birds in paradise

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t really posted a lot about Indonesia. I was wondering about this for a while, until I realized that it’s because I feel like I haven’t really seen Indonesia. Jakarta, with its thick pollution and pristine shopping malls and chic nightclubs, can hardly be called representative of the tropical paradise one would imagine. How can I be living in the second largest rainforest on earth, be part of the fourth largest population on earth, and feel like everything is so…artificial? So, last weekend, feeling the need to get away from marbled floors and brass-buttoned bellhops, I booked a last-minute plane ticket to a place I’d heard was renowned for its temples and volcanoes, and at 7:30 on Saturday morning I was landing at the airport (with only one runway and no visible air control tower) in Jogjakarta, central Java, just as the sun was rising over the horizon.

Jogjakarta is a strange place….as one of Indonesia’s largest cities, with a population in the multi-millions, you’d expect a bustling metropolis of steel and concrete. But what it actually was was a slow town where buildings rarely rose above two floors, and where horses, bicycles, and becaks, the manpower-pedaled carriages (pronounced be-CHAK), still clog the streets and slow down traffic as they jostle with motorbikes and oversized 4x4s.

My first stop, since it was 7:30 and I’d hardly slept and hadn’t had any breakfast yet, was the Ministry of Coffee, where I had an excellent latte and the best banana pancakes I’ve ever tasted (sorry Mom), drizzled with honey and chocolate and with cold semifreddo in the middle. There was a library upstairs, so I read a children’s book about banyan trees in English and Bahasa while I ate.

When I was sufficiently full and caffeinated, I braved a street full of becak drivers, calling out for customers (Becak! Becak!) like noisy morning birds. One of them, Mijan, offered me a day-long ride for almost nothing, and after the customary bargaining over the price, even though the price was only about $1.50, we set out to the Water Castle.

The Water Castle is where the sultan (they still have a sultan in Jogjakarta) used to spend his holidays. The name comes from the three luxurious pools at the centerpiece. One was for the Sultan, one was for his wives, and one was for his children. Legend has it that the sultan would look from a private tower over the pool, and choose one of his 35 wives to come and swim in his own private pool. He obviously did this quite often, because he was rumoured to have 150 children. With such examples to follow, it’s no wonder Indonesia’s population crowds around 230 million…

Our next stop was by far the highlight of my weekend – the bird market. Imagine what it sounds like (and smells like) to have thousands of birds cramped into dozens of tiny little alleyways, and you’ll have a mere glimpse of the bird market. Everywhere I looked, I was fascinated – every kind of bird imaginable, in cages sitting, standing, hanging, tilting, teetering, and clanging about, stuffed together on floors, hanging from ceilings, spilling out of stalls, balancing precariously on flimsy countertops… But the bird market is not merely for birds. If there’s something you’re after, this is the place to find it. I was befriended by one of the bird sellers, who gave me a personal tour and showed me iguanas, scorpions, pythons, geckos, rabbits, parrots, monkeys, owls, dogs, cats, bats (HUGE bats), fighting pigeons, and an illegal cockatoo that he showed me secretly in a back alley (“We’re not supposed to have this here…”). Of course, while I’m sure that not all of the animals meet a happy fate (the bats, for example, are for food and medicine), I had to commend the sheer variety of creatures on offer, most of which I’d only ever read about in books.

When I was able to tear myself away from the rainbow feathers and hand-painted cages, we continued on to the underground mosque and then wandered down quiet alleyways where people sat making batik and leather puppets, painstakingly setting each drop of wax and cutting each spiral as I watched in awe. The tiny streets of the kraton (the old walled city), too small for cars, were quiet enough that as Mijan pedaled me around, I could hear pots being set on stoves, dishes clinking in sinks, the occasional drone of a radio, the incessant chirp of a hundred birds. Potted plants and laundry and shell windchimes crowded together on porches and people slept away the afternoon heat under the shade of hibiscus plants and palm trees. Mijan and I took a break too; after my sleepless night and early flight, I needed an hour’s nap. But at three o’clock, he was waiting with his motorbike and two helmets, and we set off to Borobudur temple.

Borobudur is one of the largest and oldest monuments in Indonesia. A testament to Buddhism and early architecture, the colossal temple is hidden in the mountains, and our hour-long ride led us into green fields and cooler temperatures as the land rose up around us and the sun began its descent into the West.

I got there just in time, and as I made my way through the crowd of Muslim and Buddhist tourists, mostly Indonesian, I was greeted by blantant stares and finger-pointing, and awed smiles from people who had never seen anyone like me. Never have I been so aware of my skin color as I was at Borobudur. Javanese schoolchildren, who maybe had only ever heard about a bule but never actually seen one, shyly asked me to take a photo with them. Twenty pictures later, I had to start gently slip away from a growing crowd of onlookers. (I’m pretty sure I’m all over the internet by now.) Even old ladies came to put their arms around me and motion to where their husbands stood ready with the Polaroid to capture what must have been a very exciting moment.

When the crowds subsided and I was finally left alone, I wandered around and around (clockwise, of course), looking for hidden Buddhas and admiring the view of mountain jungle that spread out before me. The volcano, Gunung Merapi, rose faintly in the distance, fading into the blue sky and darkening horizon. I watched the sun set behind the ancient stone walls before I finally climbed down and we headed back, with cooler breezes flowing and lights coming on at roadside huts.

Jogja in particular, but Indonesia in general, really comes to life at night. Like Spain, Indonesia’s hot weather means that people tend to sleep away the day, or at least move slowly and furtively under awnings or in the cool shade of their homes. But at night, like the many nocturnal animals of its rainforests, Indonesia’s people come out of corners and holes in the wall to gather on the street, where life really happens.

At night I went to see wayang kulit, the famous shadow puppets. I’d seen them being made earlier in the day, now I got to see the show. On one side of a large screen, gamelan players and singers, and the master puppeteer, sit cross-legged on the stage and create the soundtrack of the show. On the other, the audience watches the shadows of puppets as they fight battles, fall in love, and escape the dark forces of the ancient Hindu legends they tell. Of course, it’s all in Javanese, so it’s hard to follow along if you’re not paying close attention, but the experience is worth it – it’s good to see that imagination (not to mention tradition) is still alive and well in Jogjakarta.

After the show, I opted to walk back home alone, passing through the night markets and crowded streets. There were dozens of food stalls, where steam rose from boiling pots and hot grills and the smell of chili and garlic was thick in the air. There were peddlers, who displayed their wares on blankets on the ground, selling everything from sunglasses to wooden carvings, and there were bands playing everything from traditional gamelan to country-western and reggae. But everywhere, there were people. This was the real Indonesia – people were talking, catching up, making dates, making plans, enjoying themselves, relaxing, being a community together. This is the kind of thing I love to see.

After I tired myself out with walking, I took a becak back home and fell into bed, exhausted, with the sound of a waterfall and the wind ruffling palm fronds to lull me to sleep.

I woke up early on Sunday so I could meet Mijan, who took me to the sultan’s palace to see the famous ramayana dancing. After my breakfast of fresh tropical fruit and hot Javanese tea, I wandered around the palace until I happened upon some women dancing traditional Javanese dances. Everything is ‘Javanese’, rather than ‘Indonesian’, and even then, it’s sometimes unique to Jogja. Indonesia is so diverse that traditional dance on any other island is completely different from Java’s…as is the food, the dress, and the language. In this case, the dances were, like everything else in Jogja, very…very…slow. The movements, deliberate and delicate, were executed with minute precision and infinite patience and concentration. Young girls and old women alike, clad in the finest batiks, moved meticulously in the highest display of feminine patience, their hands and feet working together like the hands of a run-down clock.

On another stage, ramayana dancers acted out the Hindu legends I’d seen at the puppet show the night before. With colorful costumes and exaggerated makeup, warriors fought and damsels waited to be rescued – but unlike the puppet shows, this dance was so expressive and emotional that the story could be clearly understood in any language. Scarves swirled and feet danced until I was forced to make my way back into the city, and back into the 21st century.

After the palace, I visited the famous silver shops of Kota Gede, and then stopped at a colorful restaurant in my favorite neighborhood for some typical ayam goreng, Jogjakarta’s famous coconut milk fried chicken, while I watched children play badminton and cats tiptoe through bushes on the hunt for their own lunches.

I left in the afternoon, after barely 30 hours in the city, but felt as if I’d gone to another world, or at least to another time. I felt like I’d finally seen the Indonesia I’d been looking for, though all I got was a glimpse of it (you too can get a glimpse of Jogjakarta here). …I saw a lot in just two days, but it only made me want to see more of Indonesia’s 17,000 different sides.