Up close and far away


Merapi is kind of a lumpy mountain with a gentle run-up and a steep cone, so even if you’re standing on its slopes you feel like the volcano is far away. After the story, we hiked up to this lookout point to look at the cone. You can’t see the lava during the day, but the low trail of smoke on the right side of the cone marks a trail of the hot stuff snaking its way down.

Everything went black

Isa gave us a pretty amazing description of being at this spot during an eruption: how everything went black for an hour, and he could smell smoke and gases and hear the forest burning, and he could only crouch there and hope the fire wouldn’t surround him and cut off his escape route.

We found his proclaimed ability to predict eruptions dubious, though.

We were sleepy and hungry and full of volcano, so we were happy to make our way down through a really lovely evergreen forest to the hostel, where pancakes and coffee were waiting.

The Sultan and the magical egg

The pre-hike briefing was at 2:30 a.m. We would not go all the way to the cone of the volcano, since it’s still active. Instead we’d stop at a couple of different viewing points to see the lava and smoke from a relatively safe distance. Christian gave us our emergency instructions, which boiled down to: “If somebody says run, run!”

Marching orders

Then he told us his brother-in-law would be leading the hike. That was disappointing, because Christian is a great storyteller. On the plus side, he said Ilu, the dog, would be coming with us. Ilu is a funny-looking mutt with stumpy legs and an extravagant plume of tail. He has a piece of skin stuck haphazardly on his head, the memento of a long-ago fight. “A nice dog, but quite smelly,” Christian said in his precise way.

Ilu: A nice dog, but quite smelly

Isa, the brother-in law, showed up, and we headed out through the dark town to the woods. We hiked for about an hour up an easy trail to a viewpoint. There we stood looking across a canyon at the peak of Merapi, barely visible in the dark. Nothing happened for a while. Then we saw a finger of red tracing down from the cone. Lava! Then another red thread, and another. The sun began to rise, and the peak became visible. The call to prayer sounded, along with the bellow of the loudest cow I have ever heard. And while all this was happening, Isa told us a story.

A long time ago, he said, the first sultan of Yogyakarta came into power. Since he was the first, he wasn’t quite sure how to rule the kingdom. The kingdom was very small. He wanted to make its people more numerous. He wanted them to be safe and prosperous. He decided to medidate in pursuit of wisdom. After a few days, the Queen of the South Sea, who rules the water along Yogya’s coast, came to him in a vision.

The Queen of the South Sea

“Hey Sultan!” said the Queen. “I notice you’ve been sitting around for quite a while.”

“I’m meditating on how to make my kingdom grow,” said the Sultan.

“Well that’s all well and good,” the queen barked, “but leaders have to act. So get up and get moving! Since you seem to need a little help, here’s what we’ll do. If you marry me, I’ll align my kingdom with yours, and I will enhance your power.”

That sounded good to the Sultan, so he agreed. He married the Queen, and she tutored him in the ways of love — and power.

One day the Queen gave her husband an egg. This was not the egg of a chicken or a duck, but a mystical egg, the egg of the Earth itself. “There is only one egg like this in the whole world,” the Queen said. “If you eat it, you will never be hungry.”

A magical egg

The sultan accepted the egg. He had his royal chef cook it up for breakfast. But as he pondered the Queen’s words, he began to worry.

“What sort of person never gets hungry?” he reasoned. “A dead one, that’s who!” He began to wonder if the Queen was plotting against him.

So he called to his gardener. “Hey gardener. Come eat this!”

The gardener dutifully ate the egg. Then he began to grow. He grew taller, taller, taller! “What will I do?” the gardener cried. “I can’t go home! I’m too big for my house!”

The sultan thought quickly. “There’s a wild mountain near here,” he said to the gardener. “You shall be the king of that mountain, and use your newfound power to protect all of Yogyakarta.”

So it was, and so it has been to this day. As each sultan of Yogyakarta passes away, he leaves an heir by his earthly wife. Each new sultan enters into a mystical union with the Queen of the South Seas. And the king of Merapi (for that was the name of the wild mountain) rules with the sultan and the Queen to protect Yogyakarta and its surroundings.

The tenth, and current, Sultan of Yogyakarta,
Hamengkubuwono X

And that is why, to this day, the sultan and the people of Yogyakarta make regular offerings to the sea Queen and the mountain King to maintain peace and prosperity.

When the story ended, the sun had risen, and Isa had proved himself no slouch as a storyteller. Ilu, who had fallen asleep (he’s probably heard the story a hundred times) gave himself a shake, and we set off for a closer look at the peak.

(This is one of many legends about Yogya, Merapi and the Queen of the South Sea, and I make no claim to it being the authoritative version. It’s a good story, though, eh?)

Merapi Revisited

Mt. Merapi from Kaliurang


When we were doing stories about the eruption of Mount Merapi, we met a great guy named Christian who runs a hostel and leads hikes up the volcano. We decided we’d come back for a hike as soon as the volcanic activity cooled down a little. Recently Chad had some interviews to do in Yogyakarta, so we figured we’d seize the opportunity to go to Merapi.

We flew to Yogya and then took a taxi to a pedicab to a minivan to a bus. Downtown Yogya is pretty urban, so it was a relief to see crowded streets give way to green fields, and to feel the road steepen as the bus began to climb toward Merapi.

Our hike wouldn’t start until early the next morning, so we checked into Christian’s place in Kaliurang and went for a walk. Kaliurang is a great little tourism and farming town. There seemed to be some kind of sculpture contest going on; there were statues all over town made out of commonly found materials, each labeled with the number of a different neighborhood.

We really liked this statue of a woman.

Then I got caught in a huge spiderweb. You have to be really careful about stuff like that around here. Fortunately I was able to gnaw off my own arm and escape. (If you look closely, you’ll see that the spider’s abdomen is made out of one of the conical hats rice farmers wear.)

To be continued …

Junk food of the week: Flying saucers


I forget what these are called in Indonesian because I always think of them as flying saucers or little hats. You don’t need to remember their name anyway, because they’re always sold from a cart, and the cart doesn’t offer anything else. The vendor makes them on the spot using a rounded pan over a little gas burner.

These are very tasty. The outside edge is thin and crunchy-chewy. The bump in the middle is soft and moist, similar to that famed biological curiosity, Bika Ambon. This particular one has chocolate sprinkles on it. I think there’s some coconut milk involved, and there’s definitely some pandan leaf, the most common dessert flavoring here. I can’t really describe pandan except to say that it’s not very much like vanilla. It’s mellow like vanilla, but it tastes more plant-y. Does that help? I didn’t think so.

Ten kids and a minivan

Monday night we hooked up with John and his Indonesian friend Ardi, who has become our friend too, to check out the Idul Fitri celebrations.

The holiday marking the end of Ramadhan traditionally includes beating on big drums and chanting. In engine-obsessed Jakarta this has been expanded to include riding around in, and especially ON, vehicles, while beating drums, chanting, honking horns, setting off firecrackers, singing, etc.

Ardi brought along a rented public minivan, three ear-bustingly loud horns, two drums made from pieces of old tires stretched over the ends of PVC tubes, and ten kids from his old neighborhood, so we were well equipped.

Chad and John hopped right up on the roof of the van, but I opted for an inside seat.


The streets were jammed. We were trying to get to Monas, the National Monument, for some kind of gathering, but the police kept turning us away because they were supposed to be discouraging people from riding on roofs.


Ardi yelled for everybody to get inside, so the kids all came crawling in through the windows and diving through the door, tripping over each other and the box of bottled water on the floor and blowing horns and laughing.

The cops were not fooled by our newly innocent appearance, and they still wouldn’t let us in. We took some wrong turns and wandered through tiny back streets. Then we got a flat tire.

Fixing a flat. I’m not sure what the “!” sign means, but it seemed to fit the occasion.


While we were waiting, I took my camera out. Jakarta is a great place for photography, because everybody wants to have their picture taken. Suddenly all the guys in uniform were our buddies.

Ardi with one of our new friends

We never did get to Monas. After changing the tire we decided to head up to the Idul Fitri celebration at Ancol, where there’s a little bit of beach, an amusement park, and some other attractions. There was much singing, cheering and honking along the way.

We passed big trucks with twenty or more people on top, waving Indonesian flags and homemade banners. We saw more than one flag bearing the logo of Slank, a rock band with a huge following.

At Ancol we sat looking out at the dark ocean for a long time. Our gang, who ranged in age from maybe 10 to teens, seemed remarkably well-behaved. They didn’t run off or demand treats or complain that they were bored. We chatted and watched boats sail around. Finally, a little after midnight, John and Chad and I caught a taxi home. Ardi and the kids were planning to stay out until 3. We said goodbye on the dark beach, with firecrackers going off, vendors peddling fishcakes, and prayers sounding intermittently from nearby mosques.

Ten Kitties: Black hole cat


Don’t worry, this cat isn’t about to slide into an abyss; I took the picture on a slant (maybe I’ve been watching too much MTV at the gym).

The sidewalks here tend to be concrete slabs over gutters, and sometimes the slabs go missing. Right now there’s just a trickle of water in these gutters, along with various kinds of plants and molds and the usual urban detritus such as plastic shopping bags. I suspect during the upcoming rainy season they’ll be overflowing.

I do get the feeling we’re building toward a change of seasons. It seems to get hotter every day; in the afternoon it gets really windy. I can’t remember the last time we got rain in Jakarta. On the one hand, I can’t wait, because the rain will clear the air and make it cooler; on the other hand, I have some doubts about the soundness of our roof. Maybe we should lay in a good supply of buckets before the price goes up …

Ramadhan market

Our local market, Pasar BenHil, is not particularly famous – in fact, it didn’t even make it onto the Heritage Society’s list of notable Jakarta markets, which hurts my hometown pride a bit. But during the fasting month, our sleepy little collection of fruit stands and noodle vendors gets transformed into a jam-packed Ramadhan market that draws people from as far away as Bandung (three hours from here).


All the local restaurants bring out big platters of their specialties, and some local people just put out little tables of home cooking. Some of the foods are ordinary things you see year-round, like roasted fish with chili sauce and beef rendang. Others are apparently special Ramadhan foods. The only one I know of for sure is Opor Ayam, a delicious kind of coconut curried chicken, which is traditional for the end-of-Ramadhan celebration, Idul Fitri.


There’s no Opor Ayam in the picture above, but there’s chicken in what looks like a sweet or spicy red sauce, and next to it some chopped tempe with dried anchovies and peanuts. To the right are some spinachy greens, which are often cooked up with coconut milk and spices, and the very last bowl in the back is piled with tasty cubed potatoes in chili sauce.

Everybody buys little cookies and cakes and especially the sweet, brightly-colored drinks people use to break the fast.

One function of the Ramadhan market is to serve people stuck in rush-hour traffic on Jalan Sudirman, a major north-south street that’s always a parking lot at the end of the workday. That way you can break your fast, and maybe pick up something special for dinner.