The 25th was Waisak, a holiday celebrating Buddha’s birth, death, and also achievement of enlightenment. Borobudur, as the biggest Buddhist site in the area, necessarily ends up getting a lot of traffic every year at this time. Monks1 begin walking in the morning, starting at Candi Mendut. By afternoon, they’ve arrived at Borobudur and when night falls they release lanterns. The festival is also attended by many tourists—foreign and local alike—as it is apparently quite the sight to see.
Last year I didn’t go, but this year I had friends (namely my language teacher) who wanted to go, so I gleefully accepted the invitation to go along. I still have trouble expressing deep emotions in Indonesian, and the whole conversation happened in Javanese so I probably came across as even more ridiculous, but in the end I got myself a ride out to Borobudur so I think I can count myself pretty lucky.
Two language teachers, various Indonesian friends of theirs, two Germans, and I left Jogja at 3 o’clock because none of us were sure of any details. Would there already be a lot of people there? Was it true that if you got there too close to evening you wouldn’t be able to get in far enough to see anything? Would we be charged the usual entrance fee? Would foreigners have to pay more? It was all a mystery.
The road to Borobudur was busier than normal, or at least it seemed that way to me as we drove across gravel lining the side of the road, passing car after car. And then it started to rain. I had, stupidly, brought neither my poncho nor my umbrella, trusting instead in the fact that there was a festival happening. It would never rain during a festival. There were certainly people somewhere praying to ward off any threatening clouds2.
On the road to Borobudur, though, it didn’t work. We pulled off to the side of the road so that my friend could put on her poncho and I could roll up my jacket sleeves. While my jacket looks very spiffy and vintage, it also holds water like no tomorrow. Having cold, damp cuffs hanging on your wrists is never fun.
Back on the bike, I got to use the back flap of her poncho to cover as much of my body as possible. Or, okay, I guess not quite as much of my body as possible. A common poncho-sharing technique is for the person in the back to duck down and pull the whole poncho over their head. This makes for a dryer but also a more boring ride. I chose to brave the rain for the surroundings. I like to think that this also gave me advanced warning for times when I needed to stop holding on to the poncho and start holding on to the bike so as not to lurch forward and crush my friend3.
Keeping my head out of the poncho also allowed me to keep track of accidents waiting to happen. A busy road plus rain always equals people driving crazier than normal. Everyone goes into this mentality of if I just drive a little faster I’ll get where I have to go super quick without having to put on my poncho.
By the time we reached Borobudur, the rain had petered out and it was 5 o’clock. We spent the next thirty minutes wandering around in a state of mild confusion. The main entrance was closed though there were people milling about on both sides of it in no great hurry to go anywhere. A man advised us to go around to the side entrance, saying it was still open. There were whispers that we wouldn’t have to pay. There were whispers that only foreigners had to pay—they were checking ID cards. There were many whispers.
Trying to approach the second gate, we ran into something of a problem: the crowd was growing. It had actually gotten hard to make any sort of forward motion along the sidewalk. Stepping into the street didn’t help either. There were people there too. And motorbikes. And bus after bus after bus.
And that, my friends, is where I remained for about two hours. Some of you4 may recall the so-called Rally to Restore Sanity from a few years back. I was having serious flashbacks to those crowd scenes. During the Rally to Restore Sanity I had experienced, for the first and only time, what it felt like to be jammed in the middle of a crowd, pushed along by forces far greater than the people on either side of me, unable to do anything. This hadn’t reached those levels, but it was close. It made me antsy. Even if I wanted to leave, I wouldn’t have been able to.
Darkness fell and we were still in line, creeping toward a small gap in the fence manned by policemen. It was fully dark by the time we made it through the fence. We stumbled through the bottleneck into another sea of humanity.
There were no clear instructions, so we made for an open patch of ground, curving around towards the path to the temple. Until we met with another obstacle, this time in the form of a hedge with a policeman on the other side. In the end we were forced to curve back to the crowd. The crowd was, in turn, being herded by another group of policemen, their hands linked.
There was nothing for it. Into the fray we went. This time it had reached Rally-to-Restore-Sanity levels of loss of control. I didn’t have to walk if I didn’t want to. The sheer force of the crowd buoyed me along. It was awful. And then, one policeman with a torchlight and a possible metal detector later, it was over. I was expelled into the grounds of Borobudur, free of charge, no ID cards checked.
Also, it had started raining again.
It wasn’t raining that badly, though, so we situated ourselves on a field outside of the temple proper to wait for the lanterns. Rumor had it that they would be lit at 10 o’clock.
Fate, however, was not on our side. Perhaps tired of hearing my halting attempts at Javanese, the heavens opened up once again. We quickly retreated under a large tent that had apparently been set up all day. And there we remained, alternately sitting up or lying down, trying to avoid leaks and moving closer together as more people came to join the shelter.
Meanwhile, out on the field where we’d been, other people set up. These were serious photographers, with cameras and tripods and umbrellas to protect them. They looked like they were waiting to watch fireworks, except that I don’t think fireworks happen during the rain.
As it turned out, lanterns don’t happen during the rain either. Time marched forward, the rain continued to fall downward, and we sat together nary an umbrella nor a poncho between the eight of us.
We did eventually venture out into the rain, which had calmed down, and did eventually make the long, cold, dark drive back to Jogja. And, at some point, the whole thing became surreal. My glasses fogged up; I watched silhouettes of palm trees flash past; my feet were freezing.
1And possibly other followers of Buddhism—I have no idea.
2This, from what I hear, happens a lot. There are people who pray so that it doesn’t rain during Ramayana performances. Usually this works.
3Who is tiny.