Kaliurang, Central Java, Indonesia
September 22, 2010
No plane crashes. No terrorists. No lost passport or camera. No Delhi belly. That was a portion of my typical pre-travel litany, collectively called “travelling mercies.” For this trip to Java, I added something very specific to my supplications: God, no Merapi eruption. I never kept tabs on volcanic activity; I couldn’t even remember how I knew about Mount Merapi or that it was one of the most active volcanoes in the world. But I had always believed that if you didn’t know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit would provide the words.
God heard the prayer I plagiarized from Him.
And so I had the chance to go up (or as they say in Dutch, naar boven) to Kaliurang, a resort village nestled on the slopes of Mount Merapi. It made the most out of its lush vegetation and cool climes – the town even charged a minimal entrance fee! But its beauty was priceless. A thick cover of pine and banyan canopied the undulating terrain. Slender cinnamon trees lent a delicate aroma to the air. It was raining on and off that day; every drenched leaf shimmered with a sharper shade of green. The entire tropical rainforest exuded a vibrant freshness.
Compelled by our growling tummies, Donna (my travel buddy), Sutik (our rented van driver), and I lumbered up an ascending leaf-strewn footpath. Only a nondescript arrow sign with the word “restaurant” led us to this direction (Kaliurang was not big on signage; it was easy to miss turns – in fact, Sutik was forever getting lost but that’s another story!). Just past a blind corner, an inconspicuous villa shyly peeked through a wooden gate and a grove of cinnamon trees with creeper-covered trunks – an unlikely location for a restaurant.
This secluded villa tucked away in the rainforest housed Beukenhof Restaurant, located naar boven on the second floor. Kaliurang was once a colonial settlement in Java, and Beukenhof ushered its diners into that time in Indonesian history. This Tudor-style dining hall was redolent of the genteel Dutch colonial era: stucco walls with wooden paneling, classic Doric columns, soft yellow decorative lamps, and tall French windows that opened to an enchanting view of manicured gardens accented with sculptures and art installations. In my uncouth backpacker get-up (shorts, T-shirt, dirty sneakers, and baseball cap), I was an anachronistic sore thumb in this dreamy period setting.
Besides serving up old world ambiance, Beaukenhof served delectable pasta dishes. On our second day in Indonesia, Donna and I gave our taste buds a break from the strong spices and richness of Javanese cuisine to savor more familiar flavors. Western food was generally pricier, however. Surprisingly, the naar boven concept did not apply to the price ceiling here. As a budget traveler, I never expected my pocket money would cover dining in a boutique restaurant!
Muse, a souvenir shop, occupied the ground floor. Designer batik pieces (clothes and bags) and costume jewelry, decidedly not as affordable as the food upstairs, were creatively hung on modern art installations. Too bad the shop had a no-photo policy. In keeping with the shop name, the storekeeper was a muse named Phony (at least it sounded like that, but she was a genuinely pleasant person). She toured me around the vicinity, a part of Taman Kaswargan mountain forest area. I asked her about the clear and present danger that was Mount Merapi. She said lava flows preferred the opposite slope and would usually leave this area scot-free.
This “heavenly garden” was actually the backyard of a private museum that my Javanese friend highly recommended, Ullen Sentalu – the brainchild of the Haryono family. For $5, the museum shed light on the richness of Javanese history, focusing on the royal family and batik culture. The museum building was an attraction in itself. The entrance resembled a bower, almost entirely shrouded by foliage. One section was a gothic underground labyrinth of dim corridors and rooms. My favorite section was Kampung Kambang – a complex of small rooms built over a pond giving the illusion of floating on water. The water setting competed for attention with the contents, from poems to batik patterns – a lovely distraction, although I was also anxious about contracting malaria or dengue fever. There was so much for my memory to take in; sadly, the museum also strictly enforced a no-photo policy.
A museum guide told history and introduced royal personages through anecdotes that sounded more like insider information than staid textbook facts. She balanced off reverence with a sense of familiar intimacy. The museum cast the spotlight on female members of the royal family. The most memorable was Gusti Nurul, a forward-thinking woman endowed with beauty and athletic skills, who was the first princess to reject polygamy (sultans would have scores of concubines).
The museum celebrated art, not only by displaying its past glories, but also by promoting its development. A modern art gallery and a traditional Javanese dance studio were within its grounds. Before exiting the museum, we met a group of children marching out from their dance practice.
A statue of Ganesha stood guard at the exit. Ganesha was the only Hindu god I could pick out in the crowd – thanks to his distinctive elephant trunk, tusks, and ears. The Hindu icon was right next to a musholla, an Islamic prayer room, indicative of the “unity in diversity” that Obama praised Indonesia for during a recent state visit to the country.
Ganesha was generally regarded as the god of wisdom, but in Java, he was also the creator and destroyer of obstacles – twin traits he shared with the mystical Merapi. On October 25, 2010, exactly a month after I left Indonesia, Mount Merapi started spewing lava and ash. This eruption lasted for weeks and had claimed more than 150 lives. Merapi, after all, means “mountain of fire.” Paulus, my Indonesian friend, texted me this message:
The mountain is raging. The place u visited, the museum, that’s the red zone. Covered with ash n vulcanic material.
In the place of my selfish litany, I prayed for that part of Java: for its art and historical relics, and more importantly, for Phony and the people of Kaliurang.
Merapi created the green rainforest and gardens that sprouted on its fertile soil. Merapi also destroyed it repeatedly into an ash-white wasteland. I remember asking Phony where I could see Merapi’s summit. She casually pointed at the direction of the pine and cinnamon grove and said, “There, that’s Merapi.” I looked and, for the life of me, I couldn’t see any mountain. But she said it with such conviction; I felt silly for not having seen it. I took a photo to prove it wasn’t my eyesight that was failing me.
In Kaliurang, Merapi loomed large, yet largely unseen. Merapi was both nurturing Mother Nature and a destructive force of nature.