I didn’t really want to go. A carnival celebrating a traditional cloth didn’t sound that exciting and after a week in Yogyakarta I was itching to move on to my next Indonesian destination. Growing up in cultural California I had been to my fair share of heritage celebrations and I’ve found that they tended to be similar affairs - school and community groups dancing and displaying costumes. Nice enough, but not something I’d classify as a can’t-miss.
Especially because this carnival was a few hours out of town and it was one of the few times when I had an opportunity to climb Mt. Merapi, I wasn’t really sold on it. Luckily I had a very charming Couchsurfing host who peer pressured me into going with her and some friends.
What a good effing call.
The Solo Batik Carnival turned out to be unlike any cultural event I’ve ever been to, utterly chaotic, amazing energy, and at the end of it all had completely redefined the concept of a parade for me.
We got to Solo around 8pm, a 3hr drive from Yogyakarta, where we stopped at a friend’s house who lived there. No one seemed to have a clear answer on what time the carnival/parade would start, apparently it’s always a bit of a crapshoot, but no one was stressed about it, so we got to the street it would be on around 9pm.
Expecting some sort of parade route since, you know, it was supposed to be a parade and all, I was a little surprised when the space just appeared to be a street that tens of thousands of people had turned into an asphalt picnic ground. There were no officials, just vendors selling food, novelty balloons (which, for the record, are a terrible idea for parades), and treats.
We took up positions near the middle of the street and milled around waiting for something, I wasn’t sure what. Eventually people started hurrying away from the middle and we peered to see what was happening. Was it starting? Where exactly was the parade going to take place? There were no ropes or markers or anything indicating any part of the street was off limits.
I saw what was causing people to move - a car was driving slowly through the crowd. At first I thought it was a medical emergency but no, that’s just how they move the crowd apart before the parade. Then a bigger truck drove through, pushing the crowd even farther apart, and then there were some policemen who pushed the crowd the rest of the way out. I guess that’s one way to clear a parade route.
The parade then started, taking advantage of the new available lanes. Look, it’s Miss Indonesia!
Soon the performers started to file through. There wasn’t really any music and they weren’t dancing, apparently just trying to walk through the route with these huge costumes was challenging enough. The costumes were elaborate and impressive, although they didn’t really look anything like the batik I’d been seeing in Indonesia up to that point. I took a few obligatory pictures but I wasn’t really impressed with it so far.
Gradually the crowd started to inch closer and closer to the performers, since there wasn’t any rope or gate or anything keeping them away.
Pretty soon there was barely space for the performers to shuffle through, and people from the crowd kept stopping them to take pictures with them. Photo, photo! The more elaborate the costume, the more desirable the photo.
At this point the available path had convened to basically a small walkway, and the performers were practically elbowing their way through. If you were standing on the edge you had to constantly duck so you wouldn’t get smacked in the face with their costume (it happened anyways). I understood more now why each year some performers need to be taken to the hospital from exhaustion.
The parade “route” at this point:
By this time I was with my host Elisa and her friend Odai, the rest of our group having been separated in the mayhem. Feeling like I had all the mementos I needed, I passed off my camera to Elisa, who had pushed her way to the front and was enthusiastically clicking away. I wasn’t really feeling super into the whole spectacle - like I said these events happen often enough in California and I didn’t feel the need to get a photo of myself with an exhausted costume.
Luckily for everyone, and as any of my friends back home can attest to, I am easily susceptible to peer pressure. I was hanging a few rows back and Odai approached me. You want to take a photo with the performers? he asked. Ehh… that’s OK, I said. They seem pretty overwhelmed. No, it’s OK, he insisted, look everyone is doing it. “I don’t know, I don’t want to be rude…” I kept making excuses, scenes like this make me feel a little guilty about being a photo whore in my normal life. But Odai was persistent; come on, he said, you’re in Indonesia, and this is what Indonesians do, and you’re just going to hang back?
I had hung out with Odai a few times by now and he knew me well enough to be able to push my self-conscious American buttons. Obviously I’m not going to allow myself to be portrayed as the foreigner who’s too good to indulge in local ridiculousness. Alright alright, I agreed, and we pushed our way to the front. We waited for a “good one”, a costume of suitable ungainliness, and I ran up to the performer and posed in front of her. She stopped, we smiled, Elisa ran up with my camera and got a shot, as did all the other people who think white people are novel enough to want a picture with them (aka most people in Java, more on that later).
Another one? Odai asked. ”I think I’m good…” but by that time my objection was half-assed and he knew it. Soon Elisa, Odai, and I were on impassioned personal quests (along with most of the crowd) to get as many pictures with as big of costumes as possible. We would run up to each one and try to get a photo before a handler would hurry the performer along. We were constantly getting hit in the face with stray outfit pieces. We were running through the performers away from the cops when they would make an effort to push the crowd back. Booooo! I shouted, shaking my fist at them, and Elisa agreed, yelling “The people are not happy!!” in their general direction, as we ran to a less patrolled part of the street.
It was utterly ridiculous. The event had long stopped being about cultural celebration (if it ever was), and had become purely competitive. Who would get the best photo? Who would be able to stop the performer who was being most determinedly hustled along? It was delightfully chaotic. No one knew what to expect or what was going on, people were alternately following the “rules” (for lack of a better word), then completely transgressing them. Parents, children, teenagers, no one was really acting like this was an actual parade (in the sense of the word that I had understood it to be up until that night).
By this time, I was completely caught up in the spirit of it. Taking a photo for the memories was totally irrelevant but I still wanted as many as I could. So did Elisa and Odai and, not to brag (but yeah), I think we killed it. If I was a pure spectator this would have been a relatively forgettable event but as an active participant as it were (at least I’m definitely in a lot of other peoples’ photos from that night), it was hugely entertaining. The parade was our playground and we were going to get the most fun out of it as possible.
Despite all this unruliness no one was upset or annoyed, and everyone just took it in stride and enjoyed themselves. The same way that I’m constantly impressed by peoples’ lack of anger at the crazy traffic, I was extremely appreciative of how no one was taking any of the chaos personally.
Can you imagine if you went to a parade in the states and the crowd showed this level of disregard for order? People would get so pissed off, names would be called, and fights would be started. In Indonesia? People just want to have a good time, and that means different things to different people, and no one gets bent out of shape if their way is different than someone else’s. People just aren’t as hung up on rules here, and I love them for it.
Sometimes the performer wouldn’t stop, or the photographer would be too long setting up the shot, and the photo wouldn’t come out right. ”Mission: fail!!!” Elisa would always laugh when this happened.
After about 40 minutes, the last performer walked passed us and we headed to the curb to regroup. The crowd dispersed and literally within two minutes (literally!) the street looked as if an event had never occurred there. Traffic was operating normally and there was not an excess of people. Even the vendors had mostly gone. I seriously just turned around for a second and everything was gone. It was kind of shocking. But I guess when no one has done any preparation then no one needs to do any cleanup.
After we had regrouped we went to the city hall, where the parade ends. There it was yet another ridiculous scene. Some of the performers had discarded pieces of their costumes, most were just milling around, allegedly there was supposed to be some sort of performance but that never happened. Everyone was still having a good time, even the exhausted performers after their gauntlet. A lot of them had taken off the more overbearing pieces of their costumes, or they had simply fallen off, and those were strewn about.
Elisa picked up a headdress and put it on, insisting on a picture. Are you sure that’s OK? I asked, my American rule-abiding tendencies still painfully obvious. Of course it was. The owner was just happy to no longer have to wear it through a mass of camera-mad batik enthusiasts. So we did what the situation called for, and all took photos with it. And then another one, and then with more performers, and so on.
I was so glad I decided (read: was convinced) not to skip this event. Even though not outwardly terribly remarkable it exemplified everything that charms me about Indonesian culture. Everyone was so easygoing and friendly, even in the craziness and weirdness of the situation, even to an outsider like myself. Indonesia is a country that faces a number of daunting challenges, but people never seem to hold it against each other in day-to-day interactions, even though the situation would often seem to call for it. I had some of my most memorable experiences in Indonesia, but it’s really the people that I remember with the most fondness.