Feature Travel Archives

Indonesia: Bali & Java


by Anne Kalosh 

Trickles of perspiration streaming down their brows, the old women, young couples and families with small children struggle up the stony path leading to nirvana. Vendors tail the dripping pilgrims, waiting for them to succumb to the sun and rent a big red and white parasol emblazoned with the Coca Cola logo.

Java the name conjures up exotic images of coffee, cloves, swaying palms, balmy nights. And Borobudur.

The steps grow steeper, but the faithful persist. They, like thousands before them, have trekked to the island of Java to climb Borobudur, one of the world's greatest Buddhist monuments.

It took a century, from 750 to 850 A.D., to hew this mandala of black stone that, from a distance, resembles a mound of dark meringue whipped into tiny peaks. Close up, each peak resembles a huge bell and conceals a larger than life sized statue of Buddha. The complex is a series of terraces linked by progressively steeper steps.

Borobudur was built by the Saliendra dynasty of Buddhist kings who ruled Central Java in Indonesia's 17,000 island chain until their overthrow by Hindus in the mid ninth century. Today, Java, like most of Indonesia, is largely Moslem.

The abandoned Borobudur slept for a thousand years, blanketed by lava and jungle vines, until unearthed last century and, in the 1980s, restored by UNESCO. Today, billboards along the road to the site proclaim it one of the seven wonders of the world.

'It doesn't belong to us but to the culture of the world,' says Agus, a university student who moonlights as a tour guide.

During our three hour bus ride south from Semarang, the north coast port where our cruise ship, Marco Polo, docked, to Borobudur, Agus prepared passengers from England, South Africa, Australia, Canada and the United States by teaching a few words of Indonesian.

'Selamat datang!' he grinned. Welcome!Bali & Java And, essential for this shopping minded crowd: 'Ini berapa harganya?' How much? When Agus tried to tell the passengers how to say 'cheap' and 'expensive,' one man growled, 'We won't be able to use the word 'cheap.'' But, for visitors bearing dollars and those who relish bargaining, Indonesia is inexpensive. While clothing stitched from hand made batik fabric in the big tourist stores can run into the hundreds of dollars, bargaining in small shops and with vendors can net dresses and shirts for $10.

The day trip to Borobudur is a featured excursion included in the price of our Orient Lines' cruise, so we travel in a police escorted convoy of buses carrying most of the ship's 800 passengers. Few cruise liners visit Java; we're so rare that folks look with astonishment as we zip past a rolling green countryside dotted with cacao plantations, towering bamboo fronds and silver domed mosques.

We notice that only some women on this largely Moslem island wear veils. Religious tolerance is an Indonesian practice, Agus explains. 'Some women cover their heads, some don't. We don't have a problem with that.' On the road, Agus briefed us about the life of Buddha but, arriving at Borobudur, many passengers are astonished by scenes depicted in hundreds of detailed reliefs: Buddha's renouncing his noble birth to wander for years in search of enlightenment, his numerous incarnations and his achievement of nirvana.

Respectful visitors climb the monument in a clockwise direction starting from the east gate. Agus says faithful Buddhists don't go beyond a certain level; the higher terraces are the realm of monks. But most visitors today must not be Buddhists for they seem bent on reaching the enormous, bell shaped stupa crowning Borobudur. On the way, they pass more than 500 Buddha images.

I crawl along with the pilgrims that stop at one stupa and stretch their arms through the latticework to touch the figure inside. As my fingertips brush the cool stone Buddha, I make a wish.

Trudging upwards, I come to the summit but, instead of a spiritual spot, I am met by a fairground atmosphere. It's too crowded for the umbrellas. Children are racing around, groups of students are snapping pictures and grannies are plopped down in slivers of shadows, pumping away with bamboo fans. I spot few Westerners; most of the cruise passengers have opted to stay at the lower altitudes.

They have missed an enchanting view. The surrounding countryside looks like Eden. The undulating plains are forested in coconut palms, banana trees and flowering shrubs stretching to the horizon where dark hills shimmer in the midday heat.

Back at the monument's base, vendors press close, hawking shadow puppets, carved Barong masks, t shirts and big floppy, batik hats that fold to pocket size. Some tourists panic, but I feel calm. Vendors don't persist when I look them in the eye, smile, and say 'No, thank you.' When a boy tries to sell me a hat, I point out that I already have one. 'Have two,' he urges. 'But I have only one head,' I protest. He laughs and leaves me for better prospects.

But some of my fellow travelers get prickly. One woman scolds a postcard vendor. 'You silly, silly man. When I say no, I mean no.' He responds by lowering his price. 'One dollar?'

During my last visit to Indonesia, 10 years ago, I encountered few street sellers. At the time, my work made me a frequent visitor to Bali and it seemed paradisiacal, with fishermen casting their nets from sweeping beaches, emerald rice terraces inching up mountainsides, graceful women balancing offerings of fruit and flowers on their heads, and the chime of gamelans lilting on the breeze.

A decade later, these idyllic snapshots still exist. I flew from Singapore to the international airport south of Denpasar, the Balinese capital, and stayed a few days at the nearby Inter Continental Resort at Jimbaran Bay. For me, the big resort hotels and tour buses are new to the picture. I was at the Inter Continental with other Marco Polo passengers on a pre cruise package before joining the ship anchored off Padangbai, two hours' drive up the coast. Orient markets itself as 'the destination specialist,' with programs focusing more on the places visited than on the ship. My cruise to Southeast Asia and the Java Sea, ending in Singapore, included hotel stays at ports of embarkation and debarkation. 'I chose this because I like to set foot on land for a few days,' says Helen, a retired school teacher from Michigan who photographs everything and admits that, back home, slide shows of her far flung travels are in big demand. Bali's Jimbaran Bay is tourist territory, but still lovely. The Inter Continental, modeled on the ancient Balinese imperial style, is a lush, dream like oasis of flowers and fountains, swans and swimming pools. Despite its allures, I was eager to venture out and explore. Denpasar's narrow lanes are clogged with cars, a sign of the prosperity that tourism has brought. Traditional markets are being swallowed up by shopping centers, and satay stands by KFCs. But when it comes to the Balinese people's interactions with visitors, there is no culture clash. The Balinese are naturally friendly and hospitable and adapt to new ways without abandoning their courtesy, self discipline, tolerance and strong sense of community.

'The Hindus have a saying, 'There is only one soul,'' explains Sayang, a tour guide for 22 years whose name means 'Honey.' 'Why the other countries fight? Because of ego. Why you hit the other person? You only hurt yourself.'

Most Balinese are Hindus and, by all appearances, devout. Thousands of temples dot the countryside; every family, Sayang says, has its own, in addition to the bigger community and regional temples. Stone statues depicting manifestations of the supreme deity are decorated with hibiscus flowers and dressed in checked cloth tied with yellow sashes.

Offerings containing a pinch of rice, bits of food, flowers and incense are placed in alcoves at the entrance to homes, at temples, near statues, over wells and beside rice fields. Offerings for evil spirits rest on the ground; those for good spirits are elevated. I step around one lying on the courtyard of a jewelry store and spot another resting on a sewing machine at a batik shop.

It's hard to travel around the island without meeting a religious procession or seeing families on their way to a temple, decked out in colorful finery. Women in long batik skirts balance towering offerings on their heads. Men wear sarongs and knot a scarf around their heads. By the roadside, I met a couple on their way to a temple celebration with their two small children. The mother has spent an hour assembling a two foot high crown of apples, eggs and rice cakes to deliver as an offering. As we talk, a girl passes balancing her offering of a whole cooked chicken splayed across a bed of fruits and flowers.

The big Balinese families of the past are rare now that the government encourages no more than two children. 'When we have only a small family, we are free to go everywhere,' says our guide, Sayang. 'We Hindus have a saying: 'The more legs you have, the harder it is to move.'' I admire a large emerald ring he wears. He bought it last year on a trip to India, a reward for a job that sometimes keeps him working seven days a week.

Outside the spectacularly carved temple of Pura Beji, worshippers stream in on foot, by moped, in the beds of pickup trucks and in buses. I smell incense and hear the lovely, subdued tones of the gamelan. In the countryside, traditional ways prevail. Most Balinese work as farmers, harvesting cloves used in cigarettes or growing vanilla, tapioca, coconuts, pineapples and other juicy tropical fruits ranging from prickly red rambutan to melon sized durian that smells like a sewer but tastes heavenly.

Rice is by far the most important crop, growing year round in irrigated terraces spilling down the mountainous countryside. Sayang says that, thanks to the green revolution, Bali produces enough rice to not only meet the huge local demand, but to export.

Art, music and dance are a natural part of Balinese life. In the community of Ubud, painters work on shady terraces and galleries burst with scenes of village and religious life. Other towns are known for their stone carvers, wood carvers, jewelers or batik artists.

All over the island, people work hard, but life seems sweet. As coconut palms sway against a deep blue sky filled with fluffy clouds, villagers bathe in languid streams and boys fish in a temple pool blanketed with flowering lily pads. A woman waist deep in an irrigation ditch looks up from her laundry, a white duck paddling at her elbow.

She could ignore our passing minibus, but instead she flashes a brilliant, toothy grin.

Getting there: Orient Lines offers cruise tours of varying duration to the Far East and Indonesia, as well as other destinations around the globe, on the 22,000 ton, 800 passenger Marco Polo. For a brochure, call (800) 333 7300. Singapore Airlines is a preferred Orient Lines carrier, flying passengers from New York (JFK), San Francisco and Los Angeles to Singapore and on to 10 cities in Indonesia. (800) 742 3333.