Close Encounters of the Third Kind in Jogjakarta

by Michelle Chin

Last week I was at my regular internet café checking emails when a young man walked in. As he came through the door, he exclaimed "Oh, another Westerner!" It was difficult to know from his tone of voice whether he was pleased about another foreigner being there or not. Actually he wasn't even looking at me. He was talking to a man three computers up from me. I went back to my emails, but couldn't help overhearing part of the conversation which followed.

"Oh thank GOD, another WESTERNER. Jogja is a GHOST town. I haven't even SEEN another Western tourist since I got here. I'm from Australia. Where are you from?" All this erupted, of course, in a very loud voice. The guy was obviously lonely and totally starved of conversation with an English speaker.

"I'm from France. Actually I'm Italian, but I was born in France," came the reply, in a rather softer tone of voice, and with what I thought was a very charming accent.

"Oh man, I had two weeks holiday and it looks like I made a TERRIBLE choice in destination. I went to Jakarta for a while and that was okay, I was hanging out with other Westerners, but now I'm here in Jogja it's like, where are all the Western tourists? Don't they come here any more? It's totally DEAD here, the cafes round here are all EMPTY, I mean there are INDONESIANS in the cafes, but there are Indonesians everywhere anyway. I want to meet other WESTERNERS…….. I think I should have gone to Bali instead."

"Well, you should try going to such-and-such café - there are always a few foreign tourists there," said the French guy, now half-turned in his seat, clearly realising that he may as well give up on the email he had been writing.

"Oh great! Do you want to go there with me tonight? Maybe we could hang out together and meet some other Westerners."
"Well, sorry, no, I can't. I have a girlfriend. It's Saturday night, and we want to spend some time together."

The young Australian tried to hide his disappointment. Then he started asking questions, like whether it was worth going to see Borobodur (yes), how to get there (taxi, bus or motorbike), how much the various types of transport cost (answers given in great detail by the French guy). Taxi and motorbike were rejected by the Australian because he thought "they cost too much". Bus was rejected because he didn't want to go on a guided tour of eight hours' duration, he wanted the freedom to move about as he pleased. (Well then, maybe you'll have to go by taxi or motorbike.) The conversation sort of floundered when he asked the Frenchman whether it was a dirt road leading to Borobodur.

"A what?"

"You - know, a - dirt - road," he said slowly, each syllable enunciated very clearly.

"I'm sorry, but I don't understand."

The Australian rolled his eyes and starting waving his hands around, trying to make things clearer somehow. "You know, a road that is not hard, not finished, ummm, a road of like, just dirt and (expletives), how can I explain this to you?

"I'm sorry, I'm still not quite sure what you mean about the road."

"(more expletives). It's so HARD to communicate here. Nobody understands ANYTHING I say."

Bambang Toko Witjaksono, Eko Nugroho and Dani
Kotak Ajaib, 2004

Oh dear, it seemed as if nothing was going right for him, and I thought he was going to alienate the first Westerner he had met after days and days of locals only. I didn't hang around to see if they worked out what a dirt road is. All this babble was making it very hard for me to concentrate on my own emails, so I thought I'll just call it quits and come back another day. There was no way I was going to inform him that I was also from Australia. I think he had decided in a brief glance that I was a local and therefore not worth talking to. Funny about that, in Australia I am often told that I don't look Australian and it seems that here I don't stand out in a crowd (of two people at an internet café) as being Australian either.

Roni Wibowo
This close encounter of the third kind made me realise that not everyone who comes to Jogja, actually wants to meet the local people. Perhaps they just prefer to hang out with their own kind, stick with the familiar, speak their own language, swap stories of how terrible or cheap or expensive or whatever it is here, where to get the best deals, what sights to bother seeing, where to eat, where to drink and party, and perhaps, in the end, talk about how much better it is back home.

Many tourists visit Jogja for only a few days, and there is plenty of potential sightseeing to be done - Borobodur and Prambanan temples, the Sultan's palace, Taman Sari, the Ngasem Bird market, Jalan Malioboro, Pasar Beringharjo, Ciremai caves, Parangtritis beach, maybe a shadow puppet play or classical dance performance in the evening.

If you want to discover something about the daily life of the Jogjakartans, and you have a limited time to spend in Jogja, then how to go about it? Getting to know and understand a culture can take years, if not decades, and you only have a few days. Sightseeing is interesting of course, but you might only come into contact with hawkers who want to sell something to you and guides who automatically reel off the known facts about each particular place. You might just end up with a lot of snapshots of places and objects, and not have many meaningful encounters or conversations with people. Maybe you have expectations of getting to know and understand what the real locals are doing every day. Often it is the human contact, the encounters with local people, that remain strongly etched in a traveller's mind and keep surfacing in the anecdotes of a trip to a certain place: "Do you remember when we went to (wherever) and we met that man who took us to his home and explained about (whatever) and we met his family and they were all such nice people. Remember the old grandmother? And the children? We tried our best to communicate with them and even with the language barriers we all managed somehow. We just felt so welcomed by them, and it was so interesting to see how they actually live over there."

If sustainable tourism looks for balance on ecological, cultural and economical levels, Via Via in Jogjakarta have succeeded in putting these ideas into actual practice. The concept of Via Via started in Belgium. Some young people were working for an alternative travel agent as volunteers, training tour leaders in communication and guiding skills. They started talking about how great it would be if they could set up meeting places all over the world where they could set up tours and courses that fitted in with their ideas of sustainable tourism. The meeting places would be run by local people who could thus earn money for themselves. There are now nine Via Via's all over the world: two in Belgium, two in Tanzania and one each in Spain, Senegal, Nicaragua, Honduras and Jogjakarta, Indonesia. All of them are supported by the Via Via international co-operative, they all use the same name, the same logo, and they all follow the same philosophy of sustainable tourism.

In Jogja, Via Via has set up a restaurant, courses, field trips, regular art exhibitions, and Salon Alami which specialises in traditional herbal treatments and massages. The café serves great food, and has a regular clientele of locals, expats and travellers. There is no manager - all the staff have been given particular responsibilities. They are all "managers", there is not a single "boss" who shouts out orders to his/her staff. The young women working at the restaurant are all confident and assertive. They do not mumble the learned-by-heart phrase "enjoy your meal" so common in other restaurants whose staff have been drilled to speak these words like robots when serving a meal.

Yustoni Volunteero

The short courses and trips aim to widen travellers' perspectives and ways of thinking. "The main idea is that they meet local people, and most of the tours and courses are led or taught by women. Usually, when tourists come to Indonesia, wherever they go they tend to have male tour guides so they get information from the male perspective only. Doing a course or trip with a female guide, the tourists get to hear different things from a woman's point of view," says Rita, one of the guides at Via Via.

Under the auspices of the Dialog Foundation, in March 2002 Rita and 5 other guides from Jogja were brought to Belgium to give them the feeling of being a tourist themselves for two weeks and then they had two weeks of intensive training. Rita commented, "It was a great experience. As guides we try to tell everything about what we think is interesting here, but sometimes we also want to ask 'Why do tourists come here to learn?' So when we went to Belgium we were in the position of the tourist and we got to experience what it is like to actually be a tourist yourself. We learnt a lot about cross-communication skills."

Through the courses and trips offered by Via Via, you can get a feel for the local culture and meet some of the local people. You can take a leisurely morning bicycle trip (with many stops and rests!) or alternatively travel by dokar, a horse-drawn cart, to a village about 20 kilometres from the centre of town, giving you the chance to observe and participate in a slice of authentic traditional (and modern) Javanese village life. You have the opportunity to meet farmers ploughing, planting, tending, or harvesting rice (depending of course at what stage they are at when you do the trip) or visit a rice mill. You might want to try your hand at planting, fertilising or harvesting the crop. Visits to home industries - brick-makers, tempeh producers, krupuk makers - are included in the excursion. You may see cows having their early morning bath in the rivers, and plenty of goats at pasture. School children will often be seen coming or going from school or playing in the yard during the breaks during their lessons. During the trip to and from the village you will also have endless opportunity to see life as it is lived daily, stop to talk with local people, and enjoy the scenery.

Or, you can take a 4-5 hour field trip to learn about jamu (herbal tonics and remedies) and traditional massage. You start by visiting the market where you will see all the various types of jamu being sold there, whether home-made from fresh ingredients, packets of pills or bottled drinks. You may be treated to home-made jamu of kunyit asem (tumeric and tamarind) which has beneficial cleansing effects, and can prevent stomach cramps during menstruation. For men, some jamu to increase sexual prowess may be the preferred choice! You will then go to a home-industry where the women produce litres and litres daily of beras kencur (water mixed with ground rice, cinnamon, lemon, tamarind, palm sugar and salt) which they send on to the markets for re-sale that day. This daily tonic, made fresh daily, is good for strength and stamina. Having obtained the fresh ingredients at the market earlier in the morning, you will then learn how to make your own massage oil of lemon, ginger and coconut oil and a face mask of ground ketan (sticky rice), cinnamon and water. The course ends with a relaxing massage.

A short 3-hour cooking course allows you to learn how to prepare two Indonesian dishes. According to Romdi, "We always let the participants choose what they want to learn. If they ask me what I would recommend, I always tell them that it's better if they learn to cook something which involves a lot of new skills during the preparation process. Gado-gado is too easy, so I might recommend learning how to prepare Sambal Goreng Sayur. Various vegetables are chopped up, then you grind onions, garlic, galingale, palm sugar and chillies in a mortar and pestle. After cooking the vegetables and spices, you add coconut milk. The participants then have a meal at the conclusion of the course - the two dishes they have learnt how to cook."

Alternatively you may want to do a full-day course in batik where you learn the processes involved in creating a batik painting measuring 50 x 50 cm; a short, 3-hour course in silversmithing where you design and make a ring; or a 3-hour crash course in Bahasa Indonesia. Of course, there's not all that much that you can learn in 3 hours, but you will acquire the basic skills needed for greetings, introductions, arranging transport, and of course numbers so that you can bargain prices.

For travellers who prefer sightseeing to hands-on experiences, there are also trips to Borobodur, Prambanan, Candi Sukuh and Ceto, Ciremai Caves and Parangtritis beach.

Via Via Café also holds regular art exhibitions, with most of the exhibitors being local, young, contemporary artists. With no commission on sales of artwork, all the income remains in the hands of the artist. One artist who exhibited there recently was so flabbergasted that no commission was deducted from the selling price of his paintings that he immediately offered to give some of his income to the staff of the café. There is an exhibition of works by the Apotik Komik group of artists in July-August 2002, and in September-October 2002 there will be a solo show of paintings and photographs by Eko Nugroho.

By the way, before I left the internet café last week, I asked a staff member there to pass on a brochure to the young Australian guy. Who knows, maybe he would rethink the costs involved in going to Borobodur on a motorbike with his own local, English-speaking guide. He'd get to see the glorious monument and some stunningly beautiful scenery on the way, plus get to know a local guy. Who knows, maybe they'd even become friends, end up hanging out together. Maybe his ideas about Indonesians might change a little. Well . . . . . at least he'd find out that it's not a dirt road that takes you to Borobodur.

Arya Pandjalu

Michelle Chin is a writer, translator and art consultant based in Jogjakarta.

Contact details:
Via Via Café, Jalan Prawirotaman 24 B, Yogyakarta
Telephone: 0274-386557

[published in Latitudes, Vol. 18, July 2002]