Julie Gaynes '13: Search for Cleaner Air: A Tale of Sincerity from Central Java

Julie Gaynes was the 2014-2016 Shansi Fellow at Gadjah Mada University. This is her first year narrative.

There was some poetry to the eruption, particularly in the way it shut me in on Valentine’s Day among ash that stuffed up Yogyakarta like dust in a box. Perhaps this was why, after being woken up in the early morning by messages warning me to shut my doors and windows, I walked out onto my balcony, breathed in the gray, and smiled.


Mount Merapi sent me a cliché-free “disaster” that morning. I sat through it, sketching images from National Geographic next to a bowl of cornflakes and chocolate milk, taking note as hours passed of particles that floated in through the ventilation passages and that rested, furtively, in layers atop my apartment surfaces. The keys above my refrigerator camouflaged with their tray. A slate-colored shade blanketed my teaching materials, laptop, nightgown, so that it all looked like a scene out of Film Noir, and I was the cool detective with nothing to search for.


For two days it went like this. I made no effort to clean up due to my fascination with the volcanic aftermath and the softness it distributed. There was a relief in feeling that I did not need to run around my city to immerse myself in the Indonesian experience. No; there it was, settling inside my nose.


For those of you appalled at my lack of self-care, I assure you I will not blame Shansi for whatever damage my lungs might have suffered during those fifty-or-so odd hours, and promise that I will redeem in myself in this narrative by telling of motorcycle breezes and unforeseen intimacy.


On the 16th of February, just two days after the eruption, around a dozen young men and women entered my apartment. Outside, the concrete roads were still hidden beneath fallen ash, and the volcanic particles that had collected on the branches of trees let fly their clusters, wafting into the eyes of uncovered faces. By this time I had learned to shut my windows.


My guests and I intended to leave the city. It seemed outlandish to travel that day, but also a valiant undertaking in which we aimed to free ourselves from pollution that after several days without rain infiltrated the air with a stubborn concentration. Now that the novelty of our “Indonesian snowscape” had gone, the experience of breathing had become noticeably less enjoyable, and the need for fresh oxygen—vital.


Several weeks earlier, before anyone might have predicted the eruption, I was invited to partake on this outing by a new friend named Alva. She extended the invitation over tempeh at a street stand after I interviewed her about her spiritual views. Alva looked like an ordinary, small-boned, cute-faced college youth, but within my far-fetched dreams to assimilate she held broader potential for friendship that than any Indonesian woman I had ever met.


For starters, Alva was honest with herself. Although she was the veiled type who walked with her feet as opposed to her hips, she confided that upon shifting cultural contexts she would consider changing her sheltered ways. She was a Smurf-loving musician who ate vegetarian upon principle and who wasted no energy aspiring to be “feminine.” As opposed to most Javanese women and men who approached their respective desires with careful advances, she grasped what she craved and asserted what she wished. After spending eight months in Java, even I had grown too shy to snatch the last cookies on the table, and admired this younger woman who moved freely within a culture of self-restraint that still baffled me.


Now it was eight in the morning and we were ready to go. After a short prayer in which we piled our hands together like Power Rangers, we strapped on surgical masks and hopped on motorbikes. As we pulled out of my driveway, we noted that the streets were mostly empty. White volcanic deposit rose and fell with the wind patterns, cushioning sounds to create a Twilight-Zone-ish silence.


Our destination was Purbalingga. Although not much might be said about the city of Purbalingga besides its wealth of fruit, we headed there because we intended to visit the childhood home of a young man named Desta who, like the other travelers, was a senior member of a student gamelan group called “Prasasti”. While the members of Prasasti originally met through the University’s English department, they developed into a family strengthened by mutual love for art and Javanese culture, which they aimed to preserve through contemporary gamelan composition. Gamelan need not fade as a tired musical genre; rather, it had the potential to viscerally affect the globalized generation, and it was this message that our team intended to deliver to Desta’s city in Central Java.


As we traveled further from my apartment, the air and streets became cleaner. The scenery displayed a variety of colors almost too bright to be real. Our train of motorbikes passed farms that grew every crop: cabbage, corn, wheat, chili, tomatoes, rice. In each of these fields farmers moved leisurely, seemingly at peace with their labor. Sometimes we saw men and women relaxing on wooden platforms beneath brimmed hats, leaning back on slender arms, blending in with the serene hills that never ceased changing shape. Beyond us were mountains concealed by clouds and, as we climbed in altitude, little villages snugged inside valleys.


At one point along the journey, we stopped at a street-side hut overlooking a hillside cabbage farm. We took pictures of ourselves eating food. I worried that my smiles were too self-conscious (they were), and that these pictures might expose how desperate I was to be one of them. My friendship with these people was budding but tentative, and I feared the tiniest hint of pathetic sentiment might cause them to lose respect for me forever.


Four hours after leaving Yogyakarta, we passed a road-sign that read “Purbalingga.” We passed business buildings, a high school, a mosque, until we at last arrived in a driveway. Middle-aged women in pink veils shepherded us into a guestroom full of comics and Islamic journals, and high school photographs of Desta in which he looked just a little bit fat. Sitting out were jarred snacks and plates of fried bananas, and my Indonesian friends funneled the snacks into their mouths as if their stomachs were machine disposals.


We moved next door to the guesthouse, where a table of homemade cuisine waited for us (this—mind you—at the odd hour of 3pm and after snacking nonstop for at least two hours). Alva stepped forward to distribute the food into each person’s plate, at which point a spiky-haired young man commented that she would make a great wife someday. He looked up and said this with great sincerity, as if he were professing faith in her ability to single-handedly change the world. Alva bowed away without expression, and I wondered if in Indonesia being a wife and changing the world meant the same thing.


Familiar chat persisted without effort. I, straggling, felt compelled to participate. But by this time I had only been in the country for eight months and, despite being able to communicate at a rudimentary level, informal “small talk” was well beyond my comprehension. I began to wonder what sites were on the agenda; we were, after all, only to stay in Purbalingga for two days. But the conversations never paused and the day grew dark, and I began to realize, in a somewhat stealthy epiphany, that as long as we kept good company, having an agenda was a bit superfluous.


Later that night, Desta turned on a playlist of Asian pop songs and we played cards around a floor-table. Instantaneously, my participation became fluid. Prasasti had a custom of smearing baby powder over the faces of those who lost at cards. Bagas, Andri, Hygna, Ratna had all been splotched. Then I lost. I could see the others hesitating: fingers tipped with fresh powder, hovering near my face, nearly retreating, expressions displaying careful consideration of whether to consider me youth or lecturer, friend or foreigner.


An hour later my forehead was slick with sweat and baby product. I walked to the bathroom to cleanse my face, and upon returning passed the kitchen. There I saw Desta reclining with his mother on a lounge mattress. She stroked his head as if he was a toddler, and he smiled there against her breast. Desta didn’t seem to notice me, but his mother heard my footsteps and locked her eyes with mine, smiling at something I wouldn’t understand for decades. To see a 22-year-old young man nestle against his mother was like seeing a cat contort itself to lick its own belly: strange and raw, but also perfect in its naked state.


Alva was sitting up in bed when I returned to the bedroom. After I had changed into my evening clothes, I sat next to her.


How do you feel? she asked.


I said I’d never felt as comfortable as this.


“Prasasti enjoys spending time with you,” she began, “but we’re hesitant to approach you. You’re a lecturer and we’re students, and in Indonesia that’s a big barrier to cross.”


Status, to me, was just a contextual formality; but how to explain this to someone raised in a culture in which respect meant everything, and furthermore implied separation? Was it a sin to befriend people my own age just because they studied within the classroom and I outside of it? The balance between being a professional and being a person had no center and no tipping point, and I constantly felt at a loss of where I should turn for honesty. For the past several months I had either hidden this honesty or spread it thin, and I was tired of not knowing where to set my weight.


Through the corner of my eye I watched Alva remove the Smurf pin that secured her veil. There was a flash of black as her hair was set loose, and she threw her head back onto the mattress and slept.


Most of my friends woke up to pray at dawn. By the time I woke up three hours later and ventured into the communal space, almost everyone had already gone out wandering. When they came back, we all left together for town.


Our first stop was Purbalingga’s Town Hall. The Town Hall was just a large pagoda with smaller administrative buildings on either end. We entered one of the small buildings where the Village Head was said to accept visitors. The Village Head turned out to be a relaxed-looking, overweight man who clearly considered art an afterthought. He was, however, concerned with the drainage of Javanese tradition and so listened to Prasasti’s suggestions with interest. Prasasti wanted to host a gamelan event in Purbalingga to encourage local children to continue musical tradition. Artless youths could learn the faster rhythms of the modern age through their own cultural context and, more importantly, share them. 


Sweating in a black overcoat, the Village Head escorted us to the next-door pagoda, where he showed us a gamelan set resembling a display of haunted toys. The members of Prasasti sat in front of the instruments and began to play. The sounds were dull at first, but after several minutes the gongs began to shake off their dust. The Village Head looked on and smoked a cigarette, then turned around to disappear to his duties. In the months to come, it was agreed that Prasasti would return for an audience.


In the afternoon, we ventured into a forest reserve with a rubble-packed road. I sat on the back of a motorbike of Boyo: a wide-set basketball player with a half-bald head who grinned like a schoolgirl. He balanced his bike on the rugged terrain with wide-legged poise, and asked if I had ever been on a ride like this in America. I laughed. To the sides of us were thick trees, mysterious flowers that emerged from bushes. Between precarious slips down dry riverbeds, Boyo and I had a candid discussion about stereotypes.


The rest of the day was marked by flies hovering over bowls of noodle soup and stops at various mosques attached to gas stations and public parks. At one point, we lounged in an empty guesthouse that had nothing in it but a floor-sized carpet depicting a tiger. I, tired at last from trying to filter a foreign language for over 48 hours, curled up on the cool cement and slept.


The next morning I felt inexplicably slow and at ease. Just as we prepared to assemble our belongings and begin our journey home, Desta’s mother entered the room carrying a birthday cake. Evidently Alva had informed Desta’s family that my birthday would fall on the day of our departure. As they began to sing, I felt this act of kindness befitted someone else: someone Indonesian, perhaps, and with an adeptness at the language or at least something lasting to give. But Desta’s mother was already standing in front of me, holding a chocolate cake topped with candles that read “23.” She was dressed fashionably for work and, leaning over the cake in her brightly colored veil, embraced me by sniffing me on the cheek. My friends waited for me to stop pressing my hand over the left side of my chest so I could cut the cake.


On our journey home, we stopped to rest at a place overlooking a mountain. It towered over a crater-sized dip in the land. The old man who sold us our noodles told us that the family of Sunan Kalijaga, the Javanese hero, resided in a cemetery at the mountain’s crest. The Javanese believed that the higher one’s altitude, the closer one was to God. Our team of travelers descended the way we came, along carved-out hills that descended with us in giant-sized steps. Through dusk we sat through traffic jams and clouds of gasoline until at last we finally made it home to Yogyakarta, which was still covered in ash.  


I can still clearly recall the intimacy I experienced in Purbalingga, which I have yet to experience in quite the same way again. When I think of it now it seems like a glimpse of what I might maintain if only I could breach the gaps that make me — different. But I will remember the sharing of finger food. The gestures from the backs of motorbikes. The jacket-pulling. The cracking of backs. The wrap of a young woman’s arm around mine when the electricity went out. The sight of people sleeping on the floor; curled up on chairs. People sitting cross-legged in a circle, leaning forward as they slept or laughed.


There was the sound of voices in the early morning. I mentioned earlier that my friends woke up at dawn to pray, but I didn’t mention that I stayed awake listening to them chanting—no, singing— together in the next room.


It sounded nothing like religion. It sounded like trust—extended, held and maintained over time. The voices fumed together until “faith” became a harmony among friends who weren’t going anywhere. This was the morning when the air felt cleaner. That was the moment when I decided that there were some things, particularly in this country, that were just too stirring to understand. 



To meet the members of Prasasti, please watch the following video: