Tuesday, October 30, 2012


The iconographic image for Bali is a line of women on their way to temple balancing platters tiered with fruit, flowers, and woven offerings.  Even in the still photograph there is movement, a sense of the women’s rhythm, of their calm grace.  Their kebayas, fluorescent against the green of rice paddies and rain forests in the distance, shimmer in the stillness.  The first time you encounter such a procession of women in Bali, it catches your breath, the beauty of it, the recognition of the baseness of your own pitiful existence. 

One of the iconic images for me of Java is the jamu lady, resplendent in a vibrant, lacy kebaya, a length of batik wrapped as a sarong around her legs, a basket slung by a selendang from her shoulder, drifting along dusty streets, an apparent lightness to her step and being.  In heat that sucks the breath from you, these women move as if untethered to this earth.  They are their own best advertisement, a testimonial to the tonics they peddle.

Jamu is a traditional herbal tonic popular throughout Indonesia, but especially in Java.  Although it seems to be on the wane in the larger cities, jamu is still widely consumed in the rural areas.  Western medicine and pharmaceuticals seem to be supplanting the use of jamu among the younger population, but many Javanese still tout its virtues.  Long before the arrival of Viagra (knock-offs of which are widely distributed as "pil biru"--the blue pill), there was a jamu to treat limp dick.  There are also mixtures to keep women's juices flowing and preserve their youth, elixirs to keep their men from straying.

Tjing's childhood home, the house we still return to when we return to Java, was a jamu shop.  Customers would come in, say what ailed them, then sit on stools along a bar while Tjing's mother or aunt would prepare  tonics to remedy their complaints.  The mixtures were mostly prepackaged, a blend of various herbs that would then be made into drinks that also contained raw eggs and honey.  When I first visited the home in 1993, the bar was still set up and some customers still drifted in although it was no longer an active shop.  Until the last year or so, if you wanted to give a becak driver directions to the house all you had to do was to mention it was the cap Jago shop on Patimura (cap Jago being the brand of jamu that was sold there and featuring a sign with a rooster which still hangs outside the house).  

Too much of the world now seems familiar.  The uniqueness of place is vanishing as one small village becomes no different from another half a world away.  The Big Mac served in Kediri is not dissimilar to one you might have in New York, Moscow, or Lodi.  As smaller communities long to join the dominant world, they sacrifice pieces of themselves.  Regional foods disappear; newscasters all speak with the same generic accent.  That jamu ladies still tread this earth is something to give thanks for.  Seeing them, their baskets laden with bottles and packets of jamu, a pail for dirty glasses grasped in their hands, brings a recognition that this is Java, that it is a unique place graced by these women, that this land is unique, that here, in this everyday world, there is still that which we might recognize as sacred.

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