After The Crisis: Indonesia in 1998, Part 2
In Yogyakarta, I sent off another batch of postcards at the dirt-cheap rate of 1,400 per card. The next day, I returned to mail more and was told that postal rates had risen; it would now cost 6,500 rupiah to send one postcard to North America. “The Crisis,” the clerk said apologetically, pulling out what he said was the new official rate form and pointing to 6,500 at the bottom of a column of figures. I thought that an enormous increase and imagined the uproar a rate hike like would inspire in the U.S. I didn’t send the cards. The clerk had only 500-rupiah stamps, and 13 of them would have nearly covered an entire postcard.
I arrived in Yogyakarta, Java’s tourist hot spot, the day before Mohammed’s birthday, a national holiday, so the town was hopping with Indonesian vacationers. Foreign travelers, however, were few and far between, and the lanes in the foreign-tourist ghetto were lined with empty guesthouses, hotels and restaurants.
My hotel, a pleasant colonial-style place with a breezy veranda and leafy courtyard, was no exception. After my first day there, I was the only non-Indonesian guest, and the manager and staff suffocated me with personal attention. I couldn’t come or go without hearing, “Hello, Mr. Greg” two or three times. I was constantly asked whether I needed anything, a request related more to their desperation to have something to do rather than a need to serve me. Feeling sorry for them, I deposited a bag of laundry at reception one day, and two of them jumped up to wrest it away from me, relieved that, at last, I was behaving like a proper guest. But I backslid the next morning and skipped breakfast, a decision I soon regretted because every staff member felt that impetuous act was a calculated snub, that they’d somehow failed me, and they spent the next few days asking me why. Was something wrong? The food no good? Did I want something now? Tea, perhaps? I thought about moving elsewhere, but it was a lovely hotel and they certainly needed the business, so I stayed put. And I never skipped breakfast again. For all our sakes, though, I kept hoping some other foreigners would check in. Sadly, that never happened.
I paid about $7 a night for all this kowtowing, and as Yogyakarta was the cheapest city I visited in Indonesia, everything in town was a bargain. If I tried really, really hard, I could pay more than $1 for a meal at the travelers’ haunts. If I wanted a more upscale meal, I could be obscenely extravagant for $5. The Indonesian crafts in the shops and stalls were so unreasonably inexpensive that I didn’t dare haggle. At one store, I purchased seven wooden carvings for less than $10, and after I stuffed my bag with them, I bought another bag and stuffed it with Indonesian trinkets, too.
While Yogyakarta’s streets teemed with Indonesian tourists, vendors and becak (cycle rickshaw) drivers, beggars were so rare and the holiday mood so buoyant it was easy to forget the city’s rock-bottom prices were due to The Crisis. The other Indonesia, the suffering one, seemed far away and intervened only via the newspaper. In a front-page Jakarta Post article I read in Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s president “appealed to all Indonesians to join him in the ritual of fasting for two days each week in order to save rice, the mainstay of the nation’s diet.” If they fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, the argument went, the country wouldn’t need to import rice.
That story was sobering, but I didn’t brood over it because I was just too busy picking up bargains in the Jalan Malioboro shops and flocking, along with all the vacationing Indonesians, to city sights like the Sultan’s Palace and the bird market.
I also attended an Indonesian shadow-puppet show. The real things last all night long, so I was content with the abbreviated tourist-friendly version I saw. Wayang kulit are flat, intricately painted puppets made from water-buffalo hide and attached to a stick. The shows are performed behind a screen, and audiences see only the puppets’ silhouettes. The shadow-puppet play was a one-man show, and the dalang was the man. He narrated the tale – most are based on epics from Muslim Indonesia’s long-ago Hindu days – while shifting the puppets to and fro by stabbing the sticks into or pulling them out of a tree trunk behind the screen. He also made sound effects (my favorite was a clicking noise he made with a metal thing attached to his big toe), moved the puppets’ arms from time to time, whirled the puppets in circles whenever the storyline called for a fight and directed his back-up group, a large gamelan orchestra of bronze drums, gongs and chimes that produced an atonal liquid-sounding music. As the story was told in Indonesian and the brief written synopsis given to the audience was inadequate, I couldn’t follow the plot very well, but it must have been funny because the orchestra never stopped laughing. The small audience grew smaller as the evening wore on, but I stayed until the end, switching seats to watch the shadows from the front, the dalang from both sides and the orchestra from the back.
The main reason I’d come to Yogyakarta was to visit two of Java’s most famous ancient sites: Prambanan, a Hindu temple built in the 9th century, and Borobudur, a Buddhist temple built between 750 and 850. Both are an hour outside the city, and since reaching them by public transport is time consuming, I decided to take a tour. But tourists were scarce, so more tours were being cancelled than carried out, and I managed to get on a Prambanan tour only because six Dutch travelers had just arrived in town and signed up, too. (Indonesia was once a Dutch colony, and most of the tourists I met on Java were from the Netherlands.) From a distance, Prambanan’s soaring towers look almost cathedralesque, but up close, its Hindu origins are obvious: impressive carvings of stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata cover the exterior. A pounding rain chased us away from the temple, and we headed up a hill above the temple to take in the view of the green valley with Prambanan nestled in the middle and Gunung Merapi, Java’s most dangerous volcano, looming, half-hidden in the clouds, ominously on the other side. (It started rumbling and spewing smoke and ash the week after my visit but never blew its top.)
The next day, I traveled with more Dutch tourists to Borobudur. Borobudur, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Burma’s Pagan make up the holy trinity of awesome Asian Buddhist monuments, and I’d seen the other two and was eager to add Indonesia’s site to my list. From ground level, Borobudur looks squat, like a square wedding cake with lots of short, flat layers. Those layers are six terraces, all lined with Buddhist-inspired sculptures – 432 of the Buddha himself – and carvings. At the top are three circular terraces studded with latticed, bell-shaped stupas that encase 72 statues of Buddha, which, according to tradition, one reaches in to touch for luck. The monument’s pinnacle is a large bell-shaped stupa, and I rested from the hot hike up Borobudur in the stupa’s shade, occasionally posing for snapshots with some Indonesians bold enough to ask me to join their family pictures.
Once I’d seen Borobudur, I was ready to head for Jakarta. I’d intended to travel by train, but all were fully booked by the Indonesian holidaymakers, so I went to a travel agent to see how much a flight would cost. About $20, I was told. I resisted the urge to blurt out “That’s all?!” and said I’d like a ticket. The agent called the airline, chatted in Indonesian, put her hand over the mouthpiece and told me the economy seats were sold out, but business class was still available. I asked the price. $30, she said. No nine-hour train ride for me. I booked a business-class seat on the 48-minute flight.
My hotel manager, eager to please to the very end, drove me to the airport, complaining about what a miserable summer it was for his business. “Why,” he asked, “aren’t tourists coming when nothing happened in Yogyakarta? No riots. No burning buildings. Nothing.” But no matter how I explained it to him, he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – accept the concept of guilty by association.
Read Part 3