Super Bloody Beautiful Culture

Yesterday morning we sought to gain some extra points for scholarship by visiting the Sonobudoyo Cultural Museum which is known for its fine collection of furniture, ceramics, musical instruments and puppets. Beautiful to look at, indeed  but much hindered by the lack of any apparent dating on the labels. We had been told by our guide on the tour of the Sultan’s palace that certain ornamental motifs such as snakes and peacocks signify different numbers but picking out enough symbols to correctly establish a date would have taken many years of study. “Dragon, buffalo, lotus, pheasant: oh yes, that means 1932”? It does sound a bit excessive, doesn’t it? Perhaps there was a bit of a problem in translation.

We had missed the morning puppet show but Elisabeth met the puppet maker and was able to photograph some of the traditional methods of construction of both the solid and the shadow type. And make a small purchase, of course. Then it was back to the hotel for our pick-up for Prambanan, a ninth century Hindu religious complex which consists of hundreds of Candis (conical temples or shrines) arranged in symmetrical groups around the central 47meter Shiva temple. Many of the smaller temples have not been restored but just sit in forlorn rectangular arrangements of dismembered blocks as if awaiting divine inspiration. The taller examples, though, have had the benefit of some careful re-building over the past two hundred years (and re-rebuilding after the 2006 Java earthquake) and tower above the surrounding vegetation to present a quintessential image of the land once known as Indo-China.

So picturesque are they, in fact, that each evening they form the backdrop for a spectacular ballet re-enacting some of the principal stories of the Ramayana. This is a “must see” for most visitors but I gave up my seat to a Russian girl in our mini-bus who said how disappointed she was not to have been able to get a ticket. This put me in a good light while simultaneously allowing me to leave Elisabeth to report on the show while I went back to our hotel to catch up with one of the Indonesian geologists that we had met two years ago in North Korea.

Mikha turned up with a couple of young friends in tow and all we set off on two motorcycles to find the best meatball soup in Yogyakarta. They told me about their forthcoming fieldtrips to various different islands and I made them very jealous by letting on that I would be visiting Yellowstone Park next month. We sat on the floor in an informal family restaurant, discussing seismology and the formation of gemstones, and I forgot what a strange spectacle I must have made, being not much younger than the combined ages of all three of them.

Elisabeth came back from the Ramayana ballet fuming; not because of the standard of performance but because of the inefficient booking arrangements which had left her standing there at the entrance without a ticket. In the end no amount of Teutonic bluster would prevail and she was forced to pay an exorbitant price for a VIP ticket. I was very grateful to hear that she had also treated Natalia who was as excited as a kid at a carnival to get a place after all. As for me, well, I can always check it out on you-tube.

This morning we travelled out of the city to the small town of Borobudur, which sits alongside the monumental Buddhist temple of the same name. This World Heritage Site is famed across the globe but, after booking into our charming guest house, we did not have time to check out whether it lived up to its reputation and instead tried to find our way along the surrounding roads in search of a sunset viewing point. In this we were only partially successful and ended up somewhere out of town where a solitary bench overlooking the paddy fields gave us a view of the ruins with the setting sun off to one side. We enjoyed the spectacle and then realised that we would have to get back to civilisation pretty quickly if we were to avoid being caught out in the dark.

As we passed an apparently unoccupied guesthouse a smiling, snaggle toothed Indonesian chap hailed us and invited us to take tea at “his” hotel. The courtyard was quite charmingly laid out with a combination of lush vegetation, stone terraces, antique hardwood beams, rattan furniture and a carp pond (pretty much the standard package for hereabouts) but Jamal appeared more interested in our wellbeing than in attempting to get us to change lodgings. A perfect “character”, he seems to share many an unattractive man’s consummate skill in knowing how to make a woman laugh. His Australian colloquialisms (everything good was “super bloody beautiful”) contrasted so well with his native Javanese diffidence that we quickly fell under his spell.

Both our sons would probably be horrified to have seen us propelled through the dusk in the homemade sidecar of a 1974 Vespa scooter, navigating strange backstreets in an unfamiliar part of town to have dinner in a modest restaurant beside the mosque. Jamal dispatched his evening prayers so quickly that we thought he had just popped out for another smoke break and returned to take up his narrative again. He doesn’t exactly work at the guesthouse but seems to have got himself adopted as resident jester, acting as fixer for whatever the guests need with the help of his various customised vehicles. All, by the way painted custard yellow and emblazoned with some pretty un-Islamic nicknames. We had taken our ride in the Mad Buffalo, whose lighting consisted of a mobile phone torch pointed ahead by one of the passengers.

We heard the full story of his rescue of an Australian damsel in distress; apparently he had gone out and found her after she had wandered from the path somewhere and she had rewarded him with English lessons. After a fashion. Whenever he was at a loss for the next word he would say “blah, blah, blah” but in such an expressive way that it conversation seemed to flow on uninterrupted. He is really going to try to observe Ramadan this year but he says he just doesn’t know how people manage in Europe with the Summer sunsets being so late.

We have made it safely back to our own guesthouse for the night and arranged an early morning pick up, no doubt in something custard yellow, to watch the sun rise over Borobudur.

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