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Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads



Java is a fascinating place, an island only one-fourth the size of California that holds over 100 million people, almost half of Indonesia's total population. It has a wide diversity of cultures that live incredibly close to one another; on parts of the island, you can travel a few miles and encounter three or four different communities with different foods, clothing, customs and languages. The capital city of Jakarta is in the western part of Java, while the cultural center of Yogyakarta (usually shortened to "Yogya", and pronounced "Jogja") is in the central area of the island. It is dotted with volcanoes, some active (and recently!).

I had planned on spending some time visiting three of Java's largest cities and the countryside in between them, but events in the region unfortunately cut my visit short so that I was only able to travel to Yogya. I was about to leave for Jakarta, for instance, when I heard some stories about foreign tourists being dragged out of cars and beaten, their possessions all taken. Not that it happened to many people, and I'm a very daring traveler, but the warnings were harsh enough that I had to make the hard decision to cancel my visit. If you haven't heard about the happenings that have rocked Indonesia over the past year -- huge student demonstrations; the forced resignation of their president of the past 30 years, Suharto; riots in the streets, many linked to religious conflicts and to devastating economic hardship linked to government corruption and to the "Asian economic crisis" -- you should READ about it! (If you have any great links to other sites that give information about events in Indonesia, let me know and I'll add those links to this site.) Perhaps it all goes to show how difficult it can be to hold together a country with so much diversity, but if you ask me, I think Indonesia will eventually come through their troubles exactly because of their commitment to Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, Unity in Diversity (the national slogan).

Yogya immediately comes across as being much bigger and grittier than anything on Bali. It's hard to put a finger on why it feels so different right away from a city like Denpasar, but it does. One difference is the becaks (three-wheeled bicycle taxis) that rule the streets. (They used to have them in Bali, but they're all but gone now.) On the main streets they just seem to get in the way of traffic, but once you get onto the smaller back streets they become a nice, slow way to get around town.

As you get around town, the differences begin to become more evident. Within a couple of hours of walking around, you're bound to hear the loud calls to prayer from local mosques, telling you that this is a Moslem society. In fact, Indonesia is about 90% Moslem -- which, given the size of its population, makes it the largest Islamic country in the world.

This history of Islamic culture goes back many hundreds of years, to when traders from the west (India, in particular) came to Indonesia and brought their religious ideas with them. Islam fit well enough with the needs of the people that it rapidly spread to become the dominant religion of the area. For much of that time, regions within Indonesia were ruled by sultans who lived in palaces such as this one, called the Kraton. In fact, Yogya still has a sultan who is very influential and charismatic and very much loved by people of the city. In fact, several people I spoke with credited him with keeping Yogya from having the kinds of problems that are troubling Jakarta these days!

Before Islam came to Java, most of the people who lived here were Hindus. (In fact, Hindus leaving Java to Bali several hundred years ago created the Hindu culture that exists there today.) One of the great Hindu monuments from that time, Prambanan, is still there today. This is one view of the temples at Prambanan. Hard to believe it was built over 1000 years ago!

This is a view from near the top of one of the temples, showing how well-preserved it still is. If you look carefully along the inner wall, you can see...

...carvings that depict scenes from the Ramayana, that great Hindu epic that plays such a central role in Balinese arts. While Java is strongly Moslem, people still love to hear the Ramayana story and those from the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. In fact, once a year for a full month thousands of Javanese descend on Prambanan to see beautiful dance-drama performances of those stories -- and dalangs (shadow puppeteers) who put on shows based on the Mahabharata are considered to be among the highest-status people of all Javanese! This kind of "merging" of different beliefs and practices, where new things are added to old rather than replacing them, is an important part of all Southeast Asian cultures, and is a theme I'll come back to again and again in my travels.

Back in Yogya again, a welcome site: a fruit cart that sells fresh fruit straight from the farm! You've never had really great pineapple until you've eaten it here -- and a whole pineapple costs only about 25 cents!!

All around Yogya and other cities on Java, you see evidence of the colonial past in buildings such as this, Yogya's main post office, which was built in a Dutch architectural style. Indonesia was ruled by the Dutch for over three hundred years (as well as by the Portuguese, the British and the Japanese, during World War II, all for much shorter periods of time). As with every other country in Southeast Asia except for Thailand (which was never colonized), Indonesia did not achieve its independence until after World War II -- in Indonesia's case, in 1948. And it's clear that the country is still struggling to deal with that colonial past, which one would expect: fifty years isn't very long to overcome 300 years of control and exploitation by a foreign power!

With only a little time to spend on Java, I felt it was essential to visit the countryside. The change from city to country is amazing: one minute you're riding on a busy city street, and the next you take a quick turn and you're in the middle of scenes like this, with farmers transplanting baby rice shoots into a wet rice padi! Here, two women are using a brilliant method of planting the rice in perfectly neat rows by using a log of split bamboo that is marked to tell them where to push in the young shoots.

Others, however, just like to eyeball it -- and do a good job of it, too. (Though not as fast, from what I could see.) This woman is just pulling up the young shoots from where they were first planted very densely. The transplanting process separates them out so they will have room to grow at they approach maturity.

Different fields in the same area are farmed in different cycles, so that while new rice is being planted in one field it is just being harvested (collected) in another. While the transplanting was going on as above, this woman was harvesting mature rice plants from a nearby field. She would take these plants back to her home to thresh (beat) them in order to get the grains of gabah (rice with husks still on them) she'd store for future sale or eating.

Math Problem

Here's a math problem you could work on, that comes from information I got from a farmer on my trip here.

*An average rice padi (field) measures about 10 X 150 meters.

*A square meter of the field can yield about 7 ounces of padi (rice in the field), which generates 5 ounces of gabah (rice with the husk, whether wet or dry, that can be stored in rooms at home to keep away rats) OR 3.5 ounces of beras (de-husked and bagged rice)

*One kilogram of beras can be sold for about 2500 Rupiah (the exchange rate is presently about 7000 Rupiah for one U.S. dollar)

Here's the question: assuming the whole field can be planted, and three harvests can be collected in a year, how much money can a landowner make from an average field in one year? (You'll have to find out how many ounces are in a kilogram to get the answer; it should be around 35, I think.)

It's also interesting to know that it takes five people about three hours to plant half a field; they get paid a total of 12,000 rupiah for this work. The same workers will do the harvesting of the rice at maturity, and get paid 1 basket of gabah for every 10 baskets they collect. It takes five people about sixteen hours to do the harvesting of a full field. If you're really good at math word problems, you can use this information to figure out how much each farmworker gets paid per hour for planting and for harvesting, how much the landowner pays out to them for their work on his/her field, and thus how much profit the landowner makes in a year (without doing any of the work!).

If you're the first to figure out the answers to these problems and to send me the answer, there's a nice prize in it for you!!


While rice is the primary crop grown in Java, it is certainly not the only one. Sugar cane, shown here, is one of many others grown around the island. My guide through the fields told me an interesting fact: not only is sugar cane the number one crop grown throughout the world, it's even grown in larger quantities than the number two (rice) and number three (wheat) crops COMBINED!! (Think about that the next time you take a big bite of Fruit Loops...)

As we were returning to the city from the fields, we came across this Moslem cemetery. Unlike on Bali, where the bodies of the deceased are cremated (burned), on Java the Moslem custom is to bury the body immediately. However, after that, the customs become more like those of Hindus (again, reflecting the Hindu history of the island): flowers are offered, incense is burned, and mourners walk in circles around the burial site at intervals of three days, one week, forty days, one hundred days, one year and one thousand days after the initial burial. On that thousandth day, the tombstone is finally placed (as you see here) and final good-byes are said. You might also notice that some of the tombstones in this photo are very small; that is because they are for young children, reflecting the fact that in the not-so-distant past (and even now, in many places) childhood diseases took the lives of many at a very early age.

As I left Yogya to go to the airport for my flight to Thailand, I was pretty much daydreaming when I realized I had this very strange, unsettling feeling. My taxi turned a corner, and we were suddenly staring straight at Mount Merapi, an active volcano that juts straight up over 10,000 feet and looms over Yogya. I hadn't seen it before that because it gets enshrouded in fog soon after sunrise, and this was the first day I was up early enough to catch a glimpse. It was absolutely INCREDIBLE! A friend I met who was sharing the taxi told me a story of how he'd climbed the mountain three years earlier and was planning on camping near the top, but his guide insisted they go down that evening. It was a long way down, and they walked much of it in the nighttime darkness, so my friend was questioning the guide's judgment -- until they turned around at the bottom and looked up to see the mountain actually erupt in a huge explosion that sent ash two miles up into the air! Somehow, the guide knew the mountain well enough to have a feeling something was wrong -- much to my friend's good luck.

On leaving Yogya, like Bali, I found myself having missed seeing several things I really wanted to see and share with you. Of course, in a nation as diverse as Indonesia, there will always be so much I would have missed -- yet so much I DID see, too. One great thing I got to do was to take a batik class, which isn't on this site but which I can share with my students when I get back to San Francisco. There's so much more, and I hope some of you are interested enough to check out some books or browse the web to find out more. (If you find good sites, please tell me and I'll put links into the site to get to them.)

If you've found this interesting, I think you'll find the next leg of my journey just as fun to follow. So, join me as I go to the center of Southeast Asia and the fascinating country of THAILAND!

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Copyright 1999 by Avi Black
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