Rain Trees and Lightning Dragons

March 20

Selamat pagi/siang/sore/malam everyone,

Here is my third piece. I failed to stick to my self-imposed fortnightly Sunday deadline, but have had a few weekend adventures recently rife with writing material so I’m aiming to get back on track.

A colleague just proffered a bulging plastic bag lined with newspaper containing es lilin (lilin is Bahasa for candle), little homemade ice creams on sticks. From durian, strawberry, nangka (jack fruit) and alpukat (avocado) I chose the latter. I think it just replaced pistachio as my favourite ice cream flavour, so, as you can imagine, that sweet little es lilin with velvety chunks of ripe fruit was a life-changing event indeed!

Much love to everyone from the land of sublime es krim,

Julz x


IMG_5857There are two spectacular rain trees on my street, Jalan Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa. Tirtayasa lived from 1631 to 1695, and was the Sultan of Banten when it was a bustling spice trade centre on the northwest Java coast. Today it’s the westernmost province of Java with a population of 11.5 million. Tirtayasa had a vast fleet and did business with Persia, India, Siam, Vietnam, China, the Philippines and Japan, but he, like countless others, wasn’t a fan of the Dutch East India Company so things didn’t work out for him. To add insult to injury his son, Abu Nasr Abdul Kahhar, was in cahoots with the Dutch and ousted his poor daddy in a coup. Kahhar did allow him the luxury of house arrest but the Dutch ran him out of town. He put up a good fight though, did Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa. (I’d never oust you in a coup, Dad.)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rain tree in Australia, but a Google image search revealed some magnificent specimens in Townsville. Albizia saman Pak Wiki tells me is native to the Neotropics, one of the world’s eight “terrestrial ecozones”, which includes South and Central America, the Mexican lowlands, the Caribbean and southern Florida. The rain tree’s been quite the traveller though and is now all over South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific. There’s little wonder its long, thin, brown seed pods have snuggled their way into many a propagator’s pocket. They’re bloody beautiful.

IMG_5856I’ve always had a thing for trees. I guess most of us do. The eucalypts – the ghost gums – of my central desert home are legendary. Car conversations in and around Alice Springs with my mother Meredith are always interrupted with “Look! Look at that one! Magnificent” and “That’s one of my absolute faves”. Mum has many, but there’s one about 20ks west of Alice she loves most. It’s a giant, the biggest we’ve seen. It’s sacred to local people and over 200 years old, according to its plaque. In a magic little coincidence when Google imaging “simpsons gap ghost gum alice springs” hunting Mum’s gum, the first one I clicked took me to a blog that turned out to be penned by her friend Wayne Anthony. I scrolled down and there she was along with Annie D, one of her dearest friends, and one of mine too. Discovering this photo while searching for a pic of Mum’s tree gave me a great big grin. As did a small copse of eucalypts I spotted after a dusty day-long bus ride from Vang Vieng to Phonsavan in Laos early last year. I was travelling solo, hadn’t had a decent convo in a couple of days and was feeling a bit low. The familiar little eucalypts felt like friends, and I beamed. Unexpected reminders of home never fail to lift my spirits.

IMG_5867Each morning as I walk to work the rain trees beckon my eyes, which isn’t always wise with motorbikes whizzing by. There are quite a few on my street but none compare to the regal pair who preside over Jalan Gembol junction and a 20x15m triangular patch of grass (which to me still qualifies as a park). Their combined canopy is an enormous emerald umbrella and their sprawling branches fill the sky, reaching further and wider than any tree I’ve seen. Garlanding their dark bark are creepers, ferns and moss. “Rain trees make a remarkable habitat for epiphytes,” states its 15-page Traditional Tree Initiative profile, which also contains delightful little lines like, “Seeds are plumply oblong-ellipsoid”. Here’s Pak Wiki again: “An epiphyte is a plant that grows non-parasitically upon another plant”. I’m not just in constant awe of the rain trees’ sprawling splendour, but the blanket of ferns and occasional orchids they support. There is so much green, and a verdant environment will always astonish a girl who spent her first 17 years in the desert.

IMG_5876They’re called rain trees (pohon hujan) as when it rains their little diamond leaves fold up allowing drops to fall more easily to the earth. Never in my life have I experienced as much rain as I have in the last week. We’re at the tail end of monsoon season and it’s as though the sky is being wrung one last time before the dry. Every afternoon the streets become rivers. Lightning bolts rip the sky to pieces, sheet lightning floods rooms with fluorescence and thunder rattles windows and shakes walls. Nggak ada seperti suara badai Jawa! There is nothing like the sound of a Javanese storm.

On Tuesday afternoon my dear friend Kate (a fellow AYAD and all-round remarkable woman) and I witnessed an electrical storm we later agreed we would’ve paid to see. We’d optimistically intended to swim at the Hyatt but on arrival it was hujan deras, downpour, so instead we opted for kopi at a restaurant on the third floor. For the next hour with a lofty 180 degree view through wall-sized windows we WOAH!ed and WOW!ed, jaws gaping and eyes bulging at Zeus’ pyrotechnics. A silver bolt split the sky then flashed gold as it vanished from the bottom up; a giant dragon’s tail that elicited a visceral reaction: I threw my arms in the air and bellowed! I’d never seen anything like it! We both were stunned by this vigorous reaction; Kate wondered whether it was her chair being struck that caused my vehement response! My manic movement was also seen by a waiter and I reckon his expression was even more shocked than mine. I guess banshee bules aren’t exactly regulars at the Bandung Hyatt Hotel.

Earlier this month around 18,000 houses were inundated by flood waters in three Bandung sub-districts. The annual banjir in Jakarta are among the city’s worst problems. When raving about the storm to my new friend Chriswan, a born and bred Bandungite and exceptionally talented writer, he said, “Quite a big wall was torn down. All chaos and cataclysm!” I am constantly reminded of my privilege here, and the ability to relish rather than worry about hujan deras, petir dan geledek, heavy rain, lightning and thunder, is an extraordinary privilege. Storms are forecast daily for the next week. I love that my surname can be translated into Bahasa: I am Julia Banjir Musim Dingin.


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