International Writers Magazine: JAVA
John M Edwards
Café Hopping in the Hot Spots of Indonesia
I went out
to get a cup of java in Java and ended up on an infernal coffee
odyssey through the Indonesian archipelago. Stretching
out like a Komodo Dragon some 6,400 kilometers across the Ring of
Fire, from the coffee plantations and wild orangutans of Sumatra
to the primary rainforests and decorative penis gourds of Irian
Jaya, Indonesia is the ideal launching pad to crash land into some
of the most dramatic sights in Southeast Asia.
They include the
ancient ruins of Buddhist Borobudur and Hindu Prambanan in Islamic Java,
the multicolored volcanic lakes of Keli Mutu in Christian Flores, and
the famed three-meter-long monitor lizards of Komodo that swallow entire
goats whole: the prototypes, perhaps, of the Chinese dragons of legend.
Indonesia encompasses over 13,000 islands
with 336 ethnic groups and a borderless rainbow babel of different languages,
cultures, and traditions. In addition to coffee-colored Hindus, Christians,
and Buddhists, this most densely populated café on earth (180
million) holds more Muslims than all the Middle East. Linking the islands
is the lingua franca of Bahasa and an underlying songline of history:
ancient animist religions are uniting threads that cross oceans, adding
new meaning to the word multicultural. Here some Muslims
drink beer and arak in addition to java; some worship Buddha, Vishnu,
Krishna, and Jesus in addition to Allah; while others leave offerings
to good and evil pagan spirits (tourists included). In fact, clutched
in the talons of the mythical Garuda, the national airline and state
crest, is the motto Unity in Diversity.
I departed from the Calcutta-like chaos of
the capital Jakarta, a fascinating hellhole of over 9 million people,
to explore the potent brews and heady smokes of Java, the volcano capital
of the world. In the old Dutch section of Batavia (Kota), amidst modern
skyscrapers stuck like clean syringes into a diseased dreamscape of
old colonial monuments and nightmarish overcrowded kampungs, I entered
the 19th-century Café Batavia on Fatahillah Square, the most
atmospheric coffeehouse in Java, to keep from going troppo in the equatorial
Unlike Amsterdams coffeehouses, which hardly ever sell
coffee, the recently renovated Café Batavia offers no exotic
hashish menus, nor even spicy Indonesian food, though it features
colonial elegance and raffish 1930s atmosphere. Here you can quaff
down the three main varieties of Indonesian coffee, in order of
strength: Sumatra coffee, Bali coffee, and Java coffeean indication
of island style not bean origin. Indo coffee, like Turkish coffee,
is mixed straight into the water. All wait for the psychic sludge
to settle to avoid sporting roguish pencil-thin Errol Flynn mustaches
of coffee grinds.
became synonymous with coffee is frothed with mystery, though not a
difficult one to filter out. During almost 350 years of Dutch rule,
Indonesia was the worlds largest coffee producer and the proverbial
bottomless cup for the Dutch East Indies Company. Without Indonesia,
the Netherlands would have gone Dutch and remained a small European
country below sea level, noted only for its tulips. The term java
was probably a slang corruption brought back by English pirates, like
that of brandy for brandewijn (burnt wine).
Getting from the urban epicenter to the outer
limits by public transport, be it by overcrowded bus, bemo, or becak,
is not so much a magical mystery tour as a year of living dangerously.
But at least there is one place left in the world where you can light
up, anywhere! Eventually I got to Banjar, said goodbye to the family
that had been assigned seats on my lap, downed a cuppa at the station,
and discovered that maybe eight hours later there just might be an onward
connection. Stuck in a remote backwater like this, a Western orang bulan
(moon person) always excites a crowd of staring locals. Where once upon
a time children would have fled from a bearded Belanda (Hollander),
screaming Papa Beard!a mythical bogey man with five
oclock shadow that Indonesian parents use to frighten their kidsnow
they are more likely to shout out, Hello Mister! Hello Mister!
regardless of ones gender.
Pangandaran, a sleepy south Javanese coastal fishing village, the
entrance is guarded not by Cerberus but by a becak mafia charging
a whopping wad of rupiahs to pedal you down the asphalt Lethe leading
to the peninsular Pangandaran Nature Reserve. Here the Lonely Planet
Café has a superb beachfront location, where friendly Muslim
fishermen and their families pull in their nets, while in the distance
the Call to Prayer wafts from yellow-domed mosques that shine like
fried eggs in the sun. At dusk you can see the moon rising and the
sun setting at the same time through a smoky cloud of fruit bats.
The Lonely Planet serves standard java and Indo grub like nasi goreng
(fried rice), mie goreng (fried noddles), ayam sate (chicken sate),
and gado gado (salad with peanut sauce).Locals come here, though, to
down fresh seafood. Its also a good place to practice your Bahasa
(originally a Malay trading language), one of the easiest tongues in
the world to tameno past or future tenses, only the laid-back
present. The plural is expressed by repetition, i.e., kopi kopi
equals two or more cups. Saya mau satu kopi? (I me one coffee?)
Pangandaran is also just far enough away
from Indonesias most notorious offshore volcano to almost feel
safe. The last time Krakatau blew its top was in 1883, with the force
of several hydrogen bombs, stirring up tidal waves that killed more
than 35,000, and hurling debris into the sky which caused vivid sunsets
seen around the world.
In Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Java,
I brought my addiction past the Sultans kraton, the colorful bird
market, and the manic Malioboro street vendors hawking batik shirts
and sarongs, wooden and leather Wayang Kulik puppets, and demonic-looking
White Monkey masks, until I finally unearthed the Café Sosro.
Pulling back a curtain of Gudang Garam clove cigarette smoke, I looked
around at the eclectic assortment of heavy wooden tables and chairs
and the hip East-West clientele daytripping to the haunting, hypnotic
strains of gamelon music. Thats good java. I even had a second
cup, and looking up I noticed I was late.
Yogya (pronounced jogja) is close
to one of the largest concentrations of Hindu/Buddhist monuments in
the world, including the ancient ruins of Dieng Plateau, Prambanan,
and Borobudur, which ranks up there with Cambodias Angkor Wat
and Burmas Pagan. On full-moon nights at Prambanans open-air
theater, you can see the Ramayana Ballet. In the amphitheater under
the stars with the floodlit Shiva temple as backdrop, the moonlit stage
is filled with over 200 hundred elaborately masked and costumed dancers
acting out Hindu legends. They create a spectacle of clashing monkey
armies, stilted giants, crouching midgets, and lithe acrobats sinuously
swaying like snakes, defying geometry by contorting their limbs and
bending back their fingers in impossible anglesall to the rhythm
of the royal Javanese-style gamelon orchestra of gong players, drum
thwackers, and whining nasal divas. This could be the highlight of any
trip to Indonesia. Saya jalan jalan ku bulan (I walk walk to the moon).
On the way to Bali I made one last Java stop
at Gunung Bromo, Indonesias most spectacular active volcano, within
hopping distance of the Java Sea. Intrepid travelers, their heads humming
with caffeine, trek three kilometers across the moonlit moonscape, following
a firefly trail of flashlights to the volcano. At the summit the crowd
witnesses the spectacle of the fat yellow sun peeking over the rim of
an alien planet, before its puckered crater lips take a prurient sip
of Bromo-seltzer brew. Mountain Bromo High.
Goodbye Java. Bali Hai. Many Indonesians
take their vacations in Bali just to ogle all the sun-worshipping tourists.
Still Bali doesnt evoke the Isle of the Gods so much as the Isle
of of Australian Surfies at Kuta Beach, the Mad Max Spring Break City
From Hell. Get your T-shirts here at Kutas Hard Rock Café!
Leaving this Ozzie Outback of hawkers and tourists, hookers and addicts,
all partying at the all-night discos, pick-up joints, and thunder domes,
I finally ventured into the lush interior of paradise lost with its
terraced rice paddies, palm trees, and smoking volcanoes. Like the Balinese,
I wanted to look towards the mountains and away from the sea, which
is believed, for obvious reasons, to be the source of evil spiritsmost
of them on package tours. At first, though, it was quite unnerving to
be traveling towards these magic mountains on a luxury bus crammed with
German-speaking tourists, passing temples and walls emblazoned with
swastikas, until I remembered that these ancient mystic Hindu symbols
were stolen by the Nazis, perverted for their own deadly uses.
Arriving in low-key Lovina, famous for its
two-dollar full-body massages on black sand beaches, I settled down
at the Café Malibu for espressos and brownies and waited to see
if there would be any odd effects while listening to a homegrown band
blasting Nirvana covers. The days of magic mushroom omelettes and psychedelic
sunsets are over in Bali, now that its Indonesias number-one
tourist attraction. The brownie was just a brownie. I decided to instead
follow the Lombok Lizard Mana grinning two-headed totem pole that
bears an uncanny resemblance to a schizo Bart Simpson doll.
On the slowboat to Lombok, leaving from the
idyllic white sand harbor of Padangbai, Bali, I met a victim of the
governments enforced transmigrasi program, wherein overcrowded
Java is relieved by pressuring citizens to flee to farflung outer islands.
This unwilling expatriate of the worlds largest mass migration
wanted to practice his English:
I Muslim, he said, pointing to
his fez-like black felt kopieh, but Lombok has many Hindu, Catholic,
too, and also Wektu Telu.
What what? I thought.
Wektu Telu. They say they Muslim, but
they infidel. Dangerous you go their villages with no guide. I make
good guide, very cheaps. They eat all that comes from Allah. They eat
porks. They eat EVERYTHING.
This made me reluctant to drop in on a remote
village tea party as an uninvited dinner guest. Instead I shipwrecked
myself on Lomboks Gilli Islands with an arak hangover and the
sky displayed like a kaleidoscope of cheap batik sarongs for sale on
the beach. The three coral-fringed paradises of Gilli Air, Gilli Meno,
and Gilli Trawangan offered Lord Jim wannabees much more than great
snorkeling, white sandy beaches, and picturesque rides in horse-drawn
dokars. A long-time budget backpackers hangout, this was supposedly
the place to do shrooms. Without any hallucinogenic prompts, though,
anybody can see, like, these strange blue lights (phosphorescent plankton)
that mimic overhead stars washing ashore under moonshadow anyway. Nothing
to do here but sing along with local long-haired guitar-strumming Gilligans
gazing into the eyes of solo women travelers, singing old Cat Stevens
songs. Occasionally the rumble of Lomboks lava-spewing Gunung
Rinjani breaks the silence like an overboiling pot in an Olympian diner.
The closest thing to a good cup of gilli
is to be had at the isolated Good Heart Café (Gilli Meno), ideal
for watching bleeding ulcerated sunsets and slipping into a dreamuntil
friendly insect-eating geckos sound the alarm in the rafters. All water
is pumped in by boat, so every cup of joe tastes vaguely of Drano; caffeine
buzzers will quickly crash here. Better to cruise back south to Lombok
proper with the retro migration of unladen European swallows and smiley-faced
flower punks to a place called Kuta (nothing like Kuta, Bali), which
features Indonesias most incredible beach (Tanjung Aan) and an
attractive-looking café called The Cockatoo. Here I traded in
my mild Gilli Belly for the much more severe Lombok Landslide. After
that it was high time to get my insides straightened out and hop back
like a hot-footed fakir to Bali for that much needed coffee break.
In Ubud, the cultural center and food capital of Bali, I went
to see a cremation. Following the colorful and noisy procession
down the street, the corpse held up in an elaborate wooden bier,
we soon arrived at the ceremonial site. A crush of rubbernecking
tourists strutted around like fighting cocks with autofocus eyes.
Balinese mourners laughed and joked and cheered, and posed for videocams.
As with any other spectator sport, enterprising locals sold peanuts
and cold drinks as the stiff was laid out on the funeral pyre and
torched up, bursting into flames. The Balinese believe the deceased
move on to a new and improved reincarnated future, depending on
their behavior in this life. In Hindu Bali, death is a party.
needed a coffee to drive away the bitter aftertaste of ghosts, and at
the Café Lotus near the Monkey Forest Sanctuary (chock full o
monkeys), I finally achieved coffee nirvana: the ultimate cup of java.
Inside I heard more American accents than were to be found perhaps in
all Indonesia. It was almost like a Manhattan coffeehouse, but with
a view of an idyllic lotus pond and a Balinese temple. I ordered a cappuccino,
and my stomachnot used to such potent brewthreatened to
erupt like Ugung Batung, the holiest active volcano in Bali (fittingly
dubbed the Navel of the World). Id achieved the ultimate high
in the former coffee capital of the universe. In what Indonesians sometimes
call the Land Under the Rainbow, I shot up like a rocket through the
caffeine roof of the world, my tongue frothing with exploding stars,
and I tried to set the night on fire.
© John M. Edwards December 2008
Fishing: Chasing Tail in the Tropics
John M. Edwards
Well, the problem was, I thought I saw a real live mermaid. The
genuine article. This was a fantastical phantasm (or orgasm) that was
hard to shake.
Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely
(five continents plus), with stunts ranging from surviving a ferry sinking
in Thailand to being caught in a military coup in Fiji. His work has
appeared in such magazines as CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com,
Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, Endless Vacation, Literal Latté,
Coffee Journal, Lilliput Review, Artdirect, Verge, Slab, Richmond Review,
Borderlines, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, and
North American Review. He recently won a NATJA (North American Travel
Journalists Association) Award and a Solas Award. He lives in a loft
in New York City, nicknamed the time capsule. His future
bestsellers, Move and Fluid Borders, have not yet been released. His
new work-in-progress, Dubya Dubya Deux, is about a time traveler.
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