Month: August 2014

Hindunesia + au revoir

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After we spent a couple days in the sun with the biggest Buddhist structure in the world, we moved across town to see what Hinduism had in store.

Missing Borobudur’s mighty claim to world domination, Prambanan is given the lesser, but still impressive title of the biggest Hindu structure in Southeast Asia (India is home to the biggest). Regardless that it’s considered Hindu Jr, its temples still appear pretty grown up:

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Interestingly, like Borobudur these structures were also built in the 9th Century. Some historians say they came to be because Java’s Hindu dynasty at the time, after seeing Borobudur said: “Anything you can do, I can do better”.

In other words, it was their entry in a cross-town religious build-off. This may be the case. However, there’s also evidence that in the 9th Century, Indonesian religious groups weren’t necessarily rivals. Apparently Hindus and Buddhists socialized with each other, often mixing ideas, and showed tolerance for the other. This may explain why Bali’s version of Hinduism is unique, incorporating Buddhist elements, and other native Indonesian ideas.

Plus, on a larger scale, religious tolerance in Indonesia can also explain why both Borobudur and Prambanan weren’t torn down after Islam became the dominant religion starting in the 16th century. I was curious about this, knowing structures in other countries had been stripped down, as an attempt to make a country’s dominant religion shine brightest.

I learned in Indonesia, however, there’s an element in the culture that values its heritage, accepting it as being part of the story of the country. Of course, there are exceptions – a fundamentalist Islamist took it upon himself to try to rewrite history by bombing parts of Borobudur in the 80s.

Nevertheless, the majority of the population, as I understood it from speaking to locals and reading up on it, value these sites as part of their cultural history and so are beacons for domestic travel. And yes, as I’m sure you’ve wondered – Prambanan too is under UNESCO’s protective umbrella, giving it more cover from deterioration.

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We strolled around here for a day, melting once again in the heat. It wasn’t enough to deter Rose, however, who after seeing a brightly coloured, fashionably dressed family, tried to pose with them by running up to their heels:

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Thankfully they didn’t turn around mid-camera click.

After we got back to Yogyakarta, the city where we were staying, we hailed one of these things:

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then hopped off to tour a huge outdoor/indoor market. We arrived to a mass of people, who were busy shopping for food as it was nearing the final day of Ramadan – Eid-al Fitr – on which there would be a huge celebration. In search of spices, we walked into a maze of market tunnels and soon got lost. A merchant, undoubtedly seeing the creases of concern on our foreheads, approached us speaking English and asked us if he could help.

Immediately our defences went up, convinced he had a scam in the air, otherwise why would someone actually be nice to us? (We, the cynics!) After he agreed to show us where the spice market was, we carried our cynicism the entire way, waiting for him to share his punchline: “Okay. That’s $15 please” or “Now you buy something from me”.

While bracing for it, we did find the spices:

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A lot of them, in these huge covered market stalls, that looked like the top of a parking structure that went on and on and on. The spices had names we’d never heard of which our tour guide had now taken upon himself to give us samples to taste:

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The shoe eventually dropped. After tasting a unique pepper-like spice, we decided to buy 100grams. He quoted the price back to us, and we both thought it was a bit high, though not obnoxious, so wrote it off as the cost of his tour and bought a share to bring with us.

As far as shakedowns go, I thought it was a light fleece.

On the way home, there were a series of surprises. First, we saw this couple who looked surprised:

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Met another lady, who seemed surprised to have her picture taken with Rose:

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And later that night, learned that the underdog candidate surprised the Indonesian establishment by winning the Presidency:

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That brought an end to our two-month Indonesian odyssey: from Bali to dragons to Buddha to beaches. Now we were looking ahead to our next stop where we’d be living with a bear-sized German shepherd, two horses, two peacocks, 12 chickens and 1 rooster all together on a small 8-kilometer long island off a not so little continent called Australia.

Talk soon

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Back to Buddha

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The last time we crossed paths, he was for sale in a shop window in Ubud. Now, we’re in the largest Muslim country in the world standing on the largest monument to his memory ever conceived. Wherever we’ve traveled in Asia, it seems Buddha is close at hand, which also seemed to be the main point these architects wanted to get across when they shaped this massive ode to Monsieur perma-grin.

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Called Borobudur, this stupa was chiseled in the 9th Century by Javanese Buddhists who crafted something so detailed and meticulous, in later years they might have been reincarnated as brain surgeons.

With over 500 Buddha statues (like the one above), 2500+ relief panels comme ca:

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And 9 distinct levels, it’s already impressive as an engineering feat. But, after we learned more of how it was designed, I thought it really revealed how amazing it was.

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Buddhism often comes off as one big paradox (ex. You can be everywhere and nowhere or You can only achieve enlightenment by not wanting to achieve enlightenment.) In print these sayings sound hokey, frustrating and cringe-worthy, largely because they’re simple and self-evident.

I find reading about Buddhism is like staring at this photo:

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One second I see the vase, the next second the people. When I translate this to reading, I think, yeah okay, I get it. Now what? And, of course, that’s it – there is no other point.

Borobudur, I found, works along similar lines. The architects created a showpiece to Buddha which interweaves two strands of Buddhist mythology into a single structure.

First, the more obvious one, that we could witness from the ground is that the whole structure is one big storyline of the Buddha’s life, and his path to enlightenment. As a visitor you walk up the entire structure, one level at a time, and as you rise you pass through a stage of Enlightenment that the Buddha experienced, represented by the sculptures around you.

Starting at the ground level, you begin with the world of Desire which Buddha went through – represented in reliefs that in one way or another are various enticements for him to get laid, drunk or high:

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However, good Mr. Siddhartha decided against a career as a rock star, and so passed into the World of Forms, which starts on level three of the structure. Rose and I weren’t exactly clear how the sculptures we looked at represented a form since it seems fairly self-evident (any old sculpture could be seen as a form), but the general concept is that at this stage, Buddha had meditated his way into seeing the world as having only shapes, “Oh wow that thing is shaped like a tube (a tree)”, which I can’t help think, if he’d tweeted his discovery today ex.: “My keyboard is only rectangles”, he’d be tranquilized and force-fed anti-psychotics.

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After his geometry phase, he then passed into the Formless World, where – as Lauryn Hill would much later make us aware – everything is everything.

This is also where we took the majority of our photos – next to these huge bells, which each contain a sculpted Buddha:

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And, offer amazing views:

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Especially at sunset:

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That covers the first bit of the architecture – the physical pilgrimage a visitor experiences walking up the structure. However, those wily builders thought, why not go for extra credit and knock out two concepts in one. And so, they also built the entire structure as a material representation of the Buddhist concept of the universe when looked at from above:

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This two dimensional image, called a mandala in Buddhism, represents the universe – where the outer walls are squares, symbolizing humans’ attachment to linear concepts of time, followed by inner circles where time is seen as cyclical.

But a mandala, like the architects who built Borobudur, is overachieving. It also serves as a practical map or guide, which a Buddhist can bring to mind during their meditation to help them, as a reference point to focus on moving towards the center where all is one.

In short, Borobudur is the Swiss Army knife of monuments that offers:

1. A representation of Buddha’s life
2. A physical pilgrimage through his life
3. A representation of the Buddhist universe
4. A mental map to follow during Buddhist meditation
5. Underground parking garage

Le joke. Borobudur is a UNESCO world heritage site (yeah, that’s back too), and they seem to be making decent enough money as it’s consistently referred to as Indonesia’s biggest tourist attraction, so haven’t felt the need to raise cash from any modern enhancements.

However, they did offer some help a few years back. There were three shots at restoring the structure. First, in the early 1800s when it was “re-discovered” by a British colonial administrator. Secondly, by the Dutch 100 years later; and finally, in 1973 when UNESCO got involved.

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There’s a museum on the same grounds which illustrates how they did the last restoration – from the photos and explanations it was basically one massive jigsaw puzzle. The builders took out almost every single block, labelled it, cleaned it up – then reinforced the entire structure with concrete and an updated water runoff system, and put the whole thing back together again.

We were staying at a hotel that was within the grounds of the structure, and were lucky enough to have a two minute walk to it from our room. So, we returned three times to walk up and down it – it was really cool to see.

Next to Angkor Wat, it was definitely a major standout of our entire trip so far.

But we weren’t done with massive, old monuments. Indonesia is not only home to big Buddha, but also big Hindu, all within the structure of the biggest Muslim population in the world.

Next – el Grande, Prambanan.

Talk soon

Lombok: a Lookee-see

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After a day in Lombok, we thought we’d wandered into a nuclear test facility.

Starting out in Sengiggi, we rented a scooter to explore the coastline and found tons of beaches, like the one above, that seemed completely untouched:

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It was bizarre. No one was here. While there are some resorts closer to the town of Sengiggi, five minutes north there’s not much. No development, no people, no tourists. Nothing. Well, that’s not entirely true. On our drive up to some beaches, we passed three cows, a handful of chickens, a couple of goats, and a ton of coconuts.

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Compared to Bali, where every square inch of land in the south is accounted for – it felt like we were in the Prairies.

We both wondered how this was possible – stunning beachfront, turquoise water that can easily glaze eyes and pin minds into a meditative trance with the word “FREEDOM” flashing over and over as a mantra in time to the sound of waves lapping the shore.

Plus only a short 45min plane or boat ride from its next-door neighbour – Bali, who gets three times as many tourists each year than its population, and is showing signs of getting bent from the impact – and nobody was thinking, ‘hmmm, maybe we can also cook up some interest here’?

Of course, it turns out some people were. Rose and I asked everybody we met, essentially “what’s going on here?” or not going on, and we repeatedly heard the same thing: “Yeah, tourism was good, then not so good after the bombings. But it’s getting better”.

The bombings referred to were two bombings in Bali in 2002 & 2005 carried out by an Islamic fundamentalist group, which affected tourism in Bali and Lombok. Interestingly in 2000, the same Islamic group was stirring up ethnic tension in Sengiggi.

In any case, the result was a tourist exodus from both islands. While the numbers are now the same as the pre-bombing levels in Lombok, Bali’s tourism growth still continues to outpace it. The only possible exception are these three tiny islands that lie a couple of kilometres off Lombok’s mainland:

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Called the Gilis, one in particular gets most of the attention: Gili Trawangan (the one on the far left above) – a haven for backpackers, boasting only horse drawn carts and bicycles for ground transportation and magic mushrooms and beer to do the rest.

We visited in 2013, and it was already stacked with tourists. Having read that new developments have since been built, I can only imagine it’s now even more packed.

Yet, turn towards the mainland where we are, and you’ve got the hush of a study hall.

Sure, this can have its own appeal. And many travel writers and the Indonesian Tourism board pick up on this quietness, and promote Lombok as a tranquil spot to escape the hustle of Bali, and watch your pant size grow.

But here’s the thing (okay, two things):

1. Yep, it was quiet. But to me, it wasn’t the type of quiet that comes from a place that’s naturally slow-going, easy paced and relaxed. Touts, though not huge in numbers, were persistent, often showing frustration if we didn’t buy something.

While the majority of people we met were friendly, I also get the sense after talking with a lot of them that if more action was happening here, i.e. more tourists, it would be welcome. Though, I also got the sense that most people weren’t really chomping at the bit to come up with ways to make it happen.

2. It was Ramadan. Lombok is predominantly Muslim and this year, Ramadan ran for the month of July (typically a high season month for domestic tourists) which meant that very little was happening during the day, as people were fasting until sunset and most businesses were closed. This of course, can help explain the deserted and quiet feel, though from hearing other reports and judging from the worn, outdated feel of a lot of the b&bs/hotels, I’m pretty sure it’s consistently quiet throughout the year.

While things were generally peaceful and quiet, there were 5 times a day when things got loud. Call To Prayer. This wasn’t a big deal during the day, since we were mainly hanging out at the beach or zinging along the island on a scooter, and the calls dissipated in the breeze.

The problem came at night, because it just so happened that the two homestays where we slept in Sengiggi and Kuta had mosques as next door neighbours. Not just our own bad luck- most hotels were within 500 metres of a mosque. And the prayers came through about four loudspeakers on each one.

Every evening, like clockwork, prayers would start and I’d jump out of my skin from a voice that was suddenly bouncing off the walls of our room.

The sensation reminded me of when I would tinker with a stereo and was unsure why there was no sound. During the course of my investigation I would turn up the volume all the way, forget it was on full, then push another button and CLICK. To quote the band Elastica…a connection is made, and BOOM – I’ve induced a panic attack that’s rattling my sphincter.

Thankfully we had ear plugs, which meant that Rose and I began to resemble a couple in a retirement home, as I would have to pop out an ear plug after feeling Rose tugging on my arm, then look up to see her red-faced, frustrated that I didn’t hear her – and I’d lean in close and say: “Hunh?” – then we’d switch roles and repeat the scenario until one of us gave up or fell asleep.

Unfortunately, sleep didn’t last long. Each morning, prayer started at 4:30 at the same volume pitch from the evening – and if my ear plugs were well-suctioned in place, I’d open my eyes for a second, recognize the throbbing rhythm through the ear plugs, and the sound would invariably blend into my dream.

However, there would be occasions when, during the night (maybe from a particular action-oriented dream in which I was saving the world from global warming by creating an ingenious new energy source or saving the world from having to eat Miracle Whip) one of the ear plugs popped out of my ear and I’d bolt up at 4:30 when morning prayer came in, now in a semi-nightmare state worried I’d shown up naked at school and a teacher was asking what I’d done with my clothes.

This happened a handful times. Mercifully, the nightmares varied.

Apart from early morning starts, the rest of our time was spent roaming around beaches of Kuta in the South, which are really beautiful:

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And, wandering the town, sampling ridiculously tasty low priced food. On one of these stops, we thought, since we had an extra two weeks before our flight to Australia, maybe we could see more of Indonesia.

We settled on going to the island of Java where we’d see two old standbys from our past travels – Buddha and Vishnu – in grand style.

Talk soon (Sooner than last time)