If you arrive in Yogyakarta with no plans, rest assured, strangers will approach you and pretty much plan your day for you. This is how my husband and I were invited to more events than we had time for: children’s street performances, innumerable batik shops, and artists’ galleries (“Today only!”). Despite everyone’s well-intentioned suggestions, we decided to wander the streets on our own, getting accustomed to the bustling clamor of Yogya. Sitting on a street corner, we witnessed some intense traffic pass us by: toddlers with sunglasses standing with their parents on motorbikes, live goats trussed to vehicles, drivers balancing multiple cages of chickens.
Street food, Idul Adha, a water palace, bird market…
Street food is another wonderful way to get to know Yogya. We ate the sticky dayglow coconut concoction, geplak. Fried tastiness in every shape beckoned from street stalls. Simmered jackfruit in coconut milk wafted through the air. While waiting for dusk to fall, relaxing in Yogya’s central square, we were approached by a stranger who insisted that we return to the square the following day to check out the festival, Idul Adha. We were glad for the advance notice; I knew this Muslim holiday was occurring the next day, but I had no idea that most of the action took place at the crack of dawn.
Idul Adha was fascinating, even for a very sleepy traveler at 6:30 in the morning. Everyone in town headed to the open grassy town square next to the palace. Men filed to one side; women and children to the other. The square was completely packed with people. Everyone put down their prayer rugs and faced Mecca. I imagined that morning prayer would be a somber and serious activity, but it was also oddly festive, with vendors and snacks. Young children played throughout the crowd, chasing helium balloons.
Once at the square, women covered up head to toe in various shades of cloth, mostly white. Here and there in the sea of pale cloth, I could see a flash of bright blue or yellow. These were girls, four or five years old, dressed in the vibrant colors of youth, next to their mothers, dressed in more subdued hues. After prayer, everyone went back to their neighborhood mosque to prepare food for the poor. This meant that the goats we’d seen the previous day, tied to scooters, in the back of trucks, were about to become someone’s dinner. We saw these animals throughout the day; I learned more than I wanted to about where goat meat comes from. The butchering was a public event, though, without fanfare. Children and adults alike hung out in the street, alternating between watching the show and interacting with everyone around them.
After the enlightening and sobering morning, we had the whole day ahead of us. That morning, Yogya’s palace, usually open to visitors, was closed for the holiday. However, the strong influence of tourism meant that the adjacent water palace remained open. The water palace was where the king and his consorts, well, consorted – so said our guide, who appeared out of nowhere and stayed glued to our side throughout the palace. The basins, he told us, were excavated beneath the water table, so that the pools for swimming are filled by natural seepage. The water, startlingly green, spouts from modest fountains here and there throughout the complex, gushing forth from turtle-dragon mouths.
After leaving the water palace (and being diverted through the Water Palace Batik Shop, of course,), we found a lovely set of ruins nearby that we could climb and have to ourselves. I’m sure these palace ruins are well documented in guidebooks, but unknowingly stumbling onto them added to their charm, and made them a great find.
Adjacent to the ruins is an underground tunnel that had been an escape hatch for the water palace. The tunnel is mysteriously lit, with graffiti throughout, which lends it an air of danger and mystique. Palace inhabitants using that tunnel to flee invaders would hopefully find freedom at the other end. These days, one finds instead, the bound and the caged in the Yogya bird market.
On the face of it, a bird market may sound kind of interesting and exotic, full of possibility. But the reality was that this bird market was about unhappy animals in smelly cages, which made the whole scene kind of bleak. In addition to birds, the market also contained cats, dogs, crickets, mealworms, and any other animal one might pay money for. The one redeeming moment in the dreariness of it all was a plastic box full of rainbow-hued chicks. Perhaps they weren’t happy either, but looking sad is an impossibility when you’re bright pink and fuzzy.
That night, New Year's Eve, the entire city hummed with revelry, as it filled to capacity with motorbikes. Everyone crowded tightly into the town’s main square to watch midnight fireworks go off in fits and starts, trailing in small and unpredictable bursts for the rest of the night.
New Year’s Day was our last shot at adventure before we began the long retracing of steps back home. Our goal was to try and make it to the nearby town of Imogiri and back using public transportation. Imogiri is interesting because it contains a royal Javanese graveyard, and it's less than 15 kilometers from the epicenter of a fairly large quake in 2005. The bus station was a little bit of a hike, but also downhill, so we enlisted the services of a becak, a mode of transportation much like a rickshaw.
Too late we discovered that the name of the bus station was also the name of an entire part of town, which meant that, due to our vague instructions, the becak driver dumped us at some random corner. When he realized we were looking for a bus to go to the royal graveyard (hand gestures here were key), he hung out with us on a street corner; we all waited for the bus together. I grew more and more frustrated as I saw bus after bus cruise by. Five minutes became ten, then fifteen. I grew tense and impatient, feeling my last day of vacation draining away, minute by painful minute.
Then I thought of all the time I had spent in this country, thought of the Indonesian mindset which requires that no matter what, the most important thing is to stay cool. Let life happen. I considered how time here is called “rubber time” for a reason: you don’t measure Indonesia by a schedule or a clock. Instead, it stretches and bends of its own accord. So I took a deep breath. I let it out. And I sat.
By now,, a small audience of helpful Yogyanese men had gathered, all of us sitting together by the side of the road. When the correct bus went roaring by, they jumped up and frantically waved it down for us. As soon as they were sure that the driver understood our destination, the crowd of on-lookers and do-gooders dispersed.
Imogiri’s not terribly far, but the small crowded bus made tons of stops, so our journey took a little while. Along the way, we saw many buildings that had collapsed from the earthquake; huge structures that had caved in and still lay in ruins. When we arrived, we found that parts of the cemetery, too, had suffered major damage. Large cracked pillars had been displaced, bisecting walkways.
Visitors approach the graveyard via an infinitely long staircase. At the top, we were told that visitors are only allowed in the inner sanctum, in ceremonial dress. We took the bait and shelled out a few dollars; we were wrapped, tucked and pinned into Indonesian clothing. Photographs and footwear are not allowed in the inner sanctum, so we had to leave our clothes, shoes, and camera with the gatekeeper. This prospect was a little daunting; required a huge amount of trust, but we decided to leave our belongings, and continue our exploration of the inner grave area.
After climbing sets of stairs in bare feet, we found gravekeepers just inside the inner sanctum, sitting around a crypt chanting away. I am usually shy about intruding on this kind of thing, but the men were clearly used to visitors, and waved us forward to join them. After the chanting was finished, they opened the chamber, and invited us in to observe as they swept out dust and added fresh flowers to the grave.
Amazed at the remoteness and serendipidy of Imogiri, we gathered our shoes and clothing, and began the return trip to Yogya. On the way back to the Imogiri bus stop, a van pulled up next to us to ask us if we wanted a ride. Our tentative understanding was that we were getting a ride to the bus stop in the central market half a mile away. I don’t usually make it a policy to enter strange vans in foreign countries; however, after gauging the situation, we jumped in. There were other passengers in the van; the atmosphere seemed harmless and friendly.
We drove right past the bus stop. Before we could protest, the driver declared that he’d be happy to drive us all the way to Yogya. I immediately thought, whoa whoa, I’ve been on this ride before, how much are you charging, turkey? To which he responded with a great peal of laughter and nothing more. Faint alarm bells started to go off. Transportation in Java, especially Yogya, is never free.
We said, no really, how much are you going to charge us? The driver responded not to worry, it’s all taken care of. Was it a simple case of the good Samaritan? We were doubtful, but recognized landmarks we passed on the way there. Everything seemed to check out. We spoke to the other passengers (all Javanese), they’d come from Imogiri and were also going to Yogya. So far, so good. We skeptically accepted our good fortune – at which point, the driver decided to make a detour.
“You guys mind if we take this quick side trip to a candy store?”
I swear to god if “candy store” means “batik shop”, there is going to be hell to pay.
We tried to harness our inner cool, tried to be okay with the carpool-turned-candy-run-about-to-be-abduction. Five minutes isn’t so long, right? We watched with growing horror as our beloved and familiar road receded into the distance. More alarm bells went off, louder this time. A candy store? Who detours for a candy store? Then the driver hands us this book over his shoulder and says, “What do you think about God?” followed by more high-pitched laughter. Which is when we decided to jump ship.
We got out at the next major street. The driver was probably this great person, very nice, well-meaning. But there had been too many weird twists and turns (physical and metaphysical) to the journey; time to leave the van. It was a little scary just jumping out of a vehicle in the middle of nowhere, the hot equatorial Javanese sun beating down. We walked in the direction we thought was Yogya, knowing we had about an hour to retrieve our bags and get on the train for our flight home. Again, calling upon my inner Indonesian, I walked calmly down the road, trying not to freak out – letting life happen. Luckily, all roads lead to the big city; it was a pretty easy matter to flag down a bus headed in the right direction.
What did I learn from Yogyakarta? Great things happen at 6:30 in the morning. Take advice from strangers, but not free rides. And never, ever lose your cool.