I visited Yogyakarta in Java, Indonesia mainly to watch a sunrise from the top of a volcano, but I stayed because of the beautiful people and delicious culture.
My Couchsurfing host Elisa took me to this late night (“second supper”) fried rice joint. “You’re probably the only white person who’s ever come here,” she said, “that’s probably why they gave us such big portions.”
Yogya is known as the intellectual and cultural capital of Java, with its many universities and active young people, and this was exemplified through a visible emphasis on culture, events, and art. With no beach to distract you, it’s easy to be affected by all of the lively excitement and stimuli that you are constantly surrounded by.
I had booked a hostel ahead of time for my first day since there didn’t seem to be any clear backpacker area. The hostel was unlike any I’ve ever seen – it was kind of like an airport: big, bustling, efficient, devoid of personality, and a constant rotation of featureless guests. But there isn’t a whole lot of backpackers passing through this town so my options were limited. I only had one night there, and then I was going to Couchsurf. It would be my first time doing so, and it turned out to be spectacular.
I ended up staying a week with my host, Elisa, during which I got to know her friends and family and made a number of cultural faux pas while hanging out with them. She was everything I could have asked for from a local host, I learned so much more about her city and country than I ever would have by spending time in a hostel.
enjoying a drink at the hottest bar in town: the convenience store steps across from the actual bar
There was street art everywhere in Yogya. I’m kind of a nerd about this stuff, so it was exciting to see the scene alive and well.
always a million delicious things to eat, everywhere, all the time
On one of the days I was at Elisa’s her neighbor was hosting a wedding. The day before an awning-type structure had gone up over their narrow street, and today there were chairs set up, buffet-style food, and workers off to the side hurriedly washing dishes in buckets filled with soapy water and returning them to rotation. Apparently in Java it’s cool to just show up to these semi-public weddings, making a donation to the couple to help cover the costs.
I went with Elisa’s sister and her husband, and felt like the biggest imposter. ”Oh don’t mind me, just a big white person dressed inappropriately crashing your wedding and eating your food.” It was seriously one of the most awkward moments I’ve had on this trip, the people I went with didn’t really speak English so I kind of just sat there by myself trying to pretend I was just another guest enjoying the ceremony, which to be fair was awesome to watch. Everyone was dressed impeccably and the men had these crooked wooden daggers stuck through the back of their waistband, adding to the theatricality of the event. After I had eaten, I congratulated the beaming father of the bride and casually walked home.
You know those times when you feel super self-conscious in a situation but then look back on it and figure you were just being egocentric and nobody actually cared? Yeah, well this was definitely not one of those times. Elisa’s sister told her later that everyone was super confused as to what I was doing there and couldn’t stop staring. Haaaa…. :-/
Elisa took me to the Water Castle, a former sultan’s pleasure palace. There was a big pool where the women would lounge and bathe, and a tower that looked out onto it. If you were lucky, you’d get to go up in the tower and party with the sultan. It sounded like a pretty epic party, to be honest.
This was posted outside of it. I never saw this kind of warning anywhere else in Indonesia. Just a reminder I guess.
Inside the Water Castle.
Thinking about all the craziness that used to happen here. It was fun to be walking around where some serious debauchery has taken place.
Throughout my stay in this crowded, touristy city, I only saw a few other white people. A lot of tourists visit Yogya but they are usually locals from other parts of Java, and rarely other Westerners. It was hard not to be a super obvious foreigner wherever I went. People stared, but to a person everyone was friendly.
It was at the Water Castle that I discovered that as a white person (aka bule - pronounced bou-leh), I was just as photogenic as any tourist attraction. Tourists and school groups from other parts of Indonesia would constantly approach me and any other white person and ask to take a picture with us, although sometimes they’d just try to get a good shot of us without our permission. It would be a theme anytime I went somewhere touristy - even on the isolated climb of Mt. Merapi one of the few other groups we passed wanted a picture.
It was usually school-age kids who would approach me, but often adults would want one of me with their family, and in one case a teacher asked me to be in a class photo. I tried to have a sense of humor about it but, especially as someone who’s lived the past 8 years in politically correct San Francisco/Berkeley, I was always a little uncomfortable with the idea of my whiteness making me such a hot commodity (darker tourists weren’t ever approached like that). Perhaps my freckles made me an even rarer specimen? Elisa and her friends thought such obvious bule-chasing was tacky, although they still appreciated hanging out with white people.
Pictures for the scrapbook…
The most it happened were at the two amazing temples located just outside of Jogja, Borobudur and Prambadan. Both are spectacular and reason alone to visit Jogjakarta. I was hanging out with a German girl during this time and the two of us caused quite a stir at each place. We seriously couldn’t be two minutes without someone approaching us, it was a little unnerving.
One night Elisa and her friends I’d been hanging out with went to one of the hottest nightclubs in town. Once a month they do all you can drink so we and a few other friends who could afford it went. The hefty price tag? About $10 USD. What a great country.
Like pretty much everywhere in Indonesia, you could smoke indoors. Nobody could believe I didn’t want one when offered. “You SURE you don’t want a cigarette? No really, I insist!” Not really the peer pressure that D.A.R.E. warned me about, people were just trying to be nice. Everyone - everyone - smokes here.
Elisa was such a great host to me the entire time I was there, and had hosted so many international travelers through Couchsurfing, so it was hard to figure out something unique I could share with her from my country. I finally figured out the perfect item - root beer floats! I got the root beer and the ice cream and made them for her entire family. Everyone loved them (obviously). A guilty pleasure, Elisa deemed them.
In turn I was treated to a number of local specialties that Elisa was able to help me identify. Two of my favorites: breadfruit (it’s a fruit - that tastes like bread! fried with a bit of salt… delicious) and ais buah (literally, “ice fruit”; yes, ais = ice (and kopi = coffee; taksi = taxi, etc), it was highly convenient). I ordered ais buah a lot and it was never the same, but always delicious. Sometimes it had chocolate, sometimes it was natural fruit, sometimes tapioca, sometimes jelly, usually with coconut milk but not always, sometimes shaved ice… it was always a crapshoot. Like a lot of things I order on this trip. I usually have limited ordering skills so the direction is in the hands of the cook, which can lead to some huge variations on the same dish. But always delicious.
On the long road to Solo for its ridiculous Batik Carnival, we encountered a really interesting (to me, at least) situation. While stuck in traffic we were approached by a lot of ladyboys - either just crossdressing or transgender, or something in between, it wasn’t really clear. But they were clearly masculine, dressed in women’s clothing, and would approach the cars playing with their jewelry suggestively and swinging their hips. It seemed clear they were prostitutes, nothing new there, ladyboys are a pretty visible part of a lot of cultures out here and a high proportion do sex work.
But, as it was explained to me, these ones weren’t looking to sell sex, they were basically begging, coming up to cars and holding out their hands for money, their main qualification for it seeming to be the fact they were ladyboys. They were all dressed well and walked with a confident strut. When they approached our car the two boys in the front seat laughed and acted grossed out, but then rolled down the window and gave out some money. What? They clearly weren’t into the act, but they paid out anyway. I actually saw more people pay street beggars in Yogyakarta than anywhere else I’ve ever been, so maybe there’s just a charitable culture going on. Either way, it was a strange interaction and I still feel like I’m missing something in my understanding of it…
hey gurl heyyyyy
It seems like when people visit Indonesia they mostly stick to Bali and the nearby islands, and the rest of the country is skipped. Don’t fall into that trap! In just one week in Java I was able to explore an amazing city and its surroundings and have some of my most memorable experiences (Couchsurfing, volcano sunrise, Borobudur, Prambadan, and the Batik Carnival). Indonesia is probably the most complex country I’ve visited on this trip so far, and I can’t wait to return.