Today will be the final day on the motorbike leg of my adventures on Java. It’s difficult to believe that I only arrived two weeks ago and already the landscape in which I find myself is starting to feel familiar. How quickly our minds adapt. That’s not to say I feel entirely comfortable here with the crowds and noise but riding here is no longer a mystery.
I start my day at the Kwan Sing Bio temple. It’s right by the sea on the road out of town. Like many of the Buddhist temples I have visited here the complex is relatively large with multiple deities available for prayer from the fat Buddha and grey-bearded Lao Tzu with whom many people will be familiar to other specialised gods who can help with specific needs.
Around the back is a beautiful Chinese-inspired garden complete with dragon and pagoda statues surrounded by a some large rocks. It is obviously meant to depict one of China’s sacred mountains but which I do not know.
What I really like here are the statues of the warriors and scholars. They are lined up on opposite sides of a temple building guarded by lions and a large red-faced warrior on a horse. I like the way both warriors and scholars get equal billing here. Perhaps to show that both the adventurer and the writer are equally important to harmony and balance in the world.
Leaving the temple behind I set off onto the busy highway that connects Jakarta to the islands to the east. It will take me all the way to Semarang without needing to think about any changes of direction. Despite the heavy traffic, the going is quite easy because most of the highway has a motorbike lane on the left. Sometimes the lane is official with nice dotted lines while in other places it is implied by the way the traffic drives. Trucks sit out to the right in the centre area of the road while smaller vehicles move slowly or quickly along the left (note: Indonesians drive on the left so passing is often done by undertaking). At first this practice of undertaking felt strange to me. I kept thinking the trucks would return to the left of the road like they do in Australia but they don’t. They just stay out to the right because they don’t want to run over a motorbike any more than the motorbike riders want to be run over.
I stopped to take in the scenery as I rode. Large fishing nets hanging out over rivers make me think of Asian holiday marketing images I’ve seen in magazines. Unlike those images, the water here is a muddy brown (and yes, I know the marketing images are photoshopped). I wonder whether the fish I’ve been eating the past week was caught like this or out on a trawler.
After Rembang I come to the salt mines. Back home we joke about work being the salt mines but for the men and women here it really is. Treeless fields are divided into small squares by raised edges of dirt. Some of the squares are filled with water while others are dry. It looks like the squares are flooded with sea water that is allowed to evaporate and then the salt is scraped off. It is a little disconcerting to think about where salt comes from when you see the muddy surrounds. I’ve never actually considered where my little shaker of sea salt originates from.
There are no scooters or motorbikes parked along the small gravel road between the farms. Instead, people ride their bicycles. I guess they don’t want their motorbikes to get rusty from the salt that has been spilled on the road.
Long after the salt fields have vanished I pass women planting rice. The young rice is grown in clumps close together until it is ready for planting. Then it is planted out with space to grow. The process is all done by hand by workers squatting in the mud.
They take the little clumps of seedlings that are twisted together and separate them into single plants that will grow until ripe. And as always here in this land of relationships and social interaction the sound of the women’s chatter is constant. It drifts up to the highway to be swallowed by the roar of the traffic.
As I draw nearer to Semarang black clouds roll across the sky and lightning starts to strike in the distance. I love the way it brings out the colours in a rice field where a man is sprinkling fertiliser. It looks so peaceful and for a moment my mind is taken away from the highway and into the quiet field.
Perhaps my helmet knew what I was thinking. One minute it was resting on the seat of the bike and the next the gust of air from a passing truck blew it into the paddy. Words cannot describe how disgusting the end result was. Rice paddy mud does not exactly smell like roses. But it does make for a funny story.
I arrive back in Semarang soon after my helmet got filled with mud. The cities streets have been washed by the rains, which fortunately I missed on the bike. Before long I am back at my hotel having a shower and waiting to be picked up to go to the airport. My mum flew in from Australia for a fortnight. Tomorrow my grandmother and aunt will arrive from Holland and Portugal respectively. It’s time for the family-focused leg of my travels here in Indonesia to begin.