Friday, July 08, 2005

Little hands and feet

Shaking my head to the outstretched hands of a little girl, my heart and mind soured.

How can you refuse a little child? How can you bear to be human as you watch dirty little legs as they disappointedly walk away? Little boys, little girls, little babies lie on the side of roads, as fast, furious and shiny new cars speed by. The chocking fumes and deafening noise is their playground. Small plastic cups clinking with coins is their only toy. On Jalan Sudirman, the heart of Jakarta's central business district, the walkways, pavements and traffic islands crawl with creatures a different Jakarta.

In Indonesia, survival is an everyday struggle.

Back in Jakarta

After a twenty hour journey with the bus, I arrived safe and sound in Jakarta this morning. That concludes my whirlwind trip to East and Central Java, and back. It’s been an eventful, and also fruitful week. But to my disappointment, somehow the 300 odd pictures I took (some of which were intended to be evidence in the upcoming trial…) has vanished into the abyss of my flash disk. My one last hope of retrieving them is to get help from the computer programmer at my kos (lodging).

The last few days I was completed alone, after I realised that the guide and translator I needed for contacting various NGOs and peoples had turned from an asset to a big financial burden. She suddenly dropped the shock that I should be responsible for paying her travel to Jakarta from her village (Jember in East Java, around 1,000km away!). I think it’s fair that I should pay for her travel to be with me, but never before my arrival was I ever told that she would need to travel from so far just for me. My tight budget therefore did not take into account a sudden bleed of Rp. 400,000 (EUR 40). In Semarang, I told her I will risk going alone if I have to. So, after a few silent prayers before Bodhisattva (Guan Shi Yin) and my godmother Matsu, I ventured alone into the deep heart of Central Java.

Yogyakarta (Yogya) is known as the spiritual heart of Java. It is here, the Yogyans will tell you (as I’ve been told by people I’ve encountered), that the resistance against Dutch colonisation was fiercest. Much of the traditional cultures, music and foods have been preserved, despite the onslaught of modernising forces. Indeed, Yogya, since from the remnants of a fort behind the Bird Market, is a green and pleasant city, compared to others I’ve been to.

Shortly after arriving in Yogya, I rushed off to the nearby Borobodur. After a two hour bus journey, into a valley surrounded by three majestic mountain ranges and at the foot of one of eruptive volcanoes on Earth, the ‘Temple on the Hill" is the biggest Buddhist temple in the world. Despite the

Rp.100,000 (EUR 10) entrance fee for foreign tourists (as compared to Rp.7,000 for locals), the few hours I spent walking around the sculptured walls of the temple depicting the wonders of Buddhism were definitely awe-inspiring. Hundreds of buddhas, each with different hand gestures and body postures adorn the walls. Buddhas facing the

east, have the gesture calling the earth to witness; Buddhas facing south, have the hand in the position of blessing; towards the west, the gesture of meditation; towards the north, the the gesture is that of fearlessness; and at the centre with the gesture of teaching the lessons of cause and effect (dharma), after having achieved true enlightenment.

Hundreds of stupas (cone shaped structures pointing the way to a higher form of enlightened life line the terraces and crevices of the eight-storey temple. The lower sections symbolise human life without enlightenment, a life filled with earthly and material desires, a life of suffering because of unfulfilled wants. The sculptured walls, though mostly eroded by time and treasure hunters, depict people indulging in food, drink, erotic pleasures and other temporary pleasures. Further up, the story of the first Buddha Suddhita is depicted in engraved reliefs. Other motives show stories of compassion, forgiveness and of love of others. The top of Borobodur is a circle, symbolising the most perfect shape in the universe, a shape without beginning or end, a shape of perfection. The circle is further topped with some 92 stupas, each with a Buddha statue hidden inside. The highest pinnacle is the biggest stupa, and it has no Buddha. Maybe the builders left it empty to symbolise that emptiness, of life, of desires, of emotions and aversions, is the most divine and most enlightening stage, the stage known as nirvana.

I stood there, watching the serene buddhas, many beheaded, many with missing limbs and fingers, against a backdrop of green and of mountains captured in the dazzling dusk light. Tourists rushed to hug and pose with the Buddhas, even though signs say ‘no touching’, ‘no climbing’. Preying vendors chased me away, as I made my way to the smaller Mendut Temple 5km away. There the temple can be entered, and upon entering three giant statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas towered above me. I felt so small and insignificant. For brief moments, only interrupted by brief cackling of hen and cocks outside, I enjoyed the silent temple all to myself, I wallowed in the slow rising scent of incense sticks, and basked in the shade of the damp interiors of Mendut. The Buddhas, with lowered eyes, with faces radiating with compassion and love watched over little me.

The evening was filled with vendors and stalls as I walked down the busy thoroughfare of Jalan Malioboro. It is a busy street, on both sides souvenir, food and batik sellers and tourists. I sat on the floor, and ate nasi gudeg (jackfruit curry with rice) and ayam goreng (fried chicken). The bright lights and crowd did not interest me, nor did I interest them. Unexpectedly, I wandered the streets of Yogya at night, and managed to find myself in front of Puriwisata, the famed fairground with much singing and dancing in the evenings. To my luck, a dangdut singing contest was being held that night. Underneath the stars, amongst the harmonious melodies of Javanese music and dance, with dancing and cheering youngsters, the night quickly passed.

The next day, I made my way to the usual attractions of Yogya. In the heart of the city sits Kraton, a walled city within the city where the sultan continues the century old traditions brought over from India. The palace is open for visitors to see, but besides some royal robes on display, a few colourful cocks in rusty cages, there is disappointingly little impressive which caught my eye. More impressive is the sultan’s swimming resort next door, the Taman Sari (Water Castle). Built by a Portuguese architect, who was reported executed after its completion to hide secrets of buried treasures in the compound, it is a piece of peace away from the traffic all around. It’s recently been restored to recollect memories of a grandieus resort where the sultan and his forty wives (and countless children) retreated to for a cool bathe. As I walked toured the castle, men in batik clothes swarmed around me, offering ridiculously cheap tours of other surrounding sights (as little as Rp1,000; EUR 0.10!)…my guide, the authors of Lonely Planet had warned me about these ploys to lure tourists into batik and handicraft salons. Unashamedly I told them my bus to Jakarta leaves shortly, which was not too far from the truth. When they heard that, like flies sensing movement, they parted.

Thinking back, the last few days were exciting and of whole new experiences. Somehow, with my broken bahasa Indonesia, a bit of bargaining and playacting, I’ve managed to get from where I wanted to go to where I never expected to see. And doing so, with good memories, without being mugged or pickpocketed (…the danger of which every Indonesian I encounter alert me of wherever I go), is a small achievement.

In Blitar

After twenty odd hours of travel, I've managed to get away from the chaos and dirt in Jakarta. The bus journey was one I will remember for a long time. Highways exist only in and around big cities, so for the majority of the trip, we skirted the provincial roads, along the northern coast of Java, to Semarang, Surabaya, Malang etc. The scenery was beautiful, to say the least, and at times mesmorising. Imagine the orange sun-set over a black volcano towering over lush green rice paddies, shrouded in a haze of mist and mystery. As night moved in, the bus picked up speed. The road was winding and narrow, barely enough for two big buses (or trucks) in both directions. Somehow, the driver managed to speed along the Javan landscape, overtake literally hundreds of cars and trucks and buses he deemed too slow for his taste, occassioally drive on the lane of the traffic going the opposite direction, and bring us safely and early at our destination.

A short stop in Malang allowed me to meet some coordinators of NGOs and migrant worker organisations attending a conference there. My aim was to go to Blitar, a little town some 80km away. With the overcrowded economy bus the journey took more than 3 hours. Outside, supposedly the most untouched East Javan landscape flashed by. At one point a bus had its ffront plowed into a ditch. Not a reassuring sight when my bus was speeding on winding and windy roads that snake through the hills and cliff edges.

Blitar is a sleepy town in the south of East Java. The streets are immaculously clean, and there are even pavements big enough to walk up...a rarity here, considering most pavements are littered with motorcylces, warungs (roadside restaurants) and litter. Palm trees line the streets, becak drivers (tricycle) chase after you as you stroll and children play football and fly kites in the local alun-alun (park). Sukarno, the first president and father of Indonesia was born here...and here he is also laid to rest. I actually just retuurned from paying respects to his grave. It is a grand monument, with tiles and walls decked with marble. Outside, a mural pictures each of the turning moments in Sukarno's life, and in turn, also Indonesia's birth and recent history. After a solemn prayer, visitors spray petals around the ground. Surkano lies in front of a huge piece of marble with his name carved on it. Next to him lie his parents. But there was no room for his wif (v)e(s). After the impressions of awe and reverence at this great man, the exit is crowded with with beggars, young, old, crippled and blind. Their outrstretched and worn-out hands embraced the narrow alleyway. Indonesia's grandeur, pride and glory meets its ugliness, poverty and injustice.

But I did not come searching for Sukarno. He may have built Indonesia, but the many others, the ordinary people of this country make Indonesia. Suryati, the girl who was badly abused and unpaid during her 15months in Taiwan lives in the mountains nearby. The only way up was to hire a van, but at times the cratered road uphill seemed to be beating even the strongest fourwheel drive. The ground was arid and tree-less... a barren landscape.

When we finally located the cement hut she lives in, her family came to greet us warmly. When I first saw Suryati , the timid girl, who I later realised was just one year older than me, sat in a darkened corner of the room. As I shook her hands, I felt scars and burnt skin. And her cheek had a deep red scar...around the collar of her shirt there were bruise marks. Pictures of her body revealed that the abuse was much worse. Burn marks, bruises and scars cover her body, from her breasts to her back...

I sat down with her, and interviewed her. To my suprise she spoke excellent Mandarin, and almost the entire hour we spoke was in Mandarin. Her voice was clear and loud, and her words showed no fear, as she recounted her story. I watched her as she told of how things went from bad to worse, what kind of terrible physical violence, scoldings and threats she has had to endure. despite the solemn talk, she was cheerful, and never showed any sign of being beaten by the trauma she suffered. At the end, I praised her for her courage, her frankness and willingness to talk. Many migrants are abused, most come from sleepy villages like her own, partly because agents know that poolry educated country girls are ignorant of their rights. But few have the courage to speak out and to expose her story. As I left, the mother said: 'Semoga Allah bersama kita' (may Allay be with us) We may need just that if we are to bring the case to trial. The barren and arid landscape seemed to fill with life again.

At the end of the day, the van brought me back to the hotel. In the morning, my guide and I had already negotiated a price for the van-hire...R120,000 for the day, including lunch and gasoline. But the man suddenly changed his mind and asked for 150,000. He complained that the time to the mountains took longer than expected, and that he had to wait so long. But we had an ageement. I was furious, but then remembered the warnings of being cheated before I came here. And yesterday it happened. My guide suggested I should just pay, and there's no point arguing. I paid him in crumbled up and torn bills to show my displeasure ...this is exactly the kind of thing which gives this country such a bad name...

Next stop, Semarang. There I will meet the head of another NGO with much expereince in helping migrant workers adapt to life abroad and upon return. After that, it's a short break for me in Yogjakarta, where I hope also to visit the Borobodur Temples.

Salam dari Blitar,