Category Archives: Travels

Surabaya To Solo

November 2008

We’ve traveled this road before so anticipate the emerald lushness of rice fields, teak forests, mushroom-shaped hills, and the more distant and indigo volcanic mountains.  One can hear the jungle hiss its promise of insects and snakes. The effect, in this humidity, is claustrophobic. 

Once when crossing a bridge we were accosted by monkeys. They were squatted in a haphazard row, haggling for handouts. The leader among them stood and screamed. The group became aggressive, even jumping on the vehicle behind us. We left to a chorus of shrill verbal assaults.  

Rural roads throughout Java are traveled at tremendous speed. Often, these roads are not paved and are pitted with cracks and potholes. Hens and their chickens scuttle under our wheels in their careless determination to reach the other side. Pigs, goats and donkeys scratch the dirt just inches from the path our tires tread. Children stand unattended, their hair and skin caked in dust. 

To the Western eye, the villages of rural Java are most beautiful viewed from behind. Dwelling fronts are painted. Not so the sides and back. The unpainted, natural hue of the mud-colored bricks is especially soothing when humbly paired with roofs of grass or thatch. 

What I find bucolic from a distance is the raw-end of life in a village nature refuses to bless.  We’ve traveled 15 km from the sea. Here the basalt soil is stingy in its yield of crops. Able farmers seek work in Malaysia. Some return embittered, demanding change. 

A minority returns practicing a rigid form of Islam imported from the Middle East. Some join groups who fought for Indonesia’s independence, and were outraged when it was declared a secular state. Within these groups are those who retaliate with violence. They target temples, hotels and nightclubs with collateral damage the Hindu-Balinese, foreigners, and even other Muslims who, like the majority of Indonesians, practice a relaxed form of Islam.   

2002. An explosion in a Kuta nightclub leaves 202 dead. Days ago, rioting cut short our business in Denpasar where three men faced a firing for their role in the bombing. 

Now, in rural Java, we are confronted by images we left behind. On entering the village, armed police swarm our vehicle. Civilians shoulder up to our windshield and press against our windows and doors. We cannot see. For a moment, our driver’s foot on the accelerator loses all impact. The sensation is one of being lifted. We are sucked into the chaos, funneled forward in darkness, and then released. Within seconds, the village is behind us.  

Later, I will relive each moment and weigh the danger so briefly encountered.

I will recall our driver’s face. How sweat poured from his brow. I will recall those minutes when hands blackened my world and wonder. Which among them were meant to threaten? To protect? Whose palms hit our windshield the hardest? 

Following the execution, the bodies of thee terrorists were flown by military helicopter from the Batu Island prison to their home villages in Java. Here, violence occurred when mourners clashed with riot police.  

With eyes wide open, we resume our travels. I glance back at the village, beautiful from a distance. I see a mud-colored hamlet rooted organically in arid soil. Our car swerves. Another hen and her chickens cross the road unscathed.  


Borobudur During Ramadan

September 2007

Looking out from above clouds splintered in golden light as the sun sets on Borobudur. We are perched at the top, having made the pilgrimage up the temple’s circumambulating system of corridors and stairs. 72 stone Buddha are our companions, each in their own perforated stupa – a bell-shaped dome. This utmost tier represents the third realm of the Buddhist cosmology. Arupadhatu. The formless ocean of nirvana.  

Water is inherent to Borobudur legends. A Dutch artist and scholar claimed this lotus-shaped temple once floated on an ancient lake. Clay unearthed from the site contains sediments that support his theory. Java’s earliest people were animists who acknowledged the life force of rivers and lakes. Water was empowered by an especially potent spirit. Perhaps this is why, in the 8th century, this was the chosen site for a holy Buddhist temple. 

100 drainspouts carved into the stone at each corner combat torrential rains and the area’s high storm-water run-off. Among the gargoyles carved into these drainspouts are the mythical makara – half elephant and half fish – said to be the water-chariots of the gods.  Is the hum I hear rising from below their song? Or are the whisperings among the spirit of that long forgotten lake. Even silence echoes in this holy place where the wind communes with a host of Buddha.  

Even in its absence, water is an eroding factor, destabilizing this ancient temple of Borobudur. The footprint left by the paleolake is soft and moves in waves during Java’s numerous quakes. Add to this the damage done by the twin volcanoes. Water and fire. With the Hindu and Buddhist empires in decline, and Islam on the rise, Borobudur was abandoned in the 14th century. Nature lovingly buried it in vegetation and ash.  

Java was under British administration when rumor of this lost temple sparked excavation. The year was 1814. I wonder what it was like, to uncover this topmost level and begin the intended pilgrimage backwards. From the formless ocean of nirvana to a dried-up bed of an ancient lake – this is the path the sun is taking now. All radiance is lost to a creeping blackness.   


And still we linger. It is Ramadan, Indonesia’s month of fasting and prayers. From village to village and mosque to mosque, across rice fields and two rivers, we hear the rising crescendo of the call to prayers. Fervent and relentless as the currents of the sea, it builds in collective energy.  

Fire and water. Soon there will be fireworks. Followed by rain.

Blitar On Independence Day

August 2006

“Dirgahayu Ri!” The cries elevate to a roar and are echoed by our English-speaking companions. “Long Live Indonesia.” 

It’s August 17th. Independence Day. In Blitar, where Indonesia’s first President Soekarno is buried, the entire city celebrates. Buildings shed of a year’s grime boast newly painted facades in red and white. Banners broadcast these colors of the Indonesian flag amidst a parade of students marching in uniform.  

Wiry old men flash us the peace sign. Here, where life expectancy is a mere 65 years, few gathered and witnessed the event that sparks this celebration. 1945. The Japanese surrender to the Allies. Indonesia, free of Japanese occupation, proclaims its independence from the sovereign Netherlands. Thus begins four years of diplomatic and armed resistance that culminates in Indonesia’s independence.  

We move with the crowds and the parade of marching students, past storefronts that dual as residences. Independence has had little impact on urban poverty. Cement floors polished to a marble sheen defy the insularity of soot-covered walls.  Furniture is sparse: cots with piles of sheets, a vinyl sofa, an oversized TV, a shrine or prayer alter, and wall art most often political or religious by nature

By tonight, celebrants will gather more intimately. The city will glow with the acrid smoke of miniature fires kindled along the sidewalks for meal preparation or the nightly burning of garbage. Families who traveled from nearby villages to be part of the celebration will board a motor scooter – father and mother with children between – to share the road with cars, becaks, wandering pedestrians and the occasional horse or donkey. This rush of late traffic will generate enough wind to lift an abandoned streamer and set it free. A flash of red and white like the tail of an invisible kite, this streamer will dance on currents of air in a sky that threatens rain. Dirgahayu Ri.