Wow! Where do I even begin to tell this story (Semarang)

You know it’s a great day when you don’t know how to tell the story about it because there is so much to tell. Do I tell you about what I saw? Or what I felt? Or about the personal touches that mean a lot to me but are difficult for others to understand? I could jump in and just write but I should warn you, this post will be long and picture heavy.
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I woke early after a very comfortable night at Imam Bonjol Hostel. Waking early is a good sign, it means I am rested and relaxed. 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.
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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.
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I take a long morning walk down Jalan Pandanaran to Jalan Simpang Lima before turning back down Jalan Galunggung Semarang towards my hotel on Jalan Imam Bonjol. It’s relatively quiet and at every set of lights I see the moto GP re-enactment take place. Fortunately, most riders and drivers here in Semarang do stop for the red traffic light so crossing the road is not so difficult. The benak (Indonesian rickshaw) riders sleep in their carriages and I wonder whether perhaps I was one in a previous live given my ability to sleep anywhere, even where there is noise.
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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.
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At 11am after he finishes a meeting with his client, my cousin comes to pick me up with his motorbike to show me Semarang. And show me he does. We start with Lawang Sewu, 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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We have a laugh at one of the temples where there is a fourth wise monkey. Speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil and ? no evil.
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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”.
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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.
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We include Pasar Johor Semarang (the traditional market) on our itinerary for the day. It is a large and sprawling indoor market with a maze of lanes and alleys. You can buy everything here from garlic to precious gems.
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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.
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That said, it is still plenty busy. Especially when you are riding pillion on a motorbike. And it doesn’t get any quieter at night, as I discovered when I took my turn to actually drive the motorbike around town.
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Being in the traffic on a motorbike is fantastic for seeing what’s going on around you in a way being in a car doesn’t. The families on the bikes are right there in the traffic next to you, not way off in the distance and you get a real feel for how brave and strong the pedestrian and cycle couriers must be. Though if they grew up in this traffic like the baby on the scooter is, then I guess it’s just normal and our fast speed Australian roads might be more foreign and strange.
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On the way to my other cousin’s house we stop at the Mesjid Agung Jawa Tengah, which 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.
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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.
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We continue to one of my other cousins’ home. They have a pet tortoise that leaves a disturbing wet patch on my shorts while I am holding it. Hehe. It is a strong creature with powerful legs.
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I also check out the amazing bikes her (my cousin’s) husband has built. He doesn’t just take bikes and make them beautiful. Rather, he builds bikes from the ground up. The creativity and mechanical skill that go into this task is astounding. He does all his own custom paint jobs, embosses his own saddles and even decoratively engraves the metal on his frames. I can’t imagine what it must be able to build something this beautiful. The creativity doesn’t stop at the art work; he has used an old scrap airbrushing part as the rear light on one of the bikes. It’s amazing.
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My cousin who has spent the day with me wants to show me nasi kuching (cat rice). No, it does not actually contain cat. The name refers to these paper bags containing a small rectangle of rice that is served in the bag with a small square of meat that is wrapped in banana leaf. You place the meat on the rice, mix and eat. The reason it is called cat rice is because it resembles the type of portion size and meal you might feed your cat. The food doesn’t finish here … after nasi Kuching we all meet up to have dinner at a street stall. “We” refers to my cousins and their spouses and children. We eat nasi puti (white rice) with ayam goreng (fried chicken). The fried chicken isn’t like Korean fried chicken because it’s not crumbed and is served with the feet still on (I love chicken feet so am pretty happy about this). I love being with family and hope that we keep being able to get to know each other more over time. I am about to head off for 10 days motorcycle touring Central and East Java armed with a heap of tips on places to see from my cousins. And then I will return to Semarang again ready to eat some more good Semarang food.

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6 thoughts on “Wow! Where do I even begin to tell this story (Semarang)

  1. Wow, is the right word! So much to see and do and eat! What a great experience you are having. Perhaps you need to go back again. It really sounds like there is a lot you love about the place. Beautiful motorbikes and I must agree about the Dutch buildings. They are lovely and much more suited to the climate. But perhaps I am biased there too as the Netherlands has a special place in my heart. Thanks for sharing the fun with us, Andrew. 🙂

  2. Nice story. Depi called it their grandmother’s house because that is what it was. Tukul married and moved in with his parents and spent the first years of his married life with his Chinese adoptive parents. Its quite a normal step in Indonesia. Desi lived for many years with her inlaws. Tukul also speaks Chinese, from his ‘parents’ where he lived almost from birth. His real mother died at an early age.
    Perikadel comes from the Dutch word ‘frikandel’. Where a frikandel is made of a type of sausage meet, perikandel is made of potatoe.
    You can still replace in some words the Dutch f for a p to get to Indonesian.
    The chauffeured bike is called a becak which comes from the Portuguese suppression. Same as the word sepatu which means shoe.
    Not trying to ‘better’ you. Just giving you some trivial. Once oma is there you can visit the military base where opa was stationed and the places where oma lived and ‘worked’.
    Enjoy your next leg.

    • That will be awesome to see the places Oma and Opa were here.

      Yeah, I thought that Tukul must have lived with his adoptive parents with the kids. I just meant that if I lived at Oma’s house as a child I would still call it my house.

      Good to know the derivative of Dutch-related words because it makes them easier to remember.

      Time to find food for lunch then work a few hours before more food. Haha

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