It’s a hot, sunny day in Nikolaevo the day after we arrive. There’s not a cloud in the sky, excepting a haze in the northwest. Lela Stanka has mentioned walking trails and Roman ruins on the hill nearby and I have no interest in staying inside. The three of us pull on our shoes and head out into the afternoon sun.
We walk northeast to the river at the edge of town, where men are sluicing for gold flecks. The air stings slightly and smells vaguely of burning milk jugs and we can see smoke in the distance. “What is that smell?” I ask. Stoytcho translates as Lela Stanka replies, “The next town over, Gurkovo. The terrible smell has been drifting from their town into Nikolaevo all summer. We complained about it, but the mayor there says they’re just burning lavender husks, but who knows what they’re actually burning.”
This definitely does not smell like lavender husks. “Let’s go find out what it is!” I reply. It’s time for us to do some investigative journalism in this small-town dispute.
We turn north and walk the dirt footpath along the river toward Gurkovo, passing alternating dense, tangled summer underbrush and neatly-planted rows of grapevines. We stop to admire the flowers and gather rose hips, which Lela Stanka says we can make into jam or tea.
Most of the time the air smells of humid greens and plant matter, but when the wind shifts we catch whiffs of bitter chemicals. As we close in on Gurkovo, our trail breaks away from the river and onto the edge of a barren field. Here, we can clearly see waves of blue-gray smoke drifting toward us, the source obscured by a low hill of brush.
The trail around the field is long, but the ‘electric fence’ strung up along its edge presents us with no other choice. We hike to its eastward corner and continue north into increasingly frequent plumes of smoke. The smell is stifling and oppressive, and not breathing is the only way to keep from gagging. The fields on either side of us are strewn with refuse, from torn-apart shoes to empty cigarette packets.
We round the final corner to behold the smoldering source of the stench and it is most certainly not lavender husks.
There’s discarded food, broken children’s toys, torn clothes, plastic wrappers, rags, and a variety of chemicals of questionable origin that probably burn quite noxiously. And burning the are.
It appears that the Gurkovo dump caught fire sometime this summer and is now in a slow, continuous process of burning, fed by an ever-present stream of waste. This isn’t entirely surprising, given that summer of 2017 in Bulgaria has been unseasonably hot and dry. The trees both in cities and in the countryside break scorch marks and browning leaves, and people talk of drought. Gurkovo’s burning rubbish heaps are merely one more sign of the times. We beat a hasty retreat back from Gurkovo’s dump, eager to escape the noxious fumes and probable carcinogens floating freely about us.
Back at the apartment, my hair and clothes reek and it takes two showers and washes to clear everything of the burnt plastic smell. Part of me wants to write an angry letter to Gurkovo’s mayor over the health hazard he created that’s now drifting through Nikolaevo. But I also only know about fifteen words in Bulgarian, and most of them relate to food. For now all I can do is publish this article and hope someone can do something about it.
If you visit Borobudur and Prambanan, it’s likely that you’ll hear about the Prambanan Ramayana Ballet. You’ll see signs for it. People will tell you to take a night and go see it. It’s a big deal around here.
I’ve never been an attentive fan of ballet or theater because in college I lacked money, and in graduate school I lacked time. But with a free evening after visiting Prambanan and tickets that only cost $35 per person for up-close, front row seating…good gravy, why not? The hotel concierge tells us that they’re even predicting good weather for that evening, meaning they’ll use the outdoor theater. We have no idea why that matters, but we’ll find out later it involves fire.
Though our hotel is just down the street from the ballet venue (on the back side of the Prambanan Temple park), the hotel staff insists on driving us. We go along and pretend we’re wealthy for the night, though we don’t have to pretend here in Indonesia—we are. But we did just finish a $2 dinner of fried rice and veggies.
After picking up our tickets, getting our complimentary tea/coffee/drink, and settling into our seats, we’re ready to enjoy the show. We watch other people filing in, including an entire gaggle of Indonesian schoolchildren in uniforms, who cluster into giggling groups as the teachers try to seat them in rows. Then the lights dim and everyone, student and nonstudent alike, falls to a hush at the undulating ring of gamelans.
I’m going to spoil the outcome now and tell you that the Prambanan Ramayana Ballet is AMAZING. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, though it’s much less a ballet and more a performance of traditional Javanese dance called Wayang Wong. There’s something hypnotic in the way the dancers move–their hands become water and feet become air as they flow across the stage. And while it might not have the absurd production value of a Broadway show or a Wagner Ring Cycle, it has everything else: an epic love story, fight scenes, drama, comedy, brilliant colors, all with bilingual Bahasa/English subtitles. Also, did I mention fire?
Below are more photographs from the ballet, with my irreverent telling of the story. But really, you should go see it live. With tickets as cheap as $7, you have no reason not to:
The ballet starts with a contest for Princess Sita’s hand in marriage, which rests on a suitor’s ability to break a magic bow. Ravana, the story’s antagonist, fails and storms off*. Rama, the story’s hero, succeeds and marries Sita. She joins Rama and his brother Laksamana, wandering the world in an exile that predates this story.
But Ravana still wants Sita, and hatches a plan to distract Rama and steal her away. He sends his minion Maricha in the form of a golden deer to enchant Sita, who begs Rama to catch it for her. Why? Who knows. Old stories.
Rama leaves Sita with Laksamana, but when Rama fails to return promptly both begin to worry. Laksamana seals Sita in a magic circle while he goes off to look for Rama, but Ravana disguises himself as an old beggar and tricks Sita into leaving the circle. Yep, because SMARTS.
Rama catches the golden deer only to find it’s Ravana’s minion. After defeating it in battle, he and Laksamana rush back to find Sita gone. They find out from Jatayu, the vulture king, that Ravana has taken her.
What follows is a series of adventures in trying to get Sita back, which can basically be summed up as they get the ape-king Hanuman on their side who manages to sneak into Ravana’s kingdom and bring Sita a message that Rama is looking for her.
Then Hanuman gets beats up Ravana’s other minions, who are apparently all really drunk at midday because palace guarding, who does that? Ravana defeats Hanuman and captures him, subjecting him to a ‘trial’ and execution by burning.
This is where the performance take a creative twist, because they bring live fire out onto the stage. They light small bonfires, and Hanuman stands between them, unharmed in the story because he’s pure of heart.
Hanuman then proceeds grab a torch from the flames and set the entire stage on fire, then turns into giant ape a la Dragonball Z. In the story he rampages around destroying Ravana’s palace, but in the ballet he mostly rises like a giant monster over the flaming wreckage of the stage. Yeah, these people are serious about their ballet.
Hanuman rejoins Rama and Laksamana, who attack Ravana’s forces and wage war. Rama confronts Ravana and they battle. Rama eventually shoots Ravana with an arrow and kills him, but not to be outdone Hanuman then throws a mountain on him.
Sita and Rama are then reunited, but Rama is suspicious of Sita’s fidelity after all of her years in captivity. So Sita burns herself in flames but remains untouched, because she’s pure of heart—turns out that’s all you need to survive fire, besides like, actual safety and survival gear.
Rama extinguishes the flames and they go off, happily ever after.
It’s a pretty straightforward fairy tale with elements of good and evil, what humans should and shouldn’t do, and archetypal roles of princesses being rescued by princes and their sidekicks. But really, who cares? They lit the stage on fire.
*This differs from the original Ramayana quite a bit, where Ravana steals Sita as part of a plot to destroy Rama for his hand in killing/destroying other demons. I might be misremembering it.