Start with the negative, just because. Jakarta traffic is as bad as any we’ve ever encountered. Only Bangkok compares. The two-wheeled vehicles swarm like bees, weaving in and out of cars/buses. Still Erin says far more people die annually from TB than from traffic accidents.
Probably this guy on the left has a load of sugar cane, point being that just about anything gets transported by motorcycle/scooter. And yet, the old faithful brahma bull cart is still in service. At least some things are reliable.
And you can get as good a cappuccino here as anywhere. Just ask us.
And you’ll always be safe because check this out:
Buy take care not to get thrown into a Dutch dungeon.
or accosted by a giant snail. Or caught in a tsunami. (This beautiful metal sculpture commemorating victims of the giant tsunami of 2004? is outside the national museum. Kind of hard to see the human figures caught up in the water, but look closely.
So there is beauty and art amid the traffic, and there are super restaurants, and most of all family together. Giving thanks. Left to right, Erin, Susanne, Carl, Caitlin, Sean. Above and to the rear, two unnamed Javanese unicorns.
Antonin Artaud led a theater movement in the 30’s and 40’s that argued for a drama that depended less on text and more on mysterious primal expressions of sound, movement, and light. He pointed toward Balinese dancers as the idea. When I was first introduced to his ideas in the 60’s I had only the vaguest ideas what he meant about Balinese dancers. He’s talking about renditions of the Ramayana stories which have become almost a cottage industry here in Indonesia. Last night we even witnessed one in which women and children played more than traditional roles. Hero Rama played by a woman? Not to mention his hunters charged with chasing down the demon who kidnaps Rama’s true love, Sita? Not to also mention the black monkeys played by little boys. Not to mention the entire gamelon/Rindik/drums orchestra consisting of women. There were three golden deer instead of one, two played by 14ish girls, one by a 12ish one. A very tasty treat.
The Artaud Balinese references? The play is acted with formulated gestures, all precisely executed right down to the eyeballs (literally, the eyes must slide up, down, right left at certain moments), and there are no spoken words. A narrator may tell the story that’s being portrayed, but the actors say nothing. It helps that the audience knows the story as well as, say, the Greeks knew the legend of Oedipus. It’s a nice idea, Artaud, and this is wonderful theater, but what would the world of stage be without Shakespeare’s text?
Anyway, aside from history and scholarly debates, you can catch one of these performances in at least a couple of places here in the village/district of Ubud, and I assume various other places on this emerald/enchanted isle.
All of you who have been wondering (everyone, I’m sure.) how a Hindu bastion such as Bali remains in the midst of the overwhelmingly Muslim and (somewhat) Christian populace as Indonesia, here’s the historical explanation. All true
Bali was a good king with a peaceful kingdom full of happy people. Vishnu saw this and appeared at his door as a guest, a dwarf, and was taken in as custom demanded. He proved an entertaining fellow, and Vishnu/dwarf and Bali had a good visit. When it came time to leave, Bali, as custom demanded, offered a boon. Vishnu said he’d like some land. How much? All I can cover in three strides. Bali argued that wasn’t enough, but the dwarf insisted, so Bali relented.
In an instant, Vishnu revealed himself as a god and became enormous. So enormous that he covered the entire earth in two strides. Now it was time for the third step, but there was no place for Vishnu to rest his foot, so Bali offered his head as a stepping stone. Which he should have known better because in Indian battles if your opponent steps on your head, you’re toast. Thus Bali became an underworld demon with only an island to his name.
Lessons? Why would Vishnu do this to a good king with a happy kingdom? Answer. The kingdom was too happy, too stable. The Hindu pantheon needs a balance of order and chaos. Perfect order is death. Bali’s kingdom was too happy, so had to be disrupted. Ordinarily one might expect that this would be a job for Shiva the destroyer, but these guys cross over into each other’s boundaries all the time. You never can tell which god will be after you or will help you. Keep praying.
An hour Southeast of Jakarta by air lies Yogyakarta, which to hear it told is confusing as hell because it sounds a lot like some alternate version of “Jakarta,” and to see it spelled looks nothing like “Jo-jee-karta,” which is they way it’s pronounced. Then there’s the truncated everyday nickname “Jojee.”
All that aside, we found it to be a place with distinctions well-beyond its (for us) nonexistent reputation. It’s got a lot of the usual tropical stuff going for it–banana trees, palms, sarongs, sandals, batik, mynahs. What’s not usual, (except for the batik fabrics, about which more in another chapter) are the recovering ruins of two ninth century temples within virtual shouting distance of one another. And they’re not even of the same religion.
First off, Borobudur, world’s largest Buddhist Temple. It sits high up, hence one version of its name as “temple on a hill.”
If you walk around its various levels clockwise and are learned enough to know what you’re looking at, you can read in the thousands of fascinating reliefs every imaginable version of every imaginable event in the life of Buddha. For those of us not quite so scholarly it’s still an impressive artistic display. And it’s 1100 years old. And here we all are happy to be there.
From Borobudur, it’s only a few miles down the road to Prambanan, the largest Hindu Temple in Central Java. Still ninth century–lot of religion going on in those days. The name means “many priests,” and apparently there were Buddhists in residence also at some point. However, the main dedication of the site is to the three main Hindu dieties, Dharma, Shiva, and Vishnu. We know from our Indian travels that the temple was once brightly painted. What’s as impressive here as all the artistic magnificence is that it was once buried in lava, this area being located in one of the hottest spots in the ring of fire. How it is begin recovered and reconstructed we can’t imagine, but so glad that it is.
A surprise bonus of the kind that makes you glad to travel was this group of girls who approached us obviously as part of a school English-learning project.
The leader (Cute, isn’t she? They all are.) asked some basic questions like name, place of origin and copied the answers in a notebook. Then came the cherry on top–“Do you like music?” “Of course.” “We will sing you a song.”
Their opening number was “If You’re Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands.” They went on to “The More We Get Together, The Happier We’ll Be.” I was willing to let them exhaust their entire repertoire, whatever it was. But I was overruled. The video is too long to include here. Pity. But wonderful that at it happened.
And that wasn’t even the whole day, but more than enough for now.
For a theater guy, the other day had it all. We headed for Batavia, what the Dutch East Indies Corporation called this (now Jakarta) Javanese port in honor of an ancient name for Holland. There’s a big plaza, 18th-19th century European buildings (very white) under restoration. By pure chance, our first stop was Wayang–puppet theater–museum. We’d barely had a chance to look at a couple of displays when a guy whose name turned out to be Aldy approached and began explaining the history, construction, and current state of shadow puppets and their theater.
I knew we were being hustled a bit, but did I mind? Not a whit. We followed him all the way down the hall, outside and around the building to the resident theater where a performance was imminent, with Aldy playing all the roles and manipulating the “actors”.
The show was a brief excerpt from that millennia-old epic the Ramayana, wherein Rama’s wife, Sita, is kidnapped for the zillionth time by the demon king and must be rescued. It lasted fifteen minutes, but could have lasted nine hours if Aldy had given us everything he had. Fortunately he was willing to let the audience off easy except for the sales pitch at the end, a sales pitch which was quite successful for yours truly.
At the top appears on the left, the tree of life on the leaf-shaped fan, the pattern of which is punched out of buffalo hide by hand, hammer blow by hammer blow, using punches of various sizes, then painted. On the right, on the other side of the fan, is a hell-mouth. That demon figure is self-explanatory. The tree of life, whose details are regrettably hard to see, consists of a trunk and branches guarded by a pair of lions, with ascending figures of importance topped by monkeys, symbols of wisdom.
Lastly, in the larger image, we see our epic hero and his true love facing one another on opposite sides of the tree of life. We bought a tree of life/hellmouth, and a Rama/Sita couple. They are shown here in front of the screen, but in the true show, they stay behind the screen and their shadows are cast from behind. Very, very good stuff.