?IN 15 years of traveling to Asia, I have seen and done a number of strange things. I have eaten writhing octopus tentacles in Seoul, and I’ve been shepherded into a Phnom Penh nightclub by a Cambodian dwarf in a tuxedo. At this point, little surprises me. But when I arrived in the city of Malang, in the cool hills of inland East Java, I discovered something I never imagined existed.
Silence! In my urban Asian experience, peace and quiet were as rare as white elephants, and yet here I’d found them — and on Java, no less, the world’s most heavily populated island. Some 136 million people live in a place the size of Florida, occupying every conceivable corner, from city slums to the perilous slopes of 44 volcanoes. And still, somehow, there was room for silence. Why hadn’t I heard about this before?
Because, alas, I’d never thought much about Indonesia. Oh, I’d kept the country in the back of my mind, aware of its volatile post-colonial history, conscious of its reputation as a coffee producer and familiar with its panoply of sambals, or hot sauces. But the opportunity to visit never arose. Indonesia, along with the Philippines and Brunei, remained the only parts of East Asia I hadn’t explored.
But then, while planning a trip to visit my wife’s family in nearby Taiwan, I realized that this was my chance. With my superficial knowledge of its geography (some 18,000 lush, volcanic islands) and culture (mostly Muslim, with Hindu, Buddhist, animist, Chinese and Dutch inflections), wouldn’t Indonesia — and specifically Java, its cultural and political center — be the perfect spot to plunge blindly into for a week, without guidebook, map or personal contacts?
And, at first, it was. Luck was with me when I landed, one night in early April, in Surabaya, the island’s second largest city, at the northeastern tip of Java. Following advice from the airport’s information office, I hopped a taxi into town and headed for the Tunjungan Hotel — a big, generic, modern building for which I could find no affection. Instead, I walked across the street and happened on a travel agency, still open at 9 p.m. But when I tried to explain to Ari, one of the agents, what I wanted — something atmospheric, maybe a converted villa? — he stared at me, confused. Ah, right. Language barrier.
WHICH is, I guess, why I’d been studying Lonely Planet’s Indonesian phrase book on the plane. “Is there an old-house hotel?” is what I asked, more or less, and Ari’s eyes lighted up. He swung around a computer monitor and showed me photos. “Hotel Majapahit,” he said, triumphantly.
A five-minute walk later, I arrived at the Majapahit, a 101-year-old colonial relic, all whitewashed walls and arcaded passageways. This was, according to a brass plaque, where the raising of the Dutch flag after World War II sparked street protests against colonial rule. The Majapahit was not just historic but affordable: $80 a night for a huge suite with antique furnishings, a swimming pool, a breakfast buffet with 10 fresh juices (starfruit! guava! rock melon!) and a front desk savvy enough to direct me to Surabaya’s best warungs, or street-food stalls. In fact, the kind women at the desk told me, such a warung was one street away: Rawon Setan, which sold a local variety of oxtail soup that was almost black with spices (hence the name: “Setan” is Satan: this was the Devil’s rawon). Delicious, especially with a glass of es soda gembira, a neon-pink mix of condensed milk, strawberry syrup and club soda over ice.
I relate this anecdote to explain my state of mind that first night. Here I’d shown up in a strange city in an unknown country and, almost by accident, found myself in a fantastic hotel, with my belly full of fiery new food. The possibilities seemed endless. I was euphoric.
But then things got muddled. The next morning I didn’t know what to do. I ran errands. I bought a local SIM card. I tracked down a laundromat (after my week in Taiwan, I had no clean clothes). I had a halting but friendly conversation over coffee with Sudargo, a Javanese man overseeing the opening of a franchise of the Ijen Cafe, an Indonesian chain, at a local university. On the banks of the Kalimas River, in the heart of the city, was an old Soviet submarine that had belonged to the Indonesian Navy; I walked through it. Then I walked through a shopping mall to escape the heat and humidity and found a KFC, an ice-cream parlor (noodle ice cream! satay ice cream!), cheap fashions and, near a stairwell, a collage of more than 100 celebrities, from Jesus and Steven Spielberg to Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, and the mall’s marketing manager. Finally, I sought out Surabaya’s synagogue — said to be the only one in Indonesia — but when I located it, the groundskeepers refused to let me past the gate.
When I travel, I aim for aimlessness, but this — well, this felt pointless. Aimlessness is supposed to lead me deeper into a place and a culture, but I felt as if I was going in circles. (Now that I examine a map, I see I really was.) If I’d wanted simply to get lost in Surabaya, this would have been ideal, but I had all of Java to explore — if only I could figure out where to go next. When I’d faced the same situation in Ireland last fall, I’d found a goal right away; a bookstore clerk had picked a misty mountain in County Kerry and drawn me a sketchy map, and I was off. In Surabaya, however, the people I spoke with seemed less imaginative. Usually, they just asked, “Are you going to Bali?” Not without my wife, I responded. But my interlocutors never suggested an intriguing alternative.
Finally, late that second night in Surabaya, I took matters into my own hands and broke one of my cardinal “Getting Lost” rules. Over Bintang beers at the open-air Lava Lounge, I discussed my options with the manager, Terry Hadi Purnomo. We bonded, unsurprisingly, over food. I hadn’t eaten yet, and told him I wanted something spicy. He knew exactly where to find it: Bebek Mercoon, a 10-minute walk away, whose grilled “firecracker duck” was soaked in a nuclear sauce. We were, it seemed, kindred stomachs. And so I asked him, “How about Malang?”
THIS was the sin. In mentioning Malang, I’d employed the advice of a friend in Taiwan, Justin, who’d blurted out the suggestion — a nice town with a lovely hotel, the Tugu — before I told him I didn’t want to hear it. And Justin wasn’t the only one who’d violated the sanctity of my project. The synagogue had been suggested by Horia Diaconescu, whom I’d met in Bucharest (during my 2008 Frugal Grand Tour) and who was now studying Indonesian in Surakarta, 130 miles west of Surabaya. Being turned away from the synagogue felt like an appropriate punishment for violating my precepts.
But this latest crime paid, and handsomely. Terry was absolutely in favor of Malang, and raved about satay komo, the town’s version of the grilled meat skewers eaten all over Indonesia. It was decided. Unrepentant, I went to Malang, a three-hour journey by bus. And there I fell in love.
The romance began in the Hotel Tugu, a tile-roofed labyrinth supposedly built to house its owner’s enormous collection of antiques and art, from stone Buddhas to a nearly life-size portrait of an Indonesian-Chinese sugar baron’s daughter.
Soon after I checked in, rain began to fall, at first softly, then with force. The hotel’s corridors were open-air, and I could watch and almost feel the water pummel the thick-leafed plants in the courtyards. Somewhere I could smell roasting coconut, and above the lobby the daily high tea was beginning, with a spread of (free) Indonesian sweets like fried banana and a soft, gelatinous green cake flavored with pandan leaves. “You’ve come to the right place,” a bellhop had said when I checked in, and he wasn’t joking.
When the rain softened, I borrowed an umbrella and hit the nighttime streets, which twisted through small hills and over a swollen river to the center of town. Unlike sprawling Surabaya, Malang was clustered around Alun-alun, a square park where lovers cuddled and teenagers sat in groups playing guitar and ukulele. One side fronted a large mosque and a colonial-era Catholic church; a Protestant church was a block away and a new Pentecostal one was in a shopping center nearby. Water dripped off banyan trees, and smoke from satay grills wafted through fluorescent lights. I was charmed.
And this was even before the next morning, when I found my silent neighborhood, and before I drank stellar single-origin coffee at the smartly run Java Dancer cafe, and before I discovered, on the acacia-shaded streets in front of the town hall, a children’s inline-skating competition and a classic car show, where — among the vintage VW microbuses and Fiats and a Dodge that once belonged to Sukarno — I was approached by an aging Javanese man in coveralls and baseball cap.
“Sprechen sie Deutsch?” he asked.
Um, no, I replied, so he switched to English. We chatted for a bit about the car show — held, he said, to celebrate Malang’s 97th anniversary — and he asked me my plans for Indonesia. I want to get lost, I told him, to explore.
In that case, he said, he’d happily drive me around the countryside tomorrow, but on one condition: that I not pay him. Well, O.K.!
The Old Man, as he asked me to call him for this article, picked me up in his late-’80s Mazda; from the rearview mirror hung a medal with a Koranic verse and a blue teddy bear. We drove northwest, and the Old Man told me of how his work for a pile driver company had taken him to Germany and the Czech Republic where he’d learned German and English. Soon, we’d escaped the city and were climbing through green hills where farmers tended terraced fields on vertiginously steep slopes.
Our destination was a natural spring on Mount Kukusan, recognized as the source of the Brantas River, the longest in East Java. The spring lay inside an arboretum, and as we strolled the stone pathways the Old Man wistfully remarked that this would be a great spot to bring girls. Then he pointed out the jarak pagar trees, whose fruit Indonesians were required to harvest to produce fuel for the Japanese during World War II. We saw the spring — a stone bowl of clear, flowing water — and the Old Man picked some flowers for his wife, an agricultural engineer, and we kept walking until the rain pelted down, then hurried back to the Mazda and to Malang — where I remembered I hadn’t yet eaten satay komo.
The Old Man, ever willing to help, drove from warung to warung, even as torrential rains flooded the streets and dripped in through the old car’s unsealed windows. No one had satay komo; either it wasn’t on the menu, or they’d sold out. Finally, at a warung near the train station, we found it: cubes of tender beef, grilled on a skewer and submerged in coconut milk-chili sauce. It was worth getting soaked for.
Once again, I was conflicted about my next stop. As much as I wanted to wander — to flit spontaneously from village to village — the mechanics of doing so eluded me. Buses and trains plied urban routes, and slowly; hiring a car and driver seemed extravagant; and I refused to rent a motorbike, though that’s how everyone else gets around. (I’ve had too many near-misses.) Indonesia demanded the kind of planning I was trying to avoid. At the Hotel Tugu, no one had been able to suggest a destination other than Mount Bromo — a major tourist landmark — and since I hadn’t even glanced at a map, I couldn’t easily figure out alternatives.
Then Horia, my Romanian friend, texted me: The next day, he and his classmates were going to watch a Javanese ceremony in a kampung, or village, in the hills outside Surakarta, a four-hour train ride from Malang. It would violate my no-contacts policy to join them, but I’d broken my rules once already. What harm was there in a second breach?
So at 4 the next morning, I met Horia at his university, Universitas Sebelas Maret. He looked almost as he had three years earlier, tall and husky, with a neat beard; he spoke near-perfect English with the same gruff burr. On campus, we rendezvoused with Horia’s professor and his classmates — a Pole, a Serb, two Vietnamese women and some Thais — and squeezed into a minivan. As the vehicle glided through the dark, a feeling of relaxation came over me. On my own, I’d fretted about every step. Now that decision-making was out of my hands, I relished the idea that I didn’t know where we’d end up.
Where we ended up was the village of Nglurah, on the slopes of Mount Lawu, an hour before the annual dukutan ceremony, held in memory of a man and woman from neighboring communities who, in ancient times, fought a bitter war, fell in love and brought peace to the newly unified Nglurah. (“Annual” means every seven months; the Javanese calendar has 210 days.) Men in black were putting the finishing touches on dozens of offering plates of fruits, crackers and conical corn-cake pyramids. On a wooded hill above the kampung, they were wrapping the stone statues of a 1,500-year-old Hindu temple in gilt fabrics and toasting broad banana leaves over a fire.
In the post-dawn gray, the villagers marched up the hill, the men in black carrying platters of bananas and corn cakes, which they laid down before a towering fig tree. The Nglurah imam — a somber, diminutive man with a high-pitched voice — led the crowd in Muslim prayers; next to him stood an old woman carrying an infant and a metallic zebra balloon.
Then the fun began. Their prayers finished, the villagers lunged forward, grabbing the food in their hands and grinding it to a pulpy mess, which the men in black collected in the singed banana leaves. Then they marched around the hilltop, and with each pass they reached into their banana leaves, took handfuls of mashed food and flung it at the villagers, re-enacting the long-ago war. White specks lodged in black hair, banana bits bounced off noses, and I chased the food-fighters with my cameras and survived a chunk of something aimed at my head.
Something changed for me there, as I watched this mishmash of traditions — Muslim, Hindu, Javanese, Nglurahnese — with a mishmash of nationalities. For too long, I realized, I’d been needlessly orthodox in my own thinking, intent on cramming Indonesia into the strictures of my narrow brand of lost-ism. But this was a land where orthodoxy has historically been bested by the easy joys of syncretism. I’d have to abandon, or relax, the rules I traveled by and instead follow Indonesia’s unofficial motto: Tidak apa-apa ko — never mind.
IN the remaining two and a half days, I never felt constrained by transportation networks or funneled into tourist traps by unimaginative advisers. Instead, I followed Horia and his classmates to a mountaintop Hindu temple (an “erotic” one with pristine stone linga) above a tea plantation near Karanganyar, and then returned to Surkarta to sample as many sambals (mango! eggplant! tamarind!) as my stomach could handle at the aptly named restaurant Spesial Sambal. I hopped a train to the industrial city of Semarang and took pictures of crumbling colonial structures decorated with psychedelic street art, and in the pub at the back of another century-old hotel I drank way too much beer with the British manager of a ceramics company.
Once, I even examined a map of Java. What I saw was a surprisingly small place, crisscrossed with highways and rail lines. No single spot looked truly off the beaten path — everywhere was within reach. I could, I now knew, go anywhere and do anything, and I knew that the choices I’d already made, however spuriously, reluctantly or dutifully, to go where I’d gone were the right ones after all.
Article and Photos are courtesy of New York Times