How Java’s controversial female ruler grew into the job
The hotel is called, simply, Southern Ocean Retreat. It has no website. Its phone is unlisted. Its clients include the wealthiest, most powerful but not necessarily the most visible people in the world. You would know them by their positions but perhaps not by their names. It is expensive, but money alone does not ensure that a potential guest will get a room.
I know all this because a friend of mine, a professor who is head of the Philosophy department at an Ivy League university (he requested I not use his name), was spending a week at the Retreat and invited me to lunch.
The Retreat, not visible from either the main road or the settlement below, is located on a promontory some 100 meters above the sleepy village of Parangkusomo, about 30 kilometers south of the Javanese royal city of Yogyakarta. Parangkusomo is famed for its wide swathe of black sand beach leading to the eastern Indian Ocean. Heading south from the beach, the next landfall is thousands of kilometers away in Antarctica. It is a dangerous sea in which to swim, and there are many reports of holiday makers who are swept to their deaths by the strong rip tides. Particularly vulnerable, according to local beliefs, are men wearing green.
The dining room is an open-air pendopo-style area overlooking the stormy sea. The food, prepared by a young Italian chef who would undoubtedly have a Michelin star if his restaurant were open to the public, is strictly vegetarian. I don’t have the food vocabulary to adequately describe what we ate; I felt that there were angels helping out in the kitchen. Each timbale, each salad, each quiche, each plate of pasta, each risotto gave off a subtle essence of the sea, not in flavor as much as in the subtle energy-giving negative ions produced when waves crash on the beach.
Our servers were good-looking young men and women, each of whom wore a starched white uniform with a band of green batik on the collar. If you looked carefully, you could see that the batik pattern included a figure of a shapely woman’s body, which was actually an intriguing combination of the letters that formed the Retreat’s name: SOR.
I had heard the rumors, of course. Indeed, everyone who has spent time in Central Java has heard tales of what goes on behind the gold and green gates of Southern Ocean Retreat. I had so many questions for my friend, whom I’ll call Hal.
What’s it like being a guest? It is true that a guest can request a partner for “tantric studies” and that person will read the guest’s mind and help him or her achieve other-worldly ecstasy? And who is that chic, 50-something woman on the other side of the dining room speaking with a guest?
* * *
Half an hour to the north, in a comfortable but not luxurious house a kilometer from the palace of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, the crown princess was having a coffee-and-gossip session (which the practical Indonesian ladies abbreviated to ko-go, to represent kopi-gosip) with her closest friends.
Speaking in a combination of Javanese, Indonesian, English, French and, when a particularly earthy expression was called for, Dutch, they discussed the eternal themes that occupied the time of such upper-class ladies: grandchildren, business deals, movies, husbands and lovers, the weather (“hot and humid, again”), scandals and lipstick shades. They avoided talking about local politics unless Pembayun herself brought up the subject, at which point each woman had a suggestion.
And suggestions were welcome, because Pembayun was in a pickle.
* * *
On the one hand, Pembayun was thrilled. She was going to be the spiritual and cultural leader of some four million people. But with the title came political power as well, since the sultan is automatically designated as governor of the Special Region of Yogyakarta. A woman who previously had shied from the limelight, who had not distinguished herself in academia or business, who had revealed little interest or skill in the often-Machiavellian politics of the royal family, was about to become one of the most important of the 260 million people in Indonesia.
Yet Pembayun was distraught. Few people in Yogyakarta agreed with her appointment as the heir apparent. The move was greeted with anger by the superstitious population of Yogyakarta. “It’s just wrong, against our culture,” said Soedomo, a local shopkeeper. A Yogyakarta religious leader warned that a female sultan would not be able to officiate at the many Islamic ceremonies required of the sultan. One of the sultan’s snubbed brothers grumbled: “The symbol of the sultanate is a rooster, not a hen.” A soothsayer said simply: “No good will come of this.”
(To read Part 3, click here.)
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer who has lived and worked in more than 80 countries, including long stints in Southeast Asia. He has written 13 books; the latest, Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia, was published by Explorer’s Eye Press in late 2017. Paul’s next book will focus on his experiences with mediums, psychics and spirits, which seers predict will be published in early 2019. He can be contacted at www.sochaczewski.com.