Sunday, June 17, 2007

Yogyakarta Part One

I read about the "amazing parade" that happens during Wesak Day at Borobudur. So I decided to go to see the festivities as I could time it well during the public holidays in Singapore.

Lonely Planet Indonesia is a very very thick tome. I think they should split it into three parts so you don't have to carry the whole thing with you all the time.

I worried about not being able to get accommodation when I got there, so I rung up and booked ahead. A wise move for Borobudur as the accommodation was nearly booked out on that weekend. I got a place at "Hotel" Bhumisambhara after a slow conversation in English with the receptionist. This was the second-to-last place on the Lonely Planet list and I couldn't believe they still had rooms. I had to confirm the date to be sure, and given the language difficulties, I dug deep into my past and asked her, "So you have a room for me, on 31 May - tiga puluh satu, Mei?"

Throughout my stay I was amazed at how much Bahasa Melayu I recalled - it helps quite a lot when asking for things and I think it reduces the aura of "wealthy foreign tourist to be milked". I used "Berapa? [How much?]" a lot, and "Sedap! [delicious]" But I later found out through my phrasebook that they prefer to use "Enak!" which explained the numerous politely smiling blank looks I received for "Sedap!"

Hotel Bhumisambhara is down a quiet lane, described as tranquil. The room was supposed to come with hot water, and it does - just that the heater doesn't work. The bathroom light didn't either, but perhaps it was for the best. I have a private theory that bathrooms in Muslim countries tend to be quite clean because of the religious emphasis on ablutions. I hoped this extended to rental accommodation too.

I'm also deathly afraid of mosquitos, so bought some lime-leaf scented mosquito repellant to slather myself in, but also brought along the mosquito mat vapouriser and adaptor (they use European style plugs) just to ensure freedom from any incognito mosquitos.

After arrival at Yogya airport, I kinda panicked about getting to Borobudur in time - I worried about missing the last bus, etc. etc. so forked out 225,000 rupiah (GBP 13) for a private car to drive me the hour and a half or so from the airport to Borobudur. I arrived on Wesak eve so wanted to catch the sunrise and bits of the procession if possible. Usually it's around 20,000 rupiah (GBP 1.2)on the bus.

It was so refreshing to be in a natural, organic (as in organism-like) city. The centralised autocratic planning of Singapore kinda dehumanises the built environment. I liked the graffitti, the litter and the general laid-back craziness.

The "Hotel" is very rundown but as the Lonely Planet describes, set in tranquil surrounds. It's very basic but totally serviceable. At 65,000 rupiah a night I wasn't complaining. I looked forward to an early night, rising early and getting the cool morning to explore the temple.

I scoured the local streets, buzzing with scooters and offers of rides to Mendut temple, sampling the delicious fried chicken and a few banana fritters. I loved the atmosphere of relaxed village life preparing for a festival. Several push-carts lined the intersection selling all manner of snacks: thick pancakes with peanut,

chocolate or banana (known as bang chang kuey in Singapore), hamburgers and other varieties of delicious smelling snacks. I thought I'd try some of the local Nasi Padang, but then realised that Padang whilst well-known in South East Asia is not local to where I was. The two Padang Raya eateries I saw lay empty with flies buzzing round the bountiful food displays. I passed.

I walked back to the hotel thinking to check out a food stall I saw on the way to the temple entrance. A gang of layabout teenage youths lay sprawled on the benches idly picking at their food. The looked like a pack of junior Malay gangsters - a little thrilling for me but probably harmless. The woman had a spread of spicy fried tempeh and peanuts, vegetables, spicy catfish, chicken cooked in coconut milk and banana leaf and other things. The popularity of the stand won me over and after a protracted discussion on what the different foods were in my halting Indonesian and her valiant attempts to inform me I chose the dishes you can see on the top right.

This was one of the most delicious meals I had in Indonesia. These stands are multipurpose as whatever the woman does not sell the family eat for dinner later on. So you're actually eating home-cooked food made with ingredients fresh from today's market made to a standard that a mother would feed her family.

The crunchy peanuts and tempeh were a little hot to my delicate palate but delicious. The sweetly aromatic chicken had the subtle sweetness of banana leaf fragrance touched with the delicate floral richness of fresh coconut milk. The deep-fried catfish was lightly stewed with an oily and spicy fragrant mix bursting with flavour. I remembered this archipelago's history and involvement in the spice trade - fitting that such a cuisine with such sophisticated spicing should develop consequently.

I left feeling full and round and looked forward to a lovely night's sleep. The meal cost 9,000 rupiah (50p) including a fresh lime juice.

A call to prayer with disturbingly increasing volume stiffenned my back as I neared my hotel. "How could it be," I asked myself. I distinctly looked for minarets, domes and other tell-tale signs of "mosque". After my visit to Jordan I'm well aware of the incessant calls to prayer at all hours of the morning emanating from the towers. There wasn't a mosque anywhere near the hotel but a thoughtful neighbour, seeing this moral deficiency, had set up three sets of loudspeakers in his courtyard and that's where the local Islamic study group would meet. They'd sit around thoughtfully listening to the Islamic radio broadcasts; commentary, analysis, Koran reading, etc. His beneficent invitation was extended to the whole community by setting the loudspeaker settings at high volume.

I did not sleep early that night although I managed some fitful rest. My headcold made me tired enough to nod off periodically only to be woken by the cries of a dramatic Koran passage. Later on after all that had subsided, the innkeeper's friends decided to visit; buzzing in on their scooters and chatting loudly to his unit next to mine.

Nevertheless after a damp night's sleep (the mattress is grew moist with my night sweats, or perhaps it just didn't breathe very well) the 4am call to prayer thoughtfully provided by the same neighbour woke me one hour before my desired rising time. I snoozed for an hour then rose and prepared to go to the temple. I missed out on my complimentary boiled egg as it was too early. I'd spotted a closed Bubur Ayam (chicken rice porridge) stall last night and hoped it would be open for breakfast. It was, and I had a delicious bowl of creamy rice porridge, freshly roasted peanuts, curry sauce and chicken shreds all for 2,000 rupiah (GBP 0.11).

Nearby, a papaya sale was about to take place with the fruit stacked on the roadside. I like the look of the old woman preparing her papayas for sale. I know it's just her ordinary life, but this scene is so far removed from my own ordinary life it seems exotic.

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