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Melting Pots & Pot Boilers

If you are paying anything more than a passing visit to Yogyakarta you will soon become aware of its ‘melting-pot’ character. The area around the Wisma Bahasa – the north eastern part of the city – is where most of the major universities and other higher education institutions are located.

Make no mistake, Yogyakarta is mostly populated by Javanese – many of whom talk proudly of being ‘asli Yogya’. However, the study opportunities in this city attract students from all over Indonesia. Round the corner from Gang Nuri is the busy Jalan Gejayan. Here you find all kinds of student accommodation, as well as an unbelievable variety of food stalls – human and culinary samples from nearly every island in Indonesia!

The Wisma Bahasa itself also offers an interesting cross-section. There are teachers and staff from various parts of Java, from Sumatra, from Madura, from Flores, from Timor. Most of them – if not all – have ended up in Yogyakarta because they came here to study – however many years ago it was – and are still here! (And there are one or two foreigners who have done the same thing, take my word for it!) The students at the Wisma obviously provide even more ingredients for the melting pot. Croatians, Danes, Sri Lankans, Koreans, Brazilians, Australians – to name but a few.

Yogyakarta also has an ‘ex-pat’ community, although obviously nothing like as big as the one in Jakarta. There doesn’t seem to be the same incidence of ‘siege mentality’ or exclusion. More of the ex-pats here are speakers of Bahasa Indonesia, and many of them used to live in Jakarta – and are extremely happy with their decision to move away!

There is also a fairly big community of foreigners studying in Yogyakarta – especially at Gajah Mada University. There are teachers too, of course: English language teachers and some teachers of other languages, plus a smattering of lecturers and technical instructors or experts. There are also AVI, VSO, CUSO and JOCV volunteers currently serving here. You also come across a surprising number of other NGO people. (As busy as they may be, they seem to come out of the woodwork at various times. There seems to be an unwritten rule that they gather, when they can, at the FM Café in Jalan Sosrowijayan on Tuesday evenings). A few NGOs now have their national offices in Yogyakarta.

Then you’ve got a steadily growing community of businessmen and women. These also come from all quarters. Koreans, Japanese, Europeans. A large number of them seem to be furniture dealers.

I once met an Italian furniture dealer and we got talking. He ended up lending me a book – a quite fascinating book – one of those kinds of books that’s so much more fascinating (and seems so much more relevant somehow) because you come across it when you’re on your travels rather than if you were nestled in your armchair back home. The book was “Guns, Germs & Steel” by Jared Diamond.

Finding English language books to read in Yogyakarta is not always easy. There are books in the shops but they always feel so expensive. Someone told me recently that there is a superb second hand book store down one of the narrow ‘Superman’ alleyways running north from Jalan Sosrowijayan. Biographies, pot-boilers, travel books, you name it. It’s a place where people offload books that have been read and enjoyed but now can’t squeeze into backpacks or suitcases. I’ve yet to check it out – but it sounds like exactly what is needed.

Anyway, “Guns, Germs & Steel” offers a remarkably accessible blend of history, biology, ecology and linguistics as it answers the question: why did history unfold so differently on the different continents? Why did the people of Holland and Java take control of West Papua? Why didn’t Papuans invade and occupy Holland or Java?

Needless to say, the answer is complex – and I’m not going to attempt to regurgitate it here. Suffice to say, it’s certainly not a case of innate intelligence or ethnic superiority. It’s all about food production capacity and the number of surplus males available, and with nothing ‘better’ to do than to develop the sciences necessary to kill and conquer others.

And besides, it seems the ‘Papuans’ (so to speak) did once occupy Java – before they were displaced by others – migrants moving down from the Asian continental land mass. And the ‘Papuans’ may themselves have come down from China – and more specifically – Taiwan, too. Anyway, it’s all in Diamond’s book, which was a great read – and which, of course, I passed on to someone else at the Wisma recently.

Who knows. Maybe my Italian furniture dealer friend one day will run into a friendly Wisma student in a café or a bar, and he will be unwittingly offered his own copy of “Guns, Germs & Steel”. The sense that ‘it’s a small world’ is as strong as anywhere, here in Yogyakarta. (by Adrian Coen)

One thought on “Melting Pots & Pot Boilers”

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