Arriving into Semarang

The plane is descending and I can see the Central Java coast appearing outside the plane’s window. It is green and brown in equal amounts. Green rice paddies are a stark contrast to the brown sea water. Suddenly I realise just how much there will be to see and experience here in Indonesia. There are some wooden or bamboo platforms and poles standing in the sea and I just know I will have to take a closer look at both them and the rice paddies, some of which are totally flooded.

Landing in Semarang International Airport is an experience in itself. There are no air bridges and the airport itself is a small colonial style building. Before I even get off the plane I know I am in Indonesia. The airline don’t even waste their breath telling people to stay seated until the plane has come to a complete stop because every passenger is standing and grabbing bags as we make the final approach to the gate. On the tarmac people congregate waiting for friends who sat further back or forward on the plane and the airport vehicles dodge pedestrians. I love it already. Inside the terminal there is no walking anywhere towards customs: immigration is right there at the gate. While there is no line there is no pushing either. Everyone just congregates and makes their way in a disorderly but friendly fashion to the front. I am one of only three people holding foreign passports who need to buy a visa on entry. Everyone else is local and talking to each other like long lost friends. In fact, the whole flight was full of chatting people many of whom obviously had never met before. There’s no luggage carousel here – just a pile of boxes and bags that have been taken off the plane. I only have carry on anyway so I pick my way through the small pile of luggage and drop my backpack and helmet onto the xray machine.

I step out into the crowded arrivals hall. A familiar smell fills the air. I was in Indonesia about 20 years ago but still I remember that delicious smell of spices. My phone rings and as I go to answer it my cousins and I see each other. It’s been 20 years since we first met and our only contact in the intervening years has been sporadic through Facebook. Within minutes I find myself pulling on my helmet and jumping on the pillion seat of my cousin Depi’s motorbike. We join the traffic, weaving in and out of cars. The movement is constant and almost chaotic but the speed is slow to compensate. Horns toot. Bikes zip past us. We zip past cars. At traffic lights we join the bunch of riders up the front, just like I have seen in photos and videos. It’s an awesome feeling.

Impressions of Semarang

I woke early. The sounds of Semarang call me outside so that’s where I go. The sun is rising over Lawang Sewu and is shining a golden light on an official-looking building across the road. I am struck by the Dutch colonial architecture that still exists here. You always know, intellectually, that remnants of the imperial era will exist all over the world but it still me. I do think, however, that Dutch colonial buildings look like they were designed more appropriately for the climate than the British colonial buildings in Kenya were. But perhaps I am biased because I am Dutch by birth.

I watch the traffic as it negotiates the roundabout outside the Lawang Sewu. It sounds like a boring pastime but there’s a pattern here that is not dissimilar to a moto GP. The bikes line up neatly on the starting grid. Poll position is decided by who arrives first or by who is most cheeky to push through to the front. Riders watch the countdown timer that shows them how long it will take until the red light turns green. Then they are off and racing, albeit at little more than 30kph. It’s a sight to watch and watch it I do.

I end my walk with the first of many meals I will eat today, nasi soto (rice soup) with perkedel. I eat at a roadside warung makan sitting on a bench with locals who watch me curiously. It’s a tasty way to start the day. I am shown to stir in some kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy – the flavour of my childhood) and squeeze in a little lime juice to flavour the dish so will do this when I have soto (soup) in future too.


Depi takes me to the warehouse where my uncle and cousins have a tent business. They set up big tents for weddings and other special events, like a festival at the Borubodur. I had heard they did weddings but had no concept of just how huge their operation is. I looked at photos of the many tents they have erected. This is marquee building on steroids. For example, there were photos of a 3,000 square metre (3/4 acre) fabric tent with beautifully coloured highlights and fancy styling that they put up in a rice paddy on a special platform they had built. I meet the rest of my cousins and their children. I am amazed at how one of my cousins has a daughter who reminds me of my youngest sister and my niece. While my cousin’s daughter looks totally Indonesian and my sister and niece don’t, the facial features and expressions are uncannily similar. It feels good to finally meet my Indonesian family because I can barely remember the last time: it was part of a whirlwind trip of Indonesia that happened at a complicated time in my life (isn’t 17 a complicated time in everyone’s life?).

Lawang Sawu

Lawang Sewu is the building with the 1000 doors. It used to be the headquarters of the Dutch East Indies railway company that built the railway lines around Indonesia in the 1800s so they could transport goods to port. There is an interesting display complete with old photos and models. What surprises me most is how quiet it is once you are inside the building and its courtyard. The construction and exterior gardens block most of the road noise.

Sam Poo Kong temple and other temples

Our next stop is the Sam Poo Kong temple. I guess this imposing but tranquil Buddhist temple is as much an example of Chinese imperialism as the Lawang Sewu is an example of Dutch colonialism. Perhaps what it shows is that both the Chinese and Dutch are adventurous cultures that like to see the world. Sure, they liked to conquer it too but that’s a philosophical discussion for another day. Over the course of the day, we will explore many more Buddhist temples. At Tay Kok Sie a guide shows us around and tells us the stories of the gorgeous shrines. The Patience God (fisherman) makes me think of my cousin and my shared grandfather. He was Dutch but loved to fish. Neither of us knew him but we have heard he did love to fish. That is how my cousin and I are related: we share his paternal and my maternal grandfather who was a Dutch soldier in Indonesia. We ride through Chinatown looking at the many temples. Some are painted a bright red and relatively newly renovated while others are more modest with silver / grey colourings. Many are large complexes but a few are tiny, taking up barely any space after the streets have been built up around them.

At one temple, as a dog barks from out the back, my cousin tells me he used to play here as a child. His best friend walks into the temple and they talk some. No longer am I a mere tourist taking in the sights but now the temples and Chinatown take on a deeper meaning. This is where my cousins played. It’s where my uncle and aunt would have called them home for bed, and where neighbours might have chastised them to be quiet when people were praying. The pictures on the wall of the temple are of my cousin’s best friend’s grandfather and great grandfather; they were important people in their days. My cousin takes me to the house where he grew up. He calls it his grandmother’s house; a stark contrast to how we in Australia would call it “our house”.

In between the temples, my cousin takes me to try one of his favourite foods swikee (frog). Before you cringe, let me tell you that it is delicious! And besides, it’s just meat. But no, it does not taste like chicken. We eat frog eggs dipped in a frog soup broth, frog leg soup, fried frogs legs dipped in a chili sauce, lumpias (spring rolls) filled with bamboo shoot and egg, and dried frogs skins. Apparently my grandmother loves this dish so I will have it again when she is here in Semarang with me. While she lives in Holland, my grandmother is from Semarang and lived here until she was married. She will be here later this month so perhaps you will meet her through my blog and hear more about why I have come to Indonesia as part of my journey.

Pasar Johor Semarang

The thing that strikes me most about the Pasar Johor are the women sitting everywhere skinning garlic. Bags and bags of garlic are being skinned, some down to the bare clove. It must be tiring and tedious work and it makes me appreciate the freedom we in Australia have to chose jobs and careers that are meaningful to us. Not to mention the way our labour laws provide us with minimum wages, holidays and good working conditions (I doubt many Australians would sit in a cramped market stall peeling kilos of garlic every day). It’s relatively quiet at the market today with few buyers but perhaps they come in the morning or during the weekend. Actually, the one thing I have noticed about Semarang is that it is not as busy as I expected. It’s densely populated and there is a lot of traffic but it’s certainly not China or India. It’s not Outback Australia quiet but it doesn’t feel much more busy or crowded than an Australian city centre. It’s just that, instead of restaurants and shops being inside buildings, many here are open to the street and there are many of them. Or maybe I have just become used to new experiences this past year so am less phased by them.

Grand Mosque of Central Java

Mesjid Agung Jawa Tengah is the largest mosque in Central Java. It is a gorgeous place of worship and prayer. There are literally busloads of people here to pray. A special platform has been set up in front of the mosque to allow visitors to take photos from the best location to capture the way the dome fits neatly into the arches. The large black and white towers in the courtyard area are massive umbrellas; they must be amazing when they are open. There is a tower near the mosque that you can go up to see a bird’s eye view of the mosque and Semarang. The ticket counter has closed so it is not officially possible to go up the tower anymore today. But my cousin is a local and talks the officials into letting us up. I hear something about “Australia” and after we buy some drinks from a vendor he tells me that we can go up. I am glad because the views are wonderful. I can see the faithful taking photos, congregating, sleeping and preparing for prayer at the mosque; children playing soccer in the bare dirt near the entrance to the mosque (obviously there was once grass here but the children have been allowed to play, which is awesome); and the sprawl of the orange tile roofs of Semarang. I realise that had my grandmother not married my grandfather and moved to Holland, this is the place that I (assuming I would still have been born in that reality) would have called home.

4 thoughts on “Semarang

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