Monday, October 11, 2010

The minutiae of place

A couple Fulbright friends made their way to Magelang this weekend and we set out Sunday morning for the Dieng Plateau, a high and dry land of terraced fields, smoldering volcanic craters, metal-hued lakes, and squat, 9th century Hindu temples. It's arguably the coldest place in Java--maybe in all of Indonesia--and when we stepped out of the car following a sometimes harrowing three-hour ride, the air hit us like a very welcome bit of Northern Wisconsin. Oh, that was nice. Honestly, it felt like a very good late morning in Baileys Harbor or Eagle River, cool and bright, the sky a crisp blue and clouds cleanly white. The sunlight even looked different, and not just because it had rained every day for more than two weeks and I'd grown used to the gloaming. The light hit a little yellow, just right, ripening an already very green scene. Verdant. Earthy.

We headed for a loop around Telaga Warna, or Colored Lake, named for the prismatic rainbows that sometimes bounce off the sulphuric water when the sun hits it just so. We didn't see rainbows but we did see very green hues. Ambling along an improved trail that cut through some brushy woods, with the breeze coming up light and chill, the lake almost looked and felt like the Upper Midwest. We could have left and headed for a supper club.

From the lake, we made our way to Kawah Sikidang, a fairly typical Indonesian volcanic crater/tourist site: yellowed moonscape, steam venting off into the blue, crowds milling around bored with their own pictures.

What's different and pretty freaking wild about Kawah Sikidang is the broiling mud pit. Furious liquid death. Bubbling, churning, splashing gas-mud, sloshing around inside a little pond about 100 feet by 40. Steam roiling off the stuff, a makeshift little bamboo railing separating us and three dozen other visitors from a scalding end. Very impressive.

Afterward, we haggled a little with vendors at a nearby tourist market but nobody was in much of a buying mood. And the prices were pretty rigidly fixed.

We traveled to Dieng with a guide I'd met through a friend and he next took us to see several Hindu sites at the Arjuna temple complex. The guide is a friendly and of course smiling guy but he had two mildly maddening professional habits. First, he liked to disappear a little. Maybe to make a phone call. Maybe to chat with other guides. Maybe to daydream about the fine teas of nearby Wonosobo, or about the drooping flower trees whose leaves he said could be dried and smoked for a high the same as marijuana. Sometimes this disappearing act was no biggie--none of us needed to be lead around every site and relic--but other times it would have been nice to have him explain, say, the general history of the area.

Having said that, I have to acknowledge that it was sometimes better when he wasn't explaining things like general history. The real trouble with his style as a guide to history and historical objects is that he's almost completely fact-averse. Yes, he can talk about the mythological voodoo of long lost Java--an unsequenced litany of brave princes done wrong by beautiful princesses, of conquering rulers watched over by lion-creatures, of vague-ishly vague vaguery. And he can talk about the names and details of several temples. Lots of detail about the names, especially. They come from the Hindu Mahabharata epic (the same story told in the local leather puppet shows) and he wanted us to know each and every one. Sometimes even when we'd asked a different question. But he mostly avoided the harder ground of names and dates and anything like a historical narrative.

I've had the same experience, admittedly in more manageable doses, during battlefield tours at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Sometimes a site-specific guide is just too wrapped up in the minutiae of a place to provide a meaningful, cogent, historically minded overview ("The Third Artillery was using 10-pound guns made of polished Virginia steel; they had rifled barrels on two of five guns and the others were smoothbore ...") but Mas Aris took this to excruciating lengths. He just snowed us under. And when he wasn't snowing, he was dodging. Some of this was a language issue. His English is pretty good but has some holes, and obviously our Indonesian is nowhere near as good as his English. But this wasn't just a language issue. Aris, who exactly built these temples? The Hindus. And who were they; where did they come from? There are different informations, Mr. Brett. They say they came from the Indian dynasty and then to Java. They say. Who is they? The Javanese. And where do they say it? That depends, Mr. Brett.

So we learned a little bit about the place--probably not enough--and Mas Aris was friendly if enervating, and he made sure we got to see several temples and other objects, as the locals call the sites, before heading back home for an early morning date with sunrise at Borobudur.


  1. Two questions:
    1. Is that last picture an ancient port-a-potty?
    2. Do you ever have to work, or is it just one big field trip?

  2. 1. I wondered about the last pic. It's an alter of sorts; the flowers are offerings, and there's some wax on there from candles.

    2. I'm really sorry about the travel stuff. Would you like me to post some lesson plans?

  3. 1. Possibly an early competitor to Oui Oui enterprises?

    2. Yes, please post your lesson plans for the week, plus 1-2 page reflections that include, a)did the lessons go as planned? b)what would you change the next time you teach the lesson? c) the modifications you made to include students at all learning levels.

    Ugh, I got the chills just writing out that fake assignment.

    Just making sure you're actually working, because if it's just travel I'd like to go "teach" in Indonesia myself.