I like to consider myself a pretty decent traveler. I’ve been places. I’ve done things.
At 17 years old I flew to Accra, Ghana alone. At 18 to Seoul, South Korea to visit a friend. At 19 I moved to Italy to study for a semester. Since then, I’ve flown back and forth between Italy and America more than a dozen times. I volunteered in Mexico twice and have driven 10 hours to New York City on my own. I’ve navigated new cities, new cultures and new languages and in turn dealt with and overcome missed trains, missed connections and missing luggage.
And yet after all this time traveling, I can still mess up.
This time, I messed up in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The thing is, I actually bought the Lonely Planet guidebook beforehand. I dutifully read the passages about the places we planned on visiting, made lists, wrote down prices and times and cross-referenced with online resources. I was informed, prepared. For once, I had done my homework! Making it even more frustrating when we completely ignored the warnings of the palace in Yogya and walked right into a scam we had already been warned about.
Left by our hotel shuttle at the start of JL Malioboro street, Marco and I walked straight down it, past vendors selling trinkets, sandals and crusty food. We walked past rickshaw drivers offering us rides and others sleeping the rejection off in the backseat of their ‘vehicle.’ We walked past makeshift moto parking lots on the sidewalks, sad small horses hooked to carriages and off-brand cell phone stores, until we finally got to the squat white car-port like building that we assumed was the Kraton, or sultan’s palace.
It was on the other side of an enormous field of dust, like a life-sized kitty litter box, with no respite from the sun. We somehow crossed the road and made our way across the field to the palace, hot and sticky and overwhelmed. Honestly, I can only say it was that overwhelming feeling of “foreignness” that made me not even pause, not even remotely tap into the information I had already stored in my brain. We hiked straight up to the ticket box and got two surprisingly inexpensive tickets and a pass for my camera. We politely declined the unofficial official tour guides and promptly walked into the saddest “palace” I’ve ever seen.
There was nothing. Simply a decorative roof, gravel and three bare wooden buildings. Marco said he had expected something similar. I took pictures of a stray cat.
When we left, a young Indonesian with great English stopped us. He told us the water castle we were searching for was closed, despite the fact that I had read it was open in the morning, with performances starting at 10 am. He must know better though, right? Considering he’s from there and not just a lowly tourist in MC Hammer pants? He told us to be careful of the batik mafia. As in, the disreputable sellers of the tradition cloth “paintings” known as batik. I had read about that, which helped to grow my trust in him. Plus, he looked like a young American college student. He told us to go to a specific batik place. We did. We also bought two batiks and instantly knew we had been had.
This is when you all stop reading because we’re so stupid right? Well all I have to say is that hindsight is 50/50 and stupid puppy excitement about being in a new city doesn’t leave a lot of room for reasoning. Back at the hotel, I read through LP guidebook again. This is what it said:
Why yes, that is exactly what happened to us. Or more accurately, exactly what we let happen… Not only did we get hustled into a batik place by very nice Indonesians, but we also paid to see the wrong kraton. One that was, in a word, sad.
Then, I quietly stewed for hours.
How could this have happened to me? Me! The very decent traveler! Maybe first-world, Western travel had softened me. Maybe I’m not as decent a traveler as I had previously thought.
The next day we went back and did it all over again, this time going to the correct Kraton and a very-open-in-the-morning water palace. I guess I still have some improvements to make on my “decent traveler” status, but I’m not here to beat myself up.Travelers willingly put themselves in foreign, stress-inducing situations. We have to constantly balance being completely overwhelmed but still alert, going with the flow and dealing with problems as they arise. Sometimes the stimuli win out over your clearheaded alertness. Sometimes the heat fogs your decision making. What can I say? You win some you lose some I guess.
Now excuse me while I go to hang my probably-fake batik artwork prominently in my living room. There’s a great story behind it…