Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Travelling in Madura

Madura, Indonesia

Originally published in Jakarta Post Weekender Magazine, October 2008


There’s more to Madura than salt and ceremonies. The long, low island riding off the north coast of East Java has one of the worst reputations in Indonesia, renowned as a place of sharp tempers and sharper knives. Bull races, tasty sate, and even a certain much-mythologized quality in the local women fail to attract many visitors. For the most part Madura remains the butt of a bad joke. The reality is a different story. With two days to wait before the Nyadar ritual I set out to discover just how different.

It took four hours to drive the length of Madura by motorbike from Kamal in the west to Sumenep in the east, passing through fields of tobacco and Indian corn. Along the way I passed the head of the bridge that is gradually creeping across the Madura Straight and that will soon link the island with the Javanese mainland. It was dusk when I rode into Sumenep, the limestone hills inland rising stark against a fading sky.

Sumenep is the antithesis of all the negative myths about Madura. A refined and truly friendly town, here the familiar “hello mister!” was always backed up with a polite and interested engagement as I walked along the quiet streets.
Sumenep was once the centre of an independent kingdom and the town is still home to a fine kraton and a royal mosque. Locals are eager to point out that the reputation of Madurese as rough-spoken and aggressive only applies to the people from the west of the island. They are also genuinely proud of their courtly heritage, and the royal tombs on the hilltop of Asta Tinggi outside the town are a place of pilgrimage.

After a night in Sumenep I headed onto the back roads. In the port of Kalianget I paused in the shadow of derelict warehouses. This place was once the centre of the Dutch salt industry, and the roads were lined with colonial villas of shuttered windows and white columns.

The Madurese have been troublesome neighbors for centuries. During the Majapahit and Mataram eras Madura’s royals proved hard to control, refusing to pay tribute and sometimes crossing the Madura Straight at the head of rebel armies. This reputation as a wellspring of renegades and rabble-rousers, coupled with large-scale immigration from Madura in more recent years, goes some way to explain the nervousness felt by many Indonesians about the Madurese. On their own territory though, they are strikingly hospitable.

I made my way to the empty beach at Lombang at Madura’s eastern tip. There was no one about but a lone coconut seller snoozing under the trees behind the great expanse of yellow sand and bright, wind-charged ocean.
Beyond Lombang the light streamed through stands of palm trees and the road bent away in a strip of smooth blue asphalt, leading me to the village of Dasuk on the north coast. Here the narrow lanes splintered in different directions amongst the ricefields.
Stopping to ask directions, a man named Mosa’i invited me into his family compound, a place of soft sunlight and grinning children. The villagers were eager to chat, offering me tea and posing self-consciously for photographs.
Later Mosa’i led me to another hamlet where topeng dance masks have been made for centuries. The skill is a hereditary one, passed from father to son.
The villagers were amused by Madura’s fearsome reputation. It was true, they said, that all Madurese men knew how to wield the traditional sickle known as a clurit – in cultivation and in battle – and there had been conflicts in the past. But, they pointed out, there had been bloodshed everywhere in the past – even in England.
As I sat on a white veranda chatting with Mosa’i and another man named Hari, the sunlight slipped away from the village and the sky paled behind the palm trees. They invited me to stay the night, but the Nyadar ceremony was the following day and I wanted to return to Sumenep.
I left with an invitation to return the next time I was in Madura – and there surely would be a next time – and rode away along the field boundaries into the dusk.


Anyone thinking of visiting Madura would do well to contact Kurniadi Wijaya of the Sumenep tourist office. He’s a licensed guide and can organize tours, but will be just as happy to chat and prime independent travelers with invaluable information.He can be reached on 081 79330648 or at kurniadi@consultant.com

© Tim Hannigan 2008

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