Villages and volcanoes on the Indonesian island of Java

by Kat Nickola
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From a rice paddy on the island of Java we watch as a young boy releases a male pigeon.  It flies erratically into the air and then homes in on something.  In the distance a man holding another pigeon - it's mate - raises it high in the air.  The male makes a beeline for the female and gets a round of cheers from the surrounding men and boys.  He won by a beak!

This is pigeon racing and it's apparently all the rage in the small villages of Java.  I can see why.  This multigenerational group of guys (it was mostly
guys) get together all afternoon to smoke, swap stories, race their pet pigeon pairs, and enjoy life.  And this is also why we were here; to enjoy life on Java.

The village we visited that day was called Selo, and was perched on a steep terraced hillside surrounded by the lush beauty of fully green rice fields. The kids and I walked with our guide through the tiny streets, onto pathways between paddies, and up the hills to see more and more of the verdant countryside.  At the top we were rewarded with an ancient Hindu temple and a view of Mt. Merapi, who ever so briefly showed it's cinder cone from behind the shroud of clouds.

Mt. Merapi last erupted in 2010 and our guide, Jack, was in this same village when it happened.  There had been minor eruptions prior, but the big one was scary.  He told my volcano-obsessed son all about the ash filled rain that was too thick for the windshield wipers, and how it even caved in many local roofs.  He told us about watching the fire erupt from the roof terrace of our guesthouse; how they all considered it stunning until the wind changed and brought darkness to Borobudur that lasted for weeks.  "I think it is beautiful and scary" Jack said. "Merapi erupts every 4 years.  So, soon to erupt again."  It had been showing warning signs in April, but subsided.  So, with that knowledge we watched the clouds hide the sleeping giant and returned to our peaceful trek.

Volcanoes form the mountainous backbone of the island of Java.  They are an ever present risk, but have provided the place with such fertile soil that people and cultures have thrived here for thousands of years.  According to the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program, more than 75% of Indonesians live within 100km of an active volcano.  It is one of the most volcanically active and studied places in the world.  Java is also the most heavily populated island in Indonesia, but by escaping the cities we found it pleasantly rural.

The area around the small Javanese town of Borobudur is still very vested in small-scale village production despite repeated volcanic eruptions over the millennia.  While visiting the area we took a scooter out of town to see soybeans processed in the tofu village.  Inside a local home we were taught how the family grinds the beans, soaks them in a giant wooden barrel, squeezes them by hand with a big cheesecloth, drains off the liquid and lets the tofu settle before pressing it into flat wooden trays. All by hand; all over a fire in a hot back room of their house.  The entire village of 15 or so homes is involved in tofu making, and together they can produce a significant amount.  They make enough tofu for daily local markets and for export to the city Yogyakarta an hour away.

My kids and I were fascinated at the workings of this age-old process and loved the tasty result.  Freshly made and fried tofu is delicious and not much like the store-bought bricks.  My son thought the best of all was the freshly pressed soy milk - a byproduct of the process.  Again, it's taste was fresh and green and quite removed from the carton variety.

In similar fashion we visited a pottery village where my kids each got to join in the workings and brought home their own bowls.  Local clay is dug from the ground and formed into bowls on a hand-spun wheel.  Its very simple and utilitarian, but the same bowls we saw used throughout the area. The children of the pottery village were just returning home from school while we were there.  They were just as enthralled with my kids' trying to spin pottery as we were with them.

Our scooter bounced along the dirt roads of these villages allowing us a glimpse into their goal of cultural retention.  What was once jungle has been carved into fields growing rice and peppers and beans.  The surrounding trees still grow ever taller and lush and provide much needed shade within the villages.  Many of the homes are new cute cinder block squares with strong roofs,  modern amenities, big front porches, and sometimes elaborate and wildly colored painting.  Our guide said the homes were government-assisted replacements for the many destroyed by Mt. Merapi's eruption in 2010.

The villages are full of kids walking to or from school; most girls in hijab and boys smartly dressed.  There are dogs and cats that enjoy being petted. Each village has a small mosque and the morning and evening calls to prayer provided a rhythm to our day, even as tourists.

We stayed in the town of Borobudur at a guesthouse called the Lotus II.  It was a simple place, but there was plenty of  Javanese coffee and tea, hot showers, air conditioning, great breakfast, and incredible hospitality.  The kids and I began to feel like part of the family in our room just off the kitchen.  In the morning we saw the owner's daughter off to school on the back of a scooter, which my kids thought must be the coolest way to get to school ever.

I chose to stay in Borobudur partly because of the local village economy and partly because of the UNESCO heritage site in the center of the village.  The temple of Borobudur is  an ancient Buddhist monument built around 790CE.  It is a mammoth stone step pyramid with intricate carvings that depict Buddhist, Hindu, and regional ancestral beliefs. The multiple belief systems were very blended during the height of Javanese culture.  It was fascinating for my children to search for unique reliefs, such as ships, monkeys and peacocks.  The walk to the top of the pyramid represents the Buddhist journey to enlightenment and the shape is even representative of a meditative mandala.  The children and I spent a few hours slowly climbing from level to level, enjoying the carvings and walking the circuit. It was mystical, and the view from the stupa at the top was amazing.

Borobudur temple sits on a hill within the immense and lush temple grounds where there were also elephant and horse rides, vendors, food stalls and two museums.  We were impressed with the shipping museum that featured a giant wooden recreation of an 8th century Indonesian outrigger that actually sailed to Ghana in 2004.  The museum focused on the ancient shipping industry which they call "The Cinnamon Route".  This was a time of trade between southeast Asia and the west. Thanks to monsoon winds it was more reliable than the famed silk road trade routes.

In the evenings, we enjoyed walking to the nearby street market where the kids and I would try to find the best chicken satay vendor.  The street food in Indonesia was delicious; we ate dozens of chicken satay sticks and melt-in-your-mouth peanut sauce, my son loved the bakso balls of fish, and my daughter's favorite dish was stir fried rice called nasi goreng.  While in Borobudur I spent less than $2 a meal for my family and always had leftovers that the vendors would kindly wrap in banana leaves for us to take back to our guesthouse.

The local Indonesian people were very kind and helpful.  Few knew English, but all were quite surprised to find I was an American tourist.  Even those with no English skills would proudly say "Obama" to me and then "Jakarta."

They were quick to find a commonality, and it was an apparent source of pride that our president had lived in their country.   Dutch or Australian tourists are the most common foreigners, though Borobudur is more frequently visited by local Indonesians.  My blonde children were asked for quite a few pictures with the schoolchildren visiting the temple with us.

The history and culture preserved in the small town of Borobudur and its even smaller local villages is fascinating.  The nearest large city and airport is Yogyakarta, and any airport taxi will take you to Borobudur an hour away for about $30.   The huge island of Java is in the central part of the Indonesian archipelago and easily accessible via flights from Korea or Japan.

Currently, U.S. passport holders can buy a visa on arrival ($25) when landing at most international airports in Indonesia.

You can read Kat Nickola's travel blog at ramblingfamily.com

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