Cheating death in Jogyakarta

A while back my wife’s elder brother was contemplating whether to build his new house on two stories or on just one as a bungalow.

Two floors would obviously mean a hell of a lot of living space. But then again, at a lot more expense. And was the additional living space really needed anyway? Even as a bungalow the house would be big enough given the large plot of land he has.

Luckily for him, he chose the more modest option, and built a bungalow.

It was a decision that almost certainly saved the lives of his entire family.

When the earthquake struck, my wife’s brother and his family were violently awoken from sleep and into a real life nightmare. Unable to think coherently – who can at 5.53am? – it was only instinct that drove them to get out of their beds and out of the house as quickly as possible (although my wife’s brother did later joke that he had to kick his wife’s lazy butt, as if in some crazy scene in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, in order to get her to speed up!).

According to my wife’s brother, the most incredible thing was the sound. He said it was like the thunder in a violent storm, yet relentless, unceasing. Imagine that for 50 odd seconds, he said!

Outside a scene of total destruction. A three-story builder’s merchants reduced to mere rubble, all its occupants undoubtedly crushed to death inside. And the same fate for those in the local bread shop. And for those in countless other buildings in the vicinity too. The once proud museum still standing, but with its roof sagging miserably.

The main road not far from here leads to the isolated yet beautiful beaches at Parangtritis, domain to Nyai Loro Kidul, the legendary Queen of the South Seas. Venerated yet feared by Jogyakartans, she has been known to drag people who dare to wear green – for only she can wear this color - off into the ravaging seas. Yet even she must be deeply saddened at the tremendous loss of life – over 4,500 dead and rising – away from the seas and on dry land.

Jogyakarta was the first town I spent much time in when I first visited Indonesia many years ago. Its attractions are many, but what makes the place really special is that its incredible cultural heritage is still very much reflected in the character of the town today. Here is a place where you can get into conversations about philosophy, art & civilization, and forget about the ways of the mad capitalist world.

Jogyakarta is also the only functioning sultanate remaining in Indonesia. And in the royal compound, the Kraton, you will come across ancient Hindu motifs, Buddhist lotus flowers, and Islamic calligraphy. Such religious tolerance is wonderful to see, of course. The religious fanatics could learn a thing or two here!!

Saturday night. 10.00pm. Speaking from our nice air-conditioned home in Jakarta, my wife is on the phone to her elder brother thanks to the wonders of cellular telephone technology.

It’s pitch black. There is no electricity whatsoever, he says.

He’s gonna be spending the night on the road in front of his house, which is now split in two as if God had chopped it in half with a giant machete.

But despite the devastation, he’s in good spirits. He’s lucky to be alive. And he knows it. He can easily rebuild his house. Others are far less fortunate of course.

But although nothing can be done to help the dead entombed in their rubble graves, those still alive desperately need help. Many are hungry, have no shelter and are at risk of getting sick.

So if you are able to make a donation – however small – it would go a long way to alleviate the suffering. All banks in Jakarta are accepting donations which can be paid into bank accounts of relief agencies operating in the stricken areas.

Thank you for any help you can give.


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