Shadow Puppetry seems to be a lost art from in Indonesia. Like the wandering amhares of Ethiopia, puppeteers have been relegated to entertaining tourists in either upscale venues or small box theaters off a main mercantile drag redeveloped to match the needs of a posh European crowd.
In a passage about Jakarta in the early 70s in Confessions of an Economic Hitman, the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) now corporate economic analyst is brought to a back alley of the captical where a large crowd of men, women, and children await the performance of a well known shadow puppeteer from Ubud, Bali. This weather man, hidden behind a single white sheet lit by a candlelight, mans an arsenal of cast iron puppets and traditional bells that ring out link gongs yet have a varied resonance akin to a xylophone. His story begins with an act from the Vedas, a popular love story which is carved over the walls of Parnabar (sp) temple outside Yogy, the second largest city of Java. Yet it quickly turns political. Wielding characterized portrayals of local politicians, the performance depcits recent contracts between Indonesia and USA, where Nixon himself makes an appearance, knocking off politicians left and right till he finds the right man, played by a character who often assumes the vilinary role, accept his terms. The program ends with Nixon sitting on top of the world. The lively crown responds with jeers, cheers, and sidebar discussions about the current events. Shortly after the RPCV excuses himself to adjust his report on the nationals’ openness to development.
The show I observed was not in the streets. It was in a small art gallery within the compound of an upscale hostel. There was no raucous crowd, but 14 tourists – a German family of four with 2 children under 8, a Japanese couple, another American, two older European couples, and three Peace Corps Ethiopia volunteers. Two puppeteers with a handful of musicians recounted scenes from the same epic, interspersing plenty of fart jokes and occasional bits of English to maintain the audience’s attention. After thirty minutes of frantic mimicry, the show ended; the audience offered soft applause and all left.
Despite the abridged content and atmosphere, I can image the scene in urban Jakarta. It seems these “authentic” expressions of culture are disappearing. My generation will be the last – the bridge – between a world divided and globalization. Raised on tales of the Bush and the exotic Orient, we journey across the seas to find artificial displays of culture pre-programmed for our enjoyment taking place across the street from neon signs advertising Applebees, Outback, and 7-11.
7-11, as it turns out, is a very popular bar / hangout for the university students of Java. They arrive in packs of 3s and 4s on their mopeds around 7 or 8 o’clock; buy cigarettes, beers, or energy drinks; and loiter till midnight or later – this as a reaction to one of the most populous Muslim cities in the world.
My trip was bookended outside such a 7-11 on a garden patio table with a few Bintangs and Guinness Foreign Stout in 750 ml bottles and good friends. The second story where the bathrooms were located was being used as a haven from the humidity and a 24hr study hall for distressed studiers.
On the whole, the trip was well divided between cultural, heritage cites (temples, palaces, etc.) and beach hedonism like Kuta, Bali, which has been transformed to the Cancun of Australia. I would not recommend it but for SkyGarden, a seven story night club that services all forms of needed debauchery from dusk till dawn, and the nearby McDonalds that serves Pioneer Burgers with chili sauce instead of ketchup whenever needed.
Regarding budgetary issues – outside of some bad advice on how to island hop, especially considering two of the airports have recently moved – one slight moped accident with a corresponding trip to the emergency clinic for a few stitches in my right knee and payment for cosmetic repairs– and traveling with boys who suddenly wanted to indulge in unknown American culinary luxuries like Outback Steakhouse instead of frequenting the food carts that line the streets of every village each night (if only Ethiopia could have such Asian cuisine) – the country is very affordable.
(photos will be added once I get them from my travel partners’ cameras)