Sunday, 2 October 2011

Day 29: Joko And The Slow Erosion Of Cynicism

Meet Joko.

Joko runs Joglo Home Stays & Tours Travel in the town of Borobudur, which is gathered around the more famous temple. He is responsible for a great deal of assistance during myself and Burness's two days' stay in the town, but more importantly he is responsible for chipping away a large chunk of the stone of cynicism that has been surrounding me.

Five years working in the oil industry definitely formed a thick stone ring of cynicism around me. I won't entirely blame the oilfield, for age and general life experience certainly removes the halo of innocence and replaces it with a stony lack of trust, but offshore life does not instill much faith in the human condition. It is perhaps inevitable in an industry dominated by tattooed, shouting men that prefer motorbikes to their own wives that close association makes you feel a little stained and defensive. So while I benefited in many ways from the experience, I also built up a shell around me and started to doubt the motives of those who offered a helping hand.

This has inevitably spilled over into travel, although in fairness to the oil industry - which has sunshine as well as night - it is easy to become cynical of motives after having travelled through countries such as Turkey and Egypt (in the more touristed areas at least), in which all your "friends" are waiting for their moment to pounce for profit. Meeting friendly people when abroad, my first thoughts are often "what are they after?" or "how much money do they want?" It's not always a bad strategy - a good traveller needs to be aware of scams. But awareness should not spill over into cynicism: some or most people are friendly, without a catch.

This is where Joko, and Indonesia as a whole, comes in.

One of my intentions from these travels was to gain back a little trust, and Indonesia is quickly achieving this. I have been here for a week and have been genuinely touched by the friendliness of the people. At first, I was waiting. Waiting for the moment of reveal, when the friendly facade was pulled away to show the dark truth, but it has never occurred. We've met people while eating, and people on buses, who went beyond the call of duty and offered to show us around their hometown or to be our guide for place we were in. Sadly, circumstances of travel means these offers may end up not being taken up, but they were still extended with the genuine hand of friendliness. Joko too, from the point of meeting him, was nothing short of outstandingly friendly.

We arrived in the town of Borobudur two days ago, on Friday, after an arduously entertaining series of buses from our current base of Yogyakarta (a culturally important city of about 500,000 in Central Java). Our forward planning had been lacking a little, extending pretty much as far as my presumption that the town was one single street dominated by guesthouses. This was wrong. Upon leaving the highly unassuming bus station, and walking in an entirely random - and incorrect - direction, we realised we needed to employ some deeper thought. This came in the form of remembering the name of a place we'd read about in the Lonely Planet, and finally acquiescing to the admirably persistent rickshaw (called bekac in Indonesia) driver who had been calling for our custom. Arriving there and finding it was full, we found the address of another place that might be available.

We never made it. En route, and by now a little tired after some sweaty daytime walking with bags, with a now-slightly-annoying bekac driver in active pursuit, we saw a sign for "Joglo's Guesthouse". To our relief, there were available rooms, and the prices were reasonable. So much so, in fact, that Burness and I agreed to enjoy a separate room for the first night in weeks. Never mind that it was a squat toilet, or that there was no sink, or that a lizard scampered off upon me entering the bathroom - I had a double bed to myself and we had a large communal space with a great outside balcony.

Joko was our host. A smiley man with good English, he ran a modest tour agency from just around the corner. He was immediately friendly; I was immediately suspicious. Why would he be offering so much helpful advice? Where was the catch? Still, his advice on places to go to around the town was useful and we thanked him. Plus, he hired out bicycles, which we intended to make us of the next day.

We paid the first visit to Borobudur temple that afternoon - full review to follow - and after a long day were pretty tired, so had a couple of drinks on the balcony then searched for food. The town of Borobudur at 7pm is dark and quiet, and it took us a little walking to find somewhere - which happened to be the place originally recommended to us by the fully-booked place. The only people at the restaurant, we were served some delicious food, and talked for quite a while with the very friendly Indonesian owner with excellent English, only towards the end shedding our quiet suspicions that a catch was lurking. It of course wasn't, he was simply friendly.

Our suspicions, and our stone ring of cynicism, continued to be eroded the next day.

Joko came, as agreed, and gave us our free breakfast at 8am that morning, which we ate on the balcony. We chatted together, discussing Borobudur and our general plan for the day. Near Borobudur are two other temples, called Pawon and Mendut, pre-dating the gigantic two million stones of the more famous temple and built so that as the crow flies they are in a straight line. They are about three or four miles distant, and walkable, but more easily accessible by bicycle. Joko had drawn us out a detailed map of how to get there, and explained that one entry ticket would cover both. He hired us the bikes, and off we went.

Both temples were great: Pawon was small but pretty, Mendut bulkier and with an amazing interior, and both were clear relations to the later Borobudur. With the latter, a handful of tour buses and tourists had stopped to look around, and seeing this made me feel glad we'd taken the harder but more interesting option. In Indonesia, or in Yogyakarta at least, prices are cheap and it's all too easy to join the day tours that visit nearby temples and sights. They are awfully convenient, and allow you to cram in a day's sights from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus. But that, I feel, is the problem: you pack in the sights but don't really experience them the same way. 20 minutes at temple A followed by 30 minutes at temple B, then lunch, then two hours at the magnificent Borobudur and then home for tea. It ticks the boxes but doesn't seem to have much depth of appreciation. Making your own way, although tougher, feels more rewarding, and cycling through the hot streets of Borobudur, saying hello to waving children, and visiting temples as according to a map Joko had provided us, was very satisfying.

At least until my bike chain broke.

This was slightly inconvenient, and managed to occur at just about the furthest point. It truly snapped and was beyond repair, although I got my hands suitably greasy in the attempt. The day was a scorcher, and there was no option other than to push my bike all the way back to Joko's, for miles and miles (in fact, it took barely half an hour, and I was quite able to make use of downhill slopes).

Poor Joko was mortified, and immediately replaced the bike. This bike was much better, although I felt a little bad as our first actions were then to move to a different hotel - no reflection on Joko, but because it was the Manohara Hotel which gives incredible access to Borobudur, as I'll detail in a future entry, and had been booked a week earlier.

We made some more use of the bikes, and cycled around some country roads behind the temple and on the other side of the town at an unhurried pace, with children spilling out of doors to greet us "hello". One little girl on a small pink bicycle even tried to race us. I ruthlessly defeated her. When we were done, we replaced the bikes to Joko - who had only gone and outdone himself. Based on our earlier conversations on future travel in the area, he had written out a comprehensive guide as to what buses to take, possible places to stay, and what prices to pay (so that we didn't get the "foreigner" rate). It was well beyond the call of duty, and will serve us well over the coming week.

And with that, we had to bid farewell to Joko, who in the space of two days had left both myself and Burness with a far greater faith in humanity.

Our remaining evening and following morning was spent at the Manohara, and viewing Borobudur temple, before getting a local bus to Yogyakarta (and paying the correct 12,000 Rp following Joko's advice instead of the 20,000 Rp we'd been charged on the earlier journey - about £0.80 as compared to £1.30). And since then, I feel far more trusting of others' intentions, and far less guarded in general. The shell is breaking.

When travelling, it is important to always maintain some sense and awareness of your surroundings, and not trust everyone, especially when their company seems foisted upon you. But at the same time, in a country like Indonesia, it is very important not to allow cynicism to rule the day. If a cautious awareness develops into an instinctive distrust, the genuine friendliness of the people will be ignored, to the detriment of everyone. I have been utterly enchanted with Indonesia so far, and the people have been wonderful, as no more typified than Joko. Cynicism should be tempered. The uncynical friendliness given to me should be returned with a little uncynical friendliness of my own. Thank-you Indonesia.


  1. Cycling which, Boro or Pram, if you're dead set on doing one, but not necessarily both?

  2. Definitely Borobudur, if you want to visit the nearby temples. The Prambanan site is very easily walked.


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