My last week in Indonesia was a testament to how diverse the country is. The ancient city of Yogyakarta, or Jogja for short, was a different planet from Maluku province. The language sounded different, even when people bothered to speak Bahasa Indonesia instead of Javanese. I was closer to the developed world here; there were full-on western style shopping malls, a large university, and well-lit supermarkets. The people were more used to seeing bules. After I landed, I spent several hours walking around near the Universitas Gadjah Mada, carrying my full backpack, which attracted some looks but not as much comment as I expected. Jogja seemed like the perfect town for western backpackers—the population is young, there are cultural sights to take in, and it isn’t so far off the beaten path that getting there strains the budget. It’s popular with Indonesian tourists, too.
I met Ari, an archaeology connection, near the campus in the evening. Ari and I had coffee in a little warung kopi, our discussion interrupted briefly by a couple of musicians, dressed in drag, who invaded the warung and started up a horrendous racket. This is a traditional form of entertainment/extortion in central Java. Ari gave them some money and they obligingly departed. We rode Ari’s motor to Bowo’s house, where I would stay. Bowo had studied museology and archaeology at the UW for a while; it was good to know someone in Jogja, and he and his fiancée spend most of their time for the next few days showing me around. He lives with his gracious mother in a quiet suburb, the house and all the surroundings very much from a different time. I was overwhelmed by their hospitality, as usual.
We spent a day touring around the ancient temples that surrounded Java, of which Borobodur is the most famous. It is almost a step pyramid—indeed, that is basically the shape of it, but it is studded with hundreds of openwork stone stupas, each of which originally had a Buddha sitting inside. The walls are covered with reliefs that start, at the bottom, with images of the Buddhist hell, gradually becoming more pleasant and virtuous as one ascends to the top. It is a huge tourist attraction, so there was no monastic serenity there. The rearview mirror covers from Bowo’s car were stolen while we visited the temple; apparently this is a common occurrence.
There were more temples, these ones Hindu. The Loro Jonggrang temple complex was the most spectacular, also heavily trafficked with tourists. These temples are well looked-after now, though for a long time they were neglected, or occasionally vandalized as idolatrous by religious fanatics. We also visited several minor temple complexes—really, the number of these things dotting the landscape is incredible, and it speaks to the fact that Java has been densely populated for millennia.
The density of sites, and the pace of development today, come into conflict with each other frequently. While I was in Jogja I paid a visit to Daud Tanudirjo, one of the most prominent archaeologists in Indonesia, at the Jogja museum just outside the sultan’s palace (kraton). He talked about the constant pressure for development, and the difficulty of pushing back against it. After all, it can be hard to justify protecting archaeological sites when there are so many of them around. The spectacular ones like Borobudur and Loro Jonggrang have proven to be big tourist draws, but smaller, less flashy sites may actually tell us more about the past, and these are the ones that usually get destroyed as a new shopping mall or highway is built. The sultan of Jogja, who still has political authority over his traditional domain, is caught between his desire to preserve the region’s heritage, and the equally urgent desire to improve his subjects’ lives by attracting investment. This problem plays out all over Southeast Asia in different forms, but it bears remarking that even in a place like Jogja, whose past has attracted global attention (Borobudur is now a UNESCO world heritage site), protecting that past remains a constant struggle.
This is true even though the past remains very much alive around Jogja. I had already noticed in Bali that the locals have maintained their traditions sincerely, in spite of the pressure to commercialize them for the tourist market. I was shortly to find something similar in Java, which deserves a long post of its own.