Yogyakarta, It’s All In The Name

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Yogyakarta, a word that does not roll off the tongue so well. Heck, even when typing this out I have to look at the title to remember it. To be honest, I still have not said it properly. And then everyone shortens it, Joyo, or Joka, or Yogy, a great plan when you know the new version, but still the pronunciation is very difficult. So the entire four days we stayed in Yogyakarta I sounded like a tourett’s patient, blurting out unintelligible nonsense. But don’t worry, because the locals are very used to this behavior, and never make you feel like the town idiot when asking directions.

So we arrived in the center of Java in the late afternoon after a non-eventful train ride. Java is the world’s most populous island, with 135 million people in it. We were told the scenery was going to be amazing, with terraced rice fields covering the rolling hills, but truthfully, I would not go out of my way to see it. An overcast day perhaps had robbed the land of some of its glory, or perhaps I was not in a very Zen like place, or even more likely, I was so into my book that I was living in jungles of Borneo fearful of a terrorist plot to control all the worlds computers. That was definitely it.

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Once in the train station we quickly negotiated a ride in a pedicab. A pedicab is a bicycle version of a rickshaw, which has a bike attached to a two person bench. Sometimes they have a canopy to keep the rain out, but more often is barebacked. Now this is a new one for us, and we were a bit unsure about using another human being to be our pack animal, but he was so insistent that the fare would help his kids go to college that we could not say no. He was in his sixties, lean and wirey, with a bit of belly and a quick toothless smile. We had no idea how far it was, nor how strong are willing driver would have to be. But the one thing we knew for sure is that the seats were made for smaller people, because we could not squeeze both our bums into that seat. We had to both manage with just one cheek in. In addition, our luggage, which was two massive backpacks and two day packs, had to be piled up on top of us, making a very ungainly pyramid of luggage, with two barely recognisable human beings under the pile.

Our fearless old man pedaled us through town with a surprising amount of dexterity and strength. He had no fears of cutting into the heart of the maelstrom of hundreds of motorbikes, a peppering of some horse carriages, and a few cars. Bikes zoomed past us as our galiant driver pumped with all his might to get up hills. We crossed intersections that I seriously wouldn’t have crossed in a tank. But he manoeuvered through like a stubborn old ox in the rice paddy. Clearly in this crowd, we were the damn in the river. In the end we turned down a neighborhood street that seemed a bit too residential, and ended up in the lobby of a very nice looking hotel. The lobby opens to very tropical looking waterfall, rolling green hills, and I kid you not, a round door in one of the hills with Bilbo Baggins smoking his pipe. Ok maybes not the last bit, but it might as well have been the Shire, because we clearly could not afford it. Ohh, you mean Duta Guest House, not Duta Gardens. That’s our sister hotel. Well pack us back up on the pedicab and we roll again. It turned out our place was not middle earth, but it was lovely enough, and compared to the pricepoint of ninety buck to fourteen bucks, no thoughts were needed. Who needs air conditioning in the tropics, not us, not if it saves us the cost of a McDonald’s value meal.

Well back to Yogyakarta, or whatever you call it. We fell in love with this strange little city right away. Not sure why, but it called to us. We were in a touristy area, with lots of expats, but plenty of Indonesians too. There were rows of restaurants and art galleries on our street also, selling batik paintings and woodwork. The city is famous for its artisans. It’s also unique in that even though it is part of Indonesia, there is a country of its’ own within the city. A little bit like the Vatican or Monaco, it doesn’t make sense that they retain their status, yet they do.

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Well this area is the Sultan’s palace, which is the oldest part of the city that has walls surrounding. The Sultan still resides there, and employs over a thousand people that still live in the walled section. They continue to dress in their traditional garb, and are fiercely loyal to him. I believe the story goes that when Indonesia struck it’s independence, he refused to leave the compound and brokered a deal. The government not wanting to make a martyr out of him for fear of a massive uprising, gave him rights to stay in power, albeit only in this very small section of Indonesia. The palace was interesting, not as opulent as I would expect, but nice enough.

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In the center was a Warang Puppet stage, or shadow puppets. All the puppets are elaborately painted on buffalo skins, and have an exaggerated anatomy, with super long arms attached to sticks. There is a screen stretched out on decorated frame like a cinema. Behind the screen though still visible on the sides was a fifty piece orchestra, using tradition instruments that in themselves were pieces of art. So intricately carved, painted, and inlayed that they were each unique and beautiful. Then there is the head puppeteer, who does all the acting, singing, and voice over for all the characters. The actual show was done in Indonesian, so I can’t really say I was following it, but the music and show had a mystical feel to it, with the puppets shadows playing out on the screen.

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The other impressive thing in the Sultan’s grounds was the water palace. Without intending too, and in all actuality, we strongly protested any guides to help us find it, but one man insinuated himself with us so cleverly that we just tossed our hands up and conceded defeat. He lead us through some ruins down a tunnel underneath some buildings to a open court yard with multiple pools in it. Apparently the route we went was how the Sultan got back and forth. There were three pools, two in one courtyard with a three story tower over looking them, then on the otherside was his private pool. On the third floor of the tower it was said that the Sultan would stare out and choose his next mistress. Whether this was true or not will probably always be one of histories mysteries. No tour to the Water Palace could possibly end any other way but at a stop at his “brother’s” batik gallery. The brother was doing a sweeping design that was more broad in nature, like an under painting in water color. Well the assistant was hard at work, dipping a brush in melted inks that were heated by candle, the painting intricate designs above his more washed out colors on some fabric. The work was really nice, and I thought I would enjoy one on my wall. But what happens when you travel is you get real tight with the wallet. A hundred dollars for a painting is a huge no no for me, unless I love it beyond words. Also we had no price comparison, so we could be just throwing our money at the wall. Well we parted with our guide a dollar shorter, but a heap smarter.

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So lunch was on our mind, and air-conditioning was our mood. The heat by this time was like being in a oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, we were baking. Well times like this is when you get lost, and sure enough we did. We wandered in a sweaty daze for an hour or so, till I took hope from an ice-cream shop. Mmmm, air-conditioned and a nice ice-cream cake to go with it to chill your insides. With new found energy and a clarity of vision we headed off in the proper direction this time. On the way we came across some street performers dressed as a dragon acting out some Hindu fables. It was amazing how the two of them were able to flip around together in the costume.

As we came upon an intersection, we heard the sound of traditional music blaring above the din of traffic, and above the helmets of hundreds of riders was a stage with three traditionally clothed dancers doing their bit. Above the dancers was a banner, then a bronze statue of three Indonesian soldiers carrying their M-16’s too battle. We looked at each other and with a telltale nod of the head, and crossed the intersection that was swamped with bikes. Once safely across the road we walked through a gate and grabbed a seat in the back of the crowd.

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We whipped out our cameras to maximize this free cultural performance. After some shots and some video, I glanced around and noticed that we were in a sea of high school girls. Hmm, must be a free show for schools. So we hunkered down for about a half hour of dancing, but the growling in my stomach was getting insistent. Grrr, grruuumble, grrrr. Louder the the music, so I turned to Yvonne with the “Let’s Go Eyes”, but then something a bit odd was happening on the stage. It was between dance numbers, and the two MC’s were doing their Abbott and Costello routine on the stage. They were staring at us, and speaking in Javanese and waving. Ohhh, wait a minute, they were not speaking Javanese at all, but English, and waving at us. We wave back in a mild and slightly embarrassed manner.

“Hi Mister. Hi Mam. Welcome to Yogyakarta and thank you for coming to our schools’ show. This show we are putting on is a variety act representing all the different cultures on each of the islands of Indonesia. Our school, (St. something or another), is one of the largest catholic schools in the area. Thanks so much for joining us and enjoy.”

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With another shy wave they were off to their next performance. Well now that we were singled out, we could not possibly leave for at least two numbers. So we hunkered down. The performances were all very different, from sleek elaborate outfits, to a symbolic stick dance, to a hip hop number. The hip hop number cracked us up because the girls had risque outfits, camouflage skirts, and M-16 rifles. At one point they used a picture frame to represent a TV screen and did a dance number in the box. Here I was thinking this was a conservative Muslim country. Yet there was cleavage popping out of these little outfits, and every time it did you would hear the audience of girls giggle and screech. This dance number was more Britney Spears than Celine Dion. Then it dawned on me, these were not Muslim girls, but Catholic School Girls.

Well the girls got pictures of us, and a nun came over and started chatting us up. I have never been that comfortable with nuns from the years of forced Catholic indoctrination in catechism and the back of my hands got phantom pains from all the rulers that had smacked my knuckles. She insisted we sit in the front row, no excuses, or I swear the ruler was going to come out. So once again our dreams of lunch in air-conditioning were dashed.

Sister Marie was very nice, and translated alot of the conversations on stage for us, and explained all the symbolism of the dances. She had 300 students, from all over the islands, and also one from Ghanna. She was thoroughly enjoying the show, even when one of the islands used a rock band as their number. She invited us to visit her school but we were unable to get a hold of her sadly. It would have been a great experience. At the end of the performance we thanked her, and headed out for Dinner seeing how we had missed lunch.

After a nice meal, we thought a drink might be nice. So we headed to a bar that had a band playing. It was a very chill place, with russet colored walls, funky art hanging everywhere, and lots of arch ways. Like most restaurants out here, it was open to the outside. The music was cool, with 5 guys playing various instruments, and random people who knew the band belting out tunes.

Now when you travel for long periods of time, it’s necessary to come up with little games to entertain ourselves. One of my favorites is people watching, and creating their story. There was one woman there who I called ‘the Dragon Lady’, she was probably in her thirties, maybe forties, Indonesian, good looking, but man did she ever look pissed. Her back looked like someone shoved a rod up her bum, and her brow was creased so severely that her skin crinkled above her nose in a perfect V. Then there was the eyes, staring so intently straight ahead you could imagine Superman’s laser beams shooting out of them. Her husband, was in his seventies, a bit drunk, on crutches, wobbling up to the stage. Now he sat on the drum box, and we all crouched back waiting for some drunken disaster to occur, and her steely eyes never left him. The hatred was beyond words from the dragon princess for her man. Well he started up; tap, tappity, tap tap. Next thing you know, he’s banging away at the drum box, with the whole band going at it behind him, matching him beat for beat. He was actually quite good. But did she crack a smile on that frozen face, not even a twitch. No love for the drunken musician.

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Well after that we had a few more drunken singers pop in, all of them sounded good, though a few could barely walk. One they had to pull off the stage because he nearly knocked over all the equipment.

So all in all, it was a good show, with a packed house. It was no surprise when a couple asked to sit across from us, because they were the only seats left in the house. Of course we said yeah, and they plopped down with their beers and started chatting with us. He was an older man, worked in the furniture business, and she was a good looking younger woman. Both were quick to smile and great company. We all enjoyed the music, and some light conversation that goes on between couples out for a night. You know, how you met, kids, what kind of whiskeys do you like, the important stuff. After the band stopped for a bit, they asked us if we wanted to go to a club, and no you perverts, it was not a sex club. Normally I would not even address that, but I know my audience well. It was the Sheraton, the biggest club in Yogyakarta. We hesitated a bit because of budget, and to be honest, were not that into the whole club scene any more. But we figured why not, it's nice to get a insider view of things, so we hopped in their car and headed out.

Well we pull up and I can tell we are under dressed. The Sheraton is the biggest building in the town, and had spot lights doing their thing, and all the twenty something's dressed in their barely covering their asses mini-skirts, lined up front. Well our hosts leads us right past all that rif raf, and straight to the bouncer. He looked at my wrinkled yellow Hawaiian shirt, the very same shirt that years before my friends said they would not be seen with me in, travel stained shorts, and beat up flip flops. He immediately shakes his head NO.

Well that does not stop our hostess, who takes him aside with some strong words, and next thing you know we are being ushered into the world of hi-tech clubs. We round a corner of mirrors which opens up into a huge auditorium, with a pronged stage justting out from the front, two small dancing stages on the sides, and a long bar in the back. There is a light show going on to do any Pink Floyd concert goer proud, and smoke billowing out the sides. On stage you have the Indonesian Back Street Boys rocking with a full band, and their accompanied dancers.

The live band was amazing, doing a mixture of Indonesian rock, Lady Gaga, and all kinds of really cool club music. I know I am no expert in music, as many of you know, but Damn, these Boys could ROCK!

So now, on to the best thing. Along the side of the stage were a row of high top tables roped off from all the peons, with waiters, and staff to take care of the high end clients that sit there. And on one of these tables was a bottle of scotch, next to a bucket of ice, with four seats at it. We were quickly escorted past the velvet ropes to our table. Mmmmmmmm, what a nice thing to be a traveler. Our host poured three very heavy scotch on the rocks for us. It had been a good amount of time since I had tasted that smoky peaty flavor, so I just sipped a bit and let it float around my tongue. What can I say, the atheist had found heaven. Here we were just two beat up poor travelers, and we find ourselves at the swankiest club in town in the VIP section sipping Scotch. That never happens in Philly. So once again when people ask me why I travel, it's for moments like this.

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Now as every biblical story will tell you, there will always be a downside to heaven, and for us, it was the liberation of all the contents of that bottle, plus the half bottle that the staff gave us from the last time our friends had stayed there. I can not really tell you all the details of the night, the ladies took turns dancing on the stage, there was a little bit too much PDA and wrestling between the guys, for my taste, and of course, the few slips off stages and seats. This was a scotch drinking session to do my buddy James proud.

Well after the stools got a bit too wobbly for our host to sit in, and the fact that gravity had his feet flying in the air, we decided it really was time to go. We rounded up our hostess, who helped with his other side, seeing how he was a really big man, and we carried him to the cab. I was feeling so good for myself that I rushed back to Yvonne to have a few more drinks, and as often is the case, I found myself in a bit of a wobbly state. So now it was my lovely girlfriend’s turn to be the hero, and help me out. Once outside though I perked up enough to know the cabs were trying to rip us off, as they often do, 5,000 Indonesian rupees, high way robbery. So we walked out of the Hilton complex looking for a more honest cab driver, and we found him, at 4,000 rupee. Try to pull a fast one over me, will you. After that I can’t say I really remember much of the ride home, but apparently the cool tile in my veranda was much better then my non air conditioned room to sleep on. Yvonne got so bored of waiting for me to come to bed that she decided to text her Mom and tell her all about my choice of sleeping arrangements at five in the morning. Truly something you want your girlfriends Mom to know about.

Well, needless to say, our travel plans had to be delayed because there were soooo many things to do in Yogyakarta. Nothing like laying in a non air-conditioned room in a puddle of your own sweat to really cheer you up. You gotta love the tropics.

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