It all began when I read a short story on my college days. I was a junior, studying literary analysis with a shrewd lecturer whom I liked so much. She gave us a handout containing the piece. So here is what I recall until today from the story: a traveler came to a remote village and there was a conflict between the traveler and the villagers. The traveler seemed reluctant at all to spread the news that the village was a heaven earth, definitely worth-visiting. Yet, the villagers wished their village was more well known to the outer world so as to have more visitors and hence more economic activities, which translated to more money coming to them. They wanted so much to prosper. It was too bad the traveler didn’t heed their request. No, I want it to stay pristine, said the traveler in somewhat determined tone. Was he selfish? Did he do the right thing to protect the purity of village? Or should he just have let the news spread so people swarm the place and sooner or later his ideal paradise? It was such a dilemma for both sides. They had their own strong and reasonable arguments.
The same thing happened exactly to Elizabeth Gilbert years after she finished writing and released that overly hyped book, “Eat Pray Love”. On one occasion, she admitted she never even any single bit had expected to draw more people, especially foreigners, to come to the island of gods. She can’t be blamed on entirely for the increasingly dense and chaotic Ubud. Catalyst, that might be the most appropriate word to describe her role in it. She is in it but obviously not playing the direct and deliberate efforts towards the mess.
I have a faith, that I won’t share anything personal from my most valuable trips. Never ever. But then I feel like I can’t. I want to share, still. That is what writers do: share (or show off) great things. But with one caveat; no too detailed information shared so not many people can easily track origins of information. This way, fewer people are likely to find the ridiculously gorgeous place out.
And I want to stay that way for now. No change whatsoever. I won’t tell you in fear that commercialism comes over and screws it all. Once it happens, no one cannot rewind and reverse. Even if it’s possible, the recovery process will take decades or centuries. There is no way I will let it happen. As selfish as I may seem, I know.
All I can tell you is this. On that day, I was in the height but I wasn’t inside a skyscraper. My feet were on earth, instead of brick or concrete. It was cold as Hades hell but I wasn’t in an air conditioned office space that suck up energy and fossil fuel and emits gases contributing to the escalating global climate change.
It was a Friday afternoon I spent dearly with some literary folks I know a bit too well. We laughed and walked down the path leading to the well known temple world celebrities have paid visit to.
These people were not exclusively Jakartans or those who have stayed there for various reasons. They were from many parts of Indonesia, but I was sure enough they were mostly from Java.
As a person with Javanese roots myself, staying here for hours seemed like a time travel to the past. I used to live this way, too. I know people around me who even currently still live their lives like these folks do.
What made it different was this place was not as warm as my village. In a giant refrigerator I felt I was at the time.
The village was on a ridge of a pair of two mountains. If these mountains were a woman’s breasts, I could be on her steep cleavage. The route was so steep, anyone unfamiliar with it dared not ride on. Or else, we could have killed ourselves in the middle.
I was told the village was the highest place of human housings you can find in the mountainous terrain. So it seemed. Anyway, I can’t see why I must doubt it. I cast my glance and saw no completely flat stretch of land. Only houses scattered here and there. There was no skyscrapers or even a three storey buildings blocking our view. Only peaks of mountains could do so here. Such a remote hilly place to live.
As the car in which I was in with my literary friends climbed slowly in the street, I could see more and more cabbages and tobbacos were planted on every piece of land we glanced at. Tobacco was popular. Tobacco made them warm when the chilly winds sweep their porches without mercy. Tobacco also enabled them to prosper – though temporarily. A friend familiar to the people told me some of these big farmers could make money more than the annual salaries of a typical employee in Jakarta. They splurged and crazily wasted their resources until they had nothing to spend and got broke once again. All in one harvest season.
When I told you it was like being in between two breasts of a woman, I meant it. The temperature was killing me, for sure. I really wished I had put on more layers of clothes. This skinny frame was miserable in this abnormal frigidity. I’m used to being a coastal creature than a highland one. But what warmed me up was the fact that I was surrounded by people who were so welcome and open-handed. These villagers celebrated our once-in-a-year arrival.
We got out of the car and were then on foot, hiking up the hill as no car was able to safely reach our destination. It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon, but what I saw was like the most grandiose twilight. In the meantime, people were transitting and enjoying welcome, signature, rustic meals and beverages.
A young man sucked up his pipe and blew the smoke out of his lungs. There was a sense of pride when he did it and read a poem. I knew he was trying to mimick an Indonesian poet, his sole idol. Some others were gathering in circles, like a group of porcupines trying to warm each other during the hardest winter days. They kept on discussing things I was clueless about. Some literary works I had never read before. Even the synopsis or reviews. I chose to be in my circle. Mingling would only cause inconvenience. Unless there was a reason to speak with, interrupting their chatters with my small talks and a brief self introduction would be too risky. If I failed miserably, it’d been a faux pas that could have remained in the memory for good.
We ate some boiled peanuts and warm tea in a small glass a native handed me. Very authentic experience. You wouldn’t find catering food and beverage. Approaching 6 pm, the night curtain went undone and some cotton-like mist floating and blanketing the village. I shivered more and more. I kept moving my body to stay warm. It wasn’t the best trick to stay warm as I forgot that to stay warm, the system needs calories intake. I hadn’t had any huge meal since we left the hotel. My instinct led me to a huge crowd. What was it that they gathered and stared? There, I survived against the perpetual gusts of cold wind.
The warmth I felt was just like one of a mother’s hug to her offsprings. Java has always been my motherland and here with these people, the warmth accentuated the experience.
All the great experience was somehow distracted by the need of peeing more frequently. I was sure I got dehydrated because I peed still but I drank less. Yet, I didn’t feel thirsty at all. All I wanted was a huge bowl of meatball and something warm and hot and fulfilling.
Aside from the dim lighting and hygiene aspect, I enjoyed this peeing experience in the winter-like air that very night. The sensation when you could talk with others around you while peeing in the almost dark scene with no inhibition and grope for water to wash yourself after the ‘ritual’. I was lucky, as a friend just got into the toilet and the power just went out. Without warning. It didn’t last for long though, but that could be disheartening for someone afraid of darkness.
And to note, the toilet was not a public toilet. It was a toilet opened for public inside someone’s house. I guessed it was a house of some important figure in the village, whom I supposed was the head of the village, because it was located just next to the village assembly hall, called “pendopo”. Some offerings were made inside the pendopo, adding more magic to the place.
Around 17.30, more and more people were seen flocking. I was wondering what was there. Music I had never listened to before was being played, and I found it almost impossible to know what the lyrics meant.
I approached the increasingly huge crowd. They seemed cheery in the yard of a mosque and another place which looked like the plaza, a public square. The difference was this kind of public square wasn’t protected by houses. So every time a gust of wind rushing down, we trembled more and squeezed the crowd more until they could touch one another. Luckily, there was no pickpocket around. Things were incredibly safe here as it was a closely-knit community, which meant social sanctions may be very unforgiving for any criminals.
A dance performance was staged before the enthusiastic audience. Some foreigners (I bet they were Korean or Chinese) sat down eagerly in the front ‘seats’. By seats, I meant anything you can sit on, including the earth. They just sat there and unrolled whatever cloth they had with them or just took a seat without fearing dusts or dirt. They were too busy staring at the dancers who energetically performed a newly created local dance with a story of dynamic romance.
The female dancer was exceptionally slim and beautiful. Her feet were covered with white socks and moved quite fast. The complexity of the dance was in the chemistry between dancers involved. It seemed smooth and easy and effortless, as if no practice was needed. But I too well know it wasn’t so. It may have taken months for these artists to practice and years of general self practice.
Came along the time to pray. They were muslims. But here there were also some Christian priests visiting with us. With a mission of maintaining faith tolerance and peace in the society, they advocate interfaith understanding through culture and arts. Messages of peace and tolerance were found in the remarks of the master of ceremony who happened to be a “dalang”, a man behind a Javanese leather puppet show. This hilarous man opened every performance and public speech with sprinkles of jokes to warm up the situation. The air was already cold and if he was boring, it’d been disastrous. People would yawn and leave altogether.
We giggled as we saw some natives attending the public gathering with blankets and thick towels to cover their young children on their back. It wasn’t a scene you can witness every day elsewhere.
A swarm of kumbang tahi flocked around a light at the mosque verandah. Kumbang tahi looks like a usual, normal beetle, only they have bigger size and greenish in color. Probably an endemic species of beetles of the area.
The show resumed right after the prayer was done.
One more dance performance from Banyuwangi was staged. People kept curiously looking at the center of stage, in which five young women danced in Banyuwangi style. The older female singer was sitting amongst the honored guests consisting of priests, local respected figures and community leaders and also rich people from the capital of the country who had willingly sponsored the less-than-commercial event. The rest would be foreigners who were there to record the experience, either with their senses or cameras. They greedily documented all the details encountered during the show. It was a rarity to watch such an local art show in the open space like this so they wouldn’t miss a slightest chance to get the best content to keep as treasure.
A lady whom I knew was related to a celebrated fashion designer appeared on stage after the jovial master of ceremony invited her to deliver her speech. It was brief and rather normative. As if she hadn’t had a substantial message to get across to us. But maybe it was because she already felt exhausted all day long and still had to stay awake that very night, listening to some wildly artistic performances she could hardly enjoy. The performances were in the Javanese language or “boso Jowo” and there seemed very remote chance she could comprehend the content. She left moments after she conveyed her public address that advised us there should be more efforts like this to boost local cultures and prevent them from vanishing into the air.
The dance performance was drawing nearer to its closure. The master of ceremony introduced us a new form of artistic work he created with his team. As I told you before, this moustached man was a witty middle aged Javanese who didn’t seem reluctant to act and speak into a doze to amuse us. The leather puppets were replaced by his team called “wayang urip”. Different from “wayang wong” (which resembles western plays in many respects), wayang urip consisted of several human beings whose bodies were colored in pitch black. Each performer symbolized a living creature in some unknown forest that got burned down by the fire inflicted deliberately by selfish, economy-oriented human beings.
The puppet show brought up some criticism on social and environmental issues to the audience. Some time before that, fire ravaged woods around the nearby mountain. It was one of the longest dry seasons in the recorded history, when news from Indonesia was dominated by the seemingly endless inferno producing unwanted smog hanging lowly in the sky in Sumatra, Borneo, and some other areas in the archipelago. This indeed spurred the economy of palm oil but demolished the humanity and nature around it. It has been an unethical practice that was left unsolved for years. Everyone of us perhaps had our own share in the palm oil fever that eventually triggered the fire. That was because we use this type of oil in almost every daily product we can encounter on supermarket shelves.
“So y’all have to respect Mother Nature or else, we all shall perish together,” told the dalang. At the end of his captivating show, he made himself crystal clear by restating the message, making sure everyone understood perfectly what should be done after that. So the show wasn’t about having sheer fun but also learning things, about their local wisdom that should be resounded.
The night was crawling slowly inch by inch while we watched some local singers performed some local songs we had no idea about. As we turned our back to head to where our car was parked, a female singer tore the silence of the night with her loudest squeal to end the celebration. We could still hear her scream even after kilometers away. Insanity.
It was a rough night for me. I hadn’t had my dinner and felt cold for hours. Once I realized that, the wristwatch struck 30 minutes past midnight. I felt like I could swallow a horse.