Thursday, June 1, 2006

Breathless in Yogya

I was in Indonesia for nine days last week for a vacation with close relatives. We spent six days in Jakarta and three in Yogyakarta (Yogya or Jogja for short) which was among the areas in Central Java hit by the killer earthquake in the early morning of May 27.

Yogya, an ancient capital city, is the cultural center of Java. It isn’t anything like Bali but it has its own charm and cultural richness.

The quake that killed some 5,000 people missed us by 38 hours. I do not want to imagine what it would have been like for us had we chosen a later date for the cultural trip there. The quake left many stranded as the airport runways were damaged. (Yogya is 50 minutes by plane from Jakarta.)

Back in Jakarta I had goose bumps when I saw on TV and in the papers images of death and destruction. Some of the places we had visited around Yogya had suffered damage, among them the Hindu Prambanan temples, a Unesco World Heritage Site 18 km. east of Yogya which is continuously being restored to their original grandeur. With the killer quake’s destructive sweep, restoration work has suffered a setback. But the destruction is nothing compared to the thousands of lives that were lost.

Built in the 9th century during Sanjaya Dynasty, the temple complex has hundreds of temples spread out all over but a dozen or so comprise the major ones. The three biggest for the Hindu trinity—Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma—form the centerpiece.

At night, the mutely illuminated temple peaks serve as backdrop to the open-air ballet version of the Hindu Ramayana epic that is staged regularly. On the temples are bas-reliefs of the Ramayana story intricately carved on volcanic rock pieces that fit together like jigsaw pieces.

The climb up the Shiva temple with its steep steps left me breathless but more breathless was I at the majestic Borobudur, a multi-layered Buddhist shrine that is also made from andesite or volcanic rock. Borobudur (budur means site upon a hill) was built between the 8th and 9th century during the Cailendra Dynasty. The massive solid structure serves up, again in bas-relief, the life story of the Buddha plus scores of see-through stupas and Buddha statues at the topmost level. Borobudur, with its onomatopoeic name, indeed shakes the ramparts of ones mind with its grandness.

My cousin (she who runs the famous Small Talk Café in Legaspi City that serves gourmet pasta pinangat) and I made it to the peak after clambering up the more than 120 steps. But so did my aunt and uncle who are on the far side of 70s. An aunt stayed down to simply gaze at Borobudur and stretch her mind to the peak where, on a clear day (or at high noon, which was when we made our ascent) one can see forever.
There are many other sites to visit around Yogya, among them the Sultan’s palace, which I think suffered some damage because of the earthquake, and, if you’re the pilgrim type, Sendang Sono, the ``Lourdes of Southeast Asia’’ 45 km. west of Yogya.

I didn’t expect to find a place like Sendang Sono in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. But then Muslims do revere the Virgin Mary (whose birth and maternity are in fact written about in the Koran) so she is well at home in this faraway village.

One gets to the place via a seemingly endless road that snakes through a lush forest area. The Senda Sono centerpiece is the Marian grotto that is guarded by two ancient trees. Like Lourdes, it has its own spring water that is said to have sprung forth miraculously in the early days when a Dutch Catholic priest first settled there. Sendang Sono celebrated its 100th year as a pilgrimage site in 2004.

The place was so quiet and tranquil when we arrived there. As I watched the Indonesian men and women pilgrims who were seated so still on mats and praying so fervently with their eyes closed I couldn’t help but shut off the noise in my own heart. Sendang Sono was one of our last stops in Yogya before we flew back to Jakarta.

If I were not on a vacation mode, I would have interviewed Filipino ``expats’’ in Jakarta for a story for the Inquirer’s ``Global Pinoy’’ page. (Perhaps the Inquirer could send me there another time.) The so-called expats are the topnotch executives of foreign and Filipino firms operating in Indonesia. My cousin’s family is an expat family, her husband being head of manufacturing operations there of the Filipino pharmaceutical company, Unilab. My cousin and her husband both finished industrial pharmacy at UP.

I was able to meet the expat crowd at St. Theresia Church where masses for expats are regularly held. Many live very comfortable lives—big homes (some with swimming pools), expensive schools for the kids, first-class travel, all at their respective companies’ expense. And why not, they had to uproot themselves from their already comfortable niches in the Philippines. They also have to work doubly hard.

But still, their lot is a far cry from that of the OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) who are away from their families and whose salaries are a pittance when compared to the expats’ eye-popping package.

But Jakarta is not a hardship post. From the looks of it, it seems way ahead of Metro Manila in the infrastructure department, and all the amenities for the expats’ comfortable lifestyle are within reach.

But it’s not just the expats that are growing roots there. A great Filipino vision has taken shape in Indonesia. Gawad Kalinga (Couples for Christ’s action arm which I wrote about for the Inquirer’s Easter Sunday front page) has been building homes for the poor there. Many Filipino expats that belong to CFC are putting in their share of work.

A wonderful thing.