A (not so) quiet walk through the (not so) quiet villages of Java

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Walkers trudge past the ninth century Hindu temple complex at Prambanan, Central Java

This report is late… in fact more than four months late. This is because of culture shock, I tell myself. I’ve always thought walking was a minimalist, rather ascetic exercise. No frills. No hoop-la. But my mind has been blown to pieces by two days of walking in Java, and I’m having trouble reassembling it.

You see, I signed up for an event called the Jogjakarta International Heritage Walk (see http://www.jogjaheritagewalk.com/) held in November last year. It is one link in a chain of annual two-day walks held across the world under the umbrella of the International Marching League (IML) and the Internationaler Volkssportverband (IVV). I’ve taken part in these walks five or six times in Canberra Australia, and twice in Rotorua New Zealand. They have been quiet affairs run by volunteers, a bit amateurish, 100-300 walkers, a lone barbeque or sausage sizzle and a few cans of Coke for sale. The organisers will give you a free apple or a peppermint Mintie when you finish (if you’re lucky).

Now let me take you to a different planet. We are in Jogjakarta on the island of Java in Indonesia. Here the Two-Day Walk is all bright colours, swarms of people, deafening public address systems, gushing friendliness, mountains of food, countless uniformed volunteers, exotic dances, music, garish advertisements, endless photo-ops, dazzling local culture.

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School children join in the 2019 Jogjakarta International Heritage Walk…

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…soldiers from the Jogjakarta Palace too.

The welcome dinner, on the evening before the first day’s walking, was held in the ballroom of the swank Royal Ambarrukmo Hotel. There was a performance of sinuous classical Javanese dance amid long smorgasbord tables smoking with Indonesian food. An MC introduced the walkers country by country. He talked loud and fast in American-style English with all the over-the-top enthusiasm of a TV cookware salesman. There were big groups from Denmark, the Netherlands, Japan and France, plus many smaller groups and individuals from other parts of the world, including a few bewildered Australians and New Zealanders cowering at the back of the enormous, brightly lit hall.

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The pre-walk welcome dinner… just a simple snack in austere surroundings.

“Tomorrow, breakfast is at 4:00 am,” the MC shouted. “And be ready to board buses to our starting point at 5:00 am!”

He added a menacing reminder. “And don’t forget… on the first day of walking you wear the green T-shirt… I repeat, the GREEN one, not the orange one!”

We checked our event bags. Yes, we each received two Heritage Walk T-shirts, one dark green, the other bright orange. The following morning, obediently resplendent in my green T-shirt beautifully decorated with the head of shadow-play hero Karno, I boarded a bus with other walkers, and we headed for the ninth century Hindu temple complex at Prambanan, about 25 kilometres from Jogjakarta.

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Australians were made to feel very welcome (like every other nationality).

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I’m ready to go… a selfie at 6:00 a.m. in the morning.

With the ancient stone temples lowering in the background, we crowded around the start gate, and at 6:00 a.m. sharp, swarmed through it onto a paved path that took us into neighbouring fields and villages. The walking was easy, not too hot at that early hour, and immensely enjoyable. For a short time we were accompanied by a platoon of guards dressed in traditional Javanese military costume. In the densely farmed fields farmers (more women than men) were bent double weeding and harvesting their chilli plants. On the roadside, raw rice lay drying in the sun, spread out on grass mats as farmers turned the grains with wooden rakes. We squeezed past a trackside threshing operation. Sheaves of newly harvested rice were being fed into a chugging machine which, like a small fountain, spouted raw grains into sacks.

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Walkers squeeze past a trackside rice-threshing operation, and (below)…

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…newly harvested rice lies drying in the morning sun.

The path skirted an archaeological excavation. As if coming up for air after centuries underground, a Hindu temple-monument – Candi Kedulan – looked up from the bottom of a large, freshly dug gash in the earth. It was in a remarkably sharp state of preservation, probably protected – like Pompeii – by a shroud of volcanic ash from a forgotten eruption a millennium ago. Already paving was being put in place to accommodate future fee-paying visitors.

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The world of a thousand years ago keeps emerging from the under the earth: Candi Kedulan.

A few kilometres on and I completed the ten kilometre circuit, arriving back in the precinct of Candi Prambanan having covered the distance in a sweaty but leisurely three hours. You might also have chosen a twenty kilometre circuit or a five kilometre circuit. The latter was popular with a remarkable cohort of geriatric Japanese, some with question-mark spines, stringy legs, and very wobbly knees, but also with steely determination to complete their quota of five kilometres.

One woman, probably in her nineties, stumbled and fell. As her companions and Indonesian volunteers crowded around to help her, she fended them off. She rolled on to her hand and knees, folded her legs carefully under her, gripped a walking pole, and levered herself slowly to her feet. She (like many other Japanese walkers) was wearing white cotton gloves. These were now stained with dirt and blood, but she pushed away would-be helpers and walked on (not very steadily) with a defiant look in her eye.

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A sinuous, ultra-slow classical Javanese dance performed for walkers by highschool students.

Walkers were greeted at the finish by loudspeakers and entertainment, mostly traditional dances performed on a makeshift stage or on the grass by children excited to be dressed up and showing off. As we watched them we tucked into a simple but delicious Indonesian brunch. We got plied with sweet, psychedelically coloured, rice-cakes too, even thick slices of watermelon dripping with red juice.

Ahhh… the rigours of walking, Indonesian style.

Day Two. Again we were up and gnawing on an extravagant hotel breakfast at 4:00 am. At five o’clock we were in a bus, this time wearing our bright orange T-shirts. As the sky began to glow the bus headed up a steep road to the upper slopes of cone-shaped Mount Merapi. Merapi is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, erupting on average every six to eight years. When it erupted in 2010 more than 300 people lost their lives and a big gash was blasted in the side of the summit.

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Obediently wearing our orange T-shirts, we prepare to walk up towards the summit of Merapi.

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If the mountain erupts, we’re okay. There are special concrete shelters for protection against ash. (But what about hot gas… and big boulders?)

The day was overcast and the early morning air cool at our starting point in the village of Poncoh, about ten kilometers below the summit. At 6:00 a.m. we jostled on to a narrow road that sloped sharply upwards. We walked into a garland of brilliant green: coconut groves, palm oil plantations, second-growth forest. The walking was easy, but the angle of the road quickly dampened our T-shirts with sweat.

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Roadside declarations of cultural/religious orientation. Almost all the people of the mountain are strong Muslims, but Java’s treasury of aphoristic wisdom remains strong too. The plaque reads: “Your personal honour depends on how you speak; Your personal appearance depends on what you wear; Your personal reputation depends on how you behave.”

The path took us through poor but neat villages with friendly people emerging from their houses to enjoy the exotic spectacle of foreigners puffing past, some pushing themselves along with walking poles. Many villagers offered us salak (snakeskin) fruit from their own trees, and coconut milk chopped on the spot from freshly picked nuts. Of course there was the usual price to pay – selfie photos amid a vortex of children and laughter. Can there be – anywhere in the world – more spontaneously friendly and generous people?

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For once in my life, I’m the best-looking bloke in a photograph.

The circuit brought me back to Poncoh Village around 9:30, three and a half hours later. But the fitness band on my wrist told me I had walked quite a lot further than ten kilometres: 13.26 kilometres to be precise. The distance had passed in a flash. An hour later we were handed a delicious early lunch in a cardboard box. Local children, conducted by their teachers, demonstrated traditional games. These included a kind of dance like the better-known Filipino tinikling. Four bamboo poles were laid on the ground like a hash-tag icon (#), the end of each pole gripped by a kneeling child. Each pair of poles was clapped together alternately in rhythm with a folk tune while other children danced with delicate steps in and out of the spaces appearing momentarily between the poles. (For a stage version of this dance with its nail-biting precision take a look at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRX_tEJBj5c ) Meanwhile other children fanned out among the walkers trying to practise their English. Given whispered encouragement by their teachers, each was clutching an exercise book with model sentences in it. Some of the French walkers were a bit bewildered. Their English wasn’t much better than the children’s, but they did their best with plenty of laughter.

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Local students (supervised by their teacher at rear) perform a tricky folk dance. One wrong step and…  A metaphor, perhaps, for the ruthless rigidity of Javanese society?

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Eleven year old Nur, clutching her prompt sheets, practises English with me.

That night the event closed with an elaborate dinner in a broad pendopo pavilion open to the warm tropical air. It was the usual Indonesian amalgam of rigid formality and laughter-filled informality. A small band played kroncong music, a genre born out of Java’s distant connection with Portugal. The music flowed with noctural tenderness from a violin, flute, ukulele, guitar and cello. (Get a small taste of this simple, beautiful music at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8lKKOypnMU )

Each walker was summoned – together with other walkers from the same country – to receive a diploma and the Two-Day Walk medal. To the accompaniment of gentle kroncong music and the flash of a hundred smart-phone cameras, I too ducked my head as the ribbon was placed around my neck.

Indonesia does walking its own way, and after putting aside my culture shock… I like it!

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At the closing dinner, I show off my medal.

At the Western Edge of Europe (2): The Aran Islands

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At the top of the photograph, Inishoirr (also often spelled Inisheer), the nearest and smallest of the Aran Islands, as we saw it from a high point on the Irish mainland…

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…and our first glimpse of the island’s austere skyline as we came ashore from the ferry.

It beats me how the Aran Islands can be such a huge tourist attraction. They lie like three low, grey-green mounds in the sea, shorn clean of trees by the Atlantic’s incessant gales. A few grim ruins decorate the crests of the islands. There are one or two pubs plus some small shops. And that’s about it… at least for all except specialist historians, archaeologists and anthropologists. The big attraction of the islands – their wind-swept isolation – has disappeared under a tsunami of tourists, at least in summer. I blame the wildly popular, satirical sitcom Father Ted. Its kick-arse Catholic mayhem happens on a fictional island in the Bay of Galway. We know where that “fictional” island is… the opening credits were filmed on the Aran Islands (type “Father Ted” into YouTube’s search box.)

Our walking itinerary (see Macs Adventure: https://www.macsadventure.com/holiday-2183/best-of-the-burren-way ) mandated an eight-kilometre circuit through part of the biggest island, Inishmore. On the morning of July 23rd we walked from our comfortable B&B accommodation in Doolin to Doolin Pier one kilometre away along a narrow road already choking on tourist buses. We had tickets for a ferry ride to the islands, but chaos was in charge at the pier and I couldn’t identify our boat. No signs, no announcements, just big groups of people disintegrating, regrouping and disintegrating again. I saw an official-looking lady in a hi-viz red jacket pointing left and right.

“Good morning,” I said politely. “How are you this morning?”

“Sure I’m livin’ the dream,” she said, laying on the irony like a thick blob of cream on an Irish scone.

I flashed my ticket and raised my eyebrows.

“Your boat’s the Galway Girl. There she is, down there at the jetty.”

And indeed the Galway Girl was heaving and rocking and making ominous splintering noises against the jetty. Its gangway sloped down to the concrete of the jetty where it slid out and back as the boat rocked on the heaving sea. A grizzled old salt – complete with woolen beanie and thick beard – straight out of a winter advertisement for cough drops, was helping passengers get a foothold on the constantly moving bottom steps of the gangway.

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The Galway Girl, the ferry that took us from the mainland to Inishoirr. (Photo: Shipspotting)

It was a rough forty-minute crossing to Inishoirr, the nearest and smallest of the three islands. White-capped waves banged against the hull as the boat sawed through them. They wrenched and yanked at the boat, heaving it up and slamming it down into the rock-hard water. As we crept up to the jetty on Inishoirr Emmy and I were feeling queasy.

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The scattered houses of the main settlement on Inishoirr.

“Passengers for Inishmore, please transfer to the neighbouring ferry,” said the PA announcement. The onward trip would take another hour, to be followed by an eight-kilometre walk on Inishmore and one-and-a-half hours back to the mainland on rough seas.

Well… to be honest, this didn’t appeal, so we got off and headed up a concrete ramp into the sole small village on Inishoirr. A hundred or more people had the same idea. They surged into ranks of horse-drawn traps, buggies and bicycles. With genteel brutality a hand-to-hand battle for customers broke out.

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Pony traps are a popular way for visitors to see the island, and a good source of income for islanders during the summer tourist season. (Photo: Nadia Prigoga-Lee, Flickr)

We decided to walk around the scattered houses of the village. At the edge of the village (it wasn’t far) we came across the half-exhumed ruins of a 10th-century church, the burial place of Saint Kevin, the island’s patron saint. Near it stood the island’s modern church, a simple, white, far-from-historic building. For us, it was a welcome capsule of quiet a world away from the confusion of bikes, horses, buggies and people around the jetty. All its signs and devotional materials were in Irish. In several corners, devotional candles burned with subdued brilliance, seeming to symbolise the modest but steady faith of the islanders.

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Inishoirr’s modest Catholic church.

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The quiet, (almost) tourist-free, interior of the church.

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Emmy lights a candle (25 cents each) but refuses to say who, or what, the candle is for.

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The July 2019 edition of the Aran parish newsletter. The Aran Islands are part of the Gaeltacht, a string of Gaelic-speaking communities located mostly in isolated parts of the west coast.

Refreshed, we walked on to a modest cottage in a narrow lane. One half was a tiny café, just four tables jammed one against the other. We inserted ourselves into chairs under a table and ordered scones and tea from the blackboard menu.

“Sorry, we only have one scone left. Plus a strawberry cheesecake pie.”

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The tiny cafe and crafts shop where we had a scone and a cheesecake pie for lunch (behind the window on the left). I bought a handmade woolen sweater in the small shop on the right. The sign in Irish reads “The Craft Shop”.

That was our lunch. We ate slowly, enjoying the exotic resonance of the Irish language as the young waitress and waiter struggled to prepare a pot of tea and locate some butter and jam to serve with the scone. They told us, with great pride, that Irish was their everyday language, as it was for most of the fewer than 2,000 permanent inhabitants of the Aran Islands. In the neighbouring room, an array of Aran knitwear was on sale. Sweaters, cardigans, scarves, beanies, throw-rugs all beautifully handmade from soft, thick, locally spun tweed wool. It was a warm day, but I couldn’t resist buying a winter sweater. (I’m wearing it right now as I type these notes, snug and well-insulated in the frigid ambience of Canberra’s Aran-like winter.)

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My beautiful, locally hand-knitted sweater with a hand-written label.

Our visit to the Aran Islands lasted just four hours, but it was long enough for us to peep for an instant behind the billboard of tourist hype that hangs over the islands and see a unique way of life centred on the Catholic church, the Irish language, and flourishing home craft industries.

At the Western Edge of Europe (1): The Cliffs of Moher

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Between Shannon Airport and the village of Liscannor, a roadside sign points to a trace of my Irish ancestry in the village of Quin.

It was my first visit to Ireland. Emmy and I went by taxi from Shannon Airport to the township Liscannor on the Atlantic coast about one hour away. We passed roadside signs pointing to the village of Quin. A strange feeling came over me. It wasn’t deja vue exactly, but rather a vague feeling of familiarity. Perhaps this is where my ancestors came from. I don’t know much about them except that they fled Ireland around 1870, initially settling in the lowlands of Scotland, then migrating to Canada and later to New Zealand where I was born. Quinn – with its variants Quin, O’Quinn, O’Coinn, Cuain, Cuinche and others – is a common Irish name found right across the island. It is especially common in County Clare where we saw it on several signs as we walked the Burren Way up the west coast. Unexpectedly, I found myself walking on what might have been my family’s ancient home ground.

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Quin Abbey in County Clare. This tumbledown ruin and me… we have a lot in common. (Google Earth image)

On the morning of July 22nd, with a blustery wind slapping at us from the chopped-up waters of the Atlantic Ocean, we shouldered our backpacks and headed out of Liscannor towards the southern end of the famous Cliffs of Moher. We were on a track called The Burren Way. Our destination for the day was the hamlet of Doolin, about twenty kilometres to the north. We walked into green pasturelands, criss-crossed by rough stone walls, that sloped down to a grey sea. Isolated white cottages crouched in the grass with beige-coated cows dotted around them. There were no trees, the roads were empty, and the homesteads too seemed deserted. We walked alone.

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The famous, windswept Cliffs of Moher.

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Emmy braces herself against the Atlantic wind with O’Brien’s Tower in the background.

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Rough slate walls helped protect us at the edge of the cliff.

Our walking poles came out early. We levered our way up a long, gravelly asphalt road towards a ruined stone tower – O’Brien’s Tower – standing high above the sea. From there, looking north we saw a series of steep dark headlands diving almost vertically into the sea. The path narrowed and veered towards the edge of the cliff. Far below, the white breakers of the Atlantic boiled against the rocky teeth of the cliff base. In some places big slabs of slate had been placed like a low wall between the path and the edge of the cliff. We had to wobble over at least half-a-dozen stone stiles.

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Stone stiles… my technique was to sprint up to the stile, leap high into the air, and soar over it in one youthful bound (as illustrated in this photo).

We met a few walkers coming south, and as we crept north more and more of them appeared. About twelve kilometres from our start-point in Liscannor – a bit over halfway through our walk to Doolin – the crowds thickened. Again and again we had to press ourselves against the side of the path to let them past. The path widened to accommodate a horde of day-trippers: howling toddlers in pushchairs, fat Americans wheezing and dipping into bags of potato crisps, teenagers daring one another to take selfies at the cliff’s edge, clusters of Spanish tourists talking among themselves earnestly, intently, rapidly and non-stop as they walked, indifferent to the natural spectacle around them.

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Teenage day-trippers dare one another on the cliff’s edge.

Then, in the distance, we saw where they were coming from: the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre (called, I’m sorry to report, “The Visitor Experience”). To keep it unobtrusive, the Irish authorities have hidden it under the flanks of a grassy hill. But the parking area cannot be hidden. Its hundreds of cars and buses glisten like a bright, ugly, constantly mutating melanoma on the green skin of the landscape.

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Like a melanoma on the skin of the landscape: the jam-packed parking area at the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre. Note the crowds of day-trippers walking the edge of the cliff.

The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions. They bring in a clutter of mobile phones, baseball caps, over-sized sunglasses, and headphones whispering to the outside world the deafening thumps of music that fill the heads of their users. The cliffs are an interesting natural phenomenon, even spectacular in places, but most visitors scan them quickly, and with a curious indifference, before recording some photos and heading back to the Visitor Centre. The cliffs are a “celebrity location”, famous, above all, for being famous. You go there in order to say “I have been there.”

Travel, they say, broadens the mind. But modern mass tourism seems to do the opposite. It actually narrows the mind. It reduces, and tries to monopolise, options, flexibility and contact with local people. Travellers are whisked from site to site in buses or cars, given pre-digested “information” about each site, allowed photo-ops, then delivered to gift shops. This kind of travel is just another form of consumerism… you collect destinations and take them home in your mobile phone like selfies with sports stars and the autographs of media personalities.

What’s worse, because of tourism’s indifference to the celebrity locations it promotes, it ruthlessly exploits, and ultimately destroys, them. Mass tourism means getting close to the fame of a place – however fleetingly – without bothering yourself with the origins or meaning or authenticity of that fame. Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Jerusalem’s Old City, the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London, the Colosseum, the Parthenon, the Louvre – hundreds more – have become unbearable ant-hills of people, offering little more than glimpses of history, or greatness, or beauty amid a relentless crush of people, and a litter of souvenir shops and fast food outlets. Tragically, this is what many tourists expect, even what they want.

If you like hiking – long distance walking – it is probably because you enjoy solitude. How can the travel industry sell solitude to a mass market? It can’t, of course, except by redefining solitude to mean lots of people, but fewer than at the Cliffs of Moher. So real solitude is deleted from the mind-broadening options offered by the travel industry, even as simultaneously they broadcast (or imply) the slogan “travel broadens the mind”.

But back to the Burren Way. At the end of a long day’s walking – a bit stressed by the necessity to walk some segments along narrow roads between thick blackberry hedges, mixing it with long lines of cars and tourist buses that filled the whole width of the road – we trudged into the tiny hamlet of Doolin, famous for the traditional Irish music of its pubs. And yes, that night, as we tucked into a rack of lamb in O’Connors Pub, we listened to a harp and bauzouki duo in one corner of the dining room playing a selection of gentle traditional melodies. My stress and annoyance at the Cliffs of Moher’s “visitor experience” melted away. The mashed potatoes tasted especially good with a pinch of salt and a knob of rich Irish butter on them.

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The tiny hamlet of Doolin, justly famous for the traditional Irish music played in its pubs. Our B&B accommodation was just past the left end of this strip of shops and pubs.