RTW Post #37: A Call To Prayer

3/19/14 3/22/14: Yogyakarta to Jakarta, Indonesia

Our flight from Bali to Yogyakarta (pronounced “jo-ja-cart-a”) was a spiritual one. We knew we’d soon be visiting the largest Hindu site in Indonesia, as well as the largest Buddhist temple in the entire world, but in the midst of contemplating these holy places we weren’t expecting the sudden contemplation on our own fragile mortality. Specifically, Katie’s very real fear of her bladder bursting.

Our Homestay

The flight was a short one, at just over an hour. But an hour is all you need to fill yourself with liquids. After all, they always say to stay hydrated on flights. When your plane is about to land, however, we all know the rule: Don’t leave your seat. I’ve often wondered what people do in this situation, when your body demands release but safety standards keep you buckled to your seat. The answer is you do as your told and hope your body cooperates. It’s times like these when you rally the troops and give your cells a good talking to. Mind over matter! But when the pilot comes over the intercom announcing you’ll be “circling” for another fifteen minutes it’s hard to keep the faith.

I’ve never witnessed anyone having to pee so badly in my life. When we finally landed my poor Katie was in physical pain, gripping the armrests, tears welling in her eyes. Bladder strain is no laughing matter! Needless to say, getting to the bathroom was our number one priority, and when we finally arrived we had our first encounter with an Asian standard: squat toilets. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise. Any kind of squeamishness Katie may have felt about the facilities and cleanliness took a back seat to sweet release.

Our host, Erika, picked us up at the airport and took us to Wayang Homestay where we’d be lodging for three nights. Being the spoiled westerners we were, we were happy to see a western toilet and an air conditioning unit in our room. Such divas! What we didn’t expect was the introduction to another mainstay of South East Asia: the shower/toilet combo. In essence, the showerhead is next to where you do your business. No separation of any kind. I guess you could say you’re cleaning the bathroom along with yourself? Which sounds like an efficient way to live, but having water literally all over everything in the bathroom doesn’t leave you with a sanitized feeling.

Shower/Toilet Combo

Our first evening in Yogyakarta was exhilarating. Our apartment entrance was on a small balcony overlooking the neighborhood. When I stepped outside the moist heat enveloped me and the sound of the city caressed my ears. For the first time in my life I heard the Muslim call to prayer. I’d only ever heard it in films, but to experience it in person was entirely different. Though broadcasted over distorted loudspeakers, the singing itself was pleasant as it called Muslims to pray, summoning worshippers like a ringing church bell. It was enchanting and tranquil. It seemed like a joyful thing to live one’s life hearing it every day. Then again, I’m not a Muslim, and it could mean something entirely different to a person of that faith. But for me, it had a calming effect that I welcomed each day we were in Yogykarta.

We walked along the chaotic streets that evening, sidewalks disappearing and motorbikes weaving around us, to arrive at Via Via. This was a restaurant recommended in our guidebook that served both Indonesian and western food (all safe to eat according to the menu). I took a risk and ate a chicken cashew salad. It’s safer to eat cooked vegetables over fresh ones due to the possibility of contamination from untreated water. Thankfully, I had no regrets. And with homemade pineapple mint sorbet to top it off, I certainly was a satisfied customer!

Afterward, we shopped in a store across the street that sold souvenirs and clothing with batik designs. It was here that we finally gave in and bought what we call “crazy pants.” These are the loose, light pants with colorful designs that we’d seen people wearing since arriving in Bali. With our hiking pants sticking to our skin like cellophane, we now understood why people wore crazy pants and decided we needed a pair ASAP. From this point onward my clothes never matched well or looked especially flattering, but they were thin and covered my skin and that’s literally all I cared about for the entirety of South East Asia. 

Sunrise Over Borobudur

We awoke before dawn at 3:00AM to watch the sun rise over Borobudur.  Borobudur was built in the 9th century and is the largest Buddhist temple in the entire world. I’d never heard of it until we started planning our RTW trip, but when I learned it was the most visited site in all of Indonesia it was clearly a place we needed to go. I’m glad we did, because it was a gorgeous place to behold, especially in the morning mists of Java.

Lotus Floating On Clouds

Our van stopped in the middle of a dark jungle. We exited with other yawning tourists, not a clue where we were. Our driver sent us up a dirt walkway lit periodically by low-hanging lamps. I stared at my feet, trying to make out the ground to ensure I wouldn’t tumble into the trees. We climbed upward until the path opened to a clearing. From atop a hill we could see a valley below, but with only the faintest beams of light brightening the sky, we couldn’t make out much beyond an ash-grey blanket of clouds hovering between mountains. Slowly, the light seeped in, and as the minutes passed we began to see treetops bouncing up through the mist. One shape stood out – a point amongst the curves. It was the center of Borobudur, hovering on the surface of the clouds like a lotus blossom on water. As the day dawned, we watched the full structure take shape. Its beauty was arresting, especially in the quiet of the morning. Birds chirped and whispers hung in the air, our hushed tones revealing an unconscious reverence for the moment.

A short time later we arrived at the gates of Borobudur. Katie and I had pre-ordered breakfast and were treated to quite possibly the worst breakfast we’ve ever eaten. It consisted of “toast” that was little more than slightly warmed slices of Wonder Bread. On one piece was butter. On the other, jam. The two were shoved together and served as a sandwich of sorts. For a side, slices of fruit that tasted strongly of onion (due to the knife used to cut them, we suspect). To wash it all down, a tepid cup of tea. What we lacked in enthusiasm for the meal we made up for with amusement, I can assure you.

We walked along the well-manicured grounds of Borobudur until we arrived at the temple itself. Once there, we were given a mandatory sarong to wear while walking within the temple walls. We were both wearing our crazy pants, so we were surprised by the need of a sarong. This was the first and only temple in South East Asia where we were asked to wear a sarong when our knees were already covered. I didn’t mind, though. I found the wrappings to be a beautiful blue color and quite fetching!

Stories Told In Bas-Relief

Built over 1000 years ago, Borobudur is in surprisingly great shape due to extensive restoration efforts by Indonesia and UNESCO.  The foundation is a gigantic square, and the structure consists of nine platforms rising up to a point. Buddhists are advised to walk in a clockwise direction, making your way up the temple with each circling. The walls are covered in bas-relief depicting tales from kings to beggars, teaching lessons and unveiling the history of Buddha’s birth and effect on society. The stories change and unfold as you rise, the many Buddha statues changing their hand gestures and poses along the way. Each physical change shown reveals an ever-developing enlightenment. Numerous stupas cover the top of Borobudur, each one housing a Buddha within. At the apex of the temple sits a massive stupa representing a lotus flower and spiritual purity.

It was peaceful to stroll through the ancient temple at our leisure, taking in the art and serene atmosphere. The stonework was extraordinary. It’s no wonder it took 75 years to construct Borobudor with such detail embedded in its walls. Unfortunately, earthquakes and looting have made its restoration challenging. Representations of Buddha are the most prized amongst thieves. This is why so many stone statues of Buddha are headless. It’s far easier to steal the head versus the entire body, which would be unwieldy to carry, let alone lift! 

Temple Top

Each stupa looked like an upside-down bell with holes cut into the side. Peer through the gaps and you’d capture a glimpse of Buddha hidden within. It was almost odd, like he was trapped in a little cage. Then there were times we’d find him sitting in an open stupa, and it was hard not to feel like he was sitting in a tiny spaceship. At any moment his stone body could come to life, hand grabbing the invisible controls, and zip into space, whisking away himself along with his enlightenment. Crazy, I know, but in an atmosphere as ethereal as Borobudur it’s hard for your mind not to go in fanciful directions.

Space Buddha!

Indonesian children soon arrived at the top of the temple along with their teachers in what appeared to be a school field trip. And, wouldn’t you know it, their flights of fancy focused on plain old me rather than space Buddha! Apparently, with my blonde hair and pale complexion, I was an instant superstar in Indonesia. Kids were asking for photos with me while we stood alongside ancient relics and sacred images. I hope Buddha wasn’t offended!

For some reason the call to nature made itself deafeningly loud again. What was with Yogyakarta and needing the bathroom? I guess the answer to that question was potentially obvious, but I was hopeful we were feeling the normal, run-of-the-mill need for a restroom. After surviving the gauntlet of vendors selling baby Buddha statues we found a sign pointing to the bathroom. Once there we were faced with two choices: a squat toilet and a western toilet crawling with ants. We both chose the ant toilet. I was once again thrilled with my crazy pants, which had elastic at the ankles that allowed me to hitch them up so they wouldn’t touch the gross ground. It’s the little things.

Prambanan

Prambanan was our next destination for the day, and, unlike Borobudur where we were allowed entrance before the balk of visitors arrived, this place was teeming with tourists. The compound itself is much smaller than Borobudur. Additionally, the central temple to Shiva was closed for renovations. As a result, Prambanan felt much more cramped than what we’d just experienced at Borobudur, but that didn’t make it any less beautiful.

Prambanan is 25 miles from Borobudur, as the crow flies, and was also built in the 9th century. It’s one of the largest Hindu sites in South East Asia and, though impressive to behold, would’ve been that much more impressive in its time. Many temple structures have crumbled due to the unstable nature of Java and its volcanic activity. Earthquakes are common here and, throughout the centuries, the fragile structures of Prambanan have taken their fair share of shake-ups.

Katie And Vishnu

Like fingers pointing to heaven, Prambanan is recognizable by its peaked temples dedicated to sacred Hindu figures. The three temples at the back are devoted to three Hindu deities – Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. The smaller shrines in front of those temples each house the Gods’ traveling vessels – Hamsa the swan, Garuda the mystical bird, and Nandi the bull. The exterior of the buildings are covered in deep carvings that depict scenes from the Ramayana epic. The intricacy of the bas-relief was very impressive.

The heat was stifling as we traveled from temple to temple awaiting our turn to enter. Once within, the light was dim, the only illumination coming from the open doorway. At the center of the each shrine was a small room housing a statue. These statues depicted the figures for which each temples were built: Nandi, Garuda, Vishnu, etc. When I entered the room with Brahma I felt an odd sense of weight press down on me. Katie said she felt the same thing. It was probably an illusion brought on by the light and heat, but it felt as though there was a presence in the room with us. I can’t explain it, it’s just how we felt.

Complex Beauty

We still had a lot of day left by the time we made it back to our homestay, but the rest of the afternoon was spent cooling off and relaxing. Surprisingly, heat, humidity and waking up at 3AM tends to leave you fatigued. Who knew?

Our brief time in Yogykarta was followed by a quick visit to Jakarta where we met up with my friend Chris and his family once again. Having a home base for a few days allowed us to spend a fair amount of time researching and preparing for the next leg of our trip through South East Asia. In between planning we took day trips into the heart of Jarkarta where we visited the National Museum. The museum showcased Hindu artifacts, beautiful gamelan instruments, and a massive map of Indonesia that nicely laid out the extensive islands that make up the nation. Indonesia contains over 17,000 islands and, as a result, the country contains a vast array of varying cultures and languages. Some, like the tribal people of Papua, have barely been touched by the modern world!

One interesting aspect of Indonesian art and culture is the pervasiveness of puppets. We visited the Wayang Puppet Museum to see the artistry that goes into this common form of entertainment. From shadow puppets, to life-like puppets, to life-size puppets, to larger-than-life puppets, you’d be hard-pressed to find a museum that housed more puppets than this! The museum itself was light on information, and the small placards that did exist contained poor English translations there were very difficult to follow. Luckily, an Indonesian gentleman approached us and offered to tour us around and explain the puppets. He explained that his father was the best shadow-puppet maker in Java and he was a puppet actor, himself. His knowledge of puppets was extensive and most welcome.

Articulating The Limbs

We visited his father’s studio next door where he explained how shadow puppets are made from buffalo hide, which is stretched, flattened and dried. They then cut intricate designs into the hide and paint the puppets dazzling colors. Yes, despite the fact that shadow puppets are viewed in black and white, the puppets themselves are their own colorful art form. Each limb of a puppet is individually articulated and controlled by sticks made from buffalo horn. He and his father have traveled around the world performing shows, telling tales from (you guessed it) the Ramayana epic. He said the majority of puppet performances are Hindu based, but they can also be powerful political propaganda tools.

Unsurprisingly, he tried to sell us puppets, but he was very kind and not pushy in the least. As it happened, I was interested in buying a tree of life, which is used in performances to indicate a scene ending or beginning. We were both more than happy to support his work after the wonderful tour he’d given us. If we hadn’t met him I imagine we would’ve exited the museum understanding next to nothing about puppets. We were very grateful for the education.

On our last evening in Indonesia we celebrated Chris’ wife, Carla’s, birthday with a final dinner together and said goodbye to their sweet children. We awoke before sunrise, this time to hop on a plane and continue our journey through South East Asia. Next stop: Singapore – an abundance of life wrapped up in a tiny nation!