12 September 2008

Letter 3.32

Jogjakarta -- Singapore -- '78

I was several weeks in Jogjakarta, in central Java, taking a batik course from a fine old man, who looks like a fisherman in a Chinese painting, and is a master of the art famed throughout Indonesia. I don't know where he stashes his gold though, because he lives like a fisherman too, and is a man of few words even if I could catch them. I've made three batiks and have the basic knowledge now to carry on on my own -- given the right situation -- that is becoming like my teacher -- I might.

Jogja is not a bad town, small enough to be tolerable for a while, with some history to it -- several ancient temples, and of course the ruins of Borobudur about 25 miles away -- one of the Buddhist wonders of antiquity -- a 1200 year old monument of carved rocks and statuary covering a small hill. The plan of the site was a fantastic attempt to depict in sculpture the whole hierarchy of existence. On the lower levels are depicted the animal, the demonic, the vulgar human occupations; as one ascends the hill the sculpture becomes finer, more intricate, depicting the higher callings of service, healing, the arts and sciences; then the realms of the muses, graces, and fates, so to speak; until one reaches the plain and unadorned summit and within a bell-shaped stone niche sits a serene Buddha almost abstract in its austere lines. Unfortunately, the monument's being extensively renovated, and much of it was closed off when I was there.

Transportation around Jogja is by bicycle rickshaw. Streets are potholed; some cobbled. Buildings are old, tile-roofed; the paths in some places are too narrow for traffic. Beggars (the first I'd seen in Indonesia -- I saw none in Bali) wait outside the tourist-catering restaurants on Malioboro, the main street, named for the Duke of Marlborough (or the Marlborough Man? this brand of American cigarettes is a coveted black market item) -- only a few, not like Calcutta, and more ragged than thin, or even that serious about begging. Handicraft shops abound -- batik, silks, leather, buffalo-skin lampshades, elaborate fans, smoking pipes, puppets of the stylized traditional ilk, ivory and wood carving, and so on. The Central Market is a huge place with vendors selling everything there is to sell in Indonesia, and in the fantastic food section fantastically huge rats mosey about, unmolested and unafraid.

One better not show a whisker in Singapore: I'd expected to find unhappy people living under a strict authoritarian regime, and instead found a reasonably content and relatively prosperous people living under a strict authoritarian regime. It's a city-state that's crowded for space, and there's construction everywhere to further the plan (already well under way) to turn the city into a high-rise jungle. The streets are clean (it's $250 fine to litter), the water is safe to drink, the traffic hazardous, prices 3-4 times Indonesia's, goods are plentiful, food abundant there are high-rise shopping centers with supermarkets selling U.S. brands at slightly more than U.S. prices, and people poor enough that they sleep on the sidewalks, wrapped in a bit of cotton, but there are no beggars, for begging like littering and spitting and jaywalking and longhair is forbidden by a strict authoritarian regime. The city is 80% Chinese, but it still has an area that is known as Chinatown no different than any other part of the city I've seen. That says something. I'm not sure what.

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