This was the last stop of our motorized trek across Indonesia's main island, Java. We arrived in a mini-van shared with other western travelers, ending a day-long journey from the Indian Ocean beach town, Pangandaran, that included a slightly grueling, four-hour "cruise" through waterways collectively known as The Inland Sea.
Yogyakarta (yō-gyə-ˈkär-tə) is a sprawling city of about half-a-million, close to the geographical center of the island of Java. This is the capital city of the Special Region of Yogyakarta, the only province in Indonesia still governed by the area's precolonial monarch, The Sultan of Yogyakarta. The land rises north of the city onto green agricultural hills, then more mountainous terrain covered in forest and dotted with volcanoes. Thirty kms. to the south, the Indian coast runs in a more or less east-west direction.
At first, Yogyakarta looks typical of other southeast Asian cities we visited - hot, polluted, teeming with street noise, an off-kilter medley of vehicles defying the basic concept of traffic lanes. A little time, however, and a closer look, reveals something unique, even special, to be pasted into one's mental travel scrapbook.
Planters along the sidewalks, outdoor cafes, funky business signs painted with artistic flair, an abundance of smiles - there was noticeable fun in the air and an openness to outsiders. This friendly feeling was dampened during our visit by world events, unfortunately. The Americans had invaded Iraq a few days before, unleashing public anger and vivid manifestations among the city's Islamic population. One afternoon, we were surrounded, then rebuked, by white-robed youth on the Malioboro sidewalk while witnessing one noisy march. I wanted to show sympathy and my Canadian passport, but the tension was dissolved when my friend spoke back to them in French. We didn't stick around and chat, but an incident was averted. I decided not to take casual pictures of the political uproar, thinking they might be cheap and exploitative. Of course, now I regret this decision.
Two pictures above, we see the becak, the chain-driven three-wheeled taxi famous to the city, carrying a local woman on her rounds. Directly above is a line of these along Jalan Malioboro, Yogya's "Main" street, including a driver on downtime smoking the ubiquitous (among males) kretek, or clove cigarette.
We stayed in the Sosromenduran district northwest of the Kraton (Sultan's palace), recommended in guidebooks as well-located and traveller-friendly. Our visit lasted only four days so I have nothing to report about other areas, but 'Sosro' lived up to its billing with an abundance of budget lodgings (and a couple of swank places), art galleries and live music venues. Yogyakarta is a university town - the buzz of intellectual life was ever-present in these narrow streets.
Clockwise from top left: one of the long pedestrian passageways dissecting the district; tower for broadcasting Muslim call to prayer; street food kept warm by light bulb; chronological device at train station.
We were frequently approached by aggressive touts promoting "student art". One clothing store manager elaborately took time away from his shop to lead us through alleys to the "studio" of his good friend where we were cajoled by a succession of amazing offers. No doubt, there are many fine, talented artists in the city, but what we saw was no more than mediocre dreck that might be found anywhere. The enterprise didn't quite make sense; number one issue being this was the work of "students" who were "well-known" but willing to sell their work for a song.
We never were intending to buy; we just allowed ourselves to be carried along - a traveler's diversion that meant we could say, "Been there, done that," to any subsequent entreaties. I don't know if this is still happening, but, if so, watch your wallet, kids.
Pictured above: the soft colors of Yogyakarta's market scene. In some cases, a market might be an ad hoc spreading of wares on blankets at unmarked sidewalk locales. Below: a diptych displaying two extremes of the botanic odor spectrum; the foul durian fruit and the frangipani, or plumeria, a flower with a sublime, almost mood-altering fragrance.
What's that? Borobudor? The immense 1200-year-old Buddhist shrine on every Java traveler's must-see list? We didn't go. Our plans were changing and we decided to cut our Yogya visit short, thus sacrificing our visit to the monument. On the afternoon before our next-morning flight to Bali, feeling something like tourist's guilt, we took a last-ditch bus ride to the entrance area only to be put off by mobs of sightseers, the steep price charged to westerners and also by the time of day. (Borobudor, we had read, is best seen at the breaking of dawn.)
Prior to this minor fiasco, I did find my way northbound to Kaliurang, sitting up close under the angry eminence, Mt. Merapi, a perpetually active volcano. This is another former Dutch hill station, where colonial masters would retreat to escape the tropical heat. The bus dropped me at a crossroads restaurant, where I had tea alone among the staff. Then I went walking.
Going one way quickly brought me to a nice park, full of field-tripping high school students posing and singing by a shimmering waterfall. I retraced my steps to the cafe and then followed an old road winding upward, thinking a view of Merapi would be around the next curve. Or maybe the next. It became a daunting trek, high above the town, climbing into fog. I was standing, finally, at a mighty gully, losing initiative, when the fast-moving clouds briefly gave way and for a moment the volcano revealed itself between two steep ravine walls.
I banged off these two shots: above, missing the peak but showing the vast lava fields; below, the only one of the mountaintop billowing steam and ash. The latter is not a great digital file - I was working fast in changing light - and it manages to be both under- and over-exposed in the same shot. So I rendered it in black-and-white to help save the image and preserve the moment.
Another volcano story. We were bailing on an increasingly stressful Java. Confirming our eastward itinerary with travel providers became fraught with uncertainty and confusion. It made sense at the time to fly straight to Bali from Yogyakarta and simplify the final weeks of our Asian junket. Our biggest regret was having to pass up the pre-dawn hike to Gunung Bromo (video here and here), a smoldering landscape of active fissures and baby volcanoes lying within a massive ancient crater in eastern Java.
My companion and I were two out of only eleven passengers on the airliner during the early morning flight to Bali. About halfway along the captain directed the passengers to the right side windows. He was flying directly over Bromo. We were being luxuriously afforded a sweeping, unobstructed view of the vulcan spectacle under a cloudless sky, albeit without the pony ride.