Steve Sutton blogs from Yogyakarta


Steve Sutton blogs from Yogyakarta

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By Steve Sutton

Tourism at Mount Merapi

I just thought I might make a loose, 'stream-of-consciousness' report just to keep you updated, letting you know I am alive and the research project is proceeding.  I will try to keep it interesting.

As you know I am in Yogyakarta studying Indonesian at the Realia Institute for Language and Culture.  I was put onto this fine establishment by none other than Andrew Campbell who indicated he had been here and further that it was the place Australia sent its diplomats in need of Indonesian language skills.

Realia is quite amazing.  I have been here a week now and whilst I still struggle to 'hear' the full meaning of an ultra high-speed data packet typical of the local vernacular, I can now consistently make my self understood - albeit with a little sign language.  My teachers have been outstanding, one gets a separate guru for each of three two-hour sessions a day.  After six hours I find I really need to 'decompress' and indeed the last half hour before the final bell is a bit tough - I seem to forget my English as well as any Indonesian I may have osmotically absorbed.

Realia is planning a 'field trip' for me, tailored to my language development as well as my research needs.  At the moment they have indicated that they are working on a meeting with some officers from the disaster agency.  Looking forward to that.

In my 'down time' I have been having to a) find sustenance b) get some exercise and c) think about the research project d) read and f) do a bit of sightseeing (relevant if I can get it).

I am happy to report that I have been on two sightseeing adventures and both related to bencana (disasters).  My first trip was to Merapi and the Merapi museum.  A truly remarkable spectacle.  The classically conical strato-volcano rises out of lush forest through which narrow roads connect small villages and farms.  Life goes on under the eaves of the vented cloud that spouts from the summit.  Toursim is big, but the soil and the rain are so good that agricultural activity is dominant.  It also means that while evidence of the destruction of buildings is easy to find, there is not a lot of evidence of the destruction of trees and forest.  In only five years most of the landscape is covered and if there is re-growth it is now seven or ten metres tall with a thick understorey. 

There is some evidence of increased focus on disaster preparation.  Clear markers for evacuation shelters, the Merapi museum trumpets training for disaster prevention and so on.  It does however 'feel' a bit superficial and it will be interesting to see if research, say following up on (Sagala and Paton 2009), shows that there has been improvement.  Interestingly, there is one story that may have had an impact.  This is of the spiritual 'guardian of Merapi'  Mbah Marijdjan, formally appointed so by the Sultan.  The Sultan himself is a very popular and well-resepcted figure.  He is also the governor and the people of Yogya want it that way.  Needless tis that the respect flowing to the Sultan for the 83 year old 'guardian' was substantial.  Maridjan's home was less than 5km from the summit and in 2006 he refused to leave during an eruption.  Instead he made offerings around the crater.  His refusal to leave prompted many other families to stay as well.  He was subsequently in a later event burned and spent some months in hospital.  He again refused to leave in 2010 and was killed in a pyroclastic flow. It is not clear whether the other deaths (about 350) were due to his leadership.

Interestingly, the people I have spoken with, when pursued indicate that they think Maridjan was a bit of an idiot.  They don't express this at first however, politely showing the respect required.  But when they have warmed to the conversation they do incline their head and indicate that, given the reports of scientists and the animals, what he did was a bit stupid.

My second trip was a morning outing to Borobudur.  This is a truly remarkable place.  Don't believe me ask UNESCO .  It was 'discovered' by Raffles in the early 1800s and excavated from the ash.  I can't find detail (yet) on how deep the ash was at that time, if like Pompeii the top of a stupa was sticking out or someting, but it is recorded that the whole place was covered to a depth of about 5cm by a single ashfall in 2010. (Importantly for conservation purposes, this ash gets in the stone gaps in the blockwork paving and acting like cement causes drainage problems.  A major project was initiated to clean it out).  Managing water in the massive structure is critical to its long-term conservation.  The temple is stunning and has a grand view of Merapi a bit over 40km away.  It is suggested, although not certain, that the original abandonment of the temple was due to volcanic activity 800 years ago.

Borobudur as metaphor with Mount Merapi 40km in background

Indeed even the matters a) and b) above, which I have combined by taking a long walk each night, have resulted in making progress on c).  Indonesians, well certainly the Javanese, are a remarkably friendly and inquisitive lot.  Many exclaim 'hey mister' or 'hallo' and often wave you over for a chat. Inevitably the chat is about where you are from, where you are going and why you are here (questions about family often follow).  And they are amazingly pleased when I stumble through some torturously slow Indonesian explanation.  If the subject turns to bencana, there is always a marked turn in the conversation with the local moved to make recommendations rather than ask questions - given that they live under the volcano's shadow.  I must visit the museum. I need to look at Merapi.  Did you know 3,000 cows died and hundreds of people.  Is it the same as the Australian "knowledge" of bushfire? Who knows?

On the way back from Merapi, my driver seemed somewhat disconcerted at the traffic.  It was slow and progress was not going well.  Out of the blue he asked "do you want to go to a wedding?".  "Sure" I said, "When?". "Now" he said.  After some discussion about how appropriate it was for me, a balanda and stranger turning up unannounced (and me thinking it was all turning into a plot for an American comedy movie) it became clear that the driver moonlighted as a musician and was very close to being late for a performance at a wedding.  My clothes he assured me were fine.

We got to the wedding and he set up a keyboard and provided keyboard accompaniment to two incredibly decorated and gorgeous women, and one less ornamented man.  They played very well and the trio worked through a set of very pleasant, albeit cheesy tunes.  I will happily tell you more about that another time, but I took the time to reflect on the communal nature of Javanese society.  There was a huge amount of emphasis on family and unity.  All of the bridal party - on both sides of the family were (immaculately) dressed in the same clothes.  A second group of rellies were similarly, although slightly less ornately, attired.  Many of the guests were dressed in clothes made from the same material.  Husbands and wives, and where present the kids, dressed in complementary and matching outfits.  All singing along to the cheese, while the bridal party imitated a 'step class' getting up and down from their thrones for photos with a stream of guests that went on for an hour and a half.  There was a huge amount of food and I was encouraged to dig in.  I debated the appropriateness but reluctantly agreed.  It was delicious.

There is of course, a well-documented emphasis on those two themes, togetherness and families.  The main pastime here seems to be "hanging out".  There are gatherings every night in streets all through the suburb and many appear to be arranged to formally discuss 'issues'.  It's hard to express, but we just don't have and equivalent arrangement in Australia.

Merapi evacuation sign - no translation needed!

One final story that really impresses the locals.  On Friday night I walked to the main street for dinner and made my way to a food court with a tepanyaki grill.  Three locals are sitting at the grill and one gestures to join him.  So I do. I have the chicken and we chat.  His English is pretty good, although his mate to left can't speak a word.  The mate does speak some Japanese and plays golf, so we talked about that for a bit.  Turns out they both went to Japan in relation to my hosts business interests to do with forestry or timber or some such.  It was all very collegial and when we had finished my host indicated that his friend had been the Mayor of Yogyakarta.  I was impressed and said so as I shook hands while thinking that the businessman was pretty well connected.  I'm not into selfies so we 'cheerioed' and off they went.

The next day in the Merapi museum, there to my surprise in one of the thousands of photos was one of several men inspecting a laboratory, and my host was in the middle of the photo.  I figured he must be important, and maybe well known.  There was no caption so I took a snap of the photo so I could ask at the hotel. I forgot about it due to the wedding.  I went to hotel reception later in the afternoon and took out the iphone and asked if anyone knew who 'this bloke was'.  Yes they all replied, that is the Sultan.

"I had dinner with him last night" I said.


Sagala, S., Norio  and O. D. Paton (2009). "Predictor of Intention to Prepare for Volcanic Risks in Mt Merapi, Indonesia." Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology 3(No.2): 47-54.