By: Jimmy Onofrio
“Mister, please, foto?” I heard yet again. The children were finished performing Wayang Bambu and some musical performance in the courtyard of the public housing tower. “Mengapa di sini Anda?” she asked me between fits of laughter.
She grabs my hand and leads me onto the stage. Putting a microphone in my hand, she says “Kamu bisa berbicara bahasa Indonesia, ya? Mister?”
I tried my best.
Thanks to some helpful friends and lucky connections, I was in some unlikely places for a Westerner during my trip to Indonesia, like this community theater performance. I stayed mostly with my friend’s family in Solo, with a few days in Jakarta at the beginning and end.
My host mom is an active volunteer and community leader in the kelurahan, and she kept me busy despite rainy days. I wanted to learn about community participation in planning and development, because I work for the City of Philadelphia and want to improve how we provide service to Southeast Asian population here. Her friends taught me about how the city supports creative industry businesses.
I also spent a day in Desa Gilangharjo, an hour south of Jogja, with a family who make gamelan instruments. I learned music with the children, and heard about the family business. The village has a cottage gamelan industry. They are seeking help from the Sultan of Yogyakarta, and UNESCO cultural preservation funding, so they can export gamelan to Malaysia, China and centers of Indonesian diaspora.
For me, the special moments are eating fresh rambutan from the tree and playing music, the language that knows no boundaries. Whether it was traditional gamelan, or modern ronggeng fusion, or Indonesian interpretations of “Despacito”, there were many moments where music transcended the language and cultural differences.
Coffee shops were also a source of happiness on this journey, as they are often staffed with friendly young people. I made new friends exploring the coffee shops of Jogja, and they impressed me with their desire to do something for their community.
I believe the desire to create something better for our family, friends and neighbors is something else that can unite us across language and culture. If you embody this attitude and seek the same in others, you are sure to hear inspiring stories and have memorable experiences no matter where you are from or where you go. (Text & Photos: Jimmy Onofrio)