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Published: October 8th 2006
The Prameks (Prambanan Ekspres - Indonesians love making up this kind of abbreviation...) which shuttles between the royal cities of Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo).
A legacy of the Dutch administration, a train carries us from Yogyakarta to the neibouring town of Solo, a little further east. Together with Yogya, Solo (officially known as Surakarta although nobody uses that name) is one of Java's "royal cities". Indeed, for centuries this part of the world has been ruled by small kingdoms that have come and gone. Mataram, Sriwijaya, Majapahit, Mataram Islam...empires that flourished for a time before disappearing into nothingness. By the time the Dutch turned up on Java around the 18th Century, the Mataram Islam kingdom governed most of Java. As ever in this island's history though, the kingdom was beset by internecine squabbles and arguments over succession, and soon even this kingdom split into two small principalities headed by separate royal families - Yogyakarata and Solo. The Dutch were quick to assert themselves over the sultans, though, and by the power of treaty simply subcontracted the government of these regions to the sultans. In exchange, the sultans remained - nominally - in power, and kept their palaces. And their wives. The Dutch, meanwhile, took their share of the region's produce and taxes.
Fresh off the train, we catch a cidomo
or horse-cart to our
The cidomo or horse-cart is a popular means of transport in Central Java.
chosen hotel, the Cakra Homestay. Unfortunately, our horsy decided to use the station forecourt as his personal toilet and we had to wait as the harassed driver was forced to scoop up his horse's present with his flip-flops and deposit it in a bin. Still, better than exhaust fumes...Alex comments that mounted policemen in London should be made to do this !
Our homestay is a little marvel. Down a discreet side alleyway and hidden behind an imposing old gate, it is a collection of beautiful old wooden buildings surrounded by quiet gardens and a lovely swimming pool. Amazingly the hotel is packed, not with tourists or backpackers but with students from all over the Asia-Pacific region, here in Solo on a government-sponsored initiative to enhance knowledge of Indonesia abroad. From Tuvalu and New Zealand to the Solomon Islands and the Philippines, a huge region is represented. The students, all in their early twenties, learn Indonesian, rudiments of gamelan, Javanese dancing and the like.
While in Solo we spend a morning visiting the kraton
, or walled palace of the Susuhunan
(sultan) of Surakarta. The current royal family - devoid of any power since Indonesia declared itself a republic
Biodegradable exhaust fumes ?
The poor cidomo driver had to use his own shoes to scoop up behind his horse !
- is headed by Sultan Pakubuwono XII and still lives here. By Indonesian standards the kraton
is, appropriately, palatial, though to our eyes it is seriously coming apart at the seams. A guided visit shows us the stage where prospective brides would dance for the Sultan ("because if they are good at the dancing then they are good at the sex", explains our guide without batting an eyelid). The current sultan's grandfather Pakubuwono X had some six wives and 35 children, apparently. Which answered our question of how the Sultan kept himself busy all day. Our guide seems more interested in displaying his mastery of the word "automatically", peppering his every utterance automatically, I mean liberally, with the word...Nevertheless, some beautiful family heirlooms are on display, from stunning silverware to the sacred, wavy kris
daggers of the Sultan. There is a carriage, given to the Sultan by the VOC for his ceremonies (telltale inscriptions in Dutch throughout the kraton
hint at who was really in charge). Leaving the kraton
we wander aimlessly through Solo's charming back streets, where endless tableaux of daily life are played out before our eyes. Ramadhan has well and truly begun, and as we walk along
The beautiful buildings of the Cakra Homestay are some of Solo's best preserved.
narrow streets bounded by whitewashed walls under the noon heat, prayers resound overhead from the minarets (now equipped with multiple and powerful megaphones). Mothers sit with their children in the shade of doorways, greeting us as we pass (Alex gets handshakes from the women), becak
drivers take extended siestas in their vehicles, young girls play in the more shaded alleyway screeching "Hallo Misteeeer"
(the annoyingly universal greeting towards a foreigner everywhere in backwater Indonesia). All around us are mango trees in courtyards, laden with fruit. Solo must be famous for its mangos: they are for sale everywhere. We don't regret indulging - the mangos are ripe and sweet and deliciously juicy. By the third day our faces are well-known to the mango stall-holders of Secoyudan Road...
The same evening, a group of locals has gamelan practice at our hotel - the old homestay has a beautiful wood-panelled music room equipped with a full set of gamelan. The young man in charge at the homestay tells me that an entire set can cost upwards of a hundred million rupiah - well over five thousand pounds. No small sum in this country. As we sit on our balcony feasting on juicy
A rather bizarre tower inside the sultan's kraton compound. This structure is original, dating from the late 18th century. The rest of the kraton was damaged by fire a few decades ago and rebuilt.
mangos the haunting metallic sound of the gamelan floats through the air, accompanied by a plaintive song in Javanese.
The follwing morning the same young man (barely our age and with excellent English) takes us on a fascinating bicycle tour around Solo's countryside to learn about the various cottage industries that are so important to daily life here. After a promising start cycling through the back alleys of Solo with their batik
workshops and mosques and madrasas
, we have to navigate several kilometres through the town's wide, traffic-chocked thoroughfares to reach the green of the countryside. The complete absence of traffic lights - or rather the absence of drivers prepared to obey traffic lights - makes for a memorable cycle...The ride out takes us over a bridge spanning a river, chocked with rubbish and the water utterly black from sewage and pollution. Amazing a few hardy (foolhardy ?) stand waist (waste ?)-deep in the stinking filthy river, fishing rod in hand. Even if the mutant fish you can catch there don't have five eyes and three tails, they must be riddled with hepatitis or worms. I shiver at the thought that this river provides food to some of Solo's
Out of place ?
Odd to see this olde-worlde finery inside a Javanese palace. The sultan certainly knows how to live the good life !
We eventually turn off the lethal main road straight onto an unmade track and are immediately surrounded by the deep green of rice paddy fields. A welcome sight, as the wet season is still weeks away here and Java has so far been very brown. Winding our way down the lanes, kids returning from school crane their necks to have a good look at us, the crazy white people on bicycles. As we pass through tiny hamlets the cry of "Londo !"
is heard repeatedly. Perhaps they can hear us speak English and are shouting "London!" ? But no...Londo
is, bizarrely, the Javanisation of Landa
, in turn an abbreviation of Belanda
, which itself is the - Portuguese-derived, would you believe it - word for "Dutch" (Belanda
) in Indonesian ! A linguistic labyrinth if ever there was one. So the locals are simply shouting "Hey ! Foreigner !" at us...How very observant of them. Indeed Indonesians use "Dutch" as a general word for "foreigner", quite logically given the archipelago's history...Quite an amusing parallel to Thai, where "foreigner" is farang
, derived from the Thai word for "French"...Incidentally, doesn't "Welsh" mean "foreign" ?
Feel free to skip over
Puppet sultan ?
Dutch inscriptions around the kraton show that most of the material for the palace came from the Netherlands. As did the real political power.
my linguistic musings - you shouldn't be surprised.
So the language in the street here isn't Indonesian, it's Javanese. Strangely, although Indonesian is this country's only official language, practically nobody speaks it as a mother tongue. Indonesia is a lingua franca
, nothing more. Closely related but non mutually intelligible, it's spoken by the majority of people in the eastern two-thirds of Java (Sundanese is spoken in the west), and has some 76,000,000 speakers, only barely behind Germany. Unlike modern Indonesian, Javanese has very distinct registers of politeness (just like Japanese for example) reflecting social hierarchy of the speakers. Apparently there are thousands of speakers of this language in Suriname in South America...The reason I am writing all this nonsense is that the place names here struck me immediately - Solo, Wonosobo, Ponorogo, Bondowoso. "O"s everywhere...
Where was I ?...Yes, the cottage industries. We saw local tofu being made in a small dark workshop, bread and cakes being baked, roof tiles, rice cakes and much more besides. It would seem much of the produce in the markets in Solo come from these tiny workshops where underpaid men, women and children work all day in less than ideal conditions. Indeed,
Just like the Queen's ! This is the monogram of Sultan Pakubuwono X. The current sultan is number XII.
we noticed that some young girls in the cake factory were sealing small banana cakes in individual sachets by holding the small plastic bags over naked flames to melt the edges together, all in an enclosed space. I dread to think of the cumulative effect of their doing this. At home this place would have been shut down before the speech centre of your brain had even articulated the notion of "health and safety". Here it's everyday life. Day in, day out, for about 10,000 rupiah per day, or about 60 pence.
The last stop on this fascinating cycle is a gamelan workshop, where eye-wateringly expensive high quality instruments are made. Here the metal alloys are heated in pits until red hot (gloves ? what gloves ?) as sparks fly in the coal dust (I thought that was flammable...). Taken outside the bells are laboriously and noisily hammered and shaved and polished into tune. The work is painstaking, even more so when you're on an empty stomach.
The following evening I take a walk through the back alleys of Solo near the homestay, past old buildings bearing Dutch inscriptions in their stucco, past mosques where young boys seated
PBX vs VOC
Pakubuwono may have enjoyed having his European-style monogram on his carriages, but they also carried this one, too. That of the VOC, the de facto rulers of the Indonesian archipelago.
on the floor intone their prayers - Bismillah, ir-rahman
, the sound of chanting fills the alleyways in the evening light. Staunchly Muslim it may be, but this part of Java has kept alive much of its hindu-buddhist heritage, producing a blend as intoxicating as it is unique.
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