Monday, November 30, 2009

Giving thanks in Yogyakarta (Part 1)

Yogyakarta is perhaps the most confusing word in the Indonesian language, and it’s a city with over 3 million people. Ignore the Ys. It’s pronounced “Joeg-jah-kart-uh,” and it’s affectionately nicknamed “Yogya.” The variant spellings are enough to make my head hurt, ranging from “Jogja” to “Djokdja.”

Main street in Yogya/Jogja/Djokja/etc

According to my trusted Lonely Planet, “If Jakarta is [the island of] Java’s financial and industrial powerhouse, Yogyakarta is its soul.” I think if I could have picked where my Fulbright placement was, I might have picked Yogya. It’s teeming with creativity, from young students who paint bright political graffiti to vendor after vendor selling inexpensive, one-of-a kind batik clothing.

Batik. Indonesians LOVE it. It’s very similar to Vera Bradley patterns in America. Batik is very detailed, very colorful patterned cloths. “Good” batik is painstakingly hand-painted with wax, and it will cost you between $30 - $100. The more common variety is stamped. It’s surprisingly expensive, too, except in Yogyakarta, where a cheap shirt will cost you anywhere from $5 - $15.

This is the "good" batik.
But I cheated and this picture is from Bali.

There’s quite a lot of nasty talk here directed at Malaysians who are trying to claim batik as their own. (In fact, there’s a lot of nastiness in general towards Malaysia, who Indonesians feel are trying to steal their culture.) The United Nations, however, sides with Indonesia and just decided that batik is exclusively a part of Indonesia’s cultural heritage. The country literally celebrated in style. Schools shun their uniform on Friday in favor of bright batik patterns.

Read the New York Times article (or just look at the pictures).

So we decided to celebrate our long holiday—we Americans got Thursday off for Thanksgiving and everyone was off on Friday for Idul Adha—in Yogyakarta. (More on Idul Ahda coming soon in a different entry.) Maybe Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday necessarily associated with creativity, but it is a time for feeling grateful. And it’s just plain easy to be grateful when you’re surrounded by bright colors.

Get ready for a whole lot of blog coming at you at once.

The plan was that Chris and I would fly straight to Yogya on Wednesday evening. Cassie and Tyler, two other Fulbrights, would celebrate Thanksgiving at the American Consulate in Surabaya and would head to Yogya on Friday afternoon.

One thing that Chris and I are very good at is reading our guidebook and researching online, finding something that sounds a little curious, and saying, “All right, let’s go there.” (I think doing that is one of my favorite things about being here. Just hearing about something and immediately setting off to actually experience it.)

Pasar Ngasam [Bird Market]

Hence our first Yogyakartan adventure: Pasar Ngasam, or the Bird Market. Like so many things in Indonesia, we get dropped off somewhere that looks completely unremarkable. We say, “This can’t possibly be where we intended to go.” At that moment, some little Indonesian man will amble over and point us in some seemingly random direction or lead us down a sketchy narrow street. And suddenly, we’re in the middle of something.

I have enough germs to deal with
without having to handle a domesticated pigeon...

The bird market was exactly what is sounds like it is. Hundred of colors and types of birds, most locked in a rainbow of cages. A few young owls just sat on top of tables, blinking slowly and watching us walk past. A baby owl, we discovered, is only $10. If I thought I had even the slightest idea of how to care for it properly, I would have bought one on the spot, along with a pretty pink princess cage, and named her "Professor."

There weren’t just birds, though. Cages were full of lizards, bats (“flying dogs” to Indonesians), rabbits—for eating!, cats, dogs, and piles and piles of crawling, disgusting, buggy bird food. Pigeons—mostly for training, though some for eating—are overwhelmingly the most common bird. They live in little houses with their names on top and vendors sell an astonishing variety of decorated pigeon whistles.

Taman Sari [Water Castle]

Our personal self-appointed guide, who we met among the chicken heads and boxes of cockroaches, then led us to an old building right next to the Bird Market. The Water Castle was used hundreds of years ago by the sultan. (There’s still a ruling sultan in Yogya, by the way.) He used to keep his many wives in the tunnels and pools below ground so he could admire and enjoy them at his leisure. (This is eerily familiar to the myriad of birds in cages we just saw.)

If this is a water castle...
that makes me a water princess, right?

The sultan wanted his underground water castle to be a secret, so he killed the architect after he finished designing and building the royal waterpark. It’s empty today, but the people of Yogyakarta are slowly restoring it to its original splendor.

Prambanan Temples

I am not, by nature, a person who is into cool structures. I can see a building or temple or monument and understand that it is cool, and still, I really have to prod myself into being interested.

The ancient Hindu Prambanan Temples are about an hour outside of Yogyakarta. The most remarkable thing about them, to me, is that they were almost completely destroyed during a 2006 earthquake, and now Indonesia is painstakingly taking the millions of pieces of broken rock and trying to rebuild it.

Extreme Temple Makeover

Most of the holy symbols inside the temples were stolen by the ornery Dutch people. Poor Indonesia. Dutch people are to blame for the ruin of many ancient structures here. (They did, however, give Indonesia the gift of delicious pastries and an abundance of fresh, sweet bakeries.)

Chris and I had signed up for an afternoon/evening car tour that included the temples and the Ramayana Ballet. This was Thursday: Thanksgiving. We wound up sharing a travel van with one other couple. I don’t know who they are, but I do know that they were not very friendly.

They told us they were Italian and that they didn’t speak any English or Indonesian. (I imagine that would make traveling around Indonesia impossibly difficult.) Anyway, Chris FRASCARELLI tried to tell them her family was from Italy, but they remained indignantly uninterested.

Our tour gave us three and a half hours to spend at Prambanan. We read every sign, walked inside every temple, and took every forced goofy photo we could think of. We took as long as at the temple and surrounding vendor stands as was humanly possible. Then we circled the souvenir booths again, in case we didn’t catch all the cheap ashtrays and temple keychains the first time around. I bought a $2 pair of “Gurci” (not quite Gucci) sunglasses and Chris bought some ripe rambutan. Then we had two hours left. It was pouring.

The Italians sat inside the visitors' center until our van was scheduled to leave again, despite everyone’s best attempts to communicate to them that we could leave earlier if everyone was ready. This is when I decided that the couple was an affront to the country of Italy. The Italian language is beautiful; it sounds beautiful even if you don’t understand a word of it. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a whole book about how beautiful it is! Dom Caristi speaks in Italian and his words don't mean anything to me but they still sound awfully pretty! But these people were speaking some sort of miserable-person pseudo-Italian in which they groaned their words to one another and occasionally glanced around all shifty-eyed. That’s why I didn’t feel bad when we abandoned them at a plain, boring restaurant in search of something more fitting for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Dinner

We told our driver we really, really, really wanted to eat turkey for dinner that night. He was definitely familiar with what turkey was, but he said there was nowhere in the entire city of Yogyakarta to find it. (We didn’t even find a turkey at the bird market, not that we would have, like, killed it and cooked it ourselves.)

He first took us to a traditional Indonesian warung, which means it was pretty grimy and crawling with things. We asked if maybe we could go somewhere nicer for the special occasion. He then took us to a restaurant within walking distance of our next destination, but the menu only had about 5 choices, and I killed 12 ants on the table with my spoon before I even sat down.

We tried again, finding our driver and asking if we couldn’t have turkey, could we at least go somewhere where we could eat indoors and get a cold drink?

It was at that moment that a big black van pulled up behind ours in the otherwise-empty parking lot. It was fate. A man stepped out, and our driver asked him if he knew anywhere that served turkey in the city. He said, “Well, I’m a restaurant owner, and we have turkey on the menu!” Coolest. Thing. Ever. It went something like this:

Us: “Really?! You have turkey?!”
Him: “Yes, yes. Turkey.”
(Dials his phone. Asks if they still have turkey left. Shuts his phone and grins.)
Him: “Yes, still turkey.”
Us: “That’s wonderful! Can we go there?”
Him: “Sure. Did you know that today is a holiday in America where many people eat turkey?”
Us: “Um, yes. We’re Americans. “
Him: “Oh, that’s why you want turkey!”

We paid our driver some extra rupiah to drive us forty minutes back into the city. (Even with the 3 ½ hours at the temple, we were 2 ½ hours early for the ballet.) The “turkey dinner” ended up being plain turkey sandwiches, but the restaurant’s atmosphere was calming and elegant, just exactly what we needed.

gobble gobble gobble

We took turns saying what we were thankful for.

I’m thankful that water heaters exist in the world.

I’m thankful for cell phones that work internationally.

I’m thankful for turkey sandwiches in the middle of Indonesia.

I’m thankful this country has so many different, crazy places to travel.

Ramayana Ballet

After dinner, we rushed back to the Ramayana Ballet. The performance was similar to the Kris show we watched in Bali, but the stories are different and the costumes for the ballet aren’t as elaborate. Throughout the show, the dancers were struggling not to laugh. I thought this was supremely weird; they usually take the cultural shows so seriously.

The story is a sort of Indonesian Romeo and Juliet… but not really. The bride sees a beautiful deer and she begs her husband to go capture it for her. Unfortunately, the deer is the bad guy in disguise and he uses the absence of the groom to capture her. He wants to marry her because he thinks she’s his former love reincarnated.

"Burn, baby, burn" says Rama

Battles ensue, complete with monkey armies and plenty of violence. Finally, good triumphs and the groom wins back his bride. THEN, though, he doesn’t believe she’s pure enough anymore, and he says he doesn’t want her. Doesn’t that figure? She sets herself on fire to prove her innocence. The god of fire spares her, her loves takes her back, and everyone lives happily ever after. Except for the monkeys, that is, who I saw for sale in the bird market earlier.


  1. a whole lotta awesome blog. really enjoyed reading this one.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out. Glad that you know not all Italians are jerks :)