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The Charms of Yogyakarta: Central Java

It’s easy to fall in love with Yogyakarta; not so easy to explain how it is that the city so beguiles and enthralls the visitor. To walk in Jogja, as it is fondly called — and part of the city’s charm is that it invites you to do just that — is to be taken by surprise in a hundred tiny, enigmatic ways.

Cumulatively, the sum of all those impressions reveals that Yogyakarta’s found a way to invoke simultaneously its mystical and dynastic past while getting on with its flourishing role as an academic hub.

It’s the footloose wanderer Jogja best rewards. And to wander is to “go French”: not only is almost every road laid out avenue-style, in straight lines, but there are proper pavements, or trotoir, a very near miss of the French trottoir.

Step off the bustling axis roads such as Jl. Sultan Agung and Jl. Senopati and there’s a garden city waiting to be savored, away from the tourist essentials, such as the Kraton and Alun Alun and away from Jl. Malioboro, which has long outlived its charm.

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It’s clear from any stroll that Yogyakartans love their gardens, festooning pavement-cum-terrace with potted plants and the trees with bird cages.

Early morning is delightful, especially when your walk is punctuated by the road suddenly leaping the river, as it does along Jl. Bausasran as you head toward the Mulia Hotel.

Stop for a moment, and the view is stunning, both up and down river valley, with a cascade of beautifully roofed houses on both banks. It’s from here, too, that you can look up and have your breath taken away at the sight of the mountainous horizon, from where you get a sense of Jogja’s precarious geological location.a city cradled by ancient civilizations, but the cradle can rock, violently.

It’s the grid system of streets that also takes the bewilderment out of sauntering about. You’ll soon discover that Jogja is a series of grids within interlocking grids. Look out for the innumerable gang, a word deriving from the Sanskrit, jangha, meaning foot but here interpreted as `alleyway’. Take the plunge and “foot” it into the part of the city that lucky Yogyakartans call home: a semi-secret network of criss-crossing alleys, all bulging with foliage and which during the day are cool and silent (except for the birdsong) and wonderfully evocative of communities nestled within the embracing fabric of the city.

Don’t urban planners the world over try to make cities livable? They should come to Yogyakarta to see how it’s done!

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My aimless wandering was rewarded one afternoon by the sound of the gamelan. The next moment, having loitered a bit too long to savor it, I was invited into the Kledokan kampong home of Bapak Rubio, and, while swathed in kretek smoke and sipping strong tea, he told me of a life that’s never been lived more than a chord’s breadth from the instrument that is still giving him his living.

At 70, he’s good at it, having grown up to the sound of his father’s gamelan, and essentially, from the age of 20, been a “professional”.

His voice has weathered well, too: In performance, in that slightly mesmerized state gamelan players fall into, it’s flutelike and strong, and the velveteen “hammers” chime the gamelan in a natural, highly syncopated extension of himself.

While we talk, his baby granddaughter sprawls on the floor: it brings to mind that, of his four children, not one has assumed his mantel as wise man of the instrument.

The fact that one of his sons runs an Internet caf‚ speaks most fully of generational change. It’s a difference also apparent in the way that Pak Rubio goes by the ancient Javanese calendar rather than the Gregorian. His time is Javanese. He’s rooted in an old cosmology.

Our conversation is most revealing when he speaks of his role as village guru. He plays and sings on occasions not just for the pleasure of the song, but to heal the sick; to bring an auspicious change into the life of a forlorn villager; to enable a girl to find a husband; to find a harmonious resolution for those in dispute.
Beyond the village, of course, he works the “hotel circuit”: one night the Mercure and the next the Puri Artha.

But in playing to tourists, I doubt many would be able to fathom that the music they hear, incidentally, over dinner, is a vital and enduring part of Javanese culture capable of communicating beyond its notation to evoke a time more mystical and more resolutely Javanese.

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We drink more tea and then I emerge into the afternoon sunlight stunned that I’ve met one wily old custodian of an ancient Javanese tradition. Someone should beat a path to his door and record his playing and interview him for posterity.

Adrian Thirkell