Lost in Java

As New York Times “Getting Lost” expert Matt Gross knows, sometimes it’s the best way to truly experience a new place and get a feel for its culture and spirit. Get lost with him on his recent trip to Java, Indonesia!

Hotel Tugu in Malang is filled with art and antiques. Photo by Jes Aznar for The NY Times.

IN 15 years of traveling to Asia, I have seen and done a number of strange things. I have eaten writhing octopus tentacles in Seoul, and I’ve been shepherded into a Phnom Penh nightclub by a Cambodian dwarf in a tuxedo. At this point, little surprises me. But when I arrived in the city of Malang, in the cool hills of inland East Java, I discovered something I never imagined existed.

It lay, as most wonderful things in Asian cities do, down a narrow lane — this one near the town center, across from the squall of a bird market. At first, I didn’t realize what I’d found. It seemed like a tidy middle-class neighborhood, some houses gaily painted in yellows and greens, others with a kind of Arizona desert-chic design. A bakery called Mega Aussie sold sweet rolls, and in the midmorning light people were stretching laundry to dry. Then I stopped in my tracks and listened. This was odd: The tinnitic buzz of Honda scooters had fallen away, as had the honking of truck horns, the calls of noodle vendors, and the general bustle of Malang’s 800,000 people. All that was left was silence.

Silence! In my urban Asian experience, peace and quiet were as rare as white elephants, and yet here I’d found them — and on Java, no less, the world’s most heavily populated island. Some 136 million people live in a place the size of Florida, occupying every conceivable corner, from city slums to the perilous slopes of 44 volcanoes. And still, somehow, there was room for silence. Why hadn’t I heard about this before?

Because, alas, I’d never thought much about Indonesia. Oh, I’d kept the country in the back of my mind, aware of its volatile post-colonial history, conscious of its reputation as a coffee producer and familiar with its panoply of sambals, or hot sauces. But the opportunity to visit never arose. Indonesia, along with the Philippines and Brunei, remained the only parts of East Asia I hadn’t explored.

But then, while planning a trip to visit my wife’s family in nearby Taiwan, I realized that this was my chance. With my superficial knowledge of its geography (some 18,000 lush, volcanic islands) and culture (mostly Muslim, with Hindu, Buddhist, animist, Chinese and Dutch inflections), wouldn’t Indonesia — and specifically Java, its cultural and political center — be the perfect spot to plunge blindly into for a week, without guidebook, map or personal contacts?

Lost in Java