The Bali Diary: Java

Note: This post is part of a series on Bali. To start at the beginning, see The Bali Diary: Day 1.]

It was bittersweet to leave the villa, but we were ready to begin the trek back home. As our driver waited outside, we stood in the kitchen and said our goodbyes to Nyoman 1 and the two Mades.

Chris reached into a large green paper bag and retrieved three small hand-carved teak boxes. I pointed to whom should receive each, as we had chosen different shapes and patterns for each of our friends. They took the boxes and smiled politely, probably having seen such trinkets countless times at the tourist markets.

“There’s something for you inside,” said Chris. Nyoman slowly opened his rectangular box with a turtle carved into relief on the lid to find one million rupiahs tucked inside. He gasped, then his shoulders dropped, as if they had released a thousand-pound load. His eyes welled up.

“Thank you very much. Thank you, thank you,” he said, barely able to keep his tears contained.

Made 2 and me

Made 2 and me

Chris shook his hand, and I hugged him, my own eyes beginning to fill. I had no way of knowing what Nyoman’s plans were for this meager windfall, but I sensed it would go toward something very important to him and his wife. What would buy us lunch in a nice restaurant was nearly a month’s salary for them.

Kind, joyful, and absent any sense of entitlement, these three had shown us over the past month what it means to accept life’s menu with grace and a sense of humor. As Nyoman said to me one night after dinner, “Life is short for us, so we must be happy as much as we can, now.”

Nyoman 3 took us to the airport, and a few hours later we landed on Java, where the vibe is much different. I felt like we were visiting Bali’s big sister. The industrious, responsible one who isn’t quite as sexy and carefree as her younger sibling. If Bali is Britney Spears, then Java is Jennifer Aniston.

After a month of living in Gilligan’s hut, I was ready for a good night’s sleep in a room well secured from the jungle-like outdoors and its mysterious critters.

Phoenix Hotel

The Phoenix Hotel

The Phoenix Hotel in Yogyakarta was just what we had hoped for. Built in 1918 at the end of World War I, the building is opulent yet refined, and the hotel feels like it has hit its stride under the current management.

On the way to our room I glimpsed a man in a dinner jacket tickling the ivories in the 1918 Club. The faint chime of Chopin spilled out into the adjacent courtyard garden, where an enormous fountain held center stage. According to the bellman, this is where a cornucopia of international cuisines would be served for breakfast the next morning, along with live gamelan music.

Chicken soup with coconut milk

Chicken soup with coconut milk

In our suite overlooking one of the more elegant pool areas I’ve ever seen, we planned our next few days. A five-hour tour of the city in a vintage Mercedes with a uniformed driver and packed lunch, an outdoor cooking lesson with the hotel’s head chef, and a tour of the market. That combined with a few self-guided walking tours would be more than enough to fill our time.

Outside the hotel, away from the marble floors, crystal chandeliers, and service people at our beck and call, the real Yogyakarta was waiting for us. We stepped out to find a cavalcade of motorbikes darting in front of one another and squeezing between larger vehicles. Gangs of riders revved their engines in rhythm—vroom vroom VROOM, vroom vroom VROOM—up and down the main thoroughfares, a Javanese campaign strategy we were told. The elections would be soon.

Down the road

Down the road

I wondered how the political candidates intended to help the street vendors, shop owners, warung operators, and the men asleep in their rickshaws, barefoot, dirty, and reeking of sweat. Chris and I pushed through the hot, crowded sidewalks looking for a store selling batik or interesting souvenirs. Neon lights flashed above the store entrances, and American music blared from a boom box: “I’m all out of love, I’m so lost without you … .”

I pushed through the hordes of people that were hogging every square inch of sidewalk. Plodding on my tiptoes, I craned my neck to keep an eye on Chris up ahead, and to suck in any fresh air there was to be had. Unfortunately, there was none. Only sweat, charcoal, grilled meat, and incense.

Vendors squawked in Indonesian, some in English. “Ten thousand rupiahs, for you,” said a small man thrusting a leather wallet at me. I shook my head.

The market

The market

“Where you from?”

“Chicago,” I answered, knowing better.

“Ah! Michael Jordan!,” he beamed. “I went to U.S. three years ago. My daughter there. How long you stay? Three days?”

The crowd pushed me into the table crammed with leather goods, carved figures, and cheap electronics. Suddenly I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t escape. “Yes, that’s right. Three days,” I answered. The man said something else, but I had already slipped through an opening in the throng of shoppers behind me and rejoined the swift current of humanity that swept me to an intersection, and to Chris.

Even though public displays of affection are frowned upon here, he held my hand firmly as we jogged across six lanes of motorbikes, horse-drawn carriages, and two-story tour buses.

It was dusk now and the warungs, food kiosks on the sidewalks, were opening for business. Children ran and screamed and laughed while their parents ordered goreng and gossiped with friends.

A warung

A warung

I wiped the sweat from my forehead and looked at Chris. My feet were killing me. “I’m ready to go,” I said. “Let’s take the back way and get out of this.”

We ducked down a dimly lit alley and navigated through narrow passageways lined with homes. They weren’t individual houses but rather a series of connected rooms, mostly single story.

Chickens wandered aimlessly. Dogs looked for crumbs.

The doors and windows were open, and I peeked inside to see televisions flickering; children in soiled, frayed clothing playing electronic games; and women sweeping, cooking, and looking tired. Then bells rang and those who were Muslim stopped what they were doing to pray along with the voice that came from loud speakers I couldn’t see. The voice was just there, filling the oppressive night air.

Hustle and bustle

Hustle and bustle

We walked quietly, trying to make ourselves invisible, and I kept my eyes lowered. Finally we reached the main thoroughfare again. Across the busy street, next to a large, long-abandoned building was the Phoenix rising.

We slipped behind its walls and retreated to the 1918 Club, where I ordered the least expensive glass of wine available—160,000 rupiahs—and wondered if any of us will ever understand why some have so much and others so little. And what we can do to help.

Then I thought about our new home, Montana. Life, fate, nature can be harsh yet beautiful there too. And I was looking forward to seeing it again soon.

A river runs through it

A river runs through it

Categories: BaliTags: , , , , ,


  1. I love that you didn’t sugar coat any of it! You are such a gifted writer- I can’t wait for your next installment.


  2. “Life is short for us, so we must be happy as much as we can, now.” Wise words for all of us.


  3. Your stories continue to capture something essential of the feeling of studying or travelling abroad. While living in China I felt like I could only absorb a fraction of the busy world around me – and that the context of so much was ‘lost in translation’. Your description of the marketplaces transported me back there again. Thank you for the wonderful weaving of story.


  4. Wonderful post and so intriguing. I’m fascinated with life in other lands. You truly have a way of relaying candid, everyday life to your audience. Great photos too!


  5. We have enjoyed every word of your extraordinary writing … and eagerly look forward to the next post! You have such a gift, Monica – and we feel so fortunate to be able to receive it! Thank you for sharing … Hugs to you and Chris. xoxo … not to mention the gorgeous photos!


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