Jalan Gembira hero

Unexpected happiness

The “happy walking” revolution in Java Island

What do you do if your city is overrun with motorbikes and there is no space to walk? We can all learn from Jalan Gembira, the women-led collective who started a mindful walking revolution in Indonesia

In just 15 minutes walking now I can feel entertained, enlightened and peaceful. 

Uniph Kahfi

— Psychogeography

How do different places make us feel and behave? Walking can be a way to understand the city we live in, to notice the changes that occur in the city directly experience with our senses. Read on to meet the artists exploring locations by walking.

Jalan Gembira‘ translates from Indonesian as ‘Happy Walking’, an apt name for a female-led walking group exploring culture through walking, while developing a new walking culture in the intriguing Javanese city of Yogyakarta (Jogja for short).

Since starting the Jalan Gembira collective in 2016, the young Indonesians behind the project have quickly found that there is a big appetite in Jogja for mindful walking. People want to have a different experience of travelling through a city with 500,000 people within the planet’s most populous island, Java. They have found a way to share their experiences together as equals and are energetically spreading the word about the goodness of walking.

Here, founders Uniph Kahfi and Amarawati ‘Mara’ Ayuningtyas are joined by Gatari Surya Kusuma, a researcher and writer living in Jogja, to explain what life is really like on Java Island – and how we can all indulge in a bit of happy walking.

Uniph, Mara and Gatari

Q&A with walking collective Jalan Gembira

Hi  Jalan Gembira. Tell us about Yogyakarta.

Gatari: Yogyakarta is a small city on the south of Java island. It’s very popular with tourists, second only to Bali in Indonesia. Both foreigners and Indonesians visit because it is near to the mountains and the beach, and it has a lot of culture. There is a palace where a king lives and many things to visit. A lot of students stay here after university studies (including some of us). You can walk the island from south to north in one or two hours…

… but no one walks much here. Instead everyone rides motorbikes.

Ah! The motorbikes…

Mara: Motorbikes really dominate Jogja. There is very poor public transport so everyone goes everywhere on bikes or in a car. The city is not set up for walking. There is very limited space for it and there really isn’t any kind of a walking culture.

So you started Jalan Gembira because you wanted to walk?

Uniph: Yeah! I’ve lived my whole life in Jogja. I got bored every day seeing the same thing as I rode along on my motorbike, the same route every day to college and hanging out around college. I wanted to know more about Jogja, so I asked my friend Mara if she would walk with me. I found that by travelling slowly I found new places and experienced something very different.

A quirky dental clinic spotted while walking

And Jalan Gembira grew?

U: At first it was just us two, but I shared some pictures from our walks on Instagram, and a stranger asked to join us. We were like, “What?! Someone is interested in Jalan Gembira?” Then others started to ask to join walks. Now we have some 20 people with us. It’s mostly women, but some men, transgender and nonbinary people. Everyone is welcome.

G: I enjoy walking with Jalan Gembira because nobody takes the lead. No one shapes the narrative of the walk. There is no intention or strict direction, just following the street. It means I was free to experience the walking. And I was tired! Usually I ride a motorbike, but when we walk, I feel the heat of the sun and I am absorbing and reflecting lots of experiences. What I see and think and sense and hear is more intense when I am walking.

Nongkrong‘ is the Indonesian hangout culture of  chilling out with friends

What has changed because of Jalan Gembira?

U: I can now experience something different without going far. In just 15 minutes walking now I can feel entertained, enlightened and peaceful. 

M: Getting off our motorbikes, we can see parts of the city you can’t go to on bikes normally – there is a village, like a labyrinth in the middle of the city that you can only see if you walk. I’d never been there before.

U: Everyone in Jalan Gembira has their own experiences, even though we walk together. So we made a zine – and everyone had the chance to express what they experienced. One of the group said they experienced Jalan Gembira “like a catwalk”, because the group prepare their fashion and make up before they come out. They take photos for their Instagram and they want to look their best. There is a change happening in the city. We have a lot of people wanting to join us and we hope it will develop more space in Jogja for walking.

How do people react to you walking?

U: People always think we are tourists from Jakarta, or students doing research. They are always surprised that a group of people are walking together, especially in the village.

Who inspired you to do what you do? 

U: The duo Anitha Silvia (Tinta) and Celcea Tifani. They have a project called Pertigaanmap located in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia. In 2016 I went on a tour with them and asked Tinta, “can I walk like this in Yogyakarta?” And she said that “Yogyakarta is more attractive for walking”. And with that trigger, we started!

Did you ever think your small movement would spark global interest?

U: I was pessimistic when I started this different kind of walking in the city. I didn’t think that anyone would be interested in walking with me. Now we have a lot of people joining us and are always meeting new people. In February 2022, we took part in ‘Parallel Walking: Between Here and There, Between the Seen and the Unseen’, a British Council supported cultural exchange with Walkspace in Birmingham, walking in parallel with them and co-producing a zine of our experiences.

“Walking as a group, we explored Ratmakan, a riverside neighbourhood being redeveloped for tourism – something which feels at odds with the reality of life – and echoing gentrification impacts in the UK.” 

Did you identify with Birmingham, also a ‘motor city’ where public space has been eroded by private interests, and where the infrastructure of the city can make walking feel unsafe?

M: Birmingham is great. I loved the two months I spent with Birmingham Open Media back in 2017. BOM explore how technology can be used as a tool for change, to make society a better place. There I met Ria Hartley (now known as Ria Righteous) – an interdisciplinary artist, researcher, activist and educator based in Salford, Manchester. I really love her work exploring memory, trauma and epigenetic inheritance through a biomedical lens. Your environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. 

So where do you go from here?

U: Next, we want to get more more serious about city archiving – archiving memories and recording changes in our city.  We also want to be more consistent in scheduling activities to spread the goodness of walking as much as possible, and produce another zine to document our activities from people’s perspectives.

Lastly, do you have a tip to help us “walk happy”?

U: Leave your brain in the house and just walk!

What’s ‘psychogeography’ when it’s at home?

What’s so good about this?

Psychogeography has never seemed more relevant. In an increasingly apathetic society there is a need to revive the joys of discovery, play and self-empowerment. For a simple psychogeographic experience, take a walk in silence using a pack of playing cards to determine your route (red for right, black for left). Take pictures. Along the way you’ll encounter treasures hidden in plain sight, maybe some secrets of your neighbourhood and a heightened sensory experience…  guaranteed. And see who wants to do some “happy walking” with you. WARNING! You may end up grinning madly while filling your phone with photos of weeds growing through cracks in the pavement.

Meet the writer

Richard Byrne is a writer, educator and psychogeographer who wants to share the best stories that no one else is looking for. When he’s working you might find him @p_diversity. When he’s not working, he could be exploring the underworld with his kids on Minecraft or hanging out in Stardew Valley. Richard regularly spends an hour or two walking a very short distance while following psychogeographic instructions. He occasionally has euphoric experiences while walking and is trying to figure out how to have them more often.

Sign up for

A World of Good

Subscribe to our free fortnightly newsletter for a kaleidoscopic look at culture, nature and positive impact