In 1991 I moved to Jogjakarta, on the island of Java, Indonesia, for doctoral research, a lone, female grad student in an entirely different world wanting to learn about entirely different ways of speaking and being. I had to radically recreate myself through a new language, a new way of dressing, a new attitude, to succeed at this extreme rite of academic, intellectual passage.
In my pre-academic life, I had been an aerial stunt woman, bartender, drug dealer, pimp, tour manager for punk bands, harm reduction counselor on five continents before I decided I wanted to be an academic and encourage new generations of students to take responsibility for the state of our world. It was this dedication to my academic goals that drove me to transform myself into a calm, modest, researcher. Despite the extreme contrasts, it wasn’t difficult. I had good teachers.
Ibu Asmoro was one. She became my adopted mother in Java. She was the eldest and highest ranking of the sultan’s palace singers who had since the age of 12 been a central figure in Javanese court music. I met her quite by chance during my first weeks in Jogja while performing the registration rituals required of local bureaucracy. While engaging the district head in conversation, we spoke of my interest in Javanese gamelan (traditional percussion orchestra) and my hope of finding a singing teacher. He immediately told me about Ibu Asmoro and suggested I contact her directly as she lived just around the corner.
She was not what I had expected.
Ibu Asmoro thought she was somewhere around 78 years old and lived alone in a tiny bamboo and stone shack with no electricity or plumbing on a palace salary which, after 64 years and having achieved the highest rank possible, was US$10 per month. She had been alone there since the last of her seven husbands died over thirty years ago. In her prime, Ibu Asmoro was a favorite of three sultans and was now the trusted elder of the court singers. When she had wealth, it was prodigious; and she spent it prodigiously on extravagances including drinking and gambling.
I became like a daughter to this lively old woman, a grateful audience for her stories. Through Ibu Asmoro I also became an abdi-dalem, a servant of the royal court. Each Wednesday and Sunday for two years I entered the palace walls, dressed in full court attire, as an apprentice singer in the gamelan orchestra.
But this is not a story about singing with elderly women in a foreign country. This is a story about magic, love potions, sex, and rituals linked to local versions of spiritualism. It describes an amazing adventure into local sexuality – not for salacious interest – but rather for the fascinating evidence it provides. Love potions and magic really work!
Twice a week before the tropical sun burned high over the city, I routinely dressed in my palace gear, and on my old-fashioned iron bicycle, I’d traverse the city toward the servants’ entrance of the palace. Off-stage areas for royal musicians were segregated into a space for women and a separate area for men. I did not know most of the men as we almost never congregated or even spoke. On stage we were too busy to chat. As the only foreigner in the women’s group, I clearly stood out. But by minding my own business and following the lead of Ibu Asmoro, I never expected anything would go wrong.
Diligently focused on my research, my interests were in the conversations the women had, the topics, their linguistic structure, politeness strategies, rights of speaking, and other communication issues. Naturally, I was also very focused on the humor, the bawdiness, the gossip, the camaraderie as well as the competitiveness displayed in ordinary conversation between women. I loved this work and felt thoroughly privileged for the access I was given to this hidden world. Beyond the women’s enclave, however, the men’s world had other things going on that were completely unknown to me.
One morning, as I was just mounting my bicycle to head out, a tall, skinny, bronze-skinned young man was waiting for me by the gate. Despite the fact that I did not know his name and he was someone I had never before noticed or spoken with at the palace, my immediate sense was that of meeting a dear old friend. The best way I can describe the experience was as if a photograph of him was planted in my brain so that seeing him waiting for me felt completely normal, expected, familiar, desirable, and even thrilling. It didn’t matter that I had no idea who he was. I was excited to see him. He suggested we bike together to a sacred site for meditation and prayer. The abdi-dalem, of which he was one, are tasked with upholding spiritual rituals that are believed to be the source of the strength and longevity of the current line of sultans. I gladly agreed.
I don’t remember how I learned Jono’s name or anything about him. Since our language of interaction was formal Javanese, intimate conversations were not easy. I did learn, however, that Jono was a dukun, a practitioner of white magic. He insisted on white magic only and impressed upon me that black magic was a sin.
During the next several weeks, our bicycling together to sacred sites was an almost daily event. Sacred sites are most often cemeteries where people deemed historically or spiritually significant are buried. In and around this city there are many such pilgrimage sites where kings, imams, martyrs, legendary people or fighters are buried. They are generally visited only at night.
When we arrived at the cemetery that first day together, it was midday and hot. Not a soul was visible. The only perceivable movement over a wide hillside of silent graves was the mottled light dancing to the breeze through the many gnarled, ageless champak trees. Jono took two sarongs out of his backpack and with a muttered apology to the occupant, placed one on the sandy ground over a grave. He invited me to sit; then he sat down next to me. In no time he had my dress up and his hands inside my panties caressing my womanhood. It must have been the power of his spell, because nothing seemed untoward. I gladly accepted his touch and did not object to his lying me down, getting on top of me and slipping inside me. The second sarong covered us to prevent sunburn.
This rather awkward, yet strangely gratifying ritual was repeated almost daily in different sites around the city, always under the burning, midday sun, when no one else in their right mind would be outside. In cemeteries, at sacred trees in dense forests, in ruined temples to long dead kings, at magical springs on top of fog-shrouded mountains, Jono and I wrapped in sarongs engaged in our carnal activities safe in the knowledge that everyone else in town was taking an afternoon nap.
At one point I recall asking him how he can justify our illicit actions within the abdi-dalem morality code. He insisted that god would forgive him after he cleansed himself by dousing his head and body with 7 pots of water.
For nearly two weeks this crazy tryst continued up until a Sunday when I went to see Ibu Asmoro before going to the palace. She took a look at me and ordered me to kneel before her. She grabbed my head and looked deep into my eyes.
You have a spell on you, she said matter-of-factly. Has anything been strange?
Well yes. I’ve been obsessed with Jono. He’s been visiting me often.
Ah well, we need to put a stop to this.
She made me write down a mantra that she recited to me with the instructions that I was to sit cross-legged in the middle of the road when the full moon rose that night and recite the mantra until the spell was broken.
How will I know it worked?
That night wrapped in a batik sarong covering me from my breasts to my knees, I left my room feeling ridiculous and vulnerable. The street was dead silent; only rats scurried past. The moonlight gave the blacktop an eerie silvery glow as I sat in the middle of the narrow alley in front of my boarding house praying no one would see. It took a few minutes for me to relax enough into the mantra in Old Javanese with its many Sanskrit words I did not understand.
Muttering the four lines over and over, I finally fell into the rhythm of the words mixed with moonlight shimmering against my bare shoulders. It didn’t take long before I felt what I thought was a slap to my head that made me jump. The lightness I suddenly felt was exhilarating; I knew immediately the spell was broken. Jono was no longer in my mind!
The following morning, I was reading on the veranda and enjoying the cool morning air when Jono approached the garden gate on his bicycle. He took one look at me, gasped, and quickly turned and rode away. I would never see him again.
My time in Java would soon come to a close. My research was finished and I was returning to the US to write my dissertation on women’s conversations in Javanese. Meanwhile, my far more beguiling experiences with Jono could never be acknowledged or written up in academic publications despite being a true account of the potency of Javanese magic and the economic influences on forbidden relations.