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Saturday 11 May 2013
Yogyakarta, Indonesia

From palace to paddy by horse and bicycle

Today we were given a choice of tours in and outside of Yogyakarta. We all chose to do the City Tour by horse and cart and most of the group opted for a cycle tour in the afternoon to see the rice paddies and villages outside the city.

The local guide who took us out in the morning had excellent English and a good sense of humour. We divided into 3 horse carts and set off down the main roads with the vans and scooters. The horses were very well trained and didn't flinch, even when they had to nose their way out into traffic just like cars do. The bikes proved as unlikely to stop for the horses as they are for cars, simply driving around the horse until they had no choice but to let us out. Jim, Ailsa and I all flinched when the last scooter finally stopped mere inches away from our horse!

We started our tour at the large indoor market. No matter how many Asian markets I visit, I am still amazed by the riot of colour and activity. It is a multisensory experience. Our supermarkets seem so sterile and prefabricated in comparison and not in a good way. Food here is piled up in shallow woven baskets, sorted by hand and sold in whatever shape and size it happened to grow. It is not dictated by some faceless multinational who decides what shape and colour a pepper should be. I love the rich aromas from the wonderfully exotic spice markets to the sharp briny smell of the fish markets. Even the vendors are part of the mixture - tiny old ladies carrying huge bundles on their heads, people sitting on the floor shelling prawns, smiling faces peering over stacks of sarongs and beautiful fabrics. They're usually happy for a photo and love to see themselves on the screen afterwards. One group of ladies posed together for us and then insisted we looked beautiful while we tried to tell them it was the other way around.

Our guide pointed out some new fruits that we hadn't seen before, including snakeskin fruit and some large soft beans with a potent aroma which he said were "smelly up, smelly down"!

Yogyakarta is an interesting place. It was once the capital of Indonesia and remains the capital of Central Java Province. It still has a hereditary Sultan who acts as Governor of Yogyakarta. We were given a tour of the Sultan's Palace by one of his 500 staff, almost all of whom are decendents of other Sultan staff. Previous Sultans have had up to four legal wives and anywhere up to 20 unofficial wives as well (better known as his hareem!).  Only sons from his legal wives are eligible to inherit his title, but one previous Sultan fathered as many as 85 children. The current Sultan, (number 9, I think) has only one wife and five daughters, which raises the prospect of a Sultana for the first time in Yogyakarta's history.

After the palace tour our guide took us to his own house in a quiet lane nearby and gave us cakes and drinks. We carried on to visit a shadow puppet maker, but as his shop was already full with another group we investigated a batik shop next door. This went the same way as the silver shop and the guide lost us for almost an hour as we all bought pictures, bartering the price down with his assistance. The poor shadow puppet maker didn't get much from us after that as we had vastly overrun our time and had to nip off to the Sultan's Water Palace. This was a bathing palace created for the Sultan and his family - separate pools for the official and unofficial wives. Nearby we were taken to a very unusual building. It was formed from a tunnel-like circular corridor with four openings into a central open-air atrium. Each opening led onto a small flight of steps connecting in a central platform, from which a further flight of steps led to another corridor running around above the first one. It was formerly used for prayer as the acoustics meant everyone could hear what was being preached from the central platform. The whole building was built of a rough clay, very reminiscent of the troglodyte cave homes in Tunisia (and Luke Skywalker's home on Tatooine).

By the time we got back to our hotel we were over an hour late and Luppa, our Yogyakarta guide, was getting anxious to take us out on the cycle tour before we lost the light. In the end we left at 3.30pm instead of the planned 2pm. It was a fairly rude introduction to cycling in Indonesia. Ailsa hadn't been on a bike in 20 years and within minutes we were out on the main road with all the crazy traffic. Definitely not what her comfort zone had requested! Once we had got her gears sorted out so she was pedalling more comfortably she relaxed a little. I reminded myself that we'd seen this traffic for a week already and they were good at avoiding everyone else, so just tried not to think about it too much. Luckily we didn't have to go too far before we turned off the main road and into the quet village roads between rice paddies. After that baptism of fire, we had a fabulous ride through the countryside.   

Our first stop was at a local brickmaker. We found him ankle deep in clay sludge, turning it over with a flat pick and stomping in bare feet to mix it together. The pick was very sharp and he did not hesitate swinging it towards his bare feet in the clay. Luppa's companion demonstrated the brickmaking process - filling a 5-brick rectangular mould with the clay and smoothing it level, then lifting away the mould and leaving the new bricks to air dry for a number of days. The dry bricks are then piled up and covered in dry rice straw which is set alight in order to fire them.

We also watched a rice farmer harvesting his crop and had a go ourselves. Each rice plant looks like a bunch of tall grass. The farmers use a simple scythe to cut through about 6" above the ground. He was able to cut each bunch in one swipe and harvested 5 bunches in the time it took us to do one. The bunches are dried and then beaten against a wooden board to shake the rice grains free. The leftover hay is used for animal feed and stubble in the fields is burnt for fertiliser.

I attempted to record the scenery on my GoPro, which required cycling one handed on a very bumpy road, so is no doubt very shaky, but it was fun to try.

Our last stop was to visit a family who produce tempe, a product made of fermented soybeans. The beans are washed, steamed and dried a few times, then wrapped in small banana leaf packets and left for three days. During this time, the beans ferment and a white mold fills the gaps between them, creating a solid cake of tempe. This can then be sliced, diced, deep fried or coated according to various Indonesian recipes. The weather began to turn as we arrived and before too long it was belting down and thundering loudly. We taught Sukio the phrase 'raining cats and dogs' which he thought was a very funny expression.

While we waited out the rain, the family fed us a delicious meal of steamed rice, jackfruit curry, deep fried tempe in with garlic and onion and a sticky tempe snack made of caramelising thin strips of tempe with roasted peanuts and chili, all served in a folded banana leaf. The rain showed no signs of easing so Luppa eventually arranged a car to come and collect us instead of making us cycle back in the dark and rain for which we were more than grateful. We stayed another hour with the family, watching the women folding tempe packets and watching a very cute little mouse creep around from one pile of discarded leaves to another. Each time he made it a certain distance, Jim moved his foot and the mouse shot back to where he came from to the amusement of everyone watching.

Having eaten with the family, we didn't need any more dinner but went up the road to Easy Goin' for a Bintang. I spoke to Verity at home about planning the US road trip section of my adventure and got very excited at the plans. We'll be hiring a car and driving three weeks around the National Parks from LA to San Francisco in October.

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