I convinced my Beringharjo guide to speak to me in Indonesian. His aunties thought they were speaking to me in Indonesian too but I thought they were speaking Javanese. It didn’t matter much as we were soon speaking the language of cloth. Their second-hand fabric was mostly old kain, hemmed lengths of cloth that Javanese women traditionally wear wrapped around the body (in English we’d call it a sarong but in Indonesia a sarong is a tube of cloth with a seam on the short edge and is worn by men). The cloth was soft from years of wear and washing – that perfect velvety state that fabric achieves just before it falls apart.
The kain I chose was a dark navy blue with a design of birds, butterflies and flowers picked out in a rich tan with dotted white highlights. It was a batik tulis, or ‘written’ batik. For this type of batik the craftsman (who is usually a woman) uses a tool called a canting – a tiny brass pot with a spout at the bottom and a bamboo handle – to create a freehand design instead of using a stamp to produce a regular pattern. The maker scoops melted wax from a pan, puts her finger over the spout to stop the wax pouring out and blows on the pot to cool it slightly. In her other hand she holds a length of cloth that is draped over a bamboo frame and in one swift movement she transfers the canting to the cloth and continues to draw the pattern where she left off, adjusting her speed to control the width of the line as the liquid wax pours from the spout.
I’ve seen batik tulis ladies in action. They sit straight-backed on low stools and their movements are fluid and unhurried – they are a Javanese version of the refined ladies doing their embroidery by the fire in BBC productions of Jane Austen novels. I’ve also done the obligatory batik-making workshop that goes with language immersion courses in Indonesia – in the afternoon, when everybody’s brains are fried, we all sit around pots of hot wax making blobs on scraps of cloth and trying not to burn our legs on the kerosene burners or pour wax all over our clothes. My kindergarten attempts at batik tulis gave me an appreciation of the patience and skill required to make it properly. But how much would a piece like this be worth?
At the time, I had learnt Indonesian for four years at secondary school in Australia and at an intensive ‘summer school’ at a university in Indonesia. My school experience had given me a strong grounding in Indonesian grammar – to the extent that the children at my homestay in Jakarta told me I talked like a textbook – and at the summer school I had got pretty good at talking about politics, sociology and the cultural role of soya bean products in Indonesia. But I wasn’t (and I’m still not) very good at bargaining.
I knew a few things: keep it cheerful, don’t be in a rush and if you offer a price that is accepted, you are duty bound to buy the item. I had also been told that if you want a good price you shouldn’t appear too keen on the item and it’s worth checking out the price of similar items in a fixed-price shop before venturing into the market. However, I couldn’t hide my love for the butterfly batik and I hadn’t looked at the price of batik tulis in the shops – I had always assumed it would be beyond my backpacker budget. Yet I wanted that batik so bargain I must.
I don’t remember how much I paid but it wasn’t cheap. And why should it be? It was beautiful, and besides, I wasn’t just paying for a piece of cloth; I had been given a personal tour of the market and a free language lesson and the experience had lifted my mood immeasurably. This might sound like a self-indulgent attempt to justify retail therapy, but it’s not. Well, maybe it is a little bit.
In any case, it is a memory I have cherished for over twenty years, so if you’re about to head off on a backpacking adventure yourself, remember that it’s not all about getting the best price and travelling as light as you possibly can.
The aunties wished me well for my travels and my guide led me out through the maze of stalls to the front of Beringharjo Market where we had met. He had a smile on his face that told me he would be allowed to knock off early that afternoon.
As for me, apart from having a lighter wallet and a heavier bag, I had a new purpose: to find a tailor. [tbc]