Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Indonesia Nostalgia in Mega

In connection with the 62nd anniversary of Indonesia's independence, the Indonesia Fest was held at the SM Megamall on August 18 and 19. It was mainly a cultural show, with Bali's Puri Gita Nusantara providing music and dance.

What a show it was. First, there were the dramatic props especially flown in I presume from Indonesia. Then the gamelan instruments carefully laid out on stage. The musicians, who were in full Balinese regalia, performed several pieces, accompanying the dancers who performed several Balinese dances including a topeng (mask) dance.

I'm careful to identify them as Balinese because Indonesia is not Bali and Bali is not Indonesia. Bali is just a speck in the Southeast Asian archipelago, which I believe has the richest bounty of ethnic culture in Asia. Indonesia is composed of tens of thousands of islands, with more than 300 ethnic groups. I love Indonesia because everywhere you go, it's like going to another country. Bali is different. Jakarta is different. Jogjakarta in Central Java is different. Then there's Sumatra, West Timor, Papua, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and so many other regions. Each one has a different language, distinct culture, traditions, food, even appearances (unlike, say, when you go to Bicol then to Cebu or Ilocos, not so much difference there.) I rarely met Indonesians who identified themselves as such. Usually they would say Balinese, Javanese, Madurese, etc. To be the President of Indonesia is a tough job indeed. It's like having a mini United Nations in one country. The Philippines has a problem with ARMM wanting to be another country. In Indonesia, each region threatens every now and then to be on their own.

Aaah, the sound of gamelan filling Megamall. I never thought a day like it would come. Balinese gamelan music is different from Javanese gamelan. While in Java the music insinuates, with the instruments gently hit with sticks, in Bali the gamelan is pounded with a hammer-like instrument made of metal. It's more in-your-face, like the paradise island itself. I've never been to a place before or since where every direction you look, you want to take a photo of it. Bali has a very lush, green environment with small rice terraces all over. People walk the streets clad in traditional garb, especially when there's a funeral -- a tourist magnet by itself. Each house or establishment has a shrine in front where flowers and incense are offered every morning. Small shops everywhere selling paintings and woodcarvings. Everywhere you look there's the unmistakable Balinese architecture (like the props in the show, but bigger and grander). The air is filled with gamelan music and the sweet smell of kretek (Indonesian clove cigarettes) mixed with incense.

Art comes naturally in their lives (they don't even have a word for "art"), belying a very brutal and bloody history that is now virtually unknown or forgotten. Almost everybody knows somebody who is a dancer or a musician or a painter (my Balinese friend was a professional dancer). On my first full day in Bali, there for a short respite three years ago, I woke up early to catch a taxi to some village known for their dancers. I wasn't disappointed. The island really is the kind of place where you could just take public transport any time of the day and be able to catch a performance somewhere, whether in a village, in a temple, a shrine, a hotel, or a nearby theater. It's impossible not to breathe culture in Bali, and it could be quite intoxicating to be constantly bombarded with such beauty day in and day out.

Central Java is my kind of place though. It's grittier and less touristy than the Hindu island in the east. After being assigned in Jogjakarta for a week (okay, it's more like pleasure than business), I decided not to go back to Bali and just spent one more week in the Javanese city. I have incredible memories of Jogja, as it is fondly called, of kretek-filled days and nights, walking through Jalan Malioboro (see pictures below) -- the city's main street where the atmosphere is electric -- several times a day to shop or to just immerse myself, of wayang puppet shows, watching the dalang (puppeteer) do his magic at the other side of the white curtain, gamelan performances, Ramayana ballets, Borobudur and Prambanan sightseeing, visiting the water castle and the Kraton (sultan's palace) many times that the ticket guy recognized me already, of sneaking into batik and puppet workshops to know how magic is done, of becak rides, dangdut concerts, of eating dinner at the lesehan cross-legged on the sidewalk to the sound of young street musicians, of the best chicken satay on Earth (P40.00 for eight sticks with rice from an ambulant vendor on the sidewalk), cheap but delicious nasi goreng, es campur, es jeruk, of sweets that reminded me of home, of friendships formed that last to this day. It was an experience that broke my heart once it ended. Till the day I die I'll look back at that time when my passion for the arts and culture was rekindled and strengthened, a turning point the significance of which I've yet to realize.

Jogja pictures from the internet

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