The Sultan and the Puppet, Part I

Exclusivity is a marketable idea, and one that I do not support. It inhibits many people from enjoying things like visual art, and delicious wine because they feel like they have to be a part of some imaginary club to have a valid or accurate thought on something that is most likely unique to the observer, or the sampler. That’s not to say

there aren’t tangible aspects to these pleasurable aspects of life; if wine has turned to vinegar, it’s sour and unappetizing and if someone like me, who can barely draw a straight line with a ruler, scribbled something on a piece of paper with crayons, it’s probably not art. But this notion that you have to be some sort of high-class specialist to assess a painting and draw an emotive conclusion as to its value, which is often relative to the observer despite the varying price tags, is simply preposterous. This is a lesson that I learned during my brief visit to Yogyakarta, Java where the art scene is booming, the Sultan’s Palace is calling, and the shadow puppet shows are highly entertaining.

Teresa, Desiree, and I travelled back down the mountainside, from Cemoro Lewang to the town of Probolinggo where we awaited a van that would shuttle us the 9 hour journey across Central Java, to the southern Special Region of Yogyakarta where the city itself rests, not far from the Indian Ocean. We arrived in the evening, a few hours after the sun had set. The city is bright and vibrant, with paintings and art murals plastered on the sides of walls and under bridges. The artwork is often political in nature, and has the feel of a college campus mentality: passionate, idealistic, and intriguing.

We were dropped off in the centre of town within a series of backroads lined with hotels, hostels, and restaurants. We took a peek at a few places before we settled. A lot of the guesthouses and hostels were fully booked. We weren’t looking for anything special, though. As usual, cleanliness and cost were our only criteria. The alleys were also home to a few book stores that I would end up browsing through. Before leaving, I purchased Alistair Reynold’s The Prefect, the 5th book in the Revelation Space series (space opera, anyone?). Luckily, this particular installment is a standalone and thus appropriate to be the first in the series that I happened to read. Three of the books are part of a trilogy, the 3rd of which, Absolution Gap, I’ve recently begun. That reminds me, I really need to update the “Must Reads” on this blog. But I digress…

Yogyakarta is vibrant with youthful energy and the artwork, in numerous forms, lines some of the main streets. Several food stalls were minutes away from our guesthouse and we often enjoyed a variety of grilled chicken (for some reason, they love serving up the neck of the chicken here) as well as jelly bowls similar to those we enjoyed in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, except these were often served with chunks of fragrant durian along with the tapioca, jellies, and bean pastes. I think at this point my sister was starting to get a little tired of rice dish upon rice dish upon rice dish. I’ll never get enough.

Walking south down the main street, Jalan Malioboro, took us to the Sultan’s Palace in about 20 minutes or so. The grounds are essentially a museum complex from the tourist’s perspective. I was wearing a muscle shirt as usual and they didn’t allow me into the compound without sleeves. For once, this was a requirement for men only, not women. I stepped out and approached one of the numerous stands selling t-shirts, hats, shorts, you name it. Here was a prime example of the annoyances of being a foreign traveller. The dollar signs in the merchants’ eyes are so apparent, you can do nothing but shake your head and ignore them. I passed a single glance at one woman’s stand and she tripped over a footstool and nearly fell on her face as she ran out to scream at me for my business. I wish I were exaggerating. There were so many clothing stands to choose from, I went to the one with the quietest, most calm looking proprietor. She was a placid older woman who kindly negotiated with me for a t-shirt I had picked out. I chose this one:

yogya 5

I wear it on a regular basis to this day. I love knowing that I’ll probably never see anyone in the world wearing it and the words all leave people scratching their heads. Let me clarify, though: Yogyakarta is spelled, and pronounced, a few different ways. I say it phonetically the way I’ve been spelling it thus far. Yo-Gya-Karta. It’s also spelt Jogjakarta, pronounced either phonetically as such (Jog-Ja-Karta) or pronounced the way I previously mentioned. I’m not sure what the difference is, but there are variances in spelling and pronunciation even amongst the locals.

The Sultan’s Palace was a multi-building complex with various displays of historical items indigenous to Indonesia, with descriptions and context provided. The day that we arrived there were bus-loads of primary and high school children browsing the galleries while on a field trip. It was a lively atmosphere the entire time and highly enjoyable. We wound up walking around to the opposite side of the palace from where we’d walked in, into a quiet little village with quaint colonial-style houses grouped together. It was an interesting maze-like neighbourhood that almost reminded me of back home in Canada, besides the presence of tropical flora and the thick, humid air.

Walking back down the main road, we came across an art gallery that had just had a show somewhere in the city and was soon moving shop up to the northern tip of Sumatra (where Teresa and I, unbeknownst to us at the time, would be heading to in a couple of weeks). We walked up a flight of stairs and met with some of the artists who drew these very psychedelic, colourful pieces on a nice fabric that can be framed anywhere the buyer likes.

I could tell that some of the pieces were influenced by self-induced, almost hypnotic states of mind. One of the driving inspirations was something that some of us have experimented with, wherever we are from, and which runs contrary to much of the culture that one would expect in a relatively conservative Southeast Asian Muslim-majority country. Not only is this inspirational commodity present in Indonesia, it’s 100% legal…

3 thoughts on “The Sultan and the Puppet, Part I

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