Mon, 25 Oct 2010
When the sorcerer arrived, things got stranger still. Until then, the dancers had been prancing like horses, playing out some beautiful atrocity. Now they tore off their armour and rolled on the ground, thrashing and licking the dirt.

"Often they eat glass," said the man next to me, "or live chickens…" In this entranced state, the warriors fought off an invader who'd actually conquered them 1,600 years before.

We'd only been on Java for three days, and already I could feel reality slipping away. Hadn't anyone noticed the arrival of the present? After a fortnight and a journey the length of the island, I would be just as confused, but at least I'd know one thing: Java is no Sleeping Beauty, but a giant in permanent state of awakening.

Jakarta is as good a place as any to work up a case of perplexity. It looks like a modern metropolis but it still has patches of sugar cane and water is sold by the can. The cats have no tails and the old port is full of schooners which will carry anything but women.

The traffic jams, meanwhile, are so solid that, for many, they've become home. Because no one ever seems to make it through to the shops, the shops come to them. This is the place to buy kites and clove-flavoured cigarettes. Or you can hire a policemen, who, for £30, will ride around with you all day.

Once, in one of these jams, we came across the president. It's surprising how unimportant we all look in congestion, and yet he presides over one of the largest countries on Earth. Indonesia has the world's fourth largest population and is as wide as the Atlantic. At any given time, it has a couple of miniature civil wars bubbling away at either end and a tigerish economy in between. No wonder the president looked huffy.

But beyond Jakarta, a fabulous landscape unfurled. Over the coming days, the horizon was always pimpled with mountains and we were never far from the rice, which glowed like green fire. Java may only be the size of England but it grows enough of this stuff to feed all of Indonesia. Once, we took a train and watched the rice rippling past for five hours.

Of course, there were other cities, often variants of Jakarta. Surabaya and Yogyakarta both had the same throb about them, but they still had room for towns-within-towns, a Little Damascus or a tiny Peking.

Sometimes, it was their hotels that stole the show. All had, in the past, experienced some sort of scandal or revolution, or a visit from Charlie Chaplin or Joseph Conrad. Perhaps my favourite was The Tugu in Malang, which was so sumptuously imaginative that it tottered on the brink of kitsch.

But, for all these delights, we were pleased to be back in the rice. The Javanese countryside was always rich in peculiar detail. I remember holy trees, performing monkeys, a sofa balanced on a bicycle and a home-made contraption, like a tank, for gulping up the rice.

It would be nice to think that, in this dreamy world, nothing ever happened, and never would. But that would be to misjudge Java. Deep down, something was stirring, and – to understand it – we headed for its greatest outlet: Krakatoa.

On the map, the crater was just a ring of broken cornets, an hour off the west coast. But, up close, the violence was obvious. The land had simply sheared away, leaving a 1,000ft-high cliff. What had been a sizeable island – known to Captain Cook – was now a hole several miles across, flooded by the sea.

In August 1883, after spewing out six cubic miles of rock, Krakatoa imploded. It was probably the greatest sound ever heard by modern man and the shock waves travelled seven times around the world. The west coast of Java was almost completely scoured of life.

And still it goes on. In 1928, Anak or "Baby" Krakatoa nosed up out of the sea and is now growing at the rate of five inches a week. Our boatman took us halfway up. It was like trekking over Mars. "No farther," he said, "or our boots melt."

Attention-grabbing though it may be, Krakatoa is not alone. As we travelled east, I realised that Java was covered in Krakatoas. Each pimple was a volcano, many just waiting to explode. One we visited, called Merapi, blew off its own head in 2006, and spattered it over the region. There's now a museum on the tree-line, containing all the best lava-bombs, and the remains of a once-molten motorbike.

But even more magnificent is Mount Bromo, another baby volcano, growing in the desert-like crater of the one before. Life in here is spectacularly raw. The only people who'll inhabit the crater are the Tenggers, wrinkly Hindu horsemen, descended from Java's original inhabitants.

I now see that, across the island, ash explained a lot; the fertility, the wealth and the countless invasions. Also, with such uncertainty underfoot, the Javanese had been versatile disciples.

Although Java is predominantly Muslim today, dig into the ash, and you'll find traces of all the great Oriental religions. Even now, ninth-century Hindu temples are always popping up out of the soot. The greatest of these was Prambanan, which looked like a pod of giant, celestial rockets, carved out of lava.

Even better was Borobudur, near Magelang in Central Java. Although Javanese Buddhism has virtually disappeared, here was the largest Buddhist building in the world. It's a man-made hill, assembled from arches, stupas and statues.

It wasn't hard to imagine how the Dutch explorers felt when they stumbled out of the forest in 1814. Here was a petrified city, lost to the world for almost 1,000 years.

All this needed time to be taken in, and a good perch. We booked into the Amanjiwo, which was not so much a hotel as a phenomenon. It was partly inspired by the temple but also had something of the Roman about it, and – in its jungly magnificence – a hint of Machu Picchu.

Each morning, we could hear the cries of the muezzins warbling up the valley. Here was Indonesia doing what it does so beautifully, and that, of course, is waking up.



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