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.

The dog ate my homework

It has been almost three weeks since Tiger Stone was launched at Castlemaine Library and questions have been asked in certain circles about the absence of a post launch post. My excuse(es)? Life got busy, my eyes hurt, the VLine commute is killing me and the dog ate my homework.

Hmmm. Last week I visited a high school – primarily to convince anyone who would listen that 14th century Java is really really fascinating, but also to help the Year 12s prepare for their upcoming Indonesian oral exam. Unlike me, the students I spoke to didn’t make any excuses but a couple of them were clearly at the hyperventilating stage of exam preparation so I did my pep talk about doing a little bit every day and setting achievable goals. All of which made me think that I should probably listen more to my own advice.

So here’s my little bit for today. The launch was ace: the dadar unti (coconut and pandan pancakes) went down a treat (thanks Paul and Leonie); Susan Green gave a beautiful, thoughtful speech; loads of friends, family and book lovers came; the patented Castlemaine Library book launcher went off on cue, delivering a book into the hands of an avid young reader and I managed to get through the whole thing without crying or locking myself in the bathroom.

Thank you to everyone who came and to those who sent messages (and flowers!).

We’ll be doing the whole thing again in Ubud in a few weeks if you want to come along.

Translation

Dictionaries

The last exam I sat was my NAATI exam. NAATI stands for the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters. There were hundreds of us all crammed into Wilson Hall at the University of Melbourne, all different ages and different ethnic backgrounds scribbling away in I don’t know how many different languages. I’ve still got my official NAATI translator rubber stamp in a box somewhere but as I passed the exam a good 15 years ago and haven’t done any official translating for at least 10 years, I don’t think I could ethically use it now.

Recently I decided to test my translator’s brain to see just how rusty it is. I wanted to translate an article that was published in 1990 in Tempo Interaktif magazine because it is one of the few online sources of information about the Wonoboyo Hoard – the treasure that appears in Tiger Stone – and I thought readers who don’t speak Indonesian might be interested to find out a little more about the treasure and its discovery.

The exercise reminded me how much I love translating – it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle with ideas. It’s also quite a balancing act – if you translate too literally then it sounds clunky in English but if you are too free with your translation you run the risk of stepping outside the translator’s role and becoming an editor.

You can read my translation of ‘The Legacy of Saragi Diah Bunga’ here. If you read Indonesian, have a look at the original here – what do you think of my translation? Would you have translated anything differently? I’d love to hear your thoughts.