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Students in a long tail boat in Indonesia. Photo by Aaron Slosberg, Indonesia Semester.

The Other Alun-Alun and the Spirit’s Journey to Water

On a rainy Friday evening, we arrive from diverse corners of Yogyakarta, meandering through narrow whitewashed alleyways in cars that creep and weave at a relaxed pace. We hop-skip-jump through the light rain and over deep, dark puddles, to the covered front steps of the Sasono Hinggil Dwi Abad, an 18th Century building originally used for training the sultanate’s young soldiers. The building sits on the northern side of the city’s Alun-Alun Kidul (South Square), a broad, grassy field punctuated by two giant banyan trees in the center. In the square the soldiers practiced archery, war games, mindfulness and meditation activities, and the occasional tiger-killing ceremony (Wessing 1992). Gone are the roars of tigers, and instead we listen to the rumbling thunder in the distance. We sit on the steps and wait for our last group members to arrive, some of us drinking wedang ronde–a sweet, warming ginger broth with glutinous rice balls, small bits of bread, and peanuts. It is dark, and the street lamps lining the square flicker light across the puddles, illuminating small seas washing over the surface of the square. Peddle carts along the edge of the square are transformed into mobile parties as they are electrified with fluorescent creatures and sound-systems, adding new layers of color and music into the square, which begins to vibrate with life. A few group members negotiate a price and board a double-decker cart, Lila and Nicole peddling and steering their way around the square. The stragglers arrive, their car serendipitously pulling up alongside the glowing cart. They scramble out and begin dancing alongside their peddling peers, joyfully meandering back to the front steps of the Sasono Hinggil Dwi Abad.

We regroup at the north edge of the square and creep through wet grass to the small cement blocks that mark the start of a pathway that leads to the two banyan trees. Taking turns with scarves and blindfolds, we cover our eyes and attempt to walk straight and true between the giant trees. It seems simple; just walk straight. This involves walking into ankle-deep lakes that formed during the heavy afternoon monsoon rains. And it is oddly like threading a needle without vision, albeit a giant needle. It is a process that requires both concentration and letting go. The more determined we are to walk straight, the more quickly we seem to veer off to the side, not even getting close to the banyan trees. One-by-one, we approach the trees until an invisible force seems to nudge us aside. Our bad luck shifts when Sam approaches. He seems relaxed, calmly moving through the waters gathered around the roots of the trees. We watch in disbelief as he walks straight through the middle. While some might confuse this act as a sign of good luck, Javanese tradition tells us this means that Sam’s spirit is on its true path, while the rest of us are still figuring out what is best for us in this moment. We don’t worry–the rest of us aren’t lost for good. Our intended paths change from moment to moment, and our acts and decisions set us on and off our paths as we progress through life. Try again in a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, and a few years, and who knows what the results will be? We might find ourselves on our true life’s path on a dusty day during dry season, or while again fording the monsoon waters.

As we wander out of the square in search of dinner, damp from the light rain and traversing puddles, we are thinking about our next steps in this archipelagic journey. A week from now, we will be leaving this city for other islands. Beaches, reefs, waterfalls, volcanic lakes and hot springs beckon us. Journeying along an archipelago means thinking more about life along and over water. It calls us to think about watery states, both political and physical. While we are often caught up with a desire for firm, linear plans for our future, this is a time for us to dwell with a particular Javanese proverb:

“Dadio banyu, ojo dadi watu” (Be water, do not be a stone)

Wessing, Robert. 1992. A tiger in the heart: the Javanese rampok macan. Bijdragen tot de Taal- en Volkenkunde 148(2): 287-308.