With all the travels I have made this year, it's quite hard to believe - even for myself - that in this fourth quarter I am finally taking my first vacation. For the occasion, my good friend Cath and I have decided to meet in Indonesia for a full three-weeks of adventure with nothing planned but a first flight from Jakarta to Yogyakarta. I met Cath in Montreal during my first master's degree in Project Management. With her still living there and my short term assignment in China brought to a term, we coordinated both our flight schedules to minimize the waiting time at the airport before officially kicking off vacation season.
A window to the Indonesian Culture
We had agreed not to visit Jakarta as the comments and reviews from many friends were not very encouraging. Heavy traffic and uninterresting architechture would make this commute more of a hassle than anything else, so we've agreed to skip Indonesia's capital city and fly directly to Yogyakarta (aka Jogja) a few hours after my arrival. With a few hours to kill before our flight, we found a small restaurant in the terminal which would not only provide us with food and refreshments, but also a flavor of the country's laidback culture which would later on be found to be a common theme throughout our travel. We must have attempted at least five time to order items on the menu only to have the veiled waitress go to the kitchen and come back ten minutes later to tell us: "Sorry, finish." Way to kill an hour as she used her broken English to tell us the item we ordered was sold out or not available on this particular day. We finally ended up having a delicious Soto Ayam (chicken soup) and Nasi Goreng (rice with grilled chicken and vegetables) as we were both waiting for our cellphone batteries to charge a little. We also ordered coffee - an absolute essential fix for Cath who was fighting a brutal jetlag all the way from the Montreal. That coffee never came. The waitress either forgot it or was too shy to come back yet a sixth time to tell us it was also "finish". As we were slowly approaching the departure time, the screens around the terminal still did not display the "boarding" signal we were waiting for - something I was already acquainted with in China as it is very common to see flights being delayed at least two hours. Indeed, we ended up taking off exactly two hours later than the original scheduled departure, but there is nothing to be worried about since my biggest concern while on vacation is to find a good spot where I can spend the next three hours reading a book. When we finally landed in Yogyakarta, a sea of flowered shirt moustache men approached us simultaneously just outside the passenger zone as they were trying to embark us as customers in their taxi. Rule of thumb: when someone approaches you to push a sale, that person usually does not offer the best deal in town. Indeed, we only had to walk a few meters outside the terminal to find a city bus which would bring us to our booked accommodation in 30 minutes for 5000 IDR (0.30 EUR) per person. After checking into our hotel, Cath really wanted to go for a swim in the outdoor pool. The hotel staff was courteous enough to let us to go for a quick dip after open hours as long as we kept quiet not to disturb the other guests sleeping. We only had time to swim for a few minutes before the fun got interrupted by a bat oddly flying a little too close to the water. I don't know if you have ever seen a bat flying, but they look like they are about to crash into something every second. We decided to call it a night and go back up to our room as we remembered that bats only see at night using echolocation. We had no desire to end up face to face with it should the echo not return to its ears fast enough.
Birthday Bash on JALAN MARIBORO
The next day happened to be my birthday and my friend Cath surprised me with a series of birthday cards from back home during breakfast at the hotel. These included a card from herself, another from my fellow allumni and finally, one from my dear family. How did she manage to pull such a trick? Thoughtful Cath got in touch with my friends from school and with my sister through social media. She coordinated with them to have everyone sign the cards before placing them into her luggage. Later, I learnt that the toughest part was to coordinate the signatures with my siblings. With my brother living in the West Island and my other sister in Ottawa, it turned out to be quite the challenge to gather everyone's messages on that card. I also leant that my poor sister living in Ottawa made the trip to Montreal on a weekday in the evening and went back very early the next morning to be on-time for work. I won't lie, reading those cards made me smile, but also brought a few tears to my face as Cath captured the whole scene on camera to share with my family. As much as the fulfillment is huge, it's not an easy thing to live away from the people you love. It's definitely comforting to know that you have their support even from a distance. On that nostalgic morning, off we went about our day to the Borobudur Temple (described in a section below) and on our way back, it was time to treat ourselves. What better way to spend your birthday than to go for a massage. Wa had made arrangements at a spa near our hotel for a 90-minute Hot Stone Massage. However, the highly anticipated experience was not to the level we expected. Although the Javanese Massage was great, the Hot Stone part was very disappointing as I still had in memory the amazing experience from the Golden Lotus in Saigon the week before. The masseuses did not seem to master the technique at all. In fact, they did not even know how to operate the stone heating machine. It got a little awkward as I could hear them trying to figure out how to make the machine work while I was still laying on the table face down. My guess is that the hot stone masseuse was off that day, so the spa manager found a workaround to accommodate us. In the low touristic season, you can't really afford to lose business. On our way out of the spa, we were ready to head for dinner on Jalan Mariboro - the epicenter of Jogja. Walking down the main road, we scouted for a good local restaurant. In my very own experience, a good indicator of whether the food is good is the amount of locals sitting in. Even better if there are a lot of women, as this feminine validation represents for me a "Homemade Quality Stamp". Sure enough, one of the tents - set up and tore down daily on the promenade - was pretty crowded, so we removed our shoes beforing entering the dining area (as per the local tradition dictates), sat on the carpet at one of those low tables and ordered traditional Indonesian dishes accompanied with two cups of delicious Wedang Uwuh - the traditional Jogja tea which we failed to find for the rest of our trip as we didn't know at the time that it was a regional specialty. I guess I'll have to pull the recipe out the web and attempt to retreive its taste at when I get back home. As expected, food was authentic and delicious - two qualities I am searching for in every meal while on travel. After dinner, we went up and down Jalan Mariboro before heading back to our quarters. It only took a few steps to be asked by a local (who - for some obscure reason - knew that we were French Canadians) to approach us and propose to bring us to an arts and crafts market to see some paintings made by local artists. Of course, we refused the offer, but he insisted that the market was only open for another hour and that we absolutely needed to see it. Not my first rodeo, my friend! I just came back from China! Your scamming techniques don't impress me! As we were ready to call it a night and get some rest, the local bar on the corner played live reggae music, inviting us to pursue the celebration further. Anyone who knows me well also knows how much I love live music, especially when it's anything like rap / reggae / funk / soul. So we got into the bar, cheered quite a few times and even engaged in conversations with locals with some of the Bob Marley classics playing before us. It couldn't get any better (or at least I thought). At one point, the tiniest skinniest girl at our table stood up, hopped on stage and started singing "Welcome to Jamrock" (by Damian Marley) in the most reggae-like voice ever! Not only she killed it on stage, but she surprised us as we could barely keep our jaws above the ground while hearing her. Despite the fact that I was away from home, it was a great birthday as most of the elements I like were gathered in one day. Between the cards, the temple visit, the massage, the food, the music and of course the great company, I could not have asked for a better birthday considering the circumstances. At least, one of my close friends was present and she managed very well to make this day a special one for me. Thanks, Cath!
BOROBUDUR BUDDHIST TEMPLE
We pursued the festivities as we booked transportation for the day through a tourist desk and headed to the Borobudur Buddhist Temple - a very impressive structure in the middle of the jungle used to comemorate Buddha through ceremonies and offerings. Java Island is mostly Muslim today, but still holds some of the most beautiful remains of the buddhist and hinduist cultures that once we much more present in the country. That was one of the few times that we hired services from a tourist desk as we always found better deals using the Grab app. Indeed, we thought we had a financal advantage to book the journey through an agency on the side of the road as Cath was comparing the tour price with the ones listed in her travel guide, but we were very surprised to find out on the way to the temple that the price only included transportation and we still had to pay for the entrance fees on-site. Of course, this information was not explicitly displayed or even given to us verbally as we booked the trip. So, we kept it to Grab for the rest of the trip unless this preferred option was unavailable. At the temple, Cath's goldie locks and blue eyes attracted lots of curious locals. Soon enough, a sea of children gathered around her to take selfies "for good luck", as they nicely put. I did not generate the same buzz with my black hair and brown eyes, so I turned out to be the photograph throughout the session. A few groups did ask to take pictures with me as they were impressed with my unusual height for the region, but it was not nearly as much as the keen interest they had for Cath, the Forbidden Fruit. We even had to walk around the sight strategically in order to take pictures without being interrupted by enthusiastic children. We were very happy to take time to bond with them and even exchange a few words in basic-level English. We knew this type of bonding won't happen everywhere in Indonesia as some other regions are extremely touristy, so we thought we'd enjoy it while it lasted. At sunset, it was time to leave and head back to town. The exit to the sight was located at the opposite side of the parking area. We did wonder why we had to go all the way to the other side instead of exiting from where we entered. It was all sorted out when we got a little closer to a large market area which we had to go through in order to reach our driver waiting for us. It is a way of assuring business to the locals as they are trying to make a living. The IKEA concept applied to tourism, if you will.
PRAMBANAN HINDUIST TEMPLE
The next day, we had plans to visit Prambanan - another very impressive temple and yet, so different from Borobudur we have just visited the day before. However, we had no desire to pay once more the sucker price through an improvised travel desk on the side of the road. So, we called a driver and "Grabbed it" to Prambanan for pocket change. The structure was very impressive and fun to walk around. The main reason why Prambanan is so different than Borobudur is that Prambanan is a Hindu Temple, whereas Borobudur was Buddhist. Prambanan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the largest Hindu temple site in Indonesia, and one of the biggest in Southeast Asia. Back in the 9th Century, we could count as many as 240 structures on the site. Today, most of them were destroyed by earthquakes throughout the years. However, the six biggest ones were either preserved or reconstructed, so we could still enjoy their beauty today. As you can see on the picture, the structures are very high and impressive as I look very small sitting on the stairs. Of course, the same drill applied on our way out of the sight as we had to go through a neverending market and let ourselves be tempted by local arts and crafts before finally reaching the exit. It was nonetheless a fun experience which we turned into a photoshoot session. There were just enough tourists so we could take shots here and there without having anyone in the background - a craft we learned to perfect throughout the travel. Of course, it got a little more complicated and even impossivle in other regions of Indonesia.
With both Borobudur and Prambanan checked off our list of sights to visit, there was nothing much we absolutely wanted to see around Yogyakarta. Although we really enjoyed the sights and the particular flavours of the region, it was time to keep going as both of us were really excited to hike up a volcano. With that said, we woke up early on the next day and headed to the train station for an 8-hour ride to Malang, in East Java.