Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Free Tours Reveal Hidden Side of Yogyakarta

My first trip to Yogyakarta involved the usual travel-guide activities — a walk through the Sultan’s Palace, a stroll down Jalan Malioboro and a visit to Borobudur Temple in neighboring Magelang.

Having been there and done that, when I go back to Yogya, I spend much of my time appreciating the local art and hanging out on the streetside cafes on Jalan Prawirotaman.

But even that is getting old, and Prawirotaman in the city’s south seems to attract just as many tourists as Borobudur.

On a recent trip to Yogya, I found myself with a friend back at perhaps the most popular traveler’s haunt on Prawirotaman, Cafe Via Via. The sunny cafe has a great mix of Western and Indonesian food, along with regular art exhibitions — not to mention the free Wi-Fi and rooftop terrace.

My friend and I were discussing what to do over the next few days, but we were fresh out of ideas.

As if he had read our minds, a young man approached us and placed a small pamphlet on our table. “Free Tours: Help Them Get Back on Their Feet” — an omen of hope for the day to come.

We were plucked out of touristville and were taken to the outskirts. Our pluckers were the International Organization of Migration’s Java Reconstruction Fund, which offers tours including trips to silver, agel and batik workshops in villages just outside Yogyakarta.

The IOM has been giving aid and running programs around Yogyakarta and Central Java since the 2006 earthquake, and the tours are a way for them to show the public what they have been doing.

“The situation for many artisans in Yogyakarta and surrounding districts was dire following the earthquake, with limited incomes that forced many out of jobs or business,” said Torsten Haschenz, the head of IOM’s Yogyakarta office.

In fact, many silversmiths who once worked in the back rooms of Yogyakarta’s silver stores in Kota Gede were forced to return to their villages jobless after the quake.

“We hope that these visits will enrich both the visitors and the small enterprises through enhanced public awareness, which might in turn lead to an increase in sales and incomes for [our] beneficiaries,” Haschenz said.

The rain did not stop us from venturing out to Gunung Kidul in Pampang, about an hour east of Yogyakarta’s center, to see how the intricate silver trinkets found in many parts of the country are made.

Just 20 minutes outside of Yogyakarta, the din of traffic subsided and we braved a windy road in the mountains with a view of tiered rice fields.

We arrived at Gunung Kidul and were welcomed into a silversmith’s workshop.

The workspace, around 7 by 5 meters, was dark and gloomy, illuminated only by two half-open doors and the flame of a blowtorch.

A mound of silver ore next to a small pile of copper sat on a table at the entrance. The products here are made from 98 percent silver and 2 percent copper, which are melted down and blended in a crucible which hovers at about 1050 degrees Celsius.

As we walked into the workshop, a man wearing frameless glasses, busily crafting a silver piece on his bench, lifted his head. A half-smoked cigarette sat wedged between his lips — his hands were too busy working on a silver butterfly.

Mardiyono, 32, is the owner of the workshop, which was badly damaged in the 2006 earthquake.

“The workshop took two to three months to repair. The government gave me Rp 1 million [$100], but the reconstruction and capital costs were Rp 8 million,” he said.

While we chatted to Madiyono, a noisy rotary mill could be heard in the back room. Silver and copper that had been blended and cooled was now being spun into a spool of fine wire. The machine is worth around $500, and was donated to the workshop by the IOM.

“I wouldn’t have been able to buy one myself,” Mardiyono said, taking a brief break from his workbench, putting out his cigarette and lighting up another. “We still need a lot of new capital, and we’d like more help from the government. I wish they’d think about the everyday people, like us.”

Other workers listened in on Mardiyono’s comments, but kept their heads down at their benches, concentrating on their workmanship. They used thin pincers to manipulate the silver wire and create fine detail in the butterfly broaches and diamond-shaped earrings that illuminate Yogyakarta’s Kota Gede.

Warjiyo, 34, is one of them. He has been working as a silversmith in Pampang for 15 years.

“My house was damaged in the earthquake, but I didn’t get any aid. Only a few people got help. Everyone in the community just helped each other rebuild,” he said.

On a good month, Warjiyo now makes Rp 900,000 to support his wife and 5-year-old daughter.

“In the months after the earthquake, I was making around Rp 500,000, which was very hard,” he said.

Warjiyo spoke in Indonesian, but shyly used the occasional English phrase to get his point across. The IOM has been holding English classes for the locals to help them engage with international buyers and access new markets.

“We have [also] facilitated beneficiaries to form village promotion teams responsible for increasing market access,” Haschenz said.

To further strengthen their presence in the market, six silversmiths from Pampang were recently sent to Bali to learn about Balinese design and marketing techniques. They returned and shared their knowledge with their colleagues.

“That improved our incomes a little, but we still need more help here,” Warjiyo said.

Down the road from the workshop is the Pampang silversmiths’ showroom, which gives visitors the opportunity to buy the silver products, generally at cheaper prices than those in Kota Gede. After the products are crafted, they are cleaned and polished, and their brilliance jumps out of the display cabinets here.

Among Pampang’s visitors in December was first lady Ani Yudhoyono.

“I got to meet Ibu Ani. I felt so honored to meet her,” Warjiyo said. “I hope she spreads the word to Jakarta about what we’re doing and creates more opportunities for us.”

He added, however, that Ibu Ani did not buy anything.

“That’s OK,” he said, laughing. “I’m still glad she came.”

Related: The Art of Getting ‘Wasted’ in Yogya

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