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GRATIAGUSTI CHANANYA ROMPAS: ON FIREWORKS, SUNFLOWERS, AND METAPHORS.

Gratiagusti Chananya Rompas (Anya) is the co-founder of a poet community, Komunitas Bunga Matahari (Sunflower Community). Her poems had been published in Kompas daily, Spice! magazine, and the anthology “Bisikan Kata Teriakan Kota” by Jakarta Arts Council, and “Dian Sastro for President! #2 Reloaded” by Yogyakarta Cultural Academy. She graduated from University of Indonesia majoring in English Literature, and got her Master’s Degree in The Gothic Imagination from University of Stirling, Scotland. Her anthology, Kota Ini Kembang Api (This City Is Fireworks) is republished by Gramedia Pustaka Utama in 2016.

GRATIAGUSTI CHANANYA ROMPAS: ON FIREWORKS, SUNFLOWERS, AND METAPHORS. I do believe, though, that if one aspires to make poetry his or her art, one should understand that poetry is a discipline with a long history. So it is imperative that one educates oneself at least about other poets and what they have done as well as why they did what they did. This will help one to find one’s voice and what one wants to say through one’s art.And if one wants to write, one better reads too. Reading is good not only to widen one’s knowledge, but also sharpen one’s analytical skill. Any writer should have this, I think, so he or she can give a better judgment about his or her own works before anyone else does. This, in turn, will make him or her more critical to any form of art he or she is consuming.

 

Why city—and why fireworks?

 

Anya: I was born and have lived almost all my life in Jakarta. It is a city where I have felt a broad spectrum of emotions: from hurt to joy, sorrow to enthusiasm, rage to being loved, losing hope to believing in simple things. I think a person is more or less moulded not only by their experiences, but also where he or she spends most of their time. This helps create one’s reality and, in my case, it is an important ingredient in my poetry.

I am always drawn in to lights, any kind of, since I can remember. Study lamp, street lights, fairy lights around a Christmas tree, light coming from behind the curtain of a window, even the light coming out of a laptop or computer screen. However, I also realise that if there is light, there must be darkness.

So I feel it is just natural for me to use fireworks as a representation of the coming and going of light and dark, which then become an experimental tool to explore a city’s inhabitants. You may not find many references to fireworks though in this collection. The phrase “Kota Ini Kembang Api” is not even a title of a poem, instead it is taken from a line in an untitled poem. To me, the swift changing from darkness to brightness that fireworks cause serves as symbol and metaphor. That is why I chose it as the collection’s title.

And when I wrote the other poems, I kept in mind to associate how swift the day lapses with the contrast and irony between the city lights and the its shadowy crevices to describe whatever emotion or event I wanted to talk about. When the collection was finally finished, I realised that my days went by more like a spiral than the literally linear concept.

 

Why poetry? Why not novels, or short stories?

 

Anya: When I was still in elementary school, I wrote short stories in one of my AA books so it did not attract the attention of my teacher, and distributed it around my class so my friends could read whatever I had written in it. And all my life I have always enjoyed reading novels or short story collections. One of my not many attempts at writing a short story even made its way to a collection published by the Jakarta Arts Council many years ago.

But when I started writing poetry (for an assignment when I was in junior high) I realised poetry is a format that fitted like a glove for me to express myself. No matter how long or short a poem is, every single word has to be significant. Not that novels or short stories do not have this trait. It is just poetry fits how my mind works. Jagged, fleeting, tumultuous. I feel there are so many ways for me to express them through poetry compared to other forms.

I guess I just have to live with the fact that I am not an all-rounder writer.

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Can anyone write poetry? Can anyone be a poet?

 

Anya: As a co-founder of Komunitas BungaMatahari (better known as BuMa), a poetry community that has lived by its motto “Semua Bisa Berpuisi” (or, roughly translated, “Poetry for All”), I absolutely believe that anyone can enjoy, respect, understand, read and, of course, write poetry. I have seen this happen many times with my own eyes through various activities that BuMa organised or was part of. Many people from many walks of life were so keen in the idea of poetry. And this proved the popular belief that poetry was a difficult art form was not entirely correct.

I do believe, though, that if one aspires to make poetry his or her art, one should understand that poetry is a discipline with a long history. So it is imperative that one educates oneself at least about other poets and what they have done as well as why they did what they did. This will help one to find one’s voice and what one wants to say through one’s art.

And if one wants to write, one better reads too.

Reading is good not only to widen one’s knowledge, but also sharpen one’s analytical skill. Any writer should have this, I think, so he or she can give a better judgment about his or her own works before anyone else does. This, in turn, will make him or her more critical to any form of art he or she is consuming.

I am sorry if I sound too patronising. But I believe one has to respect one’s art as well as other people’s. And then all you have to do is add a little bit fun and some love to your poetic journey.

 

How should one read a poetry?

 

Anya: When I was in university, my poetry lecturer said that poetry was meant to make a poet’s ideas or emotions concrete, not to make it unclear for the readers. But sometimes poets like to play too, break some rules, adding purposeful puzzles into their works. Just like writing, reading is a skill to be learned. So you can spot those “mischiefs” and decide for yourself whether they add meaning to the poet’s works or otherwise.

I believe in successful and unsuccessful poems. Again, to decide which one a poem is, you need your analytical and critical skills. Learning these skills will depend on, amongst others, what kind of literary diet you are consuming and your view of life.

I notice many people choose to see poetry as only a pile of emotions that came to a poet almost magically. Well, it is true that one of the first signs that a poem might—underline might—be successful is how it touches and connects with its readers. True but debatable. And we have not even talked about taste and its politics!

However, the answer to this entire conundrum is quite simple: read read and read.

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What’s going on inside of you before, during, and after a poetry is born?

 

Anya: Poetry is my way to understand my head and heart and all the stuff that are in them. Oftentimes I feel like something is wrong and/or confusing and/or unrecognisable going on and I cannot stop it. On a good day, lines come across my mind and I can unleash them just by opening my laptop and typing them. On a bad day, I cannot write a single thing. On an okay day, I can write a few lines but then nothing. A poem in “Kota Ini Kembang Api” took me four years to finish.

When I am writing, I focus on the stuff I said above. It is like watching your laundry spinning in your washing machine and then grabbing that one shirt you have been concentrating on (impossible in real life, I know). I also pick on associations that appear—like memories, visuals, voices, smells—and try to incorporate them in my writing. However, this happens more organically than it sounds.

After finishing the first draft of a poem, I will give it a once-over so I can trim unnecessary words, or change them, fix illogical lines, etc. I will only stop when I feel I cannot mess around with it anymore. It will also be the moment when I can begin to understand what kind of shirt I have fished, its fabric, stitching, size and fit. In other words, this is the moment of truth: have I used all the right literary tools and techniques and make them work or not.

 

Can you tell us more about the creation process behind the lines of Kota Ini Kembang Api?

 

Anya: All the poems in “Kota Ini Kembang Api” have been arranged in a certain order so that readers can read them as a book-long story. Yet, readers can also enjoy them individually as well as start or end at any page of the book and hopefully still find them enjoyable.

So, for me, each of them serves its own purpose. Like a string of pearls that I can claim as my necklace.

——

For more interviews with Indonesian writers, click HEREGet Anya’s book Kota Ini Kembang Api HERE. Photo courtesy of Gratiagusti Chananya Rompas.

Us: A Spider Web of Stories & Memories.

It is not so much as love at the first sight (or, these days—at the first swipe). It is more like the other day when I was at the grocery store, pushing the small shopping cart through the narrow alleys (fruits & vegetables, meat & dairy, snacks, chocolate & candies, hair & body, pet), before the shelves burst out into fireworks of memories.

There, exploding into a million little pieces of moments-once-shared: our usual granola, our favorite soy milk, our regular pasta, our instant spices for rendang and nasi goreng, our huge bottle of Pocari. Parading warmth despite the cold air blowing from the meat & dairy freezing units.

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It’s beautiful to know that we’ve left traces of ourselves in one another. That despite the distance, the world is now full of them, full of you, full of us, wherever we look. It gives meanings to the most random sightings of daily whatnots.

It makes me feel as if you’re near. And, I guess, in one and other way, you are.

We share the world holding hands—or some other times, holding our mobile phones. Smiles and kisses are popping up from the palm-sized screen; words and voices are flying freely across continents: those days when I look out and see the sunshine, while raindrops fall over the sunroof above your kitchen (that I adore).

Together, we’re off on impulsive adventures: me on the back of the motorcycle, and you at the front with the GPS on. Cooking pasta and fried rice, pig them out directly from the pan. Swearing at each other at the squash court. Sitting next to each other somewhere, not talking, working on our passion projects.

Tens of thousands feet above the ground, more than a year ago, you wrote me a letter.

You said you’re flying above Gwadar, speculating that it might be located somewhere in Iran. Later on, I found out that it was an area near Pakistan’s Balochistan. An area I once mentioned in my short story that was published years ago, Humsafar.

Isn’t it funny how life keeps on throwing signs your way, teasing you in a humorous way, knowing that you’d never get it until one day you really get it?

If life were a spider web, our stories have been entangled in a heap for many years, many millennia, many centuries… connecting us with millions of lives today, as well as millions of lives before us and beyond us. We might have a long history that we have yet to discover, billions of dots waiting to be connected.

Time, slowly, will spill the secrets of the random things, decisions, and connections that lead us to one another.

But until then, I just want to thank you:
simply, for taking a chance.

The Silent Contentment of Being Home Again, Wherever That Is.

Three days after arriving back home, still I haven’t unpacked, haven’t gone out, haven’t met anyone, and haven’t done anything productive—apart from replying some emails that need to be replied, and meeting deadlines. I am that kind of person. After being surrounded by a lot of people or being on the road for a long time, constantly moving and bumping into others—I need my down time. I need to recharge. I need a break.

I need to pause.

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Do you need to be alone to recharge?

I’ve known some friends who can be on the road for what seems like an indefinite period, moving from one city to another every 3-4 days, then coming back home and heading out to see some friends directly from the airport. The next day, they would have had some meetings or meet-ups, attended events, edited pictures and wrote some articles about their travels, went to the gym, unpacked, plus organised another trip.

I envy them.
I envy people who do not need a down time.

Those who live their lives like an Energizer bunny. They are so energised. So active. So unstoppable. It seems as if they could do so much in the first few days they came back from their traveling journeys, while here I am, still enjoying the feeling of not having to go anywhere or to do anything, savouring the privilege of being alone.

These past few days can be simply summarised into coffee – books – bed – movies – lunch – books – bed – coffee -movies – bed (insert ‘work’ only when really necessary—meaning, deadline is tomorrow).

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This is how I recharge. To recover from travel-lag. To readjust the pace and pattern of my day. I live best the way I travel best: slowly.

There are 2 places I would dearly call home.

My real hometown in Bogor, and my adopted little town of Ubud.

Both are easy to navigate because each one is a donut: Bogor with the Botanical Garden to fill in the hole, and Ubud with its Monkey Forest.

Both are small towns (my boyfriend still finds it funny whenever I refer to Bogor, with a million people, as a small town) with access to network, opportunities, and vibrant creative communities trying to make a difference. Only an hour away from Bogor, there’s Jakarta: the capital of all things shiny—while an hour or two away from Ubud, there’s Sanur and Seminyak: the hubs for any kind of jobs imaginable.

Both hometowns host loving friends and families (I once wrote that home is any place where you’ll be missed, while boyfriend said home is wherever your wi-fi connects automatically).

They are both small enough for you to bump into old friends (or exes!) in public events, restaurant, and coffee shops, but big enough should you want to exile yourself in the faraway villages or hide in the mountains. Nature provide plenty of breathing spaces not far from the centre, and the arrays of mouth-watering street food deserve no such thing as a diet.

Nevertheless, the silent contentment of being home is simply that: being home.

beradadisini being home (stocksnap)To wake up on the same bed where you’ve cried yourself to sleep when you’re still an angsty teenager. To be surrounded by your overloaded bookshelves. To have your dog jumps on you because she wants to play. To talk to your Dad about how you’ve managed to float like a starfish in Raja Ampat.

To walk around the house with that old shirt and pants you’ve had since you were 17. To cook whatever you want because the kitchen utensils are all there, waiting to be put into good use. To create new therapeutic ointments with coconut oil and your growing collections of essential oils. To put your clay mask on and compress your eyes with slices of cucumbers.

To start your day with a set of routines you’ve developed throughout the years. To know what everything is for, where everything is stored, and how everything works.

To feel as if you can go anywhere, but at the same time not wanting to go somewhere else.

Probably, as much as it’s a convenient place, home is more of a feeling: about knowing that no matter how far you go, you’ll always find a place to go back to. About remembering your root and who you truly are. About being the you when nobody’s noticing. It’s a feeling of knowing that you are free both to leave or to stay.

It’s about that yearning that keeps tugging on your heartstrings when you’re away.

Whatever that yearning is, it’s home.

______
PS: If reading is one of your favourite down-time, you might want to check Bookmate–a mobile reading app where you could find tons of fiction and non-fiction books. If you’d like to try the premium access for free for a month, insert the code readwithhanny here. I have a shelf there storing some of my favourite books about writing, Writer’s Reads.

Growing Up Over A Cup of (Indonesian) Coffee

Indonesian Coffee Culture

My boyfriend found out that I have sinned. He watched me in mild horror as I disgracefully sipped my well-deserved cup of cappuccino, after attacking some slices of Quattro Formaggi for dinner. An Italian, he knows and adheres the commandments of Italian coffee culture by heart: that cappuccino, as well as other ‘milky’ coffee, can only be consumed in the morning, and never after a meal.

OK, so I have sinned. And from then on, I have sinned continuously by repeatedly breaking the commandments. What can I say? I just enjoy drinking coffee.

***

For some reasons, coffee has never had that huge of an impact on me.

I never felt my heart beating faster after gulping down an espresso. I don’t feel suddenly awakened or energised after consuming it. I can drink coffee before bed and sleep soundly for the next 8 hours.

Maybe I am dysfunctional—or somehow, have developed an inherited immunity towards caffeine.

My parents are heavy coffee (kopi) drinkers. My memories of a good morning is to wake up to the heavy and acidic smell of kopi tubruk for my Father (tinted with cloves and tobacco from his kretek cigarette) and the sweet and milky kopi susu for my Mother.

It has become a signature morning smell I’ve grown up with. Something to let me know that everything is okay.

The smell of coffee in the morning means it’s a good morning: where I can find my parents in the kitchen, sitting together, talking over their hot cup of coffee—not fighting, or arguing, or a kid’s scariest nightmare: disappearing. Thirty years later, I still find it comforting to wake up to the smell of hot coffee in the morning.

The smell brightens up my day.

***

When I drank my first coffee, it was love at the first sip.

I have always asked Mother for coffee since I was probably 6 years old.

Every week, we would go to a coffee-smelling stall in Pasar Anyar local market where she bought a pack of freshly ground coffee wrapped in brown paper. It could be one of my favourite stalls in the market—apart from the stall where they sell the latest Japanese comics about ballerinas and the one selling MSG-loaded chips.

But every time I asked for coffee, Mother always said no.

“It’s not for children. It’s for adults. If children drink it, they become stupid,” she said, while sipping hers.

I had no idea why Mother suddenly decided to let me drink half of her kopi susu when I was 13. Either she thought I was already an adult by simply being 13, or she didn’t mind if from this point forward I would be stupid.

However, I am forever thankful for the chance, the long awaited opportunity: my first encounter with adulthood.

I still remember the sweet and slightly bitter taste of it, the combination of my hometown’s most famous Liong Bulan coffee and condensed milk: the way it glided so smoothly on my palate, so thick and heavy yet smooth and creamy.

It was a bliss.

And I have never stopped drinking coffee ever since.

***

I drank more coffee during the times when I religiously watched Gilmore Girls series aired on TV, never missed an episode.

The way mother and daughter started their morning with coffee and went about their days with more sounded like a heartwarming concept.

Plus, I have always rooted to be the straight-A bookworm daughter in the series: I wanted to be Rory. To be like her, I study (carrying my pen & binders everywhere), read books, and drink coffee.

You may have concluded by now that my teenage years was anything but rebellious.

***

Indonesia may be most well-known for what people dubbed as the most expensive coffee in the world, Kopi Luwak or Luwak coffee.

The ripest coffee cherries are eaten by an animal called Luwak (a civet/palm cat), and the undigested coffee seeds that comes out from the Luwak’s faeces are collected to be made into your steaming cup of Kopi Luwak.

However, if you’d like to try it, please take the time to find out the source of your Luwak coffee beans, or get certified ones. Due to the high demand of this expensive coffee beans, sadly, there have been many practices of people capturing civets for coffee farming under cruel caged conditions.

As I grow up and the chance to travel around Indonesia occurs, I have the opportunity to taste many kinds of Indonesian local coffee mix.

When visiting a remote village, stopping halfway for some rest in an unknown part of a town, or simply needing a down-time after a long journey, spending some time in a warung kopi—traditional coffee stall—is always a good idea.

Here, sitting on a bench from wooden planks or a set of colourful plastic chairs, you can always have a nice cup of hot coffee with snacks like sticky rice, steamed cassava, sponge cakes, and sweet or savoury fries; while eavesdropping the locals talking about politics and latest celebrity news.

If you enjoy drinking coffee (kopi), here are some Indonesian local coffee mix you may want to try:

Kopi Tubruk.

Coarse coffee grounds are mixed with sugar (sometimes palm sugar) and boiled water is poured over it. You’ll need to wait for the hot water to ‘cook’ the coffee. It is ready to drink when the floating coffee grounds have all settled to the bottom of the cup.

Kopi Susu (milk).

Kopi tubruk with condensed milk instead of sugar.

Kopi Jahe (ginger).

Adding hot ginger water to your coffee instead of plain water. You can also find some with crushed ginger (sometimes lightly grilled) dropped into the coffee.

Kopi Ijo (green).

In Tulungagung, you can find a greenish coffee with a smooth texture. The greenish coffee beans are roasted over firewood.

Kopi Talua or kopi telur (egg). 

Well-known in West Sumatera, it’s a mix of coffee, sweet condensed milk, egg yolk, honey, vanilla, and cinnamon to be shaken until it’s foamy. There will be 3 layers on your cup: the custardy mix at the bottom, the coffee itself in the middle, and the foam at the top.

Kopi Joss or kopi arang (charcoal). 

You can find this one along the railway station of Tugu in Yogyakarta. It starts with coffee powder and sugar as usual, hot water being poured over it, then a red-hot piece of burning charcoal from the stove’s fire will follow suit. For Indonesians, the sizzling sound of the burning charcoal hitting the coffee would resemble something like: “Josssssss!” Hence, the name of the coffee.

Kopi Durian. 

Either you like it or hate it: a piece of meat from durian fruit is mixed and stirred in a cup of hot coffee, resulting in a sweet, thick, and creamy coffee drink. Can be found in Bengkulu, but you may want to skip it if you have high blood pressure!

Kopi Kothok.

Popular in the small towns along the north coast of Java like Rembang, Blora, Pati, and Cepu, to name a few. The coffee beans are roasted with shredded coconut. Then, coffee powder and sugar is boiled together with water.

Indonesia produces between 650,000 to 750,000 tons of coffee beans a year, and is the fourth-largest coffee producer after Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia. Italy, the world’€™s largest coffee consumer, has become the main export destination for our coffee growers.

Do you come from a country with a strong coffee culture? Are there any local or special coffee mix in your area I need to try? Or some commandments I need to know before my visit?

***

I still start my morning with a cup of coffee.

These days, it has become more of a ritual rather than a necessity. It just seems like the right smell to wake up to, the one that reminds me of good days, somewhere far away in my tightly-kept memories.

I choose coffee shops over tea parlours every time, stacking a dozen of Torabika Susu instant coffee powder when I travel, and—despite the disapproving look from my boyfriend—still order cappuccino in late afternoon, after a late meal.

When I am lost or stranded in a strange country, in an unfamiliar city, in an uncomfortable situation, I let myself to be comforted by a smell of coffee: it could be black and strong, sweet and milky, light and chocolatey, and it doesn’t matter. I will follow it with my nose diligently, tracing the air for a sign of that earthy smell: a smell that keeps me rooted  to the ground.

I know that I will always be in a safe territory the moment I step into a coffee shop, a coffee stall.

I know what to expect, what to smell, what to see, what to hear, and what to order. I know the cups—whether it’s plastic, carton, or ceramic—will snuggle perfectly inside my resting palms. I know that I wouldn’t need an extra sugar. I know the coffee won’t burn my tongue if I let it sit for 2.5 minutes.

As its thick bittersweetness and slightly creamy texture bursts in my mouth, I sometimes wonder how drinking coffee makes me really feel—only to keep coming back to the same conclusion: that it makes me feel like an adult.

It can’t be so bad, being an adult, I tell myself, if it can actually taste this good.

There Is A Space Between Us And I Am Thankful for That

There is a space between us and I am thankful for that.

The space allows me to fill in the morning pages of my journal, sip a cup of coffee while listening to the monks chanting mantras, or curl again in bed to read a book on a leisurely pace. The space allows you to put on your running shoes and wander around the streets, the hills, the ridge; enjoying your 8 kilometres of uninterrupted moves, while listening to your favourite podcasts.

The space gives us the time to be us: to breathe, to think, to reconnect with the essence of who we truly are, to enjoy our simple little pleasures and be happy for that.

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There is a space between us and I am thankful for that.

The space gives us the opportunity to stay as these two personalities with their own unique taste, traits, and characters; who just happen to like each other so much (sometimes, too much) despite the more-than-obvious differences. The space stops us from being reduced into one, and instead, it gives us enough room to grow, to expand, to bloom. The space lets us to be together, in parallel, walking side by side, hand in hand, but never too close to risk cutting each other’s track or cramping each other’s path.

The space provides us the chance to chase our true calling, to pursue our dreams, to persevere in the things that have always taken a big chunk of our hearts. And while you may not fully understand why I choose the things I choose and I may not fully understand why you choose the things you choose, the space is indeed, spacious enough, to let us be: so we are never felt forced to choose one over the other. So both dreams can be equally exciting and important.

There is a space between us and I am thankful for that.

The space reminds us from time to time that we are here because we choose to be here.

No one is holding the other too close, no one is holding the other too loose. We are keeping the sacred space in the centre: from where we’re tugging each other from time to time with shared memories and experiences while keeping our owns; that may or may not be shared with one another one day, but both is equally okay and acceptable. It gives us a chance to miss each other while trusting that the other never really leaves.

The space provides us a safe distance to be sad, angry, or heartbroken, without accidentally hurting the other and getting them wounded by the splinters.

The space lets us know, every single day, that we can only be responsible for our part in the relationship: for the things we choose to bring, to feel, to think, to say, to share, to give, to withhold.

There is a space between us,
and I am thankful for that.

Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour

Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour
Books Actually in Yong Siak Street carried books and short stories from local authors. A resident cat can be found sitting on the counter top. Modelling pour moi, the fashionable bookworm, Clara Devi.

You are here for the bookstores?” the lady at our hostel in Singapore asked. She wears her hair long; has colourful eyelids and nails; with a preference for bright-coloured tight top.

I was sitting leisurely at the reception one morning after taking a shower, ready for the day’s book hunting. The hostel lady was there, sorting some envelopes on her desk by the window, and she offered me coffee. When my friends W and C appeared, she asked us about our plans for the day. Hence, the bookstores.

“Go to Bras Basah,” she said. “You can find any kind of books and a generous selection of bookstores to browse from.”

As always, the local was right.

We went crazy in Bras Basah complex, hopping from one bookstore to another, adding more and more books into our backpack.

***

Personally, I love chaotic bookstores with amazing shopkeepers.

The kind of store where you could not really tell which shelves contain which books, but you could always ask the shopkeeper and he would respond as if he were an online catalogue: navigating you in an instant through the small alleys smelled of mildew and old papers to some hidden shelf littered with covers and titles, and there you found the book you were looking for.

Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour
Littered with Books is a wonderful place if you’re looking for travel books, writer’s interviews, or recipes. The travel shelf is upstairs. This picture is taken by my book-hunting partner, Clara Devi of Lucedale.co.

Later that afternoon (or two bags of books later), we sheltered ourselves from the pouring rain and sat at a lovely restaurant in Ann Siang Hill, savouring a pan of hot paella. We had circled this area a few times after leaving Bras Basah, and still not seeing the next bookstore we were looking for. So we asked the waitress if she knew anything about it.

“Oh, they closed down!” she said, and probably seeing our disappointed faces, added, “You are here only for the bookstores?”

***

Yes, most of the times, I’m in Singapore only for the bookstores.

I have been frequenting Singapore for book hunting since they still have this massive bookstore, Borders. I still remember how ecstatic I was when I found a special shelf there, dedicated to books about writing.

Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour
Woods in the Books. Another bookstore in Yong Siak Street. The street itself is so artsy and picturesque. Cannot stop snapping pictures here.

I could spend hours in front of this shelf alone; flipping a writer’s glossary book that would help writers find the correct terms used in specific industry/area. Boating, for instance. (Boat-hook: a pole with a hook on the end, used to reach into the water to catch buoys or other floating objects. Fender: an air or foam filled bumper used in boating to keep boats from banging into docks or each other, Icebreaker: a special-purpose ship or boat designed to move and navigate through ice-covered waters.)

Unlike India, where the price of books is really cheap (the price for 1 book in Indonesia equals to 3 books in India, and I ended up shipping 10 kilograms of books from Jaipur), Singapore may not be the cheapest option to shop for books.

However, the options are abundant!

Although I was heartbroken after Borders was closed, today I cherished the birth of local indie bookstores around Singapore; that only adds up to more varieties and experience for book-hunters. Not to mention the events, workshops, or book discussions they are sprouting from time to time to keep the community alive!

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Visiting Singapore soon and thinking about having a one-day walking tour for book hunting? I’ve created this walking route for book shopping in Singapore that may help you navigate your way around!

Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour
Wear your comfy shoes, bring a bottle of water, and carry a big backpack with you. You’ll fill the backpack with many, many books! And, 7 books later, you’ll be thankful for bringing a backpack instead of a tote bag 🙂

Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour Tour

(0). ARAB STREET & HAJI LANE | 9.00 AM – 9.50 AM

Always start with a good and hearty breakfast! Many food stalls are available in Arab Street, serving Chinese, Malay, Indian, and even Indonesian breakfast from 7 AM. I personally love a warm portion of martabak and teh tarik at Singapore Zam Zam restaurant. From there, walk leisurely along Haji Lane with its lovely murals and picturesque facades. Stores and cafes are still closed in the morning (mostly open around noon), exactly why I love being here at these hours just to stroll along, snap pictures, and feel inspired.

(1) NATIONAL LIBRARY OF SINGAPORE | 10.00 AM (open) – 11.00 AM

A 10-minute walk from Haji Lane, you’ll reach the National Library of Singapore. Why, a library should be in the picture when we’re talking about a literary walk, shouldn’t it? Moreover, we’re talking about a 16-storey library, with gardens in the building that offered a good view of the city: the Courtyard on Level 5, and the Retreat on Level 10. The collections of books go without saying. Find out if there are any exhibitions on the day of your visit.

(2). BRAS BASAH COMPLEX – 11.02 AM – 12.00 PM

Only 2-minute walk from the Library, the upper floor of Bras Basah Complex is full of ‘oldies’ small bookshops selling rare and antique books, second-hand books, comic books, and many more. Book display and shelving may not be their thing (love chaotic bookshops!), but they may hide that one gem you’re looking for! Just ask the shopkeeper if you have a particular book in mind. Amazingly, they would remember whether they have the book, and where they shelf it! This is my go-to place to hunt for South Asian books & literature. Find Basheer Graphic Books (#04-19) if you’re into graphic design books: from typography, branding, animation, fashion, architecture, interior design, and many more.

(3a). THE BOOK CAFE – 12.30 PM – 1.20 PM*

*) If you choose this route, you’ll have to go for a 21-minute walk afterwards to our next destination. If you choose the other route below, the distance to our next destination is only 3-minute away.

This could be your first option for early lunch. Around 29-minute walk from Bras Basah Complex, The Book Cafe is surrounded by bookshelves (love!), and comfortable sofas are plenty! Time to cool off and check your book-list. Do you have everything you’re looking for? (Plus, after walking that far, you must be really hungry now!)

(3b). MAXWELL FOOD CENTRE | 12.30 PM – 1.35 PM

Maxwell Food Centre could be your second option for lunch—if you’d prefer hawker stalls rather than a cafe-like establishment. You may want to try Tian Tian chicken rice, Huang Ji wonton noodles, or Fuzhou oyster cake. It’s a 28-minute walk from Bras Basah complex, and you may think it’s quite far, but here comes the plus point: the location is only 3-minute away from our next stop!

(4). ANN SIANG HILL – 1.40 PM – 2.00 PM

After 21-minute walk from The Book Cafe (burn those calories!) or just a 3-minute stroll from Maxwell Food Centre, you’ll arrive in Ann Siang Hill. It’s a lovely stretch where you’ll find many concept stores with curated goods as well as Instagram-able cafes. The buildings around this area look beautiful in pastel colours. After Haji Lane in the morning, this could be your afternoon dose of inspired walking!

(5). LITTERED WITH BOOKS – 2.05 PM – 3.15 PM

Only 5-minute away, you’ll stumble upon Littered with Books, a beautiful bookstore with special sections for travel and culinary books in the attic; and a section for books about writing & writers downstairs. Couches are provided here and there, so you can flip the pages of your book leisurely. What I love the most is the hand-written notes glued by the owner on each shelves, giving you recommendations on certain titles to read and why you may find them interesting!

(6a). THE READING ROOM | 3.25 PM – 4.20 PM

Have filled your backpack with more books? After a 6-minute walk, what about a quick stop for coffee at The Reading Room before heading to your next destination? With countless books surrounding you from its walls and puffy cushioned sofas to bury your back comfortably, it could be your first option to sit lazily while checking whether you still have enough Singapore dollars to buy more books!

(6b). GRASSROOTS BOOK ROOM | 3.25 PM – 4.20 PM

The Reading Room’s next door neighbour can be your second option for a cool breeze from the hot Singapore sun. Only a few steps away, Grassroots Book Room is a serene unconventional bookshop with an adjoining cafe. You’ll find books on Chinese literature and history, as well as recipe books.

(7). WOODS IN THE BOOKS – 4.20 PM – 5.00 PM

I have an unhealthy addiction towards beautifully-illustrated children’s books. And after a deserving 21-minute walk from The Reading Room, Woods in The Books would come into view. It’s a quaint little bookstore with all kinds of children books to cheer you up: from fiction to nonfiction, in various categories imaginable!

(8). BOOKS ACTUALLY | 5.00 PM – 6.00 PM

This is my go-to bookstore in Singapore to look for works from local authors. A few steps away from Woods in The Books, Books Actually also published anthologies and journals from the newcomers in Singapore’s literary scene. Near the cashier, you would find a stack of Ceriph—a quarterly publication containing prose, poetry, social commentaries, photography, and visual art from local artists. You can take a past issue and pay as you wish by inserting your money into the provided tin-can. There’s a special section containing staff-picked books (I love their picks!) and a resident cat is around if you like to pet it.

(9). THE OPEN DOOR POLICY|  6.05 PM – FINISH

With your backpack full of books, it’s time to head out to a place where you can flip and glimpse at each book you’ve just bought—peacefully, while having dinner. Have a short 1-minute walk to The Open Door Policy, and celebrate the day with a portion of crab cake or their delicious lamb dish. Have a sip of fresh juice, massage your feet, and open your backpack while waiting for your meals to arrive. Now, you need to decide: which book to read first?

Full map for your “Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour”*

*)If you skip The Book Cafe, you can follow the shorter route from Bras Basah Complex to Maxwell Food Centre (refer to map 3b above)

Happy walking! And happy book-hunting in Singapore!

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To You: Whom They Called A Strong Woman

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They called you a strong woman.

Because you’re independent, and always seem to be so confident going about your days by yourself. Because you seem fine all the time. Because you’re the one taking charge when everything goes out of line, and making it all once again calm. Because you’re the one that keeps trying to find the way out when the other have given up. Because often times you would refused a helping hand being offered your way by saying,  “It’s alright, I can do this.” Because you always seem so happy and full in your own little world, even if you have to wake up and go to bed alone, every single day.

They called you a strong woman.

You, who forever postpone your dreams to ensure that the ones around you can chase theirs. You, who make sure that everyone have enjoyed their meals before picking up whatever is left on the table. You, who always let everyone else voice their concerns and opinions first, before starting to speak. You, who will only cry when nobody is looking.

You, who always be the one retreating from a relationship when they begin the conversation with, “I know you’re a strong woman,”—as if being a strong woman makes you immune from heartbreaks.

You, whom they called a strong woman, sometimes wish they do not see you as someone strong. You wish you could rest, because life can feel so exhausting. You sometimes imagine how wonderful it is to be the one others are fighting for; and instead of being someone who is constantly fighting. You wish someone else would want to carry your life’s burden without you even asking, and not the other way around.

You, whom they called a strong woman, sometimes wish you could shed some tears when you’re sad, explode in anger, or pour your heart out whenever you are in doubt. There are days when you feel like crying—but you simply forget how to: it has been too long that you force yourself to smile whenever you’re feeling down.

You, whom they called a strong woman, sometimes want to cry out, “I want that!” and let others withdraw to give you what you want. You want to be a bit spoiled and stubborn, to have others give way to your will, not the other way around.

Sometimes, you want to be the one who gives up.

You, whom they called a strong woman, sometimes want to admit the fact that you are lonely. That after facing such a backbreaking world, you would love to come home to loving arms, that would envelope you in their embrace. Sometimes, you wish to be the one being protected; you wish you could be this vulnerable being that would invite endearment and affection.

When a relationship went wearisome, you would like to hear: “I need to stay with her, I cannot imagine hurting her,” instead of, “She’ll certainly be fine without me, she has always been a strong woman…”

You, whom they called a strong woman, carry so many burdens, so many dreams, so many responsibilities on your shoulder. You, whom they called a strong woman, sometimes question the fact: that if you are not the one to be strong, who else could carry all these?

But, you, whom they called a strong woman—yes, you: you deserve to be happy as well.

You deserve a break, to sometimes be a bit ‘selfish’, to ask for what you want, to say, “Help me, I cannot do this alone.” You are allowed to let your tears fall without having to be shadowed by a smile, to be someone being kept—instead of being released.

Because you, whom they called a strong woman, you are not always as strong as they may think you are.

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This is the English version of an article published in Kamantara.id, an Indonesian UGC website.

The Wisdom of Pejeng, Bali.

Pejeng, Ubud
Gunung Kawi Temple. A complex of 10 temple fronts created as ancient royal tombs on the banks of the Pakerisan River.

His was not a happy childhood.

He spent his first few days of living inside Kerobokan jail, when his parents got detained by the Dutch. His mother breastfed him on the cell, and bestowed upon him the name Dewa Gede Badung.

His suicidal thoughts came before the age of 12.

Those were the times when he spent his days mindlessly at Garba Cave. Situated 400 meters above sea level, the cave lies underneath Pengukur-ukuran Temple, above the Pakerisan River in Pejeng village, Bali.

The Caretaker of Garba Cave, Pejeng

Now around the age of 70, he reminisced the days when (for reasons he could not truly comprehend) he got attracted to this hermitage site. As a child, he spent his time running around the cave as well as sitting still with his eyes shut tight. Something he understood later on as meditating.

It was during one of these ‘sittings’ he somehow heard a thought echoed in his head, loud and clear: a message not to end his life.

Thus began the days of new Dewa Gede Badung, as he decided to dedicate his life as a caretaker of Garba Cave in Banjar Sawa Gunung; where Prime Minister (Mahapatih) Kebo Iwa used to meditate back in the 12th century.

I met Dewa Gede Badung one afternoon when I visited Garba Cave. I was still hypnotised by the majestic look of my surroundings when shirtless, he shouted from the top of the huge stairs of stones, asking where I came from. His eyes were sharp, and his built was small, but strong.

Easily, he lifted up a huge piece of stone covering what to be believed as an underground tunnel of Tampaksiring. “Only those with a pure heart can find a way out of this tunnel,” he said. His eyes sparkling underneath the Pejeng sun.

On How One Should Meditate

Dewa Gede Badung told me the secret of meditating that day: “Pray so you can eat. If you cannot eat, you cannot live. Pray so you can work. So you know what is your duty. Pray so you have a place to go home to.”

I was amazed at how these words could sound so simple, yet so true. It’s not only about meditating, it’s also about living a good life.

One does not need too many things to live a good life.

We need only to eat enough so we can stay functioning and live a healthy life. It is not about indulging ourself. It is about knowing what is good for us and our body.

We need to do our duty and play our part both in society and in humanity; we need to serve. When we do so wholeheartedly, we will get what we need in return. Sometimes just enough, or sometimes even more. But we will not experience scarcity.

And last but not least, we need to know that we will be taken care of, to trust, to believe, to have faith, to know that we will always have a place we can call home. A place we can go back to. A place we can reunite with.

On How Nature Heals

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The holy Pakerisan River from the bridge at Gunung Kawi.

David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah found out that our brains are easily fatigued. There’s a full article in National Geographic on how nature helps us (and our brain) to heal; but all in all, when we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, we feel restored.

And our mental performance improves too.

I guess it is for this reason that people take a break from work and go on a holiday to the beach, the lake, or the mountains. Or why I (many times) healed my broken heart by the rice fields in Ubud; or how I felt a strange sense of relief after such a tumultuous relationships just by spending hours sitting surrounded by the trees, birds, and squirrels of Delhi’s Qutb Minar.

Pejeng, once known as the centre of Balinese kingdom, also hosted several natural ‘healing’ sites nearby, like Gunung Kawi, Sebatu, Goa Gajah, and Tirta Empul–all centered around water and holy springs.

The Healing Power of Water

For the Balinese, water has always been respected for its cleansing property. May it be flowing as a river, pouring down as rain, or sprouted from a spring—water is considered a holy element that brings forth life, and is mindfully preserved.

Each and every traditional procession and ceremony in Balinese villages included water or in Balinese, tirta, as one of its most essential elements. It represents a life-giving force, a purifying agent, a blessing.

One of the Balinese traditional purification ceremonies, melukat, resembled a river-bathing activity. A Balinese priest would lead a purification ceremony in a resplendent location at a confluence of rivers and waterfalls—where participants would undergo a series of rituals, including praying, bathing, and soaking themselves in a stream.

The palm-leaf scripture of Manawa Dharmasastra stated that the purification ceremony is for ‘the body to be cleansed with water, the mind to be cleansed with honesty, the soul to be cleansed with knowledge, and the reason to be cleansed with wisdom.’

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The source of the holy spring at Tirta Empul temple is located in the inner courtyard. The spring is filled with green algae.

It was the day before full moon when Yuni took me to Gunung Kawi, Tirta Empul, and Sebatu. Yuni works at Lanna’s Lair, a lovely villa in Banjar Sawa Gunung, Pejeng, a perfect place to wind down, heal, and get reconnected with yourself.

“These places would be full, because tomorrow is full moon. Everyone is going for the water purification ceremony there,” said Yuni, as she bought banten (offerings) and incense from one of the stalls lining up towards the melukat site.

The first thing I noticed about these sites were how beautiful their surroundings were. All those greeneries, the faint chirping of the birds, the sounds of splashing water… no wonder such places are believed to have healing powers. Just by standing there in silence and absorbing their beauty, I could have felt a wave of peacefulness washing all over me already.

Sebatu turned out to be the most challenging site of the day. One must climb down hundreds of steep set of stairs to the holy spring; but the stunning view and the lush canopy of green above my head gave me the fuel to keep going.

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Melukat in Sebatu, Pejeng. You need to climb down a set of steep stairs to reach the water purification site.

Going Historical in Pejeng

I have always thought of Pejeng as a small village with nothing but rice fields and natural surroundings. So I was surprised at how many things I could actually do in Pejeng during my stay there. The village and the area nearby are swarming with historical sites!

Apart from Garba Cave, Gunung Kawi, Goa Gajah (or Elephant Cave, a Buddhist sanctuary built in the 9th century), as well as Tirta Empul and Sebatu holy springs, Tampaksiring Palace is located only 20-minute away. Sacred temples like Pengukur-ukuran, Penataran Sasih, Kebo Edan, Samuan Tiga, or Pusering Jagat are placed only a few kilometers away from each other.

Penataran Sasih temple was well-known for hosting the Moon of Pejeng. It is said to be the largest single-cast bronze kettle drum in the world and the largest known relic from Southeast Asia’s Bronze Age period. The locals believe that the Moon of Pejeng is sacred.

“We believe that The Moon would make a sound as a sign that a catastrophic event would take place,” said Dewa Gede Badung. He remembered how The Moon was last heard made a sound in 1965, before the Indonesian grim massacres.

Pusering Jagat temple, on the other hand, is believed to be the center of the old Pejeng Kingdom. The temple attracted devotees who are wishing for fertility and seeking healing powers.

Pejeng would still be my secret village to wind down from the hustle and bustle of Ubud. It was always lovely to talk with the villagers and holy site’s caretakers–listening to the way they embrace ancient wisdom and making meanings out of it in such a modernised world.

As I floated along Lanna’s Lair pool overlooking the jungle, suddenly I felt so insignificantly small. As if I was surrounded by something way much older, way much more ancient, and way much more sacred than all the world’s history I’ve ever known.

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What to do in Pejeng

Ask the lovely local staff at Lanna’s Lair to arrange a private cooking class (their Chef used to work in Ubud’s most well-known fine dining restaurant), a melukat trip or other Balinese traditional healing experience, meeting village elders and caretakers, meditation class (including their routine full-moon meditation), bicycle trip around Pejeng’s historical temples and healing sites, and many more!