A story about cross-cultural exchange, eating and drawing in two parts, recently published in the ‘gang re:Publik‘ anthology. To see pics of Pemandangan itu sangat kabur, the work discussed in Part 1, click here.
Beyond the clumsy groupings of bored tourists weighed down by daypacks and camera lenses, the mist hangs thick and recalcitrant as a giant plume of car exhaust. Snippets of hopeful conversation in French or German or English tumble over the metal railings, followed by tentative pink arms gesturing into the whiteness. In the centre of the concrete viewing platform, Djuadi sits quietly sculpting bits of rubbish into sparkling flower brooches, food wrappers collected between the carpark and this bench spilling out of a plastic bag beside him. We’ve come here on a peculiar kind of outing, in part to see the three notable rocky outcrops that bring the busloads here, but also to see the bush, to form a starting point for our ‘collaborative micro-residency experiment’ that can be marked out on a map, traced in coloured pencil on a sheet of heavy, oversized paper as blank as the clouds stretched out beneath us.
The Indonesians arrived last night, bringing with them kecap manis and tobacco and a bubbling Bahasa chatter that for Karl draws invisible pictures in the air of trips to East Java as a child, of mountains and relatives and too much food. This time he and I are the hosts to friends with another language on their lips, and though warmly introduced we have until now never met. Between bottles of beer and plates of fried noodles and sambal stains, useful words were snatched from the air and pinned down to be tasted and made real. Menggambar (to draw), pohon (tree), teko (teapot), kebun raya (botanic garden).
On this grey mid-morning neither our companions nor a fraying and rather heavy ‘Indonesian-English Dictionary’ can settle on a single word for ‘mist’. We can however note confidently that ‘the view was very hazy’ (pemandangan itu sangat kabur). When the clouds dissolve and the open sky begins to blister, we are back around the house, walking a fire trail above dry heath scrub before descending the slippery stone steps of the Cascades, clutching pens and charcoal and our oddly folded maps that have caught lines and shapes and coloured dirt along the way. Revised vocabularies bounce softly off giant tree ferns and rocks covered with damp green moss. Later we will eat barbequed sate ayam beside wilted strawberries in the front yard.
Six finished pieces of paper travel ahead of us back to Sydney fitted snug in a dented Globite suitcase of uncanny proportions, headed for a laneway in Redfern that is set to be transformed into a teeming kampung for ‘Art Day is Today’. As the Gang team skates around bursting rain clouds we are still at some altitude, hastily packing for a longer and altogether more hazardous passage.
One day later we are on a plane passing high over pools of glassy ink that eat away the edges of the continent and seep into an iridescent ocean. In my lap I have a thin, photocopied booklet with the title Welcome to Malang behind a broken pink plastic cover. Some Essential Daily Expressions include the words for ‘get an accident’ (mendapat kecelakaan), ‘die instantly’ (meninggal seketika), ‘be amputated’ (diamputasi), ‘mountainous area’ (daerah pegunungan), ‘foreigner’ (orang asing) and ‘What is the special food of Malang?’ (Apa makanan khas kota Malang?). Karl provides relics of a five year-old’s repertoire, Saya mau makkan (‘I’m hungry’), Saya kenyang (‘I’m full’), Saya mau tidur (‘I’m tired’). That night there is the first round of names and banana leaf parcels of spicy nasi pecel waiting on the table. I sleep in a room on the sixth floor without windows and believe the gurgling air-conditioner is falling rain.
In Surabaya, as everywhere, we move in circles circumscribed by the family, who pluck us from one heat and pollution and danger-proof bubble and deposit us in another. At the second in a string of aunties’ homes, a party is held in honour of Karl’s first visit to the island in over two decades, and his coinciding birthday. The house is whitewashed and serene, perched in a sweet-smelling back alley and blooming with a potted jungle, birds in tiny cages and a turtle in a bathtub. From the cool stone verandah I can see the tips of the clouds start to darken and turn pink as the call to prayer winds tendrils of spicy sweetmeats and faraway towers through the tall gates. Soon relatives start streaming in with plates of ikan bilis, soto, ayam bumbu rujak, mounds of krupuk and es cendol and noodles for good luck and a long life. The evening turns on the axis of staggered language lessons delivered by an eight year-old cousin who makes sure that amidst the cacophony of unfamiliar consonants and screeches of laughter I master, among other things, basics like buku (book), pintu (door), belajar (learn), and bunga (flower).
The following day we are driven to Malang through a never-ending stream of decaying buildings, people selling, buying, begging. A popular spectacle along the way is the lumpur, an ‘accidental’ lake of volcanic mud released some years ago by an Indonesian-Australian company drilling for gas. Thus far sixteen villages have been subsumed by this grey, steaming mass, and from its makeshift banks we observe pieces of homes poking out at awkward angles from a flat, sparkling expanse that stretches to the horizon.
By the time we come to thinner mountain air it is late and there is another full table of specially prepared dishes, tempe, fried beancurd, cassava and martabak, thick pancakes filled with peanut butter and chocolate that finally reduce us to water and rice for the next forty-eight hours. This auntie’s house squats in a back lane of solid walls and heavy metal gates that have supplanted the rice fields Karl remembers playing in. Inside, there is an unbelievably large TV and a tiny turtle in a bowl, and indescribable mirth at our attempts to mouth properly in dialect matur suwun (‘thank you’). Another aunt in town has a corner shop and living quarters that cling like lichen to the shoulder of her winding street. Despite our lack of shared words I like her and am pleased to say easily senang jumpa lagi (‘happy to see you again’). We sit in the elbow of a miniature room and eat more krupuk while a small dog nips at our ankles and she talks with Karl’s mother quick and opaque.
A week later we find ourselves in Blitar, where we stay with a cousin in an old house with shadow puppets painted on the front wall and a smoky bakery off the courtyard. Every morning neat boxes of bright pink bursting cupcakes or pandan rolls or plastic-wrapped pastries with perky spring onion tails pass through the side gate on their way to somewhere else. Other lines of traffic criss-cross the courtyard too: trains shake the house as they rush past, an ancient great aunt moves slowly indoors and out, and at noon we watch the rain arrive while sipping thick, sweet coffee. Orchids hang from the eaves and Karl’s mother tells us she’d pick thousands upon thousands of flowers to sell to the flower sellers for the graveyard, and if she was lucky she would make enough to buy nasi pecel.
When our presence in town alarms local authorities I am tucked into a bakery worker’s bed while police search the house, and then with hurried goodbyes we are bundled back to Surabaya to meet the Argo Bromo Anggrek, the ‘orchid’ train that will take us from one end of the island to the other, touching a swirling black ocean and inching over muddy tracts of banjir, banjir (‘flood’). This time I am introduced to the madness of that city’s night-time traffic and a nearby kampung on the back of a motorbike with the eight year-old’s father, who along the way points out to me the drug rehabilitation centre and his son’s school, then stops to buy us a plastic bag of charcoal-hot peanuts.
Arriving in Jakarta we disappear to the Kebun Raya Bogor to draw, but the City of Rain and huge mosquitos with pendulous bellies keep us taking steady, squelchy steps through the pulpy undergrowth and wet sprouting vines, the tropical hothouse and across manicured lawns, holding sheets of damp paper under umbrellas to dry syrupy lines of ink. As heavy iron gates start closing we inspect museum dioramas of stuffed birds with beady, frozen eyes and rows of pinned insects. Karl’s fashion designer cousin is bemused at our insistence on coming here, but nonetheless delivers and collects us, helped by two softly-spoken boys who make jokes and clothes and business arrangements.
There is one last table laden with the small plates that combine to make soto ayam, and the requisite aunt who has prepared it, waiting for us in Denpasar. Her husband has an orchid house in the yard and shows us each and every bloom, mumbling gently in words that still bounce off like raindrops on glass. I tell him we like plants too, but get ‘you’ and ‘we’ mixed up and realise afterwards I have insisted ‘you like plants!’ instead. I find this slippage disconcerting, as though it is me who is cultivated in a glasshouse, windows misted up and fronds flailing.
Coming through Australian customs, keen-eyed officers politely confiscate last night’s leftovers of bebek betutu (smoky roast duck) and coconut sambal, a specialty of the mountainous town where we have just spent a few precious days in hiding from tourist landmarks, more family and makan, makan lagi.
Words and illustrations by Tessa Rapaport, Feb – June 2008