A few days before the Sept. 2 earthquake on Java, I passed though some of the affected areas on a train ride between Bandung in the West Java highlands to Yogyakarta (pronounced Jogja) on the Central Java plain.
This must be one of the world’s most interesting rail journeys. The slow but comfortable “Argo Wilis” (endearingly, Indonesian trains have names — this one a volcano the train passes on its 13-hour journey) snakes its way along a mostly single track around terraced hillsides and between old volcanoes, through Tasikmalaya and Banjar — the towns that recently made their tragic appearance on world news. The train then descends onto a plain of rice paddies, some still green and glistening, others brown from recent harvests.
Looking back, it is remarkable that the earthquake, with a force of 7.1, killed only 100 or so. This is one of the most densely populated rural regions on the planet, a place where villages and towns form a continuum along the roads and railway, where even the steepest hillsides are terraced to grow rice in the wet season and a vast array of other crops in the dry season, where fruits of almost every sort abound along with tea, coffee and tobacco.
The red-tiled, single story houses standard throughout Java do not look ideal for resisting earthquakes. But the record suggests otherwise, for this is an island that has experienced regular earthquakes and volcanic eruptions since Java man lived near Yogyakarta 100,000 years ago.
Perhaps even then nearby Mount Merapi was periodically wreaking havoc on the plain. The volcano, which last erupted in 2006, smokes continuously, a reminder of its power to villagers and Argo Wilis passengers alike.
Little wonder that in its shadow stand two of the world’s most remarkable religious monuments — the temple of Borobudur, the world’s largest single Buddhist monument, and the 9th century Hindu temples at Prambanan, a complex that originally was barely surpassed even in India itself.
No wonder, too, that nature has repeatedly taken its revenge, half destroying Borobudur with earthquakes and then burying it with volcanic ash, and repeatedly felling many of the Prambanan temples, most recently in 2006.
So perhaps it is fitting that Yogyakarta, though since the 16th century a Muslim sultanate, retains so many symbols of older imported religions and its original Austronesian identity.
It is guardian of a syncretic Javanese culture of batik textiles, of music, dance, theater and design, which is at once traditional and free-spirited and a bastion against Islamic orthodoxies imported from the Middle East.
Borobudur and Pramanban, both Unesco World Heritage sites, and Yogyakarta are well-enough known to the outside world, even if the number of foreign visitors is small.
But there is one remarkable feature of Borobudur that deserves to be much more celebrated, at least by Indonesians: reliefs showing ships.
They are a reminder of a little-known past, long before Chinese and Arab voyages, when ships from Sumatra and Java sailed the Indian Ocean, populating Madagascar, transporting goods and pilgrims between China and India, bringing spices from islands further east and leaving their influence as far west as Africa.
In 2002, an 18-meter twin outrigger replica of a Borobudur ship was constructed and sailed to East Africa, taking less than a month from Jakarta to the Seychelles.
The replica is now in a museum near the temple, a reminder that Austronesians, with their common root language, culture and sailing traditions, were, until the European expansion 500 years ago, among the most widely dispersed people on earth, colonizing almost every island between Easter Island in the east and Madagascar in the west; Taiwan and Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the south.
Surprisingly, the ship gets scant attention from visitors. Maybe it just seems out of place at a religious site. But back on the Argo Wilis and bound for Surabaya, city of 2.6 million people and port for traditional inter-island sailing vessels as well as container ships, it is easy to imagine why these islands have for 2,000 years played key roles in the globalization of commerce.
In short, brave the earthquakes and eruptions, and the Argo Wilis will take you on a tour of a lot of world history.