Sweltering in Yogyakarta - Java, Indonesia

August 15-19, 2006




Liza Musings: Yogyakarta is simmering. It is hot, dirty, and incredibly crowded with motorbikes, Kijangs (Toyota SUV), bicycle rickshaws, horse drawn carriages, and people, many of whom express their sadness. Two recent earthquakes hit near Yogya, one on May 27th, which killed over five thousand people, injured 35,000 and left over 1.5 million homeless, and a second, in July, killed another 600 people. Gunung Merapi looms nearby, threatening to explode. We watch steam billowing from its perfect cone, illuminated by the sunrise. August 17 was Independence Day -- Indonesia is celebrating 61 years as an independent nation, after 400 years as a Dutch colony, followed by Japanese rule during WWII. This is usually a day filled with celebration and joy, but in Yogya, the red and white flags and banners are limp, everyone is subdued, and the parade never materializes -- "maybe at 4 o'clock" we are told, or "maybe tomorrow." The earthquakes are the latest in a string of disasters that have hit Indonesia: a horrific tsunami hit Acheh in December 2004; Bird Flu has taken 46 lives in Java; toxic mud has flowed uncontrolled for the last three months from a broken well casing at an LNG site in East Java, the flows won't be contained until November; and fires, set to clear land for coconut plantations, burn out of control in Kalimatan, causing a thick haze in the air all across Asia.

Anger at the US simmers beneath the smiles. Everyone is polite, and hide their surprise when they learn we are from America. We meet only Dutch and occasionally French tourists. We have a difficult conversation with Hari, a twenty-something fellow who, speaking very good English, states bluntly (still smiling) "America is Hell" and "Bush is the terrorist." He is angry that the US is providing arms to Israel and dominating the world. We cannot answer his question: "Why was Bush was elected -- twice -- if Americans do not support his policies?" We disagree with his generalizations about Americans. We leave the conversation saddened, frustrated, and hot, our lungs burning from the polluted air. The Jakarta Post is filled with articles and editorials encouraging donations to Hizbollah, but urging militants not to go to Lebanon on jihad, reminding citizens that Indonesia has a constitutional mandate to promote peace in the world. Indonesia struggles to keep peace within its own borders; Muslim militants from Java are jailed after bombing Kuta Beach (Bali); protests and riots in Mataram (Lombok) have killed thousands of Chinese and Christians; Acheh finally celebrates a year of peace, after decades of fighting for recognition as an independent state; East Timor is calm, for now.

We hear the call to prayer five times a day. On Friday, the motorbikes mysteriously disappear, the streets are quiet, and an alley usually filled with carts, vendors, pedestrians and motorbikes, is suddenly closed, filled with men praying on small mats. We wander through the streets, realizing how little we understand about this complex country and all its cultures.







About a 45 minute drive from Yogya lies the 8th century Buddhist Temple of Borobudur. Rising from the surrounding paddies, the huge stone stupa resembles a three dimensional tantric mandala. Stone carvings starting at the base depict the everyday world of passion and desire, spiraling up to nirvana high above, with 432 Buddha figures staring out from open chambers. On the top three terraces, 72 Buddha statues sit partially visible through lattice-like stupas. With the decline of Buddhism, Borobudur was abandoned soon after completion and lay forgotten for centuries, buried under volcanic ash. It was rediscovered in 1815 and restoration was begun in the early 20th century. A ten year $25M restoration project was finished in 1983 and Borobudur has since survived earthquakes and a 1985 bombing.

We climbed through the pre-dawn haze as an orange sun emerged behind the steaming Merapi volcano, "like an invitation to the end of the world" (to borrow a phrase from the Lonely Planet).






The largest Hindu temple complex in Java lies on the outskirts of Yogya's metropolis. Built in the middle of the 9th century (about 50 years later than Borobudur), the Prambanan temples are lavishly carved. Many show a combination of Shivaite and Buddhist elements in sculpture and architecture. The main temple of Candi Shiva Mahadeva was damaged in the May 2006 earthquake and is off limits to close inspection due to the danger of falling stones, however the smaller surrounding temples are still open to the public.

Again we arrived at sunup (before the tourist busses made their morning stop). Engulfed in dense haze, the gray stone was slowly illuminated as the sun rose unseen behind the clouds.

Aas, Bali (car) ► Denpasar (plane) ► Yogyakarta, Java