Saturday, January 18, 2014

Notes on a Java jaunt

Stepping off the ferry at Banyuwangi, I was relieved to be free of the cloying melodies of the dangdut karaoke and sickly sweetness of the kretek smoke that battled for control of the upper deck. My company for the trip was made up mostly of migrant workers in weathered shirts heading home to villages in Java, and the occasional wealthy family reluctant to leave Bali after a few days of decadence. In the trip of less than an hour between the two islands, we had moved from the laid-back Island of the Gods to the bustling home to 140 million people. Lying ahead of me was the island where the country's power, money and mythologies reside.

On the boat from Gilimanuk in Bali to Banyuwangi in Java.

For nearly three years I'd lived in Indonesia, but my trips in Java had barely extended beyond the mountains to the south of Jakarta, the ragged beach resorts on the west coast and the big cities whose nearby temples and natural wonders make them worth visiting. Through the trip I hoped to better understand the cities and villages, farms and factories, mountains and shorelines that constitute the beating heart of Indonesia. I'd set aside a little over two weeks to zig-zag across the island, starting at the eastern tip and working my way towards the west, ending in Jakarta given I'd already seen most of the interesting things that lie beyond the capital.

Travelling in buses ranging from rustic to swank and on trains that offer an air of refinement, I moved between cities (Surabaya, Solo, Semarang, Cirebon, Bandung, Bogor), towns (Banyuwangi, Bondowoso, Blitar, Salatiga, Jepara) and natural sites (Baluran National Park, Mount Bromo), seeing plenty of things nearby along the way.

Not long before I left, I read Jonathan Swift's classic satire Gulliver's Travels, and had ringing in my ears a line that follows a particularly description-heavy passage on the narrator's voyage to Brobdingnag (not in Java). "The whole scene of this voyage made so strong an impression on my mind, and is so deeply fixed in my memory, that, in committing it to paper, I did not omit one material circumstance: however, upon a strict review, I blotted out several passages of less moment which were in my first copy, for fear of being censured as tedious and trifling, whereof travellers are often, perhaps not without justice, accused."

So in the spirit of avoiding tedium and triflingity, I'll be selective in the quirks and tidbits I offer:

- There's a palpable energy about Javanese people, particularly youngsters, that's beguiling. Buses are crammed with young people moving between cities in search of work or adventure, and streets and markets are thick with movement. The heat and regular downpours do little to hamper activity, even if many people have little protection from the elements. Having said that, poverty is pervasive, particularly in larger cities, with clusters of itinerant becak (pedicab) drivers aggressively touting for business and many homeless people, often with apparent disease and disability, begging for alms. For many the comforts of the middle class are a mere fantasy.

- The volatile geology of the island has produced some astonishing natural wonders that are popular among Indonesian travellers but still seem rarely visited by foreign visitors. Two in East Java - Mount Bromo and the Ijen Plateau - are particularly impressive. Both offer dramatic landscapes that showcase the plumes of sulfur common around volcanoes to vivid effect, and give visitors a sense of walking among the clouds. There's a bit of physical effort involved in getting to each of them, but the payoff makes it well worth it.

Around Mount Bromo in East Java.

- Cities have taken widely divergent approaches to preserving their colonial architecture. When the Dutch left Indonesia in the 1940s, among their physical legacies were the grand office and residential compounds that used to house government institutions, private businesses and European elite. These days, many of the colonial buildings in Semarang and Surabaya, significant cities in the colonial period, are decaying with neglect. Walls are crumbling, exteriors are becoming caked in pollution and vandalism is damaging what's left. In Solo and Blitar, however, buildings are kept clean, safe and functional. Clearly governments are reluctant to spend money on preserving the legacy of a former master, but what seems to work is having those buildings still functional and in private hands, where entrepreneurs can use the heritage as a selling point. It's noteworthy that the main colonial-era railway stations are in excellent condition and still busy, thanks to the fine efforts of Kereta Api Indonesia.

A colonial-era home in Solo now managed by the military.

- As well as preserving colonial-era architecture, Solo does a great job of keeping alive its own cultural traditions and those of the rest of Java. The two keraton palaces (the product of a split generations ago) are welcoming and accessible, while nightly shows at the Sriwedari Theatre ambitiously meld gamelan music with traditional dance, costume and Javanese theatre in a way that attracts large local crowds and bewilders foreigners. The House of Danar Hadi is probably the best and most diverse batik museum in Indonesia, while little touches like local buildings (including a McDonald's outlet) incorporating batik motifs enhance the vibe.

A batik artist at the House of Danar Hadi in Solo.

- Visits to the tombs of founding president Sukarno and his successor Suharto give a great insight into recent Indonesian history and the way Indonesians today perceive their rule of those autocrats. Sukarno, buried in a very accessible site near his childhood hometown of Blitar and accompanied by a museum that celebrates his legacy, is remembered as a man of the people. The day I was there, thousands of people came to offer prayers and thanks, many becoming quite emotional as they reached his elegantly presented tombstone. Outside, a gaudy commercial fiesta offered all manner of kitschness. Over at Suharto's tomb, located in Astana Giribangun alongside his wife, a minor Solonese royal, and her family, things are far more circumspect. Getting to the tomb itself requires passing through several layers of increasingly solemnity, and the smaller number of visitors who make it there seem do so out of historical curiosity rather than commitment to Suharto's legacy. Suharto nostalgia may be on the rise in Indonesia, but there's little evidence of it at his tombstone. As a 1967 biography of the newly installed president I found noted, "Djenderal Soeharto ... tidak suka omong kosong" (General Suharto doesn't like nonsense). 

President Sukarno's tomb near Blitar.

President Suharto's tomb in Astana Giribangun.

- Hands down the best museum I visited on the trip (and, frankly, in my time in Indonesia) was the superb House of Sampoerna in Surabaya. Part vanity tribute to the founding father of the cigarette brand and part illuminating insight into to process of producing the famed product, the HoS engages every sense (if you include the funky cafe attached) in a vivid and memorable way. As a non-smoker, I learned plenty by picking up cloves from different parts of Indonesia and crumbling them to let out the rich aroma. And it was captivating to watch the thousand or so workers at the plant roll, cut and box the products with a speed and accuracy that I didn't think human beings outside of a North Korean stadium show were capable of. It's a bit of a shame the rest of Surabaya is so dire for tourists.

Kretek cigarette producers at work at the House of Sampoerna in Surabaya.

- To an outsider, few signs remain in daily life of the supposed mysticism for which Javanese culture is famed. Beyond a handful of fortune-tellers plying their wares outside the keraton in Cirebon and a few worshipers venturing toward Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic temples, the island seemed thoroughly modern in its outlook. It's much harder to tell what goes on behind closed doors and in the close-knit villages that pock mark the island; it may be there that traditional values infuse people's lifestyles.

- The family planning message is prolific but fighting a tough battle given the sentiment captured in the popular saying "Banyak anak, banyak rejeki" ("Abundance of children, abundance of luck"). In Indonesia, many couples formally sign up to family planning (keluarga berencana), which involves the man undergoing a vasectomy after having two children, or earlier if he chooses. In Java it is common to see the roofs of houses daubed with the message "KB: 2 anak cukup" (Family planning: 2 children are enough), as a signal to the neighbours that the occupants are doing the socially responsible thing... and maybe you should too. Big families are still common, but as infant mortality falls, women's education rises and urbanisation grows more prevalent, things are slowly changing. 

"Abundance of children, abundance of problems," reads the modified slogan.

- Spending many hours staring out the window of buses and trains reminded me of just how agricultural is Java and its economy. Vast tracts of crops of rice, tobacco, sugar cane, cassava and myriad other things sustain the villages and cities, often harvested by peasant farmers using simple tools in startlingly inefficient ways. Subtle changes in climate and landscape have led to different areas specialising in different crops, and from that local favourite foodstuffs have emerged in different cities (Bondowoso seems particularly keen on its cassava-based tape, for example). It's easy to see how attached people have become to their agrarian lifestyle, and why change so often meets resistance.

Mountainside farmland in East Java.

- The battle ahead of April's national legislative election is on in earnest. Just about every accessible public space - from trees and power poles to the sides of buildings - is plastered with a poster for a local candidate. Aburizal Bakrie's Golkar Party, Prabowo Subianto's Gerindra and Megawati Soekarnoputri's PDI-P seem to be most prolific, but all major parties have decent representation. Rather dispiriting, however, is that none of the posters feature any semblance of a policy pledge or seek to open discussion on issues. Instead, they feature a smiling portrait of the candidate, and perhaps a slogan so generic as to be meaningless.

So after 16 days on the road I returned to Jakarta, spending more than three hours on a bus to travel the 60 kilometres or so from Bogor to the southern suburbs of the capital. It was, perhaps, a fitting reminder that for all the charm of the small villages, farms and national parks that represent Java's traditional roots, people are voting with their feet for the wealth, jobs and excitement of the capital. Which is rather a shame - there's a lot of great stuff on this little island.

More photos from the trip are available here, complete with smartarsery in the captions.

1 comment:

Kidzloo said...

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