Curiosity #68: The Happy Honey Bee

Indonesia, Uncategorized

At the Happy Honey Bee, I was escorted into a green room decorated with English letters and seated in front of a pastry box filled with chocolate and non-refrigerable cheese.

“You just read the sentences and they will respond to you,” said one of the teachers, throwing a flap of her blue veil over one shoulder. She handed me a packet of questions, holding in her own hand a stack of evaluation sheets with which she would grade her students.

I was informed that I would be introduced to 30 children between the ages of 5 and 13, almost none of whom had experienced a single interaction with a native English speaker.

The door opened to admit the first test participant. He slid himself onto the stool across from me: six or seven years old, not more than 40 pounds. His superhero t-shirt hung loosely over his torso and draped across his dangling legs.

“Hello!” I said.

The teacher told me his name was Ijin.

Ijin looked like he was about to pee in his chair.

“Can you name five fruits?” I asked sweetly. As if taunted by a trolling riddle, Ijan glanced away and looked toward his teacher, who translated the question into Indonesian.

Ijin stared blankly at the corner, and the teacher shifted to smile apologetically at me. “Apple” Ijin responded at last with great effort. “Banana…” And the rest were lost to him.

Next up was Amalia, whose responses were slightly more than catatonic. Outside the testing room I could see her chasing the other children in a fury of glee, laughter escaping her mouth and resounding into the garden; but as soon as she stepped inside to meet me, her smile disappeared. She sat down, and I watched her eyes mist over as if she were dissolving into a better place.

“Chopsticks,” she said when I asked her to name several kitchen utensils. Despite being only eight years old, Amalia had already begun sporting the veil as a trend and wore a bright pink hijab that ruffled down to her sternum, polka-dotted with Hello Kitties that smiled to match the patches on her jeans. A rainbow shirt flowed from beneath her veil so from head to toe she looked like a tent for hippies high on LSD.

All bright things grow dim in the face of gravity. To Amalia, my strange voice and stranger smile signified questionable and looming intentions, like a doctor with a needle or a circus animal pressed up against its cage. In the time I waited for her to assemble the courage to speak, I watched the sway of the Eiffel Tower dangling from a bracelet on her wrist.

All afternoon it went like this, with children being led in to my shadow. Five minutes each. Sometimes they were brought in three at a time, leaving me singing the “A, B, Cs” by myself to eyes strung open to various intensities. They shoved their hands between the bench cushions for comfort and, when they breathed through their lips, nothing came out.

The braver ones spoke of Doraemon and fried chicken. They told me that they chose their friends because they were beautiful.

Others spoke with gentle urging from their teachers. Last year I interviewed an eight-year-old girl whose round face, I remember clearly, popped out from her shepherd-style hijab like a swollen moon. The girl’s teacher, a flamboyant college student studying English for tourism, crouched beside her for support. Upon being asked to describe a member of her family, the little girl blinked. Her teacher placed a hand on her back and told her exactly what to say.

“My mother,” the teacher began.

The girl took a deep breath. “My mother.”

“Has.”

“Has.”

“A fat body.”

“A. Fffat. Bodeee.”

“The whole sentence?”

“My. Mother. Has. A. Fat. Body.”

The beauty of freed speech.

After suffering through trials with me, the children were given candy and snacks. Each time the door opened to admit a new student, the other children swarmed to look at me, their mouths stuffed with chocolate and neon chips.

At last the school’s owner, Popi, sat down to discuss his students’ performance. I told him their major struggle was lack of confidence, which clearly didn’t surprise him. He smiled with characteristic Javanese ease and gazed through the open door to where the children ran giggling from room to room. “You know they’re rarely exposed to foreigners,” he said. “And at other locations in Indonesia, it’s even worse. Native speakers are hard to find, and when they come, they don’t stay long.”

Popi’s wife entered with their two-year-old daughter. Popi took her into his arms and bounced her on his knee. Like most of the students, Popi’s daughter carried excess fat on her little bones: a signifier of the upper class.

“It’s hard to give the right resources to all Indonesians,” he said, “but maybe in the future…” and he trailed off like Ijin forgetting his fruits.

Popi’s daughter, undaunted by my alien presence, opened her mouth to sing.

“Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?” she crooned into the otherwise quiet room: and just in time for the sun to sink. From the open window, in the time it took Happy Honey Bee’s students to remember their third kitchen utensil, the classroom filled with dusk.

Curiosity #49: Eager Communicators

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Harry Burger sat across from me, grinning with a sandaled foot crossed over a skinny leg dressed in pleather. This would be one of the most pure-hearted people I would ever meet.

On either side of Harry Burger and I were six male college students gathered in this café and soccer bar just to practice their English conversation skills. This late in the night, I was one of the few women left in the gymnasium-sized venue, and certainly the only female accompanied exclusively by men. As I sat exhaustedly on the cafe bench, I reminded myself that I had been invited here to communicate about my culture to anyone who was curious, and since I had taken residency in Indonesia to teach and be grateful, I felt I had no business saying “no” to an innocent night of coffee and grammar.

Harry Burger was the first to lean across the table. “I love American English,” he said, although it was clear he spoke little of it. The men sitting around him were quiet, but Harry lunged at every silence to share the few phrases he knew in my language. He began reciting a rhyme he learned from a former American acquaintance: “Five little monkeys sitting on the bed. One jumped off and broke his head!” Then, like a cowboy from an old Western, he stood up from his chair and reached forward to shake my hand. Somewhat startled, I took it.

“My name is Harry Burger,” he said fiercely. “Congratulations to your family!”

Harry’s phone began to ring, and its tune was unmistakable: it was “Jingle Bells”. As I began to explain how his ring-tone referenced a specific Christian holiday, Harry burst out with song-like exclamation. “Congratulations! Merry Christmas!” he said, then sat down in the October night like a champ who had won a battle of wits.

I laughed, but hardly knew how else to respond. The young man sitting next to me explained that Harry Burger was older than he looked (perhaps in his thirties) and had come to this city on a whim. In Indonesian, I asked Harry where he came from.

“I’m from Sunda, West Java,” he said. “I came to Yogyakarta because I wanted the experience of living in a city.” It was clear Harry had no wife or family, and so had no qualms moving to a new metropolis without a plan, even if it meant relying on a low-wage job that required minimal creative-power.

“I found a job at a burger stand,” he said. “It’s called Mr. Burger. That is why I am now called Harry Burger.” And that was that. In my life I had never met a person with a less appetizing name, nor with a more buoyant smile.

The night wore on. Harry asked me if “I have to pee” had the same meaning as “I have to wash my hands”. He pronounced “p” like “f”, then ran off to the toilet to “fee”. He asked me the different variations of the word “mother”. Then he told me of the female giant of Java, and how — like in America — there was a place in Java for women who were strong. He delivered a 10 minute recitation of an Islamic prayer in English (all memorized) about how God designed men and women differently, yet did not hope to limit one gender or the other. Oh Allah, the most merciful.

Harry Burger’s greatest dream was to generate the largest family possible. He made friends from all over the world, including Europe, Brazil, and Kansas, and kept in touch with every new “sibling” via Facebook. He cared about all humans because regardless of religion or geographical origins, people were all the same.

An exotic cross-dresser sang and danced beside our table. Harry gave the dancer a tip and shook the dancer’s hand in greeting.

I was driven home on a motorbike by a wild man with static hair who suggested that some time we go swimming together in a hotel pool. But all I could think of was Harry Burger flipping meat at a mediocre burger stand, grinning because he had a colossal network of friends founded in a limitless capacity for unconditional love. Furthermore Harry had no one to hate, and infinite confidence that his international “family” — be it in spirit, person, or Facebook — would keep him company until the day he died.

Before I went to sleep that night, I received a text from Harry Burger telling me that, at that very moment, he was studying English in his bedroom. “Congratulations and Merry Christmas,” the text read. “Have a nice dream.”

This is a typical Mr. Burger stand, found on almost every major street, where many locals in Yogyakarta stop to find gourmet street-meat

This is a typical Mr. Burger stand, found on almost every major street, where many locals in Yogyakarta stop to find gourmet street-meat

Curiosity #48: Feast of the Sacrifice

Indonesia, Religion, Uncategorized

Thousands of years ago, Abraham raised a knife over his first-born son. The boy, trembling before his impending sacrifice, was spared when God decided He had witnessed loyalty enough. As Abe’s blade hovered high before the plunge, the Divine Hand traded the innocent boy for a farm animal, and so sheep’s blood was spilled FOR THE LORD.

Muslims today celebrate Abraham’s sacrifice during the festival of Eid al-Adha, also known as “Feast of the Sacrifice” or “Kurban.” Eid al-Adha praises the solemnity with which Abraham bore his faith and his blade. Every October, communities everywhere join in demonstrations of prayer and slaughter.

For this year’s celebration of Eid al-Adha, I went to the Javanese village of Magelang, where a middle-aged Muslim couple welcomed me into a home overlooking hills of unpicked rice. After serving a cup of milk coffee, the couple asked me about my origins. I learned that for over countless generations the couple’s extended family lived and died within a few hundred kilometers of where we sat. I should feel at home, they said.

Out of hospitality, or perhaps unwillingness to host an unveiled woman near unmarried men, the couple offered a bed in their brother’s palatial home: unoccupied since that part of the family moved to Malaysia. The “villa” as they called it, towered around the corner beside the village mosque. Mid-evening, as I brushed my hair in front of an ornamented mirror, the electricity failed me. In the blackness alone, I was haunted by piety left behind by the absent home owners: a ghost of predatory, secular-related guilt that pursued me in the bedroom from the main hall, where I knew there was a film-noir-style portrait of the lady of the house staring out beneath a stark black veil. My reservoir of sin had been detected. I was convinced I would die.

The guest room in the palatial home where I was asked to spend the night alone

The guest room in the palatial home where I was asked to spend the night alone

Instead I woke up at 5:30 in the morning and, shortly thereafter, was taken to the local mosque. I was accompanied by the host-couple’s daughter: a charismatic law student of 23. She taught me how to wear a veil. Because she was menstruating, she was not permitted to attend the mosque service, so the two of us sat beside her grandparents’ grave in a courtyard next to the mosque and listened to the Imam’s voice chanting from the loudspeakers. Beneath the mosque’s outer dome, the non-menstruating women closed their eyes and swayed.

After the conclusion of the official service, my host-sister and I were allowed to enter the mosque. Removing my shoes, I knelt beside the women who lingered to worship. Over the speakers the Imam sang a hymn and the worshippers held up their hands in a cup-like gesture, as if to collect something precious. I closed my eyes and tried to join them. As usual, I couldn’t raise my thoughts above Earth. To my best ability I attempted to shove aside my skepticism and pride and, in doing so, was able to meditate to the chants of the surrounding women. They sang divine praise in soothing vibrations. It was enough.

Later, the villagers congregated behind the mosque to watch the “Kurban” or slaughter ceremony. Upon entering the village clearing, I saw that a white cow, about the size of a car, had been roped beside a sizeable dirt hole.

Four men were required to bring down the beast. The cow struggled. Young men of the village rushed in from all sides to grab the animal’s limbs and stop the writhing. Finally accepting defeat, the cow lay still for the knife. Next to the beast, the Imam stood with a long blade in his right hand. Lifting his head up to the sky, the Imam bellowed the name of God: “Allahu Akbar.” God is the greatest. The voices of the congregants rose to join the cry. Many of the women and children held hands, and soon the whole community sang to God and His unlucky cow.

Cow down in the village clearing

Cow down in the village clearing

Before the knife was laid upon the animal, I stepped close to bid a private farewell. Looking at the cow’s eyes, the cow to my surprise did not seem far from peace. I wondered if it knew anything of the pain it would endure, or if — like a baby in the warm arms of a stranger — the cow found comfort in the hands of many men cupping its body as it lay at mercy. Perhaps the sturdiness of the animal’s captive state was just gentle enough for it to surrender and let go. I wondered how many living things, humans or beasts, were given the privilege of dying under the touch of so many warm-blooded creatures.

The actual slaughter, of course, was difficult to watch. I had never witnessed the death of an animal so large, and especially (forgive me) with a neck so thick. I stood at a distance so the spray of blood wouldn’t reach my white skirt, and for comfort I clutched the arm of my host-sister who, upon the first spatters of blood, gently took my head and brought it to rest upon her shoulder. Gaze now pointed slightly below the gruesome scene, I looked at the animal’s legs, which were elegantly crossed and shuddering. As the cow’s movements slowed to a halt, the village men kept their palms firmly on the hide, waiting for the pain of their victim to slip into God’s more merciful hands.

Sheep were brought forth by families who could afford the expense. The animals were hung from a pole, where prayers were administered and knives swiped. The children gathered and waved goodbye to the sheep waiting to die. Some little boys approached the sheep that were already dead and, with a crude and morbid bravery, grabbed ahold of the horns. With innocence the little boys pretended to “steer” the fallen sheep like motorbikes, and — despite the disconcerting disregard for pools of blood beneath their feet — such play made it admittedly easy for me to forget about death, or at least quell the concept as an afterthought.

Standing beside two sheep before they were led into the clearing for slaughter

Standing beside two sheep before they were led into the clearing for slaughter

As the morning wore on, the Imam’s white t-shirt became increasingly red. Between each slaughter, the Imam descended a flight of steps into the mosque washroom to splash water on himself and to sharpen his knife. Upon each request to bless another sacrifice, the Imam ascended the steps like a gladiator.

The village Imam standing over the cow

The village Imam standing over the cow

After the death of all animal offerings, the cow and sheep were skinned. I watched the skinning process with reluctant fascination.

Men crowding around the cow during the skinning process

Men crowding around the cow during the skinning process

At last the meat was evenly distributed in plastic bags to the villagers without regard for financial status or religious affiliation. Beside me older men gossiped and smiled amongst themselves. Winking at my host mother, they suggested the prospect of marrying me off to a nice Muslim man from the village.

Standing at the side of the clearing with the older village men

Standing at the side of the clearing with the older village men

In the morning before leaving Magelang, my host father sat beside me at the coffee table. He encouraged me to bring my parents for a visit to his village. “We are not terrorists,” he said, smiling.

I assured my host-father that not all Americans associated Islam with either violence or terrorism. I also told him that perhaps the greatest hospitality I had ever received was from Muslims in Indonesia. My host father grinned broadly. “Bring your family here to my village and they will see we are a friendly people,” he said. “Bring them here and we will make them feel at home.”

I wondered what it meant to “feel at home” in a place where people unified under a common religion with which none of one’s loved ones identified. And I wondered at how a village so protective of its modesty might approach other members of my culture who found the greatest fulfillment in being — in every way — unveiled.

But then I observed my host-father’s earnest smile, which was in no way burdened by my partially exposed skin, bare head of hair, or even my lack of religious affiliation (which I had admitted upon my first night of arrival). His smile reflected an openness I envied: an openness to accept anyone outside his family as his own blood, to respect all individuals regardless of what spiritual plane they were bound for. It was this realization that made me wonder if I could ever bring myself to return to Magelang: not because I didn’t feel I could belong, but because I didn’t feel worthy of kindness suitable for someone far purer of heart.

The interior of the mosque after the conclusion of holiday services. Here, the the village men took their breakfast.

The interior of the mosque after the conclusion of holiday services. Here, the the village men took their breakfast.

Socializing in the mosque

Socializing in the mosque

My host-sister and I at the conclusion of the Kurban ceremony

My host-sister and I at the conclusion of the Kurban ceremony

Curiosity #47: Plant Envy

Uncategorized

In hills of Imogiri, in the fields beyond Yogyakarta’s borders, is a small farm at the forefront of Indonesian permaculture. The farm’s owner—once a hippie wasting away on shrooms and LSD, later a businessman cashing in on capitalism—traded his long hair for a Muslim cap, his Balinese mansion for a farm cottage, and his fast-track success in international business for the slow-blooming movement of self-sustainable farming. This has since become his Jihad.

I visited the permaculture farm on a Saturday with a professor of Sufism who wanted to investigate the mystical potential of agriculture. After driving down a secluded road, the farm’s owner greeted us in the driveway. He was a towering 6’2’’, about 60 years old, and—with facial features lent by half-English blood—looked like the child of Cary Grant and a dark-skinned countess. No ordinary man; certainly no ordinary farmer: he collected the feces of farm animals in neat bins beneath a row of rabbit cages, harvested vegetables with fertilizer enriched by decomposing horns of cows, met his wife—now a craftswoman of homemade mulberry jam and organic “men’s enhancement capsules”—in the jungle while he was searching for his soul.

The interior of the farmer’s cottage looked not unlike a open-air cabin from the American West. On the floor were Muslim prayer mats laid beside glassless windows. The walls were polished and decorated with Indonesian art. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I sipped a fermented beverage thickened with goat’s milk and munched on multi-grain bread. Eager to know more about how a man once freed by wealth and narcotics could possibly choose a life of field labor and spiritual rigor, I asked the farmer about his path. Smoothing out his Sufi beard in that wise-mentor-sort-of-way (or perhaps this was just my imagination), my host told me all about his initiation into the world of plants and the intimate channel between God and humble forms of life.

Islam, he said, was the religion that placed the most emphasis on the relationship between God and the earth. To him Islam was the only religious path that adequately emphasized the importance of man’s coexistence with nature. He quoted a well-referenced Islamic Hadith:

“The Earth is green and beautiful, and Allah has appointed you his stewards over it. The whole earth has been created a place of worship, pure and clean. Whoever plants a tree and diligently looks after it until it matures and bears fruit is rewarded. If a Muslim plants a tree or sows a field and humans and beasts and birds eat from it, all of it is love on his part.”

A significant population of modern Muslims follow the environmentalist effort. Some believe that Global Warming is the result of humankind’s cruelty against God’s creations, and the best way to solve the globe’s environmental crisis is by abandoning plans for new supermarkets and tree-chopping and instead give the land some hands-on love. The universe “gives back” what its inhabitants deliver, so humans gain nothing by distributing more trash than growth.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the farmer’s philosophy came from his mystical, almost envious, approach to plant-life.

God made virtuous things smell sweet, said the farmer. Plants have no pig-headedness or pride preventing them from living symbiotically with God’s other creations or from absorbing divine power. Plants bend appreciatively towards the sunlight, enrich the soil, and filter ambient air so other forms of life can prosper alongside their roots. In return, God blesses plants with the sweetest of smells, (in some cases) hundreds of sex organs, longevity, and an almost super-natural sensitivity to the world’s phenomena.

“Think about the kind of pleasure a plant experiences over the course of a lifetime,” said the farmer, “and about what humankind can learn from them.”

Perhaps I am too congested with pride to funnel supernatural energy like a plant, and perhaps I am too dependent on the expressions of humanity to accept the sympathy of a drooping flower. But there is logic in the benefits of putting out more growth than harm, and there is a sort of spiritual impasse to pushing forward with human-centric aspirations for high reputation and “personal growth.”

Perhaps the old farmer was right; perhaps the real graveyards are in the carpentry sheds among shelves of fallen wood. Perhaps our bottle-wasting, paper-crumpling, meaning-searching lives will actually limit our potential for spiritual fulfillment.

Maybe if I had the opportunity to trade my human-centric ego for other-worldly happiness, I would do it. But I can’t help the excitement I feel at witnessing art inspired by grapplings for the “self”, and I can’t help but plunge with gratification into earthly experiences that would not exist without human agency, pride, and—from time to time—the willingness to waste.

Perhaps this latter approach to life will bear me no fruit. Or perhaps it will give birth to something more temporary; just as tasteful for the soul.

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

Uncategorized

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