By way of Dampit



Seen from the air the crater lake of Mount Ijen could be a blue gem, a round turquoise. And at sunset when the crater rim catches the sun’s rays, it is a turquoise in a setting of gold. Mount Ijen, a live volcano, rises out of the Ijen Plateau at the eastern end of the island of Java. Betty had gone ahead, so I travelled there alone. The province of East Java has its own character. Production is ahead of population growth, so Jakarta papers say; for family planning projects are working well in East Java. The countryside is lush and towns such as Malang, Jember and others are notably clean and tidy. Because this is not tourist country, there is not so much worry about prices and bargaining; I liked it very much.

Though I could have ridden a bus on the main northern road, I came east from Malang by the southern route, by way of Dampit. The bus was an old Chevrolet that took the winding mountain roads at little over walking pace. It was so crowded that a boy shared a seat with the driver. When we passed police posts, the

conductor yelled and the many standing passengers squatted low, ducked their heads and giggled. Above the driver was a notice that read: Maximum load – 36 sitting, 1 standing.

They were farming people mostly, who had gone in the early hours of the morning to the market at Malang and returned now to their villages. One man who squatted on a packing case at the front of the bus seemed to be the village wit. He wore a drooping moustache and a whisp of beard and he talked without cease to the amusement of everybody close at hand. He spoke in Javanese, or perhaps Madurese, the local language, so I couldn’t understand a word of what he said… until he turned his attention directly to me and made a change to Bahasa Indonesia.

‘Sir, he said `if you are seeking a wife, this one would be very good.’ He indicated a plump girl who sat nearby. The girl burst into giggles, hung her head down, and smiled and smiled into her bosom. `Truly’, the man said and looked around him in the fashion of a wise bird.

He was what we call a ‘hard case’ and he drew out the subject of marriage between me and the plump virgin for twenty kilometres or more. In the end, he trapped me. ‘Boleh? Boleh?’ which meant, `She may?’ I gave in and said ‘Boleh,’ and to my astonishment, the whole busload echoed me in one happy shout: ‘BOLEH!’

The hard case and the girl’s mother began to speak earnestly in Javanese and the plump virgin and I dared not look at each other. I began to believe I really had gained a travelling companion: The fact that I was already married didn’t seem to worry the Muslim wag at all, but I was wondering how Betty would feel if I brought home a pretty, plump girl.

When we reached Dampit and the hard case, the plump virgin and her mother alighted and I was relieved. They farewelled me nicely: even the plump virgin gave me a broad smile.

We passed close to the south of the holy mountain, Semer, a perfect volcanic cone. We climbed a jagged range textured with coconut palms. The road twisted in a series of hairpin bends and long loops. ”

At the top of the range at a small village, the driver stopped the bus, leapt down and invited me to follow him. I would like you to stay here at Picket Nol’, he said. `Here it is quiet, there is beautiful scenery, many kinds of orchids and from here, you can walk to Seemer.’

He introduced me to a friend of his, the head man of Picket Nol, who offered me the traditional `empty house’ of the village. But like all westerners, I was on the move and I was short of time. I promised that, someday, I would come back. The driver was sad; but no hard feelings. `Walk along the road a bit to see the view’, he said and he called a passenger out of the bus to walk with me.

We walked about a kilometre to a bend in the road. We looked down a sweeping gorge to the lava flow of Semeru, to the Indian Ocean, to the sky beyond and it was just as beautiful as the driver promised. After about a quarter of an hour, the bus trundled round the corner. My fellow travellers smiled at me. Nobody resented the delay I had caused while they sweltered in a crowded bus. They had kept my seat. They smiled at me and I loved them just for their politeness. I felt ashamed of my western way of wasting time by always hurrying along. I shall go back one day to Piket Nol.

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Villagers and a Slender Virgin


Once upon a time … There was a slender virgin, a princess, who was wooed by a man who did not please her. She commanded him to build a great temple: if he could finish it in one night, she would accept him. The man worked in a frenzy and as morning approached, he had almost finished. In desperation, the slender virgin ordered that the drums which signalled dawn be beaten early and the suitor was confounded.

He was so furious that he turned the virgin into a stone statue of Durga, Siva’s consort, and there she stands today; the temple of Prambanan is known as ‘Loro Jonggrang’, Slender Virgin. The temple dominates the small town of Prambanan. Around its walls, is the Ramayana story, carved in relief, illustrations in stone with the immediacy of pen work.

By the gate, under wide coolie hats, crippled beggars huddle close to the ground. They chant a sad song and they endure. We were with Rormon, the tukang becak from Jogjakarta. His home is in a village close by and he had invited us to his brother’s wedding.

`Do the people of Prambanan come to the temple?’ l asked him.

`Only me’, he said, `And that is only because I am with you’.

At the cattle market of Prambanan, whips were cracking, beasts were bawling and there was a smell of fresh dung. White cattle were tethered beneath neat lines of trees. Men walked between them with the slow cattleman’s swagger and, like cattlemen everywhere, squatted on their heels to smoke and talk. But I have been a stockman too, so I borrowed a whip just to try it out. It was short, made of cane and fibre and it cracked sharply. Straight away, a man in a conical hat, black jacket and sarong swaggered slowly up to me and, while he gave me a long, hard stare, he cracked his own whip three times. I bowed my head slightly and he swaggered away.

We looked the cattle over. We watched a blacksmith beating out farm tools. Betty and Rormon sat in a warung and ordered tea; I squatted outside to draw. When I had taken out my pen and paper, all I could see was a ring of brown faces looking down at me.

Strolling musicians sang a good song for Betty. Rormon tried to look cynical. He hired small motor-bikes to take us to his village and we hurried along narrow roads passing the old temples, Sewu and Plaosan. We came into small lanes between low stone walls and we had arrived in the village of Grogol.

There were simple houses with walls of plaited bamboo, roofs of tiles, floors of mud. There were old women to greet us, taking our hands gently between their own, and Rormon’s wife, Saikem, smiling uncertainly. There were children by the dozen.

I started to draw the children almost immediately. They were shy and, though they stood before me to be drawn, when I looked at them they hid behind one another as though my eye were evil. When I had finished drawing them they hung over my shoulder and laughed and laughed. Rormon’s boy, Suradi, was certainly not shy. He postured with a cigarette. He was fourteen, too young to smoke, as I had been at fourteen, but would not believe me when I told him so. `What can you do?’ said Rormon.

Little girls gazed up at me and plaited their fingers and entwined their legs. Surani and Surati, Rormon’s tiny daughters wore identical dresses, a bright pink, which looked strange against their brown skins. A school girl in a drill uniform and selandang was pushed forward. She came to an abrupt halt and stood still. As she gained courage, she gained pride, even an air of defiance. She stood and looked at me as the cattleman had done, as though she defied me to understand and draw what was really her. And like the Javanese landscape, there were undercurrents and hidden forces; Javanese mystery with something sullen and resentful. Though she submitted to being drawn, she did not look at the finished drawing until I held it out to her; nor did she smile.

A young boy carried a baby, slung in a selandang. The older one was happy to be drawn, but the baby threw quick, frightened glances, then turned his face into his brother’s shirt. Saikem, Rormon’s wife, had gone away a little to sit alone and very still in the sunshine. She gazed straight ahead of her. Saikem was a worker in the fields and, though small, she was strong. Her soft kebaya and tightly wound sarong could not hide the muscularity of her torso and limbs.

On week-ends Rormon would ride his bicycle twenty kilometres from Jogjakarta to Desa Grogol. When once we caught him looking happy, he said: `1 am thinking of my wife’s massages’.

`My poor house’, he said, when we sat inside at the table. There were two rooms and, as well as a table and chairs, a large, cane, family bed. Rormon sent a little daughter scurrying to find his peci, the black cap worn by Muslems. He put it on solemnly. `This is Rormon, head of the family, when he goes to the mosque’, he said with a trace of self-mockery.

Meanwhile preparations for the wedding ceremony were going on. `Would you like to draw the women cooking?’ Rormon asked me. He could always pick subjects to interest me. One of the houses had been decorated with coconut fronds and banana leaves and behind this was a lean-to with a tiled roof. It was full of acrid smoke. Older women worked at clay cooking pots and black stoves. As we passed they touched us softly and smiled with both hospitality and affection.

One woman had stripped to her brassiere, which was respectable enough. When I asked may I draw her she was delighted. A lot of chaffing went on as I drew one then another. They could speak no Indonesian, Javanese was the language, so I understood nothing but tone of voice. Of course they must look at the finished drawing and they gave me thumbs-up signs. There was something sweetly coquettish about it.

Inside the decorated cottage, the young girls, young men and the old men sat around. The old men were dignified in pecis and long, checked sarongs. They sat behind the younger ones, smoked clove cigarettes deliberately and looked calmly through the smoke. There, we sat for a while and ate soft rice cake that came to us wrapped in banana leaves and we drank sweet soft drink through straws and answered polite questions of the young women.

And for a little while, we walked in the village. Betty and Rormon walked ahead while l became involved with a crowd of young boys. Suradi seemed to be their spokesman and, like his father, he was suggesting subjects. `Would you like to draw some cows?’ he said and led me to a pen which held two cows and a calf. I was pleased with the composition and, because I had Suradi taped as a cigarette cadger, I weakened and offered him one. He refused in a fairly righteous way and I wondered if this was the result of my earlier lecture.

In the distance was the holy mountain, the volcano Merapi, standing up high. Close by were green tobacco fields.

A man came along the lane carrying two great vats on either end of a shoulder pole. Rormon stopped the man, borrowed his load, borrowed his conical hat and struck a pose for me to draw. I never could make a good drawing of Rormon;  I don’t know why.

But now there was activity in the family compound. The bride and groom were coming. They came in procession with old aunts and young cousins. Two black umbrellas added pomp and protected them symbolically. The groom looked about him shyly and proudly. He was dressed up: small turban, batik sarong, a black jacket a trifle too large and a smart bow tie. He looked small and young.

The bride had been bathed and scented and dressed. Her hair was looped carefully and the hairline extended with black paint into three peaks on her forehead. There were flowers and golden ornaments in her hair. Her black coat was flower-embroidered and she wore a fine batik sarong. She gazed downwards to a point just in front of her feet. Not a slim virgin, she; already swelling with a baby. There was a tear below her eye.

They were so young and vulnerable. At the door of the decorated cottage they stopped for ritual. She washed his feet and with his feet he broke an egg. In the doorway was a double ox yoke; they stepped over it into the dim interior. They sat, side by side, and again there was ritual. He offered her rice in his fingers and she accepted it in her mouth. They must sit for some hours; children stood beside them with fans. Happily ever after? I hope so.

A meal had been prepared. We ate with Rormon, sitting under the veranda roof of his house. Saikem sat close by yet seeming far away. In the sunlight, the leaves of trees were of many different greens and on the ground were strong shadow patterns. Beyond the trees were the wide tobacco fields and far away, Merapi.

`It is beautiful here’, I said to Rormon and I meant it. He answered me bluntly: `This is not beautiful. This is just a village. And it is full of poor people’. Poor people, orang miskin. The Indonesian words have the sound of poverty.

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Meeting Rendra


In Jogjakarta we heard the name ‘Rendra’ over and over again; `Have you met Rendra?’ and `You must meet Rendra’, and `Rendra is an interesting man’. And we began to mention the name too, to shopkeepers and becak boys, restaurant owners and waitresses. They all knew Rendra. Rendra, the rebel; Rendra, the genius; Rendra, the superstar.

Rendra is a poet. How different this is from Australia or Europe, where poets are obscure figures, reading their work to small devoted audiences. In the United Kingdom the man in the street might know of Dylan Thomas because of how he drank rather than how he wrote.

Rendra lives in a Kampung. We came silently by becak along a quiet, narrow lane where small houses were set amongst trees. His house is one in a compound of houses. We walked through a bamboo corral with high, capped gateways; the rehearsal space for Rendra’s Drama Group. There were no banners or signs to advertise its presence.

He was at home, nursing a tiny baby. While we sat, he paced lithely back and forth before us. I said: `I had expected you to be older’.

`I am old’, he said, `two wives, eight children – that is an old man isn’t it?’. One wife entered at this point and Rendra handed her the baby. He sat opposite us Java fashion, cross-legged on a chair. A fine boned face, a slim build, Rendra has long hair, greying a little when you get to noticing, he looked thirty years old. `1 am forty’, he said.

Rendra plays the game of conversation like a set of tennis. Our questions came as slow lobs and he slammed them back at us, tricky, complicated shots. `Do children have a place in the drama group?’ we asked.

`Children? Of course children, but why say children? This is not the west. Here children are liberated.’

`You mean there is not any distinction between children and adults?’

`Yes I mean that. We do not shut our children away. And crazy people; here they are free. We do not lock them up. They walk about like other people.’

Rendra is passionate and single minded. East-west problems interest him and he is wholeheartedly a Javanese patriot. He sees falsity in western philosophy, western technology and progress. `Yet many Indonesians are adopting western ways’, we said, `how do you feel about it?

‘The western ways they are adopting are already being questioned in the west. They are almost outmoded.’

`Everybody talks of drugs’, he said. `For ritual, drugs are fine. For uplifting the spirit, fine. But drugs to kill pain or drugs to prolong life – I don’t think that very good. Pain is part of life and so is death. We should realise that birth and death are belonging to the one thing, life’. Rendra was once a Christian but chose the Islamic faith and shows the zeal of a convert. One by one, established ideas fell before his attack. His logic was backed by amazing vigour. This vigour and also a good amount of courage are essential ingredients in his rise to fame. He writes what he believes without a thought for consequence. When there are difficulties, such as censorship, he ignores them and continues writing, rehearsing, performing. University students rise up in his defence and so do heads of faculties.

`Are you a rebel?

‘No’, he said vehemently, `no, I am not. I want peace. I do not approve of disturbances and demonstrations. I am called a rebel, but I am not’.

What Rendra writes is what he sees as truth. He has no intention to disturb anyone, though what he does write might disturb them. His poetry has been published in a thick volume from Oxford University Press, a thinner one from Queensland University Press. He has held Dutch audiences enthralled with his readings. He has been awarded grants to travel to America, Europe and Australia.

`Has technique had anything to do with it?’

Rendra dismisses technique out of hand. `What we are taught means nothing. Ideas are important, rhythm, yes. Nobody can teach us how to write or how to paint or how to act.’

Rendra was not built for compromise; not in conversation nor work. He is not rich, nor does he want to accumulate riches. Like many of the Indonesians we have spoken to, Rendra is keen on the idea of the spiritual – material link. `Accumulation’, he says, `brings death’. And with his flair for analogy, `a river accumulates and floods’.

`But you accumulate’, Betty said and indicated his bookshelf. He brightened, `But books are circulative’, he replied.

I sensed his bias coming through the conversation and it was towards the underdog. His comments on the Australian Aborigines were thoughtful, intelligent and sympathetic. Though a startling opponent, I think he might be a very good friend.

We were able to watch rehearsals in progress of Goethe’s, ‘Egmont’, produced in the rather static Javanese style. People From the Kampung came quietly to watch over the bamboo fence. Now and again, Rendra strode into the centre with advice or rebuke. His actors have the wild look of the avant garde. Though Rendra is no rebel, this bamboo corral had something the look of a brigand camp.

Mrs. Rendra, number one, is a composer and a singer trained in the western style. One day, she will compose the music for a mask drama. Rendra dreams of it; but first the right topeng masks must come to him.

`It is no use looking for them and buying them’, he says. `I know that the masks will be created and will come to me.’

As we left, he presented us with a poster, a large centre spread from a glossy magazine. It was a beautiful colour shot of Rendra playing Oedipus Rex. Rendra, superstar.

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 Lions and Monuments



We were down town in Jogja having our evening meal at a rumah makan run by a friendly Chinese man – it was becoming a habit to eat and talk with him. He was born in Surabaya, had spent all his life in Java, but curiously thought of China as home. He saw his people as a race apart with important traditions they must struggle to keep. It seemed a philosophy of co-existence rather than a merging and sharing of common experience. We spoke of our meeting with Yasir Mazuki and were lamenting the fact we had not arranged to see him again when, at that moment, Yasir passed the restaurant, caught sight of us and he made noisy exclamations of greeting.   We happily drew out a chair for him to join us. He had been celebrating his first day’s shooting on the restoration of Borobudur and was on his way back to the site, a good hour’s drive from Jogja where shooting would recommence at daybreak. He was elated to be directing this documentary, for his book `Namo Buddhaya’ tells the story of his love affair with Borobudur and of his research on this most famous and greatest Buddhist monument, `a tremendous structure where not a single stone is accidental, where all is symbolic, with a well-planned purpose. Subtle yet demanding if one is to share its secrets’.

Our talk with Yasir made us keen to visit Borobudur; and of course a visit is a must on any tourist program.

`What did you think of Borobudur?’ is a stock question and a certain conversation starter. Not to see the shrine is tantamount to closing your eyes as you pass the Statue of Liberty. But we didn’t want the guided tour for fifteen U.S. dollars each, which included the comfort and isolation of the air-conditioned travel coach. Thirty dollars could be put to much better use and our visit spread over three months and included wide travel through Indonesia. We found we could make the trip, with a change of bus route, for three hundred rupiah each, (there were four hundred and fifteen rupiah to the U.S. dollar).

Heeding Rormon’s insistent warning `beware of pencopet (pickpockets), we kept our bags slung to the front as we melted into the crowd struggling for a seat on the bus. We were travelling by public transport, Indonesian style, and although the journey may be a bone-shaker, it is guaranteed to be a colourful, entertaining, maybe exciting event.

We struggled into narrow seats, the backs positioned to keep the spine rigid; three passengers on the right of the aisle, two to the left, and any number standing rump to rump. If the central back-door couldn’t close, well, there’s room for a few more, hanging on by fingers and toes. Bulky baggage is tossed on the roof, but no-one complains if fowls in a bag sit and blink at your feet. Vendors with baskets of hard-boiled eggs, fruit, pastries, sweets and cigarettes, do a brisk trade, as they offer their decorative displays at the bus windows. The boy with his `Es, Es, Es’ or ‘Telor, Telor, Telor’, (ices, eggs) is popular.. Close your eyes and listen and it’s a choir, superbly resonant and vocal.

We slid from the depot without a sound, sailed into a downgrade and round the block, but the driver hoping the battery would connect with the engine was disappointed. A boisterous group of boys gave us a final push back to our starting position. We waited and heard the pushing and prodding going on in the bus’s belly and then at some mysterious signal, I never found out what, we rose in a body, transferring in a scramble to reassemble in a new bus whose battered appearance gave visions of a past heroic effort.

We jolted and lurched from the starting position and gathered speed as we took to the streets of Jogja. Out into the country we flew taking the route to Borobudur forty-one kilometres northwest of Jogja. Our eyes took in every shade of green and colour of earth and sky as we looked to the volcanic range thrusting its peaks and uneven spurs to a near horizon. We were out in the country of a country more densely populated than any other in the world. There were always people. It’s no wonder people like people in Java.

Half-an-hour from Jogja, we swept over a long low bridge, crossing a wide sweep of river which had broken into a series of swift-flowing streams, cutting deep into the grey sand and black volcanic rock. I saw men at work, squatting in the dry river-bed, chiselling bricks from the black stone. I could hear their rhythmic tapping above the noise of our engine. The sun was hot, beating down on their bodies protected by coolie hat and short sarong. Many men were working, carving bricks from the stone and my mind leapt back to about 800A.D., when a similar scene must have been taking place. Thousands of men, coolies, masons, sculptors, painters worked for more than twenty years to gather the materials, transport them to the site, and build the giant grey, stone stupa that is Borobudur.

We ground to a halt on the far side of the bridge. Judging from the gesticulations and exclamations of the passing parade, it was obvious we had some spectacular trouble with the right front wheel. Again without a word, but by common instinct we rose as a body and deserted the bus. I saw that the wheel had come adrift and lay skewwhiff embedded in the sand.

People straggled away in different directions; we were the only Europeans and a good-looking Javanese boy befriended us. He escorted us back across the bridge and to a nearby village where he put us on a bemo headed in the right direction. He bargained with the driver and then, with wonderful generosity, insisted on paying the fare.

The man-made mountain rising from the Javanese plain of Ketan seemed unreal at first; but there it was, terrace upon terrace, each supporting many small stupas. Tourists, mainly Indonesian, Japanese and Indian, swarmed the central stairway, hundreds of high steps of uneven tread, reached the summit and spread on to its supporting terraces.

Real life was on the plain below. At the base of Borobudur, loudspeakers blared instructions and the latest hit song; beggars sat in the sun, sweating as they sang. Tourists haggled over the prices of hats and souvenirs in the dozens of small stalls that line the route to the Buddhist dream. Over and above was the haunting sound of bamboo spinning tops, humming in treble, alto, tenor, and bass. Singing bamboo tops, skilfully spun on canvas. We bought a dozen.

Then we struggled to the top of the man-made mountain, reached our arms deep into stupas to touch carvings of the Buddha, noted the restoration in progress since 1907 and gazed at the reliefs and carvings to do with the life of Prince Siddhartha on his way to becoming the Gautama Buddha. His previous incarnations and episodes from the life of the Bodhisattva Sudhana are also recorded there. We stood on the summit of the man-made mountain and looked to the real mountains beyond.

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In Rormon’s becak called `Ming’, we roamed slowly through the streets and alleys. We visited painters and batik craftsmen; we became a little bit known so that people greeted us as we drifted by.

‘Are you interested in magic?’ a man asked us.

We were, of course, more and more interested.

He told us to go to the old, ruined palace, Taman Sari and, anywhere in that area, ask for Yamto Magic. `Seeing is believing’, he said, and almost as an afterthought: `Take along some nails and drawing pins, razor blade, perhaps an electric light bulb’.

We had a good idea of what these were for. David shopped for them carefully, lingering over different kinds of tacks. He bought a light bulb. ‘One hundred watts? Seventy-five watts?’ the shopman asked and quite seriously David said: `That sounds a bit too strong. Have you a twenty-five?’

Near Taman Sari, we asked for Yamto Magic and sure enough, he was well known. The way went round and about, through alleys which became too narrow even for a becak and we walked on through the kampung, all three of us, for Rormon was curious too. It had begun to rain. Yamto’s house was a small one, standing higher than the houses round about, built on a part of the old ruins. The man who had sent us was there. `Seeing is believing’, he said again.

Yamto Magic was a man in his thirties with close-cropped hair, and a small moustache. He was small, wiry and active.

First of all, we drank black coffee from glasses and the two men talked to us of magic in general. For years, Yamto had been the leader of a group of ritualistic dancers who travelled the villages, performing rites to keep away sickness and disease. They told us how silat fighters could knock down walls, just by the power of thought, how soldiers could deflect bullets.

Then after a small fee had been arranged, Yamto Magic demonstrated. `There are tricks’, he said `and there is magic. First, the trick’. He poked his tongue far out and David sprinkled a few drawing pins on it. He munched with an awful crunching sound then took up a glass of water, swilled and swallowed. David was invited to inspect the inside of his mouth – so was I, but I declined – and he reported that the drawing pins were still there, hidden around the edges. ‘Now, the magic.’ Yamto swilled again and swallowed. David inspected again and this time in his mouth there was nothing.

`They go right through?’ David said, rather indelicately. `No’, said Yamto, `they disappear’.

He showed us again, with razor blades (though I assured him it was not necessary) and again with tacks (though I protested). Thank goodness, the electric light bulb was forgotten. Yamto was in the swing of things now. He took up two bricks, had David inspect them, then leapt in the air and smashed them on his cropped head. David had to inspect the head; it was undamaged.

Now, the atmosphere of magic was thickening. Outside the door, a young boy appeared. He carried a bed of nails, which, it was explained to us, had been borrowed by a neighbour, a soldier who wanted to deflect bullets, and who was practising to develop his powers. `Now’, said Yamto Magic, `I will transfer my power to this boy’.

We went outside into light rain. A small crowd had gathered from the kampung.  Rormon was wide-eyed, so was I.

Yamto took the boy’s hand in a firm grip as though they were about to Indian wrestle. ‘Now, they will recite a mantra (incantation) in the old Javanese language’, the man beside me said.

The whole scene had become dreamlike. The man and the boy squatted, gazing into each other’s eyes, and the boy repeated the sing-song words. Very carefully, he eased himself onto the bed of sharp nails and lay full length. Carefully, two men placed a heavy board across his stomach. Meanwhile, Yamto Magic had mounted a motor-bike. He started it, revved it, he sped three times around the open space, then once over the boy’s stomach. The board kicked up in the air and fell back heavily on the boy. Yamto cut his engine and there was silence.

When he had been lifted from the bed, David inspected the boy’s back. The whole thing became nightmarish for me when I heard David asking politely if Yamto could transfer power to him.

`Of course,’ he said.  But you must repeat the mantra exactly as I say it.’

They clasped hands; the mantra was intoned; David put himself on the bed. I looked at Rormon and I am sure his coolie hat was shaking on his head. `Couldn’t you just walk on him or something?’ I said.   For one thing the plank seemed very narrow, and if Yamto missed it …

But Yamto was already zooming around his victim. David was spiked into immobility; he could not have moved if he had wanted to. I could see his eyes rolling as Yamto sped round him. He looked such a dry, frail leaf. Then it was over, the board crashed down, David was lifted off, and we all inspected his back. There were hundreds of deep holes, which took some time to go away, but not much blood. `We could do it with a jeep if there was more room and if we had a jeep’, said the man beside me. `Would you lie on the bed of nails?’ I asked him. `Oh no, not me.’ And he raised his hands, palms forward and laughed nervously.

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Jogjakarta, in Central Java, is a very busy city. There are women with baskets or babies slung in selendangs, as their long sashes are called, walking softly on sandalled feet, respectable black capped Muslim gentlemen, brash lads and pretty girls. There are beggars and street musicians, sate cooks carrying their kitchens, fruit sellers squatting beside huge baskets. An ascetic passed us walking on his hands, his legs tucked underneath him.

On the streets oxen with rubber shoes draw wonderful high roofed drays with rubber tyres – brass bells at the oxen’s necks sound softly – ponies trot briskly with andongs, four wheeled carriages, and thousands of becaks, three wheeled pedicabs, whisper by while their drivers’ handsome legs turn the pedals slowly.

It is a murmuring city.

There are ten thousand becaks in Jogjakarta, Rormon, a tukang becak, told us. We liked to ride with Rormon. His motto was `Slowly and carefully’, ‘Pelan-pelan, hati-hati’, so we did not feel guilty that he was overtaxing himself. Sometimes, if the road was steep, he asked us to get down and walk for a while. Everywhere, on the main street and in back alleys, were posters on walls advertising a Festival of Magic. `Do you believe in magic, Rormon?’ `Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know.’ He smiled enigmatically.

If magic exists in the world, there must be magic in Java. It is a land of volcanoes, mystery and myth. Magic has to be believed to be seen and Javanese do believe. Rormon delivered us to the Sport Hall, where we hoped magic would occur. A young man on the street sold us three hundred rupiah tickets for five hundred rupiah each. By the time we realised our mistake, he had performed the first vanishing act of the evening.



A pistol toting soldier, on duty in the hall, was so amused by David’s flow of approximate Indonesian that he slapped his shoulder in a friendly way and escorted us to the best seats in the house.

The most remarkable thing about the first two parts of the show was the growing pile of rubble on stage: A man smashed an earthenware pipe with one hand, smashed bricks on the head of an entranced friend, and hurled a boulder at the same friend’s back, doused him with water from a flaming vat (this act was exposed by a young man in the audience, who strolled to the stage and washed his hands thoroughly in the same water), fried an egg on a pretty girl’s head and slashed a cucumber resting on her bare midriff. This act was followed by one in which a huge and dangerous fire was lit and a wild looking man in trance horrified us by biting off the head of a live rooster and drinking its blood.

At this point, the four other Europeans in the audience made their exit.

The last act came on to something like a set for the last days of Pompeii with rock and earth, water and ash, and the corpse of the poor departed cockerel. A very handsome and well-dressed gentleman in front of us turned and said, in perfect English, `These are not simply tricks. It is not possible for Europeans to understand this. It is quite different from your ideas of magic’.

I was agitating a little and wanting to leave but David was absorbed in drawing and wanted to stay. `The next act’, said the educated gentleman, `is very good. It is a group from a village in Western Java. They have been doing this for a long time, in secret.’

Already, the group was on stage. We stayed. I hoped there would be no more fire or slaughter. This time there ‘was an orchestra: two large black drums, a strange flute with a wide band around the player’s cheeks, and a gong swung on a frame decorated with carved and gilded nagas, dragons. The barefooted dancers prudently swept the stage, and the orchestra beat out wild, insistent music. All of the dancers wore loose tunics, wide trousers and head-cloths. With long knives they performed fighting dances. One was a sturdy girl and she mimed the art of silat, a fighting art, sending her armed attackers spinning and somersaulting off the stage. At last we had the feeling of magic and mystic rites. I would like to see this dance and hear its music on its home ground, bare ground in a forest clearing, lit by torches.



The leader of this Banten group was an old, old man. He suffered spikes hammered into his belly, escaped from bonds and, in trance, slashed himself with a knife. He was eighty-five, he told us after the show. The girl who performed the silat dance was bright-eyed and smiling. We showed them drawings and they were pleased. They invited us to stay at their village in the province of Banten and we shall; but this time, Banten was far behind us.

Next evening, at dinner with the painter Kartika, we described the magic show. She was thoughtful for a while, and then came up with one of her sweet smiles: `I have a friend you might like to meet. His name is Mas’.

She called for us next day in a large four-wheel drive vehicle. It was driven by Yasir Mazurki, a film maker and the author of a fine book about the Buddhist stupa, Borobudur. A large man with a casual manner, Yasir was one of the most pleasant of all the people we met in Indonesia; and he was interested in Magic.

While he drove, he talked about the Baduie, a remote people living in the jungles south of Banten. The outer Baduie dress in blue and form a ring around the villages of the inner, the inaccessible white Baduie. These are the most aloof and respected mystics in a land of mystery. Yasir had been studying the Baduie for eight years, on and off, but he felt that he still knew too little to produce a book or film about them.

We came to the house of Mas. It was a simple dwelling, typical of those in the kampungs. The roof was made of small, dark tiles, the walls of woven bamboo slivers. Inside was an earthen floor. Mas was a small thin man. He greeted us with handshakes and his even smaller wife took our hands between hers most gently and bobbed her head.

On the wall of the long main room was a large painting by Mas of Mount Merapi, the sacred mountain within sight of Jogja. Somehow, it was a portrait of a mountain; red lava flowed like blood from the volcano’s mouth. Mas sat cross-legged on a rattan chair and told his amazing story. As he did so, he gestured often with long, fine hands, moving in something the way of a Javanese dancer.

Some years ago, when he was an art student, he had a vision in which he found himself in a large desert where there were no landmarks. He saw a figure in the distance. He crawled towards it and, as he came closer the figure grew and grew, so high that its head was out of sight. `Go to the east’, the figure said. For ten days, Mas was disturbed and found himself wandering in all parts of the city. For another ten days he was completely lost and has no memory at all of what happened. He awoke in the Sultan’s Palace in Jogjakarta. He went then to the slopes of Merapi, the sacred mountain, and there he stayed for eight months and ten days and in that time, he said, he neither ate nor drank. When he returned to his family, he found he had the power to foresee the future. Gamblers flocked to him and he told them the numbers on which they should bet. They were so successful that the police became suspicious and questioned Mas.

All this worried him and he consulted gurus. `Be honest’, they told him; `Accept no money’. Now, Mas gives his advice free of charge and many people come to him.

I asked him what had happened on Merapi. He had met the spirit of a man who, in his life, had been well known as a holy man. He was a grandson of the sixth Sultan Agung and had died, on the day of Mas’s birth. This man had given Mas his sacred kris or dagger, a powerful implement of magic.

Mas took us to the end of the room and pulled aside a curtain, earthen floor gave way to beautiful tiles. On a dais were two carved wooden chairs with sumptuous velvet cushions, and resting on each cushion was a kris. On the walls were portraits of the sixth sultan and his grandson. There were carved nagas, stuffed peacocks, colourful fabrics draped from the walls; and in one corner, strangely enough, a television set. `This is my place of purity’, Mas said.

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The city of Bandung is high in the hills and has the kind of climate to which rich people like to retire. It is a university town, a centre of learning; our driver shows us where Sukarno studied engineering. Mile after mile of squat, Dutch houses and there were more Mercedes Benz on the streets than I have ever seen before.

Our guest house was divided into first and second class. Goodness knows what the first class bedrooms were like; but we did know that first class guests were always served first in the dining room. A fat rat died in our cistern.

Bandung spreads across a valley. Just out of the city is a spectacular volcano; in the centre of town is Jalan Braga, a street of antique shops; in the suburbs is Mr. Udjo. Travellers might forget the rest, but they always have a word for Mr. Udjo, maker of fine angklungs.

The angklung is a traditional Sundanese instrument. It is made of bamboo and when shaken in the hand, gives out a single sustained note. They are pitched differently to form a scale. Mr. Udjo has made many of them. Many small Udjos too, there are ten. `And I am the only father”, Mr. Udjo boasted while his pretty wife smiled shyly.

He was a quick, clever man. `I am a man split in half’, he said, and he split himself neatly with a hand from skull to sternum. `There is the artist and there is the businessman. There is the traditional Sundanese music which I love … and there is western music, diatonic,’ he said with a small bow towards Betty, ‘which pleases the tourists. Ah, if you are artists, you will hate me.’

We did not hate Mr. Udjo. We liked him and we promised to be back in the afternoon for the performance that Mr Udjo gave for tourists. But we hadn’t banked on traffic.

It was a Saturday; Monday would be the Moslem feast of Lebaran, which marked the end of Ramadan, the fasting era and it was a time when people went home to their villages. We were driven in the jeep of a man from the Department of Culture. It was a very slow trip. The man from the Department of Culture would be leaving that afternoon for his home village, and he too was impatient.

We lunched in Jalan Braga. I had frogs’ legs and Betty had shuddering sensations. After lunch, we strolled to the place where taxis wait for customers. We had been told quite sternly, never to pay more than seven hundred and fifty rupiahs per hour. When we mentioned this price to the drivers crowded round us, they laughed derisively. `How much then’, we asked. `One thousand five hundred.’ Now it was our turn to be derisive.

Gradually, the prices came together at round about a thousand rupiah. A thin driver with a black, Moslem cap, a respectable moustache and a kind expression ushered us to his large, black car.

When we were under way, I said brightly: `The traffic should be better now’. It was ten times worse. We would not have thought it possible. Our car came to a complete halt and stayed that way for twenty minutes. What a relief when we moved; but we stopped again within thirty yards.

It was raining and it was hot. With the window closed, we stifled; when I opened it, it fell in a couple of jerking movements, rain poured in and I had trouble closing the window again.

All around were public transport vehicles, small and large trucks full of people and becaks with drivers hooded in plastic sheets. Faces around were impassive. A little boy peered between the legs of men standing tightly packed on the back of a lorry. Our driver massaged his temples.

All engines were switched off and everything was quiet until, once in a while, some driver sounded his horn and others took it up and the sound rose in a loud wailing lament and died again of futility.

I drew, Betty wrote notes. Really, what we wanted most was to go to a lavatory, but that seemed out of the question; all doors along the street were closed tightly. Better not to think about it. We were uneasy. We were not used to crowds like this and it was frightening. This was the most densely populated part of the world. We could imagine we were fleeing from some disaster in the city.

Suddenly, we remembered the rate of hire. Hell. We moved twenty yards and stopped for twenty minutes. It was just over two kilometres from the town to Mr. Udjo’s house; but we did not know that. We took more than two hours.

We arrived when the show was almost over. Elderly tourists from a bus were enthusiastically applauding a choir of children. Angklungs were passed around and we played an old favourite under Mr. Udjo’s strict direction. Little brown girls came to hold our pale hands and sing a farewell song. Physical contact added the last grain of happiness.

Mr. Udjo knows how to put on a show.

When we made the long journey back, it was a little better going. The outbound traffic was still one solid mass. In the bemo ahead of us, a pony lay on the floor amongst the feet of the passengers. He lifted his head and we knew he was alive. His tail hung over the bemo’s end.

When the taxi had left us at the guest house, I found I had lost my best drawing pen.

Next day the town was quiet. We decided to hire a taxi again to take us around the city. Amongst the crowd of drivers, we haggled again. We were led to a cab. It was not until we were seated in our places behind the driver that I recognised the back of his head. As I leaned forward to tap his shoulder, he turned round, beaming. He was holding up my beloved pen.



I worry about the becak drivers. You see them straining to push uphill perhaps with two passengers and merchandise as well. The passengers look so unconcerned and pleased with themselves, I tend to blame them. Yet I suppose the becak drivers want all the passengers they can find. But they last only about five years in the job; then are broken down becak boys, possibly suffering tuberculosis. It is so sad. Once there was a move to do away with the becak, but this move was not popular with drivers. Someday it is hoped the becaks will all be motorised.

They add colour to the streets and they are obviously proud and beautifully muscled. We saw two becak boys riding their becaks in the courtyard of a building. They were having time off; but spending it doing circles and figures of eight on two of the three wheels and enjoying themselves greatly.

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We got off to a great start towards Java at three o’clock in the morning. We were well loaded with small articles of luggage and we stumbled over the square to where the bus was waiting. I fell into the drain beside the road and I swore badly, without the satisfaction of being understood. Even at that time, the streets were not empty. The markets were beginning. Shapes were moving through the early dusk, small women supporting huge and heavy baskets.

Soon, as the bus swung onto the open road, rain began. It rained on me too because I sat directly underneath a ventilator which was not properly closed. In the darkness, I stood and pulled it shut. When I sat, the greasy metal arm from the ventilator fell on my head. Betty slept. I watched the raindrops falling into the beam of the lights ahead.

Our trip to Jakarta had begun and, as yet, we took it lightly. It was wonderful to see Java from the western tip of Bali. Rising out of the plain, Mt. Merapi stood above us, iron-grey, awe inspiring. Java was heavy with mystery.

As you travel west in Bali, you notice the change of character in villages; there are fewer temples, more small mosques, fewer roofs of thatch and more of clay tiles, fewer women with baskets on heads, more carrying their baskets slung from their shoulders in sashes called selendangs. Although there is a boundary of water, Bali merges gradually into Java.

At Gilimanuk, our bus was loaded onto a fat and dirty boat and we followed. We lent on the grimy rail and watched Java and the narrowing stretch of oily sea. On the Java side, the bus hit the road again, with loud music piped for our uncertain benefit. There were new wonders on the road,: great Brahmin cattle yoked to wide-roofed drays, stately, slow and sculpturesque, that made their way slowly, as though hours were minutes, and centuries were years.

The bus took us to Banyuwangi. There we boarded a train, sat as straight as soldiers on rattan seats in one of the second, or was it third class, carriages. And so we sat for eight hours.

Javanese gentlemen sit cross-legged on these seats and seem more comfortable. We, and the irritable Javanese women opposite us, hung on grimly, numb-bummed. But discomfort is a passing thing. Long, long after our circulation had returned, the marvels of the Javanese landscape stay with us. There are the textures of gorges filled with palms, the lights of the forests where sunlight filters through, there are the villages of tiled cottages, bird cages slung on poles high above rooftops so that the birds enjoy the view.

Eventually, we limped off the train at Surabaya. A travel expert had told me exactly what to do. `Outside the station’, he had said, you will find a bus labelled Mutiara. Get on it’.

Miraculously, outside the station there was an old bus labelled ‘Mutiara’. We got on board. It whisked us away. To disaster, as it turned out, because we were not meant to travel on the Mutiara train at all.

`This ticket is for the Bima train’, said the uniformed man when the bus had put us down at another station. Bima and Mutiara take different routes and start out from different stations.

`When does it leave?’ we asked.

`Three minutes.’

`What platform?’

`The other station.’

Here was a pretty fix. We had booked sleepers on the Bima train, now pulling out of Surabaya. I lay the blame squarely on the Bima people and our adviser in Denpasar.

Mutiara did manage to find us two reclining seats in a second class train and dinner was served free of charge on the night train to Jakarta. Things were looking up. We sat opposite a young girl student who spoke good English. But at one point in the conversation, Betty went strangely quiet. Her face coloured and she began to splutter and cough. She had bitten on a chili. Our night was not good. Betty was ill and once the train staff had gone to sleep, I had great difficulty in finding a glass of water or a cup of tea. Eventually, I woke a brigandish man who turned out to be a friend in need.

At station stops, women selling jackfruit passed the windows; the great fruit balanced on their heads. In the morning we saw the northern plain of Java, flat as flat except for an occasional soaring volcano. Armies of harvesters moved across wide fields of rice, slowly and deliberately.

A night trip on a train is always followed by a feeling of fellowship amongst travellers. It is as though we had shared one gigantic bed. Conversations started up. We talked long with the man behind us who was Balinese.

Betty still felt bad when we arrived at Jakarta. Mutiara (generously, I thought) refunded us the difference in fares between their train and the one we had missed. This did cheer us up. We left the station light-heartedly.

Hundreds of becak (pedicab) drivers waited outside and they jostled and pushed and crowded us. When we insisted that we needed a taxi they crowded us to the taxi rank and pushed us into a waiting cab. As we drew away, several tukang becak leered through the windows. They were shouting: ‘Terima kasih, terima kasih’.

`Why are they thanking us?’ asked Betty.

`I really couldn’t say’, I said. We found later that we were being thanked for Betty’s expensive and only cardigan which I had, until then, carried in my rucksack. ‘Terima kasih’ indeed.



Six days in Jakarta, `City of Victory’, making seemingly interminable rounds of Government Departments, scattered wide afield, gave us a chance at least to get to know the transport system and also something of their bureaucracy. I am an impatient creature and I was chafing at the bit. I tried to adopt a little of the Indonesian attitude ‘pelan pelan’, to take it slowly. There were endless opportunities to admire the beautiful country, the great wealth of tradition and culture; many times I looked into people’s faces to see simplicity, warmth, interest and delight. Mostly their movements are graceful and serene, their faces unlined. They have a philosophy, so it seemed to me, which brings happiness in an acceptance of what is.

But around and around we went. The Department of Immigration, The Department of Culture, The Police Department, The Department of the Interior, and our sponsor The Department of Science all had to be visited, several times in some cases, and satisfied that we were who we were and doing what we said. Sometimes satisfaction took the form of a financial contribution. At last we were armed with a sheaf of necessary documents and lists of people we must visit in any centre in which we planned to work. All this ‘toing’ and ‘froing’ was doubly frustrating as all business comes to a halt at 1 p.m. Even the museums close their doors, something we had cause to regret, because our brief look at the Museum Pusat, the Central Museum in Jakarta was tantalising. It is filled with a marvellous collection of Hindu-Javanese antiquities and a vast wealth of archaeological treasure. If you visit on Friday morning you can have a conducted tour with an English speaking guide.

Though we saw few Europeans in the streets and public transport of Jakarta, we met up with them in the sumptuous, extravagant hotels. Jakarta is proud of these ‘world-standard’, towering monuments to tourism. Sheltered by glass and gilt, you can feast in luxury on menus which cater for a world-wide taste, at a price, of course. A glance at the canals in moon-light cannot reveal the unbelievable sludge and stench and the fact that in last night’s storm there was flooding; we were caught in a storm in the central city area only a minute’s walk from our hotel, but we didn’t get home for hours. The water was soon waist deep and the canals rose to enter hovels which line their banks, home to thousands of impoverished Indonesians.

Jakarta seemed a city of extreme contrast, wealth and poverty exist side by side. It seemed a city struggling to the west, but it is a city which commemorates in abundant, huge postrevolutionary sculpture the `new’ man, the freedom fighter, victory over communism in the bloody 1967 coup.

Friday was our sixth day in Jakarta and at twelve o’clock we were handed our last document completed. By 1 p.m. we had packed our far too many bags, bits and pieces and were off to catch a bus to Bandung, so-called `Paris of Java’ and approximately one hundred and eighty kilometres south-west of Jakarta. We had paid for our over-land ticketing throughout Indonesia before leaving Australia, but sure enough we found we would need an extra one thousand rupiah to do this trip. No bus was available so six passengers and their luggage were piled into a Holden taxi.

We had as a fellow passenger a blind Javanese gentleman. I sat next to him and was delighted to meet him. He spoke excellent English and had been to New Zealand for two extended periods, the second two-year period had been to study the violin which gave him a great deal of personal joy. He spoke with concern and knowledge of the problems of his people and he saw the time as one of great change. We talked and I saw we were passing spectacular scenery. Tunnels of tall trees gave way to hills and mountains as we climbed to the Puncak Pass. Beyond Puncak we saw the massive rim of the volcano Gunung Gede.

Meanwhile we all realised we had a maniac for a driver, bullet shaped head and beetling brow. He hurtled along. He screeched to a halt inches behind other traffic.

Our speed at times was over ninety miles an hour. He placed absolute reliance on the car, which I hoped and prayed had tyres a little better than many we had seen with tread worn to canvas.

David said, `As this may be our last drive we should enjoy it’. I urged him to DO something about the driver. Our blind friend just accepted the `impatience of the driver’.

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On our last day in Ubud, we sat and talked with local men on our front veranda.

`You must be careful in Java’, someone said, `Be careful of pickpockets. Never leave your luggage unguarded. There are gangs who specialize in stealing luggage: they carry suitcases with a few rocks inside to exchange for cases which are similar.’

`And’, said another, `if you are wearing spectacles, do not lean out of the carriage window as the train moves off, or a thief might grab them and stand there smiling and waving goodbye.’

`And’, said yet another, `in a crowd, a whole gang might gather around you and jostle you and . . he mimed two fingers creeping into a pocket. `Always keep your hand on your bag, Nonja Betty.’

`You will find the food much spicier in Java’, said one. `And much hotter’, said another.

`And,’ said yet another, `if you reach Sumatra. ..’ and he mimed a hot mouth by fanning with his hand.

`The girls are very pretty in Java, Tuan’, said one to


`Our girls are too stocky’, said another. `The girls in Central Java are prettier. You’ll see for yourself when you get to Jogja.’

Said yet another: `I think in Sunda the girls are even more delicate than in Central Java’.

We pondered for a little on this. I thought the girls of Bali seemed quite beautiful; in fact the Balinese in general are a handsome lot of people. But there is one girl I remember as being particularly beautiful. We would see often on the road to Denpasar, where our colt transport slowed down for roadworks. She carried loads of rock balanced on her head, which made me think of models in training who balance books to improve their postures.  She was as good looking as any model or film star that I had seen.

When we left Ubud, we had to charter a colt to take us to Denpasar. Our luggage had grown. Betty had bought a huge basket, two beautiful small bamboo percussion instruments, male and female, called guntangs and two large bamboo instruments on the xylophone principle, called tingkliks. I had two flutes of course, but they were small and fitted in my little rucksack.

At our small hotel, our arrival created some interest. The boys crowded around and talked knowledgeably about tingkliks. `These are used for the dance Joged Bumbung’, one said. ‘Ah, there will be a Joged Bumbung at my village tomorrow night. I could take you to see it’. So on the following evening, we set out, again by bemo, to Sempidi. In the wide village roadway, large enough to be called a square, there were people in groups and bright light from petrol lanterns.

Our friend, Made, took us first to his house. His poor house, he called it and it was certainly simple, small and thatched; but it was beautifully kept and the ground around was swept clean as could be. His small wife greeted us very shyly with her head bowed and looking at us solemnly. The only words she spoke were of greeting and farewell.

The Joged Bumbung had been arranged by the Girls’ Club of Sempidi. Made took us to a pavilion where a welcoming committee was passing out rice cakes and orange soft drinks. Benches were placed in rows and there was a banner with the initials of the club and the words for welcome ‘Selamat Datang’. The girls serving the refreshments were dressed in their best kebayas and kains. The boys sat on the benches and were served. When we arrived the ones nearby engaged us in conversation. It was all as polite and respectable as a church fete in a country town.

In the open air, small crowds gathered round games where you bet money on numbers. One game was for children and the stakes were low, the next took in a little more money and, hidden behind a compound wall, was a small huddle of grim men, squatting round a shaded petrol lamp, intense in concentration … the big-time gamblers. A young man of the village had drawn me aside to show me this little bit of night life. Betty had sat herself down beside the area marked off with poles and hanging lanterns where the dance would be performed.

`I will show you my humble house’, the young man said and, lighting our way with a torch, he took me on a tour of buildings in his family compound. There was a large shed where harness hung on pegs and behind it, in stalls with bamboo rails, were a mare and foal, a yearling pony and a stallion, all munching at green grass which had been cut for them. My new friend carried a torch and as he walked he flashed it about. In a small pavilion, the light caught the figure of an old, old woman gazing out at us. `My grandmother’, said the youth.

Where he led, I followed. We mounted the steps of yet another pavilion. `My mother’, said the youth and he flashed his torch into the eyes of a woman stretched out on a cane bed. She was bare breasted and beside her lay a baby. The unfortunate woman sat up, tousled and alarmed. We were introduced, both embarrassed. But it was not the mother who was on display, it was the baby. ‘Adik laki laki saya’, the youth said with warmth,  ‘My little brother.’ and he held up the child for me to see. I held out my arms for him and he was given to me. He was soft and warm and firmly fleshed, knuckling his face. When I held him, the mother smiled for the first time.

When I took my place beside Betty, the dance, the Joged Bumbung, was about to commence. The stage was similar to what we had seen at the Topeng Dance: a small tent with a curtain for entrances, a rectangle marked off with tall poles on which hung lamps with mantles glowing white. The orchestra was made up of tingkliks like the ones Betty owned and of sulings like mine. The players sat low behind the instruments looking about in a distracted way as they played; Balinese musicians often seem to be thinking of something else while they play intricate music. The music of these bamboo instruments was soft and woody.

The first dancer emerged, moving with little steps, placing her feet gently, while her arms swayed and her hands twisted and flicked like the hands of a Hindu Priest performing sacred mudras. She was small and vital, perhaps thirteen years old.  On her head was a golden winged head-dress with blossoms arranged within it. From amongst the blossoms stood two sticks of smoking incense.

The girl’s body was tightly bound in rich cloth with a golden thread and kain wound tight around her thighs. Her black hair hung in a thick tail to her hips and was decorated with frangipani flowers. The backward curve of her hands, like the curve of a pagoda roof, was repeated in her hollow back, her slightly bent knees, her upturned toes. The dancer became a series of graceful undulations which matched the music and the movement of the dance.

And crushing close to the stage were the boys of the village, who must have seen the dancer differently from the way we did. We saw only the dancer; they saw her as a village girl dressed up and dancing. They knew her as we did not and they jeered a little, though without cruelty. The little dancer smiled self-consciously.

After she had danced for a while, she looked directly to her audience. As her eyes travelled along the front rank of the crowd, it gave, rippled a little like grass before a breeze. She circled the stage, looking outward she circled again and always there was the ripple of the crowd before her gaze. Then she stopped.

The boy in front of her shrank back, to be pushed forward again by the ones behind. The little dancer tapped him lightly with her fan. The boy shambled on stage, hanging his head and grinning foolishly. He lifted his arms to allow the dancer to tie a sash around his waist, and then as though this one act had caused the transformation, he looked up into the girl’s eyes and they began to dance.

The Joged Bumbung is not a serious dance. Mention it to the Balinese and they smile: `Yes, Joged Bumbung, good fun’. There is no story, so how could it be taken seriously. It is a dance of flirtation. As he dances the boy makes sly passes with his hands towards the girl’s breasts or thighs and he tries by intricate movements, turns and feints, to catch her off guard. She fends him off with a tap of her fan and turns away haughtily.

Three girls danced during the evening and each one, out of sheer politeness, tapped me. I accepted and when I rose there were jeers, and cheers, from the little boys.

No doubt the audience saw a clumsy, comical, white faced man going through grotesque motions. From the puzzled expression I can remember seeing on my partners’ faces, they saw the same thing. But seeing it from the inside I was a Balinese dancer; my dark eyes and teeth flashed, muscles rippled under my brown skin, I moved to the music and wooed the maiden whose eyes were claimed by mine.

I was tolerated more than enjoyed and each time I danced it was for less than a minute.

Among the Balinese men, some dancers were much better than others. One man who was tapped, struggled out of the grip of his friends and fled. Twice the dance was taken to a final climax. Two of the male dancers were exceedingly good. Their eyes and teeth did flash, they danced with graceful vigour and took control of their partners. When this happened, an old man who squatted nearby, tossed a branch of green leaves onto the ground near the dancing pair. The young man picked it up and furiously beat the girl. Then he hurled her to her knees. The girl kneeled, head bowed. The man, his anger spent, smiled at her then gently moved around her, wooed her, cajoled her sweetly till she was on her feet again.


It was David’s night. I was full of admiration too, for the beautiful girls and men so lithe and virile as they danced. The dance was fun, the men abandoned in their wooing. Yet superb technique made each movement secure, controlled. But it was midnight and the dance was over. We had to go home and the last bemo had stopped several hours before. What to do? While we dithered the situation was in hand, motor-bikes and drivers appeared beside us.

Off into the dark night I roared, my hair flying in the cool wind. The stars were big and bright, lighting the road as it wound through the forest like a ribbon. I was exhilarated like the dancers. Swerving to turn a corner I saw behind, the lights of the bike that carried David. He drew abreast and he and his driver passed us, speeding on to Denpasar. At once my driver slackened pace and I was startled as we drew to a halt.

He turned to me and I understood he was offering himself to me, at a price I can’t recall, should I desire. I certainly did not. I urged him to hurry on to David who would be looking for me and who held the money should he wish to be paid for my transport.

He kicked over the motor and we started off again but we gathered little speed. My high spirits were numbed as again, and yet again, he repeated his proposition. He even offered time to pay. He said he would collect the cash next day. I never wished to see him again and whipped him home with warnings of my husband’s fury.

The lights of Denpasar that night were spectacular and a feeling of calm took hold of me. We reached the main street of the city, but instead of taking the turn for the short route home, he stubbornly persisted with his offers as we toured the suburbs. Maybe his tank was low but at last he turned into Jalan Diponegoro. And I was home at last. David was not there; he was out searching for me. The driver did not wait. Without his money and without stopping the motor he roared off into the night.

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One day, while I was sitting outside the place we called the rumah gong, waiting for my lesson, an old man in a white turban came striding along the road and stopped directly in front of me. I was holding my flutes. From inside the music room came the sound of Betty’s lesson: the syncopation of the Legong Dance repeated again and again.

The old man stood close, within a yard of me, thrust his face towards mine and glared into my eyes. I said `Good morning’, and smiled politely. He turned his head to glare at the rumah gong, then again, he glared at me, quite balefully.

‘Apa kabar?’ I said, for lack of anything better, `What news?’ The old man shook a fist towards the rumah gong, then towards me. `Oh?’ I said. He pointed in a jabbing way at my flutes, then mimed the playing of a flute. His eyes rolled, his head wobbled, he held his elbows high, he lifted his shoulders and leaned a little sideways in a burlesque of ecstasy. Suddenly he hurled his imaginary flute down. He leapt into the air, thrusting off with one leg and holding the other high with knee bent and foot upturned. As he leapt, his arms rose and became wings and his expression turned mawkish. In this way, he leapt high, flapped slowly and bird-danced gracefully in a circle. In front of me again, he pushed his face to within inches of mine and glared. I nodded emphatically. I was sure I had his message: `Your music is for the birds’.

The old man walked away in the direction from which he had come. Every few yards, he stopped and looked back at me. In spite of his glare, I felt no real anger coming from him, but something benign, perhaps sympathy. Soon, he was out of sight. I was sitting, holding my flutes, with something to think about.

Pak Raka Suling, would stroll gracefully on the roads. His abstracted manner, the carriage of his head and his long, dark sarong gave him a monkish air. Sometimes he would visit us at night appearing suddenly from the darkness, to discuss music. He would listen to tapes of European music and if we asked him, would repeat the melodies on the bamboo flute.

Sometimes when we met on the road, he would take my arm and we would stroll with measured steps.

`l like to talk’, he said; but it was difficult to go beyond domestic conversation. Raka’s sense of humor was keen, but we saw it only when he talked with others, for he liked to play on words, using the words of the Balinese and the Indonesian language. We were not up to that.

One day he explained to me the story of a song Puh Sinom, an involved sad story of love, of the town, of the forest, of a ring by which a parent recognised a long lost child. He played the tune on the suling, then sang the song. As I write, I hear it played on a tape recorder: twining forest music, and Raka’s voice rises and falls and wavers like something wind-blown. Now the lament is taken by the flute.

Very early every morning, Raka passed by, walking towards Campuan Village and his rice field. To late risers like ourselves, who did not see him at work he seemed to lead the life of a gentleman.

We saw dances: the famous Kecak at Bona village, the Ardja at Peliatan. This last was so crowded that we had to stand huddled in a dense crowd or watch from a distance. While we were in the crowd, I saw a tall English tourist bumping viciously with his elbows at the ears of little boys who pushed beside him. And wonderful to relate, a small Scottish woman who stood beside him, punched the tall man just as viciously in the kidneys so he grunted and mumbled.

When we sat at a distance, a young Balinese man edged close to Betty and offered himself for just one dollar – she refused politely.

One dark starry night, Raka took us to a tiny village nearby we walked through the cremation grounds and our torch lit a small, green snake on the road. In the village centre a flimsy pavilion had been built to cover the dancing area. Bright spirit lamps hung on bamboo poles lit the many brown and few white faces of the waiting audience.

One of the Europeans was an American student of the dance who had been in Bali for a year; another was the clean cut American Buddhist Abraham, who bowed over his finger tips with an expression of sweetness. The leader of the gamelan came forward and clapped Rake’s shoulder. `We are good friends’, he said to us.

The instruments of the gamelan were carved and decorated in red and gold. There was a small tent arrangement, the dressing room, with curtains leading onto the earthen stage. We sat on a low, brick wall. The show would begin in Bali time. We waited. Little boys laughed at us without malice and made feinting snatches at my cigarette. To save our supply we took on a schoolmarm attitude and told them they were far too young to smoke. They postured, and repeated our words.

We waited. Little girls stood still and looked at us with big brown eyes. Even amongst the children, males and females know the female place.      •

We waited. Men squatted with their hands dangling between their knees and turned their heads about slowly, looking at nothing. Raka looked straight ahead. The Europeans had to make small talk with one another. ‘

We waited. Women holding, and not holding babies, stood back where the light begins to fade; lovely round, placid faces, short noses, wide mouths, smooth foreheads with the hair pulled back to great buns.

The gamelan began to play. It was an easy going syncopated melody with the gangsas dinging softly, but now and again it broke into a passage of agitated, clanging sound.


It was almost midnight and the moon had risen. It hung directly overhead, a floating, golden ball. The moonlight caught the silver thread of the curtains making them gleam; I glanced away then back. The curtains fluttered. I stared and could not look away as a finger, then two, shimmering in the light of the moon, jewels and their own motion, parted the curtains almost imperceptibly.

The fluttering curtains stilled the fluttering tongues. The only voice was that of the gamelan as it rose, fell and hovered, like the hand parting the curtains. Time seemed suspended too. The known hand drew our concentration to an unknown figure. My whole attention was on the figure which now emerged and moved with audacious confidence. As I watched, I shivered. The body was exquisitely costumed. An embroidered cloak hung from the shoulders, the outline of the kris jutted below the shoulder. The ankles were circled in gold and the feet were slim and bare, toes upturned. The figure moved superbly circling the pavilion

It was not a man. It was a presence. The white mask was covering personal identity. The man had become the mask. The presence moved triumphantly, the smile was enigmatic and the bulging eyes glowed. I felt uncertain, apprehensive of the figure and its influence. I turned away. I felt I must leave, but I realised 1 could not go alone through the forest at midnight. I turned back. The spell had broken and 1 saw a man.

He retreated to the curtain and disappeared. The audience stirred. The gamelan stridently announced the characters in this night’s performance of the Chronical Play of Bali, a living history of royal families and kingdoms, of facts, legends and miracles, the TOPENG.

I did not tell of what I had experienced till long after. I did speak though with the American student of dance, the lady from New York who had fallen in love with Bali, the dance, and her Balinese teacher. `Tonight’, she said, `we saw the master of the Bali Topeng. He is an old man now, loved and revered by the Balinese. He carved the masks he wore tonight. I saw them in the tent just before the performance; they were covered with white cloth. The dancer  unwrapped  the mask and gazed at it for some time before he put it to his face,.’ she said, `At that instant, he was transformed. He had taken on completely the character of the mask’.

SPICE AND MAGIC is also available on Kindle and as a paperback. If you would like to buy the paperback edition on Amazon, click: SPICE AND MAGIC