Butterfly Batik (2)

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]

Butterfly batik

I changed my website theme today and in the process I revisited a journey I made over twenty years ago.

I was looking for something suitable to use as a background for my header image when I came across my old batik shirt. The fabric was so worn that it ripped every time I put it on but I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out because it reminded me of the boy at Beringharjo Market, his aunts and the fastidious tailor. So for many years it has been languishing in a box with all the other treasures that I can’t bear to relinquish.

When I was twenty-two I travelled solo through Bali, Java and Sumatra. I arrived in Yogyakarta on an overnight bus from Malang and checked into what was, in retrospect, a pretty creepy guesthouse. My trusty Lonely Planet South East Asia on a Shoestring (a big yellow brick) told me to go to the Beringharjo Market, so I did – even though all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball in my room where nobody could hassle me (it hadn’t been a great bus trip).

The boy at the Beringharjo Market was a few years younger than me. His after school job was to stand near the entrance to the market looking for likely tourists to draw into the depths of the Market where his aunties sold second-hand batik. He saw me coming.

The thing about me is that I have no sense of direction; I get lost at Vic Market in Melbourne, which is not only laid out in a grid but the rows are labelled alphabetically. I knew I had no hope of finding my way out of Beringharjo by myself so I did a deal with the boy (I’m sorry I can’t remember his name): if he would take me into and out of the Beringharjo Market, I would visit his aunties’ batik stall.

We wound our way through the labyrinth. Past stalls selling fruit, kitchen utensils, plastic toys and every imaginable body part of a cow. Finally we arrived at the aunties’ batik stall. It’s possible that they sold new fabrics too but I only had eyes for the old kain. [tbc]

Sulawesi Selatan

Students at Pinrang workshop

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve visited Indonesia, but this is my first time in Sulawesi. It’s the jigsaw-piece-shaped island that always seemed somehow remote, even though it’s only a two-hour flight from Jakarta. My visit here this time is the result of kebetulan. When I put in a grant application to the Australia-Indonesia Institute I gamely stated that I would visit a school in Makassar to do a writing workshop with the students. I had a vague plan to get the BRIDGE team at AEF on board and convinced myself not to worry, something would work out, it always does.

By the start of August, the BRIDGE team was on board and an itinerary for Java was starting to take shape but Sulawesi seemed as remote as ever. Then, kebetulan, I met Lily Farid at the Bendigo Writers Festival. Lily is the founder of the Makassar International Writers Festival, a talented writer and a true dynamo. Before I knew it, I had a MIWF t-shirt and bag and a spot on the line-up for a MIWF 2016 pre-event: a two-day workshop at SMAN 11 Unggulan Pinrang, a boarding school in a small (by Indonesian standards) town about four hours drive from Makassar.

I’m back in Makassar now, having just spent two wonderful days in Pinrang with two fellow writers (Aan Mansyur and Faisal Oddang), an inspiring Indonesian teacher (Baharuddin Iskandar) and twenty-nine enthusiastic senior high school students.

Senior High School students in South Sulawesi design zines on their laptops
Editorial teams at SMUN 11 Unggulan Pinrang prepare zines for Indonesian teachers in Australia to use as reading material in their classes

I shared my zine-making idea with the students and they were straight onto it, forming editorial teams and gathering material for zines about food, boarding school life, why everyone should read and dispute resolution Bugis-style. Within two days they had produced first editions for seven zines and one team was onto its second edition. I’ll get them onto a Wikispace to share with Indonesian teachers in Australia soon but now it’s time for me to go and explore Makassar.

Jakarta: Museum Gajah

Kancil at Museum Gajah
Flat traveler in front of elephant statue outside the National Museum
Kancil at the National Museum of Indonesia

I finally got to see the Wonoboyo Hoard at the National Museum of Indonesia today. It’s an incredible collection but  photos are not allowed, unfortunately, so you’ll have to come and see it for yourself.

On my way into the museum I picked up a Flat Traveler all the way from the 14th century (the out of focus, ghostly look is intentional). Kancil has agreed to come to Sulawesi with me and share her thoughts about the 21st century along the way.

BTW – the elephant statue behind Kancil was a gift to the Government of Batavia from the King of Siam in 1871. I had a bit of trouble explaining where the National Museum was to the taxi driver and when we finally got there he said ‘Oh, Museum Gajah!’ So, if you want to see the Wonoboyo Hoard next time you’re in Jakarta, ask the taxi driver to take you to the Elephant Museum.

Ash clouds and aeroplanes

Iceland coastline near Stykkisholmur

Stykkisholmur is a small fishing village in western Iceland. Ngurah Rai International Airport is in Indonesia, on the island of Bali. What’s the connection? Volcanic ash.

Right now, Ngurah Rai International Airport is a little quieter than usual; an ash cloud from Mount Raung, a volcano in East Java, has airlines so worried that they have cancelled flights out of the Denpasar airport. Stykkisholmur is home to the Eldfjallasafn Volcano Museum, where, along with amazing volcano-inspired art and a geological display, you can view an informative (read terrifying) video about the power of volcanoes. Watching this video last month was the first time I heard of ‘The Jakarta Incident’ – a narrowly averted air disaster in 1982 that showed the aviation industry just how dangerous an ash cloud is to aeroplanes.

Woodcut of Mt Hekla eruption by Sebastian Munster
Woodcut of Mt Hekla in Cosmografia, 1551 by Sebastian Munster. Volcano Museum Stykkisholmur.

On 24 June 1982 British Airways Flight 9 from London to Auckland was flying at night over West Java with 248 passengers and 15 crew on board. The radar indicated a clear sky but the plane became enveloped in cloud and the cabin filled with smoke. Then, one by one, each of the four engines failed.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. This is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are all doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.” Captain Eric Moody

The pilots tried to restart the engines but to no avail. As the plane lost altitude, gliding towards Java’s mountainous south coast, the crew made rapid calculations to determine where it would land. They were just about to change course to try an emergency landing at sea when miraculously the engines came back to life.

The crew was able to land safely in Jakarta, but not without incident; one of the engines failed again as the plane regained altitude and the pilots had to land ‘blind’ as the windscreen was mysteriously opaque and the plane’s landing lights weren’t working.

The cause of the Jakarta Incident was an ash cloud from Mount Galunggung in West Java. Radar detects cloud by measuring moisture, but ash clouds are dry so they don’t show up. While the instruments reported a clear sky, the windscreen, engines and landing lights were being ‘sandblasted’ by tiny particles of ash similar to shards of glass. The ash also melted onto the engines. Luckily, as the engines cooled the molten ash solidified and enough of it broke off to allow the engines to restart.

The Jakarta Incident was the subject of an episode of the Mayday television series, which features interviews with passengers and crew – it is well worth a look unless you are a nervous flyer.

So that is why planes don’t fly into ash clouds if they can possibly avoid doing so. Keep it in mind if you’re ever stuck in Bali because your airline’s risk management team have decided to be cautious. And if you are affected by the current delays – you have my sympathy, but spare a thought for the 5000 people of Papua New Guinea’s Manam Island who are still waiting for urgent assistance a week after a volcanic eruption destroyed their food gardens.