Saturday, May 26, 2007

Drive-Through Buddhism

When we awoke the next morning, Kaberi committed herself to getting us off on the right foot by leading us to a Rough Guide-recommended breakfast spot, the Ministry Of Coffee. Her efforts proved worthwhile as we collectively enjoyed hearty servings of banana chocolate pancakes, egg croissants, espresso and vanilla lattes. Rejuvenated with a satisfying meal, we continued on to Yogyakarta’s Sultan’s Palace to catch a traditional shadow puppet rendition of the Ramayana strongly recommended by Kaberi’s father, who had spent a number of years in Indonesia on business.

Kaberi had wisely chosen to sample a Saturday morning practice-cum-performance of walat gaoneg at the Sultan’s Palace because her ability to successfully convince her travel companions to sit through a daylong puppet show would have been tenuous, at best. After an amusing taxi ride to the palace (during which we discovered that our Indonesian cabbie shared Vik’s love of the cheesy 1970’s cop show, CHiPs), we were able to walk the palace grounds and observe the puppet show at our leisure before Jason and Kaberi were mobbed by a crowd of excitedly-giggling young Indonesian girls wanting to have their picture taken with the two Midwesterners. Standing off to the side, Vik hadn’t seen such a surreal example of faux celebrity worship since his 30 minutes playing Pluto at EuroDisney in a prior life.

We opted for a hurried McDonald’s lunch before driving north to the Buddhist temple ruins of Borobudur in a dilapidated taxi leaking gasoline and literally coming apart at the seams. Upon arriving at the site an hour later, our terse cabbie indicated that he would see us back at the dropoff site at a time of our choosing. Checking our watches, we realized we had three hours to spend in Borobudur’s majesty before needing to return to Yogyakarta to collect our bags before catching an evening flight back to Bali.

Unlike our peaceful visit to Prambanan one day prior, Borobudur was teeming with Indonesian visitors – especially excitable schoolchildren – on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. Keeping our wits about us while dodging the occasional stray youth running by, we approached Borobudur via a flat pathway that led directly to the temple steps. Originally a Hindu temple site, Borobudur was laid on a stone foundation that was sinking into the soft earth below. This led to a UNESCO intervention where the temple was dismantled piece by piece in order to allow for the reinforcement of the foundation with concrete.

As we scaled the reconstructed temple, we had the privilege of walking alongside 504 1,200-year-old Buddha statues and 2,672 elaborate friezes. The temple was composed of six ascending levels, each representing stages in the Buddhist path to enlightenment. When we finally emerged at the top, representing nirvana, we were met by stunning 360-degree views of the countryside. Borobudur’s setting was as impressive as its architecture, with sweeping vistas of volcanic peaks intermingled with lush foliage and flatlands scattered with small towns. After taking account of our surroundings, we dodged the camera-mugging and walked through the 72 bell-shaped honey-comb statue coverings representing nirvana-attaining disciples.

After accommodating a smattering of photo request from young admirers, we headed back to the original drop-off point, only to find that our taxi was nowhere to be seen in the expanse of a massive and largely-desolate parking lot. With only a couple of hours remaining before our flight was set to depart and 100 kilometers separating us from Yogyakarta, we began to get nervous. After waiting an additional 20 minutes, Vik started exploring our other logistical options – ferrying us via horse-drawn cart to the nearest bus station or hiring an available private car and driver who would invariably sense our mounting desperation and demand from us a round trip fare.

In the midst of frightfully one-sided negotiations with an opportunistic car owner (translated by a helpful bystander), our cabbie returned, unapologetic and apparently unavoidably detained by a pressing oil-related issue. Adding insult to injury, he had neglected to refill his gas tank during the process, leaving his three passengers to apprehensively watch the fuel dial until we found the nearest gas station, some fifteen minutes away. Sixty minutes thereafter, back in Yogyakarta, we were quite enthusiastic to find a new taxi to take us to the airport.

As luck would have it, our flight to Bali was delayed, leaving us time to indulge in not-exactly-gourmet curbside meals at the KFC and Dunkin’ Donuts in Yogyakarta’s diminutive airport. Troubled that her cardinal travel rule of not patronizing U.S. chains while abroad had been broken twice in one day, Kaberi ordered a durian-flavored donut. It proved to be the appropriate capstone to the day – all three of us took a bite and cringed. An hour or so later, we were in the air enroute to Bali. To our surprise, we had managed to check in for and board the flight without a single person asking to see any form of ID. Our VIP status in eastern Java notwithstanding, we could not wait to make landfall back in Bali.

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