Encountering the Heart of Yogyakarta


Lola and I were on a one-month expedition across Indonesia to explore its timeless identity. A cornerstone of the journey would be witnessing Vesak / Waisak at the world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobudur, near Yogyakarta.

Each year on the full moon of the 5th lunar month, thousands of Buddhist monks gather at this Indonesia’s UNESCO World Heritage Site to perform a colorful, spiritual ceremony that celebrates the Enlightenment of the Buddha. The ritual climaxes in the lighting and release of over a thousand lanterns from the 8th Century temple into the moonlit night.

Though only 1% of Indonesia is Buddhist, this wonderful spectacle in this unique setting promised to reveal another key to understanding Indonesia’s fascinating history and identity; I set our sights for Yogyakarta so we would not miss it. The Universe then collaborated by connecting us to a Yogyakarta woman who invited us to join her and her friends for the ceremony. We were to meet at her house, number 10C, at 11 a.m. on 25 May 2013.

Waisak in borobudur, indonesia
Waisak in Borobudur, Indonesia

On the morning of the ceremony, I rose at 4 a.m. unable to chill my excitement. Until Lola woke up, I studied the pictures and read the histories of Vesak / Waisak of Borobudur, of the Buddha–everything I could Google. I triple checked the camera, the memory cards, and the battery life. At 9 a.m. I pushed us out the door in case we should get lost.

The taxi dropped us in front of a broad one-story house that was once white. It sat amid a neighbourhood of apartments but had a spacious corner lot overgrown with knee-high weeds. A great banyan tree, fat and intricate with fateful roots dangling from its branches, obscured the house. Separating the property and the street was a cement and rusted metal fence. We walked up the side street to the gate and read the address, “10.”

Statues and street arts, yogyakarta indonesia
Statues and Street Arts, Yogyakarta

Back on the main street, we searched for 10C without success. We walked three blocks and with sputtering English asked a shop attendant. He shook his head. We pointed to the address on the torn paper where I had scribbled it. He shook his head again, pointed to his address, “22B,” and pointed back toward the squat, obscured house. The clock’s minute hand rolled on.

Back at the dilapidated house, I pushed the squeaky gate open and went to the door. Green algae grew on the stone entrance. Cobwebs covered the door’s hinges. I knocked, waited, and knocked again. Nothing. Lola said we should check the back.

I dodged the hanging banyan roots and turned the corner to the opposite side. It was all weeds and grasses, clouded windows, and vigilant lizards. There were no side entrances, no mailboxes, and no 10C. Vesak was floating into the sky without us.

Fruit sellers, yogyakarta indonesia
Fruit sellers, Yogyakarta

As we rounded the corner to return to the street, a small hunched woman with tan skin and the sun shining on her white, pulled-back hair stood with her hand on the gate. Seeing us, her crinkled face showed confusion. We stopped, put our hands together at our noses, and bowed our heads. “So sorry,” I said. “Excuse us; we are lost.”

A warm smile overcame the tan face. Bahasa words came from her mouth.

“So sorry,” I said again, bowing my head, “no Bahasa.”

Her smile brightened. “What are you looking for?” she said in crisp English.

A gentle and inviting presence seemed to surround her. We approached with smiles of our own. The strong tropical sun rays reflected a pale blue tint in her cataracts. Her thin, delicate hands embraced our forearms as though she wished to speak through them. Her name was Anna.

She asked our names and origins and reasons for being in Indonesia. As she spoke, she looked up at us, smiled, laughed, and squeezed our forearms. “Is this your daughter?” Anna asked.

“She’s my wife!” I said laughing.

Lola said, “Thank you so much!”

Anna covered her mouth and laughed. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but she looks so young.”

“And I look so old?” I said with a smile.

“No, no,” said Anna, laughing, smiling, squeezing our arms. “Oh, please, won’t you come inside?”

People of yogyakarta indonesia
People of Yogyakarta

Anna sat us in her main room upon solid ornate wooden chairs. The floor was rose marbles that desired a polishing. The yellowing plaster walls had carved-wood art and photographs of children and men in suits from the 70s. The house seemed to hold stories and memories of a happy home of children and parties.

Soon the radiant Anna returned with a wooden tray and tea for us three. She asked about our families and how we met and told us about herself, always smiling and reaching those thin, delicate hands toward us. Anna would get going on a topic and mid-sentence forget the English word. Then she would bend over laughing, and when she sat up, she would wave her hand and ask a different question.

She told us about her travels as a young woman with her husband, an English Literature lecturer, through Europe and Australia and America. She spoke five languages, including Japanese, which she had learned during the Japanese occupation, a time she disliked recalling. Her three children were married, and each had children of their own in Jakarta, Melbourne, and “Ohio…maybe Ohio…I never can remember the name of that city.”

More people of yogyakarta indonesia
More people of Yogyakarta

When we finished our tea, Anna asked again what we were seeking. “Address 10C,” said Lola. Anna waved a hand and said it must be near because she was number 10. Then she stood and escorted us to the gate.

We thanked her a dozen times. Lola hugged her and asked if we could take her picture.

Anna covered her hair and forehead. “Oh, no,” she said smiling, “I’m not made up.” Then she grabbed our forearms once more and said, “I think you’re a lovely couple. You will last a long, long time.” Lola hugged her again. We thanked her once more and stepped outside the gate.

As we walked toward the main street, Anna waved both of her thin, delicate hands goodbyes. Then she returned to her house.

It was almost noon, and we still had not found 10C. The only place left was the alley down the side of Anna’s house. At the end of the alley was an apartment complex. The mailboxes read “10A-S.”

Our host, Zita, waved off our apologies because the group was still incomplete. Two others had not arrived from Bandung.

Tubers at pindul caves, yogyakarta indonesia
Tubers at Pindul Caves, Yogyakarta

At 1:30, the others arrived, but we had to drive across town to get them. At 2:30 we were finally leaving Yogyakarta, heading away from Borobudur. Zita and her friends wanted to take us to the Pindul Caves first.

A heavy rain started to fall as we mounted inner-tubes and floated a river through the bat-friendly cave. At 6 p.m. we headed down the mountain in the driving rain. We cleared the traffic-choked Yogyakarta at 7 p.m.

At 8 p.m., still in traffic, still listening to the tropical downpour on the car windows, Zita received word that the ceremony had been cancelled due to rain.

The next morning Lola drooped her sympathetic eyes and asked if missing Vesak had upset me. “Vesak happens every year,” I said. “Yesterday, Yogyakarta showed us its heart through the kindness of a lovely woman.”

A traveler can get caught up on the bucket list. The temples, the palaces, the shows–they can display a place’s majesty and tradition, but its soul can only be found in unanticipated encounters with its unique people.

“So what should we do today?” I said.

“Wander and get lost,” said Lola.

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M. Myers Griffith writes fiction, poetry, and travel literature. His published work includes poems, contemplative essays, and travel tales. Mr. Griffith earned a B.A. in Latin American Literature and a Master of Public Health. His decade as an international public health professional makes him uniquely adept at understanding and describing social and cultural phenomena. M. Myers Griffith can be found at Asia Sketches.

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