Last week’s visit to Yogyakarta was a trip down memory lane. I think you already know this, but William and I lived in Yogya for a year in 1988. It was the year after we graduated from law school and the first year of our marriage. We shared a Collaborative Fulbright Fellowship and traveled all over the archipelago, conducting research on environmental law and dispute resolution. It was an amazing time, so full of adventures, rich experiences and real challenges.
We rented a small house in a farming village called Pogung Lor, just north of the city, off the road that leads to Mount Merapi. We had little electricity and no running water; we shared a well with our neighbors — an extended farming family — and learned a lot about village life in the process. Our only form of transport was our bicycles, which took us from home to office (at Gadjah Mada University) and all around Yogya.
Since arriving back in Indonesia this year, we have been trying to find the right time to get back to Yogya for a visit. The perfect opportunity presented itself at last in the form of an art exhibit by my friend and studio-mate, Sandy Infield. Her show had a 2-week run at a Yogya gallery, and we decided to go for the closing last weekend. We arrived in Yogya early Sunday morning and went directly in search of Pogung Lor and our old home.
We knew that things would have changed since the late 1980’s, but we were nonetheless disoriented when our cab pulled up in front of a suburban-looking neighborhood and the driver announced that we had arrived. The Pogung Lor we remembered was out in the rice paddies, full of cows, ducks and chickens. The roads were not paved and the homes were small. Our elderly neighbors to the north had lived in a rattan hut with a dirt floor.
Before us was an enclave of concrete homes, some with two stories and cars in the driveways. We got out and began wandering around, totally lost. There were literally no remnants of the old village to guide us. We began asking around for our old friends and neighbors, the Badjuri family. A few people remembered them but said they had moved away a long time ago.
It took us about half an hour and the help of a series of locals to finally pin down the location of our former home. And there it was, crowded in among other, newer houses, but essentially unchanged. Twenty three years ago, our home had been the newest and fanciest in the village; now it was among the oldest and most modest.
There was a flurry of activity about the place, even though it was still early Sunday morning. Young men were moving furniture, wielding mops and brooms, working industriously. We approached them and explained that we had lived there almost a quarter century before. They were clearly dumb-founded. It turned out that the house had been converted to a kos, a kind of dormitory, in this case for students at nearby Gadjah Mada University (our old institution).
We learned that these young men had become friends during their first year of college and had rented this kos together. They were enrolled in various departments at UGM — math, engineering, medicine — and when they heard we were from the U.S., most of the group voiced their ambition to do graduate study in the States, “hopefully M.I.T.!”
We exchanged emails and chatted a bit, and then it was time for them to get back to their Sunday morning housekeeping, a weekly ritual. Here they are with William, still dazed by the idea that we lived in their home before they were even born:
We left Pogung Lor feeling exhilarated to have found it and our house still intact, if utterly changed. We headed south, into the city, where we were flooded with memories of our old life as we passed by places we used to frequent. We found our guest house, a sweet place arranged by Sandy, and from there ventured forth to some of our old haunts. Parts of the city felt relatively unchanged, especially the central market, Pasar Beringharjo.
Always one of our favorite stops in town, Beringharjo has functioned as a trading center since 1758. As in the past, we were transported by the sights and smells of its food market. Fom the bright, coconut sweets,
To the mounds of beautiful lychees,
To the astounding array of local snacks available for a few coins:
After touring the scrumptious possibilities, we entered the inner market in search of old batik. The bustling crowds were the same as ever:
We dove into the rabbit warren of tiny stalls that line the interior of Beringharjo, finally coming across the antique batik we sought. We spent a long time looking at old cloth, and finally struck a deal with these ladies for a number of pieces (it was only a half-hearted debate — our bargaining skills seem to have atrophied with time, age and disuse):
Leaving the market, we were enchanted to find this impromptu concert underway with a lithe and hypnotic dancer performing for the musicians and the crowd:
For transport around town, we chose becak; I was happy to see that Yogya was still filled with the old-fashioned pedi-cabs and that they were decorated with the same brightly painted motifs. Here are two examples:
After spending the day reacquainting ourselves with Yogya, we spent the evening at the closing party for Sandy’s exhibit. The show was held at the Sankring Art Space, an ultra-modern gallery with soaring angles. Here is a photo of the space taken during a previous exhibit:
Sandy’s work looked gorgeous, large batik paintings dancing across the spacious walls. Here are a few of the pieces that were on display:
And below are the words of the show’s curator, describing Sandy’s work:
The batik tradition (Sandy) admires is her point of departure in appreciating the psychological impact of nature’s patterns that are recorded and continuously re-created in batik. The unique techniques she has developed are her in-kind contribution for her lessons here, for they have opened up new possibilities of imagery and signification to the treasure trove of traditional batik symbolism.
The party itself was a delight, peopled by an interesting array of artists and art lovers. There was good food and wine and a band of local music students playing traditional Javanese music with an avant garde twist.
At the party, we met Nia Fliam and Agus Ismoyo, a pair of batik artists who have been working collaboratively since 1985. Nia is from Denver, Ismoyo from Yogya and together they have created a unique multi-cultural approach to batik that has brought them international acclaim. They specialize in intricate, time-intensive contemporary pieces that have been shown in galleries and Biennales around the world. Here are a few details from their rich, multi-layered batik pieces:
The highlight of the next day was visiting Nia and Ismoyo’s gallery, named Brahma Tirta Sari (translation: “Creativity is the Source of all Knowledge”). During our visit, we learned that Nia and Ismoyo have conducted a long-term collaboration with Aboriginal women artists. Here is a gorgeous piece that arose out of this cooperative effort:
From the gallery we headed almost directly to the airport and were back in Bali in time for bed. It was an intense,art-and-memory-filled visit — a long-overdue return to a place that will always hold special meaning for us.
Now, I am just a little more than two weeks out from leaving Bali. Our departure is starting to feel real as we pack boxes and make plans for our homeward journey. Before leaving, I still have another trip to East Java and a visit to Jakarta in the offing, and I’ll write at least one more time before I leave. Hoping this finds you well and enjoying the early days of summer — Love, Katherine