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.

A twenty-first century walk along Jogjakarta’s ancient axis

This will be a short walk – around ten kilometres – but I sense it is going to test me to my septuagenarian limits. I’m in Jogjakarta in Central Java, Indonesia. I’m planning to walk from my hotel, the Novotel, in General Soedirman Street, down the main axis that runs north – south through the centre of the city to the alun-alun square in front of the sultan’s palace. That’s the half way turn-around point. I’ll find a shady place to rest there, maybe a drinks kiosk or eatery. Then I’ll start back, retracing my steps for part of the way, stopping to rehydrate with a big ice-laden Coca-Cola at the McDonalds restaurant in Malioboro Mall. Then I’ll veer off across the Code /cho.day/ River through the Kota Baru neighbourhood to emerge on General Soedirman Street not far from the hotel.

This is where I'm headed, the front portico (pagelaran) of the sultan's palace in Jogjakarta

This is where I’m headed, the front portico (pagelaran) of the sultan’s palace in Jogjakarta

That’s the plan. The challenge is (1) to survive the afternoon heat (it will be over 30 degrees and very humid), and (2) survive the ultra-dense unpredictable traffic, the narrow footpaths cluttered with vendors’ stalls and parked vehicles, and the relentless crush of people. More than a test of stamina, the walk will be a test of concentration. The important thing will be to stay focussed, well hydrated and take it slowly. If I bomb out – if I succumb to the conditions – I can get home by taxi or becak pedicab, or even by horse-drawn andong carriage (hmmm… that last option is a temptation). And the hotel is right opposite Bethesda Hospital. So I think I’ve got my safety nets fixed up.

But wish me luck anyway.

***

I walked from the lobby of the hotel in the afternoon warmth of Tuesday, October 6th and crossed busy General Soedirman Street. I turned right and headed towards the small pillar-like monument at the north end of Jogjakarta’s two-kilometre-long main street. The temperature was a sliver above 30 degrees and it was quite humid. But the sky was very hazy and this filtered the harshness from the sunlight.

Instantly I stepped into an obstacle course, or so it appeared to my wary eyes. The tiled footpath was densely packed with parked motor bikes and, in some places, cars. Here and there I was forced to go around them by stepping into the traffic boiling past on the street. But I couldn’t just look left and right. I had to look down to check that my feet were not straying into the drainage ditches that flanked the path here and there. At the same time I had to keep my eyes raised, looking intently ahead to avoid the sharp edges of the awnings on street side stalls. They came at my tall body more-or-less at forehead height.

I stooped under a cloth awning propped up by bamboo poles. It stretched across the footpath to the edge of the street, so to avoid stepping around it into the street I had to duck my head and go straight ahead under it. I found myself in a small tent-like eatery where two ladies were standing at a table hammering and grinding spices, mixing them with crushed chilli peppers and carefully blending them in a concave mortar stone ready for the evening’s cooking. As I manoeuvred past my foot caught on a low plastic stool and toppled it towards an iron brazier that was smoking on the footpath. There was no danger, no emergency, no damage, but the two ladies grabbed the chance for a chat. I was pressed down onto a stool, a glass of tea appeared in my hand, and we exchanged introductions. They were Ibu (Mrs) Putri – wearing a red tee shirt over a practical calf-length skirt – and the older Ibu Sungkono – wearing a dark floral blouse over an ankle-length brown batik sarong.

Ibu Putri and Ibu Sengkono in their streetside eatery.

Ibu Putri and Ibu Sengkono in their streetside eatery.

They had plenty to complain about but their complaints came with bright smiles. Their main beef was the celebration of Jogjakarta’s 259th birthday the following day.

“It will suck customers away from us into the centre of town,” Ibu Putri said with a resigned laugh.

I pointed out that the tee shirt she was wearing was stamped with a message promoting the anniversary celebration. She laughed again.

“The sultan wants us to support the celebration,” she said. “So of course we do.”

I left the tiny eatery and a few minutes later crossed the Gondolayu Bridge over the Code River. (Gondolayu means “the smell of death”… what a great name for a bridge!) To the left I saw a jigsaw puzzle of flimsy houses lying stacked one above the other up the bank of the river. They were painted in a kaleidoscope of bright colours. I recalled that a visionary Catholic priest, Father Mangunwijaya, had bustled past his more conservative colleagues in the neighbouring Catholic catechism centre and decided something had to be done about their demoralised, crime-ridden neighbours. He cajoled and inspired them to take pride in their settlement. New, healthier houses were built, trees and gardens planted, and paths repaired. The favela revived and to further lift spirits, the residents were given paint and encouraged to brighten up the whole precinct. Father Mangunwijaya died fifteen years ago, but his vision stuck. Today the riverside suburb is no estate agent’s fantasy, but its residents take pride in it and no longer see it only as a place to escape from.

The colourful favela on the banks of the Code River

The colourful favela on the banks of the Code River

A quarter of an hour later I was standing at the intersection famous for its small obelisk known simply as The Monument (Tugu). Built by the first sultan of Jogjakarta in the late 18th century, it is one of a series of landmarks connecting Jogjakarta with the guardian mountain Merapi to the north, and the realm of Nyai Roro Kidul, guardian queen of the southern ocean. This fragment of an ancient geography is alive and well. In fact as I stood pondering the Tugu I heard a clattering behind me. Chairs were being set in place for a ceremony to be held the following day (Jogja’s 259th anniversary) to formally open a new commemorative site. One corner of the intersection had been demolished and replaced with a flat, polished stone platform. On it stood a series of tiny models lined up to represent the sacred axis that fixes Jogjakarta’s place, and the sultan’s authority, in the world. From north to south in a straight line… mountain, tugu, palace, royal hunting lodge, sea.

Jogjakarta's Tugu landmark (Wikipedia image)

Jogjakarta’s Tugu landmark (Wikipedia image)…

... and beside the Tugu a model of Jogjakarta's sacred axis. Krapyak Fort, the palace and the Tugu are visible here.

… and beside the Tugu a model of Jogjakarta’s sacred axis. Krapyak royal hunting lodge (bottom), the palace (centre) and the Tugu (top) are visible here.

I turned into Prince Mangkubumi Street and headed away from the Tugu along the two kilometres of arrow-straight thoroughfare that leads south to the palace. Halfway along its name changes to Malioboro and it turns into Jogjakarta’s famed shopping precinct. On both sides of Malioboro Street vendors jam the footpath, selling mostly batik clothes and touristy tee-shirts, but also antiques, jewelry, fake watches, traditional sweetmeats and garishly coloured drinks. In places the footpath is scarcely a metre wide. It is difficult to squeeze through as shoppers stand haggling or trying to prise the vendors away from their mobile phones.

Looking into the setting sun at the bottom end of Malioboro. I'm about halfway through the walk.

Looking into the setting sun at the bottom end of Malioboro. I’m about halfway through the walk.

At the bottom end of Malioboro – now about two hours into the walk and not far from the palace – I swerved away from Jogja’s old pre-Islamic axis and headed into the strongly Islamic Kauman. This is the crowded neighbourhood around the city’s main mosque where the kaum Muslim, the “orthodox” Muslim community, live. In its quiet alleys women are hooded with hijab scarves (called jilbab in Indonesia) and wear long tube-like shifts. The men wear the black peci fez caps or the white embroidered takiyah skull cap. Arabic dominates in names and signs and there are little shops selling religious books. The tiled, pyramid shaped roof of Jogjakarta’s old mosque rises modestly over the neighbourhood. As I approached it twilight was starting to spread its pastel blue across the sky. Presently the maghrib call to prayer would roll gently over the neighbourhood. It would draw unhurried eddies of worshippers from their houses and, for a short time, would still the shouts of the children playing dusty soccer in front of the mosque.

Jogjakart'as old mosque rises above tghe alleys of the Muslim Kauman neighbourhood

Jogjakarta’s old mosque rises above the alleys of the Muslim Kauman neighbourhood

I turned away from the mosque and walked a few metres to the spacious, bare, sandy alun-alun square. On its south edge stood the low profile front portico of the palace, and ahead of me the two rather battered but still sacred banyan trees in the centre of the square. A small group of teenage girls, all wearing hijab scarves, were being coached in sprinting techniques. They lined up with their backs to the palace, crouched, and when their coach (a head-scarfed woman) shouted “Go!” sprang up and ran towards a finishing line stretched between the two sacred trees. Something deeply symbolic is going on here, I thought, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

Yogya_putri_alun_alun!

Athletics practice on the alun-alun square in from of the palace. The girls are running towards the square's two sacred banyan tress (top image).

Athletes practice on the alun-alun square in front of the palace. The girls are running towards the square’s two sacred banyan trees (top image).

It was time to start back. I walked from the alun-alun to one of my favourite places in Jogjakarta, a nearby strip of cubicles and stalls selling magazines and books. I stopped to chat with my friends, stall holders Ibu Paimin and Ibu Mini. I asked after a particular title. Ibu Mini frowned for a second, sitting among half a dozen metre-high stacks of books under magazines hanging like dense washing from wires above. She pondered for no more than five seconds then her hand groped behind her and her fingers ran down a pile of books like fingers on a vertical piano keyboard. With scarcely a backward glance she extracted the book I was looking for.

I pose with my favourite bookseller, Ibu Mini. She says her name fits her stature.

I pose with my favourite bookseller, Ibu Mini. She says her name fits her stature.

My backpack was considerably heavier and my wallet somewhat lighter as I left the little book market. Night was falling and I hurried north along Malioboro towards its big shopping mall. I was thirsty, and only a Coke from McDonalds would quench that thirst. There, half way along the ancient axis that would be commemorated in a ceremony the following day, stood the golden arches of McDonalds. I almost ran up the steps into the dazzling glitz of the mall. Shamelessly I jostled ahead of other diners through the glass doors of McDonalds.

“A large diet Coke, please,” I said. “No… make that two.”

Smiles with those fries?

Fries with those smiles?

***

An hour later, back at the hotel, I noted that the walk had taken almost four hours (too many stops!) and I had covered 10.54 kilometres. I felt good, but as I prepared to take a bath I noticed that my black inner shirt, and my long-sleeve outer shirt, were crusted with big streaks of white salt, the dried residue of my perspiration. Hmmm, I would have to replace that somehow. Extra-salty French fries at McDonalds, maybe?

Mister! Can we practise our English with you?

Mister! Can we practise our English with you?