Heathrow Airport has nothing on the regional airport at Yogyakarta in western Java. At least not in terms of welcome, but that’s the same wherever you go in Asia – an utterly awesome welcome that puts our sourpuss European ways to shame.
For example, the baggage hall at Yogyakarta Airport boasts its own ‘bing-plink-bing-bong’ gamelan band, accompanying a singer whose vocal technique, though it produces a strangulated feline noise, is not completely unpleasant (but then. perhaps Montserrat Caballe and Shirley Bassey sound alien to the Indonesian ear). And it’s not because baggage delivery is especially slow. It’s meant as welcome and entertainment for the travel-weary passengers arriving in the cultural capital of Indonesia.
It’s well known that the gamelan inspired the British composer Benjamin Britten, who used the sonorities of the instrument extensively in his last opera Death in Venice, and I can’t help thinking that the related vocal technique influenced the later singing style of Britten’s partner Peter Pears. Judge for yourself.
Yogyakarta is, amongst other splendid things, a dormitory town for tourists visiting the great 9th century Buddhist temple of Borobodur. It’s only a ninety-minute drive from the Hotel d’Omah on the edge of Yogyakarta, where my Mexican friend Federico and I were staying. The temple lies at the foot of jungle-clad hills and it’s utterly awesome too having survived intact for more than a thousand years of rain, damp and earthquake. Fortunately the tolerant strain of Islam that predominates in Indonesia doesn’t require that it be blown up.
The temple is not all that it seems, though. It may be a multi-layered progression from the realm of desire, through the realm of forms, to a formless Nirvana at its summit, but it’s also a tourist trap, though not of the kind you might imagine. At the weekend it teems with teenagers on a trap-an-English-speaking-tourist-ask-some-questions-and-take-a-photo-with-him-or-her mission. Marauding gangs of girls or boys, though never the twain together, ambush you around every corner, oblivious, it seems, to the spiritual temptations of Buddhism, intent only on first snaring you and then improving their English. It’s actually rather fun to be so much in demand (though, ultimately, of course, sheer vanity). The sheer joy of it all adds to the Nirvana of the experience.
The questions are all the same, and have probably come from the same course book, and so, just occasionally, after a dozen repetitions in the blazing sun, it’s a challenge to the contemplative state.
What is your name? Adam
Where are you from? I’m British but live in the Czech Republic.
How did you get here? By plane and car.
What do you think of the temple? I think it’s, like, utterly awesome.
Yes, after a while, you begin to answer in, like, a teenage Facebook English.
We tried to divert attention onto a lone American tourist, who’d travelled to Yogyakarta from Japan, where he teaches English. He was a paragon of tolerance, as we were, but expressed surprise at the friendliness of these boys and scarf-clad girls.
‘I wondered if I should tell them I’m from the US,’ he said, ‘but it seems ok. They’re not at all what I expected Muslims to be like.’
Well, no, they are not as the prevailing American view of Islam would have them be, the view promoted by ignorant madmen such as Donald Trump, who rant unchallenged poisonous nonsense about the religion. If only Donald had the patience, stamina and spiritual thirst to huff, puff and pout his way to the top of the temple of Borobodur, the world might not be so much at risk.
We’re staying at a hotel that’s also bubbling over with welcome, the beautiful Hotel d’Omah on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, owned and run by the wonderful and kind Warwick Purser, who came to Indonesia from Australia many decades ago, and has never really left. This is the place to stay. It’s Nirvana….without the teeming teenagers.