It resembled the many sunsets, the sky bathed in red. A new page that began with the story’s end. That was how the day broke in Banten, when I left.
The first sentence which I wanted to place here slipped somewhere into the clouds of my mind. But few days ago, as I walked down a hotel lobby in Ortigas, I was greeted by a familiar view of what used to be my neighbourhood nearly a decade ago. This was home, I once told a former professor in a farewell letter few weeks before graduation. “Of all places, why does it have to be Manila?” I no longer recall what was my followup to that e-mail. But eventually I would learn what she meant by that. The daily grind of waking up at least 4 hours early so you have an hour for shower and breakfast, the rest would be for travel. Once during rainy season when Shaw Boulevard was flooded, I came to work with my pants dripping wet, save for my shoes that was dry because I placed them inside my bag. Long story short, the home I called turned out to be hell. For that I returned home again and found myself happy for some four years, until it felt like home had to be another city. So I moved from one city to another, soon realising I may have made a fool out of myself by calling too many places my home. That morning, Jon may have thought of something when I was telling to a hotel staff how I missed Pasig, and that I remember those days when it was home. “Diba taga Davao ka?”
who I lost contact when I returned to the Philippines where I took so many jobs that I rarely have the chance to sit down and read all their messages on Whatsapp. I wish you can all forgive me.
I couldn’t help but pluck what probably was the remaining fruit of the mango tree this season. It had been swinging in the midst of a legion of leaves, while its cheek constantly being licked by the sun, whose heat has been the source of my agony since I went home. It gets so hot that I take midday showers when I’m working from my desk in Bago Aplaya. And each time I do, the bathroom’s window perfectly frames that hanging mangga, as if it were a picture sent by Tri, telling me that the kids are at it again, knocking at the gate, asking if it were alright to take some. I decided to pluck it, not because it didn’t deserve to be in that picturesque frame. But I just needed to turn it into rujak manis. It was the perfect time to make one because Bunda Tiwi got me bumbu kacang from Madiun, and there was ketimun, apel, and nanas in the fridge. She knew I have been in terrible shape since I went home, even long before I began to realise that my Indonesianised appetite would become a problem. A trivial problem I kept as a secret because on the same island where I now live people are being killed — so what makes mine a humanitarian crisis? But each day food without sambel or at least bumbu kacang felt like my rights were violated. So each time I went somewhere, grabbing food for lunch or dinner was tough. I didn’t want to go near a carinderia who knew nothing about sego pecel. So I picked only those food vendors whose goods I can associate with Java. Ginanggang is close enough to pisang bakar, and Coffee Americano to kopi tubruk. At night, I’d run to Mandarin for fish curry and jasmine tea — both remind me of that warung nasi padang along Jalan Raya Sengkaling which Latif says served bad rice. I would turn down requests from my friends who ask to meet after work, because everytime I do, my tongue suffers a lot. Always, when I want to speak in Filipino or Cebuano, my mouth blurts out Javanese words, that now, to save myself from embarrassment, I would rather not throw questions at a press conference broadcasted live. Because even if I spoke in English, surely someone would accuse me of faking a cable TV accent (yes, someone rubbed this in my face). Now I regret rolling my eyes when I could not believe Robin told me he had a lidah pecel when I took the whole gang to Pizza Hut a day after I arrived from Jakarta. I thought he was faking it when he said pizza wasn’t his thing. I never understood that until I returned to a Filipino home where a mango tree fulfills a rujak nostalgia, and where someone has been cursed with lidah pecel. Jancuk.
On Saturday nights, you’d ask me what I plan to do. Sometimes, you’d do that on a Sunday, to which I’d usually say no, nothing in particular. You’d suggest we’d go to a coffee shop somewhere along Soekarno Hatta, and I’d immediately agree. There was no agenda. No questions. We just hopped on our bikes and grab anything to drink to borrow a nice sofa to sit on. When we’re lucky, there were board games lying near the cashier’s spot. You’d show off new shapes you could make out of your stupid vape, to which you claim was a healthy alternative, while I slowly die of Marlboro. We would play Uno, a game I always end up losing. An unfamiliar tune out of a dangdut music was enough to make me giggle and the blocks collapse, as if a president just brought the house down after poking fun on television how stupid the guerillas were. But we’re better than them, and we definitely never argued about who among us had better ideas, or who was speaking higher truths. And we knew it was alright that the blocks toppled down, and what joy it was to start from scratch again, because eventually I’d win. But then it would take me a long time, and when it happened there was nothing amusing about it anymore, and we’d go home right away. And by the way, talking about other people’s lives wasn’t part of the amusing things to do in our books. We talked about great ideas when there was no Uno around. And the kilometric talking was often done when Andi was there, who turned our weekends into academic discussions. How is he doing by the way? I often think of you both, and when I do that I end up staying awake until the wee hours. As I write this, right next to me is an unfinished novel Pulang. You’ve seen that book, right? Its title screaming as if begging me to pulang, like how you insist that I go home. And by that you don’t mean that I go home to the Philippines. Well, wait for it. I will.
I hope you didn’t despise it that much. To grab ketoprak one morning in the month of ramadhan was my idea. Somewhere, not far from the Bung Karno monument, an abang was manning his lonely kaki lima, probably hoping there were kafirs who would pass by for a plate of ketoprak and teh botol. I couldn’t finish the ketoprak which had so much lontong in it. The sudden bloat inside made me feel guilty, that I ran out of ideas on where to head next. We walked to a direction of who knows where, until we hopped into a Transjakarta bus, where I, by impulse, bought myself a flash card despite knowing it would be of no use when I return to the Philippines. Months later, I sat inside a lonely coffee shop in Davao, where I ran for shade. “Sige lang ko’g kamatay,” says the abang at the cafe. Outside, people stuck out their umbrellas to keep them dry as they wait for cabs that would later reject them once their driver learns they’re heading south, where a creek appears on McArthur Highway when it rains. Going back, the abang meant he kept on dying each time he restarts the game, who knows what game that was. He was behind a tall cashier table — and I only heard a radio and the droning of the air conditioner. He kept on dying yet he kept on trying and clearly there was no way anyone could take his face off the phone — just like one afternoon when we were aboard Transjakarta, when your face was glued on the phone, texting someone on our last time together. I did not entertain the idea, until we reached Grand Indonesia where the thoughts crawled out of my pores, when you were busy fitting in the clothes you would buy. As you were engrossed finding clothes that would match you I couldn’t ward off the demons that were teasing me of the thought that you had to entertain another guy. Few minutes later I hear an abang say “pildi gyud siya.” He lost. Was he referring to me? At that moment in Jakarta, I asked why you had to do that. That while we were on an escalator that dragged us up to another floor, I felt some force was pulling me down, my thoughts perhaps. I thought we have talked about that? Our feet took us near a bench where we would later sit on. Maybe I was assuming, maybe I was dreaming so much about sunsets at Kuta, or dreaming too much of taking you to Surabaya on my bike and you’ll grab me by my hips as I tell you stories about the streets we would pass. That despite the fact that on that day, my hours with you are numbered and I could not promise of another day together. You ran into the washroom, where I would not hear you sob. Later as you return — you told me that you were wrong — yet I felt bad. Maybe I put people on the pedestal, forgetting that I was meeting someone else? But maybe I was frustrated by the fact that flying to Jakarta I end up getting this? We head to a cafe, where I ordered coffee so I can light a cigarette to cool down. You remained quiet, this time afraid of saying anything. I laid my arms on your shoulders, assuring that things are alright now. Hours later, we hopped on an Uber car back to the hotel, where nearby you shopped for chopped fresh fruits, whole wheat bread, noodles, and yogurt for sahoor. Back in the hotel we had to wear citronella lotion to drive a legion of mosquitoes off. On the bed, our bodies were one, as I played a song that began with a poetry about a bustling city, perhaps about Jakarta. Or us. We only slept for a few hours. I was flying back to Malang early morning — and you were thinking twice about whether it was a good idea that you come with me to Soekarno Hatta. And I was yet again aghast at why you even had to think of that, though you eventually agreed to come with me. I held your hand, as the driver apparently recognised who I was. I let him talk about how his life had been in Jakarta — while I savour those remaining — last remaining hours which I once thought I wanted to be the last. We were quite early, and we still had time, so I asked if I could light another cigarette — this time, to distract me from the looming sadness that engulfed the international gate. Yes, I still think of that moment thousands of miles away, in a city that is constantly washed by torrential rain, and where memories refuse to fade.
Tell me of the stories you plan on writing today, so I have an idea how to prepare, says the editor who just got up from a nightmare. The cars mumble on the other side of Jl Jakarta. The nearby mosque is muffled — the azhan is only being screamed in the air. Bromo has been spewing ash — and the editor is wary of the stories that might cascade on what should have been his day off. He’s imagining sipping teh tawar somewhere, probably Surabaya, or Lombok, or Hanoi. But there he is on Jl Jakarta, in agony, waiting for stories take their own shape.
In front of him, few chairs north, few rows, separated by wooden chairs painted in burnt brown two men whose hair were thinning wrap each other in their arms. A lady in red, at the back, scrolls the glowing glass, pretending she’s doing something really important. She tilts her head and looks above. An antique electric fan is spinning. What if it falls down, she wonders.
Before I left Indonesia, I made a promise that I leave with a kenangan — as a gift to remind myself how the country transformed me. A week before my departure, I interviewed Eko Cahyono, the founder of Perpustakaan Anak Bangsa, and the man who I happened to meet sometime in 2016 at a Toastmasters meeting. My name is Eko, he said, and I have a library. “You should come and visit.” I did — and discovered his story.
This piece was first published on Rappler Indonesia
BEYOND THE RIVERS OF SUKOPURO, in a house built of bricks and stones, a marriage is falling apart. Her husband of 12 years is off to find a new wife — a woman whose womb could continue a lineage.
One morning, in an attempt to distract herself from reality, she leafs through the pages of a book she plucked from a shelf. She wipes her wet cheeks, yet already a fresh stream of tears water the table.
“Mbak Mina,” a familiar voice asks, “why do you weep?”
“My husband is filing a divorce.”
The year is 2003 in Indonesia, and the country is in a ruckus. A series of bomb blasts rock a hotel and an airport in Jakarta. A peace negotiation between the government and Free Aceh Movement collapsed. Meanwhile, a librarian in a small village on the eastern part of Java is baffled: how can he appease a woman at fault for a childless marriage?
Suddenly, Eko’s phone rings, and Mina is left in midair.
The woman speaking on the other line is giving out her back issues of Femina magazine. “There’s 400 of them at home,” she says. “Please take them.” She’s leaving for Surabaya, and the magazines had to go — to someone else’s hands, or to the junk.
He looks at Mina, and tells her to wait. “Someone wants to donate Femina, your favourite read.” He hops on his motorcycle, and the engine revs. The woman lives in Malang City, some 15 kilometres away from Sukopuro, a village in Jabung in the regency of Malang, in between fields of sugar cane and rice paddies.
A couple of hours later, he returns to the library. He shows Mina the magazines that came in a sack. He leaves the second time to take the remaining loot. He would never find her again, except for a note she left on his table
I am borrowing four copies of Femina. If my plan to fly to Hong Kong to work as a domestic pushes through, I will have my neighbour return these on my behalf.
It’s one of those days where he wished there are more things he’s capable of doing, like casting spells on a barren womb, so women didn’t have to live at fault for a marriage that failed.
“But who am I?” he utters in silence. “I’m just a librarian”
His name is Eko Cahyono. To many he is called Mas Eko, a Javanese term of respect towards older men. To others, they call him a recognition-seeker, a freak whose life swirl around piles of papers. To some, a curator of lewd literature.
“At the village,” he once said, “people don’t have much to do but sit idly and chat.”
It was that culture that he wishes to break.
THE DAYS of 1998 meander. The leather factory where he works shut down in the wake of a financial crisis. And then jobs became hard to find. To relieve himself from a tormenting repetitive cycle of days, he read all what he could find at home.
One day at the village, he meets an old man scanning through the words printed on a newspaper. The man was reading — upside down. It was in that moment he felt a fire in his belly, and soon his house is transformed into into a public space. At their terrace, he would hang magazines and tabloids on a clothesline. At night when they weren’t reading, they sang. Sometimes, they would discuss about public matters. Right in his family’s house, a library was born.
On some days he would knock on doors. And when a door opens, he smiles at the eyes that emerge from it. “Would you like to donate books?” It was a script that didn’t take a long time to master, except that he had to say repeat such line from one house to another, so they who came will always have something new to read.
He was Nuh and the library was his ship. He moved more than 10 times, until finally a neighbour offered a perfect deal: an empty land beside a peaceful graveyard – for rent. In 2008, there it was, a library built of bamboo and asbestos. He named it Perpustakaan Anak Bangsa, the library of the nation’s child. At the entrance, a pole stands with a flag on top, the emblem of their land.
They came and read, and he takes care of the rest. For a time, together with his sisters, they would sell coffee, cigarettes, and gorengan to pay for electricity. Later his sisters would begin their own families, and he would be on his own. He wrote stories and sold them to newspapers. He manned book fairs. He earned commissions from loan referrals. He did all sorts of jobs to pay the rent. And when they weren’t enough, he sold what he had: his television and a motorycle.
One stormy night, a tree falls and violently crashes the library’s roof. The next morning, he knew something had to be sold again.
Perhaps, he thought, “I could sell one of my kidneys.”
NOBODY IN THE VILLAGE, not even his parents, thought of the idea that an erstwhile factory worker and a high school graduate would become a librarian.
Those who frequently visit fondly call him mas, and loved him dearly. But others thought he was a joke, others called him sok cari nama, or someone who just wanted to gain popularity. They belittled him and talked at his back. Once, police came after they caught wind that he was harboring pornography at the library, even if it were just magazines that tread on sexuality and reproductive health, even if it were just a pile of Femina, a favourite among housewives who felt empowered for reading it.
So when the police who came finding no evidence, they ended up borrowing books.
Here is a library, where readers find company and answer to uneasy questions, like how does a 12-year-old student cope with life when the head of his family, the one who’s supporting them, is only given 6 months to live?
This was the story of Tema, who few years ago run into Eko for advise. He was contemplating of quitting school — even if he were only months away from graduation. His father’s diabetes has affected his nervous system. An operation had to be performed on top of expensive medications. Someone had to pay the bills, and at that young age Tema felt it had to be him.
“Seandainya aku ini orang sakti.” If only I were a man of supernatural powers, Eko said in a thick Javanese accent.
But what can a librarian do?
He tucked books inside his bag. The books were about reflexology, another about ancestral heritage, and the other on traditional medicine. Seven months later, he returned, wearing a high school uniform. It was those books that he lend Tema that gave his father a new lease of life.
Beyond the rivers of Sukopuro, there is a library – and it’s evidently more than that.
JULY 2017. FEW DAYS AFTER LEBARAN. As I came to visit the library to capture the librarian’s life in photographs, a 16-year-old walks into the library. He grabs Eko’s right hand. Gently he presses it into his forehead. He moves to my direction and does the same to mine. He asks whether it’s alright to come in. It’s fine, Eko tells him. He dashes into the comics section, and Eko returns to his table.
“That’s Arif. He stays at a pesantren nearby,” Eko tells me, “so when he’s free, he comes here to take a break from school-related readings. Some fifteen minutes later, the boy, clad in apple green sweatshirt, is one with silence. As he nestles behind a towering bookshelf, a book transports his mind into another world.
On Eko’s table are piles of books, a plate full of rice cake wrapped in banana leaves, some drinking water in plastic cups, nuts and spicy rice chips stored in glass jars.
Another visitor emerges from the doorway. He lifts the tarpaulin, the only material that’s covering it. He shakes our hands, and later asks Mas Eko for Aloe Vera leaves. “That’s another regular visitor, they have livestock at home,” he tells me. Later, he extends his arm for another round of handshakes. He couldn’t stay longer, he says, and lifts the tarpaulin cover. “Salamualaikum.”
The books, tens of thousands of them stored inside this 72-square-metre space, are left unguarded, and it’s meant to be that, Eko says, so people can come and borrow whatever they want. Unlike many libraries, the only rule here is to read.
When UNESCO study revealed that in Indonesia, only 1 out of 1000 people read a book per year, he was one of those who raised an eyebrow: who says Indonesians don’t read?
“At the library the least number of people who come here every day hovers at 50,” he said.
“Indonesians like to read, if they’re given convenient access to libraries. They read, if libraries allow them to read any time of the day, without the usual bureaucracy of requiring them to photocopy their KTP, pay administration fees, and fine them when they couldn’t return the book in a week.”.
Outside the library, a giant mango tree’s shadow falls on a grove of purple boat lilies and snake plants that spiraled from the earth, as if triggered by a recording of a sindhen singer blaring from neighbour’s stereo. There are herbs planted in pots made from cut plastic bottles. A goat bleats, taking turns with the crowing cocks while they scratch their bamboo cages. The smell of burning wood under a boiling pot of rice wafts the air.
It was in 2011 when the library was finally reconstructed into a concrete hall, through the help of donors. And since then, it sits on land it rightfully belongs. On its wall, I see picture frames, medals, and trophies chronicle the history of a library with a whopping 8,000 membership. They are students, factory workers, teachers, and household wives that come here to read from a collection classified in the whims of the librarian: wow memukau (awakening), petunjuk hidup (guide to life), superpower, khusus kutu buku (exclusive for bookworms), super hot, kontroversi (controversies), among others.
They read and borrow, and return the books at their own pace. Yet the books have always found their way back. “I’d like to think that the books are just out there travelling with their readers,” he once told Andy Noya, a celebrated TV host in the country.
Among those on ‘travel’ list is Laskar Pelangi, a fictional story of young students on Belitung island in Sumatra, where the kids and their teachers struggle to keep a lone elementary school in the village running, a familiar story not far different from the library’s: that sometimes, noble acts of kindness arise from those who barely have anything.
The book was away for a good three years beginning in 2006, passing from one hand to another. So in 2008, Andy pledged to give the library 25 copies of it. Another 25 of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and another for dictionaries. The meek librarian tried his best to contain his happiness as a thunder of applause drowns the studio. It was a moment well-kept in pictures that hang on the wall. Another frame describes Eko as a hero. Beside is a picture of him with President Joko Widodo taken at the Palace in April. At the time the president invited community librarians around the country to discuss what their needs are. On that day, Jokowi promised to ship 10,000 copies of books to each of them. To make it easy for those who support community libraries, the president asked state-owned Pos Indonesia to make shipping free for those who sent books to libraries every 17th of the month.
I asked Eko what’s in his mind as he looks back all the memories that built Perpustakaan Anak Bangsa. “Biasa aja mas,” he tells me. Nothing extraordinary, an expression that embodies self-restraint. That when you’re doing something for the people, do it without putting things into your head.
This is a story of a man who devoted some good twenty years of his life to a noble cause. Fueling people’s interest towards reading through a village library he built in 1998 is a story truly filled with altruism. To ensure people have something to read, says Eko, is a responsibility. His responsibility.
What motivates him to do all these? Now 37, Eko evaded the question, and instead returns to the stories that built the library.
ONE MORNING IN 2007, while attending to the scores of books that gathered dust and webs, a white Toyota Innova parks in front of his house few steps away from the library. He runs out to find out who it was. The door opens, and a woman in high-heels alights. She asks him where the library is. She must be a donor, he thought.
“How are you, Mas Eko?” the woman in beige dress and crimson red skirt grins. She takes off her sunglasses.
“It’s me, Mina.”
For all those times there had been no news about her, he wondered how her life has been, her divorce and her life in Hong Kong.
Do you remember those magazines I borrowed, Mas Eko? She asked. She read them all. It was those pieces of hand-me-downs that taught her how to improve her fertility. Those magazines that once became a piece of controversy, that jeopardized a library — saved a marriage. Her husband retracted a divorce petition on the day Mina’s doctor found life in her womb. She gave birth to twins.
And the air is filled with solace. There was no need for him to possess super powers. To be a librarian—it was more than enough to transform lives.
Few minutes before I wrapped up the day of interviewing Eko, I studied those amiable almond eyes that returned to the pile of books on the table. “These are new donations up for inventory,” he tells me. The azhan reverberates in the air, and the rays of the afternoon sun beam through a tall glass window — forming a circle of light around his head. It was a glimpse of a day in life of the man they call Mas Eko. But perhaps — beyond the rivers of Sukopuro — a village that is home to where children, housewives, labourers, people from all walks of life could educate themselves through the books they read, there is a term that fits him even more: the people’s librarian. ◊
Any recommendation of a good hostel
In Ubud and need to go tomorrow morning
How should I pay?
Anyone here in Indonesia
I have 2 weeks
And will arrive Jakarta
I plan to go by train in
Bali with stops
Along the way
I have a question about this
I arrived in Jakarta this morning
And plan to travel down Java to Bali
Anyone up for meeting anywhere?
I have planned to see the Borobudur and
the Prambanan, after that
I don’t know what to do?
Someone in Ubud in the next 3 days
I’m planning to do the rice fields and monkey
forest. If someone wants to join
Let me know
I would like to do self-guided hiking/trekking trips
Whether day hikes or multi-day trips
I don’t want to go with a guide
And I prefer not to travel too much to keep
The costs down
I really want to spend time with nature
(Things bule people say on a Facebook group filled it…bules)