Onwards to Surakarta

The Tugu Monument

The Tugu Monument

The family had a long restful night. The evening had ended well, with foot reflexology massages for all and we cheerfully looked forward to the rest of our trip. Sam was in high spirits too. The local football team from Malang,  Arema had won against Thailand and he was in a celebratory mood.  It was a bright sunny day and we rejoiced in the sun as we stepped out to visit the Tugu monument right across the hotel. I don’t recall seeing so many pink lotuses in full bloom ever before. It was a beautiful sight.

We were driving onwards to Solo today and no sooner than we began our road trip, the weather turned cloudy, and wet with rains. In retrospect, we probably chose the wrong time to be in East Java – It was peak monsoon season. Nevertheless, monsoons made the whole landscape green and fresh and the fog and cloud added to the mystery and beauty of it all. And then there was ginger tea.

Ginger tea at one of the warungs

Ginger tea at one of the warungs

All through our drive we crossed road side warungs, small shops that sold, hot tea, cold bottled drinks, candy, cigarettes, snacks that sometimes doubled up as wartel or warnet depending on whether they offered a telephone or internet facility. We stopped for a photo shoot and some tea on our way at the town that was known for its green apple orchards. I have never seen an apple tree all my life and I was hoping to catch a glimpse of green apples on trees but the weather spoilt our chances. Our scheduled visit of a walk through an apple farm was literally washed out.

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The green corn and rice fields that passed by as we drove

We were going to be on road for over 8 hours and we had to make the best of it.  We enjoyed the country side that looked green with corn, sugarcane and rice fields for long stretches of land. It seemed to me that that the farmers in East Java were a happy lot.  The highlight of our drive was our lunch at a town called Nganjuk. At first it looked like no one had stopped for lunch at that hotel for the day, but when they laid out our lunch I was impressed beyond words. We had explained to the chef of this bistro how we were vegetarians and that meant no shrimp, meat broth or eggs even (It is a big challenge for them to make a dish without a meat broth, shrimp paste or eggs) This is where I discovered the magical urap-urap. Sam did warn us that if we wanted to avoid fried food, then Java was the wrong place to be. Fried food is omnipresent in Javanese cuisine.

The awesome lunch

The awesome lunch

On our way Sam engaged us in interesting tit bits about Java. At some point in our conversation, we mentioned Maxx and wondered why we hadn’t spotted any dogs at all. Sam told us about the hadith and Quran and how Muslims strictly follow what the prophet has urged them to follow. I thanked my Indonesian helper at home a million times for she is fond of Maxx and will never ignore his needs.

I seldom miss noticing the various regional accents that creep into the way we speak English and with Sam it was no different.  Many words he spoke took time and repeated listening, to understand. Those were the times I appreciated the effort it takes for people who speak English as first language to understand the way the rest of speak English, when it is not our first language.

Even though we were driving past large towns, the roads that connected these towns weren’t typically highway. It seemed to me that there were houses built on one side of the highway throughout, which meant shops, children, pedestrians, cyclists and two wheelers doing what they did best- randomly crossing of the road, riding too close to fast moving traffic. I even saw barefooted men who dashed across the road right in front of the commuter.  As we drove by many shops and sign boards it was difficult to miss how many Indian sounding names I was noticing- Rajawati, Wijaya, Kartika, JayaSakti, Dewi, Kusuma, Poornama, Surya and Sri. Even the toilets have Indian names-  Wanita for the ladies ‘room and Pria for the men! I asked Sam about the names and what he said about how boys and girls were named as infants I found interesting.

The  Javanese alphabet

The Javanese alphabet

Most Javanese names for men ended with an O sound – largely because their alphabet, the Huruf Jawa had such sounds. So a Java is Javo, Bramha is Bromo and Siva is Sivo. You get the idea.  Most Javanese have only one name without a surname. Now you know Sukarto, Sukarno and Susilo are Javanese names. Also boys are named after the most recent and big event happening around town at the time the baby was born. You will find many boys in Java that have been named after active volcanoes or something as mundane as the day of the week they were born. So it is likely that you will meet a Sinen, Suhlasa, Rabu, Khamis, Jummat, Sabtu, or Minngu which are also the names of the days of the week. Sam added that infant girls however are usually named after flowers or something as ‘genuine’ as that. I found out that Sam had two daughters and so I was curious what they were called.  He had to enunciate and repeat the names thrice for me to note it down. Their first names were beautiful and would have made Steve Jobs proud. Irlanda Padmaningrum and Iloka TiktaPamunkaas.

We checked into the Novotel Solo before the evening was late. Akank spotted a beautiful digital piano in the lobby and instantly cheered up. Post dinner, she even gathered the courage to request that she play it and the hotel let her.

The Tugu Malang

We reached in time for their house tea with local snack specialties. Of course most of the snack had shrimp paste, beef or ayam– chicken. Not too many choices for “vega”tarians. The rice pancakes and the tapioca shreds with gula kelapa (Coconut sugar) were sweet but edible. We had it with hot ginger tea.

The room, the pool and corridors at Tugu Malang

The room, the pool and corridors at Tugu Malang (Click to enlarge)

We were offered a tour of the boutique hotel. The owner of the hotel, we were told by Sam, is an collector of antiques and he built this place to showcase his collections. Tugu, in Indonesian Malay, means ‘monument’.  The Tugu Malang is located facing a monument. Extravagantly done, the hotel has rooms and corners designated to different regions from where the antiques have been acquired – Java, China, Emirates, Bali and Khmer. Huge stone, marble or wooden sculptures from these countries were all over the place, wooden door frames, paintings, tiles, crockery and other collectibles.

Some glimpses of the artifacts at the Tugu Malang

Some glimpses of the artifacts at the Tugu Malang (Click to enlarge)

What was very interesting about the tour was the Presidential suite. Just the size of the bed was worth the 1000 USD per night. It had a foyer with a private massage table, a bath with curtains around, a floor seating with lots of comfy cushions thrown in and a private terrace garden with trees.

A collage of what the Presidential suite looked like

A collage of what the Presidential suite looked like (Click to enlarge)

Mt. Bromo to Malang

Mother in law, husband and daughter posing for the camera.

Mother in law, husband and daughter posing for the camera.

We all have our reasons why we travel on a holiday. The reasons vary with age. Nothing could be more horrific than having a group of people who travel together who don’t share the same reason. We were a family of four, including my husband, daughter and mother in law. My 14 year old daughter, Akanksha’s idea of a holiday is to wake late, hit the pool, play the piano, eat good food, take pictures for instagram and listen to music on her iPod. Our reason as a couple was to discover a new city, visit the sights, enjoy the road trip that throws you in a confined space for hours at stretch when you have no other option but talk to each other. Of course good food and photos are a given. My mother in law is enthusiastic about travelling. She does not let her age or health interfere in the enthusiasm. She wants to go anywhere we take her before ‘her day is near’. And if there are dilapidated ruins of a Hindu temple in the itinerary then she definitely wants in!

Day 2 of our holiday began early. Very early.  Right there you have a reason why our daughter was not too happy. We were scheduled to be at the point of view to watch the sunrise at Mt.Bromo as early as 5 am. The drive from the hotel to the point of view was a little over an hour. We had to drive on a stretch of sandy caldera in the dark. Dark kind of described Akank’s mood as well since she had lost her protest about wanting to stay back and miss the grand event.

The beautiful sunrise at Mt.Bromo

The beautiful sunrise at Mt.Bromo

There were other 4 X 4 Toyotas and two wheelers that were on the road and everybody seemed to be heading the same way as us. The sunrise we witnessed from the point of view has to be experienced because no words can do justice to the description. The valley below glimmered. We saw the rays of the sun exactly the way a renowned artist would draw them in his masterpiece. Breathtaking. Everyone was going crazy with their cameras, iPads and iPhones. Thank fully the event was so dramatic that it cheered up Akank as well.

The scene at the foot of Mt.Bromo that morning

The scene at the foot of Mt.Bromo that morning

Our next stop was at the mouth of the crater on Mt.Bromo. This needed us to get back into the jeep and drive another 6 kms towards the foot of Mt. Bromo. The jeep took us to 3/4th distance to the foot of Mt. Bromo. From there we had to go on horseback. The horse ride was an adventure by itself. The black volcanic sandy ground that the horse had to tread on was uneven and that made it extra challenging, and not just for the horse. The local tribes who owned the horses walked the horse slowly and surely as we rode on them. My only thoughts were  to stay on the horse all the time or risk being trampled upon by the other horses that were behind us.

That is us on horse back.

That is us on horse back.

Akank and GSR seemed to mount and dismount the horses like it was second nature to them. When I mounted the horse, I held on to the halter that made the poor horse rear up and neigh! (My imagination was unbridled – In my mind I was already galloping towards the crater with one of my foot in the stirrup and the rest of me being dragged on the black sand) Nonetheless, nothing dramatic happened and we soon found ourselves at the foot of the mountain from where we had 250 concrete steps to climb to reach the mouth of the crater.

Taking a breather enroute

Taking a breather enroute

My lungs were overworked and it was a test of cardio vascular fitness that when I reached the top, I had to stop and catch my breath before I let the crater take my breath away. What a sight. Who would have imagined that I would one day stand at the mouth of an active crater looking into it and clicking pictures of it, surviving it to write about it on my blog? Blessed are the ways of Lord Srinivasa.

We got back to the hotel hungry for a decent breakfast and  shower before we left for our next leg of sightseeing for the day.

Our next stop was the old dilapidated remains of the temple of Singosari, the oldest Hindu kingdom in Java. No points for guessing whose day was made. Many damaged stone sculptures of Hindu Gods were still displayed in the complex. Sam told us that most of the damage was done by volcanic eruptions and not Hindu- Muslim enmity as you would like to imagine. So far, from what I observed, Javanese people seemed peace loving and not fanatic about their religion or practices.

The Singosari temple and the broken sculptures of Hindu Gods

The Singosari temple and the broken sculptures of Hindu Gods

We were on road the rest of the day, driving towards Malang, our next destination. Sam kept us engaged in small talk the entire time. He was a proud Javanese man and had only good things to talk about his country and his fellow countrymen. Java according to Sam has one of the most fertile lands on Earth (I double checked the claim and Google confirmed that land near volcanoes are considered to be the most fertile soils.) Java has over 40 mountains – 15 of which are in East Java – of which half of them volcanoes and half of those volcanic mountains are active.

According to Sam the people of Java are very industrious and get involved in anything that can make them money. Make a note Monster.com; you seem to have missed out Java in your survey. We passed a lot of small shops on wheels on the roadsides and many of them had “Kunci” written on them. Sam told us that the word meant keys and all those little kiosks made spare keys. If you counted the number of Kunci’s we passed, it would seem that there were many people losing keys in Java.

It was nearly evening when we reached Malang. Malang is the second largest city after Surabaya and has a reputation of being Indonesia’s center for higher education and learning. It has over 15 Universities and most of them along the prestigious Ijen Boulevard that is also lined with old colonial Dutch houses. Sam pointed out to a few students and called them mahasiswas (students of the university).

We checked into The Hotel Tugu late in the evening and were quite intrigued to find out  why Tripadvisor that had given the hotel 4.5 stars. I have pictures of the hotel to share, so will make that a separate post.

Java over land

It was that time of the year and this time around we decided to go back and discover more on SE Asia. It has been nearly four years since we moved to Singapore and we have not traveled to many places in SE Asia yet. Our week long vacation took us back to Indonesia, to the least populated East Java.

We flew down to the Capital city, Surabaya from where our road trip began. We were met by our friendly guide Irsam Soetarto (I was later to learn that Javanese names for men almost always ended with an /o/ sound) and the driver Herri ( never found out his second name). Herri was a rule breaker to the popular belief that East Javanese men are outspoken and loud. I barely heard the man say anything louder than a whisper in the whole week we were on road.

Day 1 – Surabaya

Our adventure began even before we stepped outside the airport. The airport toilets were our first reality check. Singapore spoils you with squeaky clean toilets in malls, airport and other public places and it becomes difficult to accept lesser standard of cleanliness.  We were not checking into a hotel until later in the evening and so we had to make sure that we had empty bladders at the start of our journey on road. When it was our turn at the immigration counter, we found out that we had filled three forms short and so we were sent back to fill the individual forms instead of “one form for the whole family” as we were advised in the aircraft. We were practically the last ones to leave the airport. The sight of the Toyota Hiace Commuter with a beaming guide next to it as we stepped out, raised our spirits.

The sculpture of Sura and Baya

The sculpture of Sura and Baya

Surabaya is the capital of East Java and is the second largest city town in Indonesia. Surabaya got its name from the Sura (White shark) and the Baya (Crocodile). Legend has it that there were territorial fights between the river and the sea predators. There is a huge sculpture of a white shark and crocodile in the harbour town.

Sam made a special mention of the mayor who is a woman.  I came across this article after I returned from my trip to understand why she was highly respected and powerful. I salute you, Ibu Rismah.

Our first stop was at the House of Sampoerna. Sam told us it was a cigarette museum and we could smell nicotine and clove even before we stepped in. That is when I learnt of the hand rolled cigarettes called Kretek.  Sampoerna is the cigarette manufacturing company that makes Indonesia’s most prestigious cigarette‚ Dji Sam Soe. This year the company is celebrating their 100th anniversary.

The scene that will forever remain in my mind is from the factory where they were rolling cigarettes. It was a scene right out of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times-

The workers were all women and worked like precision timed machines. They were seated in rows and in teams. Each worker had a different coloured cap. For every three red capped workers who rolled the cigarettes, there was one black cap worker who cut the corners of the kretek ( you would miss how she turned the cigarette with one swift move of the little finger, if you blinked) and a yellow capped worker, who packed the finished cigarettes into packs. Sam said that each team manages to pack 200 individual packs per day which means about 20000 cigarettes per team. They get paid per piece rolled. They works 6.5 days a week and on an average earn about 250 USD a month.

Even though I condemn smoking, I couldn’t resist picking a pack of kretek for keep sake.

The Kretek has a heady smell of nicotine and cloves.

The Kretek has a heady smell of nicotine and cloves.

Sam kept us engaged in small talk as we drove from the museum towards the magnificent Suramadu bridge in the rains. We passed by the commonest public transport the becaks or the trishaws.  Java was under the Colonial Dutch rule before its independence and so many of the buildings still had the old charm of Dutch architecture.

The cable bridge- Suramadu

The cable bridge- Suramadu

The Suramadu bridge connects Surabaya to Madura Island across the Madura Strait. It is a bridge supported by cables and is about 5.5kms long. The rains added to the mystery of it all. Sam told us that when the wind speeds were high, they don’t let motorcycles and other two wheelers across the bridge.

One of the observations that Sam made about Java, was that no one in the whole region ate only vegetarian food. That was not one of our concerns. Having lived with an Indonesian help for the last two years, we had a fair idea of the veggie fare we would find in that country.  The food choices during our entire trip were either a soto (soup) or a sate (grilled or roasted) with lavish servings of peanut sauce and sambal.  According to Sam, Sambal is like the appetizer for all meals.  As long as there is hot, spicy sambal, anything goes. Padang food, known for its coconut milk and spicy chilli, was everywhere.

We passed by little towns on our way to our first night’s halt at Mt. Bromo. Sam highlighted what these towns were known for; one for its milk corporation, another for its green apples and another for its dam across the river.  More than the destinations, our vacation was the road trip. Watching the beautiful green country side of East Java go by with its rich rice, sugarcane and corn fields was a treat.

The horn flowers that looked like Christmas decor

The horn flowers that looked like Christmas decor

The drive towards Mt. Bromo was long winding and torturous because of the weather. Plus we had had a long day, an early start at Singapore and a holiday that doesn’t end in a hotel check in soon after you land always leaves you wondering! Soon after we began the trudging climb to Mt.Bromo, the weather became chilly and the scenic beauty outside, the green topography, began to calm us. The rain seemed to have slowed or even taken a brief reprieve. There were horn flowers everywhere like bells during Christmas time and they seemed to add a natural decor to the road side trees.

We reached the Java Banana hotel and were greeted with a pretty sight of a beautiful rainbow. It was worth the long drive and it was full of promise of a beautiful beginning of our holiday. Sam said that this may be his 500th visit to Mt. Bromo but his first ever rainbow.

The beautiful rainbow that we spotted that evening.

The beautiful rainbow that we spotted that evening.

Thus began our journey – Java over land.

Divine voices from my past

Those days we had cassettes and not playlists on iPods. Heck, there were no compact discs either. Yet, I listened to a lot more music then,  than I do today.

There was Suneeta Rao with her Pari hoon main and Ab ke baras, Alisha Chinai with Made in India  and Adnan Sami with his Lift karadey . And then there was Colonial Cousins and all of their tracks! I was listening to other artists too but these four were probably the most played artists in our faithful Sony double deck player.  I am talking about the mid 90’s.  It probably was around the same time I was transitioning from Western pop to Indian music.  I was not yet listening to classical music then but had become more tolerant to my amma’s choice of hard core classical Indian music.

Last month when I heard that the Colonial Cousins were performing at the Kala Utsavam here in Singapore, I did not have to think twice if I wanted to go.  How many rainy afternoons in Mumbai  have I listened to Hariharan and Leslie sing Indian rain. Those were probably the earliest days that I was making the bhakthi connection to music.  I will not be exaggerating if I tell you that I began to appreciate Carnatic music with Krishna Nee baeganey baaro and Sa ni dha pa from their first album. Of course the likes of OS Arun, Bombay Jayashree and Aruna Sairam have made sure that I stay inspired.

So there we were, at the first level of the magnificent Esplanade concert hall with brilliant acoustics. The hall wasn’t packed to full capacity. Most of the audience seemed to be in their mid or late forties, a group I could easily identify with. The stage was not jazzed up like it was for the Adnan Sami concert that I had an opportunity to go to last year- no psychedelic lights  but a constant blue hue to match the mood of the evening.

The Colonial Cousins, on the dot of the appointed hour just walked to the stage from the wings in their kurta-pajamas and regular sandals. They sang memorable tracks from their earlier albums and a few from the new album that they launched this year ( Colonial Cousins once more). No one from the audience was restless with song requests. We waited for them to decide what they wanted to sing and immersed ourselves in the magical evening.

From what I observed, I decided that I like Leslie Lewis a tad more than I like Hariharan ( and I love his voice!). Leslie was bashful, gentlemanly and seemed to wield a great sense of humour that flashed like a sword in the dark. Hariharan was exuberant and extroverted.  Leslie let Hariharan be center of attention ( obviously he had an edge over Leslie with his voice skills) but Leslie’s guitar skills were nothing short of amazing.  There were some non Colonial Cousins requests for Hariharan and he politely hummed some of his other tracks that have made him popular. All the while, Leslie had this charming, indulgent smile and “yeah- bro- show -them –what- you- got” attitude.

Here is a track I managed to record entirely from the evening. Don’t you just love these guys!