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Alun-alun Lor; a nice green heart YOGYAKARTA - It hasn't been that long that it was a sunny and very hot day in Yogyakarta when I made a short walk around the so-called alun-alun lor, the northern square belonging to the kraton, the palace of the family of the sultan. The green grass - during the wet season the grass often is green, in the dry season it more resembles hay - reached until half a meter in some places. Not well maintained as we should expect at a palace, but at least there was an open space in the city which offered the opportunity to blow of some steam. This blowing steam you should not do at times that I generally visit this kind of locations, no it's much better in the early hours until seven in the morning and after five in the afternoon again. The salespeople along the edge will offer you something to drink or eat if you like.

The fact that the place is not maintained well, is not really a problem. It looks nice for a place right in the middle of the city. I wasn't the only one to think so, that's for sure. It's a place where throughout the day people are to be found, mostly of the younger generation. Drink a little, have a lunch there. Walk around a bit. Hand in hand you won't see often, but the meaning of it, is pretty clear. Being together outside the view of both families - and possibly also each others friends, what is also known as pacaran. That hand in hand goes well together with other activities on the field. A game of soccer in the afternoon or an hour of obligatory gymnastics from the local school. However gymnastics is probably not appreciated the trip to the field in the early morning was fun of course. School books could be left behind at least for now.

In the lively city this is a nice place which I could enjoy for a few years, when I happened to be in the area again, I often dropped in. Sit down, glass ice cold iced tea and just enjoy what is happening around you. Generally there is no lack of things that happen around you in Indonesia, so here it's no different. A group of self-made musicians walks around the square which is open for public for the bigger part (the road around the southern square is open all around it, but it's more crowded there). They think they add something, but at least they add money to their pockets, because often they are given money directly upon arrival so they can leave almost immediately. You can explain that in more than one way indeed. Ahead is an older man with all kinds of machine parts around him. Black grease everywhere. Under a sheet of brown plastic he is able to make it a nice place. Besides him a lesehan, mats on the ground where you sit on when eating, where simple meals available for cheap prices. However in the center of the city, prices are still normal here.

The path right through the middle of the square is nowadays surrounded by a melting pot of brightly colored plastic sheets with under that little shops that sell the same products as elsewhere in the city.
The path right through the middle of the square is nowadays surrounded by a melting pot of brightly colored plastic sheets with under that little shops that sell the same products as elsewhere in the city.


A party every once in a while

This kind of big squares are not only ideal for just sitting and spending your time looking around. More people have noticed that. The sultan therefore rents his square a few times a year. Think about an annual fancy fair, celebration of the end of Ramadan, and the many New Year's (Arabic, Chinese and 'Western' New Years are all celebrated here). Events like this bring in a load of small temporary shops built from bamboo, plywood and plastic sheets. A colorful gathering which we might call a market. All kinds of products are sold; food, clothing, music, plants and whatever more. It doesn't really matter what kind of event it is, most likely you will find the same kind of stalls there are the spots on the square are not for free of course, right on one of the squares belonging to the palace of the sultan.

After the event is over, the semi-permanent huts are broken down of course - materials are taken apart and loaded onto trucks because they will be re-used during a future event. Unfortunately a load of trash is left behind since Indonesians generally do no effort at all to put their trash in the trash bin, if they are available because most of the time they aren't. Outside the trash - which is often cleaned rather quick by people collecting plastic, cardboard and others and after that the city cleaning service - the green grass that is left behind is transformed into a lunar landscape with holes for bamboo, sand which is used for makeshift drainage canals and cement for places to keep your feet dry.

With the above description it may look like that no one really cares what happens with 'that piece of grass' before it is restored to it's old shape. Well, that that is actually meant this way because it's true. Their temporary stay and their departure a few days later makes it that they don't see what damage they do to the environment. During rain the field becomes a place full of mud (not that worse as near Sidoarjo, but still), when dry the entire square drifts a few meters to the left or the right, so when new rain falls down, local flooding is caused. No, that is not their problem because they have earned their money and will not be returning soon as well. When they finally do return the mess has most likely been cleaned after all - the next event is probably months away, in that time people here manage to clean something.

But indeed, eventually the grass will get back to it's old shape. The blown away/washed away sand is wiped together and put back and within a matter of weeks the grass starts to get it's green color back again. Grass is usually strong and not dead immediately, so the roots have the power to revive the plant entirely. As said before most people don't care too much about the field afterwards, and probably the family of the sultan belongs to that group as well, as they are the owners. Renting it is one thing, but not taking care of it afterwards is not a very positive sign of course.

A car and motor parking space is now on the spot of a nice green field not too long ago. The dark clouds may be illustrative to the situation, but they are not pasted into this image.
A car and motor parking space is now on the spot of a nice green field not too long ago. The dark clouds may be illustrative to the situation, but they are not pasted into this image.


Everlasting event?

Several days ago I was in the neighborhood of the kraton and it's squares. A nice opportunity to try and make a quiet walk of course. Stretching your legs after being on a motorbike for hours, that is something I won't let pass me by. I turned left coming from the east and I drove towards the square passing the old Dutch colonial buildings of the main post office and the BNI, a bank. It was crowded with motorbikes on the road. Small ticket booths on the pavement. That was strange to see, but Chinese New Year was coming, I almost forgot that. The square was overloaded with a variety of stalls and little shops, as usual during events. No opportunity for a quiet walk of course, but at least I wanted to take a look to see what the situation was. Maybe the grass had improved, you never know.

Several days after Chinese New Year - festivities are over by now - the alun-alun still features the fancy fair - literary with it's Ferris wheel and carts and all that. My earlier suspicions that this stuff is here to stay seems to be correct as well. The first concrete floors are created on top of the grass. A parking space is created at a strategic location at the edge of the square, including concrete driveway. No, this is not just for a couple of days anymore, that is very obvious now. I felt somewhat sad, seeing all this.

Until not too long ago the family of the sultan succeeded in keeping away the plebs from their public property, for sure as permanent resident or salesperson. For now, no people really live on this place yet, but shacks are already built from big bamboo tubes and roof tiles on top. That kind of things are generally not used when it's just temporary. It can be assumed that this place will have the same faith as many other green places in the city. First people start to eat away the edges and then someone puts a bench there.

That bench is not the real problem, together with a little bit of green it makes a nice place to sit down for a while if you ask me. But that usually is not it. Because it rains every once in a while, a plastic sheet is attached above it, and just a while later a stone floor is created, less 'rich' salespeople drop a bucket or what of broken roof tiles or river stones there, as long as the feet don't get wet. Plants are put aside or grow underneath the plastic. Time to cut them down, better cut them entirely so they don't have to clean the falling leaves every single day... better to be lazy than tired.

And this is exactly what happens with the alun-alun at the moment. Once you give one finger to organize an event, Indonesians think they can claim the right to take your entire hand and occupy the area, because 'Yesterday it was no problem'. Well, yesterday it was an event, and today it's time to go. No, that's not a real option anymore because they can earn some money - more than just a little bit because they are right in the heart of the city - but also because the square is already taken over by the city's people.

The little bit of green left at the moment is a row of old trees at the edge of the square. Hoping that they will be here in the future as well, I just enjoy the view because the hope I have may be against knowing better.
The little bit of green left at the moment is a row of old trees at the edge of the square. Hoping that they will be here in the future as well, I just enjoy the view because the hope I have may be against knowing better.


Remaining green

The row of big trees is still there, so there is still hope of course. But cutting them has to happen sooner rather than later to be able to give a place to all the people that would like to live and work at the square. One tree less is not a real problem to them. That square meter is desperately needed for a new plywood shack what pollutes the cityscape, according to the opinion of not just me but also other visitors there. No, that the tree provides shadow, takes in water during the wet season and keeps it during the dry season that is not important, because what you don't know, you don't have to worry about.

Of course people move to the big city to earn a salary. No difference here and for many in the area the recent year hasn't been an easy. Just recall the heavy earthquake of May 2006 that killed about 6.000 people. Next thing that happened is that Merapi rumbled again for a few weeks, so there always is an excuse to move towards the safety of the city (however the whirlwind that hit Yogyakarta last week made a direct hit on the city center).

Some education is not wrong I presume. Maybe it's a good idea to spend some of the income that the local government and the royal family earns on educating people why they cannot use this square as yet another free trade zone. Of course it's not only a bunch of trees and a handful of grass, the entire culture that this square has, is getting lost at incredible speed. I cannot imagine that the sultan wakes up in the morning and thinks 'That looks nice' when he looks towards the square.

Let's hope that this place will be brought to it's original state, an empty square with grass where people can play a game of soccer, take a nap in the afternoon, do some exercise in the morning and maybe once in a while just a little kiss when the evening is already getting late.



Posted in Culture @ 24 February 2007 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink






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