24: A Breath of Fresh Air

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

Borobodur view

Arriving in Jogja I didn’t really know what to expect. Jakarta had been a disappointment so far. I’d only been here for two weeks and I already felt like my holiday was much needed – just to get some fresh air into my lungs at least. When I had done some cursory research on the internet to find out a little bit about Jakarta before arriving, the pictures I’d seen online had presented images of a place that looked so vibrant and modern, and Indonesia was a country that seemed to have such natural beauty. I just couldn’t understand how it could have as its capital such a polluted violation of a city. Could it be possible that Jogja, which is the location of the old Javanese capital of Yogyakarta, was going to be the same? I hoped it wasn’t.

The journey to Soekarno-Hatta airport was only about forty minutes in the early morning pre-rush hour traffic. Being that close to the global escape route from the city was probably the only benefit of living in the Grand Prix Inn. However, I’d left at around 7.30am and overshot my timing so I found myself with over two hours to kill in an airport that didn’t have a bar. So I smoked my last rapid burning Marlborough Light and logged on to the airport wifi to see what the Facebook family were up to. I logged in my airport location (because that kind of thing is cool on Facebook right?) and I immediately got a ‘Like’ off Josie, a good friend from back home. It was Saturday and quite late back in England – around one in the morning – but Josie has her own hairdressing salon in Affleck’s Palace shopping arcade in Manchester and usually goes out for a few after work drinks in a Friday night. Those few drinks typically turn into… ‘Go on then, just one more… and a late night follows; this I know from experience. Josie asked how things were going and I asked what was happening back home. There wasn’t much to report of note from either side. My first couple of weeks in Jakarta had been an inglorious and disappointing adventure so far, but I didn’t really want to moan and be negative. Being in an airport heading out to another city in this new part of the world I now resided was exciting enough for friends back home so I left it at that. As for Manchester, well when you’ve lived in a place all your life, anything that would constitute exciting news seldom happens in two weeks. Actually, never mind two weeks, two years can be just as uneventful. That was a large part of the reason I had moved to the other side of the world. I needed a change; to reignite my life and the apathy that had set in after several uneventful false re-starts. But that in itself is another story for another time perhaps. So, after our brief cyber contact, Josie wished me well, told me to be careful and I signed off before proceeding to check in.

Seokarna-Hatta may be an international airport and the main sky route out of Indonesia’s capital city, but it’s a little bit shit as main airports go. It has three terminals and is quite big, but shopping is limited. Food and drink options at each terminal don’t exactly spoil you with choice, and it has that embarrassing feature that you sometimes find in the little airports in the less significant countries in the world; airport tax. I’m not too sure what ‘airport tax’ really is, but I think at most of the world’s major international airports it’s something that is absorbed in the price of your flight ticket. However, at S-H it’s an added extra you have to cough up to escape through to the departure gates.

A domestic flight from Jakarta to Jogja incurs a tax of 45,000 IDR on the way there and 35,000 when you come back. Once through the departure gates you can maybe get a cold drink from a vending machine or buy a dry Indonesian snack to nibble on, but in all honesty, there is nothing to do but wait. So I decided I’d wait with a soundtrack. I had a wifi signal on my phone so I connected up the earphones and checked out what was happening on Soundcloud.

My Soundcloud stream fed me some good tunes to kill the dead airport time and I made myself quite comfortable, bobbing away to the house beat popping against my eardrums. I was listening to a gorgeous deep, afro-house offering from Afe Ikuku called Cobra (courtesy of Martin Iveson at Atjazz Records) as I watched a group of Indonesian men sat on the bench in front of me. There were four of them aged somewhere between their forties and fifties and they were surrounded by packages and hand luggage. They were all dressed pretty conservatively in batik patterned shirts, trousers and casual shoes except for one; a funny looking skinny fella who appeared to be mute. He was maybe in his late thirties or early forties and wore a jacket, sandals, a baseball cap and a pair of massively flared denim shorts. However, what was most unusual was his apparent role as masseur amongst the group.

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The two eldest men in the group, who were probably around fifty, took it in turns to receive massage treatment from the mute man, who in contrast to his relaxed companions, had a darting, sprightliness about him. He fired animated sign language signals intermittently at them in between his conscientious hand, shoulder, arm and calf kneading duties. It was an odd little spectacle, but he must have known his stuff because the older guys were twitching and flinching, there eyes rolling as they sighed in pleasure – I was jealous. I was pretty tired and could have done with a good shoulder rub.

I had a fair amount of time to pass and I really just wanted relax and listen to some tunes until the gate opened, but the wifi signal in the airport started buffering and interrupting my Soundcloud stream. This was really annoying as there was some really good music in my feed and the suddenly sketchy wifi signal was just messing with my relaxation and I still had over an hour to kill. ‘Fuck it’, I thought and decided to play something straight from the phone instead, only I got distracted by a little kid and made a big mistake that meant I wasn’t getting any more relaxation that morning.

This lively little kid that was playing around the bench near me was only about five or six. His front teeth looked as if they had been disintegrated by pacifying, sugary treats. But he was a cute little lad, so when I caught his eye I started playing peek-a-boo with him. But then he wouldn’t leave me alone. I only meant to have a quick giggle with the kid before setting my playlist and relaxing back into my chair for another hour. But no, now he just wanted to play. I should have really known better. I tried to ignore him but it was too late. He started slapping the back of my head and tugging at the epaulette on my shirt, but I was just too tired to continue with his games. His mum told him off, but it didn’t work. Those front teeth told a story of failed discipline and saccharine bribes – this sugar-fuelled little shit wasn’t going to stop until I gave him a sneaky pinch and made him cry. But then, just like a flash of thunder in a storm cloud that stops as suddenly as it starts without the explosive energy of thunder and lightning that should follow, I got lucky. He pulled a long, loose thread of material off my shirt and suddenly burst into jubilant fits of laughter! He started dancing around the airport with this wispy little piece of cotton thread as if it was the best kite in the world. So I took my opportunity and escaped out of his view to the area in the lounge where the boarding gates were, leaving the crazy little fella to his sugary high and simple pleasure.

I had read somewhere that Lion Air is one of the most accident-prone airlines in the world. Only as recently as 2013 one of their pilots overshot an airstrip on landing and ended up in the sea. I confess, I flinched once or twice during the short hour-long trip over to Adisujipto airport in Jogja and when we landed safely I was genuinely relieved.

I was met at the arrivals gate by the hotel transfer driver, whose name I just couldn’t pronounce and unsurprisingly didn’t retain. His English was more or less nonexistent, but I managed to get him to take me to a money changer and a place to eat before we checked into the Puri Artha hotel in the Jogja capital of Yogyakarta.

The first thing I noticed about Yogyakarta was that it had far less traffic than Jakarta, but it still had enough. However, here it seemed like the moped was king – there were scores of them – teams of them – buzzing around everywhere. Young and old, families and friends – everyone was on a moped. There was even a large open fast food chain that had a massive banner advertising its moped parking along with its cheap food. The other noticeable thing about Jogja’s capital city was that there wasn’t as much garbage strewn around the place. It was like a proper island town with none of the skyscrapers that bullied the landscape of the main districts in Jakarta. There were also fewer taxis and there wasn’t a bar in sight.

We soon arrived at the The Puri Artha Hotel, a lovely little hotel decorated in a combination of Javanese and Balinese styling. Although not in the centre of Yogyakarta, it is located on a busy little street that has a lot of independent little urban fashion boutiques, which was a refreshing change from the corporate monotony of commercial labels that fill the big malls in Jakarta. There seemed to be as many of these youthful little fashion shops as food and drink stops.

Puri Artha entrance

The Puri Artha Hotel is split between two buildings on opposite sides of the road and has its own traffic controllers who ensure you cross safely. The driver pulled up at the front as I stepped out with my single piece of hand luggage and was directed into the small lobby where there was an attractive young Indonesian woman behind the reception desk. She spoke good English but bore the professionally serious countenance of someone who seldom deviates from protocol. She greeted me with a detached “Welcome Sir” as I sucked on one of the tiny little hard-boiled sweets I’d taken from the small glass bowl on the reception desk.

“Hello”, I replied, as I handed her my reservation. She then set about checking me in with a casual efficiency.

“Can I take your passport Sir”, she asked.

“Only if I can have it back”, I joked. There was no response from the young woman, just an impassive, professional smile.

I dug my passport from my holdall and as the woman went about dealing with my reservation and preparing my room card, I took a look around the lobby area, admiring it’s ornately carved ethnic styled furniture and complete gamelan feature. I liked it. It was calming. It was the first time I actually felt like I was in Indonesia.

“Room 254 Sir”, she said as she handed me my key card.

Inside, my room was all dark wood, modern-but-classic styled furniture, but it had two single beds. ‘Oh dear, here we go again’ I thought. So I explained to the porter that I had requested a large double bed, something that should have been pretty evident from my reservation as a single traveller.

“Sorry Sir”, he said, “I go ask at reception.” He then rushed off with the card key as I waited in the room hoping that this would not turn into an irredeemable problem that would piss me off before I’d even got started on my weekend break. Fortunately it didn’t. A few minutes later the porter returned with a key card for the room next door, which did have a large double bed. This was a relief. The last thing I wanted was to start my first Indonesian holiday with contention.

The second room was much the same as the first, except with a double bed. There were all the necessary amenities that you would expect at any decent hotel, including disposable slippers. It was a little old, yes, but it was spotlessly clean, the water was hot, the air conditioning worked, the TV had the HBO channel and the bed – a big double bed – felt like the palm of Buddha’s hand. The room also had a bath. I hadn’t had a deep, hot bath since leaving home, so that was something I looked forward to enjoying. At around £30 a night, it wasn’t bad.

After I had unloaded my stuff I took a little wander around the grounds of the hotel. There was only one floor with chalet style rooms on both the ground and upper levels. Each had a small veranda at the front with a table and chairs. The other part of the hotel on the other side of the road had a small pool with an ornate, ethnically styled water feature at one end. The side where I was staying had the restaurant and a little on-site spa. The grounds on both sides were beautifully decorated with neatly preened gardens complete with Javanese ornaments, statues and ponds crossed by the cutest little ornate bridges and filled with small Koi and large catfish. As you walk through the gardens, the gentle, calming trickles of the ponds’ water features make you feel so relaxed that you just want to kick back with an iced tea and fall asleep. But I only had a couple of days and I had to arrange some sightseeing since I was unable to book them when I had booked the room and the flight.

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Puri Artha gardens. An oasis of tranquility.

Puri Artha gardens. An oasis of tranquility.

There were a group of middle aged and elderly Germans at the desk when I went to the reception to ask about doing some sightseeing. They were checking out and waiting for a taxi to take them and their backpacks to their next cultural excursion in Indonesia. I didn’t have to wait long for them to settle their bill so that I could speak to Santi, the young woman at the reception with the professional smile.

Santi spoke good English so it wasn’t difficult to communicate; “Hi”, I said with my most charming smile – I hoped that if I could develop a cordial rapport I might be able to broker a better deal on my excursion package. At the very least I hoped that it might help me avoid being ripped off as a clueless Bule with too much holiday money to spend. “I’m only here for a couple of days and I wanted to see the, erm… Baramban and Poropudan…?

“Borobudur and Prambanan”, she said, correcting me.

“Yes, the temples. How far away are they?” I asked.

“Well Prambanan is only about one hour away in a taxi Sir. Borobudur is maybe two hours or more”, she told me. It was still very early in the afternoon so I asked her whether it was possible to see either one of these landmarks that day – or possibly even both. She told me that they are in opposite directions, and whilst I could take a taxi from the hotel and go and see Prambanan in good time, it would be too late to get to Borobudur.

“You can hire a driver for tomorrow and see both temples in one day. If you want I can arrange a driver for you?” she suggested.

“How much is a driver for the day?” I asked and she told me it would cost around 750,000 for the day. I thought that seemed like a fair price and a decent plan, but it seemed a waste of one of my days. I had the whole of my arrival day to go to Prambanan and I could do it in a taxi. There must be other sightseeing to be had in Jogja, so I asked Santi what else I could do. She suggested I take a trip up to the top of Dieng Plateau and take a look at the active volcanic craters (Kawah-Sikidang) and the surrounding sulphur mines. There was also the Yogyakarta Palace (Kraton) where the king of Jogja and his family live. It’s described as ‘A Living Museum of Javanese Culture’ on the YogYes.com guide site, but Santi didn’t really sell it.

The hotel had a decent wifi signal in the reception so I was having a look online for two-day tours that were on offer, and there were quite a few. There were tours that included cycle rides, trips around old villages where you can engage in some traditional arts and crafts (before being left in a market to get mithered by traders trying to sell you their wares not doubt). There was even a possibility to catch the sunset at Parangtritis beach, or do a spot of white river rafting. However, I was well into the first of my two days and was too late for booking myself on any of these packaged tours. So after Santi patiently fielded all of my tour queries, it was decided that I just didn’t have the time to be zigzagging from one side of the island to another to take in everything. I definitely wanted to see the Borobudur temple, so working around that, the plan was to go there first thing in the morning before taking the three hour drive up to the 2093 metre high Dieng Plateau to see the volcano craters, stopping off to see the sulphur filled ‘colour lake’ (Telaga-Warna) on the way. I would get a taxi over to see Prambanan that afternoon and get back in time for dinner. Sorted; I had my weekend planned, I just needed my driver for the following day.

“If you just wait a moment I can call our agent and find out for you”, she said as she reached behind the desk to find the number.

Santi spoke to somebody on the phone, but although I don’t speak Bahasa, it didn’t have the tone of someone speaking to a travel agency. It was more like someone speaking to a driver who they use for guests who want to book tours. After a short while she looked up from the phone and told me that it would cost 1,200,000 IDR for a driver for the day.

“One million two hundred!” I said, “This is the same price as the tour package. I may as well just go on a tour if I have to pay that much. You said 750,000 earlier.”

“Yes but the driver is more than this for the day Sir”, she said.

“Yes but surely the driver is cheaper than the tour guide”, I told her.

“Yes but with the driver you can stop where you want. You can take pictures without waiting for many people”, she replied.

“Okay, but one million two hundred!? Ask him what his best price is please”, I asked. So she spoke to the person on the end of the phone and eventually came back with a price of 950,000 and a questioning look of ‘yes or no?’ I had no time to to make any other arrangements and I didn’t want to waste the little time I had quibbling over what was really only a few quid. I accepted the offer on the guarantee that my driver could speak English. I didn’t want to spend the whole day with someone that I couldn’t speak to. Santi assured me that the driver spoke English and told me that she would give me confirmation details when I returned.

With my trip booked for the next day, my weekend schedule of sightseeing in Jogja was underway. I decided not to waste any more time, so I returned to my room for a quick shower then came back to the reception and got the porter to hail a taxi to take me to Prambanan.

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One thought on “24: A Breath of Fresh Air

  1. We always had good luck finding guides when we traveled … not the official ones, but guys just looking to make a few dollars off the books. We got meals at their home and saw some really interesting places I think we’d never have seen otherwise. But a massage … just can’t go wrong with that. Not anywhere 🙂

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