Sunday, June 14, 2009

Shaken but not stirred

Welcome to our new and improved blog with the added benefit, thanks to Google's new microbiological computer interface, of Scratch-and-Sniff (c) technology. Just click on this symbol # and scratch and sniff away.

There are over 240 million people in Indonesia and half of them live in Java, which is about the same size as England. It's kind of crowded. Sometimes it seems that everyone owns a motorbike too, especially when you're trying to cross the road in Yogya. This isn't a big city by Javanese standards, so we go for a walk around, eschewing the multiple offers of a ride from the becak drivers who are everywhere. The becak is a three-wheel cycle-rickshaw, and at each one we pass we are hailed with a "Hello mister, where do you want to go?" Away from you, is what we want
to say. Down at the kraton there's a traditional puppet show going on for the visitors, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra. I'm not quite sure how to describe gamelan, which is a complex music created by striking various brass gongs, upturned pots, and vibraphonic thingummyjigs in a harmonic and rhythmnic fashion. After a while it starts to sound a bit like Pharoah Sanders' backing band. You hear this Indonesian music everywhere and it can be at turns hypnotic and/or mildly irritating. The puppet show itself is rather slow, with one man handling the two-dimensional puppets and speaking all the parts. After a long period of inaction there's a quite dramatic fight scene, which would have impressed anyone who was brought up on Sooty and Sweep. The kraton itself is a rather dull affair - a series of walled compounds with covered tiled sitting areas and some small rooms full of the kind of bric-a-brac you'd see on Antiques Roadshow. There's also plenty of batik on display. Back on the narrow maze of streets surrounding the kraton we pass by the bird market # . There's a variety of songbirds in wicker cages, alongside roosters and pigeons, bats, and boxes of writhing grubs and other critters. A flim-flammer approaches us and in his chat-up he claims to have met Prince Charles in this same bird market last year. We look suitably unimpressed.
Another morning we have a 3-hour introductory class in Bahasa Indonesia with a young student called Curri. The language seems incredibly simple as there are no verbs to conjugate, no tenses and phrases are often distilled to their core words. Mind you, there's four ways to say hello, depending on what time of day it is. After one hour we're already constructing some simple questions and phrases. After two hours we are learning numbers and carrying out some simple interactions. But after two and a half hours the heat and effort is taking its toll and soon after we find ourselves in a rather sparse market with glazed eyes and sweaty brows trying to haggle for fruit
# that neither of us wants. We eventually escape with 250 grams of (undiscounted) peanuts. As we depart Curri encourages us to practise practise practise.
Not far from Yogya are the ruined Hindu and Buddhist temples of Prambanan. They are UNESCO listed and thus attract a high ticket entrance fee. We feel slightly disappointed to find then that the most impressive temples, inside of which, according to our guidebooks, are detailed carvings of scenes from the Ramayana, are currently closed for repair work following an earthquake in 2006. (We had to be in earthquake territory - Indonesia is comprised of so many volcanic islands.) Our disappointment is tempered with the knowledge that we have used our fake and out of date ISIC cards to get in for half price. The temples we can access are still mildly interesting, and stand in green shady surroundings, and hungry for more we wander off along a side road to two more remote structures surrounded by paddy fields.
We now embark on a 3 day whirlwind of a journey that takes on 12 buses and a train, heading first into the hills to Dieng Plateau where there are the oldest Hindu temples in Indonesia. The setting is more impressive than the temples themselves, as we climb to over 2,000 metres to the plateau, which looks more like the top of a vast collapsed volcano. As all over Java, there's still plenty of people around, and no surprising, as this is prime farming country. Every inch of available land is cultivated, and the main crop looks to be potato. A good walk takes us around a sulphurous turquoise lake and to a steaming vent of broiling bubbling mud.

From here we return to Borobudur, Java's finest temple ruins, and a claim to be the world's largest Buddhist complex. Built around the same time as Prambanan, between 700 and 900 AD, the temple is laid out like a mandala but in the shape of a vast hill, built from millions of stone blocks on a large plain. The effect is of one big stupa. Get up close and each tier surrounding the structure is covered in fine relief carving. At the top are three tiers of small stupas, each containing a statue of Buddha gazing out over the land, with a larger stupa at the pinnacle. It's a fantastic construction and we are happy to see the fine carving detailing a huge variety of religious and other scenes.
Worth getting up at sunrise for, and this is quite a rare sentiment coming from me. When the temple was uncovered it was quite badly damaged, and the reconstruction is impressive. A lot of reinforcing concrete has been poured into the foundation walls to protect it from further earthquake damage.
And now another sweaty journey
# as we head east to Solo.

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