The Devil fell from my wall today. He fell with an almighty, should I say godforsaken, crash. The bang reverberated; uninvited; echoing as he hurtled and plummeted. Not a mere topple. Not a mere bump. The gatecrasher invading the silence. My silence. I didn’t realise I was in cahoots. He’s no ally. Neither friend nor collaborator. But it begs the question: Have I fallen from Grace with the Devil?
I am learning to write. Not ABC learning to write. I recall learning that, particularly learning to write a capital B. I remember my teacher describing it as a loaf of bread. B. B for bread. Yet, I don’t recall any other letters. Just B. No, I am learning to write as a way to describe my world. I’ve always been a visual person. I have a degree in both Visual Arts and Graphic Design. At school, I struggled with writing essays. I struggled to make them longer than one paragraph. I answered the question, and felt no need for flowery superlatives. In my job I am required to write reports of my trips. These are sometimes very longwinded, and I warn my colleges to grab a coffee beforehand, but in a world where I may only see them once a year, it’s a way to pass on information to each other, so I try to make them as detailed as possible. No, I am learning to write as a way to describe my world, for fun. For me it’s a new way of looking at things. I am noticing more. I think about how I would describe that sound, or that smell or that touch. It’s more than seeing, for me its a new way of seeing.
Today I ran out of ‘pulsa’ (internet credit). My walk to the shop was accompanied by a narrative in my head. Each moment required several more just to describe it. The sun warmed my skin. I scratched my hand. A bird chirped. A cockerel crowed. A leaf softly brushed my arm. The sound of the running water. I scratched my side. A bird chirped. A woman approached, and on the narrow path I shimmied and moved both ways. She laughed at my joke. We passed, me to her left. A bird chirped. I scratched my arm. I thought about writing this down latter. I thought that it would take me at least ten minutes to describe every second. I though that perhaps a photograph would be a better memory of this insignificant moment. I thought it would be a boring photograph, and how would I capture my itchiness, the warmth of the sun, the sound of the river and of the birds, that slightly sweet smell of a tropical afternoon? How would I capture that without words? So, I am learning to write, so I can take my time seeing my world in a non visual way. Seeing my world as a narrative, noticing more. A new way of seeing.
When I was a kid I really wanted to start a club, probably due to my literary diet of American comics. So, my brother, a friend, and I banded together and formed ‘The Collectors’ Club’ for want of a better name. We spent an afternoon building small wooden stools from pieces of scrap particleboard from my Dad’s workshop. I don’t recall why, but seating was an important prerequisite to joining our club. We decided our motto would be ‘Get More Stuff’ (every club has to have a motto, right?). We didn’t have a uniform, probably because we didn’t think of it at the time. I don’t know why, as I was rather obsessed with ‘The Sound of Music’, and really wished my entire family would dress in matching outfits. My Mother did attempt this once. Only once.
The premise of our Collectors’ Club was to collect the little soaps, and miniature cereal packets that you get in hotels. Our club meetings involved a show and tell presentation of these sort-after items. My recollection is that we had only one meeting, and as we didn’t really stay in hotels that often, our club quickly disbanded.
Coincidentally in my adult life I first became a packaging designer and sometimes designed those miniature packets. Later working in the travel industry, I spend most of my working life in hotels, and hey, guess what I have a collection of?
Growing up, ‘Get More Stuff’ became the motto for my life. I was the kid with the messy room. I had one bed for me, and one for my stuff. But, something happened when I was about sixteen, I suddenly wanted everything organised and hidden. I had inherited two huge industrial pigeon hole shelving units, so set about labelling and sorting. All my stuff was now categorised and in its proper place. I was happy.
Over my adult years I continued to accumulated more stuff. I have always lived in small apartments, but that hasn’t curbed my ways. I was secretly flattered when a friend’s child once remarked, “I love coming to your place, it’s like a cross between a library and museum.” I have a lot of stuff. Occasionally the stuff overflows onto my bed and covers the floors. I am the adult with the messy room. Nonetheless, you can still open any cupboard to reveal my inner organised soul – neatly stacked and arranged items. My clothes are colour coded, as are my books. Music is alphabetical. The labelling machine is my friend.
In truth, I like the idea of minimalism. I admire those who can just have a few beautiful and useful things in a white expanse of a room. Zen. I too, like the idea of less in general in this overstuffed world. But I really like stuff. More is more. I’m ‘minimally challenged.’
When I first visited Bali, where I now live; my initial reaction was “This is no place for a minimalist”. The Balinese are into detail. Everything is decorated. Everything from carved doors to walls, to offerings. The ceremonies require often weeks of making elaborate decorations and ephemera. There are no wide open spaces. There are no simple minimalist local homes, well none I’ve visited anyway. Most people simply can’t afford to be minimalists, in the western design sense of the concept, but many are minimalistic in their general living, sometimes simply due to poverty. Some may only have one pot, one glass for each family member, and use banana leaves for plates and hands for eating.
Embarrassingly, one of my local friends remarked one day when I was hanging out my washing that I had a lot of bras! She said most Balinese woman only have two – one to wear, and one to wash. The same often goes for other items of clothing, with the exception of elaborate temple clothes. But as soon as anyone acquires wealth, the money is spent on decorating – first the family temple, then intricate carving on any surface of their home they can. More often than not in the homes I’ve visited, there are piles of stuff everywhere. Its defiantly not a minimalist aesthetic. Yet the Balinese still manage to focus on what’s important. Family and community and the spirit world are very much the heart of local life. Sure, many aspire to the trappings of western culture. And occasionally some Balinese, usually women, feel trapped in a culture that requires them to make endless offerings and ceremonies, endless stuff.
In my own home, I am happy to be surrounded by the goods and chattels I’ve accumulated in my life. Reminders of travels, of love affairs, friendships, and good times; artworks – some leaning against the furniture, as there is no more wall space left to hang them; books read, books still to be read; objects I’ve found on the street; fabric waiting to be turned into that special top or dress; plates, glasses, and kitchenware anticipating that large gathering of friends I will have over one day…
Chronologically I’m a Baby Boomer (I only just make it, and more readily identify with Generation X), but perhaps it’s the Baby Boomer mentality, that can’t throw anything away. That would be wasteful. what if I needed it again someday? What if there was a war/flood/disaster/apocalypse? And so the accoutrements of my life continue to pile up around me.
I love my stuff. But I do aspire to a least having it all neatly sorted. And labeled. When I look admiringly at my lovely well organised storage units, sometimes my eyes lift their gaze and focus on the excess paraphernalia stuffed on top yet to be sorted, and dream of the minimalist perfection of owning nothing. Frankly, I blame The Collectors’ Club and believe it was the beginning of my downfall.
Yogyakarta is one of my favourite cities in Indonesia, in fact it’s one of my favourite cities anywhere. It’s chaotic, ugly, confusing, overcrowded, polluted, but vibrant, charming, and full of energy. There’s never enough time. Beyond the regular tourist sights, one of my highlights is to wander the streets and back lanes to see the ever-changing gallery of street art.
I don’t know which is more fun: trying to walk blindfolded through two trees (well watching other people try to do it), or riding the chicken car.
Whenever I visit Yogyakarta in Central Java, Indonesia I try to convince my groups to join me for an evening of fun and games at the Ulun Ulun Selatan, the southern square of the Sultan’s Palace. As here, every evening Large crowds gather to try their luck waking blindfolded through two large and ancient Banyan trees, as the local belief is, if you succeed in this task your heart is pure. The game is known locally as “Masangin“, an abbreviation for masuk antara beringan, literally ‘entering between banyan trees’. It may seem a simple task, as the trees are rather far apart, but it’s surprisingly difficult, to a degree that I’m sure there’s some magic involved.
Yogyakarta and particularly the Kraton area (Sultan’s palace), are full of mystical stories and legends. It’s a melting pot of Animism, Hinduism, and a Javanese mystical version of Islam. The palace itself is the geographical centre of Yogyakarta, and is also the centre of an imaginary line running form the very active volcano, Mt Merapi in the North, to the wild and dangerous sea at Parangtritis Beach in the South. Legend has it that the Queen of the sea is the spiritual wife of the Sultan, and once a year she comes for him in her chariot following this very road.
In the square, blindfolds can be hired for 5,000 Rp (about 50 US cents), but some just tie a scarf around their eyes. It’s hysterical watching the participants in this blind man’s bluff – some make a beeline to the gap between the trees, then suddenly, at the last minute, turn abruptly off course. Some start off badly; from the beginning taking a direct route to the grassy area at the the side. Others seem to walk around and around circling the square, never making it near the trees. Groups of friends gather to guide and yell “Permissi!”, “Awas!”, “Excuse me!”, “Watch out!” to people in the path of their blindfolded friends. Everyone is laughing, photographing, and pointing to the hapless trying. Ironically there are usually a couple of blind beggars too, adding more obstacles to the task
In recent years this game has become so popular, that other businesses have taken advantage of the instant crowds, and have opened here too. The are many stalls selling glow sticks and flashing light novelties; food stalls, and the aforementioned chicken car. Actually there is more than the chicken, there is the shark car, and numerous cartoon character covered beetle cars. They are pedal powered mobile karaoke machines covered and adorned with multicoloured flashing lights. You pay to peddle one or two circuits of the square jostling for space on the road amongst the regular cars and motorbikes. I’ve paid between 30,000 Rp and 80,000 Rp ($3–$8 USD) for the same journey, so depends on your bargaining skills and how many in your group. The chicken car, however, is rather special. It’s powered by four people peddling, with space for two extra passengers on the bottom (5 extra if you’re Indonesian), and another 4–6 passengers on the top level (there is a ladder to climb). The music blares from the speakers and everyone waves to each other as they pass. Some take their time and slowly meander around the street, others hoon on by, narrowing avoiding other cars. I can’t guarantee the health and safety of this activity, but I can guarantee that it’s LOTS OF FUN! However, be warned, don’t combine the two and wear the blindfold while, driving!
Growing up in Australia in the early 70’s, it was a common Saturday afternoon treat to go to the cinema (we called it ‘the pictures’). There was the main feature, of course, sometimes a double feature, and usually preceding this, a short film followed by intermission – a chance for the candy bar to increase profits. The short was often a documentary produced by the Canadian Film Board. It was often about the rubber industry. Often. Odd. We saw how the trees were tapped, and the latex collected in small coconut cups. The collectors were always wearing pointed hats from some generic South East Asian country. The formal voice over in a plummy, trying to be British, but with a Canadian twanged accent, explained the process. I knew all about rubber. Well that was my memory of it anyway.
Having spent several years now in South East Asia, escorting tour groups – I too have been explained this process again by our local guides, as they have shown my groups around rubber plantations in the various countries I have visited. I have seen the sticky latex collected, poked my finger into the gooey liquid, and let it dry, then peeled it off. I’ve wondered if it hurt the trees as they bleed. I’ve even slept in dark and smokey longhouses in the jungles of Borneo surrounded by stacks of the stinky semi processed rubber matts. It was not until recently that I have learnt more about this process and seen the next steps in the production, as one of our trips take us to Glenmore plantation in East Java, Indonesia.
Glenmore, an incongruous name for an Indonesian village, was began (so one story goes) by Scottish mercenaries who had been in the service of the Dutch some time in the mid 18th Century. As they had been fighting the British crown, they were no longer welcome in their homeland, and exiled to make a new life in the Dutch colonies. Today the plantation here is still the largest employer in the village, and the rubber processing factory continues to operate much in its original condition.
I love stepping into the ‘living museum’ of an office here to pay for our tour. The time machine takes me into a room where the fan whirls slowly as a uniformed lady always types out my receipt. Yes, types clickity clack with an actual typewriter. With ribbon. And carbon paper. Often a group of uniformed men sit around smoking and drinking coffee. Yes, smoking cigarettes in the office – this is Indonesia where the anti-smoking laws have yet to take effect in many areas.
Our tour of the factory begins in a large airy white room. The cement floor is wet and the whir of the rollers occasionally override the constant hum of the machinery in the adjoining room. Workers, both men and women, are dressed in faded flowery sarongs and stained T-shirts. Some of the woman have headscarfs. All are wearing flip flops. Large water filled vats line one wall, and a watery conveyor belt ends with a series of rollers. A few ancient looking safety posters adorn the wall warning workers not to trip on the belts and machinery.
Our guide jokes that we are in the “condom factory”. He lifts one of the frames from the vat of water and revels a large spongy white sheet about 3cm thick. He explains that at this stage, acid has been added to the latex, and after several hours, it coagulates into this form. The sheets are then transferred to the belt, and are fed through the series of rollers. A worker aiding its journey by guiding it with his bare hands pushing the sheet into each roller, no safety guards to stop if his fingers accidentally follow the path of the sheet.The rollers wring out the excess liquid, and leave a criss cross ribbed patten, branding the mat with the Glenmore logo.
These thinner, firmer matts are now carried to the adjoining building, the door is opened and a blast of acrid heat whooshes out. This is the smoke-room. Underneath we can see the wood fuelled furnaces burning, heating the room to 50° C. The matts already hung drying for up to a week, have changed from opaque white, to a translucent golden brown, like flayed skin hanging over the bamboo poles. It looks like a serial killer’s storeroom. The smell and the heat are overwhelming, and our guide quickly shuts the door. The building opposite, also a similar drying room houses the poor quality rubber, the froth that’s skimmed from the tops of the vats. It’s black and bubbly, more like a filthy kitchen sponge. This will be used for the local market to make flip flops and foam mattresses.
Our tour continues to the sorting and packing room. A hand painted sign in beautiful calligraphy announces ‘Bersih itu Sehat’ Clean is Healthy. We must remove our shoes before entering. The now dried and smoked rubber ‘hides’ are inspected on the surrounding light-boxes. Small deformities are discarded using a blade cutter. The sheets are then graded, and sorted. There are two baling machines in the opposite corner where stacks of the rubber sheeting are compressed into large cubes. The huge vice is turned by a shirtless muscled man, the sweat beading across his shoulders. This is hard manual labour. Everything is manual here.
The whitewashed bales are causally placed on the slightly raised whitewashed wooden platform, like cubed chess pieces in a contemporary art installation, ready for export. Each one is worth several months wages for the workers.
The heat of the day becomes too much for the group, so we exit and walk towards the shady forest of rubber tress. They are planted in even rows, and all bend slightly in the same windswept position, as though they are made of… rubber. Our guide expertly scrapes a slither of bark with his pocketknife, and the tree begins to bleed. I am back in the cool cinema of my childhood, all that is missing is the Canadian voice over.
Curly yellow flower buds spread across the yard on woven bamboo sheets. These are not flowers, but the makings of krupuk, the popular crunchy Indonesian snack. Krupuk comes in many forms, and these particular ones are made from fish, tapioca flour and turmeric, giving them their bright yellow colour. We are visiting a small home industry near Pangandaran, West Java, Indonesia.
Krupuk or ‘prawn chips’ or ‘crackers’ as is often the translation (sometimes misspelled ‘creakers’) is the generic onomatopoeic name for a variety of crispy type snack foods in Indonesia. They can be made of various types of flour, but usually tapioca or rice flour, and are sometimes flavoured with fish or prawns and spices. There is even one kind that is flavoured with sulphur. Some are also made from fruit, or animal skin. They are ubiquitous, and often accompany many local dishes.
This small family business produces thousands of krupuk per day, and we have arrived on a day when the sun is shining, perfect for drying the dough, hence, the carpeted front yard. The small factory is busy when we enter. In one corner a large mixer is kneading the tapioca flour, fish paste and spices into a thick dough. The nearby walls and floor are covered in flour. Bags of the fine white powder sit stacked neatly against the wall, as though they too are waiting their turn. A large green machine clunks and whirls, as a young man climbs to fill the chute with dough, underneath another man is fitting mesh sheets into the base that will receive the curly noodles of paste. The machine begins the spew out the small, even, curly circular discs of spaghetti like strands. It’s a 3D spirograph. He picks one out of every batch, and discards it. I ask is it to let air in when they steam it? He replies, no, one of the spigots is damaged, and that krupuk is not up to standard. Quality control.
The mesh sheets are then transferred to colander like boxes, stacked and placed in the large hissing metal steamer where they are cooked until they resemble translucent plastic. If the day is sunny, like this day, they are moved into the yard to dry. After a few hours they become quite brittle and hard, and even more plastic-like in their appearance. At this stage they could be stored for several weeks, or sold for people to do the final cooking at home, however these ones are destined to be cooked here, and sold ready to eat. Once thoroughly dry, the yellow plasticy discs are lowered into one of the industrial size woks filled with hot coconut oil. The fuel is discarded rice husks, everything has a use. Within seconds they hiss and expand and rise to the surface like fluffy phoenixs, then are scooped out to drain and cool.
In an adjoining room two headscarfed women sit on the cool cement floor packing the krupuk into plastic bags, and tying the tops with string, ready for sale. They hand us a sample to pass around. Fresh light and crispy, slightly salty, slightly sweet, hardy fishy at all, and very very moreish. It’s hard to stop at one.
Many years ago when I first started learning Indonesian, I found a set of rather curious Indonesian language cassette tapes (remember them) in a thrift shop in Sydney. They were recordings of simple stories on an odd collection of subjects: the weather in Japan, New Year’s Eve in Scotland, the life history of an Australian pop star, and the story of Pak Udjo and his angklung music school in Bandung, West Java. I listened to these tapes repeatedly until I could understand every word and turn of phrase. The last line reminding me, that if I ever had the opportunity to visit Bandung, be sure to visit Pak Udjo.
For many years our trips in Java just passed trough Bandung, we transferred from the train station to the local bus station, with no time to stop in between. I was delighted, when a change of itinerary now included an overnight stop in Bandung, along with the inclusion of a performance at Angklung Udjo.
Angklung is a bamboo musical instrument made from a series of bamboo tubes, that when shaken produce a single warm tone. It is a traditional Sundanese (the ethnic group of West Java) instrument, that is also popular all over Indonesia, and its neighbors. I refer to it as ‘the recorder of Indonesia’, in that (like the recorder), it is simple to learn, and most school kids in Indonesia will have their first music lessons on this instrument. In 2010 UNESCO added the angklung to the representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Anklung Udjo Foundation began in 1966 by the late Udjo Ngalagena and his wife Uum Sumiati, with the aim of preserving the cultural Heritage of the Sundanese. The foundation is continued today by their son. The school offers free classes for children from the surrounding villages where they can learn music, dance, singing, and public speaking. The children have the opportunity to preform in the daily cultural performance presented to tourists, earning them a little pocket money into the bargain.
I have now visited Anklung Udjo several times, and am always impressed. The show’s format is a little cheesy, not unlike a daytime TV variety show; but it’s such a celebration of joy, my groups can’t help but love it too. There’s the charming, sometimes funny bilingual presenter, a puppet performance, some cute dancing and singing kids, and the angklung. The performers and presenter are different each time, so a variety of children have a turn performing to an audience, but the basic show remains the same.
One of the highlights is the music lesson – Angklung instruments are distributed to the audience, and following our host and teacher, we learn to play some simple tunes together. I am glad to be lost in the musical crowd. As a child I overheard at my kindergarten concert someone commenting that I couldn’t sing in tune, and have been musically scarred since. I was once unhappily described as been ‘as musical as a door’. Back at school, we learnt the recorder but my playing was always screechy and out of tune. Music wasn’t my thing. I stuck to listening. Being handed an anlklung, amongst the masses was a great relief … How could I go wrong with just one note? I had the freedom to make music without fear.
As beginners we only have to play one anklung. The professional musicians have about 50 rigged up together and pluck them expertly like a piano keyboard. One note is enough for me. This version of the angklung has been adapted from the pentatonic scale of the original to a, more pleasing to the Western ear, eight note scale. Our host / teacher / conductor is the son of the founder, and has a syrupy warm voice, not unlike the warm sound that the angklung produces. He jokes with us, as we learn some basic harmonies, directing us with a series of hand signals – each representing the note numbers on our respective angklung. We joyfully laugh as we play. Today the audience has visitors from all over Indonesia, Oman, England, Holland, Ireland, Korea, and Australia; a quiet day. The tunes become longer and more difficult we slowly master the simple action of shaking at the correct time. We play uncomplicated children’s songs, that seem familiar to all nationalities present, then some more popular Pop songs – Including ‘We are the Champions’ by Queen, as indeed, we all thought we were.
Eventually, we reluctantly return our instruments as they are collected by the children. Our host askes us “How do we feel?” “HAPPY!” is the unanimous reply. He then explains that this is his father’s legacy. The intention of his father: that by having fun, playing music together, even tough we are from different cultures and backgrounds, will bring understanding, harmony and world peace. I wholeheartedly second those sentiments. So to quote my recoded Indonesian lesson – if you ever have the opportunity to visit Bandung, be sure to visit Pak Udjo.
For the last ten years I’ve spent most of my non-working time in a small village near Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. There’s no public transport where I live, and a limited tourist bus system. Most locals rely on motorbikes, which are the ‘family car’ here – sometimes up to five balance precariously along with the shopping and the odd chicken. My main form of transport is my bicycle.
On a recent evening I was going to visit a friend for a birthday dinner. She lives about 5km from me. I usually cycle, but as it was going to be dark on my way home, and it’s rainy season, and that she had promised to organise me a lift home; I decided to walk. The evening was clear, although there was the hint of an ominous looking rain cloud lurking in the distance. It was lovely time for a stroll in the warm twilight.
As is the custom, everyone was out at this time of day. Farmers had returned from the fields, workers had arrived from their offices, kids were out enjoying the last light of the day. Not far from my house, near the river, was an old Ibu carrying a large basket of foliage on her head. “Mau ke Mana?” I enquired – literally “where are you going?”, but more often used as a polite greeting. “I’ve come from the garden, this is food for the pigs” she replied. “Cantik”, – “Beautiful”, she commented. I brushed off the compliment in the polite Indonesian way, “Oh, Ibu, thank you, but just average. You are beautiful too. All women are beautiful!” We both smiled and I bid her goodbye. Further along the path, the hubbub of a volleyball game was in progress. Every afternoon, in almost every village, groups of young men gather to play volleyball. A group of men on motorbikes had assembled to watch. There was cheering and shouting as the ball went flying out of bounds and one man climbed the fence to retrieve it.
The ‘kaki limas’ – mobile food carts, we’re doing a brisk business. Steaming bakso, meatball soup, was being served up in chipped china bowls; the charcoaly aroma of sate sticks grilling on coals, a group gathering in anticipation. Everyone greeted me with “Hello”, as I passed. “Mau. Ke mana?” many enquired. “Jalan, Jalan”, just going for a walk, I replied. My answer met with a smile or a nod. The smell of ‘nangka’, jackfruit, wafted past. This rather large pungent fruit is a popular local treat, and grows along the roadside.
A group of teenage girls called out, then giggled shyly when I replied in Indonesian. A small gang of young boys whizzed past on bikes way too big for them. I felt a drop of rain, but the sky still looked clear. Mums balancing babies on their hips, while feeding them rice porridge with their fingers, lingered by the gates.
Another volley ball game was in progress… I’d moved on to the neighbouring village. This one had a larger audience, and the cheers, were more rowdy. Another spit of rain, and then another. Time to open the umbrella. As I opened my umbrella, so did the heavens, but this tropical burst was short lived. A tailless cat scampered by, avoiding a truck laden with lime green LPG canisters. A cyclist sped past, this time a young man in full lycra cycling gear complete with helmet, a sight that’s becoming more common on the roads here. Previously when I rode my bike around Bali, I was only old accompanied by toothless farmers or young kids on bikes.
The light faded as I entered I the village where my friend lives. A couple of old men lounging in the security post at the entrance to the village welcomed me with a warm smile. I too had a grin on my face, and was soon at my destination. I then resolved to get out more; slow down, and take a stroll more often to remind myself why I love living in this delightfully warm and friendly little part of the planet.