Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A cup of Java

The trouble with travelling for a long time on a budget is the risk of losing perspective. We arrive in Jakarta late afternoon and after a long bus ride into the centre find a guesthouse down a quiet alley. The only room they have is air-con and it costs 120,000 rupiah. One hundred and twenty thousand! So we try the place next door and are shown a room for 60,000. We take it and go out to eat. When we get back to the room we instantly feel depressed. It's gloomy, sweaty and miserable. And so are we. But hey, we're only paying 4 quid. Uh oh. That means we just turned down a spotless air-conditioned room for just 8 quid. What's wrong with us? The next morning we quickly change guesthouses.
Jakarta's bigger than London and without the attractions - not the kind of place most people hang around in. We take it easy and explore the old port area of what the Dutch called Batavia. It's a tad shoddy and a bit sad. There are a few old colonial buildings still standing, some at the point of collapse, and a small number beautifully restored, but over the years the city has grown into the Jakarta of today, sprawling inland in a jumbled mess. Amidst all the big concrete buildings there are still the old kampung houses, and from the elevated train you can see red-tiled roofs tucked behind all the main road facades of shops and offices, but there's no sense of a centre and all the new growth and wealth is out in the southern districts. Down by the port the canals built by the Dutch are now stinking open sewers. The fish market is surrounded by a warren of houses and market stalls, some on stilts above the waterways.
We check out the national museum, which costs only 5 pence to enter, and we get some vfm (value for money) with exhibits on the traditions and customs of the country's varied island communities. Disappointingly, there are no shrunken heads on display. There's also a huge amount of Tang, Song and Ming dynasty china which demonstrates how long there's been trade across the South China Seas. Back on the sultry streets we soon decide to sell our souls and have an air-conditioned ice cream in McDxxxxds. Inside we could be in any country, except there's a prayer room beside the toilets.
To escape the big city we visit the botanical gardens of Bogor, a small city. But we need to move on so the next day we take an air-con train to Yogyakarta in Central Java. Actually it's more like a refrigerator with windows and I get off after 8 hours with purple-blue toes. Much longer and frostbite might have set in. But it was worth it for the scenery as we passed volcano after volcano with the vivid green foreground of rice paddies. Farmers bent double working in the slush wearing the classic conical hat of South East Asia.
Yogya is a quieter place and the cultural centre of Java. It holds a special place in Indonesia as the centre of the fight for independence from the Dutch. The sultan still governs here from his historical home, the kraton, a palace courtyard complex surrounded by low-rise houses. In fact not a high-rise is to be seen - are we in earthquake country? On our first night we catch up with Marc and his couch-surfing host, Charlie. We last saw Marc at Bishkek Open Prison, aka Nomad's Home, last June and now we are passing in opposite directions. Charlie takes us for a traditional local meal of gudeg, a stew made with jackfruit and garnished with, buffalo skin I'm sure he said. This is followed by a coffee on a street where the pavements are covered in mats and the mats are covered in students. The coffee is served with a lump of hot wood charcoal, like a smoking black ice cube, which gives the coffee a treacly flavour. This is a country famed for its coffee, but I'm not sure this style would catch on.
One for the barbecue perhaps?

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