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The definition of serenity. Photo by Hannah Richter (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Finalist), Indonesia Semester.

dieng days

Now that our group has settled into life in Jogja, we’ve began to explore the city and surrounding area a bit more. Last weekend, our group took a 3-day trip to Dieng Plateau.

Each week, two students research and present about some facet of Indonesia that interests them, ranging from historical figures to modern street fashion. That week, Owen and I had presented about Dieng to prepare us for the trip.

I’m constantly surprised by the importance of seemingly mundane places in Indonesia. This held true for Dieng, from its religious importance, once holding over 400 Hindu temples constructed in the 9th century, to its environmental importance, as the second largest highland in the world.

Now, only 8 of those temples remain intact, and its jungle is being demolished and eroded for farmland in response to a drive for crops that can only grow in the cooler temperatures there (particularly potatoes; it has been dubbed “potato fever”).

Though we discussed these complex issues, we had more basic questions as well, such as what a highland actually is. It’s harder to define than I would think. Our best guess was, a land that is generally high?

The idea of a highland, much less the second largest highland in the world, remained mystical after we arrived. On our long van ride, at some point, we had crossed into an entirely new climate smack in the middle of the equatorial region. We ascended to a new world above the clouds.

Something about the chilly air and mountainous backdrop brought out in us a lightness of being. We were freed from the sometimes oppressive heat of Jogja; it was our first sweatless day since we had arrived in the city.

We wandered to sulfurous craters, reflected near ancient temples, and hiked to see the sunset. In every free hour we curled up in fuzzy blankets, reveling in a feeling of coziness that can be elusive in the heat.

On our last day, we woke up at 4 AM for a sunrise hike of Gunung Sikunir. We rode to the base of the mountain in the back of a pickup truck under the stars. Even though we were on the opposite side of the globe from the U.S., we could all recognize Orion’s Belt above us.

We passed hills and lakes, rolling around curves in the road, the scenery muted by the darkness. By the time we reached the base of the mountain, the sky had turned a deep indigo.

The moon was in a perfect, tiny crescent whose hands reached upwards, the light clinging on to the bottom like it was giving the man on the moon a hug.

At the base of the hill, the moon hung so low it just touched the ground ahead, sometimes even dipping below it. The road was lined with carts and stalls selling souvenirs or serving food. Many had woks roasting dozens of small, glistening potatoes (a local staple crop).

The people and stores dropped away when we turned onto the trail. There were switchback stone steps marching all the way up the mountain, guided by a bamboo railing. We grew quiet on the trail as breathing became laborious.

At the top, the landscape fell away below us. There were a few hills around, but in front we could see the edge of the plateau, where rolling clouds stretched out to the horizon line. We chatted, munched on breakfast bars, and took pictures as we watched layers of soft yellow and orange fall on the sky.

On previous hikes, I would reflect and meditate once we reached the peak, but this time I just relaxed. I’m grateful to be with such a dynamic group where we can switch between meaningless jokes and discussions about the complex factors in deforestation in a matter of seconds.

There’s no way to describe how it felt watching that sunrise at the top of the world.

It was pretty cool.

And it was certainly high land.