Boomerang Semarang

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January 11th 2012
Published: January 14th 2012
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Driftwood, like me, along the coast in JeparaDriftwood, like me, along the coast in JeparaDriftwood, like me, along the coast in Jepara

Art thou Robinson Crusoe? Somehow we both ended up here.
When my Aunt Sandy said she was coming to Semarang I thought to myself "Why Semarang?". It is one of the least likely top tourist destinations in Indonesia. Sure it is not far from the diving paradise of Karimunjawa or the cultural hub of Jogja (Yogyakarta) but Semarang is hardly a place blessed with ample tourist facilities. Most tourists, who are predominantly people from Central Java, visit the nearby mountains or the beaches not too far away. Its main heart appears to be industrial scale business located on the north coast but it is also blessed with a huge port. In fact, it is one of the few ports on the north coast of Indonesia that can accomodate cruise ships. This was apparently one of the main reasons my aunt's cruise decided to stop in Semarang, although only for a mere twelve hours.

This was enough time to take a hired car and driver to pick her up and take her to the famous Borobodur temple just outside Yogyakarta and then do some 'hoteling' at the Losari Coffee Plantation on the way back to her ship. Borobodur, with its mammoth size and beautiful mountain valley setting, is a
Traffic in JogjaTraffic in JogjaTraffic in Jogja

A typical traffic jam on Jalan Gejayan near where I stayed with Homestay Heru. This was what I faced on the way out of town on the way to Semarang.
perfect tonic for such a short stay. And Losari, a respite for the likes of Indonesia's president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and famous actors, offered a scenic quiet diversion from Central Java's crazy roads and traffic. Like Borobodur, its sits in a valley amidst a number of volcanic mountains. I recommend the starfruit salad, crisp with little nips of sweetness. Both my Aunt Sandy I enjoyed a meal and vista that were delicious. However, at the prices they charged for the meal I could have eaten for a month in the budget-minded's dreamland of Jogja.

It was brief but a great chance for the two of us to catch up. It has been at least two years since I saw her last. Her previous stops in Australia, Bali and the Komodo islands must have made Semarang seem quite plain, but I hope it was more than just a stop on her way to the last stop in Singapore.

Given that the cruise ship arrived at 6am and that passengers had to return by 3:30pm time was pressed. Both of us found it amusing (and disappointing) that the passengers on her ship that had hired a police escort (for the purpose of speeding up their journey through the local traffic) arrived after the 3:30 deadline......I wish the ship left without them. But it didn't and I had a longer time to say goodbye to my aunt.

Because I didn't have language class for several days after she left, I decided to drive my motorbike from Jogja the night before and stay in a nearby Semarang hotel so I could easily meet her and the driver at the port in the morning. The three hour drive is filled with the stress of Java's tightly packed and bustling roads but there are rewards on the way as you pass by tea plantations and volcanoes along the road. The hotel I found, especially the bathroom, was hardly something to write home about. But taking the motorbike allowed me to spend the rest of the weekend after my aunt left to explore some parts of Central Java near Semarang that I had yet to see and that I had read about in Lonely Planet.

I had an inkling to get a ferry to Karimunjawa for a day and do some snorkeling but the seas
Masjid Agung in DemakMasjid Agung in DemakMasjid Agung in Demak

Reflection in front of the graves of the famous sultans of Demak
were too rough in both Semarang and Jepara to allow it. Instead, I spent another night in Semarang and got up early the next morning to try and visit a factory that gives tours on how to make jamu (herbal drinks). It was closed. So after my aunt left I had struck out twice.

About an hour or less from Semarang is Demak where Islam first gained its strongest foothold in Indonesia. There I visited Masjid Agung Demak, one of Indonesia's oldest and most revered pilgrimage sites according to what I read. It wasn't particularly well kept up and the museum telling its story was closed. I walked around after making a donation and putting on a traditional sarong. The tombs of many revered sultans are ensconced in a separate compound next to the main prayer area of the mosque.

As I was leaving the mosque, a gang of small children surrounded me yelling "Om, uang makan! uang makan!" (Uncle! Money for food) and a toothless old woman who started up a conversation with me seemed to be implying the same thing. Later, when I found myself lost in the seemingly endless villages that fill the Demak regency, I realized the area's better days were definitely in the past. Flat and homogenous landscape is all the eye sees as you drive along the often poorly kept local roads. The flat landscape certainly eased Islam's spread and probably the trade that came with it. Village, mosque, rice field, agriculture, farm workers, repeat, repeat reminded of driving through some of the central and western lands of Texas. Its conformity reminded of why religion and conservative ways do so well in places like this. Everything can seem like an open book when everything in the world seems to be clearly laid out for your line of vision.

From Demak's conformity I rode for about an hour along flat highways and scuttled around big transport trucks carrying manufactured and agricultural goods to Kudus. Kudus is famous for "kretek" a popular Indonesian cigarette made from a combination of cloves (a major export of Indonesia) and tobacco (also grown locally in abundance). Rain interrupted along the journey, so I stopped (like all of the other motorcyclists) on the side of the highway to put on my poncho. I really wish I had a photo of this because it is so common here when the rain stops and starts. It is almost as predictable as the lunch line at McDonalds to see gangs of people stopped on the side of the road putting on their panchos as the rain starts and again later when it stops. I wish I had a picture, but unfortunately the rain descourages me from using the camera. There are so many fine images in my head from Indonesia during the rain.

After a brief amateur photo shoot (on my bike, in front of a statue and in the park) with the parking attendants, I entered the Kretek Museum in Kudus. It is well kept up and even includes a waterpark on its grounds in addition to a small movie thater where I watched a short documentary on the cultural relevance of kretek production to the area. This is in no small part helped by the generous funding of Djarum cigarettes, one of Indonesia's largest producers. Their advertisements are everywhere in Java.

My English speaking guide, Dewi, spared no expense in showing my around and giving me a tour of the traditional Kudus home. I even got
The mythical forests of Bate AlitThe mythical forests of Bate AlitThe mythical forests of Bate Alit

Not here but on this mountain a famous local mystic is worshiped and buried.
a traditional handmade kretek cigarette wrapped in corn husk. The museum is lucky to have her on what I presume is a less than luxurious salary. She is now taking care of her father because her mother recently passed. This after finishing university in Jogja. Her tour was the highlight of my trip after my aunt left.

About an hour north of Kudus is Jepara, the most famous place for furniture production in Indonesia, but I went there for the beach. I wanted to see if I could get the ferry to Karimunjawa or at least see the sunset/sunrise. I was thwarted by bad weather on both accounts. I decided to head over to the nearby Mount Muria instead and see what I could find. I ended up in the agricultural village of Bate Alit near the top of the mountain on the west. I got there early and it was misty. I followed a muddy, rocky path between rice paddies and into the mystical pines near the top. It was gorgeous but only for a few moments.

I ran into villagers standing in the back of pickup trucks headed for hard agricultural labor
Homes surrounding the port of SemarangHomes surrounding the port of SemarangHomes surrounding the port of Semarang

The homes surrounding the port of Semarang, like many along water or rail lines, have this slumlike character. But they are quite beautiful on the peaceful waters in the morning and evening. Life is bustling there by mid-morning.
in the hills. They sculpted the very beautiful rice terraces I admired. I can't help but think what I find beautiful is most of the time in these agricultural workplaces are as ordinary to them as the offices of the companies most city people work for are to most of them. There should be some sort of workplace exchange program like they have in universities so that people could switch occupations for a short period. A kind of corporate tourism rather than eco-tourism so that morales and knowledge are raised. (rather than just morals and local values)

On my descent down the mountain I passed pickup trucks full of people from the city on mountain bikes headed up the mountain and a few teen couples headed into the woods for a little weekend romance. This was after talking briefly with the villagers headed to work who joked with me and even invited me to go to work with them. Why didn't I take them up on the offer? I guess I needed to be back for school the next day but maybe I am just not curious enough.

I made it back to Jogja
Meals on the roadMeals on the roadMeals on the road

I didn't eat the best or most interesting food on this trip. I wanted to save time as stopping at food stalls can sometimes turn into long dragged out social encounters. I wanted explore the lands!
in time for my last week of language classes. The last days in Jogja were an emotional, busy dance. I hope to be back but time will tell. I have a few days in Malaysia to relax and wait for my Thai visa as I will return to Bangkok later next week and Chiang Mai soon after. Time to start the job application process again.

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


One of Java's oldest mosquesOne of Java's oldest mosques
One of Java's oldest mosques

Not in great condition, this is the famous Masjid Agung Demak. Tradition, it appears, has been left behind for the poor to carry.
Mosques of DemakMosques of Demak
Mosques of Demak

Lost in the villages of Demak, I started taking pictures of the different mosques that populated each village, some having more than one.
Mosque at the gas stationMosque at the gas station
Mosque at the gas station

Pertamina, the only company in Central Java that appears to have gas stations always has a small mosque for prayer as well as nearly the only public place with toilets for travelers.
Leaders of Kretek production in IndonesiaLeaders of Kretek production in Indonesia
Leaders of Kretek production in Indonesia

Behind me are portraits of all the men involved in kretek production in Indonesia
Handmade cigarettesHandmade cigarettes
Handmade cigarettes

Both the packages and the cigarettes and the whole process was originally done by hand. You can relive the whole process from village to factory in the museum. The process, the environment and the tools involved are clearly laid out.
Specialization of Kretek production in the villageSpecialization of Kretek production in the village
Specialization of Kretek production in the village

The conservative mountain town of Temanggung, where the chain on my motorbike waylaid me a month ago, is where the best tobacco is grown. Behind the glass the village and the production process are duplicated in miniature as seen here. Another area features the factory process.

14th January 2012

Zak, I loved my visit with you and only wish it could have been longer. The treats were delicious and I still have one pack yet to open. I love reading your blogs as it keeps me close to you. Stay well and I hope you find a job that you will enjoy. Love, Sandy
15th January 2012

It was fun for me too. I am so happy we could meet here. You are the only close friend or family member I have seen in Southeast Asia for years.

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