The Heartland of Javanese Culture

Trip Start Dec 23, 2010
Trip End Jan 09, 2011

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Where I stayed
ViaVia Guesthouse; D'Omah Hotel

Flag of Indonesia  , Java,
Saturday, December 25, 2010

We arrived in Yogyakarta on Christmas evening, taking the short flight from Jakarta after discovering that plane flights in Indonesia are quite cheap, plentiful, and fairly reliable. Jogja, as it is called by Indonesians, is the most cultured city in Java. Home to the most beautiful sultan's palace in Indonesia and close to its two most important historical sites, Jogja was an ideal place to spend a few days getting to know the country a bit better.

Bilal got his first real taste of SE Asia the next morning, when I forced him into a becak, a sort of rickshaw. As the driver struggled to push our rather heavy combined weight through heavy traffic, and Bilal tried not to watch the cars careening around us too closely, I laboured to find the local bird market on our makeshift map. Eventually, after asking directions from numerous friendly locals, we arrived at the market. Pet birds are quite popular in Indonesia and the Jogja market is a primary source. Every shop that we passed was either selling them or had a few on display. We then walked through the Sultan's water garden, which was clearly once beautiful but is now a crumbling relic. Fortunately the Palace has fared better and is in pristine condition, maintained by an army of local volunteers dressed in the traditional batik sarongs worn by the palace staff.

In the afternoon we joined a walking tour along the river that bisects the city. Our guide, a charming uni student who politely apologized when she had to take a quick break for evening prayers, led us through Jogja's poorer district. The houses here are badly damaged, quite regularly, by flooding from the river. In November the region had suffered an additional catastrophe when Merapi, the nearby volcano, erupted causing ash to rain for hundreds of kilometers around. Indonesians are never allowed to forget nature's capacity for destruction: tsunamis, flooding, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions are the trade offs for the balmy weather and incredible fecundity of their beautiful islands.

The locals used the catastrophe to their best advantage by harvesting the black volcanic sand that now filled the river and selling it to contractors for use elsewhere in Java. Each fifteen kilo bag fetches a price of 2500 rupiah, about 30 cents. Only a few people were working, however, as early evening was clearly the social hour. The riverside houses often consist of one tiny room, on the floor of which the entire family sleeps (the bathrooms are communal). People are therefore driven to socialize outside, and as we walked along the river we continually passed small groups of neighbours and families who greeted us with friendly smiles and greetings in Javanese and basic English. We were astounded by their relaxed amiability; even the sweating young men who were shoveling sand into a truck bed jokingly asked Bilal to join in and were delighted when he gave it a go. A strikingly beautiful woman about my age caught my glance and we simply looked at each other with equal curiousity, thinking, "I wonder what her life is like?". Such brief connections are the greatest of the many gifts of travel.

We decided to splash out for two nights at a beautiful local hotel. Normally I skimp on accomodation expense - I'm only using the room to sleep, after all, and basic guesthouses are quite adequate. Most starred hotels are mind numbingly generic and I've never understood people who travel long distances to purposely stay in a Marriott identical to the one a few kilometres from their homes.

But this place was well worth the $75/night. D'Omah is run by an Australian art expert who renovated 4 Javanese houses in the small village of Tembi, just south of Jogja. All of the staff are local villagers, who more than made up in diligence and enthusiasm what they may have lacked in professionalism. The houses are stunningly decorated with a mixture of modern and antique local artwork, demonstrating the Indonesian talent for creating beauty where it's least expected. Our stay at D'Omah drove home the realisation that the Indonesians are astonishing craftspeople.

I could have spent the rest of the trip curled up in the hotel's exquisite library, working my way through the owner's eccentric book collection and sipping gin & tonics whilst fantasizing that I was in a Raffles-era colonial hotel. But I was lured away from my armchair by an extraordinary woman. Blue eyed, pale skinned Aziza introduced herself as Turkish in a perfect Queen's English accent. She clearly relished our looks of surprise and told her fascinating story to us. 

She had been born in Turkey to English parents, but raised in England. She later returned to the East as a single young woman and procured a job in Saudi Arabia. One evening as she stood on her balcony in her abaya ("It was just easier and more comfortable to go native", she explained) three young men on horseback stopped below and called up to her in English. One of them was quite handsome and they spoke together for a few minutes. Another was very tall, 6'6", and spoke to her very politely but was clearly painfully shy. The next night, the handsome youth returned to her balcony and she discovered that he was a Turkish Osmanli (Ottoman) prince. She later converted to Islam and they married, defying strong opposition from both families. She never met the tall boy again but was shocked decades later to see him on the news described as the most wanted man on earth: Osama bin Laden.

Aziza and Bilal spent an evening reminiscing about Lebanon and swapping tales of personally experienced civil war atrocities. Her husband had been born in Tripoli and they spent quite a bit of time in there even during the worst of the fighting. She struck me as the last of the tradition of intrepid British women, like my personal heroine Lesley Blanch, who were lured to the East by a desire to escape stifling conventions and to embrace oriental romanticism.

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