Tales of the Pandemic: The quiet before Ramadan in Yogyakarta

I live on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia. To the north, travelling through small settlements, food outlets and rice fields, one reaches the now (alarmingly) puffing Mount Merapi.

To the south lies the centre of the city: the tourist attractions of the Tugu statue, Malioboro Street, the palace where the Sultan lives – Indonesia’s last active king. Throughout the city you can find university campuses of various sizes.

As it’s coming up to Ramadan, now is a time to reflect on crowds and quiet, and the ebbs and flows of mobility in the city.

At this time normally there is mudik, where millions of workers from around Indonesia travel home for the long holidays, to celebrate and to fast with loved ones, and all the students who normally fill the cafes and food stalls return to their kampungs around the country.

These two forms of migration, combined with Yogyakarta’s status as Indonesia’s second most popular tourist destination, means the population dynamics change a lot during this time, and even within the space of a day the force and nature of crowds shift.

In the days of fasting the early mornings are a hive of women measuring and selecting in markets and stocking up for the coming evening. During the heat of the day streets are still for people staying indoors, preserving energy and holding off thirst, restaurants are closed save a few with a sheet across the window and tourist destinations lay empty.

Come 6pm, the call-to-prayer and competing sirens to break the fast ricochet around buildings and the streets are full of people buying sweet, multicoloured snacks and rushing home for iftar (the meal to break fast).

Yet now, in this time just before the holiday but in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the streets are perpetually quiet. It feels the government aren’t sure how to act about mudik.

The president, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, refuses to ban the mass homecomingreasoning that the economic impact would be too damaging if it were to stop altogether – yet appeals to those in Jakarta to stay put.

Meanwhile, in the cities and villages already watching the first waves of returnees, like Yogyakarta and its countryside region of Gunung Kidul, the mutterings and rumours of how many infected and how many having been lost to the virus since workers returned are shared in doorways and across front yards.

It is thought that 600,000 workers from Jakarta have already returned home, with potentially over a million more to make the journey. In my kampung, the village heads have taken to carefully monitoring who is coming in and for how long to try and maintain some control of the situation.

Last week it was my turn to emphatically state that I hadn’t been to the UK for a while due to the high number of cases there.

I’ve been staying in the house now for five weeks. My Masters at Universitas Gadjah Mada moved online long before the government started taking the issue seriously and people on the streets started worrying about what will happen.

A bamboo roadblock outside a mosque in Yogyakarta. Photo: Harriet Crisp

In this time I’ve been oblivious to the sensations and sentiments outside, fortunate to only need to venture out to the supermarket once a week.

Two weeks ago, the feeling on the street started to change – people joked a little nervously about the pandemic, mask and disinfectant sales increased. But it wasn’t until one evening we ventured out to restock on greens and rice that the real shift was visible.

Men from the kampung were outside working together making large banners with light-hearted signs reading ‘Uncles, aunts, sorry! We have to do this to fight Corona’ and ‘The villagers here want to be able to celebrate Ramadan!!”.

Bamboo poles were being lined against the gates to stop outsiders entering. “Where are you going?” one man asked my husband and I, only nodding at our answer. Out on the main road this scene was repeated across the area, each village having its own message and a collective of concerned looking spectators.

There is an increased presence of police cars on the road now, and many of the often-packed food stalls are shut. The streets, normally thick with the exhaust fumes of continuous mopeds for a while resembled the quiet usually seen at 4am. It is a surreal experience to have a forty five-minute drive take twenty.

Instagram accounts with large followings are posting traditional street venders who are suffering the loss of customers on the street, with followers tracking them down and buying their produce even if reluctant to let it in the house

Where everyday activity should be happening – a few ibu queuing for snacks from a popular street vendor, an elderly man waiting for the red light to sell newspapers – there are instead the food delivery Gojek drives, sat in the doorway of a closed shop waiting for an order. Their green jackets are now the most prominent feature of the city, as many people turn to online orders to limit the risk of going out.

In the absence of clear government instruction, and with growing numbers of people in need, kampungs and local organisations are taking lockdown and food distribution upon themselves.

University groups and local communities are organising public kitchens for food sellers and small business owners who are struggling to get by.

Instagram accounts with large followings are posting traditional street venders who are suffering the loss of customers on the street, with followers tracking them down and buying their produce even if reluctant to let it in the house. Even the local graffiti community has put together a series of prints with profits going to making protective suits for hospital workers.

Right now, the atmosphere of the city seems hopeful, but cautious. People are working together and spreading what means they can. Numbers in the hospitals at present are 67 patients positive and over 600 patients under observation, but I feel many who may be ill are not being tested for different reasons.

One of my lecturers having returned from America for a conference has been announced positive, along with one of my classmates who is still in the process of recovering after three weeks of being sick.

We don’t know what will happen, and in our online classes we pray, regardless of religion or belief. There is a sense that all we can do is help who we can and stay at home as much as we can.

Outside the rice paddy has reached its peak, and like always the old ladies continue to meet, picking, backs bowed and working in tandem. The children outside continue to play, although less often now, and each day the number lessens.

There is no way to predict when this will be over, or what will happen when Ramadan officially begins, but I’m hoping this communal practice will continue.

It is through the collective that the most vulnerable will stay afloat, and the fallout from the virus will stop from evolving into a disaster.

First published on the South East Asia Globe here: https://southeastasiaglobe.com/ramadan-celebrations-indonesia-coronavirus/

The Journey of ‘Ketchup’

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘ketchup’?

If you’re in the UK or US, it’s most likely ketchup will make your mouth tingle a little with the impression of the sweet and tangy tomato sauce you eat with chips, probably from the iconic Heinz bottle. The red sauce is, according to one study, found in 97% of homes across America and is one of the most recognisable brands across the West. For many, tomato ketchup is synonymous with all that is familiar and comfortable. As a kid it may well be the gentle drug that gets you to eat broccoli and carrots, or the ideal sauce for your plain, plain pasta.

In Indonesia it’s the dark brown sticky sweet sauce that goes on every meal (maybe that’s just Jogja). Kecap, pronounced almost the same as ketchup, is equally as synonymous with Indonesia as the western counterpart is in the west. Nasi goreng? Uses kecap. Got a bowl of soto? Add some kecap. Want to eat some gorengan? There’s sambal kecap on the side. Here it is made from fermented soya beans and has retained that homegrown, local quality that comes with a product that lives in every house and restaurant. A strange mirror from one world to the next.

So how did ketchup come to be the cross-continent, multi-purpose condiment found today?

Related imageThe word ‘ketchup’ familiar as it is in English or Indonesian, actually has its origins in Hokkien, derived from the word ‘kê-tsiap’, meaning preserved fish sauce – a very straight forward description of the ingredients. The sauce is thought to originate between China and Vietnam (where it is called mắm nêm) before spreading out to other areas of southeast Asia through trade routes and migration between communities and islands. Here, ‘kê-tsiap’ became kecap and the sauce transformed from meaning preserved fish sauce to generally fermented sauce, with kecap manis as sweet soy sauce and kecap asin as salty soy sauce.

Through colonial routes in the Malay Archipelago in the late 17-early 1800s, the sauce – originally without any tomatoes – found its way to the UK as ‘catsup’ and was a favourite of wealthy communities who tried to replicate the taste using mushrooms, anchovies, walnuts and occasionally stale beer. catsup was thin and brown in appearance and definitely not one for dipping chips, this was for adding flavour to soups and pie sauces, and by the inclusion of stale beer was already far more British than the Chinese equivalent.

It wasn’t until a number of years later that the sauce found its way to America and tomatoes managed to creep their way into the recipe. With the addition of tomatoes however, nobody could make ketchup last for long periods of time. Henry J. Heinz, a German immigrant saw a gap in the market and an opportunity. After the fall of his original radish sauce, he decided to develop his own brand of ‘catsup’ as it was commonly called, and changed the name to ‘ketchup’. His all-American marketing meant that across the west the original sauce is forgotten to make way for the very Western concept of ‘ketchup’ In a full circle, American/British tomato ketchup has made its way back to Asia where it is used in Chinese-American versions of sweet and sour chicken and sometimes used instead of tamarind in pad-thai in Thailand, as well as being the stereotypical chip dipping sauce.

Yet I think what’s so interesting about ketchup is not how it has transformed from one country to another, but how each transformation is viewed as an original, homegrown staple in each location.

If you think about Vietnamese food for example, fish sauce is central to the depth and tanginess of the flavour. A Vietnamese restaurant will have some on the table, a kitchen cupboard would be empty without it. If you go into any warung in Indonesia, next to the wok is the signature large bottle of kecap manis, complete with a shadow puppet inspired logo. It’s unheard of to go to a restaurant or pub in the UK and there is no ketchup for your chips., and cheap talk involves whether you keep it in the cupboard or the fridge. In each of these places, I’m sure you could ask anyone on the street where ketchup/mắm nêm/ke-tsiap/kecap comes from and they would unhesitantly say their country. Each of variation brings so much comfort, regularity, a sense of knowing where you are – and yet, whilst they are local and developed and personal flavours, they also speak of global markets, history, colonialism, migration and the world’s range of different palettes.

First published on blog.iqbar.co.uk

Home Space – Letting People In

One of the first things that struck me when walking around the residential areas of Yogyakarta was how many front doors were open. Sleepy streets with potted plants dotted around outside and food carts tock-tocking along and all the doors open wide for all to see inside.

This struck me for two reasons – the first being how trusting everyone must be to leave your house in such a vulnerable state; the second, how open the community is to be happy to show so much of the inside of their homes. I’d never seen so many living rooms before. This lead to a nice simultaneous picking apart of my own concept of home from the UK and this new, multi-coloured open-doored home of Jogja.

In many places in Jogja the boundary between home and street is blurred. In the winding kampungs next to the river, sofas and toys sit in the streets where families sit chatting, preparing food and occasionally washing clothes. Again, the front door is open so you can look right in at the wedding photos, certificates, plastic boxes of snacks and ornamental tissue boxes that are invariably found in the front room. This openness to me highlighted the power of community – for good and bad – in the roles of the individual families and inhabitants of an area.

In the UK, space is utilised differently. Gardens are placed at the back of the house so if you want to be outside, you can do so in privacy, and the popularity of blinds which allow a certain amount of light in but ‘blind’ the outside to the inside. Neighbourhoods and communities in the UK are optional. You can decide whether you want to be involved in the local soup kitchen, attend the village hall elections, or contribute to the local clean-up days. Or you can decide not to be involved at all. For most communities in Jogja, there is no choice. Cities are comprised of ‘kampungs’, a village within the city, in which you have responsibilities and requirements. When you first sign up for a house, you must visit the Head of the village for their permission. If you’re a lone woman or man living in the city, the neighbours can get involved if you are visited in the night by the opposite sex. At night, a group of local men will patrol the streets to make sure everyone is safe and nothing untoward is happening. Privacy and the concepts of public and private are quite different and it’s so eloquently displayed in how each country sets up the home.

Flash forward to a year later and Obi is having his first exhibition and the theme is home street home. The concept is bringing his very public graffiti into the private space of the home by applying his style ceramic work and furnishings – and then making it public again by placing the fully formed room in the space of the gallery. One day, when thinking about his description of his exhibition, he asked me what the ‘ruang tamu’ was in English. Directly translated, ruang tamu means ‘guest room’, however this is a very different definition to that of the UK which means a spare bedroom for when guests come to stay. In my eyes, his exhibition which featured a sofa, TV, artwork and shelving looked like a living room to me, but in the context of Java, the guest room is the first room coming into the house in which guests visit. The rest of the house may be glimpsed through an open door or the nudge of a curtain, but that space is one not technically open to those visiting.

That glimpse into houses I’d seen, all the photos, sofas and coffee tables then, became part of the house allocated to me as a guest. The guest room is liminal, it is in the home but it is also in the community. It is a place of connection but also a soft boundary. Within the house lies the ruang keluarga or ruang tengah – the family room or central room. In this room there can be mess, space to rest, places for women to remove their hijab without the outer community seeing if they wish to. The front of the house is a place reserved for community, a sort of performative space blending public and private.

In the UK doors are closed, but if welcomed inside, the spaces you can occupy are more flexible, guests can be invited into the living room or the kitchen for a drink. They may move to the dining room to eat or perhaps they eat in the kitchen. In the past, there would have been the ‘drawing room’ in which guests would retire after eating to talk and smoke however this has long been seen as old fashioned and has all but removed itself from modern vocabulary.

Of course, the choice of where you put your guests, in what room and in what place, also has a lot to do with wealth and the size of your house. If you live in a small kampung in Jogja, limited space may mean that your ruang tamu and ruang keluarga may only be separated by the position of a sofa or separator rather than being in a separate room – or just happen out on the street. If you have a large porch or pendopo like in traditional wealthy Javanese houses, your ruang tamu might be at the front where the evenings can be spent relaxing in the open air on a rattan chair, never venturing inside the house. Here local community events and talks can take place, much like an unofficial village hall. Communities can practise the gamelan, hold local elections or, as in the past, watch TV together. A community may have a shared village space, similar to the village/town hall in the UK, but more often than not village meetings will take place in someone’s ruang tamu.

In England, a larger household may indeed have their own separate room dedicated to guests. Parties may be held at the house or in the garden, but often more community-based events such as polls or fetes will take place away from the home and in the designated area of the village/town hall.

All of this has been an interesting exploration in the role of the home and the ways in which just the shape and structure can highlight how a community operates. For me being here, experiencing how communities come together has been both a lure and at times a discomfort. Walking around the streets in the evening and seeing neighbours sitting together, doing handiwork together, or planning for an event makes my heart swell. Saying hello when walking past or having someone stop to give detailed directions and concern to make sure you get there okay is warming. It is an immensely comforting sight and one that I think growing up and growing old with is wholesome – but equally I notice in myself how I’m glad my place is a little off the road hidden from view and we aren’t asked to get involved in the night patrols. At the same time, the force of the community can have negative impacts for groups such as the LGBT community, or minorities who can feel vulnerable in the face of such shared information and extended family where communities can kick you out of your home if rumours spread.

As society shifts, both in terms of rural to urban, rising development, and cultural values, this communal living is shifting. In the large housing complexes that are becoming more common across Jogja, this communal notion of sitting outside and sharing experiences with neighbours is loosening. Rather than night patrols, a guard sits at the front monitoring who enters and who leaves. As air conditioning becomes more common, homes are sealed and doors are closed to keep the cool air in. A recent trend has been exclusive religious housing complexes which remove the plurality so often found in villages. As for young people, many of my friends talk about how they’d like to have a space of their own without the prying of the kampung, to be able to leave late at night without someone asking where they’re going, but these same friends equally lament the loss of traditional ‘Jogja friendliness’.

In the UK, many of our cities see a loss of community and togetherness which has led to people feeling isolated, particularly to the older generation. Some studies have suggested that up to 1 in 4 adults suffer from loneliness and for children between 10-15 living in cities, 20% have said they ‘often’ feel lonely. Uber is launching an option on the app to let your driver know you don’t want to talk during the journey, reflecting a growing everyday need to have the option of no communication. The closed door follows you out the house and into the taxi.

I think the structure of the home in the UK and the ways in which guests can be placed into any room offers a different sense of openness than that in Java – once you’re in you’re really in. Once you are welcomed and trusted, all is laid bare. The outside space can be made communal, but with hesitancy, whether that be because of overwork, exhaustion, or a fear of others. I think the country is looking for a return to a sense of community and to be connected with those who are close. You can see that with the rise of communal gardens, public run homeless shelters and food banks – but there’s still a long way to go to beat the rise of loneliness.

I don’t think either community is perfect and obviously everything written has been my own personal narrow experience of community both here and at home, but I’d like to think we can strike some balance of supportive, open community without the distrust of outsiders or the pressure to conform to a certain ideal. Home tells us so much about different people and their relationship with the world and it’s perhaps now more than ever we should reflect on community when there is such as divisive narrative around the world and across the rapidly developing online society.


Indonesia in focus at the London Book Fair 2019

Riding in as the Islands of Imagination, Indonesia takes centre stage at this year’s London Book Fair. Twelve authors from around the archipelago will be at the event showcasing the country’s diverse literature and culture.

Joining the Book Fair will be the Lontar Foundation, the Jakarta based organisation that has translated and documented Indonesian literature and letters for the past thirty years. John McGlynn, one of the Lontar founders, hopes that by being the market focus at this year’s fair, more people will begin to take an interest in the country’s works which are often overlooked both in world literary circles and also within the country itself.

Indonesia, despite having a broad literary history, is a country that has remained almost invisible in global literary circuits. Within the country itself, reading and writing is a seemingly unpopular past time. One study conducted in 2016 found Indonesia to be 60th out of 61 countries rated on literary habits.

One reason often given for a lack of engagement with literature and creative writing is its period referred to as the ‘New Order’. Dating back to the end of the first president Sukarno’s ‘guided democracy’ in the 50s, and culminating in the dictatorship of Suharto until the late 90s, criticism of the government and the status quo was met with intimidation and censorship; writers and artists were often thrown into the infamous Buru Island prison or disappeared without a trace. The era produced some excellent, electric works from authors such as Pramoedya Ananda Toer, Ahmad Tohari, and Goenawan Mohamad, but the period also saw much literature banned and destroyed and the climate of fear led to a generation hesitant to read, write and analyse. Although the Reformasi period after Suharto brought in a wave of new authors and the beginning of a more vocal, more challenging Indonesia, literature continues to suffer from a lack of interest and engagement. Little funding is allocated by the government into literature and promoting reading in general and schools do little to engage students in literacy.

Lontar’s John McGlynn believes the muted interest in Indonesia’s literature scene stems from the early years of the nation. As the country decided and attempted to form its identity as a unified state, made up of 17,000 islands and a vast array of cultures, beliefs, religions and languages; literature from the archipelago tended to focus on the archipelago itself, making it difficult at times to break in for international readers who would need at least a surface background into the intricacies of Indonesian history, mythology and politics. Alongside this, writers in Indonesia face difficulty with translating novels accurately into foreign languages, either from the nationwide Bahasa, or regional languages. But this is no closed door; in recent years there has been a developing interest in literatures from around the world. If Indonesia can capture some of this, as has been seen with authors such as Eka Kurniawan, there is hope that the government will acknowledge the importance of literature and will begin to invest in translation courses and international book events like this month’s London Book Fair.

Across Indonesia too, things are on the up. Across the country, independent libraries are beginning to organise such as Pustaka Bergerak Indonesia bringing literature to less accessible regions. Lakaot.Kujawas is a small community in NTT whose founder, Dicky Senda, formed to help engage local children in the art of writing and storytelling. The community’s after-school creative writing club has since published two books of local stories and the community are hoping other villages in the region will create their own libraries and writing clubs.


With Indonesia as the market focus both in the Frankfurt Book Festival two years ago and in London next week, the interest in literature coming out of the archipelago marks a shift in interest in the region. Attending London Book Fair include the authors Intan Paramaditha, whose collection of stories Apple and Knife has just been published in the UK by Penguin, Leila Chudori one of Indonesia’s most prominent women writers, and Norman Erikson Pasaribu who won a PEN Translates Award in 2018 for his book of poetry Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Here’s hoping with the spotlight on Indonesia’s literary scene, more young people within the country will catch the literary bug with both reading and writing, putting the country’s expansive and rich culture and history to paper for the world to admire.

Indonesia will be the market focus at the London Book Fair 2019 in connection with the British Council and the Indonesia National Book Committee. http://islandsofimagination.id/web/articles/indonesia-market-focus-country-2019-london-book-fair

Positive News out of Indonesia

Last year was officially the deadliest year in over a decade in Indonesia and the country has had a lot to mull over coming into 2019. Normally keeping itself out of the headlines, this year has seen the archipelago unable to keep out of the news for a whole number of tragedies. Tsunamis, earthquakes, and more human-created tragedies like the church bombing, plane crash, and young girl sentenced for aborting her foetus after being sexually assaulted by her brother, there hasn’t seemingly been much to celebrate this year.

Yet before spiralling into despondency and grief at the situation (both in Indonesia and generally around the world), now, more than ever, we need to hear about some of the good news and glimmers of hope and humanity that can be found. Here is a list of six positive stories that have come out of Indonesia to re-balance the news a little.

Indonesian people are the most generous in the world

According to the Charities Aid Foundation 2018 report, Indonesians are the most giving people in the world – up from number two last year. To calculate generosity, the report took into account the percentage of people who gave money to charity alongside time spent volunteering and helping strangers out.

It highlighted that on the whole, giving both time and money is actually on the rise across the globe with both developing and developed nations giving more than they have since 2016 which saw disappointingly low levels of generosity – a year which also saw Trump take office and the Brexit referendum taking place. The biggest jump in all three of the areas studied this year was in helping strangers, an act which requires spontaneity and a level of trust and compassion on both sides, something that is much needed in this current age of mistrust, alienation and fear in politics.

The Disaster Response by Communities around Indonesia

If there is one thing you can guarantee in the days after a natural disaster in Indonesia, it is the sight of people with buckets at the side of every traffic light collecting for victims of the event. Living in Yogyakarta, Java, you couldn’t feel the tremors of the earthquake or the fear in Palu, but you could feel the waves of generosity as friends collected old clothes and shoes to be delivered in trucks, people posted collection points and charity donation links on Instagram, and university students tirelessly stood at traffic lights and cross junctions with guitars and buckets performing to raise rupiah for the disasters.

Despite the seemingly constant events happening last year, the energy never dwindled. Unnoticed by UK media last January, tropical cyclone Cempaka tore through coastal towns and villages across central Java, ripping away bridges and homes in its path. Thus began this year’s charitable drive with every religious institution, village wives’ community, and motorbike taxi driver raising money to send to the affected communities. This was soon followed by the Lombok earthquake, the Palu earthquake, and so it continues. Over twelve months later, the students are still out there smiling with their guitars and buckets, the drivers are still handing notes through the windows.

Evoware – Creating biodegradable plastic out of seaweed 

As an island nation, Indonesia knows first-hand the threat plastic poses to life both on land and sea. Whilst plastic consumption infiltrates each area of life, with a culture of small sachets for products such as shampoo and washing liquid, as well as a penchant for individually bagging items in the supermarket, there is a growing movement to raise awareness and stop this epidemic. Leading the way in Indonesia is Evoware, a Jakartan based company which creates a biodegradable alternative to plastic packaging and bags from seaweed.

Their aims are twofold, to help Indonesia reduce its dependency on plastic, whilst at the same time helping smallscale seaweed farmers make a profit by removing the middleman and creating a larger market for seaweed, a product often in surplus. Evoware has been steadily growing since 2006 but it is this year that a real sense of plastic awareness has taken hold of Indonesia, with other grassroots movements like #imnotplastic and Bali-based brand Avani also making an impact across chains and coffee shops. It’s nice to see Indonesian industries taking the lead in plastic alternatives in a very Indonesian way.

It’s Wijilan – A community hip-hop project in Jogjakarta

At a time where communities all around the world are feeling the fractures of ‘fake news’ and growing polarity, it is heartwarming to see in the centre of Yogyakarta a community of hip-hop artists coming together with local children for lyric writing and mixing workshops.

Hell House, a production house and hip hop community found in the palace area of Yogyakarta began in 2017 and has developed into one of Indonesia’s best-known music communities. Often using elements of traditional Javanese music and topical, often political lyrics, they are a community who are very proud of their home.

Because of Java’s close-knit communities and the emphasis on working together, Hell House created the project It’s Wijilan, a workshop for local children to learn the basics of mixing and lyric writing, with a number of girls involved in the project. At the end of the program, a stage was put up in the street and locals came together to watch the hard work of the children. A film has been put together about the project, and you can watch the advert below with subtitles.

Minister of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, Susi gives goggles to children by the sea

If you haven’t heard of Susi Pudjiastuti you should. She is Indonesia’s most memorable politician and her unique tactics have proven popular with voters and the fishing community she so strives to look after. A tattooed, smoking, high school drop-out, Susi is everything normal Indonesian politicians aren’t. Described as ‘crazy’ (in a good way) by president Joko Widodo, Susi has become something of a pop culture figure and in 2017 made the BBC’s Top 100 Women list.

Fondly referred to as Susi, Indonesia’s Minister of Fishing first made the headlines when she began her policy of sinking illegal fishing ships in Indonesian waters. She would warn those on the boats of what she was about to do, allow them to escape the vessel on a rubber dingy, then use explosives to sink the ship, thus deterring anyone who may stray into their territories. Since then she has modified her tactics a little, forcing illegal fishers to leave the boat and then giving the ships to Indonesian fishing communities, but her latest strategies have also proved popular too.

Susi, often out at sea on her paddle-board, has been shocked by the degradation of the coastline and oceans through plastic pollution and damaging coastal practices like underwater bombing and the use of cyanide to catch fish. In tourist hotspots, damage to the coral is inevitable with a lack of education from both tourists and locals about how to treat the sensitive ecosystem.

As with most critical ecosystems, pressure is mounted on local communities to take responsibility for their habitat and, seeing the injustice of this, she wanted to make sure local communities could also benefit from the beauty of their landscapes.

“They don’t know how beautiful and good it is underwater. We always say to them, ‘Hey guys, you have to take care of the oceans, you have to take care of the reef, you have to take care of everything that is so beautiful under the water’. They just open their eyes without understanding why we talk like that. They swim every day, but they don’t see anything, because they don’t have the [equipment] to see it clearly and easily.”

Whilst some could argue this adds more needless plastic to the ecosystem, honouring local communities and their ability to enjoy their home in the way tourists normally do highlights exactly why Susi is popular. Her commitment to both Indonesia’s community and the environment is a breath of fresh air in the political landscape.

Lakoat Kujawas 

In the remote region of NTT (Nusa Tenggara Timor) lies the region of Mollo. An area often left behind in Indonesia’s path to development, the community has until recently relied on subsistence farming and transmigration for survival. In 2016 a group of young people from Mollo, headed by Dicky Senda, decided to reignite the cultural and artistic heart of Mollo by starting Lakoat Kujawas, a social enterprise focusing on literacy, art, and local produce to help inspire both the young and the old in the community. The name comes from two fruits found on the island, Lakoat, an indigenous fruit, and Kujawas, guava.

Senda, whose interest began with literature, started a small library for the local community, believing that writing comes for those who can first read. Since then, Lakoat Kujawas runs after-school clubs, organises local produce to be sold across Indonesia via their instagram, residencies for artists and teachers, and has published a book of fairy tales and fables from the island.

What makes Lakoat Kujawas special is its emphasis on local pride. Speaking at a seminar held by CRCS, UGM, Dicky explained how in recent years, local traditions such as weaving, finding particular herbs and spices, and the relationship with local languages and the landscape were either in decline, or just not considered noteworthy. With young people having to move to other islands to find work, or those living very simple lives in the region, Senda realised the importance of local pride and knowledge so far or near, Mollo people have a strong sense of belonging.

Since the program began, traditional weaving practises have started up again and local stories, recipes and philosophy has been documented, sandalwood trees have been planted where they were lost during the colonial period, and art and literature classes are becoming more and more popular with the village’s children. Lakoat Kujawas is now in conversation with villages around the region to start up their own community projects.

The world at the moment is bleak, but with darkness comes bursts of people driven change. People who take the Trumps, the disasters, the rising hate speech, and environmental challenges and try to actually make a difference. These voices need more airing so we can all take some inspiration and, if not start something ourselves, at least know where we can get involved.

Horror Films and Rumah Belanda, a Looming Presence.

It’s a Saturday night in Jogjakarta and the cinema is packed with young people and families coming to watch both local and international blockbusters. One film that has filled the theatre, Danur, tells the story of a family haunted by a Nanny from the colonial period coming to lure their child into the underworld.

The film is set in an old Dutch house from around the 1920s-40s, the same which litter many of Java’s cities. Interestingly, it is not the first film to come out this year set in such a location. Alongside Danur (both the first and the second the year after), Dutch houses also feature in the films Pengabdi Setan and coming later this year, a film actually called Rumah Belanda (Dutch House). In each of these films, the house is the family home, or the inherited home from past grandparents, and retain many of the original features such as wallpaper, furniture and lighting. In each case, the house acts as a passive character; the main draw of the horror, yet never the centre of the film. If the suspense in the film builds, there will be a shot of the building’s looming presence, a creaking floorboard, a particularly terrifying looking painting on the wall. Asking friends about why these Dutch buildings in particular are used in horror films, the initial answer is often “because they’re old”. An important point, and one that fits with the trope of the haunted house in horror films around the world. Yet, there are many old traditional buildings in Indonesia, and as they are often built from dark wood and have large dominant structures such as Central Java’s Joglos and Sumatra’s Rumah Padang you might assume would be just as fitting for a horror film setting.

Ghosts for many in Indonesia are real and play an important role in day to day life. These spirits aren’t solely those whose souls haven’t passed into the afterlife taking on their former body, but come in different, specific forms. There is the pocong which appears in the Muslim burial shroud with a decaying face poking out, the kuntilanak, a woman who appears dressed in white with long flowing black hair, and the tuyul, small children who steal your money. There are many more and each of them are as real as the last. Some people believe you have to beep your horn before crossing a bridge to ask permission from the spirits living underneath, it is widely known that as the sun sets around 5pm you should not stand in doorways as the spirits are waking and passing through. In the context of Dutch buildings and areas once frequented by the Dutch, these become especially haunted. There have been countless times around Jogjakarta I have heard that the Dutch apartments now inhabited by professors from Universitas Gadjah Mada are haunted with many ghosts, Dutch and native, living inside. In the village of Kaliurang on the slopes of Merapi Volcano, Dutch and Japanese properties are often left abandoned and overgrown with many people scared to visit the area at night for fear of what they could see. Stories of small Dutch children, nannies and servants hired by the families told by parents to children help perpetuate this fear. In the centre of the city large Dutch properties loom over the smaller, single-story shops and houses. It is difficult to work out whether it is the ghosts that are haunting the people or the buildings themselves with the history and the sheer weight of them on the landscape that creates this sense. My partner, thinking a little more about Dutch buildings in Indonesian horror films, decided that the history of the building was part of it, Dutch buildings are synonymous with age just because some of them have been there for over one hundred years and many will have passed through them, but then this wouldn’t explain how there are more Dutch buildings in horror films than traditional Javanese or Indonesian buildings, and most of those in horror films look no older than 80 years old. He looked thoughtful a while longer then said, ‘I think its the history of the Dutch buildings, knowing that so many people suffered, maybe even in the buildings’.

In my time here, colonialism only occasionally comes up in conversation. If it has, it’ll sneak in with a passing comment about someone’s grandma being raped or how many people died making a canal as we drive by. Often I’ve heard about the great battle for independence and the strong national heroes who fought for the country. Today, the Netherlands is a place where many of my friends wish to study. If a Dutch person comes on holiday, they will experience the generosity and hospitality synonymous with Indonesia, and they may be praised for the windmills and tulips. Often the only time I ever see any sort of narrative on colonialism here is on Independence Day, where villages get together to decorate, play games and remember the words of the first president, Sukarno. The day is joyous above anything else and a celebration of what it is to be Indonesian rather than a sombre look at the colonial past. Yet these houses in the horror films, the ghosts of nonyas (Dutch women) who walk across corridors in old houses, the whispered rumours to stay away from the old Dutch properties at night, suggest that the ghost of the history is there. Lighter, something used to frighten children, or make an audience shriek in horror and delight, but still a pervasive impression that captures the imagination of many.


Ngayogjazz 2018

Mango fruits hanging over the main stage, ducks wandering through the pathways, grandpas watching as the preparations take place holding babies, thus begins the morning of Ngayogjazz Festival 2018. Each year Ngayogjazz takes place in a small village in the countryside of Jogjakarta, Indonesia. Aiming to pull jazz away from the high-class theatres and bars of the city, the festival moves through the streets and homes of the local community — free for anyone wanting to attend. People’s backyards become the home of Indonesia’s thriving jazz scene for one day, bringing local culture, traditions and jazz music fans all together.

As you walk around the village of Gilangharjo, there are small children practicing traditional dance on the Panggung Lurah stage, ibu-ibu (women of the village) preparing bakso and pecel to sell in carts, and a small boy starts hanging bags of gold fish in a tree for visitors to buy. The backdrop of the village is beautiful, with stages nestled amongst a maze of colourful houses, and clumps of bamboo with hand-woven lanterns guiding the path.

It is expected that around 30,000 people will attend the festival today. Far more than the population of 500 the village normally holds, and the excitement is palpable.

Pak Rido and Bu Indah have travelled to Ngayogjazz from the eastern city of Malang. This was the second time they’ve attended the festival and worth the seven hour drive to Jogja. Unlike other jazz festivals where the focus of the event is a only on the music and the fans who attend, Ngayogjazz is much more. Pak Rido explained how the festival puts the local community at the centre of the event. Catering for the festival comes directly from the villagers, who open up stalls in their front yards and all profits from the day are fed directly back into the community. Long term, the village, having given space to showcase its hospitality and traditions, often sees a rise in tourism or interest in products long after the festival itself has finished. For Pak Rido and Bu Indah, most importantly the festival opens up the genre of jazz to everyone, making music which some may consider inaccessible, accessible to everyone. ‘Jazz music,’ Pak Rido explains gesturing a wide arc with his hands, ‘expands the mind and opens creativity. Something that all people should enjoy.’

The line up this year has included an eclectic mix of local, national and international talent. performances have ranged from the velvety saxophone of Kika Sprangers and fellow international artists Ozma Quintet, to joyous Idang Rasjidi and His Next Generation, newcomers Magnitudo and everything in between.

Edited article from the Ngayogjazz website as part of their blogging team where I was asked to write a short series of posts about my experience of the festival. You can find the original at https://ngayogjazz.com/category/warta/


Spiritual Queens and Real Queens in Jogjakarta.

Parangtritis beach on the Southern coast of Java is an atmospheric place. With deep black volcanic sand and powerful waves which leave the air salty and thick, it’s no wonder it has a spiritual resonance with the people of the region, Jogjakarta. Parangtritis is most famous for its spiritual inhabitants, Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul, or the Queen of South Beach. The Queen has long held a position of respect and fear amongst the Javanese. Nyi Roro Kidul who guards the queen and her seas is believed to love the colour green, so those that visit the beach are warned not to wear this colour as she could come out to drag them into the depths. Across the island, in hotels, in the Sultan’s palace, and around people’s homes, are shrines adorned with pictures of the Queen and Nyi Roro Kidul with green fabrics and symbols as a sign of respect and hope that she will bless them.

The Queen of South Beach goes by many names and features in countless stories. Thought to have emerged as a sea deity in the pre-Hindu era, her story developed during the beginning of the Mataram Empire in the mid-1500s where Panembahan Senopati, meditating on the beach, caused a stir in the spirit world; bringing the Queen to the shore to find out what was happening. She took him on an underwater experience to learn the art of love and war. Since this period, the Queen of South Beach has been intertwined with the world of men, power and love. When a King of Java is about to take the throne, he must gain the trust and acceptance of Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul by spiritually ‘marrying’ her.

Up until the last Sultan of Yogyakarta, on the night of the coronation, nine dancers must perform the Bedhaya Ketawang, a slow, enrapturing dance. During the performance, Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul appears and becomes the tenth dancer with one of the performers embodying her spirit. The new Sultan, the only one to see the spirit queen, takes the dancer and spends the night in spiritual lovemaking, thus sanctifying the marriage. The current Sultan removed certain elements of the dance – he no longer chooses the host dancer for the night, however the dance continues, and the relationship between Queen and Sultan is as prominent now as it has been through history.

Whilst this may sound like just a myth, a fairy-tale passed down through generations, the importance of Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul has real-life implications in Java. It is a common rumour that the late Indonesian dictator Suharto took it upon himself to visit the Queen to assert his power over the country. Famous for his policies of oppression, Suharto enforced strict policies for women, “encouraging” them to be passive mother figures who stay at home and protect the nuclear family. For him to ‘marry’ Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul and in effect making himself the king of Indonesia highlights the ways in which he tried to control the nation on both a political and spiritual level. Many in Jogjakarta believe there is an underground tunnel which the kings use to travel the 30km from the Kraton to the beach and it is suggested that even current President Joko Widodo has paid his respects to the Queen of South Beach.

Presently in Jogjakarta, there is a crisis. Whilst the rest of Indonesia is governed by elected political parties, Jogjakarta is the last region to have its own working monarchy with the Sultan Hamengkubawana X in charge of both politics and maintaining the spiritual soul of Jogjakarta. The city is exceptionally proud of their monarch and has fiercely opposed moves to bring in a democratically elected governor. Yet the current king is facing a historical problem. He has no official heir to the throne as all of his five children are daughters – and daughters cannot become kings. Many believe it is time for a modernisation of the palace.

There is a large body – including the Sultan’s eldest daughter, Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Mangkubumi – who argue, if subtly, that it is time to stop this sexist ruling. Alongside arguments for women’s empowerment, Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Mangkubumi says that historically there has been a whole host of Indonesian Queens like Aceh’s Cut Nyak Dien and Java’s Tribuwana Tunggadewi who have been powerful and successful, both Islamic and Hindu rulers so Jogjakarta should be no different.

Putri Raja Keraton Ngayogyakarta, Gusti Kanjeng Ratu (GKR) Mangkubumi membuat kue apem saat tradisi Apeman di Bangsal Kedaton Sekar Kedaton, Keraton Ngayogyakarta, Yogyakarta, Minggu (17/5).
Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Mangkubumi in the Kraton, Jogjakarta

For some Jogjakartans, most prominently the Sultan’s brothers in Jogjakarta and in neighbouring Solo, this is not so simple. For them, there is no way there could be a female sultan in Java. For them,  it would not be acceptable for the Sultan’s daughter to marry a female spirit, nor could she engage in the spiritual coupling that ultimately occurs on the ‘wedding night’ between the Sultan and Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul. Some comment on the other goddess, often forgotten, Nyi Gadung Melati who lives in the volcano Merapi which towers over the city. She too enters a special union with the Sultan who has to balance the forces of the volcano and the ocean.

By changing this relationship between the Queen of the Sea, the volcano and the Kingdom, they would be throwing the spiritual connection out of balance, causing catastrophes in the form of natural disasters and dark encounters from the spirit world. The Sultan’s brother GBPH Yudaningrat believes that this itself is reason enough for the throne to be passed on to other males within the family.

Yudaningrat also points out that the central role of Sultan within Islam is as an Imam, or religious leader — a role which he claims can never be filled by a woman. He has gone so far as to warn that once the current Sultan has died, his wife and daughters will be driven out of the palace for disrespecting traditions and religion.

The Sultanate of Yogyakarta practices ‘Javanism’, connecting Islam with older, Javanese beliefs surrounding kings and spiritual practices. As Islam becomes more prominent in Java, and more and more turn away from traditional beliefs and practices, this religious argument has generated much debate as the role of the Sultan in modern Jogjakarta itself is questioned.

The daughters argue that Javanese Islam is already embedded in all they do, and in other regions of Indonesia. Yet for the current Sultan and his family, spiritual and cultural traditions are above religion – an increasingly controversial position – and believe that this isn’t a consideration for the next in line.  Yet what does this mean culturally when arguing about the Queen of South Beach? The dilemma becomes, does one break away from cultural traditions, and allow his daughter to heir, opening the door to further breaks from culture – or does one simply see this as a sweep into the modern era?

For the Sultan, it looks increasingly that his daughter will be the first female sultanah of Jogjakarta, regardless of what his family and some members of the community believe. Only time will tell what will happen, but until that time comes, Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul will continue to reign the shores of South Beach, intimidating locals and tourists alike. Maybe you will catch a glimpse of her in the waves, at the top of the hills that surround the beach, or in the breeze. I personally am hopeful the Queen of South Beach can collaborate with Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Mangkubumi the Sultan’s daughter, along with Nyi Gadung Melati in Merapi Volcano, and create a powerful female trio to rule the region, becoming the next powerful Indonesian sisterhood.


The heat is so thick

the layer of water on your top lip you don’t know if sweat or humidity

the warmth comes through to your stomach

and your movements are


do you get up to go to get water

or do you stay and turn into water

this is honey

this is sleep

this is the end of dry season building up to rainy season clouds are forming soon will be storming