Bicycles and the Ballet

The time had come to leave for Indonesia. Since Air Asia charged extra to check baggage, we had decided to pare our luggage down to a single carry-on each that would have to last us for our five days there. We dropped the remainder of our things at the Service World Hostel office and had our usual breakfast of toast and coffee there. We had used the same storage arrangement for our trip to Malaysia but then we had carried backpacks with at least twice the storage capacity of that allowed by our carry-ons. We soon made our way to the airport and boarded our two hour flight to Yogyakarta, or simply Jogja. Jogja is a city of 400,000 which serves as the capital of the only province in Indonesia still ruled by a sultan. We landed there shortly after noon and began our search for a city bus to take us to the nearby suburb of Prambanan as soon as we had hit the money changer as well as the ATMs at the airport. The students who used the ATMs came out way ahead of my cash-carrying self in this situation, since the money changer at the airport was charging an equally terrible exchange rate to that I had turned down flat in Jerantut. I didn’t want to start borrowing money from them right off the bat, however, so I decided to bite the bullet on this one. There were, of course, a number of touts hassling us about their form of transportation from the airport, but we asked directions to the bus stop in a nearby convenience store and were soon on our way to Prambanan for a mere 17 cents a piece.

Google maps had assured me that the Hotel Galuh Prambanan was just off the main street in town, across from the temple complex which gave the area its name and within easy walking distance of the bus depot. However, after pulling our wheeled carry-ons through the dusty streets for 20 minutes, we could not find the hotel anywhere. We finally stopped for lunch at an Olive Fried Chicken (think Popeyes but with Olive Oyl instead) to ask for directions. One thing that was immediately evident to me was that we were going to be able to eat very cheaply in Indonesia, as our meals were not much more than $1 each. The lady behind the counter obviously knew of the hotel and tried to give me the best directions possible without speaking any English whatsoever. We soon set off down the road in the direction that we had been waking. After stopping once again at the edge of town and getting more incomprehensible directions, it became clear to me that we should have turned left at the first light following OFC. We then retraced our steps and made the correct turn. Another 15 minutes of walking finally brought us to our hotel.

The Hotel Galuh Prambanan was by far the nicest hotel we would stay in during our trip. Prambanan seemed to have a shortage of hostels and cheap guesthouses, so I had booked a somewhat fancy hotel online. Considering that we were paying less for our two rooms than we had for the four of us to stay in a dorm room in Singapore, it still did not seem to be a bad deal. The hotel stay came complete with free drinks in the lobby, afternoon tea served in our room, breakfast the next morning, as well as admission to the waterpark that was situated next door. Our top priority at this point was to get to Candi Prambanan as soon as possible (candi means temple in Indonesian). After conceding that none of us wanted to repeat the long walk back to the center of town, we arranged to rent bicycles from the front desk in order to get there. It was somewhat terrifying to ride bikes on the left side of the street in what quickly became heavy traffic once we had turned back onto the main road. We survived, however, and soon parked our bikes just inside the entrance to the temple complex.

Prambanan, a collection of Hindu temples built in the 9th century, immediately reminded me of Angkor Wat. This was not without reason, since the latter was actually built in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple before shifting to Buddhist usage nearly 200 years later. The main temple, dedicated to Shiva, was blocked off to visitors, so we took our time going in five other pointed stone temples, two of which were dedicated to Vishnu and Brahma, respectively, while the other three were built for the animal mounts of these three gods. Everywhere we went, we found that we were hounded by Indonesian schoolchildren wanting to take pictures with us. The kids were apparently from parts of Java that did not have a lot of contact with Westerners. The girls were wildly popular, and in very high demand, but Zach and I also had our brief time in the spotlight. The two of us eventually made a run for it and sat for a while on the outer steps of the complex in relative peace but soon realized that we would have to go back in to the foray if we were going to extract the girls from the prepubescent paparazzi.

We rode back to the hotel in time for afternoon tea and then walked to a nearby restaurant for satay. The satay restaurant was just that, it served the famous skewered meat but nothing else- not even drinks. As we waited for our food, Zach darted across the street to a drink vendor. There we learned that the typical way to buy a drink was to get in poured into a plastic bag over potable (we hoped) ice. Sticking a straw through the bag was all that was required to consume the beverage. It was quite dark by the time we returned to the hotel, so we were forced to forgo bicycling and use the hotel’s car service to get to the Ramayana Ballet. The ballet performed their nightly performances overlooking the majestically lit up Candi Prambanan and featured music played by a gamelan ensemble. The hotel had a display in its lobby demonstrating the flutes, metallophones, xylophones, drums and gongs which made up the gamelan but this was the first time we would hear these instruments being played.

The story of the ballet featured parts of, or, alternately, a shortened version of the entire, Javanese version of the Sanskrit epic of Ramayana, scenes of which had been featured all over the walls of the Prambanan temples. The Javanese version actually dates to the same time that the temples were built and was written nearly 300 years after the original Sanskrit version. We happened to see the third part out of four of the extended epic. It didn’t really matter to us that we had not seen the previous two, we just took in the costumes, the dance, and the singing that accompanied the distinctive gamelan music. Interestingly, the first half of the Javanese version of the epic is the only part that follows the original, the part we saw as well as the next part diverge so much from the original story that it becomes unrecognizable from its source material. What the stories share in common is that Prince Rama (the 7th avatar of Vishnu) is forced by his stepmother to go into exile in the forest. While living there, his wife Sita is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana/Rawana. In the end, we spent 90 minutes watching this epic unfold in sight of the temple complex that was inspired by it. After trying our best to understand the tale of Rama, his three brothers, Sita, the demon king, the female demon Surpanaka, and Hanuman, King of the Monkeys, we returned to our hotel- our heads spinning.

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