The Charm of Solo Travel – Indonesia, Asia

Solo, a city of half a million, seems like a sleepy little town when compared to the behemoth metropolis of Java. For this reason, Solo is often overlooked by tourists, who are lured to flashier destinations like Jakarta and Yogyakarta. However, beneath the seemingly ordinary façade of city life, lies a bubbling arts scene. My friends, Wulan and Bejo, were going to help me navigate it.

As professional Javanese dancers, Wulan and Bejo have deep connections running through the city’s art community. Both graduated from the arts school in town; they know who is performing; what and when at any time. More important than their training, though, is their knowledge of the area, and their contacts, plus their effervescent, bubbling personalities. Wulan always has a laugh and wry retort on hand. Bejo, her husband, emits a calm confidence. The only manic thing about him is his intense and beaming smile, which he wears at all times. It’s easy to see why he is such a successful dancer, why he can so convincingly act out the Ramayana dramas, how he can instantly become any character with his outrageous, twinkling expressions.

For my first night in Solo, I was taken to a beautiful outdoor pavilion called a pendopo; consisted of an ornate roof and four supporting pillars. I could understand why pendopos were popular spaces for performances; the warm evening wind blew through. As I saw lightning flash in the distance, I could occasionally feel drops from the rain falling outside. While the crowd slowly gathered, I heard metal tings and twangs from the deepest part of the stage, where musicians were re-acclimating their instruments.

Then the gamelan orchestra began; bright, vibrating, tinny music filled the air. The first TONG of the gong flushed out a nervous and disoriented cat, which ran across the stage. This music has a pulse, a vitality that resonates in your body, so that it’s impossible to sit passively while listening. Everyone in the audience could feel the metallic chiming bounce in and around them. Bats swooped in and out of the pavilion, keeping the mosquito count down in the humid equatorial rainy season. Dancers took to the stage, responding to the live music with twitching fingers, hands splayed, eyes darting back and forth.

Watching the dancers’ feet on the stage, I noticed other guests on the platform. One of the drawbacks of an outdoor stage in the tropics is that it’s, well, outdoors, which means the dancers sportingly share their space with the occasional bat, cat and cockroach. Here and there, a two-inch roach would dart erratically, driven by its own internal insect logic. I forgot the staged performance for a moment and watched this new drama play out, man versus insect. Would the dancers keep their character after stepping on such a beast? Would the monstrous crunch distract the musicians? Luckily that night, the cockroaches were on top of their game, and successfully avoided being caught underfoot.

I spent the next day exploring Solo’s palaces with Bejo as my guide. It was more functional than decorative, to my surprise; perhaps notions of European castles and the Taj Mahal had something to do with my quiet unmoved reaction. They did not exhibit the awesome display of wealth and status that my brain has been conditioned to associate with the word “palace”. Instead, they were like vast museums filled with random collections and oddities: rings, carriages, glass trinkets.

At the Mangkunegaran Palace, I was awed not by dusty artifacts, but by the resident royal dancers. Every week, these dancers rehearse in public at the palace. Old men gathered to play live gamelan music. You could tell this crew had been going through this ritual for years by the relaxed atmosphere, the casual banter between players in between sips of tea. The dancers moved with deliberate slow grace, planting feet gently, flipping scarves in their hands with subtle precision. It was a hot languid day, just the right atmosphere for hanging out in another pendopo, listening to old Javanese dudes playing gamelan and watching sparrows flit around the dancers.

The rest of my days in Solo were filled with similar small moments of wonder: eating lunch in a half finished mall, looking out on the landscape and spotting old ruins half hidden by grass, getting explanations for weird food in the grocery store, meeting extended family members and friends in Wulan’s household, and browsing through Solo’s famed batik shops.

One day, Wulan was kind enough to take me with her to work, where she teaches traditional Javanese dance to elementary school students. I watched as exuberant 4th graders galloped with abandon around the classroom, trying on for size the different movements of hero and villain. I was even more impressed when they made a beeline to me after class, eager to try out phrases like “Hello my name is” on an actual English speaker.

That evening, as we returned to the Solo arts scene, I realized my dream of watching Wayang Kulit first hand. This is a lengthy shadow puppet play where stories from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, are reenacted. Each two-dimensional puppet is elaborately carved, so that audience members can identify the specific character from its shadow alone. These characters are hinged at their joints, which allows the puppets to gesticulate and fight. Performances run up to six hours, and stretch late into the night. Because the performance is so lengthy, it is a casual experience for audience members. People get up to buy tea and snacks from nearby vendors, or nap lightly while waiting for extensive talking segments to morph into dynamic fight scenes. You watch the bats, you talk with your friends. We lasted a good three hours or so, but had to call it quits around midnight to prepare for our long road trip the next day to Borobodur.

No visit to central Java is complete without a pilgrimage to Borobodur, the largest Buddhist monument in the world. Borobodur is the thing you have to see if you go to central Java. It’s like the Great Wall of China; I don’t care how touristy it is, or how many vendors there are with crap for sale, or how many millions of people are there swarming all over it, you are required by tourist law to go. So we rented a car for the day, drove five hours round trip, and saw the damn thing. Ok? Happy, Lonely Planet? It’s marked off my checklist.

It WAS amazing and awesome and I’m a better person for it, but I remained slightly disenchanted because, yes, it was swarming with tourists and there were lots of very pushy people who wanted me to buy things. No matter how glorious a place is, that sort of environment eventually takes its toll. I’m glad I went. If you go to Java, you too must see Borobodur, but it is more magical and interesting to discover ruins (of which Java has plenty) on your own.

Are the anecdotes about doctors in Indonesia true?
There was one final errand to run before leaving Solo: finding a doctor. I had been struggling with a back injury for awhile, an injury for which both the American and Japanese health systems had no answers. It was time to try the Javanese perspective. I’d heard anecdotes about doctors in Indonesia lighting pieces of paper on fire using only their bare hands and a healthy dose of chi. I wanted to investigate this rumor first-hand.

I made an appointment with a recommended acupressurist/tai chi master. I snaked through a maze of tiny streets until I arrived at his office, which doubled as his living room. There I met the master; an old man, slightly stooped with unruly eyebrows and wearing a jaunty collared and striped shirt. After answering a few questions about my background, I lay down on his couch. His grip was amazingly strong; he found places to press on my calf I didn’t even know were sore. Laying in the doctor’s living room, feeling vulnerable and in pain, it was crazy, but I began to laugh – in long, loud bursts. My odd reaction elicited a humorous eye roll from the good-natured doctor.

Let me say that acupressure, quantitatively, hurts a heck of a lot more than the acupuncture I’ve tried in the past. However, having a stranger press really hard on your muscles is easier to deal with, qualitatively, than being poked god knows where with needles. I didn’t really mind the pain so much. Plus the tai chi master had amazing bedside manner; I wasn’t sure if he spoke any English until he stopped in the middle of the treatment to inform me that my nose was long. Indeed it is, when compared to the flatter Indonesian noses around me. As an added bonus, I felt fantastic after being treated by this man – he knows his chi.

The quiet beauty of Solo manifested itself again when the time came to pay for my visit. Bejo instructed me to pay the doctor whatever price I thought was fair. Seriously? If only health care worked this way in the rest of the world. I had absolutely no idea what to pay him – coming from America where the medical system is insane, and then after living in Japan, where the cost of everything is absurdly inflated, then visiting Java, where I barely had a hold on this new monetary unit, the Rupiah. After much cajoling, I finally got Bejo to give me a ballpark figure of 50,000 Rupiah; something like $5.50. What a deal!

I took out my cash to pay in the traditional way – by enclosing the bills between my hands – which I then put in front of me as if praying. I then placed them vertically over the doctor’s hands, whose hands were in a similar formation, and I let the bills drop unseen from my hands into his – a tactful and delightful way to pay your physician. With this, hearing I was living in Japan, he sent me on my way home with a hearty “Arigato gozaimasu”.

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