March 1: Semarang, Indonesia.
Our port today was Semarang, which is on the island of Java, in Indonesia. As we walked off the ship, we were greeted by Indonesian dancers and musicians and a purple dragon. The port city Semarang is in central Java, but we saw nothing of it, only the highway which headed up into the highlands, where our destination Borobudur is located. We were in a caravan of at least six tour buses and traveled with a police escort – for traffic control not military protection, fortunately. We made one rest stop along the way. Rest stop, in fact, any stop means vendors selling stuff to the tourists. I found a nice batik, however, and did my part to support the local economy. Borobudur, we were told, is the largest Buddhist monument in the world and was built in 750. Evidently, it was swallowed up by the jungle for hundreds of years but was rediscovered when Europeans started coming into the region. It has been restored a couple of times and today stands by itself on the top of a mountain. Rather than trying to describe it (as a big pile of dark stones), I will refer you to Denise’s pictures. Our guide was very considerate of our capabilities, although he couldn’t really do much about the heat. This temple is built in several levels, and visitors (worshipers) are supposed to receive some particular benefit from climbing to each level and walking completely around the monument several times at each level. The steps were very steep, and hand rails were available for only some of the stairways. Our guide brought us to each level and allowed us to rest between each one as he explained to us the stories about Buddha which were carved in bas relief at each level. We eventually made it to the top level, which contained a number of bell-shaped structures which have some significance which escapes me. Considering the time when this monument was built as well as its workmanship and unity of design, it’s really very impressive. But as we have found with other sites of this type, the huge number of other visitors gets in the way of any kind of meaningful communion with its spirit. When we had completed our tour, we walked over to a nearby restaurant where we were served a “typical” Indonesian buffet lunch. The food was good and plentiful, and we afterwards had the opportunity to do a little shopping for Indonesian handicrafts – dealing with the annoyingly aggressive local vendors as usual. Our next stop was a handicrafts center, where the vendors were easier to deal with, so we bought a nice piece of batik fabric for Denise. The bus ride both to and from Borobudur deserves a paragraph of its own. Having a police escort in Java evidently means that the bus can drive with no regard whatsoever for normal traffic rules, such as keeping to your own side of the road, not running red lights, and not traveling at a breakneck speed. Throughout the ride, people who could see in front of the bus frequently gasped or otherwise expressed shock and disbelief at what the driver was doing. But the police were in the car ahead leading the way, and after all, we did return to the ship in one piece. One passenger said it all: “This is the longest carnival thrill ride I’ve ever been on.”
March 2: Jakarta, Indonesia.
The ship docked this morning in the port of Tanjung Priok, near the city of Jakarta, on the island of Java, in the country of Indonesia. We were greeted by beautifully costumed Indonesian dancers accompanied by musicians playing various types of drums and one amplified stringed instrument which created a particularly discordant sound. Since we have a large number of Indonesian crew members, the ship had also set up a family waiting area for them under a big tent in order to facilitate family reunions. Our excursion today was entitled Jakarta Highlights, so we had a driving tour of the city with a few stops. The driving part we found somewhat depressing. We had been told to expect a lot of traffic, which there was. As in other cities we’ve seen, the number of motor bikes is astounding. But what floored us was the poverty. In one section near the port, homes were made of non-construction materials such as corrugated metal, sticks, and burlap. The downtown business district has an impressive skyline with skyscrapers for world class hotels and global companies, but almost every other building was in need of some type of repair, some in need of a lot of repair. Broken and uneven sidewalks, litter and even garbage, a smelly and polluted river with people fishing, and men sitting idle along the roadsides were some of the other “highlights” we noticed. One positive thing I saw, however, was that in certain areas along our route, the landscaping was totally fine. Several times, I saw workers pulling weeds, raking up leaves, and making public areas tidy. We understand that Jakarta has a huge problem because it’s sinking and is ripe for a major flooding disaster. I doubt that fine landscaping is going to help with that issue. The bus tour of Jakarta was supposed to provide a high-level introduction to the city and Indonesian culture. Our first stop was for taking photos of an obelisk celebrating Indonesian independence and the presidential palace. Next, we had a 45-minute stop at the national museum, where we found displays and objects relevant to the history of Indonesia. I found this to be a comfortable museum with interesting subjects and artifacts, and its display text was often written in English as well as in Indonesian. Perhaps significantly, our next stop was for one hour – at the main tourist mall in the city. We would have liked more time there because they had extensive collections of the work of Indonesian artisans and the Indonesian textile industry. The last stop on our tour was the Museum Wayang, celebrating the tradition of puppet making and performance which Indonesia is known for. Our guide in this museum was an actual puppet-maker, who explained how he makes the puppets and how his work has led him to relationships with UNESCO and other world organizations. Both his father and grandfather were puppet-makers, and he currently has hundreds of students from all over the world who want to learn his craft. During this museum stop, we could hear that a driving rainstorm had started, so we got soaked walking back to the bus. By the time we reached the ship, there were only sprinkles. I wish I could say that the rain had left Jakarta clean and sparkling. Not a chance.