THE INDONESIAN WAY: THE WORLD'S MOST WELCOMING PEOPLE AWAIT
On a previous trip to Indonesia, I talked to a twenty-something taxi driver about paradise. Indonesia has a vast youth population among its masses (it is estimated that half of Indonesians are under 28), and the people, especially the young, are winningly open and curious. After answering all the taxi driver’s questions about the U.S., I asked him where in the world he’d like to visit. He seemed stumped. He couldn’t think of any place, despite his interest in Americans. “Why not?” I asked.
“Because here it is paradise,” he explained.
Intrigued, I asked him, “What does paradise mean to you?”
He was thoughtful for a minute, and then poetry came out: “Sweet bananas.”
I remember that exchange on this trip to Java, when I notice that sweet bananas are everywhere. Along with the shimmering, submerged rice fields and the terraces that undulate above them, the glossy leaves of banana trees are ubiquitous, ripening their clusters of miniature (to Americans) bananas in the golden tropical sun. I am offered bananas at every turn: fried bananas, grilled bananas, banana Crêpe Suzette, even.
Banana spring rolls are on the menu at Amata, an idyllic open-air restaurant set among frangipani trees, located just a few miles from my destination of Borobudur. Sixty miles from Semarang, it’s the most popular attraction in all of Indonesia. I know the temple — with its 504 Buddha statues and 2,672 relief panels set on nine levels — will be an adventure and a workout, so my photographer Chris and I fortify ourselves with roasted duck and bakmi goreng kampoeng (Javanese fried noodles) and wash it down with the local Bintang beer.
As we approach the site, I’m surprised by how manicured the surroundings are, with grassy lawns, colorful foliage, and easy walkways. The opposite was once true. Constructed in the 8th and 9th centuries, the temple was known to exist among the local population, but Borobudur wasn’t rediscovered until Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant Governor of British Java, enlisted H. C. Cornelius, a Dutch engineer, to cut through the Javanese jungle and layers of volcanic ash to find it.
What was unearthed by 1835 (with many restoration and preservation efforts to follow) was a spectacularly balanced and architecturally complex structure, nothing less than the world’s largest Buddhist temple. In partnership with UNESCO, the Indonesian government mapped out a massive rescue project that lasted throughout the 1970s and into the ’80s and resulted in Borobudur being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. From the air, it is shaped like a mandala; from the ground, it is assertively horizontal, dense with detail, and at the top, prickly with points and a center dome. Some of those points, I’ll learn, are actually stupas: smaller bell-shaped structures on the upper floors that protect the Buddha statues.
Before I ascend the stairs, I walk the perimeter (each side is just over 400 feet) to get a sense of size and scale. Borobudur is more compact than Cambodia’s Angkor Wat; it turns out to be more manageable than I expected. School kids in matching tops — the boys in blue T-shirts, the girls in blue head scarves and blouses — are doing what teens do: taking selfies. A row of girls, in unison, ask to take a photo — with me in the middle. Giggling, they imitate Hindu hand motions of the type used by dancers in Bali, except the temple is Buddhist. Indonesia’s religions (the country is mostly Muslim, save for Bali, which is predominately Hindu) share indigenous influences and are less orthodox than the same religions in other countries. Many Javanese I meet tell me how diverse Indonesia is, and that everyone gets along.
Borobudur has been startlingly well preserved and restored, yet still retains its evocative flavor, with some stones shaded by dark lichen and others gold in the sunlight. There are long galleries and dragons peering out over ledges. An occasional lizard crawls among the statues and in between the stones. I study reliefs depicting everything from daily social interactions and musicians to sea journeys and royalty on chariots. Set within niches are Buddha statues in the lotus position exhibiting five different mudras (hand positions) that represent the four compass points, plus zenith. And the perforated stupas at the top levels — one has been mysteriously removed to reveal the Buddha beneath — are seductively eerie.
Once I descend, I don’t want to leave, and a pair of teenagers gives me an excuse to linger. All day I saw duos of these kids, dressed in tan jackets with nametags on their lapels, approaching Western visitors. I assumed they were guides, but what I didn’t realize was that they’re students — on a mission to learn English. Galih and Aditia just want to talk to me — about where I live, about New York, about what Chris and I are doing there. And in return, I ask them what sports they play (badminton, soccer, PlayStation) and what foods they like (nasi goreng, i.e., fried rice).
They’ve been learning English since they were 8, but I guess there’s nothing like a pseudo-spontaneous conversation. Their school sent them on this project, and though it’s mandatory, they’ve really taken to it. That sweet Indonesian candor is quick to emerge: “This is my first day here,” Galih says, “and I’m so lucky that I met you!”
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