Chugging across the straits from Bali to Java on an old barge, with sunlight drifting into the west, and Oriental fragrances wafting by .. is one of those times, when you know with every fibre in your body, that you’re truly alive.
Joseph Conrad felt the self same thing when he wrote :-
“ The thin gold shaving of the moon floating slowly
downward had lost itself on the darkened surface
of the waters, and the eternity of the sky seemed
to come down nearer to earth ..”
“Yes we are approaching Java for our first time, the most densely populated island on Earth. Life here, but a short distance to the north of Australia, is so different to that of our sunburnt country. With about six times Australia’s population, living in an area a fraction of it’s size.
Java’s crowded streets bustle with traders, who we soon learn, have no fixed prices. This concept of bargaining for everything is a novelty, easily made more fun by learning a few phrases of Bahasa Indonesia. “Please, thank you, how much, too bloody much”, and “My word you’re beautiful” .. all go over quite well with old ladies trading in their markets.
The only frightening thing is the traffic rules .. there just aren’t any ! Now I’ve done a few reasonably brave things in my life – used to jump out of aeroplanes, and even try to tackle Bruno Volpe – but the bravest thing so far is to ride a rickshaw in downtown Surabaya. They plonk you in the front, then charge straight into a mad heaving chaos of cars, dogs, bus’s and dirty big trucks, with no quarter expected or given. Then the train to Djakarta is, well, rather different. There is a little shelf by our window, but as we put a few odds and ends on this, an old man leans over and patiently explains .
“As this train leaves the platform, thieves will put small boys on their shoulders to reach in and take things from your shelf. Sometimes they also get up on the roof when the train is moving, and hang the boys by their ankles to reach through the window. Just last week they are doing this when a man grabs one boy by the hands and tries to pull him down, The man finally lets go, but the thieves are so angry they climb down from the roof and come in. The train guard fires his rifle, and shoots one thief plus four passengers. So I think it’s best to leave that shelf empty !”
The ancient temple of Borobudur is a must to visit, for anyone who wants to explore the history and culture of Java. Here dwelt the heartbeat of a highly advanced Hindu and Buddhist Majapahit Kingdom with trade routes extending from the Spice Islands, through Malaysia all the way to China. It was the powerful base for many inspired concepts concerning religion, dance, music and statecraft.
Much has changed since then. The Islamic religion moved south, then modern technology arrived with suits, ties and television – yet relics of those times gone by live on in the batik houses, and the Palace of Yogyakarta While the real value in travelling, is sharing this life with people who were born and raised in different environments.
The folk on Bali are Hindu, those on Java are mainly Muslim, while there are Christians in Sumatra and some eastern islands.
However the truly wonderful thing.. is that people forever surprise us with their sense of humour, kindness and compassion. The following example will live forever in my memory.
We were staying at a small house on Lake
Toba in Sumatra – it was Christmas Eve – there were half a dozen hippies here too – I was talking with one, (a young Aussie), when he broke down and related his tragic story.
“I was studying Law at Uni, getting set for a top career, had a special girlfriend, and was playing in the Australian under 21 soccer team. My world was perfect. Then I went to Thailand for a short holiday, toyed with heroin, got hooked .. and now look at me. Oh Christ almighty, I want to just go home mate, but I can’t. If I do I will inject again for certain, and end up in jail. Break my dear Mum and Dad’s hearts. Tomorrow is Christmas, all our family will together in our house for a roast chicken dinner – but not me – so please mate, tell me again what it’s like back home.”
Well you know how I felt, but a Sumatran man overheard this heartfelt plea. He was a simple village man, with just a smattering of English. He would never dream of owning a motor vehicle, a fridge, TV, or any of those things this young man from an upper class Sydney family once took for granted .. but he felt the same emotions .. quietly went out into that rainy night, walked half the island, and spent a fair chunk of his tiny income .. just to buy this lost hippy a Christmas present of a real rooster !
.. so human kindness is what this world is really all about .. deep down we are all the same