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.
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.
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.
“ 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.
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!