Prambanan caged

After being taken around by lots of tour guides in Bali, it was nice to get up to Yogyakarta, where I’ve been many times, and start roaming around on our own. Our first day there, we hopped on a public minibus to Prambanan Temple.

Unfortunately I didn’t know the minibus was going to drive up and down every street in Yogya first, as a steady stream of students in uniforms, shopworkers in headscarves, and old guys in sarongs got on and off.

Nor did I know we were going to run out of gas just short of a gas station. Fortunately the driver was able to fiddle around with some stuff under the passenger compartment and get us going long enough to refuel.

It was quite an entertaining ride, but we were glad to get out and stretch our legs afterwards.

Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex dating back to 850 A.D. (or C.E.), was hit pretty hard by the Yogya quake last year. The three main shrines are still closed to the public, which was a bit of a bummer because those were the only shrines we had information about in our guidebook. The guards would have let us in for a small bribe, but I figured if the archaeologists didn’t want me to be in there, then I didn’t want me to be in there either.

It was still beautiful to look at, and the damage itself was kind of fascinating. You could see piles of stones everywhere, like puzzle pieces slowly being fitted back together.

Some of the support mechanisms seemed a little crude, but I guess they’re doing the trick.

We ended up spending most of our time chatting with this teenager and his friend. Their English was very good – the first thing they asked about was the proper use of the phrase “let bygones be bygones” – and they talked about hoping to get jobs in the tourism industry. Things are pretty slow in Yogya these days; people aren’t flocking to a place that’s had a huge earthquake, a volcanic eruption and a deadly plane crash in the last year. That’s too bad, because Yogya is a great town, and it’s probably due for a stretch of good luck now, right?

Kopi Susu a la Volcano

There is a kind of mania here for watching the sunrise from beautiful spots, so when we signed up for a hike up Gunung Batur in Bali, they came to roust us out of bed at 2 a.m. Before we knew it, we were scrambling up a sandy, rocky path with only flashlights and a sliver of moon to light the way.

Maybe they were worried about me and Colbert. When we pulled into the dark parking lot at the bottom of the mountain, I had heard the driver tell the guide: “Cewek-cewek” (CHAY-wek CHAY-wek): “Girls.” His tone did not suggest confidence in our hiking abilities.

We were the first ones on the mountain, and we held our own. All the way up, we could look back and see the flashlights of later hikers bobbing their way up the slope.

The sunrise was nice, but the mountains are so stunning they don’t really need any help. Batur is a double crater. The outer cone is 17 kilometers around, with a little lake nestled inside; next to the lake is a smaller, sharper peak.

The whole landscape is shaped into steep slopes and distinct waves, the legacy of eruptions in 1994, 1974, 1963, 1926, 1917, and on back through the centuries. I’ve been lucky to hike in a lot of amazing places — the Rockies, the Whites, the Andes, the Alps — but this is one of the amazingest.

I was somewhat dubious of our guide, Nyoman, at first, because he seemed to talk a little loud. (Are the Balinese generally loud-talkers, or have I just gotten used to nearly-inaudible Javanese speech?) But he won me over with his obvious desire to get away from the crowds. There are four huts at ever-higher spots on the mountain, and every time a group arrived at our hut he would take us on to the next one.

One time another guide swaggered in, caught sight of me and Laura and bellowed, “HEY, dude, how ya DOIN’? That’s what AMERICANS say.” He was so secure in his knowledge, I saw no point in answering. I just heaved a sigh of relief when Nyoman picked up his bag and headed for the door.

After sunrise we played that timeless volcano game, “cooking in the steam vents.” The eggs came out hard-cooked and a little smoky, and very tasty after a long climb.

A glass of kopi susu from the hut lady rounded out the meal. She hikes up every morning from the nearest village and sells tea and coffee till about noon. It’s a strenuous job, but it comes with a great view.

The long walk

One of the great things about Ubud was just strolling, which as I’ve mentioned is difficult to do in Jakarta. On Monkey Forest day we walked all afternoon and part of the evening. The book said it was a two-hour walk, but we cleverly extended it by getting lost about 15 times.

The nicest part was this path through the rice paddies. If you look hard, you can make out Gunung (Mt.) Batur in the background, which we climbed later.

Maybe Colbert has been traveling in China for too long. We had to ask for directions a lot, and every time someone smiled and was helpful without also trying to sell us something, she would heave a long sigh and say, “I love this place.”

Dancing on fire

Ubud is the cultural capital of Bali, so there are traditional dance performances almost every night. The dancers have elaborate costumes and move in a slightly crouched stance; the motions, especially the turning of the wrist and the pinching together of fingertips, are very fluid and specific.

Then a guy came out and built a big fire with a lot of help from his bottle of kerosene.

A male dancer on a stylized wooden horse came out and danced barefoot around the embers. Then he danced through the embers … kicking them toward the audience so energetically that the woman in front of me curled up on her chair to get her feet off the floor.

The dancer had very black feet afterward.

Some say he’s protected from the embers by a trance state. Others say it’s a low-energy fire and he’s merely shuffling through it, not actually stepping on the coals. I say I’m not volunteering anytime soon — not without asbestos booties.

Grabby paws

In Ubud we visited the famous Monkey Forest, where for a modest fee you can be assaulted, robbed and kicked out the back gate by rapacious Balinese macaques.

Laura bought a bag of bananas and rambutans from an elderly woman at the front gate, with the intention of distributing them one at a time. But this big guy had other ideas. Minutes after we entered the park, he pounced on her, grabbed the whole bag, and proceeded to stuff himself with the contents.

I didn’t buy any fruit because I’m a little afraid of monkeys. More precisely, I’m a little afraid of monkeys who aren’t afraid of humans.

They’re pretty cute when they’re not exhibiting criminal tendencies, though.

Motorcycles repaired, ducks and chickens sold

Another great business combo, this time down the alley from our homestay in Ubud, Bali. You can get a glimpse of the ducks through the bamboo fence. I never knew ducks were so noisy; they made a hell of a racket every time we walked by.

Colbert has headed back to China by way of Bangkok, leaving our guest room/office sadly empty. Now my laptop is developing a terrible problem with its screen – everything looks distorted and psychedelic – which means I might have to take it to the dreaded service center. So, continued interruptions in blogging are possible.

Rolling across Java

We’re back from Bali and Yogya for a round of hot showers and real coffee, and tomorrow we take off for a weekend at the beach in Pelabuhan Ratu with friends.

We took the train back from Yogya, which is one of the world’s great train rides. There was a really funny little kid in the seat in front of us who was wearing a plastic bag on his head like a hat. We made faces at each other, and then he shot me with a toy gun.

Outside was the usual panoramic view of mountains, trees and rice paddies. Did I mention this is a great train?