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The International Writers Magazine: Central Java by Bus

The Ring of Fire
• Frank Beyer
Volcanic slopes of Central Java, terraced potato fields, farmers in conical hats, hell yea. I was finally getting the feel of the finest tropical island in the world. The train and three buses to get here well worth it.

Ring of fire

The mad rage of the driver to pass other vehicles and the seat in front cutting into my knees while well-meaning school girls attempted to formulate questions to interrogate me with - all this faded from memory once into the highlands. In bed under a bare bulb in my room in the village I read a passage describing the enormous joy of a naturalist catching a rare butterfly. A thing to make up for long journeys, frustrations, illness, delays and isolation. Pure magic. So one needed to identify their butterfly in life - for me it could just about be volcanoes.

Nobody was about as I climbed up to the ridge line before six in the morning. Nice to be in a cooler climate. The path led through bracken, ferns and daisies; plants from a forgotten age when my parents taught me the names of such things. The views of the potato terraces and sulfur steaming out of in the green crater far below were magnificent. From the top of the mountain I could see many prominent members of the Ring of Fire... Sindoro the closest, then Slamet and Merapi rose out of low clouds.

Above the tree line on Sindoro the surface was gashed with vertical scars. A promise of slipping about on loose scoria, a hell of a climb. At the spot with the best view, on the other side of the ridge, there were many local tourists camping out - somewhat ruining my Marco Polo air of discovery. They called me over to pose in a photo, but I slid on by with a wave, not quite cured of grumpiness. As we know, life has become all about the photo - I got some very nice ones of that glut of volcanic peaks. On the way down farmers said hello, friendly but not intrusive; not worried to see you wander near their fields. Later I searched the internet for some learned quote on viewing the Javanese section of the Ring of Fire, but didn't encounter anything. The butterfly guy wrote that so used are we to seeing pictures of volcanoes the sight of the real deal does not bring upon us horror of these mighty things which throw out lava and rocks to great destruction. I disagreed with him vehemently on that one. I was in awe of great power. I grabbed my stuff down in the village, woke somebody up so I could pay for my room, and then hopped on a bus to Jogja.

Transjogja junction The next morning I waited at a TransJogja bus station skeptical about day of must see tourist attractions. There was a girl of about three waiting with her mother, she sported an jilbab (Muslim headscarf) with animals pictures on it and wore no shoes. She fanned herself with a piece of paper. It was bloody hot. Her mother responded and took her jilbab off so she could cool down, the girl had pierced ears - which I found surprising.

The bus came and several stops later I got off to transfer lines. Waiting on the platform for what seemed forever, one old guy in a Batik shirt couldn't take the heat and fainted – he’d looked in pretty shaky condition anyway. Two young guys helped him into a 'becak' rickshaw and he was off, to hospital I hoped. The other foreigner at the stop gave up waiting in that sauna and hopped on an 'ojek' motorcycle taxi. I thought about doing the same but resisted.

At the gates of Borobudur Temple thousands of day-tripping students were milling around - this reminded me of truncated a visit to the National History Museum in London during school holidays when screaming kids put me off - but today I was made of sterner stuff! It was intensely bright and million degrees, I had no hat for my head of slightly thinning hair, so I rubbed some sunscreen up top. Approaching the main structure I thought I was going to pass out like the old guy at the bus stop.

Things took a turn for the better on the lower levels of the temple: shade, less people and a chance to study the stone reliefs - scenes of conflict, subjugation, worship with some monkeys, water buffaloes and bird beaked humanoids thrown in for good measure. And there was much more that I was a long way from understanding, this temple did represent the universe, so I hardly felt ashamed about my disorientation. From knowing the rudiments of Buddhism I guessed the lower levels to depicting earthly desires and the upper levels enlightenment.

This was confirmed somewhat by an explanation in temple museum, which I had to myself...The reliefs on the Kamadhatu level on the mostly hidden base described human behaviours still attached to earthly desire and Karmawibhangga - the law of cause and effect. The Rupadhatu level above represented the transitional world where beings still took form but began to abandon earthly desire. The dwellers here were not subject to the extremes of pleasure and pain, or governed by attempting to please the senses. Maybe I was mixing up levels, but some of the scenes looked erotic because although forms didn’t have distinct sexual gender in Rupadhatu. It seemed like the area to be - as Arupadhatu, the formless realm above, I found eerie. The stupas here contained Buddha sculptures that faced outward; often the they were missing their heads - the work of plunderers looking to sell to Western museums. The central stupa was empty - whether it was always so is unknown.

In practice, the top part of Arupadhatu, the roof - realm of the formless ones, was about taking photos with school kids. I think this was because the view across the green landscape from here was the best for selfies. They were shy to ask for a photo and discussed with each other how to approach you at length – so often you had the chance to get away. But they were oddly determined, sometimes you got cornered. When you said yes, you had to take photos with all members of their group which was invariably large. They would all individually ask my name and then invariably find ‘Ed’ very funny thing to be called. Perhaps I made someone's day, I hope so.

On the bus back to Yogya a woman of forty something just about sat on top of me and offered me sweets. No longer a child I accepted. She said she worked as a nurse in Taiwan and was back visiting family. I told her about her about going to Dieng, Gunung Lawu and Solo. She opined that my travelling alone was not enjoyable - I knew it wasn’t the done thing to be by oneself there. I wanted to explain my way of looking at it though, so told her that it was easier to travel alone than with a friend... because people always wanted to do different things. I almost said, but refrained, that I was having a stress free time not understanding most of what people said around me. Locals were kind enough to always ask 'mau ke mana' ‘where are you going?’ and when I told them my destination they showed me to a waiting bus - where I could get on, sit down and drift serenely in my own head.

© Frank E Beyer April 2015
frank.e.beyer at

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