Thursday, December 5, 2013

Episode 9: Claire in Java

When I took a trip to visit Solo for a week, a new world of sounds and instruments opened up to me...
A couple corrections to this episode: the section where Iswanto plays very fast gambang is actually not Central Javanese, so it wouldn't be played like that in a Javanese gamelan.
The large siter played in the episode is Sundanese, not Central Javanese, although there are siters played in Central Javanese gamelan.
My teacher Iswanto playing the gambang backwards

Me giving the rebab a try

Iswanto playing the beautiful Sundanese siter

A gender seen here with one mallet (there are usually two) and some snacks and tea on the floor.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Java Journey

 In efforts to explore beyond my backyard, this past week I spent in Central Java, which explains for my lack of presence on the blog lately.

Several impressions I got from my visit:

  • There are considerably less tourists there than in Bali so I got many more curious looks my way. On several occasions little girls would call out to me, "Hey mister!", unaware of what "mister" meant.
  • The difference in religious beliefs has a dramatic affect on the difference in architecture. The familiar Hindu temples were replaced by mosques topped with the Islamic crescent moon and star ornament.
  • People were no longer speaking in Balinese dialects but were using Javanese dialects. I don't understand Balinese, and as it turns out, I don't understand Javanese either! So it hardly made a difference haha.

  • There are just as many motorbikes in Java, but they also use bicycle rickshaws to transport people, something I've never seen in Bali.

  • People are equally as friendly and hospitable in Java and are eager to help me.
  • The gamelan music is wayyyy different!

I'll get into more detail about Javanese gamelan music in my upcoming Claire in Bali audio episode (or should that be Claire in Java episode?). I spent four days in Solo, Java, one day in Borobudur and one day in Yogyakarta.

After a short plane ride to Yogyakarta, everyone at the airport seemed eager to hustle me towards a taxi, but in the interest of saving money, I wandered around the bustling airport for a short time before I found local buses that would take me to a bigger bus stop which would then take me to Solo, about 3 hours away.

On the big bus to Solo, I nervously sat in the front close to the driver. I didn't exactly know what my last stop would be, I just hoped I would know it when I saw it (wise or idiotic, I'm unsure). Besides myself and the driver, there were only three other passengers aboard the bus. A mother wearing a hijab and her tween-age daughter sat to my left and the mother leaned towards me to ask me in English about why I was in Java, flabbergasted and laughing loudly when I replied in Indonesian.
At one stop a man boarded the bus and started reciting some speech he had prepared while holding what looked like a special pocketknife in his hands. Before I realized it, a pocket knife had plopped in my lap and I looked at a man seated behind me with a what-is-this-and-why-do-I-have-it look on my face. Apparently, everyone had been passed a knife to inspect and consider buying. The gentleman, with a smile, took the knife from me and returned it with his to the salesmen.

At another stop, a different man boarded the bus holding a ukulele, strumming the instrument and singing his heart out. The bus pulled back onto the road before his song ended, and I wondered how traveling musicians like these made it back home. Would he just take another bus going back in the other direction? Several passengers on the bus (there were more people now than we had started with) made small donations to the man, but I can't say he had the best voice.

I knew my stop had come because the driver announced Solo. As I stepped off the bus, I was greeted with throngs of Indonesian men all around the same forty-something age. Each one was more eager than the next to talk to me and offer me a ride on their rickshaw. I mumbled the name of my homestay to the man closest to me and he led me out of the crowd across the bus lot to his rickshaw. I looked left and right as if expecting someone to nod to me that it was okay to follow this man. I'm traveling alone so of course no one was there to tell me it's okay. That's the thing about traveling alone, no one's there to hold your hand and keep you safe, you must use your senses and decide for yourself what decisions to make and what's safe. I clambered in the rickshaw and my rickshaw driver began pedaling the bike towards my homestay. As they say, it's not the destination that's important, but the journey there!
Rickshaws like the one I rode in!
My view of the streets from the rickshaw

Highlights from Solo

Kris Workshop

On my first day in Solo I stepped into the workshop of a kris maker. Krises are sacred daggers  that are believed to possess magical powers or a divine essence. The blade can be either a zigzag shape or just straight. Krises are only for display, often owned by families or villages and can be a symbol of social status depending on the quality of the kris. Sometimes they are worn in the costumes of special dances at ceremonies. They are prominant throughout Indonesia as well as in Thailand and Malaysia. They require excellent skills to create, and I got to witness a craftsmen working diligently on one, crouched over an anvil holding a spinning blade emitting wild firey sparks from a kris.
The workshop looks kind of like what you'd imagine a midevil blacksmiths workshop to look like. All sorts of blades and hammers are hung everywhere, the walls and floor are black with ash and soot from burning metal and there's an enormous firepit to heat metal. The kris maker shows me several daggers he's made in the past, all with intricate layers of metal pounded together to create beautiful lines of metal in the dagger. It's very small detail that is difficult to accomplish.
Working on making a kris!
Two finished krises. The one on the right you can see the detailed inlay of several metals pounded together to give it that beautiful pattern on the surface.
Gamelan Makers Shop

Entering the doors of what looks like another home in this residential neighborhood, I found myself surrounded by all sorts of finished and unfinished gamelan instruments. Several wooden frames painted with a dark brown wood finish were set to dry, each carved with intricate vine and flower patterns. Javanese gong stands stood in a neat row, each with two carved wooden dragons proudly positioned in the center. Also in the room were an array of keyed instruments, some with metal keys, some with wooden and some keys themselves strewn on the floor. The owner of the shop led me through a door into the workshop where the instruments were actually carved, pounded and made. I could have walked through the cabinet to Narnia, it was such a drastically different atmosphere. Boys in sweaty cutoff tshirts and grimy shorts used hammers, electric saws and other tools to cut metal and wood to create what would someday be gamelan instruments. In a room further back was the most interesting display of all. Below a tremendously high ceiling sat a man holding two enormous tongs. At the end of the tongs was a giant pot of metal which beneath spit huge bursts of sparks and flames. Periodically the man shut off the flame and hoisted the metal to a group of men nearby who, in perfectly timed choreography, hammered into the metal one at a time, shaping it to look more like a bonang than a burnt marshmallow. It was a dazzling to watch the heavy metal be flung back into the flames again effortlessly, but the whole room swelled with ash and dust and I found it hard to breath. I don't know how those workmen stand it!
Men pound the metal into a gamelan pot called a bonang
Heating the bonang before and after being pounded with hammers
Lots of gamelan instruments. Some finished, some not!
Gamelan instruments, pre and post shining.

Tofu Making Shop

 A fun trip during my stay in Solo was visiting the tofu making plant. Just a small few huts built in a cluster, the plant consisted of large vats of boiling water, soybeans being ground up into bits and huge trays of giant slabs of tofu cooling! It was a short visit, but I can't really say I've ever pondered where tofu comes from, so I appreciated watching the process it goes through before ending up on my plate. Actually, I can't even really describe to you what exactly happens, it was a very informal visit. But it smelled weird and watching one of the workers stir a vat of hot liquid was very exciting!

Large vats of hot tofu and trays of tofu cooling.

Finished tofu!

Meditation Park

Ever wanted to lie around and do nothing? There's a place you can do that in Solo! At a meditation park I visited, beautiful statues of Hindu figures ornamented the beautiful garden. The owner led me down a pathway and we passed statues, and various open spaces for visitors to plop down and meditate. I noticed several cement tubs that were only 3 or 4 feet deep. When I asked the owner what they were, he informed me that people submerge themselves in water and will sit in the tub for hours, sometimes overnight, meditating. I'm not very familiar with meditation practices, but apparently all over Indonesia are parks like this and many people visit alone or with a group on a meditation retreat.

View of the park
Tubs where people choose to sit submerged in water and meditate

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Episode 8: An Evening At Temple

Tonight, join me in experiencing a traditional Balinese temple ceremony in Pengosekan village.
A low-quality photo from this evening but you get an idea what the gamelan group looked like in one of the temple buildings.

From a temple ceremony on a different day. People kneel inside the temple on the ground and a pemangku (priest) or assistant distributes holy water. Here a child is helping.

Again this is a different day, but just like the evening ceremony, many many people come to pray inside the inner temple. The girl standing is sprinkling holy water on people's heads.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Getting Ill

    Probably one of the worst places to start feeling ill is at a temple ceremony, thirty minutes away from home and during a gamelan performance. Well, that's just what happened to me a couple days ago when I started feeling nauseous and a fever coming on during my visit to Tulikup, a village where a friend of mine teaches a boys gamelan ensemble. My friend Imut had brought me all the way there, and out of politeness I held my tongue until I could bare it no longer and had to tell her I felt sick and needed to go home.

    It's been two days since that happened and I've had to cancel all my usual activities
to stay in bed and rest. So, you're thinking, what could Claire possibly have to share about doing nothing in bed? Well, I will tell you!

    First off, it's a lot easier to get sick in Bali when you haven't grown up here. I'm not sure what got me ill exactly, just that it could have been a combination of too much foreign foods, unfamiliar water, air pollution (there's a lot of it in Bali), exposure to wind while riding motorbikes and too much activity tiring my body out. In college, I was doing activities back-to-back all the time. In Bali, you'd be surprised how fast a little activity can feel like a lot and wear you down a lot faster, probably because of the heat.

    Second off, there's some Balinese remedies Ida, my friend taking care of me, suggests I try to get better that many Americans might roll their eyes about, but I'm willing to try almost anything. These include:
  • a bitter tea from special leaves in the garden she boils for an hour. She claims this tea cures anything and it may even cure cancer (but there's no research to prove it, I've already looked it up)
  • a shot of Propolis mixed with a little water. Propolis is a liquid from tree sap and polin produced by honey bees. It tastes and looks like iodine but Ida swears it's not
  • a strict diet of ONLY rice pudding. It sounds not bad but tastes mushy and bland. I can barely force myself to eat more than five bites, but maybe that's because I'm sick.
  • massaging my hands to find certain pressure points connected to my stomach.
    She also suggested I not take a shower and instead use a hot washcloth, as direct contact with the Bali water might irritate my system still.

    Yesterday, I decided to try and see a doctor, even though standing up made me weak, achy and nauseous. Just getting on the motorbike (don't worry! Ida drove) and sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office felt strenuous. No one in the waiting room had shoes on, they had left their sandals outside as is customary with most Balinese homes and places. Because it was a doctor's office, Ida and I decided to keep our shoes on. In the waiting room were framed photos of birds, white children playing with bunnies, large posters of the nervous-system and digestive-system and a little tiny TV featuring the news that everyone in the room including the receptionist nurse seemed to be watching. I found it kind of odd however that when Ida filled out the small form about me for the doctor that the form required my religion. "Christian?" Ida says to me, and I nod. I told her it puzzled me they asked that. "Oh yes, they must." said Ida. "But why?" She shrugged. "Because they always do."
Name, Age, Address, Job (student), Religion, Allergies

    After the doctor (or should I say doktor) diagnosed me with panas dalam (infection of the stomach), he gave me some antibiotics and I returned home to sleep. I still have pains in my stomach, but the headaches and fever have almost disappeared. I'm a lot better. Now, we better hope I'm better by tomorrow, I don't think I could take another day of icky rice pudding!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

You're never too old to learn!

Most amateur adult dancers might feel a little ridiculous if they tried to join in a young girls' ballet class, but after I found myself in a similar situation, it was quite humbling. This wasn't a ballet class however, it was traditional Balinese dance, and I wasn't expecting to join!

During my first private lesson of learning the female dance Oleg, I imitated the movements of my dance teacher, Ayu Dek. We were at the Pondok, a rehearsal space Ayu Eka usually teaches me, but today I had the honor of learning from her younger sister! In the middle of the lesson, I hear motorbikes pull into the driveway and three young girls and their fathers walk through the entryway and immediately I become shy. I've seen these twelve-year-olds dance before and they're impressive! I realize they have a rehearsal after my lesson. Ayu Dek tells me not to worry about them and we continue the lesson, only I'm ten times more aware of how my body looks so maybe them watching me is a good thing!

Ibu Sueni, the girls' dance instructor, soon arrives and as she watches us, she tells the girls to join me, so Ayu Dek begins to lead four girls instead of one. The beginning of Oleg isn't fast, so I steal a glance at the girls next to me and smile because they move so elegantly and with poise.

After my lesson, Ibu Sueni tells me the girls will practice Condong and when my face lights up she knows. "Mau ikut?" (Do you want to join?) I look at Ayu Dek who says "Kamu harus!" (You should!) so I grin and nod and she gestures for me to join one other girl on the dance floor.

Ibu Sueni jokingly yells, "Dance competition!!" and I yell "No!!!" and the fathers and Ayu Dek laugh. The intro to Condong begins and the young girl and I smile at each other. I turn to her, put my palms together and bow (like I've seen done at the beginnings of performances at the real Balinese dance competitions). She and her two peers burst out laughing.

We start dancing, and it quickly becomes obvious that the girl and I have had two different teachers. Our styles of Condong are somewhat different. I begin the dance in quick steps while she has a slow and steady introduction. Sometimes she changes her agem (dance pose) on a sooner drum beat than I, or I seledet (flicker my eyes) sooner than her. However, if I forgot a move, I had her to refer to!

I don't feel embarrassed when I dance with the younger girls, they inspire me to want to understand Balinese dance more because they dance so elegantly. It only makes me want to work harder. Just like when I watch gamelan musicians play, watching the girls furthers my love for these dances!

The girl's dancing a legong after I danced Condong

Ibu Sueni, the dance instructor, watches on as the girls dance.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Episode 7, Shopping for Gamelan Drums

Kids from the compound having fun with a barrong mask

Gangsar and I testing out the drums as the drum maker looks on

Dedy picking out a drum for me!

The hollow wood, soon to be drums!

Me and my kendhang drums!