Saturday, June 20, 2009

Solo (Together)

The city has another name, Surakarta, but is known as Solo. Coming out of the train station we are met by some cheery becak and taxi drivers who smell fresh blood. But we decline their kind offers of lifts to the city centre and catch a bemo instead. The banter has got us a little excitable and Gayle sticks her tongue out at them as we drive off on the minibus, to the amusement of bystanders. Our moment of triumph is short-lived when we realise it's going the wrong way. Nevertheless we're happy to escape all the unwanted attention and it's only a couple of kilometres out of our way. We have no high hopes for the city itself, with a population of over a million and a half, and counting, but it's a stepping stone in the right direction, eastwards, and there's usually good grub to be found if you look hard enough. Sure enough we find a street stall in the evening that has an inspiring number of local punters and a large team of staff to rustle up steaming bowls of seafood noodle soup. We even to get to try out our basic Bahasa Indonesia with the owner, a smiling elderly gent who turns out to speak more English than he initially cracks on.

Out of the city there's one of Java's last Hindu temples, built in the 15th century even as Islam was sweeping the island. Candi Sukuh sits on the flanks of a volcano, and is notable for it's 'erotic' carving. In fact, the carving pe
rhaps reflects the animist beliefs that most Indonesian Hinduism overlays, and the temple is reknown for its fertility symbols and powers. At least it was. The large, and judging by the photos rather graphically carved, lingam over which childless women are said to have jumped in order to improve their odds, has been removed to the national museum in Jakarta. We see no leaping ladies today. However, there is the main temple still standing amongst the trees and in the clouds, looking a bit Aztec, and several statues and carved reliefs featuring such an array of characters we haven't seen the like before. Some remind me of chucking out time at the Whitworth. (That's the pub, not the art gallery.) To add to the mysterious ambience of the place, it starts to rain and we seek shelter with two young Italian brothers, Francesco and Matteo, and about a hundred Balinese teachers who have arrived in a fleet of buses just in time to put their coats on and buy snacks from the Bakso Man. The Bakso Man looks rather unfazed by this, but he's making a killing on what looked like was going to be just another slow Wednesday morning. (Bakso is a delightful concoction of minced meatballs that are boiled until they lack almost all flavour, but at the same time retain their compacted chewy texture. They are usually served in a broth so watery it makes consomme look like porridge. This Bakso Man is serving his in tiny polythene bags with a toothpick. To be fair to him, it's a tricky operation when all your supplies and equipment are racked up on the back of a rusty old bicycle.)

After the rain has stopped we take a track that winds around and down the mountainside, through steep farmland, every fertile inch of which is being cultivated - mostly maize, potatoes, carrots, onions and enormous cabbages - not what I'd have imagined for a tropical island. Dotted throughout the verdant landscape everywhere we look are clutches of houses with tiled roofs or rusting corrugated iron. There are lots of villages and lots of people. The farming looks tough - done by hand on steep terrain - but there's no sign of extreme poverty here, that you might see in India for instance. We greet and are greeted by people we pass by and are helped along our way with directions at the various road junctions. Sometimes it's handy to be in an overcrowded country - otherwise we might still be on that mountain now looking for the right road down.

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