We were the walking undead—moaning, grunting, shuffling lifelessly off the panting train and onto Jogjakarta’s storied soil.
It was 4 AM. This overnight train was not ideal for sleeping—too much clacking, too much sideways jerking around the curves, too much light in the aisles, and too cold, much too cold, air blasting from the AC. I wrapped myself in complimentary blankets tighter than the most ambitious burrito, but it was no use: my night was spent in fitful bits of half-sleep, flashes of memory and dream intertwining in the red itchiness of late-night eyes, a sleep that yields no rest: a slumber devoid of repose, a rest in anything but peace, a harbinger of a night and a day of the zombie.
“Me too,” Andy grunted, “but let’s just find a ride to Borobudur.”
We lugged the packs down from their shelves and mindlessly shuffled out to the parking lot, abominations of sleep and wake, zombies unslept and unrested, bent on reaching a Buddhist temple by sunrise.
Here’s the backstory you’re lacking: Borobudur is the largest Buddhist… thing (technically not a temple, since it’s not indoor) in the world. It’s an awe-striking pyramid of ridiculous complexity topping a solemn little hill overlooking a fog-drenched, rice-green, stunning valley of perpetual growth. This valley, in turn, is ringed by majestic sentinels of sky-stretching volcanoes—some of whom are rumbling and smoking infernos ready to pop a few million tons of ash and lava any given century.
Sunrise tours are a big deal here. Put the intricacies of the graceful temple (wait, wait, it’s technically not a temple) lines amid such a backdrop at sunrise, and you’re left with a once-in-a-lifetime view of grandeur and magnificence that any tourist will pay any price to partake of.
Well, almost any tourist—you see, one local hotel has monopolized this mystic sunrise, and has somehow seized sole rights to sell tickets to enter the hallowed grounds and view them—for a cool 38 bucks. The park itself respects that monopoly, sanctions the price-gouging, and refuses to open its gates before six, when the sun is already plenty yellow and plenty warm and floating well over the smoking silhouette of the Mt. Merapi. So… you’re only option is to pay a ridiculous amount to witness the organic womder of nature’s theater dancing its magic glow over a few hundred peaceful Buddhas ringed around and around the rosy scene. Or not go.
If you know anything about zombies, know that we are a cheapskates and stingy.
We weren’t going to shell out thirty-eight USD for ninety minutes of sleep-walking pictures. We were going to shuffle and moan our way right inside that stinking temple, and no money-hungry sunrise-snatching hotel was going to stop us. We were going to bribe the guards.
We just needed transportation thither.
Bali must have spoiled us, because there, whenever you step off any bus or plane or boat or whatever, you are immediately accosted by a half-dozen well-meaning but annoying gentlemen out to take your money from you—in exchange for the chance to drive you around a little. Sometimes they even take you to places you tell them you’d like to visit. Perhaps Jogja is sometimes like that, but I know for sure it wasn’t at four AM. In short, we found ourselves wandering the still-dark parking lot, hoping one of the guys smoking on the fringes would approach us and offer us a ride.
You see, it’s important who makes the first move in these cases—you go first, and you’re paying more. That’s the rule: you approach them and you hamstring your negotiating edge. You’re no longer the one being bothered; you’re now the one seeking a service. So we shuffled around. We waited. We sauntered under the street lights so they could see exactly how white and touristy we looked.
Looks like our cheapskate ways were falling on their faces. We sighed, bit the bullet, and began speaking.
It turns out Bali also spoiled us with the impressive level of English available in all the annoying touts and tourist-takers. These Jogja gents, however, stuck to Bahasa and drove hard bargains.
But what can you do when the minutes are sliding forever to the unreachable past and the sun is crawling ceaselessly toward the horizon and the object of your goals and dreams and vendettas lies a full forty-two kilometers away? You pay the extra Rupiah, of course, and you toss the backpacks in the trunk, making sure to grab the breakfast you packed, and you speed off into the pre-dawn gray.
A certain cab company in that fabled mountain town of many (sort-of) temples does run routes based on a chart of standardized numbers. It settles the mind to see the laminated chart in front of you—something about the written prices lets you know you can be taken for the ride without being taken for a ride, so to speak. Train station – Borobudur was 210 K.
Transaction agreed, we munched our croissants and chattered away in fledgling Bahasa. Our driver was friendly, or maybe he hated us. His name was something or other, and he might have grown up in Jogja. I understand he has children—numbering somewhere between two and nine, that may be in school, or perhaps not. His wife—I think she’s still alive—was in Jogja—or maybe another city—and she worked in some sort of something. But then again, maybe he never married. He chattered away, and we agreed slowly between mouthfuls of breakfast sweets, and I told myself I really needed to work on my Bahasa.
But there’s only so much language learning that’s going to happen in the morning dark, when there’s food and a hungry belly involved.
The sun was nearly the tipping point of the horizon. The sky was awash in pale yellows. Volcanoes were already looming on each horizon. The shaman fogs were gathering. On we rolled through rice fields and battered scooter repair shacks selling gas by the vodka-bottle liter and men already bent double in the fields, the triangle bamboo hats perched on their heads: the same scene played out for a thousand generations. The same scene witnessed by unfailing dawns already cycled past memory—the cycle of wake and work, of hat and sun and bending double, of mountain towers above and again beneath in the water’s sheen. It’s unending here—in soil so rich and rain so frequent and warmth so prevalent they turn three monster crops each year. Rice rice corn. Rice rice soy. Rice rice spinach. Rice rice something. Every year. It’s the monolith of Java, a structure more ancient and more solid and more fixed than even the massive tons of stones we were bent on photographing for ourselves.
But here, here in the fields was the real monument to humanity, to wisdom, to transcendence. More on that later, though. Stay tuned.
By now it was a quarter past five, and Andy and I were getting jumping, shaking off the zombies and peering squish-faced to the windows. The hour of color-splashed dawn was upon us, we would arrive any minute. And there—yes, there! We saw the tallest stupas over the palms lining the road. And there—right there! It’s the entrance! And now—but wait. Closed. Yes closed.
No problem—I read online the guards can be bribed, I readied the stack of zeroes on my pocketed Rupiah.
The taxi screeched to a stop. The invasion commenced. Uuuuuuggggghhhh.
We jumped from the cab, definitely worthy of Amazing Race, but no one was there—Nothing—Not a guard in sight to bribed—Just a gate, a lonely, empty gate, and us, backpacks hanging off our shoulders and croissant crumbs still stuck in our teeth. The driver shrugged and drove off; the mystic dawn was meanwhile spilling its glory over the valley.
“What now?” We looked at each other, full of packs, devoid of sleep. For a street in Indonesia, everything was strangely silent.
And then a motorcycle pulled up—a motorcycle wearing a grinning man wearing a thin mustache and a worn leather jacket.
“Sunrise very beautiful, Mister! I take you there.”
“We’re already here.”
“Nononono. Sunrise tour beautiful—I take you now. Three hundred thousand. Very beautiful.” His eyebrows jittered as he spoke; and his motorcycle chugged and choked.
“That’s not what the tour costs. And you don’t work for the hotel.”
“No. No tour. I take you up mountain. We see temple above. Two hundred fifty, each one.”
The young sun shot its majestic salvo to the opening day above us. And before us the man in the little mustache and sputtering moto were greasing for cash. We were too late. I hung my head, shuffled my feet, groaned.
“Gate here no open till seven.” He was working his sell on Andy now.
We shot a glance at each other. “That’s not true. We know it’s at six.” We had him now. That was a stark lie, a bold-faced falsehood; it was proof this man was not the elegant tour master he initially seemed.
“Mister sunrise two hundred each, yeah?”
“Let’s get inside.”
So we did, we turned shuffled right through the empty, guard-less car gate and through the desolate parking lot: temple and sunrise gleamed above us; trash flitted in the barren wind; no living soul seen anywhere. It looked like we were fashionably late to the apocalypse.
The self-appointed cycle tour guide puttered off and no guards were present.
This wasn’t the sunrise I’d expected.
Yes, we finally found the people gate tucked among the bulbous sprawl of souvenir shacks—all locks and chains and no one to bribe. “What kind of a temple,” I whined, locks people out? What if I were a Buddhist here to pray? Is this any way to run a religion?”
But that’s the thing about Borobudur, about Prambanan, about all the tiny shrines in Bali and most every inspired spire of every cathedral in Europe: it ain’t where prayer happens. It’s all camera fodder and guidebooks and bucket list checkmarks. There just ain’t no meditating on that monster—too many buhles in too many sarongs and glitzy hiking sandals go trudging up and down and peer into the honeycombs to see if yet another Buddha still is contemplating the nature of existence and suffering there in his sad stone cage.
We got our pictures with those dudes, too. We rushed in as soon as the gates swung open and did our quickest zombie double-time up the dozen-squared stairs, straight up past all the carved panels and all the scripture scenes and all the gawking sunrise tourists coming down from their early-bird high to the buyers’ remorse awaiting them below.
The stone positively glows in that morning vapor, in that golden hour before the white heat arrives and bleaches all your photos to ash and shadow. That’s the golden moment, and sleep-deprived and zombiefied as we may have been, we spoon-fed all of it through the greedy lens of our trusty Canon. Stupa: Check. Buddha uncased? Check. Single portraits with the view? Check. Tripod and double portraits? You get the point—we got them all. We scurried up and around and all over that monster like two gluttonous ants on a spilled ice cream bar. We snapped pics at a frenetic rate—the golden light was fading fast, and all the hordes were fast on our heels.
And then they found us.
No escape was possible from the merciless throng. On every side, on every story-paneled level of that pseudo-temple turned tour-money magnet they swarmed. They smelled you. They knew. And no escape was possible.
Oh, it starts easy enough, just one who smiles and nods, and to whom you smile and nod. It’s a drop of blood in a tub full of sharks.
“Where are you?”
“Oh. Sorry, My English so bad. Where you from?”
I already hear pounding footsteps of three more around the corner.
“Ohhhhh. America. Very far. Maybe you help me.”
Their uniforms are unmistakable. They carry yellow cardboard forms in their sweaty clutches.
“I need make conversation, maybe practice English. Yes?”
They were on us now, waving yellow cardboard in our sunglassed eyes. “Mister! Mister! You sign mine too. You sign please mister, English class.”
We were being backed into the corner. Buddha laughed in our faces with all his goofy consorts and attendants staring on, remorseless.
“Get behind me!” I yelled to Andy. “I’ll save you!” And I extended the tripod and jabbed one in the gut. He grunted and fell. Two more trampled over his mournful heap.
I clocked another with the tripod, smacked two skulls together and watched them crumble. Then I judo flipped another over the side to the waiting pavement below.
No use. Another English school had spotted us. They came shuffling up, pointing their cameras and snapping pics.
“Go on, my love! I’ll hold them off as long as—” But it was too late. They had her in their clutches already.
“Uuuuuuuugggggghhhhhh” It was finished.
We spent the next hour and a half answering where we were from and what our hobbies are and then signing a card certifying a bona-fide English-language conversation. At one point, during a lull in the attack, one of the teachers introduced herself—a bubbly and energetic young gal with a ceaseless smile and boundless energy for making her students engage in real-world applications. She’d loaded up two busloads of English-speaking hopefuls and made the trip down from Semarang for this “final exam.” She had such spunk and creativity and hope—I promptly booted her over the nearest cliff and screamed down after her, “Get ye back to whence thou crawlest hither, and encroach not upon my vacation!”
It was a rewarding episode, but utterly vain. Two more were already scaling the wall to take her place. “You’re an English teacher?” They cried in unison, “Maybe you can give us a lesson!”
“We talk about more than where we’re from and what our hobbies are!” My voice broke in my desperate scream. I chucked the battered remains of the tripod down at them and fled from the temple-but-not-temple mount.
Fortunately, Borobudur has at least three museums around, two of which are good, and one of which is the biggest waste of time outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee. No English students were here—not much of anybody was here—so Andy and I holed up and regrouped. There, I saw the pictures of the reconstruction.
You see, they make you think these stones have weathered centuries unscathed, that they’ve stood proud through monsoons and eruptions and tremors and the ever-tightening vice of time that crumbles all. Not so—the thing’s been rebuilt twice since 1900, and needed major restoration after Mt Merapi dumped about a million truckloads of steaming ash on it back in 2010. You can see the pictures yourself—it’s a monument to mankind’s futile struggle to build something everlasting, to make something, anything, endure.
That’s why I say the rice farmers, the ones outside the gate, the ones still bent double under triangle bamboo hats, wading yet another day through the marshy mirror of growth and coming abundance, just as their fathers and fathers and fathers before for years twice as innumerable as the charlatan Buddha’s stupas professed to be. These, these were the statues, the real monuments, the real source of humble meditation, day after day, year after year, skin wrinkling in the sun and teeth wearing thin.
Or maybe they’re just the ones who never made they move to the modern city. Who knows?
But there in the shaded vales of the stately and under-visited museum, you see a sea of stones recovered from the site, but which are now nothing more than puzzle pieces with no place to fit. I see these piles and piles of gray, chiseled masses, and I can’t help but ponder the hours and the sweat poured into each of the these—the busted knuckles and scraped skin and back-wrenching labor of dragging them one by one up, up, up to the building site—and now only to lie in the boneyard of broken building blocks.
Were such stones—or any such stones that appear in the structure—fashioned by the loving hands of pious monks and devoted laypersons? Or were they the forced labor of slaves and peasants? Who built this monument to religion that turned into tourist hotspot and “den of thieves”?
And who were these people carved into the panel after panel of reliefs—the grape-toting nobles and smiling attendants forever stuck in a fateful snapshot: women whose lifelong journey through existence, whose sum total of being and hoping and striving and pain and joy of living has been reduced to a single topless posture for the unfeeling pleasure of a sated lord; men whose life journey appears in a single panel’s scene—one more fawning lord and with obsequious smile leaning over some ruler’s crazy table?
And what would my life look like carved into a single stone moment? Would I too sit smiling at a table?
There’s much time and place and quiet to ponder such riddles as these in museums. It’s the perfect respite for reflection, a needed re-grouping before running the gauntlet of the exit. For exiting the Borubudur consists of an impossible maze of hawker crafts and wares, tiny wartels and shouting warungs whose paths lie more crooked and confusing than a Vegas casino’s floor plan. We rocketed our sleepy selves through street after street of shouts and sales pitches and handcrafts thrust into faces.
Sleeplessness was homing in on me. The hawkers could smell I was wounded. I felt it—being separated from the pack, singled out for the kill. I couldn’t last much longer. I pulled on my shades. “If they can’t see me look at them,” I said, “they won’t bother. If I just don’t acknowledge them, they won’t hassle. And courtesy of these shades, they’ll know I’m not interested.”
That was, quite simply, not true.
If a seller sees you look, he pounces. If one suspects you might have looked, she attacks. It someone has the slightest inkling that perhaps it would have crossed your mind to look if only you would know what he had to offer, he swarms. If you have a pulse, however faint, and could possibly summon the strength to lift currency from a wallet to their itching fingers, they are on you in a snarling mess. It’s brutal, and it’s somehow fun.
We survived the melee, ragged and worn and pulled apart at the seams. Yes, we finally emerged again that afternoon to the gates we’d strolled so sleeplessly through that sunup. Sunburned necks, frayed nerves, clenched fists, and smiling lips—we came out victorious. “We did it,” I said. “We finally saw Borobudur.”
Andy nodded. “That was fun. I can’t believe we didn’t do this sooner.”
We stared at the street awhile. “You wanna get back to Jogja and find the hotel?”
I’ll take that as a yes.