We have a dear friend back in New York who is a master in the art of persuasion. Besides being stylin’ and easy on the eyes, she’s an expert salesperson. Roz is N’s nightmare when it comes to shopping, because she can easily convince me that I really need those $400 shoes. But she is also a professional negotiator and knows how to get a good deal. Over the years, I’ve watched her work on some of the toughest people, including Turkish salespeople in the Instanbul tourist markets. They literally have fun with the sport of bargaining, and they’re a tough bunch.
Roz recommended Yogyakarta to us, and I don’t want to age her but she went about a billion years ago when it was still an emerging tourist destination and Indonesia in general really wasn’t on anyone’s tourist map besides, of course, Big Bad Bali. She sold it to us without much effort because we had heard from other travelers that it was Indonesia’s creative capital. Plus, it was also the most convenient base from which to visit Big Bad Borobudur. Yogyakarta is the CliffsNotes of Indonesian (Javanese) art and culture. It’s a good place for people who don’t have months to immerse themselves in Indonesia but want a taste of what the country’s culture is all about. It had changed a lot since the last century when our friend visited and it ended up not being one of our favorite places, but there was plenty to keep us entertained.
Yogyakarta was our first real big city in Indonesia, and our first stop on the island of Java. Like other cities we’ve been to in this country, it is dirty, congested and polluted. So chokingly polluted from vehicles spewing dark exhaust that riding a becak (rickshaw) in traffic is suffocating. It is the bustling home of traditional batik artists and shadow puppetmakers. It also happens to be overrun with touts and scam artists preying on tourists to get on overpriced becak “tours” around the city’s sights and buy fake batik textiles and other random junk they probably get manufactured for cheap in China.
Our first full day in Yogya, we ran into a Spanish-German couple who was on the same plane as us from Medan. The German girl was friendly as expected, and the Spanish guy was probably the second quietest Spanish guy we’ve ever met. We’re starting to suspect that Catelonians are really quiet compared to the extremely vocal groups of Spanish tourists we encounter, who sound like they learned how to whisper in a sawmill and are in some kind of competition to outtalk each other at the same time. We eventually found ourselves at the Water Castle, and a not-so-random local approached us. This man became our impromptu guide for the Water Castle, taking us down the narrow alleyways crammed with little houses and art studios.
As was his intention from the beginning, he casually stopped in front of a batik workshop where two artists worked on a beautiful sarong. He explained the process and the different artistic styles used in batik textiles nowadays. It was hard not to be impressed. I won’t go into the process here because it’s lengthy, but these guys were legit. They knew what they were doing, and we watched as one of them expertly applied dye to the waxed cotton.
Our “guide” spent the next few hours educating us on Sumur Gumuling, an underground rest area and mosque used by the sultan and his ladies, and then onto the Water Castle (Tamansari), gesturing for us to follow him from one place to another. By this time we were already wondering how much we should tip him at the end.
He patiently waited for us to get our fill of photo ops before moving on. We stopped by a shadow puppet workshop which was pretty cool. I didn’t know that the puppets were made out of animal hide, which makes a lot of sense in terms of durability.
At the end, he took us to his batik shop, where a salesperson waited to sell us some authentic, hand painted batiks. I don’t doubt that they were, but we weren’t going to drop a bunch of money on a sarong on our first day so we declined and left.
The Indonesian people (and I guess Southeast Asians in general) are all about saving face, which can be kind of annoying sometimes when they are also trying to rip you off. This is where excessive smiling comes in handy, and if you’ve ever seen Roz at work, that’s her secret weapon. Because I’m not allowed to participate in the negotiations because I have a tendency to quote salespeople higher prices for things than they’re offering to sell it to me for, I’ve learned to stand next to my tough negotiator with a smile stretched across my face.
A becak driver will quote us $5 for a short ride, and N balks and counters with $1. The driver feigns offense and shakes his head. “Nooo, there is a hill. $5.” N shakes her head. “I’ll give you $1.” “Ok $4.” “I’ll only give you $1. It’s so close.” And so on, until N breaks him down to $1.50 (or $1). Having a smile plastered to your face the entire time and makes negotiating go that much smoother and faster, which means that Russian, Chinese and French tourists probably don’t get much of a bargain ever in SEA. At the end of the ride, N always ended up giving the driver more than they had agreed to because she’s a softie.
The same tactics were employed all over Yogyakarta. Take batik shopping. After scouring the internet, I came to the conclusion that you just never know if you have an authentic, handpainted batik textile in your hand. There are some telling signs, like the front and back of the cloth being the same (the dye seeping through to both sides) and whatnot, but apparently even machine-made batiks can be dyed nowadays to look like the real thing. So we settled on shopping for fixed-price nice batik stuff at Mirota Batik, recommended to us by more than one friendly local unrelated to the store in any way (receptionist at the homestay, hair stylist).
And then we squared our shoulders and entered the Beringharjo Market, the huge warehouse-like indoor market with all of the batiks (among other things) crammed into tiny stalls. It’s like some kind of city in there, and every inch of it is covered in stuff to buy. We spent a couple of hours slowly walking up and down the aisles, seeing how some “batik” shirts were clearly crappier than others. The ladies manning the stalls quoted us high prices for shirts guaranteed to fall apart in the next few weeks. We smiled, laughed along with them at our ridiculous prices and got them down to close to our prices anyway, or did after starting to walk away.
The only place where vendors weren’t trying to sell us stuff was at the Bird Market. We originally had no intention of going, but we ended up right by it one day when we were trying to find (unsuccessfully) a ayam goreng (fried chicken) place. We walked through the rows of stalls selling all kinds of birds, reptiles, cats, dogs and domesticated birds. Indonesia doesn’t have a great handle on bird flu, so we covered our mouths and didn’t linger in this area, instead opting to hang out in front of the sad little owls tied to their cages and desperate wild animals pacing theirs.
I expected to fall in love with Yogya the way I had with other artsy cities and towns like Penang, Berlin and Groznjan. I didn’t, because constantly dealing with pushy touts got old fast, and it was so tackily over-commercialized. But it was a cool place to see nonetheless. The people here love art, and you can see it in the details of the becaks and in the plentiful street art.
The locals here are creative, and instead of the dull, touristy stuff you see in every town overwhelmed by tourism, there are unique activities. One that we ran into on our way back from dinner were old vehicles that were gutted and outfitted with bright neon lights, bike pedals and blaring stereo systems. Tourists (and locals, I guess) rent a ride in their vehicle of choice and slowly pedal around the small square. Pure family fun.
When we told Roz that Yogya was a bit hectic nowadays, she said that it had been very different back in the day. I imagine it must’ve been like Da Nang is now; passed over by the tourists but with plenty to offer. We ate good food and bought one too many batik shirts. I think I did Roz proud.