6 October 2013
For the love of distant cities
He looked exhausted, sweat was still drenching his khaki T-shirt after a long hot day of work. There was barely anyone around in the grounds of the palace of the sultan (which I would visit the following morning).
He glanced at me, vaguely mumbling something which I took for an attempt to get me to pay for a ride in his becak (a cycle rickshaw or tricycle – I have to love them: see the samurai-shaped ones I captured in Thailand, and the Formula 1 ones in Peru). I politely refused – I never accept when I know my way and can use my legs (in Morocco, when I would not react to offers of camel rides, they would then joke about offering helicopter rides instead). But I did promptly offer him to exchange roles: I would pedal and he would be the “customer”. He was a bit startled but let me execute my plan. It made all the other becak drivers laugh as I passed by them.
I had arrived in Yogyakarta a bit earlier in the afternoon from a five-hour train ride which had kept me busy drafting one of my previous stories, that random encounter with a Javanese woman my age. After a brief stop at my dirt-cheap guesthouse (I didn’t write dirty but cheap!), I decided to get a feel of the city’s street life by walking down the famous central North-South avenue, Jalan Malioboro, leading to the palace. On the way, what bustling activity with countless becaks and motorcycles, dozens of batik and other traditional stores full of customers, and palace grounds gradually emptying themselves of the day’s tourists, leaving local teenagers to their football game.
Sometimes I can’t help to be fixated on an idea. Reading about Yogyakarta – in opposition to Jakarta – reminded me of the impression I had of Kyoto as opposed to Tokyo. There is already that surprising similarity in names, between the capital city and the other major city. It also seemed that, in both cases, the smaller of the two cities appeared to be the cultural heart of their respective islands, Java for Yogyakarta, Honshu for Kyoto, much more than the capital cities were. Also, the former appeared a bit more tranquil, rich of small alleys, than the undoubtedly noisy and sprawling capital city. But while Kyoto looked like a big village with its low-level buildings, its two thousand temples and other beautiful pavilions, Yogyakarta was clearly a big city which main cultural landmarks were located in its near neighborhood, Borobudur and Prambanan among the most well-known.
Since I just wrote about similarities and differences in distant cities, let me finish with an excerpt from one of Pablo Neruda’s love and sensual poems called Ode and Burgeonings:
“And one by one the nights
between our separated cities
are joined to the night that unites us.
We have felt each other lip to lip,
we have changed a thousand times
between us death and life,
all that we were bringing
like dead medals
we threw to the bottom of the sea,
all that we learned
was of no use to us:
we begin again,
we end again
death and life.
And here we survive,
pure, with the purity that we created,
broader than the earth that could not lead us astray,
eternal as the fire that will burn
as long as life endures.”
PS: the collection from which Neruda’s poem comes from is called The Captain's Verses, published in 1952, and can be read in English. I discovered it tonight and really enjoyed some of those poems, written with style and in a language that is easily understandable.