On Tuesday, March 3rd, most of our group decides to explore one of the most powerful places in Jogjakarta: the Sultan’s southern square. The square is the final point in an ellipses punctuating the flow of power between the volcanically active Mount Merapi to the north, and the Queen of the South Sea in the Indian Ocean to the south.
We tread carefully through long, shallow puddles at the edge of the square and discuss its history. It was once a military training site and it was also the grounds on which those thought to be traitorous or disloyal to the Sultan were challenged with a daunting task: a fight to the death against a tiger. The Sultan also staged epic fights between tigers and buffalo with Aesopian results, reminding us that the slower, gentle giants can prove to be daunting foes for even the fiercest of beasts. Many consider these battles to have left a spiritual residue here.
At the center of the wide, flat square sit two immense banyan trees—their thick trunks tangled in an ever-expanding mass of vines—which have accumulated power over the centuries. Those looking to test their loyalty to the ways of the cosmos, or to see if they are following their true life “path”, attempt to walk blindfolded from the edge of the square straight between the two trees.
Resigned to the lingering shower marking the end of an afternoon monsoon, we take turns blindfolding ourselves and making the walk towards the trees, stepping through puddle after puddle. With fabric resting snuggly over our eyes, we become increasingly sensitive to the gentle raindrops falling on our foreheads and cheeks, to the sounds of voices and motorbikes echoing form the edges of the square, to the soft crunch of the wet cinders under our soles, and to the gentle undulations of the terrain that otherwise appears completely flat. Our steps alternate between confident and trepidatious.
Like the vast majority of the people who attempt this walk, some of us curve to the left and some to the right, seemingly deflected by a magnetic force in spite of our calculated and precise ambulation. Some of us curve so sharply, we make a 180 degree turn and face back towards where we started, shocked by what we see as we lift the blindfold. It can feel like a game, and we know that repeating the act at any other time could yield totally different results; not being on our “path” today does not mean we won’t find ourselves on it soon.
But for a moment we ask you to imagine you are here with us. Imagine the darkness, the raindrops hitting your cheeks, the dampness in the air, the smell of wet earth and of elderly Javanese men smoking clove cigarettes nearby. Imagine your bated breath as you take slow, cautious steps, and imagine how easy it is to ask yourself if you are moving the right way. Don’t let the doubt get to you. And your friends will stop you if you are about to walk into the tree. Just keep taking those steps, and try to breath as you walk through the darkness. A hand taps your shoulder gently, signaling you to stop. You take a tense, deep breath, and you lift your blindfold and open your eyes, blinking a few times, adjusting to the light. You turn, seeing over your left shoulder one huge banyan tree, and then looking over your right shoulder you see the other.
With this momentary affirmation from two powerful trees, as you stand feet planted in a murky puddle, you exhale, and then take your next step.
We will try to keep you all posted on our next steps as we enter mid-course and prepare for our upcoming homestay on the island of Flores.
Colin, Rita, and Bradford