Friday, October 29, 2010

Indonesian puppetry background

So the gift shop at the puppet museum emailed me the story of the puppets. I thought I would copy and paste it for your benefit (they email the story to anyone who buys them and will leave an email address). I left the typos and spelling errors as is because some were kind of cute. Enjoy!


Wayang kulit or shadow puppet is a very old art form dating back over 1000 years. Typically the plays will start about 9 at night and last through until early morning ( about 4 or 5 am ). These shadow puppet plays ( there are well over two hundred different Plays contain the elements of Ramayana and Mahabharata from india but have been made uniquely Javanese.

There are the stories of gods and men, myth and morals. In a command set, used foreveryday performances, throughout the villages and cities.

There are about 120 puppets in a set but in the sets that were used in the places and reserver for special occasions, there have been documented well over 400 in a set. This number also varies considerably as Dalang (puppeteer)were also known to create their own characters primarily for intermission entertainment or for special performances.

The characters in the plays themselves are all set by tradition in both the characters ,stories as well as their size, perforation

and paintings for a given performance. A dalang will sit in a center stage ( usually elevated now ) in front a white cloth screen and illuminated only by a single oil lamp above the stage and dalang.

To his left and right will be his puppets for that performance, their support sticks stuck in the Banana’s stem. To keep them ready to use. He will typically have two assistants to help him with the puppets sitting in his left and right. A companying him are several female singers and a gamelan orchestra.

The perforation and painting throughout the puppets are beautiful. They were subject not only handling but many would also have to endure the mock battles in the wayang kulit or shadow puppet plays. Because these puppets were used in performances, dalang would continually maintenance these puppets for both the leather and the paints.

The Ramayana Story ( Romeo and Juliet)

The Ramayana is essentially a love, the story of Lord Rama’s search for this beautiful wife, Shinta. Dasarata, king of Ayodya, had fulfil a promise to one of his wives and let her Son Baharata ascend the throne, even though it meant exile to the forest for son by another wife, his beloved Rama.

Rama, an incarnation of Batara Wisnu, knew that his love and happiness with Shinta was but the prelude to long suffering to enable him to accomplish the duty of Wisnu. Barata, who didn’t want to see Rama ousted, was therefore unable to persuade Rama to return Ayodya. And Rama, followed by the faithful Sinta and Lesmana, his inseparable companion and another half brother , went away and live in forest.

They were overtaken by disaster due shinta’s over-powering desire for possession of a golden deer seen in the forest. But the deer in reality was sent by the ten-headed demon Rahwana, symbol of man’s lusts. Having tricket both Rama and Lesmana, Rahwana abducted Shinta and bore her off to the island of Alengka. Jatayu,king of the birds, intercepted Rahwana, but was mortally wounded and lived only long enough to tell Rama about Shinta abduction.

At long last, the white ape Hanoman discover where Shinta was hid in the island kingdom. An army of monkeys, led by Sugriwa, build a causeway to Alengka, crossed over and helped to kill Rahwana. Rama and Shinta were united once more.

But Rama listened to voices doubting Sinta’s purity after so long a captivity. Shinta had to undergo a trial by fire and was saved by Agni, Goddess of fire, who convinced Rama of Shinta’s purity.

Gunungan or tree of life

This wayang kulit ( shadow puppet ) is called gunungan or tree of life ( Kekayon in Javanese ). The gunungan, in general, is used to announce the start of the wayang plays ( lakon ). It is also used to show intermissions and scene change as well as indicate the end of a show. The gunungan is composed of two major parts, upper and lower, which correspond to the upper and nether worlds with the tree serving as the link between both wolrds.

In India terms the tree is the nagasari tree which is also seen on the Hindu-Buddhist monuments of the 18th and 19th centuries around Surakarta and Yogyakarta . The various animals represent the opposing good and evil forces or hell and heaven. In typical gunungan the bottom portion depicts a place guarded by two giants on either side of the entrance.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In Penang, 14 years later

The first time I went to Penang was in 1996. I stayed for just one night and one day as I had met an international student from here at my university who was home for the summer doing an internship with Hewlett Packard, so she invited me to come visit her after I found out I would be going to Malaysia that summer for my cousin's wedding. I didn't really get to see much in that day, although I did manage to try lots of local food and take in a bit of sun at the beach, and I remember getting followed by this weirdo in the mall while I was waiting for my cousin to pick me up. I walked all over the mall and even tried to lose him by hiding out in a department store for a while, but still he found me when I went back up the escalator, so I decided it wasn't any use, and I sat down on a bench to wait for my cousin. He sat down right next to me and just stared at me, but never said a word. When my cousin finally appeared, he simply got up and left.

This time around, it's a little different. I'm here for work, so I don't really have a chance to do much here, but for those of you who follow my blogs and/or my life at all, you know that I can always have adventures even when I don't try.

Today, it was one of my taxi drivers. First of all, he wasn't sure where the place was that I was going, and then after he found out, he didn't stop talking almost the whole time, telling me about his girlfriends in Indonesia and Vancouver, how he's keeping an apartment for his nephew so he can inherit it but how he thinks his nephew won't want it once he becomes and engineer and will want to buy a nicer place of his own...and he was driving fairly erratically, especially by Malaysian standards. Not to say that traffic isn't somewhat crazy here, but not nearly to the extent of Indonesia, and India doesn't even compare. But he kept looking at papers and getting distracted, and people kept honking at him as he wouldn't notice green lights and just sat there or switched lanes/directions at the last moment and cut people off. It was kind of funny, but at the same time, I was a little concerned as I wasn't sure if he was just normally erratic or if he was on something. He gave me his number so I could call him when I was done, but I was somewhat apprehensive, so I decided just to have the school I was at call another taxi for me, and it was a much better ride. In fact, I may have even recruited the driver's daughter! You just never know sometimes!

I just discovered that my hotel is really close to the 3rd largest leaning Buddha statue in the world, about a 1 minute drive according to Google maps, so I should be able to walk there pretty quickly. I have some free time tomorrow, so I can't wait to do a bit of walking. You don't get to walk too much in Jakarta, so it will feel nice to get some blood circulating again. I feel like I'm turning into a lumpy zombie! And not only is safety less of a concern here, but so is language. Everyone speaks English, more so than in Indonesia, so I don't feel as concerned in going out alone to do anything from going to a convenience store to going walking around to taking taxis alone. It's nice to have a bit of freedom again :o)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Historic Jakarta

I was warned that there wasn't much to do in Jakarta, but when I saw that there was a historic section, I figured it would definitely be worth checking out. The tour included seeing Jakarta's China town, port, museums that used to be Dutch government buildings, and a flea market/fish market. All these places and buildings were built between the 17th and 18th Centuries. Citi was my guide again, and she said that Jakarta is nicknamed Old Amsterdam because it resembles the Dutch city. I haven't been outside the airport in Amsterdam, but I'm pretty certain the buildings there are better maintained than the ones here are. Of course, that often happens that old palaces and structures built by the colonisers are either totally abandoned or used for other purposes once the colony gains independence and the colonisers leave. Many buildings are like that in India, I find, too, and in Mexico, I can't even say I saw one building that still exists from the Spanish era, although I'm sure some exist, only that I never saw them.

I didn't take any pictures of China town, although I would have liked to, but I already really stuck out, and people were constantly trying to get me to buy stuff, and it was crowded and narrow, and I didn't feel comfortable taking out my camera to show everyone! Maybe one day I'll get to go to China anyway and get pictures of the original country.

The first museum is of the old Dutch city hall and showcases a number of old furniture items and ceramics. The jail was also there, and aside from the front of city hall where they would do public beheadings, prisoners would either be confined to dark, short rooms with little ventilation or would be sent to the "basement" that was half-filled with water, so prisoners would drown if they sat down. Citi told me that so many people would die in the dark rooms because of the heat, and in the water jail, they died from illness because they had to urinate and defecate in the water they lived in. It's pretty disgusting, and she told me with pride how great it was to be free from Dutch control. It was the Japanese who took control from the Dutch, and knowing how Japanese colonisation wasn't usually a bowl of cherries either, I'm not sure which would have been worse, but Indonesia finally gained independence from everyone in 1945.

After the city hall museum was a tour of the puppet museum. This, I have to say, was really interesting. I was perfectly primed for this museum after having been exposed to the puppets in a movie I had seen in my hotel room in Hong Kong, right before I arrived in Jakarta! It's a really old Mel Gibson film called The Year of Living Dangerously, and I highly recommend it as it opened my eyes to not only the puppets, but some of the political turmoil in 20th Century, post-colonial Indonesia. I thought it was great timing, considering I didn't know much about Indonesia before I came, aside from the fact that it was a Dutch colony that lead to the creation of the Dutch East Indies Company that also had British rule for a short time as well as having Hindu and Muslim roots at some point. You can read more about Indonesia's history in a Wiki entry, although for some reason, it doesn't include any info about the British being here. Citi confirmed there was a short period of British rule, so I know I'm not mistaken. To get back to the puppets, they're quite interesting. All the flat ones you see (photos forthcoming) are made from buffalo leather, and the sticks that control their movements are made from the horns of the buffalo. I bought some tiny re-creations of them. The guy at the gift shop is apparently Citi's friend, and he claimed his grandfather makes them and that it would be a really big honour for me to buy one because the grandfather is old and can't make so many of them anymore. He said he's the 4th generation of puppet-makers in his family. Who knows if it's just a story. The problem when you're on these tours is that you have to assume they're selling you a story, but regardless, the puppets look cool, and I didn't mind buying a small set, which I will frame.

The port wasn't quite as exciting as I had hoped; there are so many gigantic boats in the way that you don't get to see the ocean, and there are so many trucks still hauling stuff from the boats that all you smell is dust and exhaust, not the beautiful smell of ocean mist. But it was interesting to learn that the boats are still in use today, still exporting spices and other goods as the Dutch began doing more than 300 years ago. You can actually go on to one of the boats if you like, but I thought better of it because all you have to walk on are some old, narrow, wooden planks that are somewhat precariously placed, and I wasn't about to risk falling into the water. Besides, I felt really conspicuous there as it didn't seem to be the place for women around all these sailor-type men, and it was a little uncomfortable for me.

Finally, the flea market tour was great, and I did manage to get some photos of that. It's a pretty decrepit place, but if I lived here, there are definitely some items I would want to buy from there. They even had an instrument shop, but I refrained from buying anything or even looking. I figured Citi would try to get me to buy something I didn't want, and I don't know if the instruments would be good quality anyway.

So that's pretty much it for my mini-tour of Indonesia. I've already become quite fascinated with the country, and I'm thinking I need to come back and see more and learn more. I think one of the things that interests me the most is that the country has such a multicultural history, and yet you don't find much evidence that they mixed biologically. The remnants of the Indian traders who came here is the widespread change of religion to Islam, and in some cases, Hinduism. Some people in some parts of the country still maintain Portuguese names according to that Wiki entry, but perhaps that's the only place where you might see people who look mixed, I don't know. The remnants of the lengthy Dutch colonisation appear to be mostly gastronomical as they have some great pastries here, and perhaps also architectural to some extent, but there isn't anything else very obvious. There is no real evidence of the British or Japanese influence. You would think with all these different influences, the people here would reflect that mixed history in their appearance like they do in Latin America, but they still look like all other Austronesian people. That's why I'd like to see more of the country to see if and where genetic differences exist. Hopefully in the future!

I actually saw lions and tigers and bears...

I had a free weekend in Jakarta, so rather than go to Bali, which was my original plan, I decided to save a bit of money and do some sightseeing in and around Jakarta after learning the hotel I'm staying in can book excursions and day trips for their guests. So on Saturday, I decided to go on one excursion that takes you outside of Jakarta to the south of the city and go on a safari tour, see a tea plantation, and a botanical garden.

I learned that Saturdays are terrible days to go to Puncak, where the tea plantation is and where the safari is. Much of Jakarta's elite have weekend villas and houses and leave on Saturday morning to get there for the weekend. So there ended up being lots and lots of traffic, and we did end up wasting probably around 2 hours in total during the day just sitting in traffic. I'll know for next time that I should try to have a free day on a weekday if I want to do that again--and I do want to go that way again, which I'll get to in a moment.

The safari was really fun but not quite what I was hoping for. I should have known that because it was called a "safari zoo" in tour brochure that it would not be like the African safaris, where you view wildlife on a game reserve. I was hoping this would be a game reserve, too, especially as I know Indonesia has enough species of interesting wild animals that are likely also under threat of extinction, such as elephants and tigers. What happens is that you drive on this road through the whole zoo/park, and the animals for the most part are out in the open. You see zebras, giraffes, elephants, bears, hippos, alligators, oxen, antelope, deer, emus, ostriches, llamas, a couple of different kinds of monkeys (orangutans and another kinds I can't identify), tapirs, kangaroos, lions, tigers, panthers, leopards, and various birds. For some parts, the animals are sectioned off by moats, generally if they're dangerous, like the wild cats or orangutans, but they're still out in the open, and you can get pretty good pictures of them. Most of the other animals will come right up to the car, and you can feed them carrots and/or bananas, which are for sale in abundance as you drive up to the safari. It's pretty fun, but at the same time, it seems pretty unhealthy for these animals to be eating all the time, and the orangutans were especially rounded. I know some of them were really old, too, but even still, their potbellies were pretty big pots.

They have a baby animal zoo, which you think would be more like a petting zoo for kids, but basically you get to have your picture taken with baby animals, and I got mine taken with a white tiger cub and a slightly older leopard. I have to say, both of them were pretty smelly, and the fur of tiger cubs, despite looking so soft and fuzzy, is actually more like the roughness that some dog breeds have. But that part was fun. The safari on the whole is a nice experience, but I had to put aside how badly I felt for the animals. Some of them get to roam pretty freely while others don't get the space they would normally need to jump and run around to stay physically fit. The fatter they are, the less dangerous they are, but at the end of the day, I think I could sacrifice my enjoying them knowing they would be happier in a wildlife sanctuary or game reserve.

After the safari, we went up the mountain for lunch. You start to see hills and hills of tea leaves. Sadly, the air doesn't smell like tea, but I guess it's not in its drinkable form yet, so you're not going to smell it. In any case, the lunch was really good, but I had thought that I was actually going to get a tour of the tea plantation itself. After I re-read the tour brochure, I saw that it didn't really state that you would go to the plantation; I had only assumed that, so it was my fault for assuming. I really wanted to buy tea from there, and I did notice on the drive back toward the botanical garden in Bogor that the plantation offers tours, so that's why I want to head back out this way next time I'm here if possible, so that I can see the factory in operation and hopefully buy some tea. The plantation is called Wisata Agro Ganung Mas.

The last stop of the tour was in Bogor, as I mentioned, with a tour of a botanical garden there. It seems likely that the gardens were made for the Dutch government officials as a large "White House" of sorts is located to one side of the gardens. The guide, Citi, told me there weren't too many flowers but that there were a lot of big, old trees. She wasn't kidding. Some of them were planted when the Dutch set up shop in that presidential palace, and considering they had arrived there in the mid 1600s, some of these trees were at least 300 years old. I saw trees that were older than the entire country of Canada! It was pretty impressive, and many of them had been brought from all over, like Ceibu trees from South America, for example. It would have been a nice place to just spend some time walking around and enjoying the fresh air, but the tour doesn't really allow for it, and also, I was pretty exhausted by that point because we had spent a long time in traffic coming down the mountain. That drive would usually have taken about 30-45 minutes, and I think we spent about 1.5 hours because we could only drive about 10-20km/h the majority of the way.

Pics will be posted when I return from my trip in November, so let my stories prepare you for now!

A short entry on Bandung

I can't really say a lot about Bandung because I didn't really do any sightseeing there. I was in Bandung for work, and basically as soon as my last event was done, I went back to Jakarta. I was able to do a lot of shopping there, though. They have tons of factory outlets where you can find brands like Ralph Lauren and Burberry for really cheap because these designers get their clothing manufactured here, and the flawed items end up getting sold right here in Bandung at a fraction of the cost. Some of the stuff is apparently really good knock-offs, mainly the purses, but a lot of times, they're still really good quality. Like you can still get a Prada purse in leather or Louis Vuitton, and where usually these bags could cost you thousands, here, you can get them for around $100 US or less. So I ended up getting a lot of gifts for people here.

I learned today, actually, that there is a volcano near Bandung with hot springs and stuff, so maybe next time I'll check that out. It's amazing how many things there are to do in Java alone, and that doesn't include any other island, like Sumatra or Bali or anywhere else.

One thing I can say about Indonesia generally, because I got to try a couple of different places for local food, is that the food is really yummy, and they have iced tea here that actually tastes like fresh, cold tea. It's almost like having a sweet tea when you're in the South in the US. It's very tasty and refreshing, but I'm still on the lookout for some fresh, cold soy milk on the street.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Back to Southeast Asia

It has been a long time since my last entry here. The last time I travelled, I went to L.A., which I didn't enjoy too much because I had to drive around a lot there, and traffic is so heavy almost all the time that I just got frustrated by driving and would return to the hotel exhausted each day. I didn't even do anything interesting outside of my work activities just because I didn't want to have to drive to get there.

But now my work travels bring me back to Southeast Asia, where I get to add a new country to my reperatoire, Indonesia. I'll have more pics and stories about it soon enough, but for now, what I want to do is give some advice: try not to fly with United on a long haul trip. I imagine other US airlines are the same, but I was surprised to learn that they don't have individual TV screens for each passenger. I was looking forward to catching up on my movies, which is usually the only time I get caught up with what's current in life! The other really disappointing part was the big lack of food. I didn't even bring anything to snack on this time because I'm so used to flying with various Asian airlines for my long haul trips that usually feed you to death, so I was expecting to be stuffed. My flight was boarding at 1pm, so I figured I wouldn't get lunch, just a snack and then supper, so I bought lunch at the airport in San Francisco. My flight ended up departing 45 minutes late, but despite that, they served lunch. I didn't take lunch this time around because I wasn't hungry as I'd already eaten. But had I known that was to be my only meal, I would have taken it! The only other thing they served us (about 7 hours after lunch) was a bowl of instant noodles, to which they had to add boiling water, and then about an hour before we landed (the entire trip across the ocean from SF to Hong Kong is just under 14 hours), they gave us rice with a small amount of some nasty carrot curry with a couple of little lemon-flavoured cookies.

At least my flight from Hong Kong to Jakarta was interesting, though by that time I was on Cathay with my own TV screen. I met this interesting individual who works in forensics and has worked with the FBI, the CIA, Interpol, and has been chased by mafias from various countries, one of which even killed two people that worked for him. I wondered how I could get his job!

More on Indonesia in a bit!