The Spirit of Java

Solo (Surakarta), Indonesia

Solo (Surakarta), Indonesia

Day 138: Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia

After so much hassle in Surabaya, I just took a taxi to the long-distance bus terminal south of the city. For $3, I booked a bus (with working air-conditioning!) to Solo, also known as Surakarta. Like all public Indonesian buses, vendors boarded at every stop. Snacks, perfume, books, bracelets, switchblade knives – all sorts of random trinkets were thrown into the laps of the passengers as the vendors strolled down the aisle. Now familiar with this sales routine, I surrendered to the goods piling up in my lap, handing each back to its respective vendor when he made his second round down the aisle to collect payment. A large man sat next to me, digging his entire weight into my side. I wiggled my way into a more comfortable position, turning at an angle to prevent my shoulder from crushing into the window. He seemed to spread out even more and I became cramped into a very awkward position for quite a long time. Another man across the aisle threw peanut shells onto the floor as if the bus was a bar.

When I arrived in Solo, I took a cycle rickshaw into town. Like most drivers here, mine didn't seem to know the way, and we ended up in a narrow alley where uniformed school children swarmed the rickshaw. The driver asked them how to get to my destination, and we drove off as the children chased us and demanded money from me. I settled into my simple $5 room and then walked out to explore the main street. It was lined with appliance stores, banks, a handful of western hotels, and even an indoor soccer court. Like Surabaya, Solo did not seem very popular with Western tourists despite its rather zealous tourism campaign. The city's tourism slogan – "Solo: the spirit of Java" – appeared everywhere, but the campaign seemed geared towards Indonesian tourists and not foreigners. Nevertheless, it was a much more pleasant place than Surabaya. In the evening, I strolled past a string of street food vendors in an area known as Galabo. I decided to brave it and try a dish from one of the stalls. I picked a dish called nasi liwat, but it had many different varieties listed only in Bahasa Indonesia. The vendor indicated that they referred to different parts of the chicken by motioning to a large bucket of pre-cooked meat. She pulled out various chicken parts and knew the English words for most of them. "Head? Heart? Foot? Wing?" I asked for a wing. I sat at one of the plastic tables set up along the street, and my meal arrived within two minutes. Rice with coconut milk was wrapped in a banana leaf with the chicken wing, which was cold and contained very little meat. The meal was only 90 cents, but it was not filling enough, so I went to an attractive Italian restaurant down the street. I usually try to stick to local cuisine, but I needed a break from fried rice and noodles. But Western food comes at a premium in Indonesia – my spicy penne arrabiata was over $4.

Wayang Orang performance, Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater

Wayang Orang performance, Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater

Wayang Orang performance in Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia

After dinner, I strolled down the road to a cheesy amusement park teeming with excited Indonesian kids and their families. There was a theater behind the park, and I bought a ticket to a

wayang orang

masked dance drama. It was not intended for foreigners – no English information about the performance was available – but it was therefore an authentic experience. As a local event, I paid the local price of only 30 cents for the two-hour performance. When I gave my ticket to the man at the door, he excitedly motioned for me to sign the guest register. Over the past month, only a handful of foreigners had listed their names. The performance was beautifully accented by a

gamelan

orchestra, and the elaborate costumes were captivating.

This morning, I booked a tour to two temples in the mountains around Solo. As I am traveling by myself, I could not book a car or minivan, which required a minimum of two people. I went on motorbike instead. My driver picked my up at my hotel, and we sped out of the city. Half an hour into our journey, we encountered a police roadblock. They were checking vehicle registrations, and unfortunately my driver's registration was expired. I had to wait for an hour for someone from the tour company to bring another bike. As time passed, the crowd of waiting motorists grew. Apparently, very few people actually had properly registered vehicles. We switched motorbikes and were finally on our way to the first temple, Candi Sukuh. This fifteenth-century Hindu temple is nestled picturesquely on the slopes of Mount Lawu and features a pyramidal central monument that would not look out of place in Mexico or Central America.

Sukuh Temple on Mount Lawu near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater

Sukuh Temple on Mount Lawu near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater

Sukuh Temple on Mount Lawu near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia

Mountain village at Cetho Temple near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater

Mountain village at Cetho Temple near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater

Mountain village at Cetho Temple near Solo (Surakarta), Java, Indonesia

We rode along pitted, serpentine roads to Candi Cetho, another fifteenth-century Hindu temple that atmospherically cascades down a mist-shrouded volcanic slope. During our visit, the fog grew thicker until the ancient stone gateways of the temple framed only a nebulous, milky whiteness. I held on tightly to the back handle of the motorbike as we descended the vertigo-inducing road back to Solo, bouncing through potholes and cracked pavement the entire way. We stopped for lunch at a plain roadside restaurant in Karangpandan. I ordered a regional specialty called

nasi gudeg

, consisting of rice, young jackfruit boiled in coconut milk, chicken, beef, and a blackish-brown hard-boiled egg. At 75 cents, it was the cheapest meal I've eaten yet. It was another hour back to Solo, where I had a little time to relax before heading to Yogyakarta by train.