Most maps of Yogyakarta show three rivers running through the city: the Winingo, the Code and the Gajahwong, but these ribbons of brackish water barely get noticed by most visitors more interested in shopping on Malioboro or checking out the Hindu temples that encircle the city.
Yogyakarta isn’t known as a riverine city. The waters flowing through it don’t define the place in the way London is defined by the Thames, Paris by the Seine or Bangkok by the Chao Phraya.
But in the words of documentary makers and travel writers the world over, the river banks teem with life. In this case perhaps not wildlife, that is confined to a few caged birds, but human. While the Jakarta elite frets economic growth may fall below 6 percent in 2015, people along these rivers worry more about flooding and making ends meet.
The Code River is the middle of the city’s three rivers. Starting its life on the slopes of sacred Mount Merapi, a live volcano that plays a significant role in the traditions and folklore of the Javanese in these parts, the Code heads south through the city and meanders its way onwards through the countryside before emptying itself into the waters of the southern Indian Ocean.
The kampungs — small, almost self-sufficient communities — that hug the river show another Indonesia. A more traditional one that struggles to keeps its identity faced with economic growth and a more aspiring society.
Joining a tour from a cafe on Jl. Prawirotaman, just to the south of the keraton, or palace, that lies at the heart of the city, we soon found ourselves immersed in the narrow alleyways, known as gang, of a kampung.
Karang Anyar is unremarkable. In the early afternoon, children are playing in the alleyways, smiling and calling out to the visitors, posing happily for photographs before collapsing in peals of laughter. Men sit around and smoke unhurriedly. In fact, nothing in the kampung seems to be done at any speed.
Most doors and windows of the small houses are open, as much to catch some breeze as to stickybeak passers-by.
There are plenty of trees but the sound of birdsong comes from those in cages hanging outside people’s houses. Our guide told us it was human nature to control nature. Maybe. But given Merapi’s frequent pyrotechnics, people here are more prone to being controlled by the whims of nature — perhaps a caged bird is seen as one small victory in a battle they can never win.
Crossing a busy main road we are temporarily reminded of another reality of life in Indonesia: traffic. It is with great relief that we plunge headlong back into another kampung, Kerparakan Kidul.
This community seems a little bit stricter than the previous one. A sign on a rare patch of open land implores its residents to stay away from drugs, alcohol and sex before marriage if they don’t want to have a bad time in the afterlife. Interestingly, there is no mention of avoiding corruption.
At the security post, guests are requested to check in with the community leaders. Some kampungs enforce this more strictly than others. Our guide told us about where he lived; one new family moved into the area and as ever, the newcomers were treated with suspicion.
These doubts increased when it was found a young man would stay over at the house frequently.
The villagers, no doubt offended by this callous behavior, reported their concerns to the community head who approached the new family. It turned out the head of the family was away often on business and this young guy came round to look after the house and family.
The villagers didn’t like this either and said he couldn’t stay anymore. The villagers, would look after everything because that is what they do in the
kampungs: they look after their own.
Each of the kampungs we passed through had its own security post, little more than a small hut. Inside, on the walls, was a roster showing which of the residents would be on guard duty on which night. And these people would be responsible for the security of the village at night time, occasionally doing their rounds checking everything was all right.
Keparakan Kidul’s alleyways were even narrower than Karang Anyar’s. At times the pathway, if it can be called that, was just a meter or so wide while low hanging corrugated sheeted roofs provided another obstacle for the tall ones.
Despite being so close to the river, people had no fresh running water. Instead they had to draw it from wells manually every time they wanted to bathe or do their laundry.
From the outside it didn’t seem like much was going on. Our guide, by now desperate for a cigarette but not
succumbing out of respect to his non smoking guests, stood and chatted a while with one man about his T-shirt designs. The guide wants him to try and sell them but the man is not convinced.
But within the cramped shacks business was thriving. We stopped by one such dwelling that was perhaps no more than two metres wide and peered into the dark recesses. Inside, a television was on next to it the familiar sight of a computer screen. And that was pretty much the full extent of artificial light beyond a solitary bulb that wasn’t strong enough to tell the time from.
Yet amid this almost Dickensian atmosphere was a thriving economy. The gentleman who both lived and worked here made gifts for weddings and judging by the wares he showed us, he will be busy for the next few months.
Moving on, we then met a local lady made good. She had relatively large, well-lit premises for making handbags.
Ibu Sugiman had started making handbags back in 1989. Initially they were bought by a middleman who would then sell them locally and in Bali, but eventually she was tracked down by a Japanese buyer who started buying direct, increasing her turnover.
Business was brisk even in such humble conditions and Sugiman now employs four people, had the workshop as well as a showroom/home where she paraded her bags as well as her sideline business: selling caged birds, some of which were sold for around $1,000.
Down by the river there was another row of cramped dwellings. One lithe, young man sat outside his small shack putting the finishing touches to a pile of leather sandals. The whole area was a hotbed of cottage industries and their success was shown in the amount of construction work going on as new houses, as well as a sports hall were going up.
For all the activities along the river bank, the actual water itself is a mess. People continue to throw their trash into the stream, which, in turn, provides opportunities for the less fortunate who wade the waters looking for rubbish that may have a resale value.
There is, though, a growing environmental awareness sparked in part by the flooding of 2010 that followed a Merapi eruption. There are many signs warning against throwing trash in the river while students from the local universities have been active in encouraging locals to do something about the river.
Even politics are having a small impact on attempts to keep the river clean. Different parties and organizations have held town hall meetings on the topic while one group has held a number of events, including fishing competitions, to try and promote a healthier, cleaner river.
We emerged back on the main road one last time as our walk along the Code River came to an end. It had been a humbling experience.
One of the guests, an economist from New York, was suitably impressed by the industry she had seen even though it didn’t always fit in with the models developed by people in her highly
educated, highly paid industry.
Down here, at the real grass roots, government and big business remain very far away. Many of the people we met didn’t venture into the center of Yogyakarta let along Jakarta. Ignored by the central government for so long, mocked on Jakarta-centric TV shows as buffoons, along the banks of the river people lived by their own code, a code that many city dwellers have long forgotten. – Jakarta Globe