Saturday, January 10, 2004

From Balapan to Gambir

From Balapan to Gambir

After an eight hour train journey from Stasiun Balapan in Solo, I'm back in Jakarta and blogging from my regular Internet cafe. There's work for me ahead--lectures to be prepared and exam questions to be set.

The weather was wet and gloomy through most of the journey but the dampness only accentuated the lushness of the countryside: There were endless vistas of fertile rice fields, broken every now and then by the savagery of rivers and rapids. The greenness enveloped me like a balm, making the train journey a rather untiring one, perhaps even rejuvenating.

I have a love for train stations and I had purposely wanted to make my return journey from the Balapan station in Solo: I know of Stasiun Balapan from a song by the same name composed by Didi Kempot. Like Bengawan Solo, it is another keroncong favourite.

There is a certain romance that I associate with places of departure--seaports, train stations and airports. I often try to go early for my journeys so that I can linger at the station and soak in the atmosphere of adventure and the promise of possibilities that such places exude.

As the Argo Lawu was transporting me slowly across the Javanese landscape from Solo to Jakarta, I journeyed into The Lost Heart of Asia with Colin Thubron. Whenever my eyes felt tired from reading, I would let my ears take over by switching to my audiobook, spending a delightful Year in Provence with Peter Mayle in the process. I arrived in Jakarta with a yearning for French wine, and my mind was partly in the Silk Road city of Bakhara with Colin Thubron.

But the din of bajajs and porters at Gambir station brought me back to reality. I was soon checked into the comforts of my temporary home. I look forward to a productive night of work, perhaps with a nice bottle of red wine to fuel it.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Going Solo

Going Solo

The Javanese people that I meet in Yogjakarta are very proud of their multi-religious roots, and rightly so. My guide at the Jogja kraton (palace), Ibu Titi, took great pains to explain to me the design of its pillars which have Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic influences. The driver I hired to bring me around, Mas Supryi--the humblest of Javanese--told me that all religions are but different paths to reach the same goal. Wise words indeed from a man who hardly makes 300K rupiah a month to support his family of a wife and three school-going kids.

I meet some of the nicest people in Jogja, even though the city has become a bit of a tourist place with becak drivers that will never leave you alone (becak! kraton! batik!).

After a day of loitering around Jogja town (where I finally managed to find some good Bung Karno posters from a roadside vendor) , I rose early to visit the Prambanan temple on the road to Solo. The Prambanan temple complex comprising of a number of shrines built to worship Shiva, Ganesha, Vishu and Durga among others, are as astounding to me as Borobudur.

These temples with lofty stone spires look a bit like half-submerged versions of the Petronas Twin Towers from a distance. They rise majestically from the surrounding greenery, sprouting spirituality from every stone.

It was another tiring trek for me, going up and town the temples with steep steps; reaching the top, one would automatically half-kneel at the feet of these Gods, both from awe and exhaustion.

I then continued my Javanese odyssey to Solo--that other center of Javanese culture, one-and-a-half hours by car from Jogja. Solo or Surakarta has its own Sultan and kraton too--even older than the one in Jogja.

I was also eager to visit Solo because I wanted to see Bengawan Solo--the River Solo that inspired that famous song composed by Gesang. Bengawan Solo is arguably the most famous keroncong song in the world--even the Japanese are fond of it. I have been told by friends before that the colour of the river is murky brown--so I wasn't surprised to find it looking a bit like the rivers that I'm familiar with back in my hometown. Standing there by the banks of Bengawan Solo, for a moment I was transported back to my rustic childhood days...

Tomorrow I'll have to end this solo pilgrimage of mine into the Javanese heartland. I plan to take a day train that will snake its way back to Jakarta, allowing me to savour the Javanese landscape along the way. Alone in Solo, I feel a certain spiritual peace--a contentment that only pilgrims would comprehend.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

The Abode of the Buddhas

The Abode of the Buddhas

I decided to spend one free and easy day in Yogjakarta without any fixed plans. I wanted some time to wander around the city and absorb the soul of Jogja.

Yesterday was tiring because I had to trek up the Borobudur temple and also managed to squeeze in a visit to the kraton (not forgetting Taman Sari, or Water Castle).

Being a fan of Buddhism myself, I find the Borobudur a magnificent piece of structure. There are ten levels that make up this 3-D mandala construction, soaring from a base that measures almost 1 hectare to an apex filled with ponderous stupas staring into the lush-green hills and plains of Central Java.

Borobudur is certainly one of the treasures of the world, in the ranks of Angkor Wat and perhaps the Machu Pichu. It is a comic-book carved in stone: starting from events leading to the birth of Gautama Buddha, to his ultimate Enlightenment. I imagine the carvers who worked on the stone embarking on a spiritual quest of karma yoga themselves as they slowly trace the life of the Buddha all the way up the ten levels.

Its entire perimeter is lined with stone relief panels, each depicting an episode in the Buddha's life, punctuated by statues of serene-faced Buddhas in different meditative poses--some headless from the ravages of time and vandals. One cannot help but admire the enormous religious dedication of the people from this bygone era. Imagine the tons of stones that had to be laboriously hauled up the hill to be carved in majestic intricacy. It is a feat that defies imagination.

The weather yesterday was as hot as it could be with azure skies and a bright-hot sun which brought out the sculptures in their full glory. I paid for an official guide, a Pak Suyono, who has been doing this job for the past 30 years. He knew every stone panel like the back of his hand and showed me the best spots to take photos. He was worth every rupiah (30K) that I paid for his services.

The bell-like stupas at the top of the complex was beautiful in their regularity and simplicity--one feels like lingering there forever, among the stupendous beauty that is this symphony of stones.

When I finally descended from the temple, I was sunburned and exhausted. It had taken me a mere 13 hours starting from the Gambir train station in Jakarta to reach this Abode of the Buddhas, in the bosom of mystical Java. But the path towards Nirvana,symbolically represented by the clockwise trek up the structure, is an infinitely tougher one--one that will take perhaps many many more lifetimes.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Into the Heartland

Into the Heartland

It will be quite tough for me to blog these coming few days as I am on the road. Finding a good Internet cafe can be quite a challenge sometimes--they are either too slow or too expensive. But I'll try to blog a few lines whenever I can.

Last night I took the Argo Lawu train from Gambir to Yogjakarta ("Jogja"). The train departed at 8.55pm and was scheduled to arrive at 4.30am; it only managed to arrive at 5.30am, which was better, as dawn was breaking and it was already bright.

I had a friendly Javanese grandmother for company during my entire journey. She was returning to Solo after visiting her daughter's family in Jakarta. She has six children in total--all of them married except for one and they are scattered all over Indonesia--Jakarta, Bandung, Bengkulu among others.

Ibu was the embodiment of Javanese grace and courtesy. We spent more than two hours talking about the differences in culture between the Javanese and the Betawi (native Jakartan) people--one of her son-in-laws is Betawi. She said she had difficulty getting along with him initially because Betawi people are more aggressive and "rough" compared to the Javanese who are cultured and reserved. We also talked about food (nasi liwet, she told me, is native to Solo) and her many grandchildren. She worries about them as modern kids are not brought up anymore with the strict discipline that her generation was accustomed to.

I enjoyed my conversation with ibu and was flattered when she told me that my bahasa was halus; coming from a Javanese, that was a compliment that made my day. The seven-and-a-half hour journey didn't feel that long.

I'm finally in the Javanese heartland. I managed to catch a few winks on the train and I didn't waste a second upon arrival early in the morning. I checked into a budget hotel, freshened myself up and rested for an hour before making my pilgrimage to Borobudur. I will probably write more about it in my coming days. Now I'm trying to digest the excellent nasi gudeg dinner I had an hour ago at the lesehan along Jalan Malioboro.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004



The only place where one can find a good selection of audiobooks is Borders in Singapore. I used to be a regular customer there. In most other bookstores, at most you can only find some self-improvement tapes.

Audiobooks are great because you don't have to use your eyes to "read"--you can even do so in the dark. That's why they are such good companions to me whenever I need to go on a long journey by train or bus.

In Singapore, most people in the MRT subway have their ears plugged into their Walkman if not their cellphone anyway. Why not listen to an audiobook? You make better use of your input channels that way.

In Jakarta, I rarely get a chance to listen to audiobooks on the road, because my journeys are usually short ones by taxi. Audiobooks have instead become my bedtime "reading". I am often lulled to sleep by Vivekananda's Yoga aphorisms or Karen Armstrong's narration of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. Sometimes it'll be poetry by Yeats. You can listen to an audiobook that way for years and never get to reach the end of the book!

Many actors and actresses do readings of popular books; my favourite is Peter Coyote. His reading of the Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans make tears stream down my cheeks. I normally would not buy popular bestseller fiction like the Horse Whisperer, but in this case, I listened to the book, because it was read by Peter Coyote. It is also a joy sometimes when the author himself reads his own work. Karen Armstrong is a good example and I'm such a big fan of her British headmistress voice!

I am surprised why audiobooks are not as popular as they should be. Most people find reading books tiresome and boring. Try listening to one instead--it is a less strenuous task and can even be quite entertaining.

KL folks spend a lot of time on the road listening to the idle chatter of radio DJs and the constant repetition of silly Manglish commercials. To me that's wasted bandwidth. And we complain that we do not have enough time to read. Why not make better use of one's time by listening to a book while driving?

And for avid readers, one can easily double one's intake of books by using those bits and pieces of time while commuting or doing household chores by listening to audiobooks. Information, unlike food, can be absorbed through many different channels. So, teach your ears how to read too.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Nilam & Sukma

Nilam & Sukma

There are beggars everywhere in Jakarta but I am familiar with two particular ones who normally beg along Jalan Wahid Hasyim. These two middle-aged ladies know me by sight and would always call me Om (uncle), everytime I pass by. Actually I am fond of their kids, Nilam and Sukma--both girls, around two to three years old, who are always either sleeping or fiddling with pieces of junk food beside them.

Nilam and Sukma are sweet-faced cherubs who shouldn't belong to the streets. But their mothers are professional beggars: having their children there scrounging by their side, elicits greater sympathy from passers-by. One can never be sure if the beggars are really their mothers--I just take their word for it.

The beggars seem to have some kind of duty roster: Sometimes one of the pairs would be stationed at an overhead bridge, the other outside the Robinson departmental store along Jalan Sabang. Sometimes you would see both Nilam and Sukma together with their mothers along the Jalan Wahid Hasyim sidewalk--like one big happy family having a picnic by the roadside. If I happen to meet only one of them, I'll usually ask where the other is.

Because I am such a regular passerby, they are not pushy towards me. I'll drop some coins into their cups every now and then, but not always. They know that I am fond of taking pictures of Nilam and Sukma. Sometimes out of nowhere I'd hear someone calling me (Om, foto, foto!) and I would turn to see Sukma's mother sitting there on the pedestrian bridge, beaming, with Sukma sleeping soundly beside her.

Lately I haven't been seeing them that much along my usual walking route. Maybe they have stationed themselves elsewhere.

I know, years from now, I'll think back of my days in Jakarta, and recall the smudged faces of Nilam and Sukma. They probably won't be begging like their mothers; but I'm quite sure they will still be out there in the streets, perhaps plying a different trade, along Jalan Hayam Wuruk at night.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

The Soul of a City

The Soul of a City

I've been spending the weekend preparing for my lectures for the coming weeks. Looks like teaching has suddenly become my fulltime job, at least for this month. In between my weekly teaching engagements, I hope to take a much-needed break by doing some travelling.

I haven't done that much travelling during my two year stay here, except for business-related trips to places like Bandung, Surabaya and Makassar. Everytime I go on such trips, I am so terribly tied up with meetings and presentations that I rarely have time to really loiter around those places and observe the people in their daily lives.

It's also different when you are travelling with colleagues: Your usually preoccupations are where to eat next and which nightspot to go to after work. I never get a chance to sit in a local coffee shop and spend some time reading a book.

Every town or city has a different feeling and atmosphere. It is that feeling--the soul of the city--that I like to tap into. I've spent years trying to penetrate the soul of Jakarta; I'm still not certain that I've truly understood this city, though I've tried my very best. I will be leaving Jakarta for good at the end of the month but I believe I'll still be dropping by often, either for business or pleasure.

I will suffer from withdrawal symptoms back in KL. My remedy will be to watch Peter Weir's Year of Living Dangerously again and again to reexperience the chaotic beauty that is Jakarta. (Doesn't matter if the film wasn't exactly shot in Indonesia--the Phillipines looks similar enough).

Maybe it is time for me to rediscover the soul of Kuala Lumpur. I have lots of memories hidden there too, in every nook and corner of the city. KL looks spankingly new and efficient these days with its many tollbooths and highways, LRTs and monorails. I hope it hasn't lost its soul.