Saturday, 23 February 2013
Thursday, 21 February 2013
But enough of Puskhar. Last time Uncle Travelling Matt spoke to you he was in the Pink City, Jaipur. Well, he stayed there another day, checked out all the pink palaces and pink shops, ate some incredible food and then moved onto Ajmer.
Now Ajmer is famous for one thing, being the home of arguably the biggest Sufi shrine in the Sub-Continent, the Dargah of Khwaja Mui-ud-din Chisti. Never heard of him? Well, he was the guy who Akbar petitioned on regular occasions and in whose honour my favourite song from Bollywood is dedicated, Khwaja Mere Khwaja. Here it is, you like I think:
But what did I think of the shrine? Well, to be honest, it was way too busy and crowded for my tastes and I didn't find it as moving as the other Sufi sites that I've visited. Check out my V-log to see why:
But there is more to Ajmer than just Muin-ud-din Chisti. I had a wander through her bazaars to the Jain Temple which has some fantastic golden models of famous places and events from Jain mythology and then had a chat with the verger at the old colonial cathedral. So, all good you might say.
Uncle Travelling Matt
Tuesday, 19 February 2013
And my ramblings today come from Rajahstan, the land of kings where all the best Bollywood movies and the excellent British production of Kama Sutra, (no, not that version, the Channel 4 one...), have been shot.
So, how is it different to Agra? Well, there are hills for starters which is something that I haven't seen in quite a while. Ever since touching down in Delhi, (or indeed Abu Dhabi for that matter), the landscape has been as flat as the proverbial pancake. Quite a feat for a country with some of the world's highest peaks within its borders I suppose, but it still makes for boring train journeys.
And not only is the scenery good in Jaipur but also the attractions. Ok, so it's touristy, but tourists do tend to flock to where there are things worth seeing, (which may explain why I was the only one to be found in Al-Ain...), and the forts and palaces of Jaipur are un-bloody-believable.
Also un-bloody-believable is that I dined in a restaurant where a mouse ran across the floor in front of me and yet didn't get sick.
And it was tasty too!
And apart from that, I met a tuk-tuk driver who sings qawali whilst bombing along at breakneck speed and presented me with a garland of roses because I showed an interest in Sufism.
And a hotel owner pured out his life's story over beer.
And a Brahmin priest annointed me with some kind of sticky paste. I'd like to think that he'd spotted my innate holiness and wanted to celebrate having met a real-life man-god like Krishna. However, I suspect he just wanted a tip.
Should have picked someone else to annoint then.
Until next time...
Uncle Travelling Matt
Sunday, 17 February 2013
Friday, 15 February 2013
Next update (hopefully) Agra.
Uncle Travelling Matt
Tuesday, 12 February 2013
Here I am doing what a Travelling Uncle should, sat in a Delhi hotel, travelling.
My trip started with a full 15 hour stop-over in the UAE. Although I flew into Abu Dhabi Airport, I've decided to save that city for the way back and so I bussed off to Al-Ain, the only major inland city in the UAE.
If I'm perfectly honest, I expected more. Al-Ain's Oasis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which should be a guarantee of a degree of interest, but the oasis was naught more than some well-irrigated plantations whilst the town itself was largely modern and nothing spectacular. Still, it was low-key and friendly which my next stop certainly was not.
I visited Dubai in 2005 on a stop-over from Malaysia to Manchester with the Ex and rather enjoyed the place. Ok, so it's not somewhere I'd like to be stuck for any great length of time, but for a short visit, it's got a hintof old Arabia with absolute dollops and dollops of new. Put it like this, I went back on this trip because in the eight years since my last visit they built an entire new metro system, a map of the world made out of islands in the sea, two palm trees also made out of islands that can be seen by satellite and if all that wasn't enough, the world's tallest building, almost twice the height of the 2nd tallest. Yep, worth going back I suppose.
Yet whilst all that was very... 'Wow!' I must confess that my favourite Dubai experience is still sitting by the creek watching the very Third World abras, (dhow-type boats but with motors), chug past drinking tea. as I said, there is a hint of the old there too.
And there's more of that coming as I'm booked on the train to Amritsar tomorrow, off to see the Golden Temple...
Uncle Travelling Matt
Saturday, 9 February 2013
And welcome to the last post of ‘Dirty Magazine and my last post before I head off for India. In today’s offering I return to Jakarta, the Big Durian, the bustling and fascinating capital of Indonesia. And there I leave you, but fear not, soon Uncle Travelling Matt will be back from the bustling and fascinating capital of India. Can’t wait!
Uncle Travelling Matt
Links to all the parts of this travelogue
I awoke the following morning, strangely enough only a minute or two prior to my wake up call from the hotel staff. Although aching a little I discovered that my sickness, like that which I contracted in Cambodia exactly a year previously, had been almost wholly cured by a good, long sleep.
The train journey today was to be my last of any length in Indonesia, and my first in the so-called ‘Bisnis’ class. Quite what that was to be like, I knew not. Its price was a quarter of that of Eksekutif, which was perhaps some indication. Well, whatever, just so long as there was no TV or piped music, I would be happy.
All in all, Bisnis class, and indeed the whole journey proved to be a most enjoyable experience. For a start, there were no videos or musical accompaniments, (well, excepting the songs sung by the beggars who boarded the train at every stop), and indeed I was left wondering what Ekonomi would be like if this were Bisnis. Bisnis was what I’d imagined Ekonomi to be you see, a basic coach, (with even more basic toilets), with cracked windows and filled with locals of all shapes, sizes and colours. Hawkers plied up and down the aisle selling everything from soft drinks to screwdrivers, lunchboxes to calculators, and Teletubbies to towels. These itinerant traders, along with cripples, aged, blind and singing beggars entered the train whenever it stopped and alighted at the next station, presumably boarding the next service in the opposite direction for the journey back.
I passed the time writing, reading Robert Graves’ excellent ‘I, Claudius’ and standing in the open doorway at the end of the coach watching the world go by. And indeed, the effects of the beautiful Javan countryside, the glories and follies of Ancient Rome, the creation of a literary masterpiece (?), and the taste of Friesian Flag Chocolate Milk, (something I’d developed quite a taste for in the absence of good soft drinks), contrived to make the journey an extremely pleasant one.
The first trip that I’d made across Java almost two weeks previously had, (apart from the small section where the line ran by the coast), been, scenically-speaking, rather uninspiring. The second from Malang to Yogyakarta had started well with lots of high bridges over fast-flowing rivers and palm-clad hills, but alas, darkness had fallen all to quickly. The southern part of Java is much more mountainous than the north, and this journey turned out to be a fine one: Girder bridges over boulder-strewn streams; volcanoes in the distance shimmering in the haze; tiny mosques amongst the palm groves; terraces of flooded rice paddies with conical-hatted coolies hard at work up to their knees in water, village women drying T-shirts by the trackside, old colonial stations with platforms full of jilbabed women and swarthy gents; level-crossings where scores of motorbikes were being revved impatiently, waiting for the train to pass; mountainsides covered with rich vegetation into which the train would plunge, the result, complete darkness.
And all of that at just the right speed. Not so slow, so that one thinks that the destination shall never be reached and not so fast so that standing in the doorway, open to the elements, becomes a torment rather than a pleasure. That’s what makes train travel so perfect and it’s beyond my comprehension why so many backpackers take a bus instead, even though the prices are comparable. I assume that the reason is that most travellers never look further than the travel agencies in the backpacker ghettos for their transportation. That’s a shame. Twelve hours on a bus is a torment, the corresponding eight or nine by rail is pure pleasure.
Travelling ekonomi to Jakarta
I had but a day left in Indonesia; a day to taste the Big Durian. Sat in a café that morning I met a fellow Englishman, who better to embark upon my tropical tasting with than a fellow Brit? He was from Rochdale, a town I knew somewhat from having a friend who hailed from it’s confines and from having taken a wrong bus once that ended up in it’s terminal. His name was, well I don’t think that I ever asked what his name was, it mattered not, we set off.
As with Surabaya, the place that the guidebook advised heading for was the old town, which in Jakarta is called Kota and is situated a couple of miles north of the Jalna Jaksa area where I was now ensconced. To reach our destination we took a train along the city’s elevated metropolitan rail system. The trains looked familiar and the Japanese notices by the doors and windows gave the reason why. These once proud lords of the Tokyo and Kyoto subway systems had been transported far away from their ordered oriental home to the balmy tropics and they looked far worse for it, with broken windows and doors that once opened automatically in Osaka, but now required a push and a pull from countless Jakartan commuters.
Kota railway station is the transportation hub of Jakarta and it’s here that the influence of the Dutch colonisers can be seen quite clearly. The grand 1920s buildings look like they would feel perfectly at home in Utrecht or Groningen, although doubtless they would be in better repair there. Outside the station surrounding the busy Jalan Jembatan Batu/ Jalan Pintu Besar Utara interchange were the proud edifices of a colonial elite. “It’s like New Delhi,” commented my Lancastrian comrade, “although the British did a far better job of it.” We walked through Nederlandstadt to Taman Fatahillah, once the heart of Batavia, (as colonial Jakarta was known). Here one truly could imagine being in the Netherlands, the peaceful leafy square, surrounded by Dutch-gabled dwellings and flanked on it’s southern side by a typical Stadthuis truly was like a mini Den Haag. The Stadthuis, once the city hall, was now a museum commemorating the history of Jakarta. We played football with some kids in the square before stepping inside to admire the colonial living quarters, paintings of former governors, photos of a long-gone Chinatown and exhibits of local music.
After our dose of colonial culture we decided to head down to the docks to see Sunda Kelapa, the port which had made the city. Traipsing through the streets of the tumbledown third world we soon spied the ships, row upon row of masts thrusting proudly towards the sky and reminding one of an era when sail was king. We took up the offer of a persistent little man in a sampan, who for a measly sum took us in and out of the huge wooden hulks of the Macassar schooners towards the entrance of the harbour and the big blue briny itself.
Weaving in-between the maids of the sea, I was reminded not of Jakarta or Indonesia at all, but of the history of my own country, the United Kingdom which, like the Dutch masters who built this harbour, was made great by the sea. If one wants to discover Britain’s maritime heritage these days, it’s easy enough. Portsmouth, Dundee, Greenwich and countless other famous ports have old sailing ships, relics of the days when Britannia ruled the waves, sat in dry docks waiting for the eager tourist to look them over. But the question I ask here, is how genuine is it all? True the ships are the actual ones that once sailed the seven seas, but were they ever so sanitised and clean, and after all, they are but one, amongst a harbour full of motor launches and the yachts of the rich. Strange as it may seem, in my opinion, the nearest that I have ever come to getting a feel of an old British port was here in Jakarta, where we drifted cautiously between countless schooners, all with paint peeling and busy with sailors loading and unloading them of their cargoes. The place of a hive of activity and not a bit of mechanisation in sight. No, perverted as it perhaps is, often one must look far afield to experience one’s own heritage. After all, why do I like the Balkans so much? Perhaps because they remind me so much of the Britain that I grew up in, with their state-monopolised buses, compartments on trains, hellish public conveniences, archaic post offices that sold stamps and doled out pensions and benefits, (and not a lot else), and roads full of aging motor cars.
My companion wished to have a look around the nearby Chinatown of Glodok after having read that they were riots there in 1998. I was less enthusiastic. Not that the culture of the Chinese didn’t interest me, it did, but I’d already seen one Chinatown in Surabaya and due to the Indonesian law prohibiting the use of Chinese characters on shop fronts, it meant that there is little outwardly visible about the Indonesia’s Chinese communities. They look much like any other shabby district of town. Nonetheless we took a tuk-tuk back to the station and then embarked upon a short walking tour of the area, (it adjoins Kota station). There was as expected little to see. Not only were Chinese signs banned, but also it was obvious that the community was trying it’s best to keep a low profile. That was understandable. Throughout the history of the city, the prosperous immigrant Chinese have frequently been the focus of popular anger when hard times have come. The Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe would probably have felt an affinity with these Oriental brethren, although the difference here is the time scale. The last pogrom in Jakarta occurred in 1998, less than four years ago. Thus, little was visible on the outside, barring a few Buddhist symbols over the doorways and the markedly Oriental appearance of the locals. Enter those swastika-adorned dwellings however, and I’m sure a different story was to be found. Alas, we had not the time, nor the invitation to do so.
Back at the station we dined on chicken and rice at a stall on one of the platforms and I purchased some old card Edmondson railway tickets for my collection. We then hopped back onto one of the old survivors from the Kyoto Underground and made our way back up to Gambir station, where we alighted and headed for Istiqlal Mosque, the city’s main mosque and the largest in South-East Asia.
The Istiqlal Mosque was another of the projects of old Sukarno, and true to the spirit of the ‘Father of the Indonesian Nation’, what it lacked in beauty, it made up for in size. This place was big, unbelievably big, and it’s vast, dark cavernous hall, (with pillars made of German steel our guide said), could accommodate ten thousand people in one sitting. And apparently it regularly did, most Fridays the Istiqlal Mosque is said to be overflowing with believers asserting that there is ‘No God but God, and Mohammed is His Prophet’.
The Istiqlal Mosque
Outside the mosque I bade goodbye to the Lancastrian gent and ambled back to the Hotel Tator, where I had spent the previous night, (better, yet pricier than the Djody). I once again passed the magnificent Monas, being hassled by countless guides and people who wanted to ‘be my friend’ en route, thinking that perhaps old Soekarno did not entirely fail. True, you can look at these things as a waste of money, and in entirely logical terms they are, but in my mind there is no doubt that people need symbols. Virtually every power from time immemorial has recognised it, from the Romans to Napoleon, the Bolsheviks to the Angkors. The spiritual as well as the temporal, what would Islam be with Mecca, or the Catholic Church without the magnificence of St. Peter’s? Even in modern, advanced, present-day Britain, one of the biggest uproars in contemporary politics regards the national stadium, planned for Wembley, but years behind schedule and without the first bricks being laid. That England needs a National Stadium is rubbish, there are plenty of good stadiums around the country which more than suffice and if needs be there’s the huge state-of-the-art Millennium Stadium sat in Cardiff. But Cardiff is not in England, and England needs its symbol to proclaim to the world of its footballing prowess. No one will be satisfied until the new Wembley is opened, me included.
And Third World peoples, without the access to technology, and with dreary lives spent in unimaginable poverty, need these symbols more than anything. Sukarno could not turn Indonesia into a developed nation, a force of world economics. We know it and he knew it. He could not gave his people heaven in their daily lives but he could at least give them a glimpse of it, a monument to their greatness. After all everybody likes to be flattered. And it seems to have worked. It is his photographs, which still adorn the walls of countless Indonesian homes, not the images of the democratisers or freers of political prisoners. And his Indonesian Empire has, (East Timor excepted), stayed together. In this era of ridiculous nationalism’s with almost every province trying to declare it’s independence, the multi-ethnic, loosely-connected Indonesia of many religions and problems is still one country. The national ideology that Sukarno helped foster through such schemes as his many monuments undoubtedly helped this. It could easily have been so, so different.
Upon reaching the hotel, I collected my bags and took a tuk-tuk to Gambir Station where a Damri bus was waiting. As night fell we slowly made our way through the great Indonesian metropolis, out onto the highway and towards the pleasant air hub of Soekarno-Hatta. Progress was once more relatively trouble-free except for paying the air tax, where they would not accept credit cards or Korean currency, the only money that I had left. Eventually however, after inquiring at virtually every bank on concourse I found one that would change won, and so rupiyah in hand, I paid the fee, and retreated to a café for a last cup of tea before boarding my plane home.
Whilst waiting in Incheon Airport on the way back, I was unexpectedly accosted by a strange-looking gentleman who kept yelling “Hravtsva!” at me, whilst slapping me on the back. The reason soon became clear. ‘Hratstva’ means ‘Croatia’ in Croatian, and I was wearing a rip-off Croatia shirt that I’d picked up in Malang. ‘Why would you buy a Croatia shirt?’ I hear you ask, well, it’s simple…
The 2002 Football World Cup is being held, jointly, in Japan and Korea, and the Croatian National Side were to be based in Toyama, a place that also happens to be where I reside. What’s more, the only World Cup ticket that I could get my hands on was for a Croatia-Mexico match being held in nearby Niigata. Thus I’d figured that it was perhaps a good idea to try and fit in with the locals. And judging by the reactions of my newly found Croatian Comrade, I was doing quite a good job of it.
My friend turned out to be a sailor, who had just finished a six-month stint at sea and was on his way home to Zagreb. What’s more, it happened to be his birthday, and he was in the mood for celebration. The fact that I wasn’t Croatian apparently mattered not. “England football good!” he exclaimed. “Beckham, Owen! And before, Lineker, Banks, Moore, Hurst! Nice game! Liverpool Champions of Europe four times! Nice team! Before I was working together with England man, he is Sunderland fan. ‘Liverpool?’ I say. ‘Liverpool shit!’ he say. ‘Liverpool shit, Manchester United shit and Arsenal shit! But number one big shit is Newcastle!’ Oh my God! ‘Fucking Newcastle shit!’ he is saying, he hate Newcastle. England good football, very good. England man, we drink together!”
I was led to a café where another Croatian was sat, clearly less jubilant than the birthday boy, but equally sozzled nonetheless. I was introduced, the beers bought and we spent a pleasant hour or so, those two sailors and I, talking football, (English and Croatian), World Cups, long sea voyages, the girls of South-East Asia, the Yugoslavian wars and Eastern Europe in general, using a strange cocktail of pidgin English and Bulgarian, a tongue almost identical to Serbo-Croat.
It was a slightly inebriated Matt that boarded the aeroplane back to Osaka. My head, not being in its usual state couldn’t concentrate on a book, so instead I sat back and ran through the previous two weeks in my mind. It had been interesting, exciting, (and indeed slightly hairy at times), and entirely fulfilling. I’d learnt that I could travel on my own, and that it was far from a being a lonely experience, if anything quite the opposite. In Indonesia at least, (although it’s probably quite different in more reserved countries), a lone traveller is fair game to be pounced upon and ‘Hello Mistered’, even if he wants not to be. No, loneliness was definitely not a problem.
And I also learnt a little about Indonesia, a country of huge proportions and population, though with little political and economic clout and oft ignored by the wider world. It shares many similarities with its neighbours, but there are countless differences also. Few Third World countries for example, share such a mix of faiths with, (yes, I know that there are problems, but considering the potential), relatively little strife. The Western Powers, particularly the U.S. should not be so quick in lumping all Muslims together as fanatics. The faith certainly does have it’s extremists it’s true, but very few are found to be living amongst the islands of Indonesia. Indeed, the fervour of religious feeling there, in my opinion, pales in comparison with that displayed in the Roman Catholic Philippines next door, where governments are frequently overthrown by ‘People and Prayer Power’. In Manila, arguably the most powerful person is not the President, but the Cardinal. In Jakarta the Islamic clerics do not seem to wield such influence.
But what was my overall impression of it all? Would I be coming back someday? Is Indonesia the country of my dreams? Or my nightmares, perhaps? Well…
In answer the first question, maybe, who knows what course the future will take? I’d certainly like to see the kids of Labuhan Lombok again later in life, and so I suppose a lot depends on whether they keep in touch. I wouldn’t mind meeting up with Mr. Aki, ‘wife’ and also Agoom too. But Indonesia itself, for some reason, unlike it’s neighbour to the north-east, was not a country that I fell in love with. Why that was, I don’t know, all the ingredients were there, but somehow they didn’t quite gel right. Perhaps it’s because all tropical islands start to look the same after a while, who knows, I really can’t say? No, I’m not bothered about returning to sightsee. I saw all that I wanted to and there are new roads to travel now.
And then there was my encounter with the sailors at the airport. Despite our linguistic travails, we’d clicked in a way that rarely happens between Asian people and me. I was reminded of a life that revolves around beer, football, talking about women and World Cups, conversations full of confrontation and people with long memories of past historical and political injustices. Not necessarily all good things it’s true, but extremely familiar. The fact remains that no matter how long I spend in Asia, how many expeditions I take to various countries in the continent and no matter how hard I try to integrate and interact with the local populous, a barrier is always there. A big barrier it may not be, stronger at some times than others, but a barrier nonetheless. That barrier is because I am different, for good or bad, and I always will be different. That is because I am British. That is because I am a European. Indonesia reminded that the world is a huge place, that Asia extends far further than Japan and that one’s preconceptions of an unknown country are often quite far off the mark. The Croatians however reminded me of Europe.
It was time to go home.
Copyright © 2002, Matthew E. Pointon
July, 2002, Osawano, Japan
Saturday, 2 February 2013
Another week has passed and January 2013 has proven to be the most successful in the short history of UTM with over 2,600 visitors! Thanks for keeping on coming!
Some visitors have been guided to us by this post on the blog ‘A Nevada Yankee in King Zog’s Court’. I checked out the blog which is all about everything Albanian and I have to admit that it’s rather good and I’m sure that I’ll be having a chat with its webmaster before my next visit to the Land of the Eagle. And in that vein, please revisit my ‘Albanian Excursions’ travelogue which I have recently updated with loads more pictures.
But back to today’s offering and it’s the penultimate installment of ‘Dirty Magazine’. The final and seventh part will be posted next week just before I jet off to India.
Uncle Travelling Matt
Links to all the parts of this travelogue
Although it’s modern-day population is less than half a million, Yogyakarta, (or ‘Yogya’ for short), is the cultural and political heart of the island of Java, if not of Indonesia as a whole. What that means to the tourist such as I, is that there is plenty to see and do, and what’s more, plenty of other people seeing and doing it. This place truly was tourist central, which meant that near the railway station was situated a large ‘Hippyville’ full of cheap hotels and traveller restaurants. I had ensconced myself in one establishment named Hotel Karunia. This place was reasonably priced and had character and so I was happy and after sitting in bed for some time reading Erskine Childer’s excellent ‘Riddle of the Sands’ I decided to get up and sample the delights of Java’s number one spot for culture vultures.
Most of the action, (as it were), seemed to be centred around an area called the Kraton, a large enclosed city-within-a-city type place to the south of the hotel, so I decided that that was the direction in which I should head. Firstly though, I had to organise my trip to Borobudur.
Borobudur is the reason why most people come to Yogya. It’s a large Buddhist temple complex situated around twenty miles from the city and dating back from 750-850 AD And if that wasn’t enough for this Wonder of the World, Michael Palin visited the place during his trip around the Pacific Rim. Being a fan of the old Monty Python funnyman, I simply had to go, and thus I booked myself upon a tour, starting at an ungodly hour the following morn, to see the ruins and also some Hindu temple that according to the bloke who flogged the package to me, were “very interesting for you to see, mister.” Whatever. In for a penny, in for a pound, and that done, I hired a cyclo and made my way, (or rather, somebody made my way for me), to the legendary Kraton.
This Kraton, it turned out, was rather similar in concept to the many ancient walled cities to be found all over Europe, in that it had obviously been the original Yogyakarta, and the modern-city had outgrown it. Unlike most European cities though, it was square and ordered and smack in the middle of it all stood the city’s number one tourist attraction, the Sultan’s Palace. Yogya was founded by the first Sultan in 1755 and his family have ruled ever since. Even today, this Royal figure is alive and kicking politically speaking. During the Revolution against the Dutch he helped the rebels and was thus rewarded with Yogya being given the status of a special territory, answerable direct to Jakarta and not the Central Javan government. Under Suharto’s government the popular ninth sultan was Indonesia’s vice-president but that didn’t stop his son, the tenth sultan from supporting the reformers whom overthrew that government. When Jakarta tried to oust him from his seat of power in Yogyakarta in 1998 the people took to the streets. He was soon reinstated.
Great as the Sultan might be, I have to say, I wasn’t overly impressed with his palace. Perhaps it’s because I’m a European and I don’t truly understand the Asian style, (I was distinctly unimpressed with the famous yet spartan Nijo-jo, the residence of the Shogun, in Kyoto), but it all seemed to me a little bare and soulless. Upon entry, (through one of the two gates, one male, one female), I found myself in amongst some pavilions containing musical instruments. After that was an exhibition of paintings and photographs of sultan’s past and present and then the central pavilion, which was all in gold, (that was impressive), and contained the great man’s throne. Cool enough, but that was it. Hoping that the next attraction might be a little more attracting I left the palace confines and fought my way through the vendors and hawkers to my cyclo driver who then escorted me on towards the Water Castle.
The Water Castle was not what I’d expected. The cyclo stopped in the midst of some backstreets and we were met, (surprise, surprise), by the pedaller’s cousin who spoke English and was knowledgeable on the locality. No doubt this would come at a price but it was obvious that I would need a guide to show me around the place and he would have to do. The Water Castle was once a fantastical pleasure park of canals, palaces and pools built for the Sultan. In it’s heyday it must have been amazing. Nowadays however, humanity had encroached upon the realm of the Sultan’s and what remains are left today are sandwiched amongst the dwellings of the people and the batik shops that they run, ready to extort money from tourists such as I. The remains however, were impressive. Long tunnels under the streets, a huge open-air mosque where the Sultan used to listen to the words of the divine, and most impressively of all, the fully restored bathing pools.
The Water Castle, Yogyakarta
My entry into these was delayed by a heavy shower which forced us into a roadside stall where I chatted with the owner about the Premier League, the World Cup and other aspects of God’s greatest gift to mankind. When the rain abated we bade farewell and I moved onto what was surely the highlight of Yogyakarta. In days gone by the wives and concubines of the Sultan lazed about in the pools, whilst he kept a close eye on them all from a small tower situated between the main baths. Every so often he might deign to invite one of the beauties up to him where they would sit and talk about the Premier League of the day, (I assume). The place was the perfect setting for the sexual fantasies of most red-blooded males. Who hasn’t dreamed about owning a harem of beautiful young women? In reality it probably wouldn’t be so amazing, could you imagine the back-biting, nagging and bitching that would have gone on there, and the complex did suffer from a damp problem which was no doubt not new. Nonetheless, the fantasy remains, and for a few moments in the Sultan’s tower, I closed my eyes and indulged in it.
But alas, reality steals upon us all too quickly, and my guide and I soon left the baths, and proceeded to a batik gallery, (he made sure that was on the itinerary. Having indulged in some sinful fantasies of the flesh, I decided that it was now time to purge the mind of ungodly thoughts. Ever since entering Indonesia I had wanted to set foot inside a functioning mosque, but was unsure of the decorum involved, would they welcome a foreigner? But now I had a guide, so what better time? I suggested it to my new special friend, (who was friendlier than ever since I’d bought some batik), and he agreed to take me to his local house of worship which was nearby. In fact, he more than agreed, he was quite enthusiastic, I don’t think anyone had ever asked to see something of contemporary Yogyakarta before.
The mosque’s name, sadly I did not write down, but it was only the name of the kampung (district), anyway. It was a pleasant place, cool and peaceful. My guide showed me how the devout wash for prayer and of the two sections where both men and women pray to Mecca. We then entered the building, (which was open at the sides, perhaps pavilion is a better description), and went through the rituals, which involved standing, crossing one’s arms in front of oneself, kneeling and then pressing one’s head to the floor several times in an order too complex for me to remember. As we exited the students from the Mosque’s Madrassah were coming out of class and I had my photo taken with two cute jilbab-clad little girls.
My guide, it turned out, was enthusiastic about his faith, though not dogmatic. He had been brought up a Christian, but had converted so as to marry his wife. At first this was only a formal conversion, but gradually he had come to truly embrace his new faith, which he said offered more spiritual comfort and security than the less-strict Catholicism of his youth. His story was an interesting one, and in my opinion, it displays well the singular strength and weakness that Islam has, it’s strictness. More than any other faith, Islam governs its follower’s lives, and all rules for living are set down in the Koran and the Hadiths, (sayings of the Prophet). This can be a boon to many that cling to its guidance and established certainties. However, it makes it resistant to change and strict regularity does not suit all believers, myself included. But to countless millions it does provide what they want and gives comfort to many a home across the world. And at the end of the day, that is a fantastic thing which far outweighs the death and destruction caused by a few fanatics and so heralded in the Western press.
Leaving the mosque in the rain we climbed once more into the cyclo and then set forth to somewhere that the guide had been trying to get me to all day, the theatre where the Ramayana Ballet performances are held and more importantly, the tickets are sold. Going to the ballet interested me, I’d never been to the ballet before and I’m always one to try everything once, (and where cheaper to try it?), and what’s more, of all the world’s major faiths, Hinduism is the one that I know least about. A staged version of the Ramayana might well be a good introduction. Nonetheless, I was far from sure that I would be purchasing a ticket, especially since I didn’t like the way in which I was driven there whether I wanted it or not. However, the sweet smile of the young lady behind the counter soon convinced me, I’m sorry to say that the world’s oldest marketing ploy worked once again.
I was the first to be picked up by the theatre’s minibus that evening, but the driver and myself were soon joined by guests from the finer hotels in town. Firstly came a Belgian with his Singaporean girlfriend who were in Bali for a holiday and had taken a three-day excursion to Yogya. Then came the Japanese. I couldn’t believe it, as I am not the most enthusiastic Japanese-speaker, (nor the best), but after almost two weeks sans-Oriental company I was eager to speak Japanese once more. They appreciated it too, since (surprise, surprise), they knew no other tongue, and so together, (with the English-speaking Belgian and Singaporean), we chatted and sat together at the ballet. Then the lights dimmed and the show began.
Outside the Ramayana Theatre
At the entrance to the open-air theatre we had been given an explanatory leaflet each, (in the language of our choice), telling us what the hell was going on. We needed it! The costumes were amazing, as was the dancing and the jumping over fire, but as a means of telling a story, I found the medium of ballet sadly lacking. Perhaps I’m a cultural ignoramus, I know not, but give me a book, or the TV series anyday. Nonetheless, the experience was enjoyable, the dancing flawless, and I can now say that I’ve been to the ballet, which sounds quite cultured even in a broad Potteries accent. Besides, we got a photo with the main characters at the end and it was cheap. What more could one ask for?
In the car going back, I asked a couple from Nagoya how much they had understood of it all. “Half?” asked I.
They looked at each other guiltily and then with typical Japanese politeness and understatement, replied.
I retired straight after the Ramayana Ballet intending to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the following morning’s early start. However, after a mere five minutes between the covers, I felt the need to get up and use the bathroom. I knew at once that this was not good, though equally, not undeserved.
Whenever I travel anywhere I rarely take any notice of the advice given by travel agencies and guides regarding steering clear of the local food and water. Admittedly this time I’d stayed clear the latter on the whole, (although I’d still drank tea on the street and cleaned my teeth with it, being careful not to swallow), but two toilet visits on, it was fast becoming clear that my pathetically inadequate precautions had failed to ward off the gremlins.
I have fallen prey to food poisoning twice before, in Egypt and Cambodia, and neither time was it fun. It attacks in waves and causes sickness, diarrhea, an aching body, an inability to consume food and nightmarish, chaotic dreams whilst sleeping. The bout in Cambodia was the worst, since I had to endure a ten-hour bus journey before I could finally get to bed and sleep it off. Food poisoning cannot be cured or staved off, you’ve just got to sit, (or sleep), it out. It’s hell, but twenty-four hours later, it’s gone. Problem was, I didn’t have twenty-four hours, in less than ten I was due to visit Borobudur. I spent the rest of the night tossing and turning in a chaotic sleep, in-between frequent visits to the little men’s room and stretches sat up sweating in bed. Would I manage to go tomorrow? At times it felt like I would not even be able to make it downstairs, let alone to a Buddhist holy site twenty miles distant, whilst during the times when the illness abated a little, I reminded myself that it was a wonder of the world and that I’d probably never have another opportunity to go there. After all, I’d managed ten hours on a bus in Cambodia, what problem would one be here?
Despite a lack of sleep and substance, when the time to leave came, I felt a little better. As I said before, food poisoning comes in waves and the tide was presently out, so I struggled out of bed and into the waiting minibus where I was soon joined by an Irish couple, a pair of Dutchmen and a girl named Margot from Utrecht. The journey was uneventful. I felt well enough to talk to one of the Netherlanders about his country and to survey the passing scenery, but by the time that we had stopped and were walking towards the entrance, it was fast becoming clear that another wave of sickness was about to hit the beach.
At the gate I got in as a student, pretending that my Japanese ID card was a Student ID from Kyoto University, (always worth a try), but my spirits were not raised much. By now the food poisoning was in full flow once more, the germs enjoying one hell of a party in my system. I struggled to the foot of the imposing stone pyramid that is Borobudur, but alas, that was all that I could manage. Whilst the others climbed on up, I merely sat on a bench at the foot like someone’s grandma on a family trip to the seaside, whilst a bored guide who was hoping, (in vain), for a tip, told me all about the Buddhas at the top that I could not see.
Not being able to stand that too long I excused myself, went round to the corner of that great monument and threw up on it. During the aftermath, whilst gazing up at that testament to human ingenuity and faith, I mused upon whether it was the most spectacular vomiting spot that I’d ever chosen. It probably was, although I must admit to blowing chunks over Leeds Town Hall several years ago. Feeling better physically (from being sick) and mentally (for having achieved something vomitally speaking), I made my way back to the bench and looked meaningfully upon Indonesia’s number one attraction once again.
Top 10 Monuments on earth to throw-up over: No. 4: Borobudur
Despite the early hour (seven) the tourists were already starting to arrive in droves. A party of nut-brown schoolchildren and some traveller-types and, Oh my God! What was that? The most gorgeous blonde upon God’s fair earth walked past in front of me. Now, I’m not really a blondes kind of guy, much preferring the Mediterranean look, (by the by, there was an aesthetically-pleasing group of Italian tourists there too), but when you do come across a good blonde, it is something to behold.
And this fair maiden was definitely out of the top drawer!
I was just musing as to where she might hail from, (definitely European, you can tell by the fashion. Probably not Dutch, maybe German though a little small in stature, probably Danish or Swedish), when another vision of blonde femininity appeared before mine eyes. Sadly however, a less alluring one.
“You are looking very sick,” said Margot from the minibus.
‘No shit, Sherlock,’ thought I. But of course one is too polite to say so.
“I was sick before, it was terrible experience.” However I was feeling, my blonde muse had disappeared up the temple and I was glad of the company. We walked back down the hill together and stopped at one of the many restaurants by the car park for a drink. Margot turned out to be interesting but unfortunately, very depressing too. “I am travelling now,” she announced. “It is the best experience of my life.”
“Oh really, where did you start?”
“To start with I flew into Singapore.”
“How is Singapore, I’ve never been?”
“Terrible, I hated it. It was very expensive too.”
“Oh. And where did you go after that?”
“Oh yes, I’m thinking of going there. Did you go up the Petronas Tower?”
“No, they only have a few tickets each day and when we got there they’d ran out. Didn’t do much else either, it was a horrible place. I was glad to move on.”
And so on and so forth. In her three months of travelling, Margot from Utrecht had met no one that she really liked, stayed in no hostel or hotel that she’d recommend and gone to no place that she’d enjoyed. And this was the best experience of her life! I didn’t want to stick around to hear about the bad times. Besides, the minibus was leaving soon.
I was taking a different bus back to the one that I’d taken going, as that was proceeding onwards to another temple and I wanted only to proceed back to bed. I climbed into bus number two and was surprised to find myself face to face with a glimpse of paradise; the blonde muse from the temple!
The Vision of Heaven turned out to be friendly, Danish, (Yes, guessed right!), and came with a chatty friend. That was good since it meant that I could stare at them both whilst pretending to listen to the latter. Actually, that’s not entirely true, I did indeed listen to the friend and the Danish Divinity since they turned out to be rather interesting. They were both teaching English in Surabaya and had been on Java for six months. We talked of Surabaya, English teaching, (I’m sorry, I know it’s sad, but it’s true. I meant the girl of my dreams and had a conversation about class sizes), England, (Heavenly Creature loved pub culture, I almost proposed there and then!), and then moved onto a mystery that has been bugging me ever since I first set foot in South-East Asia.
We were talking about popular culture in Indonesia. I’d just wowed them with my Doraemon knowledge, (for those not in the know, he’s a blue cat-like robot with no ears who helps a stupid kid called Nobita and is to Asia what Mickey Mouse is to the States), when I asked what music the youth of Surabaya are into.
“It is strange,” said the sublime Scandinavian in her sultry soothing accent, “but they all like ‘Michael Learns to Rock’.”
‘Michael Learns to Rock’. Have you ever heard of them? Oh what a surprise, you haven’t, join the bloody club. When I was in Vietnam however, everyone, (and I mean everyone), was mad about them. Who are they? A Michael Bolton-esque soft rock outfit. Where are they from? Vietnamese people seemed unsure. “America?” So I asked some of our friends from across the pond. “Michael Learns to Rock?”
“Who?” answered they.
Perhaps they were Canadian; they sometimes have strange pop tastes.
“Who?” answered the ones clad in maple leaves.
The identity of this group remained an unsolved mystery that I thought little of until I went to the Philippines.
“Michael Learns to Rock,” said the guy with the mike. “Sing this Michael Learns to Rock song for me please.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
“You can’t! Why not?”
“I don’t know it.”
“But they’re the biggest group in the Philippines! How can you not know this song, it was number one for eight years!” Or something like that anyway.
“Who exactly are ‘Michael Learns to Rock’?” I asked the Dansk Deity, “And where are they from?”
“Oh, they are from Denmark, but no one there really listens to them. Here though, everybody likes them. It’s strange.”
“Strange,” I agreed, gazing into her deep blue eyes.
The food poisoning had abated for a while, but it was coming back. Luckily, today’s bus journey was one hour, not ten, and the hotel was reached just in time for me to crawl into bed and fall into a restless slumber. Awaking mid-afternoon, I felt somewhat better and so I ventured out for a sandwich in Hippyville. Sat in a restaurant, I was surprised to see Margot walk by.
“Are you better now?” she asked.
“A little,” I replied honestly. New waves of food poisoning were approaching post-tomato sandwich though. “How was the other temple?”
Hmm. I stumbled back to my bedroom toilet thanking God that however bad I might be feeling at that moment in time.
At least I wasn’t Margot from Utrecht.