At the foot of Mount Merapi
We came to Indonesia to feel free again. To shake off the cold and grey French spring, the sense that the country we loved was drifting into decline. We came to live in a place where the future was bright and the people were young. We came to extinguish emerging signs of mid-life slump before they became a crisis, and to feel like we hadn’t given up on adventure, or self betterment or love.
The plan was to take three months and leave France. My husband Florent would take a sabbatical and our son Theo, who is five, would miss a month of school. Baby Francesca, just 18 months, would be pleased to live someplace warm, where she could swim and run. From late May through August we would be one of those weird French families you see by the side of the road in Morocco, eating Camembert in the back of their RV, the children tanned and wild haired and maman clucking over lunch as though she were on the Brittany coast.
For half a year, I scoured maps in search of a destination. First it was Botswana for its sensible government, then Tanzania for its unstoppable beauty, then Madagascar and Mozambique and Zambia. I had Africa on the mind because I wanted to write a novel set in the continent. But then I couldn’t find a house, and the cities were dangerous, the countryside even more so. I read of home invasions and carjackings, of endemic malaria and untreatable tuberculosis. For the first time I looked at the world as a mother instead of a traveler and it wasn’t pretty. France with its relentless adherence to the status quo, its pathological fear of change, had chastened my wanderlust spirit, and I waivered.
Florent, who arguably has the most to lose from leaving work for the summer, was the one who pushed the final decision.
“I have been working since I was 15 years old,” he said. “I have never taken a break…not ever. It was school, then work, then grad school, then work.” He sighed and rubbed his eyes with the knuckles of both hands. “We have to go. I need this.”
We fell into Indonesia sideways, the way we always fall into things that end up changing us. Perhaps it was the comfort and respect I felt for Islam, perhaps it was a desire to go as far as possible, likely I have seen The Year of Living Dangerously too many times than is strictly necessary. But the place also suited us. It was safe from political upheaval, remarkably free of crime, on the up economically, and blessed by a huge population of ambitious young people. It sat astride the equator and the summer months were humid but rain free and hot. The only real dangers were traffic accidents and Dengue fever.
“So Bali!” people said. “You must be on your way to Bali! I was there once thirteen weeks ago for a five day yoga retreat. It was amaaaazing.”
“No, not Bali,” I said. “We are going to Java.”
“Java?” they said with wrinkled worry. “Well that sounds nice too. Are they Hindu there?”
Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation and it always strikes me as odd that Western tourists go out of their way to avoid the Muslims who live there. They stick to the beaches of Bali or head inland to Ubud in search of medicine men and Hindu enlightenment. Meanwhile 200 million Muslims around them–mostly moderate, some stirred by radical desires–struggle to become citizens of this diverse, corrupt, thriving nation. Here is a country of 18,000 islands, dozens of languages and religions, becoming a unified nation before our very eyes. Bali, seems lovely—white beaches, Cosmopolitans and temples by the sea—but beside the point.
So we chose Yogyakarta, a small city on the southern coast of Java that is known as the cultural and intellectual center of the dominant Javanese culture. Tourism is in its infancy and most visitors are from Singapore of Jakarta. It has a volcano, Mount Merapi, which appeals to Theo, and it is cooler than the lowlands by the ocean. Life is inexpensive and there aren’t many ways to spend money, even if you try. Only a few hotels serve alcohol and the restaurants serve local food. It is place that seems to hold sentimental appeal to Indonesians, the way Austin and New Orleans are loved by Americans.
“When people say goodbye to you, they hold their hand over their heart,” said my friend Katy who went to Yogya on her honeymoon. “It’s touching. You remember it.”
And so we found a house at the foot of Mount Merapi. We packed three huge bags and sent Francesca’s favorite milk and Theo’s collection of superhero action figures by post. My father, bored in retirement and sweltering in Florida, decided to join us. Florent would come in two weeks once he had wrapped up work. A simple 12 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur and the adventure would begin.