It has been two months since the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Indonesia was announced, seven weeks since the company I work for began implementing the work-from-home protocol, and three weeks since the government of Jakarta imposed “large-scale social restrictions”. Just like most of you, my movements have been largely confined to my apartment and its immediate surroundings (the park where residents usually exercise and hang out is temporarily closed, though). When I first read the news of the novel coronavirus outbreak in China earlier this year, it didn’t even cross my mind that it would eventually lead to a pandemic like this.
In early February, James and I even booked a trip for the Easter holiday in April to Solo, a city in Central Java that is known as one of the hubs of traditional Javanese culture. I had already done my research on the ancient temples to visit, which museums to see, what dishes to try, and some interesting murals in the city to check out. Of course, we had to cancel the trip altogether, and just last week I even had to cancel the trip to celebrate the end of Ramadan with my parents, a tradition I never missed until this year – people in mainland China have gone through a similar situation as many couldn’t go back to their hometowns for Chinese New Year a few months ago.
On January 1, 2011, I set a 10-year travel resolution to visit 30 countries/territories in ten years’ time. This was supposed to expire at the end of this year, but last year James convinced me to achieve it sooner because, why not? Pondering about that today, I couldn’t help but feel grateful that I decided to follow his suggestion (Jordan was my 30th country). But it also makes me think of what we did five years ago when we embarked on a Spice Odyssey across six countries in South and Southeast Asia.
It is still our most ambitious trip to date. We planned the itinerary two to three years in advance, and finalized it a little over a year before the start of the journey. We also quit our jobs a few weeks before setting off. To save up as much money as I could, I rode a bicycle every day to work, I packed my own lunch, and I made an Excel spreadsheet to track my expenses. I lived a very frugal life for about one and a half years, and for most weekends I cooked my own meals. Cycling to work through Jakarta’s notorious traffic was one thing (I had to wear a mask with two activated carbon filters to protect my lungs from the city’s air pollution), but cycling during rainy season really tested my determination. At one point I even had to cycle through knee-high floodwaters on my way home.
I imagine, if that extended trip was planned for this year, and I had been doing all those things to prepare for it since last year, and suddenly I encountered a world that had been dramatically changed like what we’re seeing now, that would have been extremely disappointing, to say the least.
I myself am more of a home-bound person. I’ve always enjoyed staying at home, having a cup of tea in the morning or in the afternoon while reading some history or travel books with the view of my houseplants that have provided me with a sense of calm despite living in a bustling and chaotic city. I do love to travel from time to time, to see places that I had read about before, and to share my travel stories with you. In the fourth or fifth month of the Spice Odyssey, I realized that I can never be one of those people who are able to travel continuously for years. I need a home to return to. However, in these crazy times home does feel a little different. Although I managed to add some more plants to my collection to make my apartment and its balcony a little greener each day, I do yearn for going out without having to worry about the virus, without having to wear a mask. I miss randomly exploring Jakarta’s streets and neighborhoods, and going to bookstores or my favorite plant shops. This also makes me think of some of the places that I had visited in the past which were overshadowed by other, more famous sites, but actually turned out quite charming when seen in person.
Most tourists who visit Yogyakarta at the heart of Java usually think of the magnificent ancient Hindu-Buddhist temples that can be found in abundance both within the city proper and in the surrounding areas, including right along the border with the province of Central Java. Many also come to see the palace – the abode of the only royal house in Indonesia that still possesses actual political power. Some visit Kotagede as well, one of the oldest parts of the city of Yogyakarta where traditional Javanese houses, a restored old guesthouse, and the city’s oldest mosque are located.
On our trip to Yogyakarta last August, we and our local friend Liesha stopped by Kotagede one afternoon. First we checked out Situs Warungboto, a restored 19th-century guesthouse which was recently made famous by the daughter of the Indonesian president for it was where she and her then-fiancé took their pre-wedding photos. There were some other visitors when we were there, but we could still find quiet corners where we could enjoy the tranquil ambiance of the site. Then we moved on to the old quarters of Kotagede itself with Masjid Gedhe Mataram as our first stop.
Built in the 17th century when Islam had mostly replaced Hinduism as the dominant religion on the island, the mosque’s architectural style incorporates elements that are more commonly found at Hindu temples. This is attributed to the fact that Islam was spread in Java largely through peaceful means, including trade and cultural assimilation. We took a leisurely stroll along the paved pathways around the mosque and through some walled courtyards that separate the main prayer hall from other buildings within the compound. The entire place was mostly quiet except for a few locals and a couple of love birds, both donning Javanese traditional dress, who were having their pre-wedding photos taken by a professional photographer. I could see why they picked this place: the decorations at the small gates were exquisite, with intricate floral patterns carved onto some of the wooden doors. That and the soft afternoon sun on a clear day helped create a timeless, romantic feeling.
From the mosque, we walked a short distance away to a tranquil neighborhood where Joglo structures (traditional Javanese houses) sat side by side along a narrow alley. The utter silence of this place was soothing to the mind, apart from the fact that there were also some nice plants along the route. Later in the afternoon, we ambled over to another side of Kotagede, passed Rumah Pesik (owned by a rich businessman, this house is an amalgamation of all sorts of architectural styles the owner likes), and arrived at Omah UGM, a former private residential house which was damaged in the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake. The Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) – one of the most prestigious universities in Indonesia that is based in Yogyakarta – bought the house when the previous owner sold it in the aftermath of the natural disaster. Some parts were consequently renovated and it now serves as a small museum filled with some Javanese cultural items as well as a place with information about earthquake-resistant building techniques. But the highlight for me was the friendly caretaker of this place, a middle-aged woman whose body gestures and gracious demeanor were unmistakably (Central) Javanese.
Places like this, with interesting historical sites that are not overrun by tourists thanks to their modest appearance, where I meet locals who make me feel welcome, and where even a simple walk in an alleyway can turn out to be quite refreshing, are the ones that I think about the most these days. I still have dreams of visiting the ancient temples of Egypt and the Maya pyramids in Mexico, seeing the moai of the Easter Island and South Africa’s Table Mountain, as well as sampling Armenian dishes in the land where they first originated and also Basque cuisine in Spain, among other things. But when this pandemic has passed, I will first go to places closer to home with a sheer excitement and hopefully a new way of seeing things, of appreciating what I’ve been taking for granted, of what Mother Earth has given us for free. But for the time being, I’ll be dreaming of the day when our movements are not restricted anymore. Until then, stay safe and healthy!