Borobudur Buddhist Temple
Bicycling Java Indonesia
“The ferry to Java disgorged its bulging human and mechanical contents as an expectorant purges a mucus-clogged lung. Thick, pasty black diesel fumes spewed from a hundred filthy carburetors that could not have ever known the benefits of an oil change. Compressor fitted air horns blared with impatience, their super-amplified decibels bouncing off the ship’s steel walls in earsplitting echoes. Dry, gritty, spiraling dust devils kicked up by the frenzied exit stung our eyes to tearing. The throng of trucks, buses, rickshaws, bicycles, horse carts, motorcycles, people, people everywhere swept us without mercy or compassion into the mayhem of East Java.”
“The narrow, shoulder less, five-mile road to Banyuwangi choked and coughed like a clogged Los Angeles freeway convulsing through rush hour. Buses and trucks bullied ahead ~ crunching gears, blasting horns ~ and asserting their superiority in size and hostility while sabotaging everyone’s safety. Horse carts ~ piled high with rocks or bricks or coconut husks or people ~ straddled the road edge with one wooden wheel on, one off in a crazed struggle to bypass the congestion. Hondas cut and swerved a personal path through the melee without heed to lanes or direction. Bicycles and pedestrians pushed ahead in straight and stubborn determination as if they wore blinders, which gave them immunity from harm.
A broiling hurriedness, a passionate need to defend one’s position, a river of humanity and machine ~ not flowing harmoniously together, but struggling defiantly, individually to survive the plunge through the boulder strewn canyon of life ~ plunged onward. The maddened river sucked us into its panicky currents and tossed us about as rafters trapped in an unexpected flash flood. We pedaled with a heightened sense of defiant obstinacy. The joys of travel ~ adventure, education, sharing ~ were swallowed up in a ferocious battle for personal survival.”
Excerpt from On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in Southeast Asia
We did not encounter any tourists bicycling Java. Neither did we see many tourists of any sort in East Java. It is far removed from the fabulous antiquities in central Java and the capital Jarkarta that draw visitors from around the world. East Java, rather, seems forgotten to time. The struggle to survive in a burgeoning population with minimal resources is evident at every corner. Three people may work the same job in shifts just to keep as many people as possible employed.
Without the added monetary benefits of tourism, travelers amenities barely exist. We ate in local establishments, on the streets; accommodations were generally filthy; sometimes it took two hours to locate the only businessman’s hotel in a town; it was always the cleanest.
Java is primarily Muslim. East Java has barely known anything else. A prayer rug and arrow pointing to Mecca are in every room. There seems to be a Mosque within earshot of everything. The prayers blare from loud speakers five times a day invading every inch of solitude.
We were definitely and oddity in East Java. Curiosity followed our every step; motorcycles and bicycles crowded close in even as we were riding…just to get a look. Our only privacy was to lock ourselves in our room. After a month of such intense scrutiny, we became less and less tolerant. Still, so many of our cultural encounters spoke of the simplicity and the tenacity of the East Javanese.
“He was robed in white, a single dress of cloth that fell in a straight line from high-collared neck to sandalled feet. A white pillbox cap perched atop thick black hair. A row of flashing white teeth said he was comfortable with our presence. The children opened a path for him.
He spoke with his eyes. They wandered over us, the bikes and settled on the map. Mike offered it to him. He scrutinized the lines and words from an up-side-down perspective. A nod of approval sent it through a round of children’s hands before carefully being restored.
“Pasuruan?” Mike questioned.
They did not need to know of big cities. Birth, hunger, hard work, love, laughter and death all happened here. Mike changed the subject. He pulled out our empty water bottles.
“Apakah ada air?”
Yes, the man in white did have water. He beckoned us to follow him into one of the shacks. It was his house: one room, dirt floor, a wooden bench, a table. With the pride of a sultan, he bade us sit upon the bench. He lit a single burner gas stove and set a blackened pot of brackish water upon it to boil. I spoke to him with the Indonesian I knew.
“Do you have children?”
“I have six boys! Allah be praised! How many do you have?”
“We have two.”
“Oh, I am so sorry. Where are you going?”
“Oh, yes, on bicycles.”
“That is very far!”
“We have come from Bali.”
“Where is that?”
“Bali? It is another island, like Java, far to the east.”
“You ride bicycle?”
The water boiled. He lifted the pot with the protection of his sleeve. Mike set the four bottles on the table and removed the odd-looking squirt-topped caps. Our host funneled the boiling water in. The plastic shriveled in response. Steam billowed up like an exploding volcano.
The caps had to wait. Mike pulled out the map and showed our host Bali and Java.
By mid morning, I was hungry again. I guess the noodle breakfast got used up on the ten-mile hill.
“Let’s take a cookie break,” I called out to Mike.
“I think we’re out. We’ll have to get some more.”
We pedaled on for a while looking for the telltale sign of a cookie shop: a collection of red, green and yellow homemade soda bottles that caught your eye like a rainbow sticking out of a dark sky.
“There are some soda bottles over there,” I screamed.
We screeched to a halt in front of a street wagon of the colorful soda. I looked behind the wagon, the usual location for the cookie shelf. A row of grandmother, grandfather, mom and dad, five kids, six chickens and a pig (tethered to grandma’s chair leg) occupied the space instead. We had crash-landed in the family’s front yard.
“Masuk, masuk” (Come in), they hollered excitedly. They grabbed our arms and sat us down on the wooden bench they had occupied.
I tried to object but my limited Indonesian refused to rescue me. I could only manage a crude message alluding to my hunger.
“Saya ingin makan” (I want to eat).
“Makan! Makan! Ya Makan! Bakso ada.”
Bakso! Not exactly cookies. It is a rich tasting soup broth chocked full of vegetables, dumplings, and a few unrecognizables. It was delicious. Better than cookies.
“Bakso! Ya! Saya makan bakso” (I can eat bakso).
Mike flashed a quick message my way. “Only one!”
“Satu bakso,” I added quickly raising the same trusty finger that had failed me in the morning.
They locked in on Mike, looking for another raised finger. He backed away, confirming the negative.
Grandma defied her years with leaps of joy. It was her bakso recipe. She delivered the fragrant steaming bowl herself and then stood guard. All the optional ingredients waited on the table: tomato sauce, sweet soy sauce, salty soy sauce, chili peppers, and banana leaves filled with light green goo. I picked up the tomato sauce bottle and squirted a little into my bowl of bakso. Grandma obviously disapproved. She grabbed the bottle from my hand, stripped off the restrictive cap and pounded in a big fat glob. I moved on to the sweet soy sauce, which she also stole from my unsuspecting grasp and dumped in the tried and true amount. I grabbed the chili peppers and held on with both hands before she could put down the soy sauce. Her measuring skills matched a five-yard dump truck. With my bowl filled to the brim and my hands defensively controlling the peppers, she seized the advantage and before I could react, sliced a wad of the green goo into the bowl.
My light mid-morning snack had grown like a cancerous tumor. Grandma, mom and daughters flanked me on all sides. It was my turn to perform. Their bated breath on the back of my neck told me I had better be enthusiastic. I dug in. Slurp! “Mmmmmm!” Slurp, chew, smile, chew, swallow. My stretching stomach took on the feel of a kettledrum tightening to perfect resonance. I revisited my morning’s discomfort long before I fulfilled my obligations. Finally, I waddled across the finish line.
“Done!” I burped, pushing the reminder away.
“Ahhhh ….,” a delighted cry swept the crowd before breaking into a round of applause. I patted my tummy in mock satisfaction and leaned back against the wall. My stomach grumbled in appreciation of the expanded position. Grandma, who was seated on the bench next to me, reached over. I thought her quick hands were headed for the bakso bowl, but a deceitful ploy swerved them into my body and grabbed hold of my breasts.
“Oh, bagus!” (Very good!), she cried.
I was still recovering from shock of the assault when she did it again ~ a more aggressive, more rounded squeeze, square on target, the way a farmer readies a cow for milking.
“Bagus! Bagus!” she screeched in delighted laughter. Her eyes seemed to invite the family to join in. I folded my arms across my chest for protection, my eyes bulging in amazement, still reeling from shock and unable to mount any meaningful defense.
On the third attack, she grabbed the unprotected neckline of my T-shirt and pulled it down for a better look in. Her hands moved with the speed of machine gun fire, her fingers pinching the remainder of my body, arms, legs, butt, while laughter and “bagus” rat-a-tat-tatted out of her mouth.
I am not endowed with a bosom worthy of containment.
My bra-less profile could not even excite the imagination. I could only guess that my short haircut and broad muscular shoulders piqued her curiosity as to my womanliness. Whatever the game, she was enjoying it. I had no better plan; I joined in as any line of defense withered in her laughter. I pinched her back.
“Bagus!” I exclaimed with equal delight. “Bagus! bagus!”
By the time we arrived in Yogyakarta to see the great antiquities, we only had a week left to explore Java before leaving for Sumatra. Our visa’s only allow two months in Indonesia. For us, Yogya had even more to offer such as travelers’ amenities. Choice guesthouses offering large comfortable beds, sit toilets that flushed, hot water showers with hot water, and a touch of western atmosphere lined our hotel street. Everything was clean. Prices in the big city were far cheaper than the countryside. Restaurants serving European, American and Chinese food favored our stomachs and palates with comfortable familiarity. Service personnel eased the stress of language faux pas with their tourist English. Travel offices exploding with fantasy-like photographs of antiquities and beautiful national parks lured unsuspecting travelers to the far corners of Indonesia. Every need was at your fingertips.
Although the antiquities were absolutely amazing, we found “civilized” Java to be so dependent on the tourist for income that cultural exchanges bordered on rudeness. We lost our humanity and were seen rather as a bank, a feeling all too often encountered when traveling in the third world.
Soon we boarded a plane to Padang Sumatra. Had we thought bicycling Java to be challenging, Sumatra won the prize!
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