By Franki Black
I expected a few things prior to our arrival in Indonesia: balmy weather, palm trees, sacred temples, kind-hearted people and spicy food. What I did not expect was to feel like a celebrity. As soon as I landed at Jakarta’s international airport, I could sense dozens of eyes on me. My white skin and blonde hair was something of an anomaly in this part of the country and wherever I went I’d be approached by shy locals asking me to pose for photographs with them. When I agreed, they called their friends and shrieked with delight.
I was accompanied by Ega von Wielligh, co-founder of Afronesia Tours, who had arranged my eight-day tour of Java. Ega is originally from Indonesia, but she married a South African and now lives in Wellington in the Western Cape. She was as excited to return home, as I was to discover the exotic and fascinating island of Java. Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic country comprising of over 17 000 islands and in the heart of it all lies Java, home to 60% of Indonesia’s 258 million citizens.
Fisherman in Jakarta.
The Journey Begins: Jakarta
Our first stop, Jakarta, is a mind-bogglingly busy capital city situated in the northwest of Java. Over seven million motorbikes and cars pass through it on a daily basis, skyscrapers stand next to sprawling slums and almost everyone seems to be working, even if that means playing the guitar for the city’s many picnickers. Beggars are nowhere to be seen.
Harry Sukhartono, our guide, expertly navigates the way to Jakarta’s Old Harbour. Between the 17th and 19th Centuries the harbour served as the centre of trade for the Dutch colonists who ruled Indonesia for three centuries. From here pepper, nutmeg and gold were shipped to foreign lands, making the Dutch increasingly wealthy.
Puppetry is an ancient art in Indonesia.
Today visitors can walk past traditional wooden ships lined up along the pier to get a glimpse of yesteryear. The Dutch colonists also left behind a rich architectural legacy and there’s no better place to see original verandas, stately buildings and wrought-iron twirls than at Fatahillah Square. Housed around the square are the Fine Art and Ceramics Museum, the Jakarta History Museum and the famous Batavia Café. Over weekends the square is packed with street performers, families and entrepreneurs pushing food carts from which delicacies such as cat fish, doughy meatballs and blue ducks’ eggs are served.
From the square we’re driven to central Jakarta to see the National Monument (a symbol of Indonesia’s independence) and Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia with capacity for 120, 000 people! Opposite the mosque stands Jakarta Cathedral and on big religious occasions, the members of the respective congregations happily share one another’s parking lots. Religious and cultural tolerance is a way of life in Indonesia.
Train journey to Bandung.
The next stretch of our trip sees us travelling by luxury train through West Java towards Bandung, a trendy city situated three hours from Jakarta. The urban sprawl of Jakarta is replaced by a lush and tropical countryside where paddy fields and small traditional homes with terracotta roofs mark the way.
On arrival in Bandung, Harry announces, “This is the Paris of the East!” Known as the flower city, Bandung is legendarily home to beautiful women, many students and trend setters. It’s also one of the world’s celebrated art deco cities. During the 1930’s Dutch architects saw Bandung as a laboratory in which to experiment with art deco and native styles. As a result the city’s tree-lined streets give way to countless buildings characterized by flexible lines and decorative walls. Presently the city’s forward-thinking mayor, also an architect, has introduced a number of themed urban parks (including a singles-only park!) and ensures that the city is kept in spotless condition.
Meeting the musicians of Bandung.
Our first evening in Bandung starts with an angklung performance hosted at the Udjo Centre. Listed as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, the angklung is a traditional bamboo instrument unique to West Java. It was customarily played during harvesting and circumcision ceremonies, but in modern times it’s used for entertainment purposes. We sit back as an orchestra of angklung players set the tone for a Sundanese puppet show and a lively performance of singing and dancing. I’m reminded of Cape Town’s colourful minstrels who originally were brought to South Africa from places like Java.
In the morning we make our way to Tangkuban Perahu, an active volcano located on the outskirts of Bandung. We wind past tea plantations and through thick pine forests until we reach the crater. The eggy smell of Sulphur drifts thick in the air. I move through a crowd of mask-wearing Asian tourists to catch a glimpse of the ice-blue water lying over the basin. Within minutes my celebrity status is taken to new heights. Twenty plus pre-teenagers gather round me for a photoshoot, while onlookers find confidence to approach. Somewhat bemused I pose with a group of Muslim women, a Buddhist man and a seamstress. We wander through a market set up on the rim of the volcano where traditional daggers, wooden flutes and gemstones are up for a bargain.
Local village at Tangkuban Perahu.
In the afternoon Harry insists on taking me to a place that brought Madiba to tears during a visit in the nineties: the Asian-African Conference Museum found in Bandung’s art deco district. In 1955 the building in which the museum is housed played host to 1500 delegates from 29 African and Asian countries. It was the first conference of its kind and all the participating countries were at some point in their histories colonized by the west. The aim of the conference was to unite against colonialism and to strive for Afro-Asian cooperation. I’m guided past information boards on which the events of the conference are depicted and am showed a film of how this week-long groundbreaking gathering of brave leaders led to a lasting Asian- African partnership.
Every year thousands of local and international tourists flock to Central Java to visit two ancient temples: Borobudur and Prambanan. Borobudur was built by the Syailendra Dynasty in the 8th Century and remains the world’s largest Buddhist temple, while Prambanan was built 100 years later and is considered one of the most significant Hindu temples in existence.
Rickshaw ride in Yogyakarta.
Our final destination is Yogyakarta, a steamily hot and bustling city situated a few kilometres from both temples. We arrive after a two-hour flight from Bandung and are escorted in air-conditioned comfort to our hotel where two rickshaw drivers sit waiting for us. Their rickshaws consist of open-air passenger seats attached to motorbikes! I slide onto the seat, hold on tight and hope for the best while my driver whisks me into thick traffic towards Yogyakarta’s shopping district.
The next morning we enter the sacred territory of Prambanan. Wrapped in a sarong, I gaze at the intricate stone turrets rising up from the dirt. 240 temples were originally dotted around the three main structures which symbolize the creator, the destroyer and the preserver. We’re led into the first tower where a statue of Ganesh stands illuminated in a vaulted room. Decorative stone carvings cover the walls of the temples and I’m told that Prambanan is an embodiment of a centuries-old Hindu tale that involves the kidnapping of a beautiful queen and her dramatic rescue.
Hindu Temple, Prambanan.
From Prambanan we’re driven to the Merapi Volcano situated an hour away. En-route I see apple-green plantations, palm trees and villagers wearing conical hats and carrying impossibly heavy loads of grass strapped to their backs. Our driver tells us about how the volcano violently erupted in 2010 causing the deaths of 324 residents living in the area. Warnings were issued, but many of the locals refused to leave their cherished homes, cows and fertile land. Since that tragic event, tourism has ironically increased around the volcano. On arrival at the base of Merapi, we hop aboard one of many Jeeps that transport tourists to an outdoor museum of a house that was destroyed during the eruption. There’s a burnt clock frozen in time, the carcass of a cow and a traditional gong blackened by ash.
After a sombre two hours at Merapi, we lunch on crispy duck and sticky rice pudding and make our way to Borobudur. The magnitude of this Buddhist masterpiece is immense. Nine mounted terraces stretch skywards towards a central dome standing high above the ground.
Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple.
We walk up a series of stairways passing some of the 72 Buddha statues that form part of the temple. Each level represents a phase in the ultimate quest to attain nirvana. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Borobudur was mysteriously abandoned in the 15th Century and officially rediscovered in the 19th Century. Over time it’s become a prevalent place of pilgrimage that is loyally frequented by Indonesia’s predominantly Muslim population.
On my last morning in Indonesia, I bow my final bow, pose for one more photo and start the long journey home to South Africa. The exotic smells, sounds and tastes of Indonesia linger in my mind for days and it occurs to me that this country of islands changes ones perspective. Here people are deeply connected to ancient traditions and rituals, and communal living is expressed through every shared meal. Indonesia’s humble and curious people put their faith in a greater good and despite maddening urban crowds and bee-swarm traffic; they live a remarkably peaceful existence as one multicultural whole.
Rice paddies near Borobudur.
Travel to Indonesia with Afronesia Tours
Go east… go far east with Afronesia Tours and discover firsthand the vibrant colours, indigenous music, sacred temples, beaches and uncompromising hospitality of Indonesia. Afronesia Tours is the leading tour operator for South African travellers wishing to explore the islands of Indonesia.
All tours are managed and guided by husband-and-wife team, Ega and Heinrich von Wielligh. Ega brings to every tour a vast knowledge of her home country, while Heinrich’s ability to speak English and Afrikaans puts South African travellers at ease. Opt for a customized itinerary to suit your needs or choose a packaged tour. Four-star accommodation and daily breakfasts are included in every tour.
Coconuts for sale at typical food cart.
Packaged tours include:
• Bali, Lombok, Gili Trawangan and Java in 14 days: Visit local villages, islands, temples and museums, and participate in water sports and traditional spa treatments.
• Bali, Lombok and Gili Trawangan in 11 days: This itinerary is focused on island-hopping and showcases traditional Indonesian culture and gastronomy at its best.
• Java & Bali in 9 days [extended tour optional]: Visit sacred temples and traditional villages in Bali and experience Borobudur and Prambanan in Central Java.
• Komodo Adventure to Bali & Flores in 11 days: This adventurous itinerary includes cycling around Ubud, watersports in Flores, inter-island sailing and a visit to the world-famous Komodo dragons.
• Java & Sumatera in 9 days: Discover the rich culture and history of Sumatera, the largest of Indonesia’s islands, and learn about local rituals, dances and daily activities.
A puppeteer and his puppet.
Q&A with Ega & Heinrich of Afronesia Tours
1. How did you meet?
Heinrich: We met on a dating website over three years ago and two months later I asked her to marry me over skype. I was living in Wellington at the time and Ega was living in Jakarta. I flew to Indonesia to meet her physically for the first time at the airport and a few days later we got married. Five months later, Ega joined me in South Africa where we’ve lived happily ever since.
2. What makes Indonesia such a special destination?
Heinrich: I felt completely welcomed in Indonesia. It used to be colonized by the Dutch, which means that quite a number of Indonesian words are very closely linked to Afrikaans. No one has road rage, people are warm and welcoming and everyone is busy with an entrepreneurial venture. Another reason to visit is of course Indonesia’s remarkable natural beauty. There are thousands of pristine beaches and it is much less commercialized than Thailand. You’ll also find tasty cuisine wherever you go.
3. Any similarities and differences between South Africa and Indonesia?
Ega: Indonesian cities are hugely cosmopolitan and diverse, while I find South Africa to be wilder with vast open spaces. Like the Afrikaners, we similarly address our elderly as ‘Oom’ and ‘Tante’.
4. What is typical Indonesian cuisine?
Ega: Our food is very spicy and we eat rice with almost everything! We also have excellent seafood and meats. I’d recommend everyone should try Batagor when visiting Bandung – it consists of meatballs served in peanut sauce and comes served with crackers.
5. Any Indonesian customs that we should know about?
Ega: It’s customary to remove your shoes when visiting someone at their home and to wear long pants or a sarong when entering a temple. We also receive and give gifts with our right hand and we never add salt to our food before tasting it.
NuArt Sculpture Park, Bandung.
Source: Travel Ideas