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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.





A crash course in Javanese culture – ten years on

I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first trip to Indonesia. From the chaos I witnessed outside my car window on the way from the airport, to the culture I had no idea about – it was an experience I will never forget.

There are many striking things about Indonesia. The sounds, the sights, the smells – good and bad. It’s an ever-changing, and intriguing place. The majority of my time in Indonesia has been spent on the island of Java. The majority of that time the university city of Yogyakarta. Don’t ask me about the best villa in Bali, or tips for exploring that Island- I have no idea – the majority of my time in Bali has been spent in hotels near the airport waiting for my next flight to Yogya.

Yogya is a fascinating City – town with more universities than the entire tertiary system of Australia. It stakes its claims as cultural capital of Java and in many ways Indonesia; claims the best batik; the birth of the nation; the original capital city; longest running sultanate in the archipelago; the best dancers. All of these claims can be disputed – either by the neighbouring City and fierce rival Surakarta, or by other cities or even Islands within the archipelago, or Malaysia – let’s not go there.

My first visit to Java was over 10 years ago. I was going head first into a Javanese wedding ceremony – intricate detail, importance, ceremonial splendour.

It was our wedding I was going to. We were married in Australia in the March- and were now going  to have the chance to have a traditional Javanese ceremony. My mother-in-law had always wanted one of her children to have a traditional Javanese ceremony; and I was determined not to say no so this kind of experience.

After arriving in Yogya, I had one afternoon to acclimatise and familiarise myself with the place, the language, and the culture before the wedding ceremony. It was rapid cultural immersion.

We arrived at my mother in-law’s only to be whisked away for what I was told would be a few photos. We were some traditional clothing and headed into down-town Yoyga to withstand several hours of staged photography. By the fourth hour we were to head to the kraton or Palace some more photos. I was cooked – physically and mentally. Hot. Sick of posing. Overwhelmed with the entire experience.

I was ready to go home, so pulled rank on more photos.

That night the men and women from the kampung or village gathered in separate houses for a bit of a get together. It was kind of a Javanese bucks party. Apart from everything that makes a bucks party a bucks party, segregation of genders.

The local Imam came and read a few words from the Quran and gave us his blessing. In our kampung there’s a mix of Muslims and Catholics, there’s no segregation of religion, the Imam was a friendly guy who did a good job and everyone seems pretty pleased with his input.

Well least I think. I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying, but it all felt pretty positive.

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Not in anyway overwhelmed

The next morning saw an early start for Jas. It’s good to see across cultures that women are still expected to do the bulk of the dressing up and beatification. Jasmine had the most incredibly elaborate arrangement of fresh flowers I had ever seen, tarring of her hair to create Widow Peaks, which all included an intricate Gold Leaf outline.

I on the other hand was only being wrapped in several metres of sarong material and having elven ears pinned to my head.

I had been given the option of wearing the full traditional Javanese outfit – with an unusual hat with fake ponytail- or a Dutch variation which was basically a sarong with a blazer.

I was only going to do this once so I went the whole hog.

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What had I got myself in to

Huge sarong in place. Bare chest. Kris. Flat top hat. Eye make-up. Pointy ears. Fake ponytail. I was in this big time. I was wishing I had a few more weeks to prepare my upper body to be exposed to several hundred people, but my pecs were as good as they were gonna get with the shorter notice so I just went with it.

One could have excused me of laughing at myself, dressed in this way – but to everyone else involved in dressing me, this outfit and every symbol it represented carrying huge gravity and respect.

The Javanese lady (a Pemaes) that walked me through my enrobement did so with an almost holy reverence – including the form of Javanese language she used to explain things to me, the most formal version of the language. Unfortunately, this formal version of the language is not used that often – so even those translating for me had moments of confusion.

There was great Reverence and seriousness of everyone around which really set the tone. I did my best to embody the respect and regality my clothing represented.

This was not big kids fancy dress, this was respecting centuries of tradition and culture.

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Act casual

Once we were dressed, we headed out through the kampung, to our waiting car. Jas looked incredible. The detail in her hair, and her outfit was amazing. She moved so gracefully and looked every part of the Javanese princess. I did my best to look strong and regal. It was not easy, but I tried my hardest.

Upon arriving to the hall we were separated once again. Jas had her mother as support and translator. I had to elders from the kampung. They knew no English. I knew know Indonesian or Javanese. They were meant to explain the ceremony and the process to me before we hit it head first. We gave it a go for a few minutes before resigning ourselves to just winging it.

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Who me?

We headed back in to the hall and to the waiting throng of around 400 people. Our first task was to throw betel leaves at each other. One with the right, one with the left, one more with the right. This got lost in translation, so I stuffed the order up a little. There was howls of laughter and cheering, before the betel leaves were returned to me for another go. I quickly asked what this all symbolised, and were met with vacant stares. The Pemaes (the lady running the show) had moved on to the next thing, and no-one had a quick answer.

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Me and my homies throwing betel leaves at demons

This happened several times during the ceremony, or afterwards. No-one seemed to have a straight answer. It wasn’t until we moved to Yogyakarta for six months that we learnt about the symbols – and why no-one could tell us.

These elaborate, traditional ceremonies are expensive, and nowadays not fully embraced by the Muslim side of things who want traditional Islamic ceremonies. People were favouring different ceremonies, either from cost or religion. Roll in to the detail that most of the explanations are in the most formal version of Javanese that no-one really speaks (sort of like Old English or even Latin).

Years later, we learnt that the throwing of the betel leaves is to show everyone that we are real people. Not ghosts or spirits. The betel leaves had the power to chase away evil spirits, so if they hit us, we were flesh; not demonic impostors.

Next job for the bewildered bule was to crack an egg with my foot. I’m not huge on textures, so was a little apprehensive, but got it done. My egg smashing prowess was observed by the crowd and appreciated before it was time for Jas to wash my feet. These two acts were symbols of our readiness to become parents. Not too difficult to work out.

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Foot washing post egg; pre-pedicure

The Pemaes then escorted us to the ritual chair – where it was my solemn duty to provide Jasmine with a selection of goods to signify the handing over of all of my wealth to her. Given her earlier foot-washing, it was the least I could do.

We the sat in front of our guests on a stage adorned with incredible fresh floral arrangements and proceeded with the ceremony. I had to make three balls of rice, very particularly, under strict instructions from the Pemaes. Jas then had to eat first. Then I. Then we drank sweet tea. Everyone was happy.

We then received a blessing from our parents. Well, Jasmine’s mum and step-dad. I had to leave my Kris with the Pemaes while we headed over, which seemed very reasonable.

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Simple subservience


After kneeling subserviently before them, we were then allowed back to our seats to watch Traditional Javanese dancing and an extended gamelan performances, before withstand  enjoying the efforts of a local rock cover band.

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Observing the dancing

While we sat and sweated, our guests feasted on an amazing spread of food. We were regal and gracious (and a little drippy from the heat) as we allowed EVERYONE to eat while we watched. My despair at the end of the ceremony to find all the food gone was immense.

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Guests enjoying the food I did not get to

To close our ceremony, all 400 guests came briefly to the stage; one by one and shook our hands, kissed us, passed on messages of congratulations, etc. Everyone had been having such a great time that there was a lot of positivity and love.

My elf ears had really started to pinch by then and my hat was too tight, so I was having trouble faking my smiles with my throbbing head and my little shoes were pinching my toes; by I shook every hand and got over myself. Jas had a couple of kilos of flowers pinned in to her scalp so I wasn’t suffering alone (or even suffering comparatively).

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We had to focus on our serious faces for the traditional photos

We eventually headed home to wash in the cold bucket of water that serves as our shower and attempt to scrub the tar out of Jasmine’s hair. Pak Wid/Oom/Jasmine’s stepdad had arranged a night in the best local hotel for us, so we were quiet happy to make use of the hot water to wash up.

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You guys are great!

It was a whirlwind experience – my first trip to Yogya was only seven days long and included the photo shoot, the amazing wedding ceremony, a trip to Borodur temple, Prambanan temple, the Merapi volcano and the fish restaurant.

It sparked something inside of me, the understanding that if was to understand my wife, her mother and her family better – I was going to have to learn more about Java, Javanese culture and some language.

It was a life-changing experience, and ten years on, I’m glad I did it. It was the start of a journey, the start of a range of awesome new experiences.

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