Southeast Asia – Chapter 5

Shortly after arriving in Solo, I asked the team at the hospital regarding personal safety, and how safe should I feel walking around the local streets by myself, especially at night. Having an armed guard outside of the bungalow where I was living raised concerns in my mind. They all assured me that I was perfectly safe. Aside from petty theft, which they said was rare but occurred, I need not concern myself about any assault on my person. They told me that if I was in Jakarta, there were a few areas they would hesitate in going out alone at night, but anywhere else in the country I would be safe. They cautioned me about going into the jungle by myself, not for fear of people, but for the wild animals and snakes I could encounter. I reassured them I had no plans on traipsing through the undergrowth alone.

Barun, my driver, translator, and teacher of the local culture, explained that the people of Indonesia had a strong moral code with regards to guests and visitors, and introduced me to the Wayang tradition, the puppet shows found throughout Indonesia since the early centuries of the first millennium. Most historians credit an Indian origin, with the simultaneous arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism around that time. Regardless of origin, Wayang is a mature Javanese phenomenon. Wayang kulit is the theater form using light and shadow. Puppets made from leather hides are mounted on bamboo sticks. When these are held up behind a piece of white cloth, a light source is used to cast shadows on the screen. Plays are based on religious legends and romantic stories, especially adaptations of the classic Ramayana and Mahabharata tales. The dhalang is the puppeteer behind the performance. He sits behind the screen, singing and telling the story using dramatic dialogue, modulating his voice to create suspense, and supported by a traditional gamelan orchestra in the background. The puppeteer is a highly respected person in the local culture both for his art and his spirituality, bringing life to these religious epics. All through small villages and larger cities, hundreds of people will stay up most of the night watching some of the superstar performers who get paid high fees, and achieve celebrity status. At Barun’s invitation, I attended one of these performances. The traditional Javanese music is an acquired taste, and since I lacked language skills, I was reliant on Barun’s periodic translations to know what was happening. Essentially, these plays are not unlike the morality plays of medieval times, displaying the effects of good and evil on mankind, and reinforcing the moral code that allows us to survive in close proximity to our neighbors without resorting to crime and violence. People watch the show from both side of the screens, and the stories, as well as the morals they help reinforce, are familiar to all. It takes artists 3-4 weeks of handwork to construct one of the puppets used in these performances.

There is a set of family characters, sometimes called “clown-servants” that are associated with the story’s hero, who offer humorous or philosophical asides. They act as a type of political cabaret, often dealing with local affairs and gossip. There is another tradition, called Wayang golek that uses three dimensional wooden puppets controlled with rods found mainly in the western part of Java. No one knows for sure, but most scholars ascribe this tradition as coming from China. These puppet plays, found regularly throughout the country, serve as potent vehicles for maintaining the culture and values of the country’s people.

Order was maintained in the various towns by the tradition of each block having a local policeman, armed with a long bamboo cane. If someone was caught committing a crime, these local guardians of the peace would rush out, subdue the individual, and administer immediate punishment by caning (striking the person with their bamboo sticks) the prescribed number of strokes, depending on the offense. Barun thus assured me that I was perfectly safe walking around any part of the city with dollar bills sticking out of my pockets, and no one would bother me.

Living in a land as fertile as Java, food scarcity did not seem to be an issue. Certainly, the patients we saw at the hospital appeared well fed, though no one was obese. I was struck by the equanimity of most Indonesians I met, and that despite lack of material goods by Western standards, most people seemed happy and content with their lives. Barun explained to me that in his view, this was the result of a combination their spiritual views regarding life, reinforced by the Wayang tradition, their strong sense of family identity, and their optimistic approach to life – things would work out. My experience working in Solo definitely made me reassess my own sense of what is important in life, as I began to appreciate how satisfied I could be living without most of the modern world conveniences, even such basics as hot running water. I realize that some of my feelings came from knowing that in a short time, I would be returning to my Western way of life. I also realized that given the state of health care as it existed at the time, this was not the country in which I wanted to have any serious illness. Yet, I grew to appreciate the qualities that made my new Indonesian friends people that I respected, admired, and in some respects, wished to emulate. My goal in going there was to provide service. When it came time to return home, I began to question the quality and value of the service I and my colleagues were providing. Even during my short stay, I began to see that what Indonesia most needed was not tertiary Western style medicine, which is what we are trained to give. What the country most needed was access to clean drinking water, safe and efficient sewage disposal, and strong public health measures. After all, the greatest advance in treatment of infectious disease did not come from the invention of penicillin, or any of our other antibiotics. It came from the invention of the flush toilet.


This entry was posted in America, Family, friendship, Happiness, Health and wellness, Religion, School, Southeast Asia, Thoughts & Musings, Travel, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Southeast Asia – Chapter 5

  1. Clean drinking water and proper sewage disposable are very important. Thanks for sharing this .

  2. timfergudon says:

    This is my 3rd attempt to reply! Very difficult to navigate. 1 miss stroke and everything disappears! I would like to discuss with you the concept of Wayang and it’s role in stabilizing the family unit and society! Tim 🙂

    Sent from my iPhone

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