SWEARER CENTER OF BROWN UNIVERSITY,
STORYTELLING ABROAD 2019
Do you see those mountains over there? The ones that look like they are almost fading away?”
Luthfi, an Indonesian student from PolyU, motioned for me to sit with him on the stone ledge. We were in Borobudur, and the sun was about to set. The world’s largest Buddhest temple took the form of a nine-layer step pyramid. The monument was once a site for pilgrimage, guiding past Buddhist followers through intricate stairways and corridors that pieced together the stories carved on by the more thousands of relief panels and balustrades. Our tour guide had tirelessly motivated us to straggle the hundred and fifty steps to the top, saying we’d soon reach “nirvana.” Just before the blue skies became lavender, and just before the sun started hiding behind the layers and layers of stupas, I finally felt the weight of the hundred and fifty steps, letting my legs collapse under me.
I plopped down next to Luthfi, joining a row of Hong Kong and Indonesian students, our feet dangling over the ledge as we all took in the sight before us.
I squinted at the mountainous terrain. While it seemed so far as to behind the setting sun, I could also easily count the layers of shades between blue and green.
Lutfi continued, “That’s where we’ll be tomorrow. Deep in those mountains. Hidden and so far away from everything else.”
He was referring to the place we would not only be serving in, but also living in. This place was a village, or desa, called Kebonharjo. It resides in the sub-district of Kulon Progo, tucked away deep inside the Javanese mountains just west of Yogyakarta. His words lingered in my mind. I couldn’t visualize myself within a landscape that had, so far, served only as a distant background.
But soon enough, I realized how right Lutfi was. One hour-long rocky ride later,
Jogja’s bustling streets that were once crammed with motorcycles weaving through taxis and vans soon morphed into barren dirt paths. I said the village’s name slowly over and over again to myself, accentuating each syllable each time our bus shook climbing over rocks and rubble.
We found ourselves quickly disappearing into the mountains we had joked about being so far away the day before.
We zoomed past women hiking up the hills our bus struggled to overcome, heaving branches over their shoulders and balancing baskets of cassava on their heads. We zoomed past men wiping sweat from their cheeks as they layered white bricks, the new skeletons for new houses. We zoomed past numerous stray dogs as they barked at us newcomers and curiously wagged their tails.
I began to further understand this new place, its past and its future, after meeting the village head. He welcomed me into his office, which was adjacent to the most luscious grass stairways of rice fields. I was deeply inspired by his passion and dedication to his community. He was elected village head by his people in 2015, and will serve until 2021.
Rohmad Ahmadi, the village head, was born in Kebonharjo but spent most of his lifetime living in Yogyakarta. He received a formal education until earning his Bachelor’s degree in Social Politics. Before his election, he had worked for an NGO that focused on women’s rights, disaster issues, and city planning.
In response, Rohmad enforced regulations to give babies within the village additional nutritional sources every month. He continued to list the other actions he has taken to build a healthier environment for his people: he has promoted better air quality, installed marble tiles over the previously dirt floors of houses, provided proper toilets, built better infrastructure for villagers to travel to and from their farming fields, and acquired cleaner water systems.
In light of these changes, Rohmad said that Kebonharjo was undergoing a unique transition. People have lived in Kebonharjo for as long as over a hundred years. Once shaped by its own isolation and its old traditions set by his ancestors, Kebonharjo is now slowly evolving under new forces of globalization. Despite the possible loss of these old traditions, he accentuated that things are changing for the better. This is not to say that these projects should undermine the village’s identity. Ideally, Rohmad wants to bring in new changes that will benefit his village, but ensure that their lively spirits are not left behind in the process.
Every morning began with the same routine. I would always wake up to prayers to Azan, cackling roosters, rustling palm leaves, giggling goats, and barking dogs. I unzipped the cocoon of my mosquito net and shuffled over to the wooden sink to splash cold water into my face. Breakfast was a cold plate of instant Indomie noodles and boiled eggs.
At six in the morning, the wet market is bustling. You find it through a narrow alley half way down the mountain, opening the door into a whole world of colors and smells. Various vendors were located side by side on top of black wooden planks. Women in patterned hijabs sat on these planks, surrounded by rainbows of produce. Balls of lettuce, stacks of cucumbers, mountains of carrots, piles of tomatoes all lay on the ground, their hues glistening under the rising morning light that penetrated the cracks of the wooden roofs.
My eyes fell to the corner of the market, where I noticed several children and their mothers all crowding around one little stand. I struggled to see what the commotion was about. Between the gaps of waving arms and hands, I saw one woman behind the counter, throwing a huge knife through piles of raw chicken meat. Next to this stand were stacks of plastic bags filled with yellow vegetable oil and MSG.
The villagers warmly greeted me like I was the grand child they spoke about, the ones who moved away to find work in the city, only to never return.
While more than 4,000 miles away from home, grasping the villagers' hands - a traditional Javanese greeting form - made me at least one mile closer to home.