He was a gifted narrator, and four beers had made me a particularly easy sell, so it was no big surprise that within a few hours I'd booked a train ticket to Yogyakarta. With one more day to kill in the capital I decided to wander through Jakarta's sightseeing checklist: the National Museum, the Presidential Palace, and the awe-inspiring Istiqual Mosque, which is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. After an icy and unwelcoming reception at the security gate (unsurprising given the current anti-West feeling among moslems in the area) the security guard gruffly refused us entry. I hurriedly made mention of my Middle Eastern background and watched as his face lit up.
'Aaah! You Moslem! Please come in! I give you tour!'
Seeing the smile on his face I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was at best undecided and at worst contemptuous when it came to matters religious, and after all it's not everyday you get a free tour. 'Ritchie', as he called himself, was an intuitive tour guide and things were going splendidly, until the calls to afternoon prayers bellowed through the building and Ritchie remarked, 'Aaah! You can come pray with me!'
Twenty red-faced minutes later we were back outside the gates and I vowed to never again try and bluff my way through a ridiculously complex Islamic prayer ritual, especially when 300 devout locals are staring at the foreign boy and shaking their heads in dismay.
After eight hours in an overnight train I found myself wandering around lost in the university city of Yogyakarta trying to recall the exact moment at which the definition of 'overnight' was changed to mean a 4 am arrival. With the help of some rather bemused becak drivers I stumbled in the darkness to losmen after losmen in the backpacker's quarter of Gang I, knocking loudly on doors until finally a sleep-weary clerk let me in to a room with an expression that made it clear this was not his preferred check-in time. I didn't have the nerve to bargain with his 15,000 rupiah (AUS $3) price tag.
These kids accosted me on the street of Yogya hoping to practice their English. As a more practical skill, I thought I'd teach them the international sign for "Don't look now, but I'm about to give you a prostate exam!" Enlarge »
Yogyakarta (or 'Yogya' as the locals call it) is a youthful city that lays claim to be being the Javanese capital of many things: arts, culture, education, tourism and gay nightlife. But to be honest my few days in Yogya were not terribly productive. I spent most of it lounging around in warung food stalls, taking long walks around the Sultan's palace, and avoiding the attentions of some seriously pushy souvenir touts. The tourist dollars that have laid the foundations of the city's economy, and the exodus of tourists away from the city after September 11 has meant that the usually busy touts are now more desperate, and insistent, than ever.
I learned fairly quickly that such touts can also be valuable sources of information. One even spent three hours teaching me about fifty Bahasa words before inviting me back to his house for the inevitable sales pitch for some badly made handcrafts. Needless to say that he wasn't too thrilled when I declined using my newly-learned Bahasa, 'Saya beludger miskin. Saya tidak punya uang.' ('I am a poor student. I have no money.') Resolute, he offered to throw in a night with one of the local 'chickey chickeys' if I bought a AUS $7 shadow puppet. Unfortunately for him, I'd seen the local 'chickey chickeys'.
Having recruited a group of German backpackers to come see Merapi with me, the four of jumped in a mini-van and headed up to Kaliguran, a small village at the base of the volcano.
Hundreds of lava-induced deaths in past few decades have not quite made the message clear enough to the either insanely stupid or amazingly brave citizens of this tiny village who make weekly offerings to placate the god living inside the most active volcano on Earth. Just a few months ago two Danish brothers who wanted to 'take a closer look' wound up in body bags, victims of a wayward VW sized boulder.
So we were all feeling a little nervous when Christian, a retired Search and Rescue leader, roused us from our sleep at 2 am and told us it was time to take on Merapi. For two and a half hours Christian and his motley crue of foreigners panted up the mountain into the ominously titled Prohibited Danger Zone. Every so often we would stop to listen to the distant thunderous rumble of another eruption, look at each other nervously, and continue on. And then, finally, we rose over a ridge and there she was: tall and overbearing with red streaks of lava leaking out of her mouth. For three hours we sat, watched and gasped as each progressive eruption and display of nature's might made us feel increasingly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. And when matahari (the sun, literally 'eye of the day') eventually broke over the horizon and rose over the towering form of Merapi I felt justified in simply uttering the word 'awesome'.
But after a five hour hike up and down Indonesia's active volcano, it went down surprisingly well. Benedicte is the furthest person on the right. Enlarge »
Over a sickly sweet breakfast of fried bananas I discovered that one of the French travellers, Benedicte, was planning to head to Sumatra as well. She's a seasoned traveller, having pretty much attempted my route in reverse, but even she was a bit apprehensive about the dicey situation in Sumatra (there had been many threats against foreigners, and there was talk of closing Western Sumatra down to tourists). She suggested that we head back to Jakarta slowly - checking out some of the seaside towns on the southern coast of Java - to give the situation in Sumatra time to settle down. I agreed to this second detour for a number of reasons: 1) I could learn a lot about the art of solo backpacking from this girl; 2) I had nothing better planned; 3) a French girl with an accent? What am I, stupid?
So after ten hours, two buses, one breakdown, four escaped chickens and a partridge in a pear tree we found ourselves in Cilicap, a tiny coastal town in southern Java. The cleanest, friendliest and most beautiful Indonesian town I'd seen. We met Koko, the local English teacher who was so excited to see foreigners in this rarely visited corner of Java that he offered to spend the next day showing us around on motorbikes before introducing us to his class. As we slept in our shared room (8,000 rupiah / AUS $1.75) we didn't know that global politics would soon intervene.
We awoke in the morning to news that the US had finally made good on its threats to start bombing the crap out of a defenceless, third world nation, just to make a point. Koko, who was clearly concerned for us, suggested we head to Singapore to escape inevitable local backlash. Easier said than done. I spent the next five hours on the back of his motorbike travelling from train station to train station until we finally found a cancelled booking for the overnight train to Jakarta. As a thank you to the ever-friendly and hospitable Koko, however, we did manage to visit his class just before we left, teaching the very shy 13 year olds crucial English words like 'mate', 'ripper' and 'bloody oath'.
And now, after a 2 am arrival (overnight? Do these people understand the meaning of the word?) into the discernibly edgier Jakarta and having driven past the tanks and razor-wire fence surrounding Merdeka Square and the American Embassy - still stationed after yesterdays' demonstrations - Benedicte and I are left trying to book a ticket on a ferry out to Singapore. Sumatra, which had always been an iffy proposition, is now definitely out of the question. Unfortunately, the next boat leaves in four days, and a flight out costs an exorbitant US $99, far too much for a man of my means.
What to do? Should I stay or should I go?
Maybe I'll flip a coin.