05/15/2014 - 05/26/2014
Sometimes, in deciding the subject matter for our next blog entry, I think it might be nice to focus less on the touristy sights, and more on our thoughts and feelings and random encounters with locals. Traveling through eastern and central Java, I'm inclined to discuss the beauty in spontaneity, like unexpectedly hitchhiking all the way from Kawah Ijen to Bondowoso after trying and failing to negotiate a reasonable price on the back of a motorbike. Or the fruits of language practice, when upon getting stuck waiting out a storm in a Chinese temple in Malang, we happened upon a community center with older Chinese men playing ping pong, and ended up joining in for a game and chatting with the crowd until one of them even bought us lunch and gave us some local snacks for the road, all the while praising our newfound Indonesian skills. Or becoming the center of attention as Abby draws sketches in her notebook of Mike playing chess with the bicycle rickshaw drivers in Yogyakarta. Or the stress of a life in constant motion, of stomachs cramping from dirty food in crowded, hot, chaotic cities, of missing home and wondering how much longer we can really keep this thing going, and thinking of finding a nice small town to just settle down in for a bit and maybe do some teaching or volunteering. The truth is, however, that the touristy sights are so damn impressive, we just can't bring ourselves to keep a travel blog and not focus on the highlights. So without further ado, here is a glimpse of the spectacular sightseeing available in east and central Java.
Our first stop after our visit to Mojokerto was the Bromo Tengger Semeru national park. Bromo is the main highlight, a huge volcanic crater, continuously billowing smoke and sulfurous gases. The trick here is to avoid the guided trips and do it yourself. After arriving in Cemoro Lawang via public transportation, (fighting tooth and nail about the price every step of the way), we met a few other travelers and made plans to hike to a viewpoint up a hill out of town for sunrise. The viewpoint overlooks the entire caldera containing Bromo, Mount Batok (which reminded us of a more gradually rising Devil's Tower), and Mount Semeru, a very active volcano and the tallest mountain on Java. We lucked out with a gorgeous sunrise, and even a sudden puff of smoke from Semeru. Afterwards we hiked the rest of the way to the top of the hill amidst a much less serene environment of jeeps crammed with tourists and clouded by their own exhaust, motorbikes whizzing by, and shop after shop selling food and coffee and trinkets. From the top we booked an Ojek, or motorbike taxi, to the base of Bromo to climb up to the rim with the hundreds of other tourists that visit this site daily. With the crowds and the poisonous sulfuric gases in our faces we didn't linger long - the sunrise view was the real attraction.
Little eruption from Semeru
The next stop was the crater lake and sulfur mine at Kawah Ijen. Perhaps our distaste for the easy tourist route or hiring an expensive private car for the transportation is approaching a level of neurosis, because instead we took a 2 hour minibus to a 4 hour bus to a 2 1/2 hour minibus to a 30 minute ojek ride to reach our destination, all the while arguing and pleading and bluffing to avoid the obligatory "white person tax" which entitles us to be charged about 3x the fixed price for these routes. It is exhausting and frustrating and constant, but the biggest challenge is to do it all with a level head and a smile - this is the game and this is how it's played and there's no use representing ourselves and our country in an angry spiteful manner. All our frustrations melted away easily enough upon arriving though. We set up our tent to camp for the night near the trailhead for the 1 1/2 hour walk to Kawah Ijen's crater rim, intending to set out early to arrive for sunrise. With the remaining daylight we walked to a nearby waterfall, green in color and heavy with the smell of sulfur and warm to the touch. After dark, we read a story of Sherlock Holmes, our usual camping ritual.
We started hiking at 4am, and it felt great to breath deep and get some exercise. The air was fresh and cool from the elevation and we quickly passed some large student groups to achieve some peace and quiet for our climb. As we approached the crater rim, the sky behind the peak began glowing eerily with the early dawn and reminded us of a scene from a movie. Like one where some underworld army is preparing for battle in the depths of a fiery hell. The words "fire and brimstone" came to mind, and appropriately so, as Ijen is well known for its blue fire that can be seen at night, and brimstone is nothing but sulfur, which Ijen has plenty of. We got to the top at 5:30, and the rock formations, the misty smoke rising from the crater, the surrounding green hills and the hues of pink, yellow and orange across the sky combined for a magnificent and memorable first impression. As the day lightened and the bright blue-green water of the crater lake appeared, the beauty of the scene became more vibrant and we found a nice secluded spot to take it all in.
Meanwhile, the sulfur miners were already hard at work. These men haul an average of two hundred pounds of hot yellow sulfur in one load up and out of the crater and down to the measuring center below where the sulfur is weighed and then shipped off to the processing plant. They make $0.04 per pound for this roughly 4 hour round trip jaunt. And yet they all seemed very quick to smile and laugh, and joked with tourists and each other alike while working what struck us as a horrible job. We took some solace in lining their pockets a bit, tipping early and often in exchange for a few pictures, and buying the occasional piece of sulfur molded into animal shapes from the miners who would pause their work to try and sell a few souvenirs.
After our visit we struck camp to move on, readying ourselves for the reverse transportation process we had undergone before, but this time lucking out by successfully trying our hand at hitchhiking! A beautiful two hour ride in the back of a pickup truck, driving past huge flat rice fields lined with palm trees, green hills and smoking volcanoes in the backdrop, motorbikes, trucks, and nice SUVs passing dangerously, school children in uniform walking down the road waving as we ride by, passing through one small village after another. Life is good.
A few scenes from one of our favorite cities, Malang, and its bird and flower market:
Fitting in a little more Indonesian culture - gamelan traditional musical instruments, wayang kulit leather shadow puppets, becak bicycle rickshaws, and of course, batik paintings:
We concluded our time in Indonesia visiting two of this country's most iconic archeological sights, Borobudur and Prambanan. Borobudur was built around the 8th century AD, and is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Yet at some point along the way it was abandoned, possibly due to volcanic eruptions in the area or the Javanese conversion to Islam, and lay buried in dense jungle for hundreds of years. Consisting of 6 square layers topped by 3 round ones, its walls display over 2,500 relief panels and over 500 Buddha statues, in niches and inside each of the domed stupas. Many of the Buddha's heads are missing, taken to Europe for museum pieces. Prambanan, a large complex of Hindu temples, was likewise largely forgotten after being almost completely destroyed by a major earthquake in the 16th century. Both sites were rediscovered during a brief period of British rule in Java from 1811 to 1816. Extensive efforts are being made to reconstruct Prambanan, but much of the progress was reversed with a major earthquake in 2006. Many of the temples are under construction, including the main Shiva temple, and there are huge piles of stones surrounding the complex, puzzle pieces whose places have not yet been found. We agreed that some of the pieces are in the wrong spot, but hey, it's a tough puzzle. We made a day of the two sites, departing from the city of Yogyakarta at 3am with our rented motorbike to visit Borobudur at sunrise (we paid extra to enter before the technical 6am opening time to beat out the school groups), and then visited Prambanan that afternoon for sunset. It was a magical day, and very interesting to contrast the Buddhist and Hindu styles, while the Muslim call to prayer echoed in the distance. It is believed these temples were constructed around the same time and is evidence of the apparent religious tolerance in this part of Java over 1000 years ago. We'd like to think it is the legacy of those early times that has given rise to the Indonesia that we've come to know today - a place in which many different ethnic groups, with hundreds of languages and dramatically different religious beliefs, live together in harmony, with mutual respect and tolerance.
Prambanan's nearby Buddhist Sewu temple: