Friday, 25 April 2008

Real Madura a haven of peace, tranquility

The Rarely Visited Indonesian Island of Madura

Originally published in The Jakarta Post 08/04/07

Tell the average Indonesian that you're going to Madura for a holiday and he'll laugh.
Then, as the realization that you're not joking dawns, jaws will drop; concerns may even be expressed for your safety.
Madura rides like a ship at anchor just off East Java's north coast. It is as big as Bali and rich in culture and sights, but it has a terrible reputation and no one visits.
It was the tales of filthy towns and villages, aggressive, rough-spoken people and infernal heat (all from people who had never been there) that made me determined to go and see for myself.
So, one Saturday morning I rode my motorbike to Surabaya's Tanjung Perak port. As the ferry slipped across the busy channel the grim silhouette of the docks fell behind and a more attractive coast of dense forest took shape ahead.
The dire warnings of Indonesian friends faded in my ears. Twenty minutes later I was breathing in clean air as I rode between sweeping rice fields.

Lush fields, deserted beaches

The road from Kamal to Sumenep, my destination at the eastern end of Madura, stays close to the coast, winding through broad vistas of rice fields, and stretches of cool forest.
Limestone outcrops rise among the hills that form the center of the island, and there are neat and delightfully friendly villages of red roofs hidden in the trees.
The journey was a pleasure as I skirted fishing villages, made detours down narrow lanes, and paused to chat with happy, easy-going locals. All the way to Sumenep I wondered why such a beautiful, charming place had such an awful reputation.
Sumenep is undoubtedly the nicest place to stay in Madura. It is a charming town of quiet streets where brightly decorated becak (pedicabs) roll by.
The great gateway of the Agung Mosque glowed in the sunlight next morning. Its heavyset, tiered faade was painted white, and edged in yellow, and a narrow passageway led to an elegant mosque with a three-tiered roof and a cool, airy interior.
It is one of the oldest mosques in Java, built in the 18th Century, and certainly one of the most striking. From the mosque I made my way across Sumenep's central square to the old palace or kraton (the last remaining in East Java province).
It was a quiet spot of high ceilings and soft breezes. A young man, Yanto, who worked in the nearby museum showed me around.
He pointed out a huge, sprawling banyan tree in the garden which was already standing in the 18th Century when the kraton was built. He also led me to the Taman Sari, a compound of pools and gardens where the women of the royal household used to bathe.
The baths are empty now, but for a few large goldfish, and Yanto told that at night the garden was haunted by ghosts. After a visit to the old royal cemetery at Asta Tinggi on a hilltop just outside the town where the faithful come to pray, and a quick stop in the bustling Pasar Anom market, I set out east on a deserted road.
The countryside was even more gorgeous than the day before, the forest now dominated by tall coconut palms, and the rice fields greener and richer, touched with a film of light mist.
The road ran close to the coast, and often by picking through the trees I found deserted beaches where a strip of tilting palm trees bent away and the shapes of small islands showed offshore.
At lunchtime I reached Lombang Beach, where a vast stretch of yellow sand backed by a bank of casuarinas trees faces a broad sea.
There were a few warung (food stalls) under the trees and I ate a bowl of tasty soto, Madura's most famous dish. It is a yellow soup with a delicious, lemony flavor mixed with rice, vegetables and shredded chicken.
Beyond Lombang the coastline hardened as the central ridge of limestone pushed up against the coast. The soil was thinner here and ribs of gray rock showed through the surface.
The villages were fewer, and there were many spots where a patch of clean beach lay utterly empty close to the road.
As I drove I asked myself over and over why this beautiful landscape was not crawling with tourists. I was glad that it wasn't, but baffled none the less.

Big-city gridlock a world away

That evening back in Sumenep I met a charming young man named Adi. A native of Sumenep, he works for the local tourism department and also acts as a guide.
He was a mine of information, whetting my appetite for a return visit with tales of all the places I had missed, and tantalizing talk of deserted islets of pure white sand and crystal-clear coral seas in the sprawling Kangean archipelago east of Madura.
He had his own theory about Madura's terrible reputation. Most outsiders form their opinion from the large numbers of Madurese migrants who have left the island in search of work.
Madura is beautiful and tranquil, and its people are laid-back and friendly.
Coming from such a place, Adi claimed, the clamor and chaos of the big cities of Java and beyond disturbs and unsettles the Madurese, and they respond with ill-temper and harsh words, a poor advert for their homeland.
The theory had some merit: after just two days in Madura I was relaxed and unwound, but the very thought of Surabaya gridlock was enough to sharpen my temper!
The next morning I crossed the central ridge where villagers were plowing fields of rich red earth with teams of cattle the same color as the soil. I reached the northern coast road at Slopeng village.
Here a great bank of sand knitted with palm trees, shelters the road. But stop anywhere and scramble up the dunes and you will meet a glorious panorama of empty beach, stretching far in each direction, and a shining blue ocean scattered with fishing boats.
Adi had told me that this area was famous for topeng, the carved masks used in the dance versions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics.
After an enjoyable wild goose chase through palm groves and rice paddies in the bright sunlight I found the hamlet of Tajjan where Pak Suraji, a topeng-maker lived.
As I sipped delicious green tea, a Madura specialty made from pandanus, he showed me his collection of masks, all carved from the local bintaos wood and skillfully painted in bright colors.
There was snub-nosed Semar the clown, hideous Ravana, handsome Arjuna, and a multitude of others. Pak Suraji told me that the masks had been made in the area for centuries, the skill passed from generation to generation.
His collection was not for sale: They were heirloom pieces used on the occasions when the villagers stage a dance, but in another hamlet nearby I bought a mask of Arjuna, decorated in fine red and black.
Madura is proudly Muslim. Arabic names are common and as you drive along the back roads you will pass men collecting donations for new mosques, and schoolboys in black peci caps walking home from village pesantren (religious schools).
But people in Java had painted a picture of something approaching Taliban-era Afghanistan. The high Hindu-culture of the topeng dances, and tales Adi had told of southern villages where spectacular Balinese-style ceremonies are held, proved that this was not the case.

Irresistible batik

The road west ran through friendly fishing villages where brightly decorated boats were moored in narrow inlets. I stopped several times to swim in the warm waters off deserted beaches. The hills were green to the south and running cloud dappled the sea with purple and turquoise.
In mid-afternoon I reached the village of Tanjungbumi. Back from the road a warren of white-washed alleys clustered around a glittering mosque.
In a cool courtyard of shade and broken sunlight I admired exquisite batik sarongs, the work of Hajji Affandi, a kindly, soft-spoken man.
Madura batik is famous, characterized by motifs of flowers and birds, with hints of Chinese art. The best pieces are made of silk, and painstakingly decorated by hand, sometimes taking several weeks to complete.
Tanjungbumi is one of the centers of batik-making, and there are many workshops hidden in the white alleyways.
I had not intended to buy anything, but one piece, an intricate spread of birds and flowers in rich reds and greens was the most gorgeous batik I had ever seen: I was unable to resist.
My special souvenir safely in my bag, I rode on. As the land softened and the hills fell away I turned south again.
Here, elegant new mosques stood beside the road. They were far more pleasing than the modern mosques of Java, and I stopped beside one particularly startling Mughal-style building.
A jolly man, Pak Suni, led me to the rooftop. I was not far from the port at Kamal now, bringing my journey full circle. As I looked out over the colored plain of rice fields and villages, the sea shining golden in the lengthening light, the hills dark behind, I wondered why it had taken me so long to come to this marvelous place.
Half an hour later, as the ferry slipped over the murky brown water of the channel back towards the grimy smudge of Surabaya I was certain of two things: I would be back to Madura before long, and the next time I heard someone bad-mouthing the place, I would be sure to set them straight!

© Tim Hannigan 2007

No comments: