September 21 – 23, 2010
I got to know Jogjakarta, simply called Jogja by its residents, as a campus city home to about 20 universities and several other educational institutions.
After over-napping from my red-eye, I peeked out of the balcony of Mawar Asri Hotel bleary-eyed; there was hardly anyone in sight. It was mid-week mid-morning but passing cars and becak (cycle rickshaw) were few and far between. The quiet street reminded me of deserted campus corridors when classes had already begun. Not exactly lackadaisical, Jogja’s pace was truly conducive for education, and its monuments and old buildings brought history to life.
Back at my breakfast table, it was a virtual history class. I was buttonholed by a gregarious white geezer traveling alone but with a whole lifetime of stories to tell. I was quietly dunking toast to my coffee (buffet breakfast consisted of a loaf of white bread, a jar of marmalade, and sachets of instant coffee) when Peter from Down Under started delivering an impassioned lecture on Egyptology and conspiracy theories. He was a tad long-winded, but I sincerely wished the documentary exposé he had made about the myths of the pharaohs would see the light of day. His interesting Egyptian epiphanies could use some visuals.
Fast forward to sundown when the city drew nocturnal vigor from its youthful denizens. At dusk, it was as if the recess bell had rung; vehicular and human traffic suddenly poured into the streets and sidewalks. Jogja’s population swelled and contracted depending on semestral schedule; its streets, parks, and establishments filed and emptied based on class hours.
After dinner, my Jogja friend Paulus (a professor – this was a university city, after all), his wife, and her sister took me on a little Indonesian history field trip along Jalan Sultan Agung – a trip back in time to 19th-century Java. Lit with soft mood lights, a row of heritage buildings looked radiantly dramatic against the dark, crowded street. Alas, the splendor of their exquisite Dutch colonial architecture with a touch of Javanese, especially in the roofing – shingled, high-pitched, and topped with pointy decorative rods – was not wholly visible at night.
Among these highlighted buildings were BNI 46 (Bank Negara Indonesia), Central Post Office, and Gedung Bank Indonesia. A skip and a hop away were a kraton (sultan’s palace), a fort (Benteng Vredeburg, now a museum), and a WW2 monument (to commemorate the Indonesian blitz on March 1, 1949 against the Dutch colonists). This financial, cultural, historic, and communication nerve center of colonial Jogja was as much a functional area in the present as it was a relic of the past.
High jinks soon ensued. Like giddy schoolgirls on a night on the town, the sisters directed their own wacky poses. Not known to shy away from shenanigans, I mounted a parked becak for a photo op. The whole thing dipped precariously backwards, but I threw caution to the wind – as well as my arms and legs for comedic effect. The slaphappy sisters lapped it up! But I thought the Javanese becak looked quite bizarre. The driver’s seat was curiously placed at the back, his line of vision partially blocked by the passenger car’s sun roof.
It was almost midnight when we got to the southern square of the kraton. The place was teeming with young people. On a weeknight at that! They turned the park into a school playground. Instead of hitting the books or the sack, students were cycling around the square, eating street food, chatting loudly in groups, and getting blindfolded in turns. Before I could think fraternity initiation, my friend explained a Jogja myth, the masangin.
Superstition had it that if one could walk between the two humongous banyan trees in the palace square without the benefit of sight, that person’s dreams would all be granted. Simple enough, but one’s sense of direction could be way off blindfolded. Its significance seemed to be figurative rather than literal: Having a vision steered our paths to the way it should go – to success.
Elsewhere in the city, we zipped past an obelisk in the middle of a busy rotunda (my friend drove too fast, I could barely snap a photo). It was Tugu Jogjakarta, the center of the city, connected to the mystical Mount Merapi by an imaginary line. Students would touch its base for good luck in exams. And they would hug it after they had graduated, a sweet and innocent gesture – a physical manifestation of their gratitude to Jogja, the city that had prepared them to embark on their personal journeys to a lifetime ahead. Years down the road, payback may be in banknotes, not bear hugs.
Truth be told, the most awaited time in school was when it was time to go home. In this case, any house in Jogja would do. Good thing, Paulus invited me over to his parents’ house. The drive took all of 30 minutes, still within city limits, past beds of rice paddies and clumps of coconut trees. The house was a charming bungalow down a dirt road in a farming community. It was an idyllic house that rice had built.
My friend showed me the grain storehouse annexed at the back, shingled of course, where his father kept the fruit of his labor, the bounty of his plot of land. Peeking through the window slats, I glimpsed his father’s rice paddies glistening in the moonlight.
It was an inspiring visit to a simple family whose collective hands had worked on the fertile volcanic soil in the outskirts of Jogja, and whose vision, for certain, had sent their only son to the city’s academic center. This was the Jogja story: the city nurturing its son – from soil to ivory tower.
I dedicate this post to my Jogja friend, Paulus Widiatmoko (though I fondly call him Mr. B. Gatot). Thank you for making my trip to Jogja an educational one.