Greetings from Indonesia

This time I can’t just blame Elisabeth! Two years ago when we met an Indonesian family in North Korea we agreed that a trip to the archipelago was definitely on the agenda and so here we are in the city of Yogyakarta, stopping off point for some of the greatest archaeological treasures of South East Asia. It’s hot and wet but the air has a deliciously heavy aroma reminiscent of ripe fruit and slightly overblown flowers. It’s strange but also familiar, so comfortable and welcoming that it’s hard to believe that I haven’t travelled this region since 2009.

So what have we been up to on our first day in this, the cultural heartland of one of the ancient Kingdoms of Indo-China? Well, when we set out after breakfast to explore the city we straight away fell for one of the most obvious tourist scams in the book. An apparently guileless chap in this land of guileless people engaged us in conversation at a road junction. We must be sure not to miss the Sultan’s parade down Malioboro Street at 4pm. However this did mean that all the main museums were going to be closed for the public holiday so perhaps we like to try the Artist’s museum around the corner?

Yes, of course it was a sales outlet but not such a bad one and, given that I only have a few days here, a good enough opportunity to see a few traditional examples of the ubiquitous Indonesian batik. They also just happen to pack up to next to nothing. When we found out that museums and Sultan’s palace were really open today we puzzled about why he had bothered to scam us at all. Our purchases were modest and did not turn out to be overpriced so he would have been able to claim a minimal commission: if any.

The Sultan’s Palace is only a couple of hundred years old and refreshingly democratic given the preposterous, diamond encrusted luxury of the Maharajas that I’ve become more familiar with in India. This was the only Royal family to survive independence here and they apparently achieved it by a close enough association with the rebel forces in 1949 to frighten the Dutch into some pretty heavy concessions. The current Sultan has disgraced himself by having only one wife and producing five daughters. He has more than enough brothers to ensure the succession though and there is talk of the law being changed to allow one of the princesses to inherit the title. Radical ideas indeed.

Another self-styled guide picked us up as we left the palace and in his company we enjoyed a lovely, if rather eccentric, walking tour of the city. We visited the Water Castle and the Underground Mosque, squeezing through tiny gaps in the haphazard back alleys where everyone seems to live, work and cook in open-sided houses or shared porches. The caged songbirds, pot plants and general lack of rubbish reminded me of the picturesque Walled Villages of Hong Kong. I snapped the “batik camouflage” guy in the featured image, Elisabeth snapped me with a live civet cat on my shoulders while we sampled the wares at the “laugh until you cry” coffee shop, we watched artists making elaborate shadow puppets and met a young wannabe Che Guevara who told us that there had been a parade down main street today after all.

It may have been some sort of political rally but our informant rather lost his sang froid as he brandished his ancient looking machine gun for a photo and it fell apart in his hands. But still, it’s pretty amazing that the city authorities allowed him to walk down the street dressed like that at all. We also noticed plenty of fraternisation between teenaged boys and girls, a tolerant attitude towards foreigners in casual dress and some of the prettiest coloured headscarves it has ever been my pleasure to see in this Muslim region of a predominantly Muslim country. The call to prayer here is unrecorded, melodious and not over-amplified; a delightful backdrop to passing of such an enjoyable day.

Elisabeth arrived in the country a few days before me and will be staying on for a much longer trip around the islands so I’ve left most of the accommodation arrangements in her hands. We have a charming little guest house in Yogyakarta (often simplified to Jogia) where you enter through lush gardens and step onto a bridge over a teeming pond of ornamental carp. What is it called? Funny you should ask that because we two seasoned travellers realised half way through the afternoon that neither of us could remember the name and that neither of us had written it down.

It’s just as well taxi drivers here don’t overcharge because ours had to take us down an awful lot of back roads while we attempted to proffer suggestions based on a small scale tourist map. It’s the Tegal Panggung Inn and the (non-ornamental) carp which they served me for supper was absolutely delicious. I’d better start catching up on Elisabeth’s guidebook because playtime is over and the serious culture starts tomorrow.

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