Friday, February 5, 2016

Jurassic Park Journey: Jomblang Cave and Kalisuci

Jomblang Cave is one of Yogyakarta's hidden treasures. A little off the beaten tourist track, descent into Jomblang involves being a manpowered rope lowering 60m down into an ancient sinkhole. It's enough to make even the most adventurous get butterflies in their stomach, especially when looking in from the top and seeing only a thicket of tropical forest.

Jomblang is a two-hour drive south-east from Yogyakarta. Only one tour is run a day - 10.15am every day, and only a maximum of 60 people are allowed in at each session to preserve the system's fragility. I arrived early at 9.30am in order to have time to rest before descending into the underworld.

I am hooked up to a sturdy harness and equipped with a helmet. Luckily, I've chosen to wear my North Face hiking boots today - they're waterproof, which will come in handy walking through wet mud (it rained yesterday) and inside the cave, through which an underground river runs. Those without waterproof boots are given rubber Wellingtons. Our harnesses are checked and double-checked to be extra secure, and before I know it I've been asked to step right up to the side of Goa Jomblang to be hooked up to the manpowered rope pulley system.

Trust is the hard part - it's a 60-metre drop, and it takes everything I have not to look down before I feel safe sitting in the harness.

Before I even realise it, I've come through tree branches and leaves and I'm sitting in the sinkhole. The greenery here looks different than the world above. Maybe it's because this is such an enclosed little bubble, it looks Jurassic and people haven't had the chance to destroy it. There are long roots hanging from trees growing off the side of the cliff, and the sunlight dapples through leaves above our heads.

It takes a while before the rest of the group has been lowered into Goa Jomblang. Once we are all ready and accounted for, a short five-minute trek takes us to Goa Grubug. The trek is short but I'm glad I have my phone, because once inside it is pitch dark and deathly silent. The floor is muddy and the dirt is compact, sediment from where the river that carved this cave used to run. Someone once built a pathway through this cave, but so many have walked over it that dirt has nearly obscured the steps entirely.

Grubug and Jomblang are part of the same cave system, so when someone tells you they're going to Jomblang, what they really mean is that they're going through Jomblang for Grubug.

After climbing over some fallen rock, we start to hear the sound of water. We are near now to Grubug - the humidity levels have skyrocketed, and even though it isn't warm everyone is covered in sweat and moisture. We exit through the passageway and are greeted by the money shot, what we are all here for, the sunlight streaming through the heavens.

The underground river that runs through this system is what is causing this extreme humidity that makes water condense on everything. It runs through the system and exits at Kalisuji, where I will be headed afterwards; the water is mineral-rich and has formed, over millions of years, massive rocks of limestone. Water is dripping down from every surface.

We stay here for an hour and a half, milking our time here for everything we've got. Jumping up and down the limestone formations (boots off when climbing on these delicate structures), taking endless pictures of the skylight above us, and exploring what of Grubug we're allowed to.

The time passes quickly, and before we've had time to catch our breath it's already time to head back out of Jurassic World. Most of us have mud-stained clothes, from climbing and falling over and into the wet mud. We're hooked up to our harnesses again and lifted back out of Jomblang.

After a packed lunch, my driver takes me fifteen minutes away to the nearby Kalisuci for river tubing. This is a welcome respite from the humidity and sweat of the cave. However I have carelessly forgotten to bring extra clothes with me - for some reason, I didn't quite put "river tubing" and "getting soaked" together! Luckily, nearby stalls sell extra clothes for a song, so I quickly pick up some extras.

At the river, we are geared with a life-vest and padded like babies. We have shin, knee and elbow protectors, as well as helmets. It isn't until I get to the river that I understand why - once in the tubes, we keep knocking into the sides of the cave wall as the current controls where we go.

This is easily the most fun I've had during my entire stay in Yogyakarta. We are soaked through and everyone is playing, splashing water at each other, all the time while going through this spectacular river-carved cave. 

At one of the pools, we get off the tubes and jump into the water. It's refreshing and a welcome respite from the heat of the day, and since I haven't been swimming in ages it takes a while for me to get back into the swing of being in the water. The water is shallow and when I stand, it only reaches my waist - and soon everyone is playing in the cool water.

This is where waterproof phone pouches come in handy! We take endless photos playing in the pool, and to my amazement the waterproof phone pouch I bought for $5 is doing its job well at keeping my phone dry in the water.

As we progress through the river, we are helped along by people who push our tubes through more rocky rapid portions. It's a waterslide adventure and everyone is screaming and yelling with how much fun we're having.

The river at Kalisuci takes us an hour and half to go through, but it feels so much shorter than that because we're having so much fun. I don't want to leave the water by the end of it - the ride has been equal parts relaxing, lazing in the water, and exciting with going down rapids. It's easily the most fun I've had in Yogyakarta and I can't wait to come back for more.

This trip was sponsored by Yonderbound.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Sunrise in Borobudur

Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple, built in the 9th century over a period of 75 years, used for scarcely 100 years before being abandoned and rediscovered only in the 1800s. Since an extensive restoration project from 1975-1982, sunrise at Borobudur has become one of Yogyakarta's biggest draws and spectacular events.

A 3.30am pickup from my hostel in Yogyakarta takes me on a one-hour drive to the Borobudur complex, north-west of Yogya. When I arrive at Manohara Hotel, the only hotel near the Borobudur compound, it is still dark, so when I am offered coffee I am more than happy to accept. Sunrise isn't until 5.30am.

There are two gates at Borobudur: the public entrance, which opens at 6am, and the private, Manohara Hotel-owned entrance which opens at 4.30am (also naturally the more expensive option). The crowds are sparse before sunrise, especially now in low, rainy season - there are less than 30 of us here to catch the sunrise, I think.

My guide, Budi, is 40 but has the energy of a 10-year old. We are given flashlights to help us find our way around in the dark, but Budi is an enthusiastic photographer and shows me how I can make use of light and shadow to take haunting photographs of the reliefs and Buddha carvings. The flashlights have less use helping me find my way around than as a photography aid!

The weather is unpredictable in rainy season, and as the sky brightens the thick fog that comes from the jungle surrounding Borobudur begins to lift. The sun is not golden, obscured by the fog and cloud, but that does not take away from the beauty of this ancient monument. I'm just thankful it isn't raining this morning. 

Budi, my tour guide.
Borobudur's nine levels are arranged in threes - desire, forms, and finally the formless nirvana. Viewed from above, Borobudur is shaped like a mandala, and the structure of Borobudur is steeped in Buddhist cosmological significance. The top three levels - the nirvanic Arupadhatu levels - are home to a total of 72 stupas with diamond and square perforations, inside of which each sits a statue of Buddha sitting in the lotus position. The bottom six levels are square-shaped, and the top three terraces are circular, leading up to a singular massive stupa at the very top of the monument.

Budi recites these facts off the top of his head. He knows them by heart; he lives in a village not one kilometre from the Borobudur temple, with his family, and before becoming an English-speaking tour guide, he was a Japanese-speaking tour guide.

"I know five languages," he tells me. "Indonesian because I am Indonesian, Javanese because I am Javanese, Japanese because of the Japanese tourists, English to become a better tour guide, and between me and my wife, body language!" Budi is one of those people that you meet and who can instantly make you feel at home anywhere - ever-friendly, warm and welcoming, and who clearly loves his job.

Budi's enthusiasm for photography is infectious - he knows his way around a camera and he knows how to take a killer photograph. He lives in a village and tells me he would love to visit Cambodia, but that it would take him 12 months to save enough money to visit Angkor Wat - more since his wife and children want to tag along if he goes. As the head of the family, he has decided that he won't visit Cambodia if he has to leave his family behind, and because of that it is likely he'll never visit. He has never been outside of Indonesia.

His only chance to play with dSLRs is here, at his job as a tour guide at Borobudur, showing tourists where to take the best photos, the best spots to get a great view, and asking if he can use his guests' cameras to take photos of them. This is how he has learned photography - over the years, slowly, observing tourists angling themselves in places to get the right frame.

It amazes me how large the stupas are, how many of them there are, and how intricate the work is for a 1200 year old monument. The stone that makes up Borobudur is volcanic lava rock, hauled from 32km away at the still-active Mt Merapi. During the 7-year restoration of Borobudur, stones that were deemed damaged beyond repair were replaced by lava rock also taken from Merapi. There are some 2 million stone blocks here, weighing a collective 3.5 million tonnes.

Borobudur, translated, means "The temple on the hill." Beneath the steppe pyramid structure, Borobudur sits on a bare hill, which provides its foundation. Because of this, Borobudur is particularly vulnerable to soil erosion and water damage. Small-scale restoration projects have attempted to install drain channels and lead plates to redirect rainfall. The weight of tourist visitors leads to fears of soil subsidence, which partially factors into the high ticket prices at Borobudur to discourage visitor overload.

Before sunrise in low season, visitors are relatively few - after the public gates open at 6am, I am told, crowds throng the space so much that it becomes impossible to get a photo without someone in the picture. In dry season, the visitor crowd is even worse, flooding the monument even before sunrise.

On the first six levels, reliefs are carved in the stone walls, depicting stories of how the Buddha came to be and the various trials and tribulations he faced before attaining nirvana. These reliefs, placed end to end, would stretch 2.5km. The faces of Buddha have their hands in any of six different positions (mudrâ), each meaning something different - calling the earth to witness, benevolence, concentration, courage, virtue, and turning the wheel of dharma.

Budi somehow manages to turn even this into a activity, and takes five minutes to show me a fun wushu-like series of poses each leading into the next mudrâ. Clearly dance lessons are failing me as I struggle to keep up with the changing poses, but it's a lot of fun - "Something for you to remember and cheer you up when you are sad," Budi says, videoing me laughing.

By the time we're done, it's 6.30am. Crowds of Indonesian tourists and schoolchildren have begun to arrive. We go back to Manohara Hotel, and Budi heads home to change into his cycling gear. Manohara provides a light breakfast to its Sunrise Tour guests, and today it is goreng pisang, or fried banana, with cheese on top. There's a musician playing the gender (a xylophone-like traditional Javanese instrument) a little away, and I'm allowed to have a go.

Right outside the main Borobudur complex lies a small village (kampung), and this is where most people working in the Borobudur tour and souvenir crafts industry live. A 13km bicycle ride will take you up and down hills around the area, and right by what is speculated by some to have once been an ancient lake.

The cycling tour is entirely doable by beginners, and although it takes you up and downhill, a good portion of the tour was on flat ground. My biggest problems were with dehydration - the hot sun really takes it out of you and it is no fun sweating out more liquid than you can take in! Fortunately, Budi is there to lead the way - and for this section of the tour I am joined by another guide and expert cyclist, also named Budi.

Both guides were ridiculously fit and energetic, and at points when the hill becomes steep Budi-II even pushes me from behind while cycling. I've never felt more unfit. Budi and Budi are so welcoming and helpful they keep me hydrated with Pocari Sweat and keep my sugar levels high with bananas and rambutan.

The sun is blazing hot on my shoulders and I'm starting to get strange-looking sun blisters, but the feel of the wind while cycling makes up for it. There's something authentic about cycling through such a traditional village, next to farmers planting and harvesting rice fields, and through streets where everyone knows everyone and yelling at chickens to get off the road.

At one point we have stopped for a break, and I hear the strange combination of a goat bleating and a scooter engine. Turning around, I see the most bizarre sight I've ever come across - a rider on a scooter, a pillion, and a goat with its legs bound sandwiched between them. The people on the scooter wave cheerfully to us, and while I wave back it must be obvious that I am confused by what I have just seen. That goat must have wound up in someone's dinner.

That, to me, seems like a pretty authentically village-style experience.

The scenery throughout the route is stunning - we go through backroads and through padi fields. Everything is bright emerald green and brilliant sapphire blue. Despite the backbreaking toil of their work, rice farmers are friendly and say "Selamat pagi" to us - 'Good morning', in Indonesian. 

Cycling through what was once an ancient lake. I'm too short for my bicycle!

We are nearly at the end, and we stop by a pottery workshop. I've never tried my hand at pottery, but I watch the artisan here expertly turn a lump of clay into a perfect Borobudur stupa, and I'm raring to give it a go.

I quickly realise that my left-handedness is not an advantage here, as the pottery wheel spins the wrong way and into my fingers; I also quickly realise that I'm better at breaking off pieces of my stupa than actually building it. It is hard to get the right amount of pressure to shape the clay with - it is better to slowly and steadily apply gentle pressure, but this is a skill that I have yet to master.

After one disastrously failed attempt, however, I'm allowed another go and the second stupa turns out somewhat better than the first.

Before I know it, it is 11am - Budi apologetically says to me that it is Friday and he needs to be at the mosque soon. I barely noticed, but of course I quickly wash my hands and get ready to head back to Manohara, apologising for having forgotten the time. It has been such an eventful morning, after all, and Yogyakarta is an hour's drive away. Budi has been an amazing tour guide, and without doubt he has been the star of this morning.

It takes some determination to navigate the souvenir stall-lined streets on the way back without buying anything - this has always been my weak spot, when a seller pleads with me to "Please buy something" and they slash the price of an item to 1/4 of their original asking price. "100,000 Rupiah. 70,000. 50,000. 30,000." Eventually I give in to guilt and buy something - two lava stone souvenir stupas for 40,000 Rupiah, or $4. Now I'll have something I can put on my bookshelf to remember Borobudur by.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Batik, Indonesia's national treasure

Batik is Indonesia’s traditional fabric craft, one of Indonesia's national treasures and prides, and a UNESCO-designated Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Walking down Yogyakarta's Malioboro Street, all manner of batik souvenirs line the street - shirts, bags, pouches, wallets - filled with intricate patterns and a riot of colour.

On a typically sunny Indonesian morning, I'm on the back of an ojek (a motorcycle taxi) and winding through busy streets to go learn how batik is made. Batik Winotosastro is one of Yogyakarta's oldest batik factories and I'm there to have a go at creating some myself.

The first thing that strikes me about Winotosastro is how organised everything is - this is clearly a place which manufactures a lot of batik and has their workflow down to a fine art. Batik at Winotosastro is all about intricate, fine, beautiful patterns, and lots of stamping to get the most perfect result every time.

There's a shelf full of metal stamps with patterns from florals to peacocks to tigers and geometric beauties, both for the border outline and the inner main pattern. The stamps are heavy metal, and after choosing my patterns I take them to a workstation, where - much to my surprise - it is a worker who helps me perfectly place my stamps in a perfect square border around the edge of my fabric.

The stamps are loaded with hot wax from a heavy but shallow iron bowl, and then it is simply a matter of perfect alignment and making sure that the wax is heavy enough to penetrate the fabric on both sides. This is why a worker helps you with the outline - because a perfect outline is difficult to accomplish and the wax must be even. A trained eye knows exactly how to navigate the corners so that they are placed at perfect 45° angle to each other, how to ensure that the lines are straight, and that the rough edges between stampings look seamless.

Once the wax is placed, it is very difficult to change the pattern. A friend calls batik a lesson in going with the flow - it might not turn out exactly as we want it to, so all we can do is to work with whatever happens.

After the outline comes my turn at having fun. I get to play with placing the stamps - tigers and peacocks, in my case. My shaking hands are guided by a worker who helps me place them properly, then I count to 3 to ensure the wax penetrates both sides of the fabric, and when I lift the stamp off there has been a perfect wax print on the fabric. It's art class on easy mode, and even I - with less artistic talent than a sea cucumber - can see that this is going to turn out just fine.

Then comes the nervewrecking bit, when I'm asked to personalise and customise the batik with a personal quote or my name. I'm bad at this part - I always want to have a perfect quote on something so final, and nothing comes immediately to mind, so just having finished reading The Hobbit the day before Tolkien is on my mind. Google, of course, is ready to help.
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
It seems fitting, travelling, to use a Tolkien walking song.

Although my handwriting is scrawny and looks terrible, and I've erased several versions of my personalised quote already, the artisan who uses a canting pen to fill in my pencil with wax somehow manages to make it all look not just nice but even good.

My own practice attempt at using the canting, on the other hand, is a right mess, with wax spilling all over my practice cloth. No wonder they get the professionals to fill in words for you and fix any mistakes. 

At Winotosastro, they use chemical dyes to achieve brilliant colour; the deep blue colour I've chosen goes through a few rounds of dyeing to achieve a beautifully rich navy.

After dyeing, the wax is removed with hot boiling water, which melts the wax clean off the fabric. It reveals the white colour underneath, and the hot wax is skimmed off the top of the water to be reused. The fabric goes through a few rounds of being plunged into boiling water and cold water to ensure that the dye has set and to remove any final traces of wax.

Finally, the batik is finished with a flat iron which quickly dries the fabric, and then hemming the edges with an old pedal-operated sewing machine. It has been an hour of watching the transformation from a plain piece of white fabric to my personalised design, and the speed with which everyone works amazes me.

The workshop was less hands-on than I'd expected - but the creation was mine, and now I have a little piece of Indonesia I can say was entirely hand made and my own.

This trip was sponsored by Yonderbound.

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