Sunday, May 23, 2010


With April now officially underway, Alison and I took a long weekend trip to Central Java's lesser sultanate, Solo.  Formerly known as Surakarta, the city has kept up a long history of competition with its southwestern neighbor, Yogyakarta.  After getting settled in, taking a becak ride, and eating a sub-$1 lunch (while totally lacking in great-tasting food, Solo abounds in cheaply priced eateries), we were off to find the celebrated Solonese gamelan performances we had read about.

We proceeded to the only venue anyone in town seemed to know about for traditional performances.  (Contrast this with the much smaller Ubud, where venues are found every block).  A dilapidated theater greeted us.  There was an hour to kill before doors opened for the nightly performance.

What do you do when you have an hour to kill in Solo?  Go to the carnival, of course!  Unbelievably, there was a 60-cent entree fee carnival right next door:

We wandered around, got told we couldn't ride the carousel because we weren't kids, and were generally stunned.  Soon a live band began playing dangdut hits.  It was sort of sad at first, as the place was empty and the stage was enormous.  But wouldn't you know it, Indonesians started pouring in.  And ordering cold tea, and singing along, and smoking clove cigarettes, and loving the dangdut.  I was enamored with what I perceived to be a dramatic battle of egos between the lead singer, a very short, 40-50 year old man, and his would-be-lead-singer keyboardist.  They alternated singing the bluesy, over-the-top vocals.  The songs usually featured any number of money-note, high-pitched lines, and as the performance went on I felt like they were trying to one-up each other, straining harder each time to eek out the most volume from their upper registers.  The intraband diva drama, real or imagined, kept me entertained until showtime.

I think the bathroom sink offers a sort of analogy by photograph of the Solonese theater:

The theater was sort of in shambles, the dancers were not practiced, the gamelan was missing a bunch of instruments.  The performance featured a lot of lines and comedy in Javanese.  It was a bit slow, especially because we couldn't understand any of the words.

At least the costuming was full-throttle:

If the theater had some serious touch-ups, it could be a nice space.  What you're not seeing here are the worn-down chairs, a quarter full with Indonesians (half asleep and the other half smoking clove cigarettes) and vaguely dirty floors:

You can't escape it:

Solo, like Yogya, has a kraton - a sultan's compound complete with grounds, gamelans, trees, etc. 

The sultanate, stretching back hundreds of years, has kept track of its line on this wooden board:

Religion freely intermixes in cultural centers like Yogya and Solo.  The relatively new and dominant Islam is nevertheless absorbed by the ancient traditions.  For example, a distinctly Hindu offering is laid out daily in the central grounds of the ostensibly Islam-practicing sultanate:

They had several halls filled with Dutch and Solonese antiques, like this carriage:

A giant ancient oar:

The walls of the kraton:

Solo's becak-filled streets:

Yellow angkots:

Solo's feature mosque:

If you're looking to shop for quality batik, Solo is the place.  There are countless batik shops of every price range and variety.  These ladies are making the negative wax-dye fabric right outside a major distributor:

Solo's streets are a lot less flashy than Yogya's.  No touristy eateries, no shops, lots of kaki lima (literally five legs, meaning the walkable food carts):

A becak nap:

These singular street lights are a highlight:

We didn't see many foreigners, but there were some Indonesian tourists:

Our last stop in Solo was a well-known university.  We were hoping, again, for some quality performances, but the place was on some kind of break and almost totally dead.  One corner of the campus had a gamelan under repair, so we invited ourselves in and took some pictures and tooled around.  Here is a dry erase board with some songs in unwieldy notation (traditionally the songs were not written down):

The repairman goes to work:

By etching away at the keys, he can change the pitch.

Play that bonang!

The most spectacular sights of the trip were reserved for the plane ride home.  A dramatic sunset from our window seats greeted us on the short flight to Jakarta:

Ada pelampung!  Cari di bawah kursi anda dong:

Lion Air:

Permisi.  Can you ask the captain to turn the plane to the left, so we can have a better shot at the sunset?  Thanks!



  1. very pleased to find this site.I wanted to thank you for this great read!

    Huck Towel

  2. I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post."

    Web Design