Monday, June 27, 2011

KL, Jogya, Malang

Kuala Lumpur is a pain in the ass to get to if you’re on a budget. The Kuala Lumpur International Airport, which I’ve never seen the inside of, has a $4, 35-minute direct rail link to the main downtown train station, from which you can grab a taxi or take the subway to wherever you’re headed. But that, of course, is only if you’re paying full price on a real airline. People like me who fly budget on AirAsia and the like land at the low-cost carrier terminal, LCCT, which is an hour and fifteen minutes by bus from the city. (Not unlike LaGuardia, come to think of it…) So with my plane landing at 9pm, by the time I got through passport control and luggage pickup and the bus into town and the subway to the hostel and then finding the damn place, since they’re never very well marked, it was 11:00. Thank god for 24-hour reception.

I’d fully intended to go back to the Petronas Towers bright and early to go to the top, but thanks to a change in time zones I showed up an hour later than intended and once again missed my chance: tiket sudah habis. So I pulled out my map and started towards the Bukit Nanas park for a stroll in the literal urban jungle. On the way I was joined, not entirely voluntarily, by a Canadian/Nigerian student named Tony who was headed to the tower in the center of the park. He was the type to grab my arm to cross a busy street. I don’t particularly like being led across the street. I wasn’t terribly friendly. He didn’t seem to notice. At the tower I ditched him quick as I could (“You’re going to the top? I’ll stay down here. Enjoy the view!”), spent a little time in the air-conditioned theater where they were playing a movie about the construction of the tower, complete with a soundtrack from the Kevin Costner ‘Robin Hood’ movie that we used to play in high school band, then discovered a nature walk about to start through the park. Just before the walk was to leave, who shows up again but Tony. (“Oh, you’re tired already? You need an extra pair of legs!” “No, you asshole, I’m sitting down because I’m waiting for the tour to start.”) I think he thought I shouldn’t/wouldn’t want to be walking around on my own. I think he really didn’t want to be on his own. Either way, he came on the nature walk.

Afterwards I dashed off again, took in a little more a/c, and once again ran into Tony leaving the park. We walked a few blocks through a little market before we passed a metro station. I said I was going back to my hostel for a break. I went to the KL Bird Park. He invited me to the reggae bar in Chinatown for that evening. I didn’t go.

The bird park was pretty cool. The birds are fearless, having figured out by now that all the people do is take pictures and occasionally spend half a ringgit for a handful of bird food. So the storks are friendly and the peacocks a touch confrontational, and the monkeys are happy to take gum from giggling Japanese tourists. After the park and a swing through the Central Market for dinner and a souvenir, I headed back to the hostel (where they’d been kind enough to do my laundry for a dollar a pound) for email and bed.

If the LCCT airport is a pain for arriving at night, it’s even worse for early-morning flights out. My 7am flight to Jogya (thanks, AirAsia) meant getting to the airport around 5:30, which meant a 4am taxi to the 4:15 bus, and a 3:30 cell phone alarm to get me there. Except that Malaysia, as I discovered at the Petronas Towers the day before, is an hour ahead of Laos, and my cell phone had failed to auto-reset the clock. So when I thought I was getting up a few minutes early at 3:15, and passed the clock in the hall which said 4:15, I had a mini-heart attack. I made it out to the taxi (which thankfully was still waiting) by 4:30, caught a 4:45 bus, and luckily enough the early-morning lack of traffic made the trip quicker than usual and I made it to the check-in gate at 5:50, roughly 10 minutes before it closed. So goodbye Malaysia, and next time I’m splurging for the convenient airport.

We landed in Java around 8:30am. Last time I arrived I was horribly jetlagged and completely disoriented by this utterly strange and completely new place. This time around it was comfortable and familiar, and rather a relief to find myself there after unknown Cambodia & Laos. I had a room at a wisma with a pool, which was luckily ready for me despite the early arrival. The maps of Jogya all lie, by the way; what looked in the guidebook like a little street close to the center of town was in reality a good three kilometers south of everything you’d want to see. Outside of Bali, Indonesia doesn’t court tourist dollars like, say, Cambodia does; it seems more to passively put up with tourists rather than cater to them, which is probably culturally a good thing but requires more effort from people like me. The result is that you get things like enclaves of hotels a mile and a half distant from the sights. But that first morning out, after the prerequisite recuperation from the morning’s hassles, I walked it anyway. Every five feet or so a becak driver offered me a ride, and I figured it was better to chat and practice my Indonesian than just say no like I usually would, so I ended up being accompanied most of the way north and talked into several batik shops I wouldn’t otherwise have visited. But I got where I was going and started using the language again, so no harm in looking at a few extra pieces of pretty cloth. The best luck was a wayang kulit workshop behind the kraton, where they supposedly made shadow puppets for the sultan. I got a demonstration of the making of a wayang and an explanation of all the symbolism involved, and was probably a little overly proud of myself for doing it all in Indonesian and understanding. (Why is it so much easier to speak here than in the States?) And yes, I did buy one, and probably for more money than it was worth, but a) it was gorgeous, b) I paid half the written (tourist) price, and c) they threw in a bookmark and a keychain along with it. So good enough for me.

Jogyakarta (aka Yogyakarta, Jogja, Jogya, etc.) is in Central Java, a bit west of Malang, where I spent last summer. It’s known as a cultural capitol of Java, sort of like Ubud in Bali, where far more of the pre-Islamic Javanese culture has persisted than in other cities on the island. That means it’s far more open and socially liberal than a lot of places (though the presence of several universities doesn’t hurt either), and that it’s a great place to hear a gamelan performance. And famous for its batik. The number of stores/galleries selling gorgeous handmade batik paintings around Jalan Malioboro (the main drag) was astounding. As were the prices often, but it’s free to look. And Malioboro itself was lined up and down with street vendors selling cheap batik clothes and bags and other souvenirs, but still fun to peruse for an afternoon. Fun fact: Jalan Malioboro is named after the Duke of Marlborough. I have no idea why.

I got a lunch of soto ayam (chicken soup) from a street stall. Things I love about Indonesia: It was delicious, and cost me roughly 75 cents. And unlike in Cambodia, it didn’t make me sick. From there I walked north through the forests of batik to the train station, priced a ticket to Malang, and then back down the other side of the street. There’s an old Dutch fort just north of the kraton that’s now a museum on Indonesian independence, with patriotic dioramas depicting noble resistance fighters squaring off against evil Dutch colonialists, so for another 75 cents I poked around in there for a bit before heading back to the hotel.

Next day I woke up early again to go see Borobudur and Prambanan, Buddhist and Hindu temples, respectively, each about 45 minutes out of town and both roughly 1200 years old. They’re some of the biggest tourist draws in Java, given their age and their size. And both were pretty cool, and probably would have been far cooler had I not visited Angkor Wat just the week before. Impressive as Borobudur is, Bayon is better. The tour was billed as Borobudur Sunrise, but the timing was rather off and we ended up watching the sun come up behind Mt. Merapi as we barreled down the highway toward the temples. Still an awfully nice view. Merapi erupted rather dramatically in October of last year – it’s still smoking a bit – and you can see the paths the lava took. Driving through a perfectly intact village suddenly there will be an empty lot, filled with ash and boulders, while the houses on either side are just fine.

Both Borobudur and Prambanan were mobbed with school groups, one of the downsides of going on a Sunday. And every student in every group wanted to take a photo with me (and every other tourist there), usually in various combinations with different friends, using everybody’s cell phones. I don’t understand why – it’s not like Westerners are exactly a rarity there – and when I asked the only answer I got was “oh, we just want to, that’s all.” So I’m now on probably 90 different Facebook walls, smiling with various groups of jilbabed 14-year-olds. After a while I started saying yes but saying they had to use my camera too, to level the field a bit. After last year in Malang, I’m just grateful that here they generally bothered to ask.

For dinner I wandered down the road from the wisma until I found a place serving bebek goring – fried duck. This one probably cost me $2.25, for a big old fried duck leg, rice, sliced cucumbers, sambal, and a few sprigs of lemon balm. On top they put kremes, which as far as I can tell is what happened when you put a dollop of batter (though the duck is unbuttered) into the boiling oil. What comes out is pure salty crunchy crumbly goodness. I know I said this last year, but the Javanese sure do know how to fry their poultry. So good.

Morning #3 in Jogya I signed up for a batik class, this being the city of batik and all. I was the only one there. The instructor started by putting out some examples of patterns I could use, but they all looked like the kind of sarongs you buy for a buck on the beach in Bali, so me being overambitious me I pointed at a traditional Javanese print on the wall and asked if I could do that instead. Rather than a few lilies on a plain background, I ended up with Krishna riding Garuda, with all the flourishes. Rather than the scheduled 3 hours, the piece took me a solid 5 hours to finish. But it looks awesome, and apparently I have a very steady hand for dripping wax on fabric. Along with the batik, on the way out they give you a traditional batik wax applicator, so I fully intend to buy some dye and try again at home. Back by my hotel, I stopped by a travel agency to buy my plane ticket to Papua and book passage to Malang. The train was fully booked, so I ended up taking a travel, which is a van that serves as overland transport here. More on that later.

That night I met up with Mas Jake, a friend from CLS, to get dinner. He’s in Jogya for the year doing research on irrigation in the countryside. The restaurant we went to was a Jogya institution, owned by a middle-aged transvestite and staffed by a lot of very gay waiters (like I said about Jogya being rather more liberal than Malang…), serving es kelapa muda (iced young coconut) in a glass the size of your head. From there he drove me to buy an Indonesian cell phone, for about half the price I’d been quoted on my own. There’s nothing better than breezing through town on a motorbike – I’m gonna have to get me one of those. On the way back we stopped at the alun-alun (town square), where for about $2.50 you can rent a bicycle cart with a big neon figure on top (in our case a fish) and do a few laps of the square. The whole place was lighted up with neon, from the characters on the carts – Spongebob, Looney Toons, flashing dice – to glowsticks being tossed in the air on the lawn. It’s about as psychedelic as you can get without illegal substances.

Next morning I took a becak up to the kraton to see the sultan’s palace and the water castle. Jogyakarta still has a sultan, so only parts of the palace are open, but they’ve got good cultural performances – in this case gamelan – and some interesting displays. The water palace was once a complex of pools and fountains built by a sultan a few hundred years back. It took some hits during independence and in a recent earthquake, so now it’s just a couple of pools and some crumbling walls. Final adventure of the evening was a silver class down in Kota Gede, a suburb known for its silverwork, where I made a ring. (Both this class and the batik were organized by Café Viavia, in case anyone’s going to Jogja and interested in the same thing.)

And on Wednesday I lazed around a bit, bought a pair of Kota Gede earrings, and found a salon for a haircut and a creambath. Longer hair means longer cold showers around here, so I got a good three or four inches off. And a creambath is a head and shoulder massage and deep conditioning treatment. I chose the cinnamon-coffee scented one. Not a bad way to kill a few hours on a hot afternoon. And since I went to a higher-end place the whole thing cost me about $7. Yet another reason why Java is great.

And in the evening I met up with Judith & Jenny from CLS for dinner. The place they chose, Milas, is close by where I was staying, but on one of those little side streets that they don’t bother to include on the maps. I got to what I thought was the right street and was assured by a vendor on the corner that I was in the right place. 50 feet down the road it was dark and I hadn’t seen the place yet, so I asked a lady walking by. She didn’t say anything, but looked to where I was pointing on my map, took my wrist and walked me back out to the main road, then kept going. After a lot of gesturing and few not-quite-words I realized that she was (probably) deaf, but she was very insistent that she knew where I was going and that it was very far. Once she’d marched me about 400 yards down the road I was fairly certain I was too far south, so I stopped to ask another vendor. Turns out I’d been right the first time, and she’d dramatically misread my map. Dinner was pasta, and it was delicious.

Thursday morning I got up early to catch the travel to Malang, which was supposed to pick me up at 7am at my wisma. At 8am, the agency where I’d bought my ticket opened, and they were able to call the company and reassure me that they were picking someone up far away and would be there shortly. At about 8:40, the travel finally arrived. I was the second person to be picked up. I’d been told it was roughly a 7-hour drive, so my plan was to get dropped off at Universitas Negri Malang around 2 or 3pm, say hi to CLS people, then catch the last few talks of the day at the ISLOJ conference, then have dinner with my old host family and back to Pak Gatut’s house, where I was staying. Around 2pm we stopped for lunch, got back on the road around 3:30, and entered the mountains around Malang after 5. All told it was a 10-hour drive, with a few stops in the villages to drop off passengers, and I was dropped off at my host family’s house at 7. It was good to see them again, and luckily Pak Gatut and his wife are laid-back enough that they didn’t mind me showing up at 10pm.

Since then I’ve been at the conference, which is mostly pretty interesting if occasionally far-fetched, and poking my head into CLS when I get the chance. Last night (Saturday) a group of linguists went out to karaoke in the basement of a big mall downtown (MOG), a truly Indonesian experience. I was invited on the CLS trip to Wonosari this weekend, but I figured I’d better go to the conference instead. So right now I’m sitting in a lecture hall not listening to a talk on child language acquisition. Tomorrow I’ll be hanging around CLS, hopefully finally with internet to post this and check email for the first time in days, before I head to Surabaya in the evening and thence by plane to Papua.

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