We left on a train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta (also known as Jogja), the gateway to Borobudur. The train goes through rice fields, with volcanos towering in the distance. I recognized many of the trees — mango, banana, coconut, peepul. I may not speak the language, but it feels like familiar territory.
Jogja is a cheerful and inexpensive town. It is crowded and pushy, but not too much to handle, and to me, it feels unfamiliar enough to be interesting, and safe enough to be comfortable. We walked, rode motor rickshaws, and had great fun in the souvenir stores. In the evening, we took the clean, comfortable and air conditioned public bus 1A to Prambanam.
Prambanam is a group of Shiva-Vishnu-Brahma temples, set in vast gardens, from back when Java was a Hindu kingdom, in the 9th century. The intricately carved rock walls depict familiar Hindu deities and stories. There were plenty of Muslim (local) tourists present, with a smattering of foreigners.
The next day, we left in the dark to reach Borobudur before sunrise. It seems redundant to describe Borobudur after the volumes written about it in history books and tourist literature. Besides, its monumental scale, intricately carved walls, and mystic Buddha images hidden in their bell-like alcoves, demand a better wordsmith than me. Let me just say that this monument to Mahayana Buddhism manages to live up to the hype, and shelling out a few extra bucks for the sunrise entrance, before the hordes get there, is well worth the price.
The following morning, we got on a train to Probollingo, gateway to the volcano Gunung Bromo, our destination. Unlike our last “executive” train, this is an economy train, and we obtained, with some difficulty, the last two seats on it – in different compartments. But this train too, is clean and air conditioned. Indonesia really does a good job with public transportation!
The train passed right by the Yogyakarta airport, and the kids in my compartment were genuinely excited to see an airplane on the landing strip. I wish I could remember back to when I felt the same way. The more you see the wonders of the world, the harder it is to hold on to your sense of wonder.
The economy train was slow, and got to Probollingo hours late, well after dark. That meant there were no more connecting buses for our onward journey. We got in a shared car at the train station, which took us to their “office” in the middle of nowhere, demanded more money, and then stranded us on the highway. After much trudging with our luggage in the dark between truck headlights, and refusing to take a 2 hour motorcycle ride on dark hilly roads complete with luggage (this was presented as our only option), we managed to hire a very expensive car to take us to out hotel in Cemara Lawang.
I woke up before dawn to catch the sun rise over the volcanic landscape framing the perfect cone of Gunung Batakau. It was undeniably beautiful, almost making the journey here worth it. After a very hearty breakfast (included!), we set off on a hike to Gunung (Mt.) Bromo. The hotel is perched on the lip of a vast crater, so one has to hike down to the bottom and walk through a seascape of deep gray volcanic ash to reach Bromo, which is an active volcano in the middle of this crater, and climb up it. The clouds started rolling in as we walked, and we made it to the top beating the white-out by seconds.
The top of Bromo is eerie. It is the first time I’ve looked into a live volcano. This one had smooth grey sides sloping in to a cauldron of steam cloud at a significant depth. After a bit, the thick mist shifted enough for us to take some pictures and make our way back.
This journey continued with a 12-hour bus ride to Bali. You can read the highlights of our Bali sojourn here.