NO FEAR OF FLYING © Duncan Graham 2006
They look scruffy enough to be up to no good as they prowl the campus. In a pack they’re intimidating, though maybe that’s a bit of Western prejudice, for passers-by seem unconcerned.
In most countries if you saw youths misusing public facilities you’d call the cops. Barriers are there for a purpose. Buildings require respect. Signs say what they mean.
Concrete garbage bins are for rubbish – not cat jumps. Hedges are to mark the edges of domains; they’re not hurdles to leap. Steps are for sedately walking up or down – they’re not launch pads for lads with apparently nothing better to do than attempt to defy gravity.
The spring-heeled Jacks in Malang’s Play-On Parkour may seem like Tarzans in ferroconcrete forests, but there’s luminescence amongst the lunacy. These Superman wannabes leaping tall (well, medium size) bits of buildings at a single bound are really serious young men with a mission.
Why in Malang, a small sedate city in central East Java? Well it’s also a university town, cool and hilly, ideal for outside aerobatics.
The de-facto leader of an activity that strives for individualistic expression is Agus Purwanto, 21. “Le Parkour, also known as Free Running, is seen by some as an extreme urban sport,” he said. “But it’s also a philosophy.
“Our lives are full of problems. The question is – ‘how do we overcome them?’ We have to find a way to defeat the difficulties, so that’s what we do on the campus of Malang State University, literally and metaphorically.”
Bored with waiting in a queue between steel rails designed by pedestrian bureaucrats to maintain order? Why follow the rules? Vault the wretched restrictions!
Why bother using the stairs when a class is over? Be ahead of the rest - plunge through the window.
Petty restrictions driving you up the wall? OK, just run up the wall.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Take it – no worries that there’s a drain and a barbed wire fence in between.
Despise authorities erecting ‘Do Not’ signs? Don’t rip them down, that’s senseless and we’re smart. Use them to climb, spin, gyrate, twist and soar. The closed minds in Departments of University Maintenance of Buildings (DUMB) need opening to the limitless trapeze possibilities of geometric advertising frames.
To Agus and his 25 mates, including a couple of daring young women, campuses are just one giant outdoor gym. All that’s needed is a touch of imagination clearly lacking when architects designed the place. Their creative juices may have dried up but Play-On Parkour’s talents are flowing liberally.
So is the blood and mucous when some crash land, including Agus who slipped doing a flip across a concrete wall for The Jakarta Post.
Why not wear shin and elbow protective gear like the well-dressed skateboarders in the US? Or a helmet and body armour, as in gridiron?
“No money,” said Agus who saved for two months to buy his Rp 340,000 (US $37) street-smart speed-sneakers that can put him into overdrive. The visual arts student rents a 9 square metre kampung attic for Rp 1 million (US $110) a year to sleep and study, so there’s nothing left for a health club subscription.
In any case, why tramp treadmills in Lycra leggings or pedal stationary bikes for a fee, when there’s the whole outdoors waiting to be vaulted and vanquished for free?
To understand this story you need to remember what it was like to be young, before you learned to look before you leap. When your taut new body had a tank full of hormones and you didn’t need a bottle of extra anything to run past the world and catch it on the way back.
Malang’s Play-On Parkour isn’t a mob of anarchistic vandals. Between stunts the Muslims put in some quality time at the mosque. Their backpacks don’t contain spray cans for a spot of graffiti – just texts for the next class.
Security guards are used to them flying over closed gates, though they hit strife at Muhammadiyah University planning a six-storey high rooftop-run and had to apologise. There’s also an element of bravado.
In reserved Indonesia Sweet Young Things don’t gape at the antics of their shirtless classmates. However many were stealing admiring peeps from under their headscarves (though seeming to be indifferent) as the muscle men ricocheted off the architraves.
While their staid mates hang out in shopping malls eyeing the possibilities, Agus and the Risk Takers hang off the high-rises, making anything possible.
“We do it because it’s fun and we want to stay fit,” said Agus. “We’re alive. We are life! When we jump we fly! We feel brave. When we get injured we have to reflect. When we stop we know what it’s like to be old.”
So do some of his mates. Only the charismatic and elastic Agus doesn’t smoke and he can out-sprint them all with choreographed challenges and athletic displays.
Inspired by the French film Yamakasi and the Le Parkour movement in Europe (see sidebar) Agus started bouncing his body off any hard surface back in 2003. Other saw him tumbling from balconies and rabbit hopping desks so joined him in his daily exercises.
There are small Le Parkour gangs in Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya, but Malang claims to have the biggest and most experienced team in Indonesia. They’ve made a video of their work and maybe one day they’ll compete against others.
Provided they survive. Indonesian university administrations seem tolerant - unlike their Western counterparts who’d slap on bans, fearing litigation from injuries. For concrete is unforgiving and asphalt scarifying.
Kerbs crumble, rails rust; wet ceramic is like ice. Sharp edges are everywhere, though often hidden. Malang University is Campus Hazard, Dangerville Central. Or so it appeared to this writer.
Or maybe I’ve just got too old.
JUMPING FOR JOY
Le Parkour (a corruption of the French word parcours for ‘course’) had its origins in army combat training where soldiers scramble through obstacles. It got a major boost with the French film hit Yamakasi (2001).
This was shown in Indonesia about three years ago. A further surge of interest came with the BBC TV documentary Jump London.
Banlieue 13, another film in the same genre has already been shown overseas but has yet to react the archipelago. This is reported to feature David Belle, the leading exponent of Le Parkour though he’s now in his 30s.
Participants are known as ‘traceurs’. Originally meaning ‘to trace’, it’s now used for ‘going fast.’
The purists say Le Parkour must have elegant movements and be more of a dance than a clumsy scramble over walls. Traceurs use words like ‘escape’ and ‘reach’ – clearly indicating frustration with the constraints of city life.
Movements have to be fluid, not jerky and each jump has a special term – in French, of course. You don’t do a cat jump, but a saut de chat.
Le Parkour is universal and relies on the Internet to gain fame. All that’s required is the desire to express your joie de vivre.
(First published in the SundayPost 8 October 2006)