When, if a slow-pac’d star had stol’n away
From the observer’s marking, he might stay
Two or three hundred years to see’t again,
And then make up his observation plain;”
-John Donne, An Anatomy of the World

Some cities are easy to figure out–grid-like street layouts and prominently-displayed culture can simplify the process. Then there are cities like Yogyakarta (Jogja as it’s known to everyone there).

Yogyakarta is a complicated city. It’s fairly easy to navigate and plenty of folks are willing to talk about its history and culture, but it’s still not a city in which a traveler can immerse himself in only three days. I found it much easier to form first impressions of Taipei, Seoul, Osaka, and even Hanoi and Saigon, but even after completing my trip through Yogyakarta, I don’t feel I have a complete impression of the city. The only other cities I’ve visited for such a short time are Singapore, Osaka, and Kyoto, and I found them much easier to get a feel for.

My bus stop in Yogyakarta
My bus stop in Yogyakarta

This cultural heartland of Indonesia, with a population of less than 400,000, is unlike anywhere I’ve visited. It certainly is nothing like Bali. And I found few similarities with the places I visited in Malaysia.

My hotel was at the end of this quiet street
My hotel was at the end of this quiet street

I can point to a variety of reasons why I didn’t get a feel for Jogja, the least of which being that I was only there for three days. My hotel, though quiet and comfortable (and cheap) was a bit out of the way–I walked around on my first day to find very little to see or do (or even eat). My first full day in the city involved waking up at 3:30 to watch the sunrise over Borobudur and then seeing other temples, including Prambanan, before heading back to my hotel to sleep before dinner. My third day was mostly spent in the downtown area (i.e., the one main road), which is full of tourists (many from elsewhere in Indonesia).

The traffic on Malioboro Street isn't as bad during the day
The traffic on Malioboro Street isn’t as bad during the day

All of these factors created a situation in which it was difficult to form much of an opinion of Jogja. I’ll admit that the city is much more spread out than I expected–the lack of multi-story buildings means that the population is spread over a larger area. There were also fewer modern buildings than I anticipated–most newer structures were hotels, but I thought there would be more because Yogyakarta is known for its art.

One of the colorful sculptures along Malioboro Street
One of the colorful sculptures along Malioboro Street

There’s also a lot of graffiti. Everywhere. Fortunately, there are a lot of murals mixed in with the graffiti to make the streets more colorful and appealing. Some of the street art was interesting and even inspiring, but most of it was rather childish (which is fine if there are a lot of kids in the neighborhood, and I found plenty of kids playing in the alleys). It certainly wasn’t like the street art I found in Reykjavik, but it was certainly more appealing than the ugly graffiti all over Rome.

Borobudur: the reason everyone visits Yogyakarta
Borobudur: the reason everyone visits Yogyakarta

I didn’t manage to really talk with anyone other than asking basic questions until my last day in Yogyakarta. Rather than sightseeing, I wandered around the main downtown area in search of interesting souvenirs and gifts and, of course, all the food I hadn’t yet tried. Eating on the street was how I finally found people to talk with. Of course, those people I met didn’t speak much English (well, the college kids spoke some), and I discovered that they were all from Surabaya, a city about 6 hours north. So, it seems I spoke with almost no one who was a local other than staff at some food stalls and small restaurants.

Every bicycle taxi has a different scene painted on the side
Every bicycle taxi has a different scene painted on the side

I did, however, find that services in Jogja are fairly reliable. Buses are pretty good, but not so easy to figure out (staff at the stations are usually helpful, but it still isn’t easy to figure out where to get off the bus). Even taxis were decent–they all turned on the meter without being asked. Only problem I encountered was that most drivers had no idea where my hotel was (and on busy evenings along the main downtown street many taxis didn’t even want to go that way).

Heading to the street food vendors downtown
Heading to the street food vendors downtown

While I had a great time in Yogyakarta, I don’t feel like I got a feel for the city. It seems like a city that needs more time to grow on me. Perhaps if opportunities arise, I’ll head back to see more (and eat plenty more).

How do you get to know a city in a short time? Have you ever had a difficult time getting a feel for a city?

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