Curiosity# 42: Temporary Loves of a Traveler

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When one’s only community is a language school, developing stable friendships is not an easy task. In the past six weeks since I’ve stayed in Indonesia, I’ve befriended a ruddy-cheeked Australian vagabond (now a late-blooming linguistics student), a shameless social worker from Switzerland, and an Israeli tour guide who—despite pride in his Muslim faith and Arab origins—leads week-long pilgrimages for bussing, self-righteous evangelists across the Holy Land.

All these friends have left, either back to their homeland or to their new occupations abroad, leaving me to wonder if new acquaintances in this country will ever solidify into substantial relationships, or if I must continue discarding the connections I swallow as if they were defunct pills passing directly through the intestine to the bowels, or—should we dare continue this analogy in the other direction—hearty food combatting my (now) hopeless state of social bulimia.

Too much comfort prevents learning. And so I tell myself. And yet I hope you, reader, are thankful for the people who stay still; who will stick around for another week, another month, maybe decades until the grave. Personally I haven’t reached a point yet in my life where I can stabilize in this way. Perhaps a “reachable” status in life will only manifest several decades down the road. Until then perhaps acquaintances will merely pass through me and out: remembered, always, although—for the ones I leave and who leave me—this memory-confined love might not work the other way around.

I, as a traveler, should be quite alright with that.

My homestay mother, Ibu Wiwik, one of the few people with whom I've been able to establish an extended relationship here in Yogya

My homestay mother, Ibu Wiwik, one of the few people with whom I’ve been able to establish an extended relationship here in Yogya

Curiosity #41: Taman Budaya

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Yogyakarta or “The City of Artists” hosts bounteous opportunities for experts of craft. And unlike many Westerners I know who’d pass up art exhibitions for televised golf matches, most of the Javanese actually want to witness what art has to say. In local galleries, the concepts of belief and surrender—both heroic and tragic—weigh on the human experience and display it over a flame.

Here no story is too old and no artist is too naïve. Puppet construction, dance, gamelan, mask-making, and batik-painting still command focus in art schools and museums across Yogja; and live performances, displayed with traditional taste, demand diverse audiences at cultural centers implanted like gems throughout the city. Here many Javanese—educated or uneducated, wealthy or struggling—savor inspiration from the old times. Almost everything is free.

Combining traditional craft with modern inventiveness, a new generation of artists displays its genius in public restaurants, private galleries, and open courtyards: visceral, and also, for the native Javanese, poignantly familiar.

Where best to witness innovative art? At Taman Budaya, “The Window of Yogyakarta,” where works from local artists are displayed in monthly exhibitions, and where at any hour of the day (perhaps Ramadan aside), dance, music, and puppet performances cater to the public.

I went to Taman Budaya with a friend from Switzerland who wished to see the latest exhibit on marine culture. While I had previously been impressed by symbolic batik displays and contemporary gamelan performances, I was not at all impressed by the Indonesian developments in the art mediums of television and film, which—my Indonesian friends will admit—feature special effects predating the 1950s; so I was convinced the marine exhibit would introduce me to a “mixed bag” of artistic talent, or cold-cut expertise at best.

The evocative effect of the exhibit was entirely unexpected, and perhaps greater than I experienced at any other art gallery, including the Louvre, Gaudi Museum, and (dare I say it) the museum most dear to my origins: The Art Institute of Chicago. When I arrived, the frontal face of Taman Budaya had been built up to resemble a colorful reef or ship, and in front of the entrance was a merry-go-round on which traditional puppets with horrified faces waved at onlookers as levers turned with the wind. Steady. Haunting. Without any hint of globalism, one could sense that the culture was hung up and set aspin.

The inside of the exhibit was equally mesmerizing. Ancient knowledge of puppet construction was used to build large-scale moving sculptures that periodically ejected hearts from bull-headed human soldiers; wooden wings hanging from the ceiling pumped on tireless hinges to demonstrate the ironically confining nature of “flight” and the development of man into machine. Western magazines paved space for an absent traditional boat. From a frame on the wall, demonstrating the consumptive nature of humanity at its height, a fish grasped a fish in its mouth that grasped another fish in turn, down to the tiniest sardine. And in small rooms throughout the gallery from high quality projectors rolled Indonesian films proving that I had judged the film-art industry too soon: films that explored the interior of a coffee drop, the disorienting direction of waves on a forlorn coast, the slow consumption of an edible masterpiece.

Taman Budaya introduced me to a facet of Yogya that made me proud to be its new resident. It was a side that had not lost sight of its tradition, and that also was not afraid to speak up for what globalism had set to fade. Artistic genius such that I saw at Taman Budaya must have come from a loaded place: one worth admiring, and—for a person curious like myself—one worth exploring down to the depth where the anchor sits.

The Entrance into Taman Budaya

The Entrance into Taman Budaya

Merry-go-round of puppets in front of the exhibit entrance

Merry-go-round of puppets in front of the exhibit entrance

A puppet at a loss

A puppet at a loss

The distorting tendencies of love over a lifetime

The distorting tendencies of love over a lifetime

Tradition beheaded by the technological age

Tradition beheaded by the technological age

The missing boat

The missing boat

Queen of the sea: dumped, stripped, and blinded

Queen of the sea: dumped, stripped, and blinded

Curiosity #40: Skirts of Mount Merapi

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It’s still rainy season in Yogyakarta, so the famous Mount Merapi hides its peak behind clouds that settle every sunrise.

At the base of the volcano is a town called Kaliurang, where visitors find local guides to lead them to the mountain’s peak, and where locals have suffered numerous tragedies due to the volcano’s frequent eruptions.

The town makes an art of it. Almost every young man in Kaliurang works as a driver or guide, and the rest maintain the scenic national park containing the lush hills surrounding the volcano, where hikers look out at the ruins of the village once prized by the Sultanate, flattened most recently in 2010.

Unwilling to hike to the mountain’s crest at 3 AM (the only time of day the mountain frees its tip from the clouds), I decided instead to hike through the national park and explore what was left of Kaliurang. The entrance into the park looks like any other tourist-friendly site. Paving stones secure a flat rest area, left from when the Japanese infantry occupied the hills decades ago. The paving stones continue in steps up the hills, leading hikers high into the humid air, where the only distractions from sweat profusions and burning buttocks are the gorgeous tropical plants that bend over the ever-steepening walkway, the varieties of green sprouting on every fertile knoll.

After the hike, my friends and I hired a local man to take us on a ride in an old Japanese army tank. Clad in an antique helmet and goggles, I clung to a rail as we toured the bumpy roads of Kaliurang. From the car we could see a fine view of Mount Merapi, which remained obscured behind mist most of the day but which teasingly unveiled its tip for minutes at a time. The close scenery was just as grand and much more interesting. The rocky condition of the roads attested to a town that had not yet been cleaned from the latest eruption, and the surrounding homes, half-crumbled, hinted at a space once comfortably populated and now left level and dry.

For the most part, the difference between life and death in Kaliurang is stark and unashamed. A disaster museum overlooks a dry river valley hundreds of meters deep and miles of brown flatland stretch before hints of healthy forest. At the museum entrance, the skull of a cow caps the head of a scorched motorcycle. Beside the museum—itself a half-crumpled building relic—smiling women from the town stand behind kiosks, inviting visitors to buy volcanic coffee and fried snacks. For the locals, the temperamental volcano is part of the ancestral story; regardless of the wrecked landscape and the ash that kicks up with the wind, the townspeople of Kaliurang will always call this dustbowl a home.

One of many caves in Kaliurang National Park where the Japanese stored their artillery One of many caves in Kaliurang National Park where the Japanese stored their artillery

Before our hot ride in the Japanese tank Before our hot ride in the Japanese tank

The elusive peak of Mount Merapi
The elusive peak of Mount Merapi

An emptied river bed in Kaliurang An emptied river bed in Kaliurang

Standing in front of Alien Rock, shaped like a face and said to have flown to this location during a previous eruption Standing in front of Alien Rock, shaped like a face and said to have flown to this location during a previous eruption

Scorched chair in the Kaliurang Museum Scorched chair in the Kaliurang Museum

Curiosity #39: Cemetery of the Sultans

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The weekend before Ramadan, visitors from all regions of Jojakarta came to Imogiri to pay tribute to the dead.

Imogiri, also known as the “Royal Cemetery,” houses the bodies of Central Java’s royal sultanate. Constructed in the mid-1600s, it serves as a pilgrimage site for Javanese traditionalists seeking sanctuary in prayer, and also for the spirits of deceased rulers who cater to the wishes of the devoted.

I visited Imogiri with another language student from Switzerland, along with two local women. Upon entering the site, we were told we had to exchange our Western clothing for traditional batik, as this was the garb most respectful for the dead. All four women entered a changing area the size of a gas-station bathroom and stood still as two elderly Indonesian ladies unclothed us and wrapped our sweating bodies in chocolate-covered fabric.

 We walked barefoot up a series of stone steps to the first cemetery dwelling, which housed the graves of the seventh and ninth sultans of the Mataram region.  Kneeling on a carpet outside the house of tombs, I listened to old men chanting Qur’anic verses: heads bowed, bodies rocking. Kneeling five feet ahead was the Sultan’s son, wife and two teenage grandsons. On one occasion one grandson’s cell phone rang, breaking the rhythm of the Qur’anic chants. I looked on with surprise as, without shame, the boy removed his cell-phone from his batik pocket, answered his text, and returned to prayer. Beside him an emaciated cemetery servant prayed over a bowl of burning flowers, which generated a sweet scent that wafted into the surrounding space.

After paying tribute to the recent sultans and their wives and after ascending 400 steps, we arrived at the resting place of Sultan Agung, the man who initiated the construction of the cemetery and who died in 1645. Beloved by the Javanese for the past three centuries, Sultan Agung rests at the very top of the site, built at an incline to resemble a mountain of snow.

Sultan Agung’s dwelling smelled like damp stone. I crouched as I shuffled beneath the ceiling into a small room where the royal coffin lay. As custom advised, I prayed beside the coffin for safety and prosperity, then proceeded to the other side of the coffin to complete my meditation. A man sat there cross-legged, candle in hand, and pointed to a crack in the tile in front of me. Kiss the crack three times while making a wish, he told me. So I placed my mouth where thousands have done so before, hoping there might be some truth in superstition, questioning the likelihood of a long-dead man reaching out to me: a sinful white woman, clueless about any sense of traditional belonging, bearing the nerve to fumble like a lost parasite through his tomb. 

 

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The Entrance into Imogiri

Curiosity #38: Exorcism at the Plaza

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At Ambarukmo Plaza, not far from the only Starbucks in Yogyakarta, is an outdoor terrace with a stage. It was here I witnessed my first Javanese ritual of exorcism. The ritual, Ruwatan, is an annual ceremony for those seeking to purge themselves of bad luck and spirits.

 The ritual lasted eight hours and was facilitated by a gamelan orchestra and a seventh generation Wayang puppeteer. Puppets of varying size and construction—two dimensional and decorated with gold trimmings—lined the rear of the stage. Throughout the duration of the performance the gamelan performers projected noise from their resounding gongs toward the puppeteer, who had been trained since youth to serve as both storyteller and shaman, and most importantly to communicate between his gods and his audience.

 The puppeteer’s storytelling was slow—sleep inducing at times—but I couldn’t help admiring his ability to alter his voice for the ogre who kidnapped the Javanese princess, the hero, and the stout comedian with the bulbous face.

 I attended the ritual alone. Towards the end of the production I was invited to sit beside a middle-aged man with a mustache. The bald man to my left informed me that that the mustachioed man beside me was the Sultan’s brother. The Sultan’s brother insisted that I enjoy some tea and snacks. So with royalty I sipped caffeine, munched on fried bananas, and watched as one by one, the puppeteer on stage chopped snippets of hair off the afflicted with a jeweled sword.

 At the side of the stage, half a dozen chickens rustled in their cages. Later I was told the animals were taken to the sea, where they were placed on the shore in a crippled state. When the spirit of the sea hungered for them, the offerings were plucked up and swallowed by the tide. 

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Above is the picture of a student gamelan troupe at an open studio in Yogyakarta. While gamelan is often associated with Wayang (shadow puppet) theatre, it also stands alone as contemporary art form. 

Curiosity #37: Happy Puppy

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Happy puppy is not a pet shop. It’s a karaoke bar—the most beloved in Yogyakarta—where sentimental folks sing late into the night. Here, Yogyakarta’s diverse populace commiserates over songs of love and heartbreak. People enjoy celebrity status on a micro-level, eat fried food, and watch music videos featuring Indonesian women trailing their fingers along glasses of fresh orange juice.

The lobby of Happy Puppy resembles a four-star hotel. At the welcome desk, should you choose to indulge in a night of crooning, simply request a room and the number of hours you’d like it reserved. An attendant will guide you through a hallway wallpapered in neon glow-in-the-dark fish and lead you into a room with black couches on which you’d expect to find pimps snorting cocaine.

Once seated, your attendant will ask if you’d like anything to eat or drink. The sign on his hat, “Puppy Club,” along with the larger-than-life image of Posh Spice glaring at you from the nearest wall, will convince you that you need a beer.

Fifteen minutes later your beverage will arrive while you are singing the Beatles with a middle-aged Australian man and his Indonesian wife, neither of whom you met before and neither of whom can hold a tune. Happy puppy is a happy place indeed; although you won’t truly appreciate this until an hour or two passes and you find yourself moaning the lyrics to Adele, arm-in-arm with strangers and without a trace of shame.

Jamming to The Beatles at Happy Puppy

Jamming to the Beatles at Happy Puppy