura, built by the naughty cousin of the hapless second sultan, is much better in shape, and stylistically at least somewhat more Javan - it seems even independent minded autocrats dared not show their independent streak too much, and the required guide got a bit flustered when I asked why the portraits showed this freedom fighter in European garb, after she had just told us the reason for the split had been the cousin's rejection of the dutch. It can't have been to strong though, if he got them to sign over half the kingdom to him... With the guide, this palace, was far more interesting, though the part where she had to show us the old Belgian crystal dishes and  french silver bowls was a bit tedious. In all, well worth the couple of thousands  of rupia the guide book recommended as a tip.

The prehistoric museum at Sangiran was a dud, though. Because of renovation (we weren't warned at the entrance, they just happily pocketed our money), only one of the three rooms of the museum was open, featuring empty displays, some fossilized bones (a fragment of a mastodons jaw featuring most prominently, lying around in the middle of the room) and mainly badly made plastic dioramas of "prehistoric scenes", naked people hunting and gathering. A guide attached herself to us, so we had to politely admire a row of hominid skulls with Indonesian only inscriptions, two of which had to do with the place. Any Naturkundemuseum in Germany will give you more complete information on the subject, and we did not even see the digging grounds. Still, I should probably honor their efforts, after all, one reason the museums in Europe are so much better is that european scientists walked away from here with the fossilized goodies. What  made the trip worthwhile was the adventures of getting there and away. Good backpackers that we are, we spurned the ease and (probably only moderate.) expense of a taxi or ojeks, and took the bus to Kalijambe, from where we walked to Sangiran. We had to be insistent, though: the ojek drivers in front of the station tried to tell us there was no bus, we had to take two of them. Even a group of officials sitting at the terminal entrance - I think collecting the terminal tax for hawkers and drivers  - supported them until we rudely ignored them and entered, where we were shown the bus immediately. On a more positive note, though, along the way from Kalijambe to Sangiran we found a warung selling not only delicious food, but also wonderful melon juice and avocado juice, something you should try here.

The two candis on the slopes of mount Lawu, east of Solo, are reached by a chain of dfferent buses. We walked the last two km (and were thoroughly drenched - it really is wet season here) up a steep hill to Sukuh, the first of the two Hindu temple ruins, which has some nice reliefs out of Hindu mythology. Cetho is the prettier of the two, because of its nicer blueprint and the view (you see the valley deep down through nine gates ), but it has fewer reliefs and is a lot harder to reach. As a bonus, there's a statue of an elephant standing on a turtle, obviously a reference to Discworld cosmology. We made the error of believing the sign marked 5km where the road goes off of the main road, and had to get an ojek after we encountered a sign proclaiming 3km after we'd walked about five. Cetho is restored, and a community of about 200 Hindus lives around and prays in it, according to my (Hindu) ojek driver, who als unsuccessfully tried to teach me some bahasa java.

Candi Cetho

The executif train to Yogya was cold and not close to as interesting as the economi one we took before, just suits and no hawkers, and an a/c on refrigerator. In Yogya, we found a basic place to stay in Anda Losmen, on Gang I in the backpacker district, where we finally got us a lonely planet Indonesia, after the rather disappointing performance of footprints Southeast Asia. Too bad some smartass ripped out the pages to Yogya and Borobudur before leaving it there...

With Anda our base of operations, during the next 3 days we explored the touristic splendour that is Yogya's Malioboro Street, its kraton, and the two large temple complexes of Prambanan and Borobudur. At the kraton, residence of Indonesia's only Sultan with political powers - thanks to his support in the war of independence - I had to buy a batik shirt, because I had put on my sleeveless one. In the end, it turned out to be too expensive, even at Rp 25000 - it has lost 3 buttons after I've worn it twice - but it got us into the palace, where we saw and heard a gamelan orchestra and puppet performance. Doro's new thongs from three days earlier broke during that visit, but since the market had closed for the day, she had to make do. 
Gamelan orchestra and puppet play

On the way back, we let ourselves be trapped: a guy started speaking to us in German, real friendly and for-old-times-sakey, and then lured us to "the real batik art exhibition". He discreetly handed us over to another guy - he left early enough so that we weren't too suspicious - and we were led, through some alleyways to the exhibition rooms - the alleys kinda gave it away, then. The studio was filled with quite nice batik paintings for prices that can only be mistaken for real ones by people who have never been to Indonesia. Everyone else must notice the discrepancy of living costs and these prices, and the vendor offered us half price without us bargaining any. Of course, we had to buy today, because the exhibition would be gone by tomorrow...

Doro on her pilgrimage to Borobodur. Don't forget to circle each of the 10 levels thrice!
Hindu Goddess of kicking ass

Crazy drug-induced elephant vision
Ganesh, Hinduisms coolest God
Prambanan and Borobudur, the two temple complexes from before the next to last turn of the millennium, were pretty neat. Foreigners are charged a lot more than locals, but get free tea, coffee and information before entering each complex. The trip to Prambanan was as painless as paying the transYogya city bus to drop is there, and after checking out three of the temples, the largest a Hindu Shiva temple, the other two Buddhist ones, we had one of the best gado gado at the last stall inside the premises, near the exit. Getting to and from Borobudur was annoying, though. We were quite obviously grossly overcharged for the bus rides (one guy asked so much more up front, we were able to bring him down to 15% of the first offer without too much trouble), and the exit is literally a labyrinth of stalls, forcing visitors to go past each and every one of them along unnecessary bends for five full minutes. I'm amazed how many people must be able to make a living here off tourists, selling exactly the same stuff.  Both places had loads of Indonesian tourists apart from a smattering of foreigners, and in Borobudur they went overboard: we were accosted many times by people asking to take pictures with us - "Photo?", "Can we please take photo?", "Again!"; in the end we fled down the least used set of stairs to be able to move for more than 10m without having our picture taken, and of course politely taking theirs, too.

One thing we learned from the reliefs on the temple: the heavenly Buddhist punishment for gossiping is being boiled alive.

We also were in Yogya for the Muslim sacrificial ceremonies. Near our hostel a number of sheep, goats and a cow were tethered for that reason, and at first we were glad  to see that Indonesians are making sure their city bred children get to meet and feed farm animals. The next day, all were gone... Another fallout from the festival was the increased energy of the muezzin. The one right next to Anda was especially ambitious: at 4 in the morning, he was first to call out, and did so the longest. Not relaxing, especially as they are not chosen for their singing abilities, or coherency of sounds they produce.

After Yogya, we went up Gunung Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia. To get there, we had to negotiate bemo rides to a string of villages and hitch a ride for the last stretch - all completely without the help of English. Lonely Planet claims there are public buses to Seto, the village we wanted to reach, but locals told us the buses have stopped ten years ago.

Seto, however, has English speaking guides, including the owner  of the first random homestay we found, which had rather oily blankets and an already full trashcan in the bathroom. The owner also drew us a - very useful - "map" - a straight line with some landmarks - for climbing Merapi, the first guide we'd met who seemed happy enough to let us go on our own instead of convincing us we needed him.

We decided to do the sunrise thing again. The basic stategy was clear: get up at 1am, hike up to the top, take a look at glowing lava and the nightly countryside while we wait for the sun to come up, and walk back down in time for breakfast. We met the first snag at one, when the alarm went off: it's raining. We decide to ywait an hour and see, and are on our way by 2:30. We stumbled up the dark, winding paths, which often split up, and sometimes get tgether again, and weren't ever really sure we were on the right track, often shrouded in clouds. Ever so often, the clouds did part, and we, had a great view of the countryside at night; looming dark mountains and the speckled lights of villages, the stars overhead. Getting a peek into tue crater for all that open lava was another difficulty: The actual cone of the volcano is a barren rocky slope, steep enough and covered in a slippery mud/pebble/rock mixture so that we often had trouble crawling up on all fours, digging in our fingers, but we did reach the summit, peeked into the crater and the depth of hissing, sulphurous steam that hid any potential lava glow. Sunrise had just happened somewhere behind the cloudy mist engulfing us, but then we did get a couple of cloudless minutes to take in the view. For the way back, we luckily found the footsteps of the local guides and had an easier way down. I think we might have been unable to retrace our own steps. On our way down, we passed a couple of guides - who looked quite disgruntled at seing us up there without any of them - and sweaty tourists slowly making their way up, a bit late for sunrise.
This gives more or less the right impression of the climb down from the crater. The way up was too steep to take pictures. The fog you see is sulphurous steam. The next cloud thankfully waited another 5 minutes before making navigation hard.