Bicycles and ballet

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August 12th 2017
Published: August 21st 2017
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This morning started with another bus transfer to the outskirts of the city, where we would embark on a 20km cycle ride. En route, we stopped off at a tofu producer, where we learned about how it's made. We watched the hot, heavy work of boiling soya beans down, before mushing them and boiling them again and pressing them in. a process not dissimilar to making cheese. Then we were fortunate enough to taste fried tofu straight from the source, which was crispy, light and delicious.

Soon, we were at our bikes, helmets on (not the usual cycle helmets of the west, but more like the bucket ones favoured by climbers and cavers! Very attractive, and of course, with absolutely ZERO ventilation!) The temperature was already 31 degrees and we would spend the morning with relatively little shade, it was going to be a sticky day! However, we set off on our bikes, one long crocodile cycling through the gorgeous countryside surrounding Yogyakarta. We passed through simple villages and past paddy fields, soaked with water and reflecting the palm trees at their edges. We passed a brickmaker and our guide asked if we wanted to stop there. Obviously, I wasn't too keen after my previous humiliation, and we fortunately passed on by.

We soon came to a paddy field where the workers were busy thrashing the cut rice plants against a wooden A frame, next to a tarpaulin, which was catching the grains of rice flying from the stems as they beat them against the slope. We all took it in turns to have a go, which was back-breaking work, bent double and constantly raising and lowering your arms. After just a minute, it was bearable, but the idea of doing it all day certainly provided food for thought. Particularly when we were informed that 1kg of rice would fetch around 30,000 rupiah for the farmers. This is around £2. We had maybe managed to produce 50g between all 11 of us. We cycled on and soon came to another paddy field, this one in an earlier stage of farming, with shallow muddy channels full of water, and locals bent double transferring tiny bright green rice plants from their nursery, where they had spent 21 days germinating and growing enough to be planted into the main field. Three women used a long pole to guide their placement and worked quickly planting them in perfectly uniform rows. We watched as they covered an area the size of an average back lawn, these strong but elderly women performing backbreaking work, and were once again given a sense of perspective to our own lives.

We continued on our route, locals coming out of their houses, into small yards, onto wooden porches or simply into the road as we passed by, calling out to us, smiling and waving. Groups of children shouted as we cycled through their villages, running over for high fives. Our guide explained that not many tourists pass through, particularly western ones, but that the locals are genuinely friendly nevertheless!

We soon arrived at a batik workshop where we watched a local artist creating his abstract volcanic scenes into cotton and silk. We watched him painting with wax onto the cloth, before dying the fabric - he used a mixture of natural and synthetic dyes, one turning from red to vibrant green when it met oxygen in a magical display of chemistry that had us enraptured. Then we watched in awe as he boiled the cloth, allowing the wax to melt and transfer from the cloth, leaving beautiful white patterns behind. It was a beautiful piece of art and we were all gutted when one girl in the group called it first! We perused the selection of intricate artistic pieces for sale in his small gallery but were unable to find the perfect piece for the house. Others bought silk scarves, wall art, sarongs and pencil cases, and we must have been a lucrative bunch for him!

We then continued our sweltering ride, changing direction every once in a while down some side alley or narrow track, which provided a welcome breeze and relief from the hot sun. Soon we arrived at our final stop of the day - a small guesthouse where we enjoyed fried bananas and learned how to play a local game involving strategically placing beans into a wooden board, before taking our bikes back to the owner and heading back for some well-deserved pool and sunshine time.

That evening, we headed to a performance of the Ramanaya Ballet, a performance of a Hindu story, told through music, singing and dance. We arrived at the venue to be greeted by huge amounts of loud music and wondered if we had missed the opening of the show. But no, we had chanced upon a huge wedding, full of hundreds of guests all feasting on food, while the dance floor was packed with couples performing salsa! The bride looking incredible, dressed in a beautiful red gown with roses threaded through her hair. Soon more guests joined those on the dance floor for a synchronised dance, which we joined in with from our vantage point. Guests told us to head onto the dance floor, but we kept our respectful distance. Soon, the wedding party and their guests were dancing the conga, followed by a full camera crew. The crew saw us and instantly stopped filming the wedding and filmed us instead!

Then the couple resumed their spot on the dance floor, while two commentators on the action seemed to say what the couple might have been thinking.... At one point, they were saying, in English, "I love you," before instructing the bride and groom to perform the "wedding kiss". As soon as they obliged, fireworks were let off, accompanied by traditional music. We wanted to stay and enjoy the party, but it was time for the performance we had actually come to see.

We were led to our seats in a purpose-built amphitheatre, where we enjoyed an hour and a half of traditional dance and music. The choreography was elegant and flowing, while the costumes were dazzling. There was a live band sat to the side of the stage as well as four or five singers who told the story through song, adding in sound effects in occasions, particularly during battle scenes between the hero - Rama and each of the evil forces he had to fight against. We were given a synopsis as we entered, which helped us to understand some of the more complex elements of the story, but it was a beautiful way to learn some of the stories that are so important in Hindu society. All too soon, the performance was over and we headed back to the hotel for our beds, it had been an eventful and tiring day.


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