During the Ujian Nasional (National Exam), I had made plans with several friends from my program to go to Tanjung Puting, a Natural Park in Central Kalimantan. But on the day we were to head out of Jakarta, our first meeting point, and into the hutan (jungle) of Borneo, we learned our flight was at first delayed, and then later canceled because the plane was broken, and the trip had to be postponed. Thankfully, most people were still able to make the trip happen, by flying into a different city in Kalimantan first and then flying from there to Pankalan Bun. But for two friends and I, this was not possible because of when our schools would re-start classes. So we collected our refunds, and went looking for the fastest and cheapest ticket out of the Jakarta airport (we had been there for almost eight hours at that point, and were ready to be moving again).
That ticket turned out to be to Solo, or Surakarta, a small city in Central Java. We didn’t know all that much about Solo, except that there were a few keraton (palaces) and that it is famous for its batik. That was good enough for the three of us, so we hopped on the next available flight, found ourselves a hotel when we got there, and made plans to explore our unplanned destination. Fortunately for us, one of the good people of the AMINEF team was born and raised in Solo, so we sent him a WhatsApp message asking where we ought to go, and he gave us a whole list of places to check out.
Our first day, we allowed ourselves a somewhat late start after our harried journey the day before, and stayed within the city limits. Our first stop was to Keraton Mangkunegaran, one of the two main palaces in Solo. Our guide was charming and informative, and while the palace grounds were lovely, perhaps even more interesting was the collection of gifts from various countries inside the main chamber.
Just down the street from Mangkunegaran was Solo’s famous antique market. Haphazardly-organized and full of surprises, I could have spent hours exploring its hidden gems. My favourite find, though, was a stack of old photographs: pictures of children going to school, farmers working their fields, young couples rowing boats together, old women telling stories; pictures of weddings, funerals, graduations, and military parades; snapshots into the recent history of Indonesia, the sort that don’t make it into the history books I pour over, but which tell arguably a more poignant story. I didn’t buy any, but it was sorely tempting.
We ended our explorations at the Batik Museum of Danar Hadi, which was by far the best museum I have been to yet in Indonesia, and probably one of my personal favorites ever. Danar Hadi is one of the most popular brands of batik in Indonesia, and their founder has a private collection of over one thousand pieces of batik. A few hundred of these are displayed in the museum behind their main shop, and with the help of a well-informed guide, you can explore batik from throughout the history of Indonesia, and from various regions. There was even one section of the tour which allowed us to watch the process of batik being made, and try out hand at some batik cat (batik made with a special stamp). I have always loved batik, and while I’ve learned quite a bit about it since coming to Indonesia, especially when I lived on Java, but this museum showed me I had only begun to scratch the surface of all there is to know of this beautiful fabric.
Our second day, we headed outside of Solo to see what the surrounding countryside had to offer. We started at Candi Cetho, a Hindu Temple in the mountains surrounding Solo, one of the last Hindu temples still in use on Java. Candi Cetho might be the most beautiful temple I have seen thus far in Indonesia, with the way it’s various levels climb gently up the hillside, and because we went on a morning when the fog pervaded everything around us, it only seemed more magical than it already was.
After Candi Cetho, we went to our second temple, Candi Sukuh. Candi Sukuh is most famous for its somewhat scandalous carvings, and while the temple itself was under construction when we went, we still had plenty of fun making up stories for the effigies that had been carefully placed beside the temple, waiting for when they could be returned to their rightful place.
It began to rain rather hard while we were at Candi Sukuh, so we stopped for lunch at Ndoro Donker Tea Plantation, where the food was not so important as the delicious tea we were able to sample. While most of my favourite Indonesian dishes come from Sulawesi, where I am placed now, I do often miss Javanese Tea. As the rain came pouring down, we wrapped our hands around warm mugs of tea and found perfect contentment.
Nearby there was also a waterfall, which we clambered down over three hundred steps through lush jungle to reach. The penjual sayur (vegetable sellers) have told me that Gorontalo has been even drier than usual this year, and everything has been a dry kind of yellow for some time now. Seeing so much green while in Solo filled my soul with gladness.
We only had two days in Solo, and then had to return to our sites, and I hope that I will be able to return someday, but nonetheless, if a plane is grounded and your original plans for travel tidak jadi (don’t end up happening)… I have to tell you, Solo makes for an excellent unexpected trip.
 AMINEF is the American Indonesian Education Foundation, the commission that runs the Fulbright Program in Indonesia, for those who may not know.