Modern Asian Culture
On my recent, and first, trip to Hanoi, one of the highlights was a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. In particular I was taken by an installation of images that apparently represent the ideas, personalities and events from the early 20th Century which had an effect on his world view.
Initially my companion Catriona Mitchell and I were disappointed to find that the famous Mausoleum itself was closed to the public. Ho Chi Minh’s remains were on their annual trip to Moscow for “maintenance” work. Or as one would-be guide put it: “Uncle Ho is on vacation”. This hopeful man also told us the museum was closed and that he would take us on a tour of Hanoi. Declining as politely as we could, we wandered around and lo and behold the museum was open. Funny that.
The Museum itself is what I would expect from an institutionalized celebration of a charismatic leader who inspired a nation to resist post colonial foreign aggression for more than a quarter of a century. Celebrity socialist realism springs to mind. Naturally there is a propagandistic perspective to the museum, with displays of the colonial oppressor’s lifestyle juxtaposed next to the humble Vietnamese serf’s hovel; semi-abstract, magnificently heroic displays replete with extensive wall text and flip charts, hundreds of fascinating images of Uncle Ho in different situations; some rather abstruse, tangential displays – for example a corner with vegetables celebrating his message to the younger generation to look after the environment.
Hackneyed as some of the underlying message it is, one cannot help but admire the vision of Ho Chi Minh and the fact he planted this vision so deeply into the hearts and minds of the majority of the Vietnamese people. Perhaps it was the era when such charismatic leaders could have such a mesmerizing effect on a world just beginning to experience the gift of the 20th Century – the porousness of borders in the international realm of ideas.
But in amongst all this predictability, Catriona and I stumbled upon a real gem. Almost hidden in a corner of the top floor we found a maze of glass and mirrors, with a myriad of images from the turn of the 20th Century printed seemingly haphazardly on many of the panels. Images ranged from Eadweard Muybridge’s (sic) experiments with motion photography; images of Einstein, Madame Curie, various inventions including the early automobile and other mechanical technology, high rise buildings in New York, paintings by Picasso, Rousseau and more. It was a fascinating insight – all of this were things which Ho Chi Minh was keenly aware of and had played a part in shaping his own views and politics. If anyone still had any illusions about Uncle Ho living in hermetic isolation “in the jungle”, this display would certainly burst that bubble.
The maze is also plenty of fun to wander in and out of. The see-through images on some panels, combined with mirror effects from others contributes to an interesting spectrum of visual effects. And, this is the best place for a “selfie” as you don’t have to muck around trying to point the silly camera at yourself. Or perhaps I should say “pointing the camera at your silly self”.
Catriona and I agreed that this installation, along with a Vietnamese documentary about a traveling transvestite show (“Madame Phung’s Last Journey”) were the highlights of our week in Hanoi.
all photos ©Rio Helmi
MUDIK – The Annual Indonesian Phenomena at the End of Ramadan
The presence of hundreds of thousands of dedicated Javanese workers – seasonal migrant laborers, skilled workers, right up to professionals – in Bali undoubtedly boosts the economy and keeps things running smoothly on this island of a thousand ceremonies.
So when Lebaran, the Indonesian term for Idul Fitri holidays at the end of Ramadan, looms close the island braces itself for a mass exodus of a large portion of the workforce. Construction and production come screeching to a halt. For the majority who cannot afford air travel (even if there were enough flights), the main artery from Denpasar to the harbour at Gilimanuk becomes an asphalt gauntlet for the brave and desperate.
Once they get to Gilimanuk long lines await – the line of backed up cars and buses reaches 5-6 kilometers back. It can take up to ten long hours before cars even get to the ticket booth, let alone get on one of the 30 ferries that will log 450 trips across the straits daily between them that have been provided this year.
Last year more than two hundred thousand passengers went across to Java. At the time this story is being filed around ninety thousand passengers have already left. These figures are conservative. And once they get to Java and head for their respective homes the trials are still not over. So far several hundred motorists have lost their lives during this annual exodus which Indonesians call “Mudik” or “heading back upstream”.
While the port authorities and the police have done their best to provide assistance to the scores of thousands of motorcyclists by erecting canopies, installing fans, putting in rows of portable toilets and other facilities, it is still a test of the travelers’ patience, particularly young children and infants, many of whom ride cramped with their parents on small motorscooters for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers. Even before getting on the ferry there are extensive checks on each individual vehicle run by squads of police and finance companies try to check every vehicles plates against a computerized list. Teams of contracted spotters ring through number plates to a temporary nerve center where it gets checked. When asked, one of the spotters admitted that some might get away, then added with a grin: “But not many..”
And of course with numbers like this there are bound to be some mishaps: at one point an announcement come over the port’s PA system with an appeal from a distraught mother on the other side in Ketapang for help in locating her child who had managed to get left behind in Bali at the last moment. But despite the chaos, for most the rare opportunity to meet up with loved ones is too valuable to forgo.
A typical case is “N” who is travelling to Jember with her one year old daughter and her husband and a pile of luggage – tote bags, plastic bags, you name it – on their 125cc automatic scooter. She and her husband work in Sanur, 6 days a week through the year. They take one holiday a year during Lebaran, 2 days plus of which are taken up with the road trip there and back. In all they will be lucky to spend 8 days with their family before making their way back: “But that’s just the way it is, Mas” she said with a smile.
see photo essay
Ternyata bangsa Indonesia masih saja lebih terpatok pada mitos-mitos kesaktian gaib ketimbang pada kenyataan. Contohnya, kini kita begitu sibuk mengkultuskan Mbah Maridjan, sampai-sampai jadi bahan laporan CNN. Padahal gara-gara beliau tidak mau turun gunung tak sedikit orang lain tewas, termasuk wartawan dan dokter yang jadi korban ketika berusaha membujuknya turun gunung. Contoh lain, kita ramai-ramai membuat isyu bahwa bencana ini adalah kutukan terhadap SBY – seolah kalau jadi presiden bisa menghentikan gerakan lempengan geologis.
Kalau kita perhatikan contoh pertama tadi, sepertinya meskipun sudah berada pada abad ke-21 dengan segala ilmu pengetahuan yang canggih, kita tetap terobsesi dengan ‘orang pinter’ yang bisa mengatur segala dengan kekuatan gaib. Sudah rutin kalau bikin acara harus setor dulu ke pawang hujan. Walaupun belum pernah terbukti bisa (dan juga belum pernah terbukti tidak bisa) banyak pelaku yang panen duit dengan bisnis ‘atur alam’. Apa perlu kita bikin lomba pawang? Atau mungkin sistem perizinan pawang? Yang terkahir ini pasti bisa jadi posisi ‘basah’, bayangkan nanti bahkan bisa ada “Menteri Perpawangan”.
Jujur kata, orang-orang seperti pawang dan ‘juru kunci’ punya makna dan fungsi yang penting dalam masyarakat tradisional. Mereka mengingatkan kita agar menghormati alam sebagai sumber kehidupan kita, agar kita bertindak lebih bijak terhadap alam. Mereka sebenarnya mediator, bukanlah diktator.
Lewat sejarah lisan, umpamanya, para rato di Sumba bisa tahu tanda-tanda dan waktu yang baik untuk bercocok tanam, pemali-pemali yang berdampak langsung pada survival suku masing-masing. Atau para Pekaseh subak di Bali pun bisa mengatur musi tanam seantero wilayah subak sesuai dengan musim dan pembagian air dengan patokan siklus odalan-odalan di pura dan dugul subak.
Manusia Indonesia modern memang paradoks, berpendidikan namun tidak berpikir panjang tentang apa yang mereka lakukan terhadap alam, seenaknya merusak demi kepentingan sendiri. Di lain kesempatan, manusia yang sama percaya dan terkesima dengan segala yang berbau klenik.
Tetapi sebelum kita ramai-ramai mengupayakan arus balik masyarakat modern kembali berkiblat kepada para pawang, dukun, dan sebagainya, sebaiknya kita ingat bahwa sistem-sistem tradisional tidak semua sempurna. Tidak sedikit juga dari warisan kepercayaan yang bodoh pula, bahkan tidak sedikit yang berpeluang untuk disalahgunakan. Pada kasus Mbah Maridjan saja, yang sosoknya terkenal “bersih” dalam pengabdiannya, ada ‘daerah kelabu’: mau saja membintangi iklan Extra Joss, meskipun hasil dibagikan ke masyarakat desanya. Mungkin bagi Mbah Maridjan tujuannya jernih, murni untuk membantu warga desanya. Namun perlu juga kita pertanyakan mengapa pihak Extra Joss melihat bahwa yang gaib itupun bisa jadi komoditas, atau minimal dikaitkan dengan sales?
Kenapa begitu sulit kita memakai akal sehat? Perlu sekali kita memilah antara kepekaan terhadap alam dan sikap ‘sok ngatur’ alam. Para “juru kunci” bertugas mengkomunikasikan pada masyarakat apa yang mereka hayati tentang alam sekitar. Tapi kita malah berusaha membalikkan arah komunikasi dengan mencoba menyuruh alam menuruti kehendak kita. Lewat jasa para pawang, hujan disuruh berhenti, lahar dari letusan gunung berapi diharapkan berbelok. Kalau sang pawang “berhasil” dibilang sakti, kalau “gagal” dibilang “kurang sakti”. Tak jauh beda dengan dagelan.
Yakin atau tidak pada mereka, ada atau tidak ada pawang, juru kunci dan sebagainya, toh bencana alam tetap akan terjadi dan tetap berpotensi mengakibatkan korban. Waktu Merapi meletus zaman dulu, apa tidak mungkin juru kuncinya lebih “sakti” lagi dibanding Mbah Maridjan? Dan ternyata tetap saja meletus.
Alam bergerak dengan kekuatannya sendiri. Bukan rahasia lagi kalau melawan kekuatan-kekuatan itu ada konsekuensinya. Anak kecil pun tahu bila dia melempar batu keatas (di bumi ini) sudah barang pasti batu itu akan jatuh.
Tapi kita tetap merasa segala sesuatu yang terjadi di alam itu adalah akibat perbuatan kita. Mungkin ini runut juga dengan keyakinan bahwa kita bisa atur
Alam dengan berbagai upacara, tapi kalau ada orang melakukan kesalahan menurut kerpercayaan kita, maka dia akan kena bencana. Dari pandangan itu loncatan ke pemikiran berikutnya mudah: yaitu bahwa bila seseorang bertindak salah terhadap diri atau suku kita, alam akan membalasnya. Bahwa ‘kesalahan’ tersebut pasti merupakan suatu penilaian yang sangat subjektif rupanya tidak mengganggu hati nurani!
Jangankan masyarakat biasa, pada tahun 2010 bahkan ada menteri kabinet dan anggota DPR yang belum sadar bahwa terjadinya bencana-bencana alam bukan berarti kutukan karena pelanggaran moral, melainkan sesuatu yg ‘alami’.
Yang terkutuk adalah cara kita menghadapinya: para geolog sudah memberi peringatan tsunami, kurang ditanggapi oleh aparat setempat. Kita menggundulkan hutan lalu bengong kalau kena banjir lumpur. Ketika bencana terjadi, kita kurang siap; bantuan terlambat, lagipula tidak effektif. Kita hidup diatas pertemuan lempengan geologis yang termasuk paling labil di bumi namun tidak peka akan kekuatan alam; malah kita mencoba mengaturnya dengan gaib. Kita sudah kehilangan jalan tengah antara dua ekstrim: di satu pihak menelan mentah setiap tahayul yang muncul, di lain pihak membuang segala kebijaksanaan dan pengetahuan yang kita warisi dari leluhur sendiri.
Rio Helmi, Bali
Almost every year I take a month or so off to attend a Buddhist teaching retreat in a monastery in the Himalayas led by Dagpo Lama Rinpoche. Not only is Rinpoche incredibly learned, he is a practitioner of exceptional quality and low key humility whose kindness is legendary. There is a gentle but firm discipline that pervades the place.
The monks, young and old, study year round, and their days are filled with prayer, study, debate, reflection and the like. Several of them spend a good part of the year in the great Tibetan university monasteries in the south of India, most notably Drepung Gomang. In short there are few slackers, it is inspiring to be there.
When I am there, I have fallen into the habit of doing kora or circumbulations of the temple, a form of paying respect in the Buddhist tradition known in Sanskrit as pradakshina, at dawn when it is quiet. Over the last several years the one other person who is invariably also doing the kora is a burly lay person who is basically the sweeper of the monastery grounds. Two of his sons are monks at the monastery, one has risen to become discipline master.
Dorje, such is his name, and I usually greet each other mutely as my Tibetan is next to none, but with big smiles nonetheless. We each do our own thing, and eventually he goes off and starts sweeping the grounds, cleaning out the trash bins and taking care of whatever other odd job needs to be done. Initially when he first came to stay at the monastery he paid a nominal sum for room and board. But soon his spontaneous efforts at keeping the place clean turned into a fixed routine, and the administrators decided to waive even that nominal sum as he works hard. Dorje-la has become part of the institution.
There is much to reflect on during the teachings, which usually are given in two sessions a day including a group prayer session for total of about 5 hours a day. The rest of the time is spent on review, reflection, and other studies.
My dawn kora helps me clear my head and get me focused for the day. It is also somewhat soothing to hear Dorje-la’s prayers as he ambles around.
On the second to last day he started saying something to me in a mixture of Hindi and Tibetan. I caught the words “money” and “shoes” but couldn’t quite figure out what he was saying. I thought perhaps he was asking me for money to buy shoes. Though actually it was not such an unreasonable request, for some strange reason I felt a little disappointed, which I also felt a little ashamed of. After all we had formed a friendship of sorts, and I was clearly in a position to grant such a small favor, so what was wrong with that if this friend was in need? Did I really want to set some lofty, complicated standard to this friendship with this simple man?
Shortly thereafter a nun I knew appeared and I asked her to translate. What Dorje was saying was this. “Yesterday I was given an envelope with money as a contribution from you all (it has become a tradition for the participants at the retreat to pool money to offer to the cooks etc). It was a lot of money, enough to buy a good pair of shoes. I am going to buy a new pair of shoes so I can do more kora and make prayers for all of you…”
My friend the nun and I were quietly stunned. There were tears in my eyes as she said to me – “That is how we should be…”
We all know that architects are the designers of civilisations, and that obviously they are also products of their time and culture. As such they are the ultimate mirrors. Throughout history mankind has built dwellings and constructions which reflect the state of its collective psyche.
Integral to but less conceptually obvious than design are the materials they use. Yet building materials dictate design, and can be more revealing about a society than the final forms. While the philosophy of an architect’s design may elude many on the street, the (gut) response they feel towards building materials doesn’t require a tertiary education. It’s a palpable, primordially tactile part of their living culture.
Many Asian villagers have grown up with bamboo and know its strength and flexibility well. Oak had a special connotation of strength for ye olde Englishman. Adobe for American Natives of the southwest was an expression of their oneness with the earth. Early cathedrals made of rock were as self-explanatory as St Peter’s name.
In these and other traditional cultures of the past, most people would have had some kind of personal experience of the procurement or preparation of these materials. Bamboo or oak grew in the backyard, rock was everywhere. Builders crafted materials which in most cases probably didn’t come any further than a hundred miles away. Building sites weren’t closed in by hoardings, and many in the community were directly involved in the construction.
Over the last 2 decades, from Bali to Chiang Mai, from the depths of Xinjiang to the backwaters of Kerala, Asians have been falling over themselves to build in concrete, glass and steel. Once the exclusive domain of booming oriental cities with powerful financial centers (think Shanghai, Singapore, Mumbai, Jakarta), hardly any village in the East is now impervious to scaled down versions of ‘practical modern architecture’. Southeast Asia for one is becoming more and more homogenized. At times, driving through parts of Thailand for example, it seems the only way to tell which country you are in along the seamless rows of shop houses is the script on sign boards and the smell of cooking food.
The disconnect that rural villagers may feel amongst the towers of a big city is actually more universal to all of us than many would admit. Mostly we have simply learnt to tolerate the hardness of glass and steel, occasionally pushing ourselves to appreciate an elusive esthetic which we are told is inherent in the more abstract forms of design. We don’t bond with these structures, they don’t speak to us from our cultural roots and values. They simply speak of power and our communal alienation from the process of creation.
In Asia, at the more “ordinary” urban and rural level, it will require something of a revolution to stem the tide of concrete, glass and steel that have become the materials of choice for the average home builder. Here it is more a question of practicality, economics, and keeping up with the “Jones”. In an ironic reversal of order, natural materials such as bamboo and thatched rooves have become the domain of the elite who can afford to live in hand crafted houses. For the masses, concrete, steel and glass it is. It reflects not only a deeper disconnect with our roots and a growing social divide, but also a new hardness in our mutating cultures.