After Jakarta, arriving in Yogyakarta was like a breath of fresh air. Well, not quite fresh, Yogyakarta traffic is of the same shape and density as Jakarta, if not on the same scale, but it was a breath of different air which means much the same thing.
Instead of the tacky and worn grandeur of a once five-star hotel, endless skyscrapers and motorways, Yogyakarta offered us the pleasure of being on ground level again. Our hostel had a garden, a small but important patch of green, and on our first evening walking along our little back street I see something I haven’t seen for what feels like a very long time: children running up and down the street playing hide and seek. They were barefoot and laughing, shouting ‘hello mister’ at both of us and I had to fight the urge to join in (there’s a building site next door to our hostel). I settled for being a spectator instead, drank a few beers in the clammy dusk and tried not to give the game away when a few brave ones came and hid in our garden.
We had learned in Thailand to be cautious of strangers offering us ‘assistance’. But time spent in big cities where two lost-looking white people presenting more of a hindrance than an opportunity had softened us. By the time we reached Yogyakarta our guard was down and that’s really my only excuse for how, the next morning, we found ourselves crammed into the seat of a becak with a very frail old man in the bicycle seat, on our way to a ‘private art gallery’ on the outskirts of the city.
Everything we read about visiting Kraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat (The Kraton), a 260 year old walled village surrounding the Yogyakartan Sultan’s Palace, had warned about this particular scam. A friendly stranger approaches you, tells you that the palace is closed for the day (it actually was this day) and offers to send you to an art gallery that’s not on the map, a private gallery where university students create real Batik art in the traditional way.
Of course, there is no ‘real Batik art’, no university students; just a room somewhere with the same rubbish they sell everywhere else except the sales technique is a bit more intimidating. I knew this. I had actually read about this specific scam and yet here we were, with our hips painfully crammed together on the tiny seat of a becak, moving through traffic on streets we didn’t recognise, entirely in the hands of a man whose language we didn’t understand.
The fact that we were even moving had to be defying some fundamental law of physics. Calculating the effect of the incline of the hill, our combined weight, the force of gravity and the kilojoules of energy required to make the rusty wheels of this ancient becap turn had to make it impossible and yet we were definitely moving, crawling forward one rotation of the wheel at a time, towards our destination.
We hadn’t even caught on at this point. We we’re feeling all bubbly and adventurous, thinking, hilariously, that we had made a little pal in the too-enthusiastic mechanic who had shaken our hands, told us about the gallery and practically bounced up and down with excitement at having people to practice his English with. We were right outside his house at the time and I thought at any minute he might invite us in for a cup of tea. We probably would have followed him. The vanity.
Once we arrived at our destination, the driver having miraculously avoided fatal cardiac arrest, I knew something wasn’t right. What I lack in common sense I (sometimes) make up for in intuition and knew straight away the situation had taken a turn. Why was there already a group of men standing outside like they were expecting us? Why were there no other foreigners? Why were we down a back street? I resorted to my tried and tested technique of feigning feeling ill, we hastily apologized and pretty much legged it up the street. If I was in any doubt over whether or not the whole set up was a scam, the fact that the man followed us up the street quashed any doubts.
It takes time to perfect the ideal traveller mentality somewhere between caution and curiosity. I suppose we’re not quite there yet…