This story is an excerpt from Mark’s soon-to-be published book. Tentatively titled ‘Crazy Little Heaven; travels in Indonesia, a journey through life,’ the book follows the adventures of four misfits on a journey across the untamed island of Borneo. Part travel story, part autobiography, and much more than that, this is a journey of the imagination, of the spirit; it is a journey through life, through marriage, through religion. It is a journey that spans two centuries and takes the reader from a childhood in Tasmania to a life in Indonesia, from one end of the archipelago to the other, from the jungles of Kalimantan to the riots and political turmoil of Jakarta. The writing is thick with lucid description, anecdotes and reflections on this ‘sweet disappearing world’.
We’ll let you know when it is published and where you can get a copy.
Once in every year a massive upheaval throws Indonesia into a kind of desperate, joyous chaos. The entire nation downs tools, offices and schools close, shutters are drawn and several millions of Indonesians pack their bags and journey home to their villages and towns to celebrate the festival of Idul Fitri with families, to reconnect with their cultural touchstones, and to complete a process of spiritual cleansing. The roads choke with endless lines of smoking buses, vans, cars and bikes, all crammed with tired and hungry travellers. The usually busy and somewhat erratic schedules of airports are thrown into confusion, and dangerously overloaded ferries ply between the nation’s thirteen thousand islands.
In the capital city of Jakarta, Lebaran is a quiet time, businesses shut, traffic jams ease and the skies clear as the town is drained of around a third of its massive population. Meanwhile in Yogyakarta, to the east, the city hums, brimful with home comers, business brisk as retailers large and small make the most of the annual influx.
I arrived with my family in Yogyakarta for the annual pilgrimage on the last day of the fasting month – my wife, Sopan, and two scruffy little boys: Rory and Harry. Arrival in Yogya is always a return to the familiar. The soft, round Yogya accents register as soon as one steps off the plane, walking across the shining wet tarmac and into the crowded terminal. Inside, the scramble for bags and, outside, the crush of folk waiting to greet returning family, was as good humoured as it was crazy. Chatting to the taxi driver, my wife, Sopan, slipped comfortably into Javanese, dropping her Indonesian and English in favour of the language of childhood, the language that defines who she really is. The Javanese language and culture of Yogya are widely regarded as the most refined in all of Java. I was left to quietly absorb the familiar sights and sounds as we wound our way southwest towards the city centre.
Yogyakarta is a city of puzzles and contradictions. It is undisputed as both the cultural and educational heart of Java, and perhaps of Indonesia. Granted ‘special status’ in the forties, a reward for support given to the independence movement by its Sultan, Yogyakarta remains a small monarchy within a constitutional republic, governed by the locally revered Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono the Tenth. It is a town proud of its heritage and of its cultural traditions. At the same time it is a student town, a centre for progressive politics, fringe arts and free thinking. A centre for Javanese mysticism and Indonesian Catholicism, its traditions are bound up in Islam. Its most famous monuments are the ninth century temples of Borobodur and Prambanan, the former Buddhist and the latter Hindu. In recent years, Yogya has also become a focus for Islamic revival and radical politics, adding another ingredient to the cultural mix.
One thing Yogya is not is a major commercial or industrial centre. As a result the city is poor and, for visitors, cheap. The poverty in Yogya is real enough. The majority of families struggle for the basics of life and choices between food on the table or a half decent education for the children are not easy to make; but, at least in my experience, the face of poverty in Yogya is dignified. With its rural surrounds, the town is one of the world’s most densely populated regions. In the centre, between narrow streets crammed in and around the Sultan’s old palace compound, are a hundred urban kampungs, villages of cement, brick and tile. Networks of lanes, just wide enough for a bike or a footpath, lead to many thousands of homes and boarding houses, each resting cheek by jowl against its neighbours. And in each one of these homes and communities the rituals of Lebaran are repeated.
Much of the communal and social life of Yogya is found in the streets. On this day, everyone was out, on a final shopping spree, a last chance to ensure that the family would be suitably turned out in new clothes for the next day’s festival, and that the table would be well stocked with food, sweet and savoury treats for family and visitors.
The usually crowded streets were this day crammed with motorbikes and pushbikes, most carrying between two and four passengers, entire families perched on the simple transport clutching shopping bags as they made their way home to prepare for breaking the fast. Smoking buses bore down the centre of the road, scattering becak pedalled by wiry farmers and townsfolk. The odd andong, a horse-drawn cart driven by a traditionally clad coachman, trotted past, its passengers ignoring the stream of cars, minibuses and trucks.
Street food vendors and market stalls lined the streets, preparing for early diners. As soon as sunset signalled time for breaking the fast, groups of students and families filled the pavements, sitting cross-legged on tikar mats where they enjoyed a range of local dishes and finger foods. Bright displays of fruit stood like works of art amongst the grime on street corners; fresh green mangoes, furry red rambutan, big juicy melons, scaly snake fruit, bright oranges, sweet purple mangosteens, apples and pears from the high country, stacked high with clusters of klengkeng and bunches of yellow and green bananas hanging from the simple frames. Young men wheeled kaki lima, little mobile kitchens serving bakso meatball soup, doughy steamed buns filled with mashed beans, colourful drinks of crushed ice and fruit, and sticks of chicken or goat satay, the aromas wafting out over the streets in clouds of white smoke.
It was the final hour of the final day of the fasting month. At sunset, for the last time, Muslims broke their fast together and the call to prayer announced the time for maghrib, the evening prayer.
Allah’u Akbar! God is Great!
Having worked our way through the street market of Jalan Marlioboro, a final parcel of batik in hand, we grabbed a becak – one of the ubiquitous pedicabs that ply Yogya’s streets – and headed through the cooling dusk for a nearby warung that served the traditional gudeg, a classic Javanese dish of steamed rice, fried chicken, dark brown preserved egg, beef skin and a sweet jackfruit stew. Here we broke our fast.
It’s around ten kilometres from the centre of town south to Bantul where my wife grew up and where her family live. Bantul lies just west of the north-south axis that defines Yogya, both physically and spiritually. From the north, a direct line can be drawn from the smoking peak of Mount Merapi down along Jalan Marlioboro, between the twin waringin trees in the alun-alun square, through the centre of the Sultan’s palace and south out across the plains to the coast at Parangritis, where Ratu Kidul, the South Sea Queen and mythological consort of the Sultan, resides beneath the waves, occasionally taking foolhardy bathers into her watery embrace.
“Let’s go by becak!” Sopan suggested.
And so the next hour or so was spent being pedalled through the streets of Yogya, winding our way in and out of the old palace walls and south through the countryside to Bantul. Along the way there was time to take in the atmosphere. Processions of kids carrying flaming bamboo torches and sometimes beautiful paper lanterns appeared in and out of side streets as we moved silently past.
Allah’u Akbar! God is Great!
The musical phrase was repeated from the speakers of one village mosque to the next. An expression of humility and a kind of love, this is a long way from the war cry sometimes expressed in these same words in places of violence and terror. As one mosque after another joined the refrain, the call began to swell and resonate across the city and the fertile plains south of Yogya, sounding more like a giant swarm of insects, a drone of bees.
Allah’u Akbar! Allah’u Akbar! Allah’u Akbar!
Becoming meditative and trancelike through repetition, taqbir, the sound enveloped all, broken only by the whoop and crash of occasional fireworks, the beating of drums and rattle of motorbikes, and the thud, thud, boom of homemade bamboo cannons. This was a night of nights!
We arrived and greeted the family just in time to watch the local procession pass by. Village kids streamed past, flaming torches dancing in the darkness, and bursts of light flared up lighting the scene as a young man, egged on by his mates, sprayed mouthfuls of kerosene into the air, ignited by his torch.
Whilst the torch lit processions circled the villages, a quieter activity took place in the background. In the mosques and village mushola, sacks of rice were collected and bagged up: zakat or alms giving. The rules laid down in the Prophet’s time still apply today and Muslims annually give a percentage of their income to be redistributed to the poor. This can take many forms, but here it is handled through the village mosque. Everyone in the village, even the poorest, should have enough to celebrate the festival of Idul Fitri.
The chanting went on. In between giggles and laughter, the torch-bearing children joined in, speakers mounted on minarets across the plains repeating the simple message.
God is Great! God is Great! God is Great!
Copyright © Mark Heyward, 2011
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