Jogja and the Angklung

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A man performs on an angklung on Maliboro Street in Yogyakarta.

Ever heard of an angklung?

Me neither. It’s an Indonesian musical instrument, composed of hollow bamboo tubes cut and shaped to resonate at specific tones. By hitting or shaking them back and forth, a musician can perform a simple song and with many in tandem, a group of musicians can weave rich melodies. The angklung’s sound is decidedly tropical; it’s reminiscent of reminiscent of a marimba or xylophone, with a hint of wooden pipes. As an invention of Indonesia, the angklung is now classified by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

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A standalone angklung.

But here in Yogyakarta, the angklung and its players are under threat. The city’s government has recently banned angklung performances from the streets and at traffic intersections, where people previously busked for a living. The government asserts that this measure is needed to clean up the streets and remove ‘vagrants’. But the angklung players aren’t fading away peacefully. They’re organizing protests and arguing they’ve got a right to a living, and by banning their performances the government of Yogyakarta is violating their human rights. We’ve seen one protest that’s shut down Jl. Maliboro (a main street of Jogja) entirely, with angklung players proudly waving signs saying “We’re artists, not vagrants!”

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Performers shut down Maliboro Street as they protest the ban on streetside angklung performances.
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Street performance: protesters loaded a whole band into the back of a truck to play as they march down Maliboro.

And then there are the groups choosing to ignore the ban entirely, hosting huge anglkung orchestras on Maliboro’s sidewalk once night falls. The band below was out in force nearly every night we were in Jogja, playing for huge crowds as men danced to the music.

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Men dance to angklung music on Maliboro.
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A streetside angklung band, with percussion and a bamboo xylophone accompaniment.

I get that Jogja wants to clean up its streets and make itself look more modern, and that a huge number of angklung players clogging the sidewalks and traffic intersections would be a pain. But the angklung players are trying to make a living and they’re a great-sounding and a unique part of Indoensia’s heritage. Having buskers out in the open means that heritage reaches more people, some of which couldn’t afford the cost of an orchestral ticket, some of which might never hear an angklung otherwise. Stoytcho and I would definitely have never heard or heard of an angklung if these guys hadn’t been playing them on the streets. So isn’t there some kind of peaceful compromise wherein both the city and angklung buskers would be happy?

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The angklung performance attracts both locals and foreigners alike. Isn’t there a way to strike balance between allowing too many people to busk on angklungs an outright ban on their street performances?

Now that you’ve heard about it, hear what an angklung sounds like! Here’s some video of the guys above:

The Influence Game – Last day Batik Sale

All over the world there are folks trying to make a quick buck by scamming others, and travelers are particularly vulnerable because they’re often unfamiliar with the traditions and norms of an area. It’s a risk you take as a visitor to another place, and while a scam can ruin your trip, it’s also a chance to learn how people work. Below is one of the scams we encountered on our travels, broken down so that you can see the techniques the scammer uses to influence you; read on to learn the signs so you won’t fall for it:

Name: Last Day Batik Sale

Location: Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Why it’s a scam: A seemingly friendly face will lie or provide unverifiable information so that you’ll be convinced to visit a pricey batik painting shop with them. A Hustler will then also lie/provide unverifiable information to you to convince you to buy overpriced batik that’s actually mass-produced.

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A batik painting from a ‘last day batik gallery’, demonstrating how the batik process works.

 

How it works:

The two actors in the scheme are an agent that approaches you with information, and the hustler who tries to close the sale. You’re the mark (victim), usually someone who has just come into town and don’t know your way around yet. The mark could be anyone from a lone traveler to a couple to a whole tour group. The ploy starts with you walking on the street; the Agent (usually an older man) will start a conversation with you in English. He’ll ask where you’re from, and miraculously he’ll have visited the place or has a relative/friend who lives or went to college nearby. It may be a lie, but it’s unverifiable and so he’s doing two things here: 1) dispelling suspicion of why he speaks such good English and 2) more importantly, building rapport and trust with you. After all, you two have something in common, and what a crazy coincidence you’d happen to meet him here. It’s human nature to like him a bit more after this.

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Maliboro street in Yogyakarta–you’ll find tons of Agents hanging around here.

The Agent will then ask where you’re going today, and when you respond he’ll try to deter you from going there with one of the following: the weather is bad for it, there is a protest going on in the area, or that attraction is closed. Since he’s a local, you’ll likely trust him to know more than you do. Furthermore, you feel like he’s done you a favor by giving you this insider information. In reality, he’s probably lying to trigger feelings of reciprocity, meaning you’re more likely to say yes to his next request.

This is where the Agent then makes his big move, part hook to catch your interest and part request: he’ll tell you he knows of a traditional batik art gallery nearby that he could take you to visit. It’ll sound like a great substitute for what you planned to do that day, so you’ll probably agree to go.

But if you resist and show hesitation, the Agent has one more powerful technique to convince you to come with him: scarcity. You might tell him you’re not sure or you’ll go tomorrow, whereupon he’ll reply “Ah, but this is the last day for the gallery. Tomorrow they close and go to (insert another city or island in Indonesia). As the mark you’re trapped—if you don’t go now, you’ll never get a chance to see this batik sale! You could find something so amazing and unique that it stays with you for the rest of your life! Aughhh! At this point, most first timers of this scheme follow the Agent willingly.

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One of the “last day” batik galleries we were directed to by Agents. If it’s a temporary exhibit, why do you have a permanent sign?

The Agent will lead you into a maze of alleys and arrive at a small store filled with hundreds of batik paintings on the walls and stacked along the floor. The Agent introduces you to the Hustler, who he says is a ‘teacher’ at the batik art school. Here, the Agent is making the Hustler a figure of authority, someone you’ll trust to have valid information.

Once introductions are done, the Agent quickly disappear and the Hustler works hard to reinforce his authority and do you favors to close the sale. The Hustler will start out by displaying examples of the batik dye process, which reinforces his role as an authority and also again primes you to feel reciprocity; he’s giving you this information, so shouldn’t you reciprocate a kind act to him by buying something?

The longer you hang around, the harder the Hustler piles on the pressure. He may increase the likelihood of your reciprocity by offering you a free bottle of water for that hot Indonesian weather. He’ll tell you that all of the prices in the gallery are very affordable, and that a percentage of the sales goes back to the school so they can give classes to students for cheap/free. This is meant to trigger the warm feelings you get when you donate to charity. You’ll do good by buying!

The Hustler will encourage you to pick a piece you like, and this is when the final tricks happen. Once you point out one you like, the Hustler will compliment you on your good taste and give you a price. He’ll quickly follow up with, “We don’t haggle here on price. I hope you understand.” This is a SUPER devious, SUPER common salesman tactic because it pre-empts nearly any attempt to haggle. Who does something that just isn’t done, especially if you’re in a new country where you’re not sure of the social norms. If you actually are in the market for a batik piece and someone does this, give them a friendly smile and say you’re only able to pay X amount so it’s out of your price range, and start to walk away. They’ll haggle.

At this point, the Agent and the Hustler have used a huge number of influence tactics on you, the Mark: rapport, reciprocity, an interesting hook, scarcity, authority, warm feelings, salesman tactics. At this point, you usually make a purchase, the hustler excitedly thanks you, and you leave the shop. It’s possible you paid for a nice, unique batik art piece. But it’s more likely that the Hustler has made over 100% profit on the batik piece that is mass-produced (we ‘visited’ a few of these shops and saw several duplicates), which he splits with the Agent for bringing in business.

To save yourself from this scam:

  • Always be wary of unsolicited favors, be it information like above or physical gifts like those candies left by kids on your table or the bracelet slapped on your wrist by a wandering old lady. Truly free things given to you while travelling will come with a big smile and a “free/gratis/regalo”, after which the person will wave you off. Otherwise, unsolicited favors should raise a red flag that the person will ask for something afterward.
  • Deviate from the script and ask for more information that might catch the Agent/Hustler off guard and reveal them as frauds. Ask the Agent for more specifics on his relative/friends or drop a fake detail and see if he agrees it’s true. Ask the Hustler which paintings in the gallery he’s made as a teacher, and note if the ones he point to look like they’re in a similar style or form. If he hesitates or they’re totally different, he’s probably lying. These are just examples, and you should think up your own questions—if the Agents and Hustlers encounter a deviation too often they’ll modify their own scripts.
  • If you get a bad feeling, just say no calmly and walk away. This is what we did once we realized we were in a scam. It doesn’t matter that you’re standing in a shop and someone really wants you to buy something. It doesn’t matter that he might have even given you a free bottle of water. These people tricked you to get you here. The key is not to get angry, because that may get you into trouble (the Hustler might have friends nearby). Smile and say thank you, but you’re not interested in purchasing anything. Stay calm and repeat this as needed even if the Hustler gets angry/offended/gives you sad puppy dog eyes. Then leave.

Jogja/Maliboro

After spending a few days in Borobudur and Prambanan, we’ve moved to the Maliboro district in the heart of Yogyakarta (Jogja) proper. We’re here to eat food, rest a bit, and people watch. And on a street lined with multi-story malls housing American fast food brands, traditional batik clothing outlets, and pop-up vendors cramming the streets with cheap souvenirs and delicious food, we couldn’t ask for better. Maliboro is an artery for the city’s commuters that thickens to a crawl during rush hour. It’s also where the newly affluent middle class comes to shop, where a panoply of shopkeepers flood onto the streets to sell their wares, where everyone mixes and mingles. There’s always something to see.

Stoytcho and I roam the streets, ducking between people and capturing what we can on a camera with reflexes too slow for life here. On one occasion, I’m staring out into the flow of traffic and watch in awe as a man with a dozen sacks of rice and a crate of fruit on his scooter deftly weaves between cars. I shout to Stoytcho, “WHOA, did you see that?” “No,” Stoytcho replies, “I was distracted by a chainsmoking ten-year-old shopping for a lighter.”

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Two girls play near a monument to Indonesia’s revolutionary heroes, along Jl. Maliboro.
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Men work in a ditch along Maliboro, further complicating the daily rush hour.
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Angklung performers shut down Maliboro as they protest a ban on musical street performances. Their signs read variations of: “We are artists, not vagrants.”
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A performer plays the angklung on Maliboro, in defiance of the street performance ban.
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Women shop for bridal accesories at pop-up shops in one of Maliboro’s malls.
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Our backpacks rest at the Packer Lodge in Yogyakarta.
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Stoytcho rests in the lobby of the Packer Lodge in Yogyakarta.
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Ojeks and cars crawl along Jl. Maliboro in rush hour.
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Two women try to cross the street.
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People gather and walk the street in the evening at Maliboro.
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The late afternoon sun through a sculpture.
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The narrow walking corridor between shop stalls on Maliboro’s west side. Stoytcho towers over everyone here.
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A neon sign for a batik clothing store.
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A man attempts to cross the street with his food cart.
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A scrambled egg fries in a hot wok before rice and seasoning are added to make nasi goreng.
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Light and color in the night: the view from a food stall off Maliboro.

Good food and Snakefruit

Just outside our hotel, there’s a family restaurant (Warung Soto Pak Ndimo) that consists of a food stall and a single open-air table hiding beneath their house’s awning. The food is cheap, delicious, and fresh, and the family is oh-so-sweet and accommodating of our utter dependency on pointing, smiling, and Google Translate to communicate (though the wife speaks a few words of English).

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An amazing egg and veggie stir fry that they make, topped with freshly deep-fried shallots. Mmmm….

And tonight after dinner they were amazingly kind and gave us a GIFT! It’s got scaly skin, but it’s not any kind of animal.

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What…is this?

We’ve seen these things in the marketplace here but have no idea what they are. The wife tells us that they’re called “salak” and shows us how to peel away the scaly skin to reveal a cream-colored fruit below. We take a nibble and it’s like a tropical apple: a bit tangy, but mostly sweet and crisp. It’s not as juicy as an apple, but that just means we don’t make a sticky mess as we bite through the tiny fruits. At the end of eating, all that’s left is a large stone from the middle.

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Half a salak fruit. You can peel the skin off and eat the sweet, crunchy fruit inside.

 

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The pits left after eating the salak fruit.

 

Some searches on “salak” reveal that it’s a ubiquitous, super popular Indonesian fruit that’s hard to get pretty much anywhere else. While I thought it might be related to lychee and rhambutan (given the stone in the middle), it’s actually the fruit of a native Indonesian palm. While I don’t think you can get them fresh in the U.S., I think the dried, crunchy chip version has made it to the States, so if you want a taste of the fruit’s flavor see if your local Asian market has some.

And if they don’t, you can always order online. Or book a trip to Indonesia. You know you want to.

Visiting Prambanan

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A visit to Jogjakarta is incomplete without seeing the massive temple complex that sits just on the edge of town, forty minutes or so by bus from the center. Prambanan is a towering and expansive series of Hindu temples, thought to have been erected during the 9th century when the ruling dynasty of Indonesia shifted from Buddhism to Hinduism and answered the Buddhist temple of Borobodur with Prambanan.

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Photos do little justice to the feeling of the place. Unlike Borobodur where you can scale the temple itself so that it seems smaller the closer you get, Prambanan offers no such relief. The nine central towers do exactly that – they tower over you and climb to incredible heights. In my opinion the eye is fooled even further by the shape of the towers themselves, dwindling to needle-like peaks which seem all the further away.

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Each spire has a set of stairs leading up about halfway, leading to a path encircling the temple and a door into the tiny inner chamber. The path takes you through a relief carved religious story or legend. This is a photo of the tree of heaven, a common theme in many Indonesian works.

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Inside each spire is supposed to be a deity or their representation though most of the statues are missing.

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The surviving ones are treated with care, though many are replicas and the originals are housed in museums. The outsides of the temples are covered in carved statues and faces, often better preserved than the shallow reliefs inside.

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The temple area includes four separate temple complexes – Prambanan, Lumbung and Bubrah temples, and the Sewu temple. All four are in various states of repair, having been historically plundered for stones and statues and in recent times suffering damage from earthquakes. Prambanan once housed many temples of various sizes in concentric squares. Now only the central temples stand, and a few of the smaller outer temples. The rest are waiting in piles to be rebuilt.

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We saw reconstruction teams working on putting some of the smaller temples back together. Fitting the pieces together in the correct order and making the structure stable again is hard work. Not only is the location not marked, but each piece weighs a ton. Maybe not literally, but heavy enough that one person can’t lift it.

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For all the wonder that is Prambanan, the other temples deserve a visit. They are smaller in both area and height, but offer more diverse temple styles, statues, and reliefs without the crowds of tourists. When we went over to Sewu temple, there was literally no one else there.

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Here you can see not only more of the art and architecture, but also of the destruction wreaked on the temple site by the earthquake. These temples were once fully repaired, now awaiting time and funds.

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The Sewu complex is full of statues, usually damaged in various ways.

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It houses reliefs waiting to be put in their proper place.

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And is a storage grounds for spare spire tops and temple stones, intended either for their original location or to fill in a partially complete temple.

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For tourists who stand out : be prepared for the local crowds. As with all other attractions we visited in Indonesia, groups and individuals stopped and asked us to take a photo with them. Sometimes this meant a selfie, other times it meant we were going to be in some classes’ travel photos. It’s exciting and fun, but eventually I get tired of it. Natalie does a bit better with photo stamina.

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Finally, a few last shots of the entire complex. We found the entire day to be completely satisfying. A quick breakfast, temples and tourists, and a bit of haggling at the end. Be prepared with water and a bit of people stamina, and come as early in the day as humanly possible – the grounds get sweat-and-sunburn hot quickly, and there’s a lot of walking to be done.

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Borobudur through one more lens

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A Buddha statue overlooks crowds of visitors to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple.

There’s not much I can say about Borobudur that hasn’t already been said or written, so I’ll keep it short: Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Constructed in the 9th century, the temple’s nine stories represent the three realms of Buddhist cosmology (world of desires, world of forms, and formless world) and tell the tales off Buddhism through more than a thousand reliefs carved into its stones. In walking its corridors, the temple becomes storyteller to all pilgrims and visitors, narrating the teachings of Buddha and his enlightenment.

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The carved bas-reliefs in Borobudur’s corridors illustrate Buddhist stories and principles. A walk through all of the reliefs is a formidable 3 km (1.86 mi).

 

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One of the thousand bas-reliefs on Borobudur’s walls.

There’s not much I can show you through our photographs that hasn’t already been seen. Borobudur is one of those picture-perfect places, with each snapshot of the place becoming art in itself and tons of visitors have that awe-inspiring, Instagram-exploding photos of Borobudur at sunrise. We don’t have sunrise photos. But how about this: ever seen an ancient Buddha get a bath?

P.S.: If you visit, here’s a money-saving tip! You can buy a ticket for both Borobudur and Prambanan at the ticketing office that saves you several dollars. The only catch is you’ll have to visit Prambanan the next day, but it’s only a taxi/bus ride away.

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Groups of schoolchildren climb to Borobudur Temple in the morning, as a man walks around on the dome of its main stupa.

 

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A rented bike left by a tree. People sometimes rent bikes in Borobudur to get around the compound.

 

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A bas-relief, depicting a man seeking wisdom (possibly from Buddha).

 

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A troupe of four musicians in a bas-relief.

 

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Fitting it together: markings in the stones likely helped builders figure out how to put them together. I don’t know whether these markings came from the initial construction or the reconstruction when the temple was rediscovered.

 

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An archer in the bas-reliefs takes aim as onlookers watch in curiosity and fear.

 

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Dew-spun spider webs on the stones at Borobudur.

 

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A headless Buddha statue sits in its foyer. Several buddha statues are missing heads and limbs because of both legal and illegal looting of the temple prior to restoration. Buddha heads in museums around the world originally came from Borobudur.

 

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The steep ascent up to the highest level of Borobudur.

 

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Three visitors rest and admire the scenery on the highest, stupa-studded level of Borobudur.

 

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A partially-disassembled stupa reveals the Buddha statue within, posing his hands to represent ‘dharmachakra’ (spinning the wheel of dharma or karmic law).

 

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A buddha stupa gets a bath with a pressure washer as part of temple maintenance.

 

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The enigmatic smile of a hidden Buddha statue.

 

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A Buddhist monk descends the steep stairs to the lower levels, where workers are assessing the stability of Borobudur’s foundation.

 

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After visiting the temple, Stoytcho and I climb to the top of the hill in the temple grounds to get a better view.

 

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Perfect arrangement: the needles of a pine tree assorted into crevices between the cobblestones.

 

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A view of one of Java’s volcanic cones from Borobudur, possibly Mt. Merapi.

 

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A view of Borobudur Temple from afar, rising from the jungle.