Monday, June 21, 2010

Ancient Temples / Civet Coffee

Day 141: Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia
Buddha statue at Borobudur Temple, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Buddha statue at Borobudur Temple, Java, Indonesia
Friday afternoon, I took a train to Yogyakarta. A 14-year-old boy across from me blew smoke in my face from his cigarette, and there was no air-conditioning, but for only a dollar I wasn't complaining. I walked to the backpacker area in Yogyakarta from the train station and booked a closet-sized room in a losmen (guest house). Like most places in Asia, I had to remove my shoes at the door, but I found it a bit hypocritical that motorbikes were rolled inside each evening and parked in the middle of the tiled common area.

I booked a tour for the next day to Borobudur and Prambanan, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. The minibus left Yogyakarta at five o'clock in the morning and arrived at Borobudur at six o'clock, just when the gates were opened. Although Borobudur is the most visited attraction in Indonesia and one of the most famous temples in Southeast Asia, arriving just after sunrise assured that the place was pretty desolate. The lack of tourists, coupled with the thick morning fog, lent a meditative and mysterious atmosphere to the place. I explored the many stairways and levels of the temple, admiring the lush, misty countryside that stretched in all directions.

Borobudur Temple, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Morning fog shrouds the Borobudur Temple near Yogyakarta in Java, Indonesia.

The massive structure – 400 feet on each side – was built in the ninth century and was only rediscovered in the early nineteenth century by the British, who governed Java at the time. These first Europeans to glimpse Borobudur found it crumbling under jungle vegetation and centuries of volcanic ash. Standing near the summit of the temple, shrouded in fog, I could almost imagine this place as a lost temple. As the sun rose in the sky and the fog lifted, busloads of Indonesian children arrived in school groups, and the temple was soon crawling with tourists. By eight o'clock, the temperature and humidity had soared, and Borobudur quickly became just another hot and overcrowded tourist attraction typical of Southeast Asia. I feel fortunate to have experienced the rare magic of the temple at sunrise.

On the way to Prambanan, on the other side of Yogyakarta, we stopped at the relatively small Mendut Temple, also built in the ninth century. It was another hour to Prambanan, a Hindu temple compound built around the same time as Borobudur and Mendut. It was in use for less than 100 years before it too was abandoned. The compound contains well over 200 temples, but most of them are just piles of rubble, having been ravaged by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and looters over the centuries. The inner complex contains eight main towering temples, featuring statues of Hindu deities and ornately carved reliefs telling the story of the Ramayana. While impressive in scale, Prambanan lacked the enchanting atmosphere of the imposing Borobudur. Next time, maybe I should visit in the early morning when there aren't so many tourists.

Mendut Temple, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Mendut Temple, Java, Indonesia
Prambanan Temple, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Prambanan Temple, Java, Indonesia

I spent the next two days exploring the city of Yogyakarta. On Sunday evening, I walked along the main street, Jalan Malioboro. An endless chain of stalls sold t-shirts, sandals, and souvenirs, and I had to wade through a slow-moving river of people. Motorbikes were parked six abreast on the sidewalk, and hundreds of people walked in the street. If the person in front of me stopped to look at a stall, I had to wait until they moved along – there was no space to bypass them. Today I visited the Kraton, the palace of the sultan of Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta is a specialized province of Indonesia that still functions as a monarchy, as it has since precolonial times. The sultan serves as the provincial governor, but he is unique from other governors in Indonesia in that he is not held to a term limit. The Kraton is only open at limited times of the day because it is actually a functioning royal palace.

Yogyakarta has also been a good place to try some unusual Javanese food. For dinner on Sunday, I ate cobra prepared in a spicy tongseng style. It tasted similar to alligator with hints of calamari (although less rubbery). The meat had been sliced from the snake in such a way that the pieces naturally assumed a rolled form, approximating a tube-like shape. I also tried kopi luwak, or civet coffee. Because of its unusual production process, this is allegedly the rarest and most expensive variety of coffee in the world. A weasel-like creature called the Asian palm civet, which lives in Sumatra, Java, and other areas of Indonesia, eats the ripest coffee cherries. The fruit is digested, but the civet excretes the beans, which are collected from the dung, washed, dried, and roasted. Enzymes in the civet's digestive system are infused into the beans, resulting in a much less bitter coffee with subtle, unique flavors. I'm no coffee connoisseur, but I could tell a difference between kopi luwak and all other coffees I've tried. I usually put a lot of cream and sugar in my coffee, but I drank the kopi luwak black, and it was not bitter at all. It was definitely the best coffee I've ever had, and at only $10 for two cups, a bargain. As one of the rarest coffees in the world, kopi luwak sells for as much as $600 per pound elsewhere in the world.

On the way back to my losmen, I decided to withdraw a bit of cash from an ATM. I wasn't desperate, but it would be my last chance to get cash until Jakarta. It was one of those split-second decisions that drastically alters future events. After I received my cash, my card didn't eject far enough from the slot. I could see the card refracted through the curved plastic slot cover, but the edge of the card was just barely inside. The ATM beeped persistently and mockingly, telling me to take my card. It was tantalizingly close; if I had a pair of tweezers, I could have grabbed the edge of the card. And then, the inevitable happened: the machine sucked my card deep into the abyss of its dark, impenetrable guts. The ATM version of the "blue screen of death" appeared, indicating in both Bahasa Indonesia and English that the machine was out of order. All hope was lost.

A man behind me in line gave me a ride on his motorbike to the nearest bank branch to see if there might be a maintenance person around. Apparently, banks here close at 3 p.m., and it was ten after. More bad luck. But I did meet an incredibly helpful English-speaking guy who advised me that I would probably not be able to get my card back in Yogyakarta even during bank hours. I was better off continuing with my plans and taking the overnight train to Jakarta. It is bank protocol to send lost cards to the main bank, so if I could retrieve my card at all, it would have to be done in Jakarta anyway. He also suggested I report the incident to the U.S. embassy to see if they might be able to help.

It is quite a predicament, and I don't have much time to resolve this issue. My Indonesian visa expires in two days, and I've already booked a flight to Singapore. I really don't want to go through the trouble of extending my visa and delaying my flight just for a lost card. In fact, this is the second flight I've booked to Singapore. I canceled the first one after I realized I needed much more time to see everything I wanted to see in Indonesia. To miss one flight is bad enough; to miss two would be ridiculous. Will I ever make it to Singapore?

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