Did you spend time by the pool? A snapshot of an inner-city kampung

We regularly return to Yogyakarta in Indonesia to brush up on language and culture; connect with family and friends and escape our every day lives. Whenever I tell someone I’ve spent a month in Indonesia – they picture a resort, a pool and nice bar. Reality is a little different. 

Ten years after our Javanese wedding, we were back in Yogyakarta for another holiday. It has become a place of comfort. I relax as I head down the road away from the airport now. I know what to expect when I hit the city. I walk in to “our” room, with a cupboard full of clothes that I have left behind since last time and check the cupboard for coffee beans. It has become a second home. It is relaxing, but not in the way many would think.

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Ten years ago – looking as serious as possible at all times

Yogyakarta is a really interesting city. It is a big university town with lots of interesting art and culture. Street art is very popular in the town – officially, in the form the changing of sculptures down the main street; and unofficially in the form of graffiti murals and paste-ups. One of my favourite pass-times has always been exploring the new works around the city, in the alleyways and on wrecked buildings. The most impressive on the ruins of a small village destroyed by the erupting Mount Merapi volcano in 2010.

 

While we are in Yogyakarta we stay in an kampung, less than 10 minutes walk from the main drag. It is the epitome of low-socio economic inner-city settlement. These are my personal thoughts after a month there this year – and shouldn’t be extrapolated across the country – this represents my experience of the inner city kampungs I’ve walked, jogged, cycled and stumbled through.

Kampung dwellings are very close together, if not sharing common walls. Accessing these areas involves walking down a one-car wide “gang” or alleyway, before turning in to the community itself – a crammed, squashed together place of screaming humanity.

There is a river just behind the kampung. Choked with rubbish and used by some for their daily ablutions. It runs fast, having had sand continually dug out of it for nearby construction. If someone could figure out a way of combining rubbish with concrete, the river might run clear. People catch fish from the river to eat. Small, sad looking things that live off of the rubbish and such floating by.

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Our river – it actually looks ok in this picture

The totality of kampung living is quiet challenging to someone coming for such a mobile society such as Australia. Some have lived in this kampung their whole life – living in houses owned by their parents or grandparents. Admittedly, some have recently moved in to the area, taking over someone else’s foxhole or building something new. People do move out and up; but many will remain here – some by choice, others by lack of alternative.

The houses are simple. A family may have a sizable dwelling, or they may use a room inside of a dwelling shared with others. We stay in a simple and by Australian standards, small four bedroom house. It dwarfs many others nearby and offers a structural integrity and vermin-proof existence not afforded to everyone.

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Tight living

Staying inside the kampung for an extended period is equal parts comforting and claustrophobic. Its safe and secure. Its close-nit. It is close living. So close you can hear your neighbour clear their throat pre-dawn. Every morning. Everyone knows when you’ve come home late. Everyone knows. Everything. Always.

I was once naive to believe that there wasn’t much gossip in the kampung. I was told that people are happy. They don’t worry. The longer I’ve stayed and the more about the culture I’ve learnt, the more I’ve challenged this.

Staying inside a community and a culture like this fast-tracks understandings about the world around you, and fast tracks your language. Over the past ten years of kampung stays – particularly a six month period in 2011; I have had the opportunity to learn so much about the way of life for inner-city people in Yogyakarta.

It can be easy to say people are happy. They have smiles on their faces. Yes, there is a certain level of day-to-day happiness in these places, but in my opinion, it is less to do with contentment and more to do with reservation. Sure, they aren’t stressing about the incidentals in life. They are too busy working out how things are going to work out for the rest of the day.

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Yogya street art – love your neighbour

Things are pretty close to the bone in these sort of places. The average yearly salary in Indonesia is around $10,000 AUD. The average wage in the inner-city kampungs is well below that. That is if you have a job. Many don’t.

Staying regularly inside this kind of environment gives you a sense of perspective. It highlights your sense of and your ACTUAL entitlement. I can choose to holiday in this environment and check out the way of life before safely returning to my real world and my country. The people I interact with do not have that option. It is a massive of entitlement.

I’ve had to check myself when I’ve wanted to get all “white-knight” and look for programs or things I could do to “improve” life in the kampung. I’ve had to assess whether those things were actually necessary, feasible and wanted in a world where day-to-day life is about existing. Was I doing something for the people of the kampung that the people of the kampung actually wanted and needed – or was I going to do it to make myself feel good – or even look good back home?

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A becak in the alleyways

Staying regularly reinforces how easy things are in Australia. From the basics like clean drinking water, warm water that comes out of a tap and refuse removal – to more complicated things like recylcing, planning for the future and healthcare.

Life expectancy is low (69 years). Survival rates of non-communicable disease are low. Risk factors, such as cigarette smoking (over 60% of the male population), high cholesterol diets and excessive sugar consumption teamed with low physical exercise are major issues.

People live day to day; making it most days. They don’t have time jog. They are too busy surviving. Food is an essential source of energy – unfortunately a lot of that energy comes in the form of rice and sugar. People can’t access a salad – if there was even the refrigerated option to have one, they need affordable energy.

Same goes for meat – people talk about exporting frozen carcasses to Indonesia rather than live export. I get the animal cruelty aspect, but in the inner-city there are no freezers. Cows are slaughtered on a needs based system. There is an abattoir near our kampung. The cows seemed ok, but they were not getting slaughtered quickly (as in number, not style). Honestly – the protein intake in our kampung is low. A lot of tofu and tempe is eaten. And rice. And sugar. And rice.

Food is a thing that you buy in the morning, convert in to meals and eat. You don’t keep it for later. Food safety and food security are major issues day to day.

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Urban poultry farming

Quality of life is low. Strokes account for over 20% of deaths in the country. People live difficult lives and die young. Every time we return, we are greeted by another “space” in the kampung that used to be filled with a life. A human with a great personality. That can be confronting. It is almost reported with a nihilistic manner when we arrive. Everyone is dying, it was just someone’s turn.

Over my time of coming to the city – I’ve learnt so much and seen so many interesting things. I’ve witnessed the election of Jokowi, while deep in his party’s supporter base. I’ve spoken to villagers returning after their homes were destroyed by a volcanic eruption. I’ve learnt so much about Javanese culture – its intricacies and its contradictions. I’ve been hassled by street hustlers and avoided what have felt at times to be set-ups.

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The Jokowi stickers were EVERYWHERE – as were flags, graffiti and posters

I’ve watched the evolution of the city and Indonesia. There are things that are obvious, confusing and at times concerning. Almost all of the young Muslim women I meet now wear a jilbab/hijab.  The older women are wearing them more and more too. What, ten years ago was something you wore to and from the mosque, is becoming all day every day wear. And they are bright, blinged up numbers. There are also big shiny Muhammadiyah schools all about the place. The lurch of Muhammadiyah towards a more conservative way of thought in recent years may have been a factor in the proliferation of head-wear for women – I wonder what else is being impacted.

There also seems to be a new mosque being built on every corner. Given there was almost one on every corner already, I find it incredible that there is a) enough money and b) enough demand to build these new buildings. I know part of this is almost a colonialist action, to over-saturate the area and drown out similar strands of Islam that you are in competition with, but it still seems staggering. What happens next with Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism is Indonesia will be interesting to watch.

Despite these leans towards conservatism – there are some other things that really interest me developing in Yogyakarta. There are far more bars and nightclubs than when we first started going to the city – and they are well attended by Indonesian s – not just bules. Sure, they are full of cigarette advertising and your attendance is life-reducing, but they are well patronised and full of people (male and female) having a good time in ways that would make conservatives a little upset.

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Local bar – on a quiet night

There is also been an explosion of coffee culture in downtown Yogyakarta. When we lived there, there was literally no espresso-serving cafes in the city beyond the tepid offerings from the large hotels. Suddenly, there are espresso machines, aeropress cafes, pour-over single origin speciality joints and speciality coffee roasters. The real life implications for this and any public health impacts aren’t known – but I can tell you now, I would have loved a bloody coffee when I lived there.

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Speciality coffee roasters

Holidaying in this environment has moments of challenge. There are risks – from exposing ourselves and our family to tropical diseases and food-borne disease relating to poor food handling. Oh, and the cats. And rats. There are bats too, but they seem pretty low key. There is car and motorbike based pollution. Pollution for the seemingly typical South-East Asian rubbish disposal technique of setting it on fire.

You hope for the best and know that through a position of absolute privilege, we can come, observe, immerse and learn – then leave for the safety of our real world – leaving friends and family to live the reality of inner-city kampung life. I will always keep coming back to Yogya – it is in my blood now.

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Exploring your comfort zone: a thing of Beauty

I stared in to the night sky, allowing deep breaths to enter my lungs, fill me with energy and leave my body as clouds of steam. I stood still and strong in front of my family, my friends, my community. I felt their gaze on me, I enjoyed their attention, their focus. The lights slowly became brighter and our names became distorted. This night was the final night of The Beauty Index, a project I joined to get out of my comfort zone. What shocked me, as I watched another breath of steam rise above me, was how comfortable I felt.

Way back in December I attended a workshop that was a taster to becoming more involved in a men’s dance project. As I’d previously overcommitted in a car park (follow the link to my SeeSawMag interview) as an enthusiastic spouse at Annette Carmichael’s Creation of Now; I felt I had to rock up and see what this whole thing was about. I was terrified walking in to the Civic Centre. Some of the men here could already dance, already move well. I felt awkward and uncoordinated. Self-conscious and stiff. It isn’t like I never danced or moved – I loved mucking around at concerts and festivals, I was fit from running and football – but keeping in time and having awareness of my body? I was lost.

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I enjoyed the day, and felt like I should commit to the project – but this was not coming from a place of confidence. I was desperate to push my boundaries and get myself out of my comfort zone. I really wanted a new challenge, and the way I had felt on that first day – this whole “becoming a dancer” thing was going to be that challenge. When the call came out in April to put up or shut up – I dove in to the main group of the project. A group of men with varying physical abilities, fitness, age and experience.

What followed was months of rehearsals. There were times I questioned how wise this whole thing was. There were times we couldn’t walk in a straight line, or keep basic three pattern movements in time – how the hell were we going to be part of a big performance. We ground away, getting better every few weeks – before putting in some utter shit-show of a rehearsal that would have everyone, including Annette, second guessing us. Then, things would click, timing would improve. We developed a sense of ownership over the project and the process. We could do the rehearsals – now, could we perform it?

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Rehearsals – Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

I had no performance experience – dance or otherwise before this project. In fact, my first time on a real stage was the Wednesday before the start of the Country Arts WA Regional Arts Summit when we had the chance to wander about ManPAC as part of our “bump-in”. We were in Mandurah to be the living, breathing proof of effective community engagement and were there to work alongside delegates to put on a show on the final day of the conference. It was invaluable experience – the bunkered in rehearsing for hours; the joy of sharing a house with five other men; the late night partying and frivolity of a world far from responsibility; the hangovers; and on the final day – getting on-stage in front of an audience to perform. It was unifying. It was exhilarating. It was the chrysalis of the ManPack.

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The ManPack performing at ManPAC – Photo Country Arts WA

Suddenly, we were back in Denmark and back with the wider group. Hard in to rehearsals. On site. Dealing with dancing on slippery clay in the rain when we’d spent months rehearsing on floorboards, in doors. I slipped and fell hard moving in a way I had previously had no second thoughts doing. I wasn’t hurt but I was rattled. We were in hoods for our costume. Another adjustment. The floor of the shed was high pressure hosed to get rid of the slippery clay. We were rehearsing under lights. Suddenly it was dress rehearsals. Suddenly – there was no more time. Suddenly, I was going to find out a lot more about my comfort zone.

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Our youngest member – shredding his solo on rehearsal

Our Tech Rehearsal night, from my own perspective, had been a debacle. I was late, or early, or just out of time. My body was not right. My back felt sore and I felt heavy and unstable. I went home in what at best could be described as a funk. At worst – abject terror. Had I not been driving a couple of fellow community dancers home that night – I would’ve burst in to tears. Had my windscreen not been so difficult to see out of, I would’ve still done in in front of them. Dress rehearsal came about and I was stressed. We had a handful of VIPs in to watch and this was a full run through. The stakes were much higher than ever before, even higher than Mandurah.

Dress rehearsal went ok. We weren’t great. We weren’t bad. I was ok. I felt the nerves that had rocked me the day before became slightly placated. Things were going to be different on opening night in front of 140 people – but at least I wasn’t about to burst in to tears. Hopefully. As a group we were happy with how it had gone – the mistakes that are inevitable in a performance weren’t big enough to cause trouble in the run – and the manner in which we either recovered from them, or covered them was a tribute to our preparation. I went home ready to take on the real thing the next night and ready to let the world see what we’d been playing around with for months.

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Our pros – Scott Elstermann and Sam le Breton Photo by Nic Duncan

Our first two nights of the season were fantastic. There was a buzz amongst us and a buzz in the crowd. People had come with a forgiving mindset and a careful curiosity – I mean, seriously, how well could a bunch of blokes from the community really dance? It was good of us for having a go. What no one had counted on was our desire to be more than a curiosity. We went for it both nights and put on solid performances. The buzz around town was fantastic. People were clamouring for extra tickets to the sold out Saturday night show. People willing to stand. People who had heard that we were actually pretty good. Even some of the art snobs who didn’t want to watch men plod around stage.

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Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

Suddenly the final night was here. The night were this post began. We’d had our now traditional warm up to the Game of Thrones intro. We’d a brief sing-along of the Lion Sleeps Tonight. We mucked around in the dressing room together. We’d told a few more dodgy jokes, done our warm up games and had our hugs. There was a feeling that tonight was going to be a big one. I was feeling good. The aches and pains weren’t too bad. The energy in the group was great. Our unity was forged.

We hit that final night with another level of focus and intensity. Standing in front of my family, my friends and my community. Some of my family had travelled from Perth to come and watch. As I gazed out towards the moon, peaking out from behind the trees; just over the heads of the audience; I readied myself to go as hard as I could one last night for them. You have to meet commitment with commitment. I stood and enjoyed sensation, audited my body in my mind and relaxed.

That was the most amazing thing about this process – that moment of relaxation, of enjoyment, of comfort. At key moments in the show I had the chance to take in the audience, enjoy their gaze and attention. Make myself to take up more space and feel larger than I truly was. We were performing in an old saw mill – a huge industrial space, a place of masculinity, blood and sweat; where trees came to die. There was no fear of overwhelming the stage with presence. We had to fight for the audience’s attention over our setting – it challenged us to be bigger and demand more respect as our confidence grew in each show.

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The hinge – Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

After the second show, Annette asked me what I was going to do on the final night – what was going to come out in my performance. I think the both of us had been pretty shocked how far I’d come along in the process. I’d trusted her fully in preparing us to perform; and had unlocked part of myself along the way. That final night, as I challenged myself to go harder and harder through the show to take up more space, stretch further, embody the work more than the night before. I wanted to move with more air, more grace, more intensity, more purpose. I felt fantastic. I felt alive. I felt comfortable.

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Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

Sure, my dancing still has its moments; I’m very much untrained – but this project was about getting out of my comfort zone and trying something new. About putting my trust in others and seeing where it would lead. About giving part of myself to the creative process. About forcing myself to take in the gaze of an audience and enjoy it. I’d talked about taking a running leap from my comfort zone, away from running and football and taking the piss out of myself.

I had never expected to so comfortable on-stage (well, on-concrete). To feel so comfortable performing, especially in front of my community. To find a new comfort zone. One I never new existed. One I am so grateful to Annette, the crew and the ManPack for unearthing. One that I’m not keen to lose track of again. Now, I’m not packing my bags for WAAPA – but what I have done, is added dancer to my identity.

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Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

The Manpack:

Leader, mentor and force of nature: Annette Carmichael http://annettecarmichael.com.au/Home/Home.html

Our Incredible Community Performers: Don Anderson, Adrian Baer, Brad  Black, Dennis Buffart, Alexander Grace, Carl Heslop, Alex  Pyke, Todd Anderson, Rick  Bentink, Emil Davey, The Mountain Nigel Levinson, Phillip G Light, Martin Sulkowski
Professional Performers: The incredibly gracious and supportive Scott Elstermann, the capoeira king Zak Launay, the quiet intensity of Sam Le Breton, and Peter Fares (research phase)

Epic sound designer: James Gentle

Design gurus: Kevin Draper and Indra Geidans

Costume designer, stage manager and general support legend: Symantha Parr

Lighting designer: Kevin Blyth http://www.allevents.net.au/AllEvents.html

Photographic genius: Nic Duncan www.nicduncan.com

Tear inducing filmographer: Rob Castiglione http://www.robcastiglione.com/

Producer and Jingle-jangle lookout: Sandi Woo https://sandiwoo.com.au/

Co-ordinator of everything: Anna Boaden

The Beauty Index is supported by Denmark Arts; the WA Government through Departments of Cultural Industries and Regional Development; Country Arts WA; the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts and the Regional Arts Fund; Lotterywest.

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Monochromatic trees by Kevin Draper and Indra Geidens – photo Carl