Today was the day I was hoping for when coming to Yogyakarta!
I woke up at 7:30AM and had breakfast and light conversation in the main room with a German, Indian, and a few Indonesians. Then at about 9:30AM, Ishal arrived at the hostel with a motorbike and we set out for our adventure. Ishal is staff at the hostel. He got out of his morning shift at the desk by agreeing to guide me up Purba Hill, a hill one hour outside the city.
When we first set out, Ishal asked me to be the navigator. Google and I signaled his turns by tapping on his back as we approached intersections. The traffic was not too bad, but of course, the roads were crowded and bikes were weaving between the cars.
Google led us to a rather unsafe and unkempt road straight up the hill. As we meandered up the road we came to a crumbling Mosque in the forest where some little girls were hanging about playing with their phones. There were also naked little boys and older women draped in unwashed clothing tending to a mountain lifestyle. Since the mountain communities of Southeast Asia are still on the fringes of poverty, hiking in in say Vietnam or Thailand starts by passing through a poor mountain community.
At the mosque, Ishal negotiated to leave his bike there so we could tackle the hill by foot. Ishal asked me to take a photo with the little girls. I thought about the phrase that, “children aren’t tourist attractions” but it seemed to make them happy. The group photo momentarily pulled them away from their truly global hobby – watching YouTube.
We hustled up the hill to discover that we were among the terraced rice fields that are iconic of Java. I haven’t actually seen these before and so I was impressed.
Rice irrigation is the backbone of Java’s ancient empire. The volcanic eruptions and volcanic underpinning of the island’s origin made the soil fertile. Which is one of the reasons Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world and Java is its most densely populated island. Thanks to the plentiful rice and population, the ancient kings could burn off their surplus population with laborious temple construction and expansionary wars. The civilizations that built the Prambanan and Borobudur temples, vanished soon after their construction because they spent too many resources time on the temples. Anyways the rice terraces are important, because their mastery of irrigation and land use made Java the subregion’s hegemon.
Ishal and I noticed that we weren’t close to the hill and we had already ditched our motorbike. After a few failed attempts to hitchhike in a car, we got two dudes to drive us on their bikes to the base of the hill.
The climb was “adventure light” with the trail leading through cracks in huge boulders and up bamboo ladders. Before setting out that morning, I put on my new hiking boots. Initially, I felt stupidly overdressed, but as we went up the trail was thankful to have them.
Ishal mentioned to me that he had moved to Yogyakarta to study tourism and that as a Muslim and the youngest of three sons he was trying to assert his independence from his family’s expectations of him. He was good company and a novice hiker like me – evident in that he decided to hike in new white sneakers.
We arrived at the top within an hour and were standing just under some of the lowest clouds. When we first arrived we had a momentary panorama of the flat and green area around us. Just as we summited the hill a cloud snuck over the top of the hill like a ghost tiptoeing over a sleeping dog. The cloud made it impossible to see the surrounding area and we decided to climb down. The climb down was fun, although I slipped once and got a boo-boo. The pride I got for my little scratch is evident of what a pampered office cat I’ve become.
I enjoyed the climb down and was happy I brought these new boots from Vietnam. Some Americano who was ascending in flip flops even complimented me, “you’ve got the right idea to wear boots, I’m going to have to talk to my driver about this one they said it was easy.”
We got back to the base and I observed a few monkeys leafing around the picnic area. We found an old lady selling drinks by the side of the road and I peppered Ishal with questions, extracting his local knowledge of politics and society. I learned that Yogyakarta has a king and the king is the acting governor of the province. He has no male heirs and so there may be issues with his succession. Indonesia is a diverse place with some parts governed by tribal, sharia, Buddhist- Hindu, and civil laws.
We got back to our bike, other people drove to back to our bikes, and this time I drove us back to the city. It was exciting to drive the bike in Indonesia –on the left side of the road.
I was apprehensive because their rules are unfamiliar and they drive on the left side of the road. However, I started to get the hang of it. Much of the road as with all roads in Southeast Asia was dusty, crappy, and poor. By the time we got to the city center, I had to give up. Getting around requires too much local knowledge with Ishal driving through backstreets and over sidewalks.
We came to a part of the city I hadn’t seen the Dutch colonial banks and post offices on Malioboro Street. I flirted the idea of stopping to take a photo but decided that they were in some ways unremarkable. I thought about how the colonial buildings are venerated in Saigon, because they had been repurposed by the Southern Government and were symbolic of inherited power and now loss, huzun, and charming decay.
I’ve showered and rested in bed to write this before the dudes at the hostel will make me fried Tempe for Christmas dinner. It was really nice of them to make a Christmas meal and invite me to join them.
The Magical Gamelan
I want to mention the experience of climbing Purba Hill was heightened because off in the distance we could hear the Gamelan music playing. The music was even audible even from the top of the hill, up in the clouds. The music was either coming from a wedding band down below or a loudspeaker. As if the all the myths are true and the magic Gamelan plays throughout the country all the time- drowning out the call to prayer. To me, it was magical that it can be heard even high up in the clouds.
This is a Gamelan Band