A couple of years ago I decided my spasmodic attempts at learning Indonesian would never give me the fluency I needed to hold up my end of even simple conversations. I had attended several short courses over fifteen years, and even completed a one-year unit in a high school with 17-year olds as my fellow students. But, as anyone who has tried knows, if you don’t practice regularly, especially with native speakers, that smooth flow just never comes. With a dictionary to hand, and enough time, I could write several pages in formal, stilted Indonesian. In real-time discussion, the first word I didn’t recognise would throw me; render me stumbling, asking people to speak slower and repeat themselves. Despite all those classes, and knowing hundreds of words, I was looking and sounding not a lot more adept at the language than a tourist with a phrasebook. Charmaine and I had decided to live in Bali for a year; it was time to attempt a breakthrough. I enrolled in a three-week intensive, live-in course in Yogyakarta.
I’m always happy to return to Yogya. It was my real introduction to Asia nearly 25 years ago, and I recall the love-at-first-sight experience of my first ride through the city in a ‘becak’, a two-seater powered by a man on a bike. The purposeful, noisy chaos of crowded streets, the smells of the roadside ‘warungs’ , the tsunami of men on old Dutch bicycles with the contents of a small shop on their shoulders, the graceful elegance of women of all ages, the sounds of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. It all pushed me headlong into a state of happy wonder that still works for me.
Of course 25 years of boom and bust, of the ousting of Suharto and the subsequent ‘reformasi’ era, of the digital age, and of mass tourism, have changed Yogya. There is a very visible middle class now. Younger people flock to restaurants, nightclubs and fitness centres, buzzing from one very 2018 activity to another on motor bikes and in increasing numbers of cars. If anything, they are more likely to be on their smartphone or computer than their Australian counterparts, and their facebook/instagram/snapchat/twitter engagement is prodigious. But even in the centre of the city, about 75% of the population seem to be going about their work and personal lives in much the same way that I saw in 1994. OK, most have motor bikes and the Dutch clunkers have almost disappeared, being ridden only by a few much older men and people with no money–of whom there are still many.
The warungs are still crowded from lunchtime till about 10 at night—much later where the shift-workers gather—and the food seems much the same. A good feed is still only about $2-$3. For most people, a visit to McDonalds or Starbucks is a once-weekly treat at most, and the tourist-priced places are out of the question. The streets where the shops all sell one thing still thrive. Want a part for a motor bike? One street has about 20 places in a row that do nothing else but sell and fit these. Some are so specialist they only sell mudguards, or headlights. Want a mobile phone (‘ponsel’)? I counted 47 shops in a side street opposite the Sheraton, most selling exactly the same phones. The goods may have changed over the years, but the retail model endures, even in the shadow of a flashy new hotel that charges foreigners $200–$300 a night.
Because my classes ran from 10 AM to 4PM, I had plenty of time for early morning and afternoon bike rides. I rented a basic, battered mountain bike and rode all over Yogya whenever I had the chance, regardless of the weather. I even love riding in warm rain, partly because it usually comes after a period of intense, draining humidity. Alongside roaring gutters and in fresher air, as long as I can see in front of me, I am a happy adolescent getting thoroughly soaked. There were frequent offers to come under a verandah (masuk! masuk!), and sometimes I accepted; not to keep dry, but to have a conversation. This was my chance to try out such insightful remarks as, ‘Gosh it’s wet today’, or ‘What suburb is this?’ My favourite is ‘I’m lost—how to I get to etc, etc?’ (‘Saya tersesat—apa arah ke etc etc?’) This usually brought out a crowd of people with differing opinions, gathering around to debate hotly the best route for me. I would say ‘Slowly please, I can speak Indonesian a bit, but not very well’. The camaraderie that developed between us all in these situations charmed me beyond measure, and revved me up perfectly for my next language class.
On my second day, I was well lost about 10 kilometres to the West of Yogya, and getting worried about the failing light. The weak yellow orb thrown by my headlight was not going to be much help in the dark. I stopped at a mini-market in a small town, and asked a rapidly growing crowd for directions to get back to my lodgings, which I knew were next to a large green mosque. To my shame, I didn’t have the name of the suburb or even the college’s phone number on me.
After much furrowing of brows, and no progress, a man was marched in and announced as an English teacher who would help me. His English was no better than my Indonesian, but after a while I got the gist of it. He was saying that all the mosques in this area were large and green, and there were many of them. After an awkward moment’s quiet, much hilarity broke out when I laughed and said I felt pretty stupid. Then he had an inspired thought. ‘Berapa banyak jembatan sejak Pak berangkat rumahnya?’ (How many bridges have you crossed since you left your home?) I knew it was two, and he immediately announced I needed the Sidoarum mosque. ‘One kilometer after the second bridge Pak’. We all parted as cheerfully as if we had been to a party together, and he was exactly right. I got home just after dark, to a worried landlady, safe and happy. I told her I had been lost (tersesat). Each day when I came home, she would ask ‘Tersesat lagi Pak? (Lost again Sir?) She never got used to the idea that I enjoyed these uncharted adventures so much.
The language classes were not what I expected. I had hoped for a small group, but I arrived at a time when few students came looking for tuition in Yogya. I was the only one at this small college. So, each day, five days a week, I had five hours of one-on-one in Indonesian, which was very hard work for me. The teachers took shifts, rotating the effort of improving my fluency between three young women, who I came to like hugely. Ranging from their early 20’s to early 30’s, and all very well educated, they were tough task-masters but increasingly lovely company as we got to know each other better.
Their lives as single, professional Moslem women were fascinating to me. They were each managing with some difficulty to negotiate their aspirations with friends, colleagues, their families, communities and religion, in an era where cross-currents of modernism and neo-con Islam can seem both mandatory and contradictory. One teacher, Ganggas, confided in me that her best hope was to get a PhD scholarship in America or Australia, so she could find out how she wanted to live. To her, at 28, Yogya was a net that was closing in on her from every direction, and she wanted out.
On my last day in the course, the college boss gave them all paid time to show me around some Yogya sights I didn’t know. By now we were easy company, even though we were all a bit disappointed in my progress in the language. I’m just not the fast learner I was decades ago. Words and grammar concepts had to be learnt and re-learnt several times before they sank in, and there seemed to be an endless flood of new things to remember. Looking back at my notes, in two years I’ve forgotten more than half of the vocabulary we covered. Anyway, on our last day together we laughed and chatted together with no let-up for me, as they refused to use a word of English. I muddled through, and so I guess some progress had been made. We parted with a handshake—no contact other than that being proper with a man—and posed together for photos. I did feel lonely when they left together.
After I got home, I emailed Ganggas, and asked her to give me online feedback on my daily diary attempts in Indonesian. I told her I would pay, which she initially refused. I pressed, and she agreed. For $100 a month, she gave me detailed written feedback (in Indonesian) every day for the next three months. I think that was the most effective period of learning for me. A generous, very smart and capable person; I think she will go far. Writing this reminds me: I must email her to find out if she has found her way out of Yogya yet. For me, Ganggas and her colleagues are just one lovely memory of Yogya. For Ganggas, Yogya is the small town we all need to leave sometime, to live a life we can’t even imagine in detail, but we know we have to try out.
With the course over, I moved to a hotel where I had hot water, a choice of meals and staff who reluctantly indulged my efforts in Indonesian, even though their English was fluent. The next morning I went for a long bike ride to the north of the city, through quiet villages, before returning to the Saturday lunch-time traffic jams in the centre. I guessed I was somewhere near my hotel, but I couldn’t find it. Three policemen at attention,apparently guarding a bridge, seemed a likely bet, so I approached the first. He deserted his post immediately, and gestured vaguely in several directions before admitting he had not heard of my hotel. The others joined us for a lively dialogue, and they began calling colleagues on their two-way radios. All to no avail. I thanked them, and they resumed their positions, legs apart, hands behind their backs, implacable expressions back in place. Just then, a man pulled up beside me on a ‘rubbish bicycle’, one with a bin on the front. He was middle aged, toothless and burnt black by the sun. He said,’Mau Hotel Puri Artha? (‘You want the Hotel Puri Artha?) I said yes, and he pointed around the corner. It was about 100 metres away. Being lost in Yogya was the best of times.