Wednesday, December 10, 2008

After the first death

[Dylan Thomas, "A refusal to mourn the Death, by Fire, of a child in London"]

In Yogyakarta, we asked a local for directions, and he offered us to show us the Water Castle and surrounding kampung. The journey led us through several shops: the official doll maker of the king (or so we were told), a wood carver, oil painters, and batik makers.

Our guide told us that one of the shops contained the work of fifty artists. To survive, they had formed a collective.

Tourism isn't what it was ten years ago, he told us, when he was able to make a good living as an artist. Everything had changed after the Bali bombings. The tourists left and stayed away. The quality of life of the people dependent on the tourists sloped downward.

In early November of this year, the bombers were executed. In the back parts of our minds, we feared the worst: demonstrations, retaliation. But in Surabaya, the only thing I experienced was a taxi driver handing us a newspaper and pointing to the article saying that it was finished.

We get off the buses and trains and we are met by roving hordes of drivers. "Where are you going, Mister?" In the more touristy areas of some towns, the becak drivers ask the same. People are desperate for work.

In Yogyakarta, we hired several becak, bicycle cabs, to carry us around town. We journeyed for about two hours. When we wanted to look at something, they waited. While we traveled, the driver talked. He also mentioned the Bali bombings. He said we were his only fare of the day.

We paid about $3.50. Enough to feed him for half a week. Some of the drivers sleep in their becak. He is surviving. But things just don't seem right to me.

Most of the people here are honest. We went for food the other night, to get takeaway from a nearby food stall. We filled our tupperware with food for three people. The man charged us 80 cents. I tried to pay $1.00. He wouldn't take it.

Our guide to the Water Castle didn't pressure us to buy any of his goods. Tourists often get the hard sell. The artists are desperate for money, and some tourists will pay five times the "Indonesian price" for some goods when pressured.

"Come back when luck provides you with better fortune," our guide said. He said that it is "kembali," the concept of return. A favor will be returned with favor. We gave him a small offering for his time and walked off into the night.

Next week, we leave for Bali for Christmas. Ironically, Bali may have been the tourist area least affected by the Bali bombings. Maybe its beaches are too beautiful for the tourists to stay away. Or maybe it's something else.

But it still has its people who are desperate for money. Those who try to find what they can from a system that, even while it trudges on, is partially a ghost of a creature. A creature that had the sparkle in its eye extinguished by the sparkle of an exploding bomb.

And who are we but just meager caretakers, who feed that creature when we can, even though it can never be enough?

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