My Java Diary part 3

May 12

The monkey was wearing a red suit and riding a small motorbike. After crashing the bike he then started to jump through a hoop.
I am crammed into a small mini van, the kind that make up a large proportion of the congested traffic in Bandung. I am heading of to meet Arief and Chief Ginggi somewhere in town.  The monkey is just one of many intersection entertainments where people busk for money.  They range from the very young, who should be at school, to the old, who should be cared for by some loved one.   Witnessing poverty is one of the hardest things that I have to deal with when I travel, but it also firms my resolve that education is the only way out of it.

The driver signals that I have arrived at my destination. I am not sure where I am but I am relieved to see my friends waiting for me.  We attend a contemporary music performance conducted by a Mexican musician who is studying traditional Indonesian music. I feel energized after the performance and I am ready to for the drive back to Jatiwangi.

What should have been a two-hour drive turns into a regular road trip.  As always I’m not sure what is planned, and we stop off at several friend’s places in Bandung to say hello.  We visit a filmmaker, photographers and two artists’ studios. By now I know the routine: sweet black coffee, many clove flavoured cigarettes and much discussion. It is now 10 pm and I think we are finally on the road proper. As we approach the mountain road that leads down to the valley; Chief Ginggi informs me dryly, that many Indonesians die on this road!  Great, I am on the highway to hell! 
What a trip it turned out to, by midnight we are still heading down the road, and it is bumper to bumper in both directions!

When we finally make it off the mountain, it’s time for another stop.  ‘Makan, makan’ Ginggie calls out with a grin on his face.  Of course, time to eat again.  With our stomachs settled by a large helping of noodles, rice and fried prawns we are ready for the home stretch. 

May 13

I was about to say good night to everyone, as it had been a long day after yesterday’s epic drive home. I was then informed that I was ‘on’ in two minutes! I remembered someone mentioning a possible interview on the local radio station, but something about the timing must have got lost in the translation.  Luckily my years of being a radio broadcaster held me in good stead for the late night live talk back show, I had to be present for.  The broadcaster also turned out to be my assistant Aceng, and together we entertained a lively audience with a bilingual discussion on the meaning of my arts project.  The discussion also helped me to verbalise my ideas and bring the project into a tighter focus.

Earlier that evening I spend some time in the studio working on the sculptures and it occurred to me that my working method changes with the working environment.  I want to involve as many people of the community as possible and this will only be achieved by adopting local methods. Just like a street food hacker, I will take the ‘Basket of Hope’ sculpture through the back lanes of the village and allow the locals to place a wish in it. This way I am adopting a local dialogue method.

I am also making good progress with my photo essay.  Having the luxury of time means I am able to build a level of trust with the workers.  This is starting to reflect in the images.  I welcomed the opportunity to share all of these ideas with the radio audience.


May 14

‘What do you mean your mother told you not to eat with your hands?’ Arief looked at me bewildered, when I blamed my Swiss upbringing for not being able to master the art of hand feeding myself.  Then we both burst into laughter at the ridiculous situation.  It’s Saturday night and I am out with the boys, sitting on a carpet on the front lawn of the senior high school principal’s house and we are having a late dinner.  By now we must have gone trough several six packs of cold sweet tea, as we once again discuss the meaning of life. The air outside is a thick mixture of clove scented Indonesian cigarettes and eye burning smoke from the kilns of the numerous tile factories nearby. 

I finally manage to eat my meal, which came served on a Jati leave, but it was the first time that I finished last.  During my stay at Jatiwangi, I am reading Khaaled Hosseini’s ‘The  Kite Runner’ and tonight, not for the first time, I am struck at the similarities of Afghan and Indonesian life. But I guess, that because Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, it is not surprising. So I sit with the men, and it’s usually only with the men, on the carpet, drink more coffee and we work out the remaining schedule for my residency. There is no need for me to take any notes, as so far all arrangements have been fluid.  It suits me well!


May 15

I was right about having to be flexible!  Sunday morning was supposed to be our second big workshop day with the local school students.  I set my alarm for 6 am and was ready for the planned 7 o’clock start.  My trusty assistant, Aceng, was here as well, armed with our ‘Basket of Hope’ we set off on foot to the school in anticipation of a busy morning.  Unfortunately our hopes for a productive morning were dashed, as an empty school ground greeted us.  I suspect communications broke down somewhere down the line.  Not to be persuaded by this apparent set back, Aceng and I just hang around; somebody will turn up we told ourselves. The local Tae Kwon Do group who arrived to do their practice saved us.  In the true spirit of flexibility, instead of performing martial arts, the group was invited to create contemporary art!

By early afternoon the persistent wet season cooled us down for the rest of the day. I found myself a dry and quiet spot and finished reading my book.


May 16

Now that the project has reached its half-way point, my thoughts are turning to finishing the work.  The gallery space here at the Arts Factory is a fine location to install the sculptures and show the photos.  Much thought is given to reflecting the environment in which the work was created.  The use of bamboo, batik and rattan adds to the local feel.   Later in the day the local video production team, who produced a small documentary about the project, interviewed me.

I spend some time in the evening in the studio by myself, working on the sculpture.  The sound of countless local muezzins washes over me, interrupted only by the occasional rhythmical call of a lone gecko.


May 17

I am back on the bike, it’s probably a size too small for me as my knees keep hitting the handlebars and the saddle keeps slipping into a very uncomfortable position.  Putting on a brave face I peddle on. I am assured it’s not very far; I hope he’s right!  The local screen printer, Denny, has invited me to inspect his workshop.  I am also getting some t-shirts custom made. I’m happy to support the local economy. Danny introduces me to his family and staff and proudly shows off his workshop.  Like many locals, he’s built the house and workshop himself, with the help of local people and local material.  I know I’ll be proud to wear my handmade t-shirt from Jatiwangi.

The Tae Kwon Do team arrived later in the afternoon to listen to a story and work on one of the Baskets of Hope.  The baskets are doing their job, as the boys and girls chat with each other and some keen ones even practice their English on me.  I, in turn ,pick up the odd Indonesian phrase and so the basket has become a social meeting point.


May 19

About eighty curious pairs of eyes greeted me as I entered the classroom; there were no chairs or tables, just a spotless floor.  The students of the Islamic Elementary School at Madrasan Cijati, near Majalengka were lined up against the wall, boys and girls neatly divided.  We had arrived via a mini bus to continue our project at a regional school community. This time I had company and was supported by Melissa, a theatre performer from Mexico, and local musician Tedi En.  My  assistant Aceng was also there to translate for me. I had met the principal of he school a couple of nights ago, and we had arranged for the project to come to his school.  This turned out to be one of the more rewarding experiences for me.  Perhaps it was the idyllic setting of the school amongst the rice paddies and surrounded by volcanic mountains, or it was the shy enthusiasm of the students who made me so welcome at their school.  Hearing the story of ‘Stone Soup’ in two languages and acted out by two grown men had the students entranced. While Aceng and I worked with half of the school on the stories and the material sculpture, Melissa and Tedi found a large shady tree and entertained the other half with songs and dances.

The drive home was interrupted by a stop at the local market to buy a large helping of cooked snails, a local delicacy!




May 20

As part of the final presentation in my residency, I am going to show the photos of the tile makers to the workers in the factory.  So this morning I was catching up with some last photo shooting at the factory.  This time Chief Ginggi and his camera trailed me as he is making a mini documentary about my photo project here.  Having someone who speaks the local language was a good opportunity to explain some of the shots that I had in mind, and I got some powerful portraits done.

I wasn’t going to fool any one with my dress up; there was no way I was going to be mistaken for a local gamelan player.  If there was any doubts, these were soon dispelled the moment I sat down with the drums. It made for some amusing photos though. At times my jaws ache from smiling, as every body takes the opportunity to have their photo taken with the ‘Mister’.  I am happy to oblige, it seems to be the least I can do with so much generosity given to me.

I had come to watch the local gamelan group practice their music, puppet play and dance routine.  It was inevitable that I would be somehow dragged into the action. I knew the moment had come when one of the players arrived with a costume for me.  By the time I had squeezed myself into the outfit, many cameras were at the ready. I just kept smiling.



May 21

I’m bouncing up and down in the back of a small truck, surrounded by bleary-eyed Art Factory artists, a large canvas and two baskets of Hope.   It’s just after 7 am and we are heading to the Junior High school in Jatiwangi, our next project stop. This turned out to be the biggest turnout yet, as over a thousand students gathered for the morning assembly.  We were treated to gamelan and a dance performance.  Then it was time to address the students and inform them about the project.  Later, as we split up into a more intimate size, I worked with about 250 students on two of the baskets.  We also set the groundwork on a future collaboration to create a local ‘I Am’ project. (for more information on ‘I AM’ see my website:

As the third week comes to a close, I can now envisage the final outcome of this project.  But there are still some local performances planned with the baskets, including a visit to the local health care centre and a walk through the village with the baskets.  It promises to be an exciting last week.


My Java Diary -part 2

May 6

I now have a morning routine worked out; it helps me to settle in to the place.  While I am comfortable here, there is no denying that as a westerner, staying in a traditional Javanese household is challenging at times. I am now used to the muezzin’s call at 4 am and the rooster doesn’t bother me anymore, well almost. After a visit to the traditional Indonesian bath room, the Mandi, to freshen up, I go to the shared office and work on my photos from the previous day and catch up with my diary.  This does not mean that the factory fails in surprising me with something new everyday. Today a performance troop from Bandung has come to visit and will stay for the weekend to entertain us. Music, drama and acrobatics are in store. The performers are busy all day cutting and shaping large bamboo sticks to make a stage and performance equipment. 

That evening the director of the troop conducts a drama workshop, which is followed by a percussion session where all instruments are made out of clay.  The music transports me even deeper into the local psyche.  I grab an early night sleep, tomorrow promises to be a big day.



May 7

From the moment I got up the place was buzzing with energy; young fit looking men and women everywhere.  The constant beating of drums seems to attract more people by the minute.  And it’s not just the people who are interested in the theatre performance who are flocking to the factory; this amount of people presents a business opportunity. They arrived by bicycle, motorbikes; pick up trucks. There are men caring bamboo poles across their necks with baskets attached. Within no time a mini market had arrived to sell t-shirts, food and toys.  In two hours the performance begins. 

When I emerged from my studio in the in the warmth of the early evening I hardly recognised the place.  The smoke and warm glow of dozens of kerosene lamps had transformed the harsh tile factory into a magical Asian bazaar.  The theatre group had managed to change the factory floor into a primeval setting, somewhere at the beginning of time. Where a few hours ago, tired looking workers toiled with heavy mud, there were now nimble performers beating out a new rhythm. Although I did not understand any of the dialogue, this did not diminish any of the show’s power for me.  I was spellbound by the energy and the raw emotion of the play.  In the true spirit of the local organisers, this free performance of ‘Tanah’ ( Earth) by Iman Soleh, was played to a full house. It’s images and sounds will stay with me for a long time.



May 8

The reassuring smell of the mosquito coil engulfs me, as I reflect on yesterday’s events. I spend the afternoon with Chief Ginggi, who had invited me to his place.  True to his belief in grassroots living, he had built himself a traditional Indonesian style bamboo house, as well as a beautiful family house, made out of recycled timber and hand made bricks.

He later invited me to visit a traditional brick-making factory.  It was here that I was mistaken for a wealthy bank manager! As I was taking photos of a woman making bricks by hand, she asked Ginggi if the owner of the brick making business had taken out a bank loan? I must surely be the manger who wanted to ensure that the investment was sound!  He assured her that I was just a Swiss artist, who found it satisfying taking pictures of her working hands.  The woman gave a relieved smile and showed me her hands.



May 9

They have come with gongs, saron, and angklung’s and play the Javanese version of a Gamalang, the Degung.  It is my first day at the local school and the students have prepared a welcome concert for me.  I was very touched by their generosity of spirit.  Armed with the bamboo structure for the sculpture and a stone in my pocket for the story, my assistant, Aceng, and I began our morning workshop.  After nearly three hours, the students, numbering over a hundred, had transformed the structure into a colourful Javanese style material sculpture.   I realise that art is used not just as entertainment, a commodity or a luxurious distraction. Art here is a powerful reminder for the people of who they are, and what is possible.  When art is used to communicate the past the present and the future it becomes a philosophy.  The children may not have looked at it this way, they were just having fun, and that in itself, is a good enough function for art.



May 10

There was a truck and several motorbikes coming directly for us and we were on the wrong side of the road!  I didn’t even flinch and continued to study the countryside through my bus window.  I had booked myself a seat on the bus to Bandung, west Java’s capital city.  After several trips to China and Korea, I was used to a highway manoeuvreing.  I need some time to myself, and I am looking forward to spending two nights at a hotel in Bandung.

The bus ride to the capital takes me through a breathtakingly beautiful landscape with its lush green rice fields, banana trees and various other tropical fruit trees.  Tofu and fresh water hackers line the road waiting to hop on to sell their wares, to one of the many buses that are east or west bound. The traffic is at times at a stand still as we cross a mountain, but it doesn’t matter.  I have slowed down to Java time; there is little point in trying to keep a tight schedule.  What for anyway!
At my arrival at the Bandung bus terminal, I find a suitable taxi, negotiate an agreeable price and find myself 20 minutes later lying in an air-conditioned room.  I am looking forward to my first hot shower in nearly ten days, and a cool night’s sleep to follow. 


May 11

I am intending to have a rest day and I succeed for the most part. The hotel has swimming on the roof that I am intending to use but not before I explore my new neighbourhood a little.  I leave the hotel after breakfasts and a follow the steady stream of people, food carts and motorbikes that all seem to head in one direction.  Half an hour later I am in the midst of a busy bazaar.  Many ‘Hello Mister’s later, I am heading back to the hotel, a couple of t-shirts richer and ready for the pool!


The Java Diary -part 1

May 1
My first day in Indonesia.  I arrived at the Ibis after a long day’s travel from Port Macquarie, tired, but happy that I managed to catch the right taxi and ended up at the right hotel.  I am too tired to even go down to the lobby of the hotel to grab a bite to eat, so it’s a crunchie bar saved from the aeroplane food and a free teabag for my dinner.  I sleep well.  The next morning I am woken by the dawn chorus. Unlike Australia, it’s not the sound of birds that greet me, but the call to prayer.



May 2
Today I am not going to skip food and treat myself to an Indonesian style buffet breakfast; mi goreng, tofu, rice and various other local treats.  Having nourished myself it was time to head to the train station to catch the train to Cirebon. The taxi ride gives me a short taste of Jakarta’s famed traffic.  Thankfully the station is only 5 minutes away, which translates into 20 minuets in the traffic. Ticket purchased, I am comfortably seated in the business class of the Cirebon Express. Business class turns out to be several carriages of worn out bench seats with windows that only open a fraction, to give some relief from the humidity.  There are overhead fans, but they don’t work.

Three hours later I arrive in Cirebon and I set out to purchase a local SIM card.  Everybody wants to help, preferably to drive me to the nearest shop in a taxi!   Finally I manage to find the right shop myself and I’m now in possession of a local phone number.  As I am leaving the shop the only other westerner, a tall blonde European woman, approaches me, and asks if I can help with the purchase of a SIM card.  Of course I can! As I am explaining how, my host, Arief, arrives with his lovely wife and welcomes me and my ‘wife’. That was quick I’m in the country less than 24 hours and I already have a new wife.  However, once the situation is explained, we head off in the ‘good’ car towards my new home for the next four weeks, Jatiwangi in West Java.

The first stop in my new village is the district government office, where we have to drop the ‘good’ car off, as it belongs to village chief and was only borrowed to pick up the VIP guest, aka me!  As it turned out, we could keep the car to drop me off at the arts factory, and we didn’t have to use the pick up truck for the final journey.

My first impressiones of Java are overwhelming! Unlike north Asian countries, everybody wants to say hello to me with beautiful smiles everywhere. The Jatiwangi Arts Factory (JaFa) is a community meeting place, a roof tile factory, education centre and a community radio station.  I am made welcome by everybody as we drink strong black Java coffee and discuss art late into the night.  I sleep well in my small room until I am awoken again by a higher pitched  dawn chorus. This time a mixture of mozzies buzzing my ears, a rooster who can’t sleep and a strange local bird who calls very loudly join in the call to prayer.  It’s 4 am and my first night’s sleep at JaFa is over.



May 3
As I was awake early, I decided to explore the neighbourhood. What a sight. It had had been raining all night and now the early morning sun turned the village into a tropical steam bath.  Slowly I make my way past street market sellers who are sitting next to the mud puddles selling fresh produce.  Students are making their way to school and as they spot me, they all point and laugh.  I am glad that I can provide some morning entertainment.  I just smile and point my camera at them.

Later that morning I met with the village chief and we discussed the importance of people initiated arts education for fostering a healthy community.   The JaFa is a testament to the effectiveness of his initiative.  The ‘factory’ complex consists of a working roof tile factory, a pre-school, community radio station and Sunday morning adult education classes, it is never locked.

It’s hot and humid and I feel myself slowing down to the local rhythm.  Many ‘salam’s’ are followed with a little discussion and a cup of java coffee.  No need to hurry.   Later in the afternoon we build the first two structures for the Vessels project.  I feel a bit like Andy Warhol as I have so many helpers here at the factory.  No sooner had we built the first frame, a group of sweaty young boys who had just finished playing football arrived and were keen to start weaving.  Within thirty minuets we had used up all of the available materials and the project completed its first successful session.

The members of the JaFa scheduled an evening meeting to discuss the final details of my residency.  We spent the night discussing art, drinking more coffee and everybody smoked clove cigarettes, except me.  I think I must be the only male over the age of 12 who doesn’t smoke!  The evening finished off with a late night visit to the main street market, which by now was almost deserted, save for a few small street cafes that were selling the last of their offerings. 

I had a smile on my face as I fell asleep in my bed.



May 4
“ The goat is really fat and will make good eating,” he assured me, and he would make a good price for me!  I kindly declined the goat but I did take up his offer to take shelter from the sweltering midday heat in his small goat stable.  I had wandered off into the neighbouring streets to familiarise myself further with the village.  The man turned out to be one of many small goat farmers in the area. He had nine big goats in his front yard stable.  I got to meet his family and was encouraged to rest a while.  I had only just started my walk and already everybody is waving to me and begging me to come and say hello. About twenty minuets later I am surrounded by a huddle of kids and their mothers. I am offered the opportunity to buy coconut cakes for everybody. I oblige. 

I am the only white man in the village!

The only way to make an even bigger spectacle of myself was going for a bicycle with the village chief Ginggi. Carefully balanced on an old Dutch heritage bike, we ride out of the village to inspect the organic rice field, another project initiated by the chief.  Riding with the chief is quite an experience.  Everybody spots Ginggi, and bows, as they zoom past on motor scooters and cycle taxies called ‘becak’ and then they burst into laughter when they see me manoeuvring through the traffic. Later that evening as storm clouds threaten, we ride home in the dark. I now feel at ease on my bike, and love being part of the traffic mix.



May 6
When I got up this morning I had no idea that I would be sharing lunch with a princess and meeting a sultan.  I was scheduled to hitch a ride to Cirebon at around 8 am.  As we wait for the ‘good car’ to arrive, we pass time by drinking sweet coffee.  At around the 10 o clock the car arrived and we all piled in. The availability of the ‘good car’ is put to good use, and there is no spare seat.  In Cirebon my guide meets me for the day, A Beng, who arrives on a motorcycle. First stop is a local arts school and photography gallery.  As heavy rain washes the streets clean, we drink sweet tea and discuss art. 

At this stage I am somewhat confused as to what is exactly planned for the rest of the day, and just who is taking me where.  After a few days in Java now I am adjusting to the local time concept and just go with the flow.  The rain finally stops and the ‘good car’ has come back to take us to Kanoman palace.  My guide, A Beng, obviously has some good local connections as we where greeted by Princess Kanoman and her family, who invite us to share lunch.  Over a feast of coffee, rice, tofu and buffalo skin she explained to me the family history of the palace.  I was invited to inspect the palace’s historic collection.  As we approached the collection hall we where greeted by Sultan Kanoman X|| himself; he was selling the tickets to the museum!

My trip back to Jatiwangi was a great tag team effort; a motorcycle ride to the bus stop where I was shoved into a large air-conditioned bus, and at the appropriate stop I was called out by the minder on the bus, and waiting at the stop was a motor scooter to complete my home journey. Sweet coffee and discussions awaited me!