April 21, 2014
Arriving in Jakarta at our Filipino host’s home and immediately espying a parlor grand piano and walls lined with teeming bookshelves was enough to make me feel welcome in Indonesia, but in addition to that, we were graciously given a tour around the metropolis, and I was given unlimited access to the coffee maker. We were, after all, in Java!
We saw the massive monuments all over the city, including the striking Mahabharata-inspired Arjuna Wijaya statue featuring Krishna and Arjuna in a chariot drawn by eleven exquisitely-sculpted horses; the remarkable placement of the neo-gothic Roman Catholic cathedral facing Masjid Istiqlal, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia; the curio shops bedecking Jalan Surabaya; women with colorful jilbabs and men clad in coffee-colored batiks; the quirky motor tricycles called bajaj; and many other attractive sights and spots including Sunda Kelapa, a port that has been operating since the 13th century where only the traditional two-masted pinisis are docked. The artistry and diversity of Indonesian architecture also inspired and impressed me through a visit to Taman Mini, and driving away from the city to the flowering Melrimba Gardens and the tidy tea plantations in Puncak, West Java was a refreshing experience.
Howbeit, despite all the new and interesting sights out-of-doors, my most memorable moments in Jakarta occurred indoors: Performing twice with Misha for a lovely and lively group, visiting the National Museum that showcased Indonesia’s abundant culture and history, and being transported to another realm at my best-loved niche in Jakarta – the Duta Fine Arts Gallery, and most especially, table talk at our host’s home. Every gathering at the table was an education in culture, history, religion, literature, biogeography, geopolitics, and local cuisine, inter alia. But surely, one can expect nothing less when the hosts were none other than Tito Jamil Maidan Flores (poet, fiction writer, playwright, essayist, and speechwriter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and multiple Palanca laureate); his spirited and warm-hearted wife, a childhood friend and former neighbor of both my parents, Tita Noreen; and their son, Jibby.
While Jakarta may have its own uniqueness, it is densely populated and has traffic build up that can be utterly frustrating, and I must admit that Jakarta would have remained in my memory as just another city akin to Manila if not for the Flores’ friendship and hospitality. Truly, there are places one learns to be fond of not for the place per se, but for the people in it.
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There is a Miracle Romano who can sit contentedly indoors and thrive on books, music-making, writing, and a cup or two of java. But there is also a Miracle Romano who yearns for motion, action, thrill, excitement, and little perils of a not-too-sheltered life. After a week in Jakarta, my parents, younger brother, and I flew to Yogyakarta and it was there that the outdoorsy personality was rather satisfied.
I was able to visit Setumbu Hill, Borobudur, and Prambanan twice during our stay: The first time with my family, and the second time with the favorite travel buddy. How we wound up in Central Java together, we cannot explain. Whether I invited him or he invited himself – the argument remains unresolved – it was delightful to have turned up together in yet another landscape, another country.
The view from Setumbu Hill was reluctant to disclose its full glory and hid timidly behind thick rain clouds the first time, but on the second hike up the hill, one cloud formation appeared like a firebird and sunlight illuminated the mist that seeped through the layers of mountains, and the ancient Borobudur temple slowly and mystically came into view. Nevertheless, what challenged the credibility of the spectacle was the fact that all of what I previously described stood under the terrifying umbra of the gigantic Mount Merapi that soared above the clouds.
Yes, Mount Merapi was frightening because of its size, because of its recent catastrophic eruption, because of the visible steam issuing from its crater, and for the reason that it is the most active volcano in Indonesia. But it must have been its dangerous beauty that enticed us. By a whim, the travel buddy and I decided to trek up its slopes. We did not regret it. It was our cup of hot, steaming Java.
Due to weather conditions, I was also able to appreciate the 9th century structures of Prambanan and Borobudur the second time around. The Hindu and Buddhist temples were magnificent in their distinct ways. Prambanan had a feminine charm because of its slender multiple structures and Borobudur had a masculine appeal because of its bulk, symmetry, and meticulous detail.
Java is a wondrous place that provides nooks for all manners of travelers, but this is what I will always remember… riding on a roofless becak with the travel buddy after an exhausting day… being in a state of incredulity that I was actually in Java, but knowing for certain that I did not wish to be elsewhere doing something else with someone else. In that moment I understood that if a life is decorated with such moments, life is well-lived.