Merapi Giveth; Merapi Taketh Away

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.

Kaliurang: In the Shadow of Mount Merapi

God heard the prayer I plagiarized from Him.

And so I had the chance to go up (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.

Garden in the Forest
Behold Beukenhof

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). 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.

Beukenhof Restaurant in Kaliurang, Jogjakarta
The Beauty of Beukenhof

This secluded villa 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 enchanting views of a manicured garden 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!

Beukenhof Lunch with Donna
Beukenhof: Beautiful Boutique Restaurant in Kaliurang

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 (her name 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.

With Phony, my Muse in Kaliurang
Ullen Sentalu Museum, Kaliurang, Jogjakarta

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; 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 had scores of concubines).

Sculpture in Ullen Sentalu
TTT @ Ullen Sentalu: The Lamp of Javanese Culture

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 POTUS Obama praised Indonesia for during a recent state visit to the country.

Ganesha at the Gate
Ganesha and Musholla

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, “mountain of fire” in Javanese, started spewing lava and ash. This eruption lasted for weeks and had claimed more than 150 lives. 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.

Mystical Merapi

In Kaliurang, Merapi loomed large, yet largely unseen. Merapi was both nurturing Mother Nature and a destructive force of nature.

95 thoughts on “Merapi Giveth; Merapi Taketh Away”

    1. Yes, the cycle of life. The rainforest, I know, will spring back to life in no time. But of course, we can’t bring back those that have perished. And I wonder if any of the artwork was salvaged at all.

  1. Your writing is captivating. This is more than just a retelling of events and I felt like I was visiting right along with you. You have also inspired further research – thank you for sharing your travels 🙂

    1. Thank you too, Phoenix. I hope I’d also inspire people to visit this place – after the volcanic activity has subsided, of course. Last I heard, Merapi is becoming stable.

    1. Your comment fascinates me as well, fwend. Hehe! India, I think, will just bring out the eloquence in you. Namaste, my fwend.

  2. This post convinced me that Indonasia is the one of the most beautiful places in the world and worth to visit. I hope Merapi re-creates this area… The encounter with Phony sounds a precious spin-off that made your tirp more memorable. I love this part. 🙂 And the photo of “The Beauty of Beukenhof” which is my favorite one really tempts me to dine there. That must be so gracious…

    1. Watch “Eat Pray Love” and you’d be convinced even more. Indonesia’s natural beauty is like cinematography! Yes, Beukenhof is by far the most romantic restaurant I’ve ever been. Don’t miss the museum too. It’s one of the loveliest I’ve been to. Oh my, I’m gushing. Haha!

  3. You never fail to amaze me with your writing. After reading this, I feel like I’ve been there AJ. Thanks for sharing and I wish you more travels so you have more to share. God bless!

  4. Now the picture of this gorgeous place is full,AJ. You know what I usually think after reading every other entry of yours…. so vivid in my mind that I can say BEEN THERE… in a way, yes…
    Hope all those things will not be lost irrevocably under the ash…. 😦
    thanks once again,AJ!

    1. Not all is lost, Reny. Life is resilient; nature is renewable. I should know because I, too, live in a volcanic island. The devastation now will be the fertilizer of the future. The ground that spews out fire that kills is the same one that wells up with the water of life. The yin-and-yang of nature.

  5. Hello AJ – I loved reading this story. As always your posts are so rich in beauty and history. It is easy to feel I am inside the story and sense the delicate balance and cooperation between Merapi and the people who live/work in her shadow.

    Beautifully done and thank you for sharing the story.

    Be well,

    1. Ron, you’re right about the “delicate balance.” I think most people there are in tune with the rhythm of the volcano. The museum, according to news reports, evacuated its employees and collections promptly. I suppose Phony’s shop had done the same. Thanks for dropping in, Ron!

  6. I didn’t know that Lord Ganesha had an existence outside India too! Having read about your visits to different places, I am keen to read your version of this place someday:)

    1. Indian influences are strongly evident in some parts of Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat also heavily borrows from Indian culture. I guess that’s why I’m intrigued by Indian culture. I’d wanna see where it all came from!

      1. I know! Especially the music, the tunes of the folk songs in north India ( the hilly-snowy regions from where my mother is) are quiet similar to the folk songs of other parts of Asia. The dance, the clothes and the cute tiny eyes….my granny has cute tiny eyes:)

    1. The place is naturally captivating. I think anyone could’ve elicited the same sense of wonder. Thanks for dropping in, Jorie!

    1. Let’s hope it’s still there after the eruption. But I’m hopeful cuz this area just got ash fall, not lava flow. I suppose they’ll just dust it off, literally. 🙂

    1. Thank you both. Swamped with work lately, but another post is in the pipeline. Coming soon to a blog near you. 🙂 Looking forward to reading about the beauty of Belize too.

  7. AJ, u really would become a great writer one day, not only u can illustrate the mountain pre eruption much better than me as an Indonesian, but with yr beautiful language and feeling, u really r capable in taking the readers deep down into yr story. The photographs are originally yours and the story is so authentic. For me this is one of yr master piece AJ!

  8. Actually thank you for share, beautiful landscapes, I think is really amazing travelling around the world, I was recently in the countryside of Ceará state I went there in order to take part of the International conference of Geoparks, before we left, we went to visit a fossils of Animals 100 million ago in a museum in Santana do Cariri town in Ceará state. Thanks my dear and keep up doing a great job. Carlos, from Brazil

    1. That’s true, Carlos. Traveling can make you appreciate the world more fully. For people like us who live in concrete jungles, it’s rejuvenating to be in an actual jungle. I had a sense of being surrounded by pulsating, breathing life in this forest. We don’t get this a lot in our smog-laden cities.

    1. Gracias Monika! How awkward to see a comment from my blog idol here. 🙂 Blushing cuz nothing here holds a candle to your blog.

  9. looking at the pictures mukhang madamo at rustic yung place.hahaha. creative writing you ave here AJ—pero sandali—sure kang budget resto yang Beukenhof??mukha kasi classy.:D

    1. Yun nga Anton, it looks posh pero quite affordable. Take it from me; I’m a cheapskate! 😀 And yes, the place is lush. I hope it has already recovered from Merapi’s eruption and ash fall last year. I wonder how this place looks now.

    1. Actually good food has a knack of finding me. I didn’t know fig about this place; I just stumbled into this lovely restaurant.

  10. I am turned off with Indonesia, becaused they think Pinoy are always drug courier and you will held at custom for almost a day treat like a slave in there

  11. Your writing skills in narrating stories is as always impressive.

    So it is like the Mayon Resthouse Park on which the park is left untouched whenever the Mayon erupts because the lava flows to the other direction. It does not look like you are just on the slope of a potentially killer volcano because I was allured on how you have written the descriptions and I am imagining that it is a paradise to me. 🙂 Parang nasa forest ka lang. Ang ganda.

    1. It did feel like I was in a lush rainforest, although a well-manicured one. 😀 This area is heavily wooded but dotted with fancy houses and villas. It’s so charming. I’m still wondering though if it has already recovered from the latest Merapi eruption.

  12. As always, this post is written eloquently. I can never be as good as a writer as you AJ but still privileged to have this opportunity to read your articles and take a glimpse of such a privileged life you are enjoying. Looking forward to read more of you.

    1. Such a humbling comment, Enzo. It’s not about the writing as much as it is about what is written. You write some pretty inspiring stuff! But one thing that struck me in your comment is the “privileged life” part. Living one’s life, and knowing its mundane ins and outs, makes you lose that perspective. Thanks for reminding me that, yeah, I do live a privileged life. I may not have everything I want (certainly I’m not financially rich), but I make the most of what I have. That in itself is a privilege. 🙂

  13. Cool. Youve been to alot of beautiful places. Nakakainggit. kasi yung place na binibisita mo ay yung places na gusto ko rin mapuntahan.I love all the photos. Very inviting at lalong nakakainggit. Hehehe. Be safe sa mga trips mo!

    1. Thanks all! Noks, aside from my trip to the US and Canada when I was a kid, I’ve only been to the Far East and Southeast Asia. It’s not that expensive to travel regionally. I hope you take advantage of the budget airlines we have now so you can go to all these places as well.

    1. Gagay, James, and Robi: Indonesia is just our next-door neighbor. Airfare is not expensive and the cost of living there is similar to ours. Indonesia is actually so near yet so far. So far in a sense that culturally it’s so much different from ours. That makes the experience a richer one.

      Beryll: Thanks for appreciating my florid descriptions! 🙂

  14. First, when God bestowed the gift of writing, you are on your toes! You’re good!
    Second, lucky lucky lucky you Merapi didn’t erupt when you visited! lol!
    Third, thanks for this! whatta experience!

    1. Wow, I’m overwhelmed Gem! Yeah, thank God that Merapi was quiet. I wouldn’t know what to do if it blew up while I was there. Flights were cancelled so I would’ve been stranded in Jogja. Missing the eruption by a month was by a hair, really.

    2. Yes Gem, it did erupt exactly a month after my visit, killing hundreds (could’ve been more if not for the immediate evacuation of most residents on the mountain’s slopes). Merapi is one of the 16 most active and most destructive volcanoes in the world, according to the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (IAVCEI). It has regularly erupted since the 16th century!

  15. i like the list of your traveler’s supplications, and again your well written post. it is educational and some words came larger than others like Phony, AJ and Merapi. I coined the word “MerapiAJn”, the eponym being AJ in Merapi with Phony!

  16. I love the fresh-nature-peaceful feel of your pictures. It looks like you are miles away from civilization but still kinda homey and comfortable. I love this post.

    1. Ralph and Julie: Exactly the charm of Kaliurang. The tranquility is deceptive though. It is actually near the mouth of a geological monster.

      Atty. Mheanne: What a POV! I guess I was MerapiAJn then – happily walking around clueless about the lurking danger of the place. 😀 Thanks for succinctly putting it in just one word. 🙂

    1. @Kathy: Traveling is a choice, not a privilege. If you choose to travel, you can. 🙂

      @Morion: It is, as long as Merapi is not erupting. 🙂

  17. The place looks so serene. This reminds me to have a peaceful trip by myself once in a while. But based on the pictures, once I go there, it probably wouldnt be so easy for me to go back. :))

  18. Everything is God’s will. It is the Spirit that teaches man to pray. And when a man is in tuned with the Holy Spirit, he is blessed and well-guided on what to do according to the will of the Lord.

  19. I love natural landscapes.. with the age of this place the structure really looks like it has blended with its surrounding.. we may not visually see it on the images but by reading your article makes us want to go there as well.. thanks for sharing

    1. Kaliurang is worth a visit. It’s a bit off the beaten track; it takes about an hour or so from Jogjakarta so not many tourists go there. Don’t miss it when you all have the chance to visit Indonesia. 🙂

      Oh, and amen, Tumandok!

  20. What a well-written travel post! Your trip wasn’t at all difficult to imagine because your words described every detail so well! And great travel photos as well! Thank you for the “tour”! God bless! 🙂

    1. @Juan: What made you think I’m Indonesian? Mukha ba? 😀 At ano naman yang “nagkabalinguyngoy”? Ang lalim mo managalog! Idol Ian will translate for both of us. 😀

      @Irene: I feel that I’ve achieved all of my modest goals in writing this post, thanks to your comment. GBU2!

  21. wow just looking at your pictures already relaxed me.. and your writing never fails to amaze me! I love visiting you blog! 😉 the only part of Indonesia I have visited is Bali.. hope to explore other areas too.. 😉

    1. @Manong Iskrambol: I was a bit anxious about the length of the post. I expected readers to tune out somewhere before the end of the article. Glad to get feedback like yours!

      @Violy: Whoa, thank goodness you liked it! Yeah, I saw your awesome Bali photos. Too bad I missed Bali. Jogja was the farthest that my travel budget allowed. Perhaps next time. I’m into Hindu art so I’m sure I’d love it there.

  22. kaliurang is not that popular among tourist and travel bloggers unlike Bali. Bali is a good place to enjoy with but if you want to relax and get away with big and busy city like then Kaliurang is the best place.

    1. Touristy crowds zap my energy so I try to avoid them as much as I can. This peaceful place is right up my alley!

  23. What’s the Delhi belly? I met an Indonesian journalist during my visit in India. I intend to appoint him as my tour guide (whether he likes it or not!) when I visit Indonesia next year, hopefully.

    1. Just write from the heart and you’ll never be lost for words. But if you still are, there’s always the thesaurus. 🙂 Thanks for the pat in the back, Sionee. That felt nice, tee hee.

  24. I bookmark your post just in case payagan na ako ng neurosurgeon ko na lumipad. Sayang yun ticket namin to Indonesia hayz! Galeng ng pagkakasulat mo at mukhang magandang puntahan yan Kaliurang na yan !

    1. Your comment was in limbo at the spam folder. 🙂 Get well soon, Cha. Kaliurang is worth a stop when you go to Indonesia.

    1. Thanks PTB! Do include Kaliurang in your itinerary should you decide to visit our the south.

    1. At least you’ve seen how it looks. I was at the foot of Merapi but didn’t see the entire mountain at all. 😀

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