Ancient Lands of Java
Walking through the jungle in East Java, a mist forest of Tik and Mahogany Trees surround the village of Borobudur and the ancient buddhist temple that was built in the beginning of the ninth century. Climbing up what is referred by the locals as “Sleeping Buddha” we followed a narrow steep jungle path of what is more formally known as Menorah Hill, rising 700 meters above sea level. The sounds of deep devotion echo off of this mighty volcanic rock and whisper through the trees creating a beautiful quietude in the cacophony of over 15 village mosques simultaneously encanting different verses in different tempos from all different directions in the valley below. We entered a small village which homes were made with woven bamboo sidings and intricate tiled roofs. Chicken roamed free, some up high in trees and a big Brahma Cow and Goats fed in a rural barn. We hiked to the head of Sleeping Buddha, panoramas of tobacco fields covered the region in various colors of green. While it was hazy in the distance, creating beautiful tones in the mountain range, we were told you could see tall volcanoes in the morning, similar to Maui in the dry season, the sun heats up the Javanese forest which perspires, evaporates and forms the haze that sits over the valley in the afternoon.
Returning “home” we entered a well appointed Indonesian Villa overlooking the rice fields below and the Borobudur temple situated next to a hill. Our innately carved wood entrances, railings, ceilings and beautiful contemporary paintings with Javanese motifs creates an inspiring environment to contemplate both Indonesia and photography. So much about this special place is is from an artistic perspective. The village below in the valley cultivates rice in the rainy season, tobacco in the dry season and chiles in-between. The village on top of Menorah Hill just above our residence cultivates papaya, cloves, and but has to deal with the frustration of marauding Monkeys consuming their crops and so they are limited in their ability to sustain themselves alone from agriculture so they have developed special skills as artisans, electricians and plumbers unlike many of their neighbors in the valley below.
As I walked by the kitchen I noticed a young woman folding banana leaves in an intricate style which would later be part of the presentation of a traditional javanese platter with a volcano of rice formed in the center and a delicious red chili sauce over the eggplant as lava. The delicious noodles were the winding rivers. The potato puffs were floating lanterns into the sky. A satay of quail eggs were like the circular drums. The long beans reminiscent of the tallest bamboo in Java which we photographed on the trail. Each portion was more delicious than the next. We savored the Javanese delicacies with delight.
Escorted to a private dance performance of traditional Javanese professional dancers from the neighboring volcano Merbabu, clad adorned in their white body paint and elaborate masks with long braided manes gyrated passionately with the accompaniment of a live Javanese orchestra of local percussion instruments. After the stunning dance we walked to the open aired balcony to light floating paper candlelit lanterns, said a prayer and released them watching them rise and drift silently to become stars in the night.
A thousand years after the origin of Buddhism, A Buddhist King of central Java was inspired to create a magnificent classroom of stone to teach the rich cultural heritage of Buddhism to his subjects. As there was no paper to write down the stories of the life of Buddha and his teachings they were carved into stone by master craftsmen in a vertical hierarchy and pathway towards of enlightenment. At the ground level the most basic teachings about karma and moral living were depicted in the ancient Buddhist stories. It is believed that only the most deserving visitors would be allowed entry to the higher levels to experience the deeper stories and teachings of the Buddha. At the top of this massive monument, 72 life sized Buddhas sit in enclosed stella that are shaped like ringing bells whose handles shoot skywards like spiritual antennae. In the center atop was a large stupa also with a vertical point directing the prayers towards the heavens. There are twelve hundred smaller Buddhas sculpted into the perimeters at various levels.
Exploring the Borobudur Temple constructed of lava rock varying in brown and gray colors carted from the base of Mount Merbabu with ancient intricate stories etched into the stone walls before sunrise prepared us for the glory of the morning light. The golden circle rose between Mount Merbabu and Mount Merapi casting deep orange hues into the sky above and warmed our skin. One can only imagine the work it took to create this timeless treasure that is listed as a UN World Heritage site.
After spectacular sunrise in this ancient special place, our guide Herman invited us to sample the gourmet coffee of the region. We boasted being from Hawaii, that Kona Coffee was one of the best in the world and he showed us a chart inside the coffee house ranking Luwak Coffee as even more expensive. The proprietor explained the Civet or mountain cat known as a Luwak in the local language has an affinity for selecting and eating the ripest coffee berries, though they are unable to digest them. The coffee farmers collect the feces laden with ripe red coffee berries and clean them from the spoor. After they are thoroughly rinsed they are left to dry roast in the sun. The proprietor shows us a video of a bbc video of Luwak coffee and the process of how its made and then an exert of the Bucket List with a bald Morgan Freeman on his deathbed is offered by Jack Nicholson explaining how exotic and precious a cup of this coffee can be. The proprietor brought me to the back of the coffee house and introduced me to his half dozen civets that were stacked in cages which he kept as pets. In stores around the world it can sell for fifty dollars a cup so we asked him for two! It was sublime, mild and delicate with a slight hint of mocha though not quite as strong as the Kona brew we’re used to back home.
Our guide walked us across the street to a traditional village home and demonstrated how they collect fresh water using a rudimentary mechanism of a well, a bucket, and a hollowed out bamboo pole with holes that act as faucets which was a terrific photographic opportunity. An old man sat inside stirring coconut sugar on an open fire to crystalize which they liquify then let harden and mold into small dome shaped pats of coconut sugar.
We then visited the nearby Mendut Temple which predates even Borobudur Temple in the ninth century. It was of a similar architectural style with elaborate stella etched in stone still intact. Inside three twenty foot tall Buddhas sit timelessly in different postures. We lit an incense at the alter and enjoyed photographing this monument. Across the way a contemporary Buddhist monastery with beautiful carvings in wood and stone was our next subject to explore photographically. From the monastery we were afforded a magnificent view of Menorah Hill where our villas were situated and the ridge line known as the Sleeping Buddha where we had hiked the day before. There are some beautiful lotus flowers that were great subjects to photograph.
Our next stop was a unique building that was shaped like an slr camera with a zoom lens which was an odd contemporary construction in this traditional landscape but exciting to encounter as photographers. After a delicious lunch, we headed through lush green terrace of rice situated in the clearings of Tik and Mahogany forests whose unique meandering lines were like a topography map of the landscape and a photographers delight. We drove to a hilltop village and began to walk through the fields along a narrow pathway that was no more than six inches wide. In the expansive fields were cultivation of rice, tobacco, bananas, peppers, and cucumbers. On one very large banana leaf the shadows of neighboring bamboo leaves cast unique shadows on the translucent canvas of the giant leaf and was a great opportunity to discuss photographing the different qualities of light. Herman pointed out what looked like a golden drop on a tobacco leaf which he explained was a Golden Ladybug which was extremely hard to photograph because of it’s size and was constantly moving. We then saw a small snake slithering in a stream. This afternoon’s excursion was a perfect example of “the journey is the destination” affording beautiful photographic opportunities with every step.
Land of the Gods
Driving through the windy roads towards the country it was amazing to see the vast amount of beautiful stone sculptures displayed on the side of the road. Bali is a land of artists and craftspeople who have mastered intricate carvings in stone and wood, paintings, fabrics, architecture and even in the towering bamboo shrines which align the streets at the entrance of their villages. Tall arched poles of bamboo wrapped in bamboo leaf and brightly colored ribbons with woven ornamentations are one of the many shrines and offerings that can be found on this predominantly Hindu island. Everywhere we looked were small woven baskets with flowers at the entrance to stores and restaurants. We arrived in the evening to the mountain village of Ubud that was once a more rural area amidst terrace rice fields. Driven by motorcycle to the Rice Joglo, a sixteenth century farm house that was rebuilt on location at this new more popular tourist destination.
Everywhere in this quaint village, that is only accessible by footpath or motorcycle, felt uniquely Bali. The terrace rice fields reflected the beautiful morning light and palm trees swaying gently in the breeze. The sound of trickling water and the hollow tones of Balinese bamboo wind chimes that are placed throughout the fields to keep the birds away created a unique rhythm to our explorations of this place. Ornately carved wood doors and banisters and balconies and store front entrances were great subjects to focus on our photographic compositions. Along the narrow footpath were artisans galleries of paintings, wood carvings, brightly covered sarongs with the artisans often sitting near the entrance working on their newest creations. Photographing these artists and the local villagers working in the fields was a pleasure because of their friendly demeanor and openness to visiting photographers. Many of the visitors, mostly from Europe or Australia, had a camera in hand and were busily shooting photos.
Whenever traveling the only constant is to expect the unexpected and on this quiet village path we met a new friend who joined us for a delicious lunch at an organic cafe. Every aspect was a colorful and healthy expression of the lifestyle of Ubud inspiring us to even photograph the meal before we enjoyed it. We planned an adventure for the next to travel to the North shore to photograph pods of dolphins and explore the Western most end of the island where a national park is situated. On our 2am departure we walked by the light of the full moon along the winding narrow footpath managing to shoot a few photographs of the full moon reflected through the palms on the still water of the rice terraces.
Just before dawn we arrived in Lovina, a small fishing village on Bali’s North shore, and met our boat captain. We embarked in a small fishing skiff with outrigger arms on both sides and a small outboard engine and headed off onto the ocean into the sunrise. As we headed out into the open ocean we noticed a flotilla of other similar small fishing boats. Soon many pods of dolphins which come close to shore to feed in the early morning would swim by us sometimes jumping out of the water exciting many of the other tourists in the boats around us, but offered some consternation to us from an ecological point of view. The huge quantity of boats motoring around the sea chasing dolphins seemed intrusive in contrast to the other wildlife photography situations which we have encountered. It could be offered with more consideration to the wildlife in a low impact manner. We photographed a beautiful sunrise on the water and journeyed back to shore.
Our new friend Oran Atkin asked our driver to put in one of his music CDs and surprised us with his virtuousity as one of the world’s most celebrated jazz musician. He has received a grammy for his original compositions for the Clarinet and one of his albums was named top world music album of the year. He explained that he has headlined jazz festivals around the world and works with children to introduce music to them from a fresh creative perspective. We really enjoyed encountering his music and hearing the stories behind his compositions as we ventured along the coast towards West Bali National Park. En route we stopped at a beautiful hot springs with warm waters flowing from ornate stone carved fountains into deep pools where we took a quick plunge before arriving at our final destination.
At the national park we hopped on a small boat and motored across to Menjangan Island to snorkel its renown reef. Once in the water we were greeted by hundreds of brilliant colored fish in all shapes and sizes swimming within the many nooks and crannies of diverse corals throughout this vibrant reef. The shelf at the shoreline steeply dropped off creating a unique marine habitat for us to explore and photograph. After our time in the water we explored a number of temples situated on the island and encountered some herds of deer including males with impressive antlers. Local men, woman, and children were inside the temples sitting in prayer dressed in white creating flowered offerings at the shrines. A giant Ganesh, the hindu elephant god, towered over the coastline some 40 feet tall. We sailed from the island before sunset just in time for some beautiful shots of the setting sun with rays of light shooting from the clouds and a silhouette of distant volcanoes from the neighboring island Java.