Category Archives: Travel

Three Times a Lady

I’d love you to meet my friend Katni. She’s our local guide in the tiny traditional village of Senaru, Lombok Indonesia. Katni is a practicer of the traditional religion of Wetu Telu – literally ‘three times’ in Sasak language. Wetu Telu practitioners are nominally Muslim, but their practices follow more animist beliefs.

©SallyArnold
Senaru Traditional Village, Lombok. Indonesia

In the predominately patriarchal societies in Indonesia, it’s unusual to find a female guide. Katni has establish a women’s guiding association in her village. She explains that when the men in her village work, they give a little of their income to their families to live on, but keep a good percentage for cigarettes, alcohol, and “going to bars to watch woman to dance”; but when women are the breadwinners, all of their income goes to support their families, their children’s education and the community. Katni says she loves sharing her culture and educating younger girls, giving them the confidence to also do this.

Today we have a couple of young trainees tagging along. They are very shy and mostly just observe. Katni was the first female guide in her village, and was criticised when she began “doing a man’s job”; but nowadays she has mothers asking if their daughters can be trained by her, as they can see the positive impact she has made. There are now forty female guides in the association.

A male tour guide enters the village as we arrive – he is an outsider. She scoffs, “He will just say how primitive we are here, and point out that we still live in bamboo huts. We may be primitive, but we are educated too, we know, and can explain our traditions.”

©SallyArnold
Wetu Telu Temple. Senaru Village, Lombok

She first takes us to the village “temple”. To me it looks like a small fenced off garden with a few stones. “We are the guardians of Mt Rinjani.”, she explains; the imposing active volcano that forms the central core of Lombok. “We place offerings here in the temple, and once a year we make special sacrifices at three points on the mountain. We are sensitive to nature. We know when there has been an accident on the mountain, or when a earthquake will come; and we can prepare accordingly. We don’t pray in the mosque, that is reserved only for the religious leaders. We are Muslim, but people say we are not Muslim, but in our hearts we are Muslim. We make offerings in our homes three times a week. The temple is used for bigger ceremonies. She those larges rocks? Thats our stove when we have a big ceremony, hundreds of people arrive, and we cook a big feast for everyone to share. Part of our traditions, we eat pork and drink rice wine. Unlike other Muslims, we believe these things come from God.”

It’s during Ramadan on the day of our visit, but Katni is not fasting. “Only the religious leaders fast here, and they only fast for three days during Ramadan – on the first day, in the middle and the last day.” One of the young trainees wears a headscarf, and seems a little uncomfortable with some of Katni’s explanations. She explains that some here are learning how to do things “properly”, and that she is fasting, and prays five times a day.

We move into the village and notice how clean it is compared to outside. There is no plastic laying about the neat rows of bamboo and thatch houses. The newer houses have cement foundations, but Katni says that causes problems with rheumatism for the older folk. The more traditional houses have floors made of mud and cow dung. She slides open a woven bamboo door revealing a large smokey, light filtered room. The doorway is very low, and we must bend down to enter. It’s low for Katni too. She says they are deliberately low to show respect as we enter.

Dust motes float on the light beams, that squeeze in thought the bamboo cracks. There are no windows. As our eyes grow accustom to the dimness, we can make out a small room and platform towards the ceiling with a ladder leading up to it. “That’s not a room for sleeping.” says Katni, “That’s were we put our offerings. We sleep on these two beds, or mats on the floor. The bed near the door is for the parents, the small bed on the far corner of the room is for the girls. That’s so they don’t go out at night and meet their boyfriends. We are several families living together in this one big room, so we mostly sleep on the floor ‘like rabbits’. This other platform at the moment is just for storage, but its true function is the honeymoon bed. When a couple are married in our tradition, they don’t go away on honeymoon like you do, the woman moves into the man’s home, and they sleep on this bed, surrounded by all the extended family. Yes, they just sleep.” she winks, “We know it’s their honeymoon, so we leave them alone during the daytime.” she winks again.

The walls and ceiling are blacked from the cooking smoke of the open fireplace in the corner as there is no chimney. She explains that she loves leaning from others too, as well as sharing her own culture. She says that she’s learnt that the smokey atmosphere of the homes can be detrimental to babies sensitive lungs and eyes, and she now encourages mothers in the village to make hammocks outside during the day for the babies, so they aren’t exposed to smoke.

©SallyArnold
“Beluga”. Senaru Village, Lombok

We move outside again, and Katni shows us the beluga, a roofed bamboo platform with many functions. This is the place where young men sleep, the guest room, the meeting room, and the place were rituals are performed. It’s divided into two sections – a place for “life rituals”, and “death rituals”. One beluga is shared between two homes, except the head family – as they are a noble family, they have one. “My mother gave birth to fourteen children on this platform – no doctors or hospital, just a local midwife. We surround it with leaves to give the mothers some privacy. I also had my tooth filling here.” I am familiar with the tooth filing, as it’s a custom performed in Hindu Bali. It’s a similar ritual here, but is performed as part of the wedding ceremony. “You are lucky, you get a ring on your wedding day – we get pain.” she says, dragging an imaginary file across her mouth. She says it still hurts when she eats hot or cold food.

We continue through the village and Katni points out a very young mother – She’s fifteen, and has two children. “I hope by empowering girls in the village, and improving education, there will be less young mothers, its too young”. Later she points out a newlywed couple, the girl has just left primary school, and the boy is not much older. The young girl already looks tired. Katni shakes her head.

©SallyArnold
Betel Nut chewer and family. Senaru, Lombok

Katni then stops by an old woman with the telltale reddened mouth of a betel nut chewer. She shows my group the Areca nut “pinang”, the betel leaf “sirih”, and a small bag of slaked lime, made from crushed coral. Betel nut is a mild, but addictive stimulant widely chewed in South East Asia. Here in Senaru village they also mix it with tobacco to give it an extra kick. Katni explains with the widening eyes of someone also addicted, that here in the village you chew it before breakfast to start your day. She rolls a wad and offers it around. I berate her for pushing drugs to my group, winking as I do so. I mention some of betel nut’s negative aspects for long term users, including the serious risk of mouth cancer. I hope she will take this information and pass it around the village, but habits can be hard to change.

©SallyArnold
Katni Showes my group a traditional ‘calander’.
©SallyArnold
Pointsettia Dolls.

Continuing into the garden, Katni shows us a poinsettia plant. “This is our calendar. When the flowers are green, its the wet season, when they are red it’s the dry season. If there’s still a bit of the other colour we know we have a few weeks to go. We plant and harvest our crops according to this. “When I was little these was my dolls.” she says pointing to the inmost of the flowers – they look like little people with big mouths. We are then shown many other plants and are offered a taste of cocoa fruit, turmeric and ginger roots, among others.

As we meander down the hill, passing cows, goats and chickens; she continues to explain daily life in the village, and the good and bad of modern influence. She points out the asbestos roofing of the newer brick houses. “We didn’t know that it’s dangerous, It’s cheap, that’s why we use it. These modern homes are cheaper to build than our traditional ones – we can’t get the wood anymore. But we are much safer in bamboo homes during an earthquake they just dance.” she says wiggling, “In a brick home you have to go outside, or you may never leave.”

The light begins to fade, and soon the muddy path opens again to the asphalted road. We are transported back to the modern world. Katni thanks us for supporting her village and says that some of her guiding fee will be used to further train girls and support her village. We leave with positive hopes for their future, that Katni’s charm and good humour will encourage her community to take only the good things from our modern mixed up world.

If you are ever in Lombok, I urge you to meet Kani in person. Support her tours and her village. She can be contacted on:
+62-81-7572-3315 or rinjaniwomenguide@gmail.com 
www.rinjaniwomenadventure.com

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The Sliced Bread Time Machine

Time is relative, so they say. Bandung, the capital of West Java, Indonesia, seems to exist in two dimensions of time, parallel universes. The modern, polluted, busy, overcrowded industrial city with a sprawling urban population of over eight million inhabitants – Here, the main attractions for plane loads of local and international tourists are the numerous clothing factory outlets. If you own any clothing “Made in Indonesia”, that most likely means, “Made in Bandung”. There are more than three hundred textile industries here. Bandung is also home to hundreds of pharmaceutical factories, as well as a high-tech aircraft industry, and numerous universities. Then there is the other Bandung, the place that time has forgotten. A place of nostalgia, a living museum. Braga Street, the heart of this time capsule, is the place which historically gave Bandung the pseudonym “Paris van Java”, “The Paris of the East”. During the Dutch colonial era, this was the meeting point of the colonial plantation owners and workers. Barga Street was lined with high society shops, theatres, cafes and nightclubs. Even Charlie Chaplin performed here.

©SallyArnold
New street signage being installed, Braga Street, Bandung. West Java.

On my recent visit, the city was busily sprucing itself up for the upcoming Asia Africa Conference. The original conference took place in 1955, a time to discuss the cold war and the ending of colonialism across developing nations. This upcoming conference in April 2015, will see many world leaders congregate here once more.

Navigating my way around the broken footpaths and piles of ready to be laid pavers, I entered Sumber Hidangan, a local Dutch style bakery that first opened its doors in 1929, and hasn’t changed since. This easy time travel seemed to have no physical effects, I didn’t go through any gravitational vortexes or worm holes as in a science fiction film, all I had to do was cross the threshold. But time travel it was. This was the antithesis of mass market production. Light filtered through into the dimly lit space. The dusty wooden floorboards creaked as I entered the high ceilinged store. Peeling paintwork barely clung to the walls. Custom built glass cabinets, also with a layer of dust, displayed trays of fluffy white bread. Glass jars stacked artfully with traditional Dutch biscuits. Signage advertising the wares were in both Dutch and English. The ‘antique’ scales; a cash register and oven that have not been replaced since its opening. Even the staff were ancient.

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Sumber Hidangan, old Dutch style bakery. Bandung, Indonesia.
©SallyArnold
Fresh hand sliced bread, ready for sale.
©SallyArnold
Traditional Dutch style biscuits in glass display jars, Sumber Hidangan, Bandung.

The smell of freshly baked bread teased me, and the glass jars filled neatly with treats caused my eyes to widen. But I was here to show my group my favourite thing about this store – the bread slicer. I approached the counter. To my dismay, the group of ladies in their starched pink aprons informed me that she had gone home for the day. Yes, the bread slicer is a person, no modern technology here. I had been here before when they were quite busy, with several bread slicers skilfully dividing the fluffy fresh loaves into precise slices. My disappointment must have been visible – the friendly ladies proposed if I buy a loaf, they could slice it for me. As I was keen to show my group, I agreed. They only had one variety of bread left this late in the afternoon, the Continental Milk Bread – made with eggs and full cream milk, the sign read. A loaf was selected, and one of the uniformed ladies began to masterly and evenly slice away. Perfect, with just a fraction of a millimetre left intact to hold the loaf together. She then suggested that I didn’t really need to buy it, that they could place it on the shelf with the others on display. They had gone to the trouble of slicing it for me, and it looked fresh and velvety. The ingredients printed on the sign suggested it had few preservatives, unlike the local commercial breads. I would like to try. She then briskly wrapped the loaf in brown paper while another woman neatly hand-wrote out my receipt for 10,500 Rupiah (approximately 80 US cents). This was in turn handed to the cashier seated behind a metal security cage. After our transaction, my group bought a few of the pastries, then we returned through the wormhole to the bustling modern street outside.

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The bread slicer, Sumber Hidangan Bakery. Bandung, Indonesia.
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Fresh sliced bread!

Sumber Hidangan is located at 20-22 Jalan Braga, Bandung. West Java. Indonesia.

The Silence

How wonderful it is to be woken on Nyepi morning and listen. The morning birds are chirping extra loudly today, perhaps it’s just that there’s no other sounds to drown them out. No distant hum of traffic. No motorbikes on the nearby village path. No chopping of the day’s ingredients in the restaurant below. No idle chatter of the local construction women who spend their day walking up and down carting baskets of sand and bricks on their heads. No other sound. Hang on, is that a plane I can hear? It must just be just passing through Balinese airspace, as none can land here today. Today is Nyepi. Balinese new year. Silent day.

Once a year on a dark moon around March or April (the date changes according to the complicated Balinese calendar), is this special day. The belief is that if everyone is silent for the day, lights no lights, and burns no cooking fires; that the evil spirits will be led to believe that everyone has left Bali, that it’s not worth bothering with or disturbing for another year.  It is a day for reflection and meditation. No one is allowed on the streets, and must remain in their family compound. Tourists are not exempt and must remain in their hotels. The only people outside are the Pecalang, the local religious neighbourhood watch; patrolling the villages to make sure everyone is following the rules. Of course emergency services are able to operate. But at the local birth centre I support, Bumi Sehat, they tell me that it’s also a quiet day for them. The local women usually cross their legs and hold off giving birth. Tomorrow, however, will be busy.

Last night was the Ngrupuk parade. It was not so silent. In my village pots and pans were banged about and nearby Ogoh-Ogohs were carried through the streets with much revelry. Ogoh-Ogohs are huge paper machine and bamboo monsters made by the local men and boys in every banjar.  It takes them weeks. It is quite a spectacular parade to watch. They are a recent, but popular tradition here. The the idea of this noise is to wake up those pesky evil spirits, so that they are all aware of the silence the next day. The day when no one is in Bail, wink wink. A group of partying Russian tourists in the hotel next door took the noisy part a little to much last night. I heard the locals ask them to be quiet several times. ”This is not Kuta, if you want to be noisy go there. This is Ubud, it’s quiet here.” I heard the threat. Unusual, Balinese don’t often complain publicly. Today they are quiet.

I look forward to this day, and hope that my schedule has me in Bail for it. I love the undisturbed noisy silence. By evening it can be a little difficult to try and remember not to turn on the lights, or at least dim them and pull the curtains shut. A couple of years ago I had a knock on my door by one of the Pecalang. I had the light off, but my computer on. The glow of the screen could be seen from outside. You’re not supposed to work or partake in entertainment either. It depends how you define work and entertainment. For me writing is neither (well perhaps a little on the entertainment side). For me writing is reflection, which is what you are supposed to do today.

Imagine if Nyepi were to catch on worldwide. It would be like ‘Earth Hour’ for 24 hours. Imaging the huge savings to our resources. No coal burning electricity. No petrol guzzling traffic. No traffic accidents. No crime. Nothing consumed. The economy would go into a spin. People would have to talk to each other (quietly). There would probably be a spike in the birthrate nine months later (there is in Bail too). In Bali it is a day to restore the balance of nature and of the spirit. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that could be restored everywhere. Imagine what it would be like where you live. Imagine the wonderful silence.

So I’ll spend my day in reflection. And gratitude that the demons will be tricked for another year. I’ll spend my day in glorious silence. It’s joyously deafening.

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A few very scary Ogoh-Ogoh, the stuff of nightmares. Ubud, Bail.

Things that I Didn’t Photograph

You know that photograph that you didn’t take, probably a time before smart phones? A time when every second of our lives wasn’t recored or shared. That time when you ran out of film. That time that you didn’t have your camera with you. That “Kodak moment”, as we used to say. Do you remember? I am lucky to have seen many wonderful things in my life so far, a whole reel of Kodak moments. For every memory I have recorded with photography, there have been countless times when I’d wish I had my camera with me. And times I was too busy enjoying the actual experience to think about photographing it.

Floods destroyed most of our family photographs, so I don’t have many snapshots from my childhood.  Consequently my childhood memories are mostly based on what I actually remember, not what was photographed. Although I do recall seeing some photos, so, perhaps it’s the memory of the photograph, not the memory of the event?

In more recent years the reasons for the lack of captured images are usually due to the camera being out of reach. Or out of battery. Or me just not being quick enough. So I have began a list of “snapshots” that will not forever just remain memories. Instead, I can have my Kodak moments, at least as I remember them. Writing things down, like photography, makes my memories real.

I had originally intended to compile this album of snapshots all in one go. As I began to remember, the list became too long, it would be a heavy volume. So, I’ll start with just three…


Snapshot #1 – That time, on the ferry to Lombok

The ferry trip between Lombok and Bali is a long four hours, with nothing to see except sea. I was dozing in the stickiness. The sea breeze wasn’t reaching inside the smokey airless cabin. The vinyl seat was sticking. Some of the other passengers were asleep on hired mattresses surrounded by half eaten nasi bungkus (take away rice packets).

A rumbling of voices woke me from my drowsiness. The ferry seemed to be tipping to one side. I looked up and it appeared that all the passengers had now woken and were leaning over the side of the boat. I jumped to join them.

As far as the eye could see, on every wave, large and small; pods of dolphins were surfing and playing. There must have been hundreds, five or more to each wave. They jumped through the wake of the ferry, twisting and turning, floating and sliding. Performing like synchronised swimmers. They were having so much fun. I had never seen this many dolphins before (nor since). Film like. Magical. But it was real. I didn’t have my camera.


©Sally Arnold
View from my balcony, sans squirrel . Ubud, Bali

Snapshot #2 – Early morning in Ubud

I was preparing breakfast in my small kitchen in the ‘burbs of Ubud. The dew clung to the leaves of the surrounding banana trees. The golden morning light flooded the room. Something caught my eye. A tupai – squirrel, or more correctly an Asian treeshrew, was jumping from leaf to leaf. I stopped to watch him. He then proceeded to perform his morning ablutions. Scooping up the dewdrops and washing his face and paws. His eye caught mine, but he continued with his bath. I ran to get my camera. In the moment I had gone he disappeared into the thickness of the foliage. I could have made a fortune on YouTube. Dam squirrel.


©Sally Arnold
Morning on the Kinabatangan River. Sabah, Borneo

Snapshot #3 – A Duel on the Kinabatangan

Our tour in Borneo involved a couple of days camping in the jungle and staying with locals as part of a community tourism project run by MESCOT. Our base near the Kinabatangan River, the longest in Sabah, is one of the most prolific areas to see wildlife.

The day began with a pre breakfast boat ride. Mist rose in whisps from the water, as early light filtered through the monochrome trees. The first birds were starting into song. Cicadas buzzed. A melodic whistling gibbon’s call could be heard in the distance. It was still cool, the closeness if the day was not yet upon us. The wide brown river flowed calmly, but we all know still waters run deep. A log from the upriver industry floated past. The encroaching palm oil plantations creeped up on one side of the bank, the other side still thick native rainforest, protected for now.

There was a movement in the mud flats. As we drew closer, two large mud-coloured monitor lizards embraced in a duel. They had both risen on their hind legs as their arms entangled. The weight of their meter long tails counterbalanced the huge bodies as they thrashed about in the mud, climbing upon each other. Muscles rippled, it was a well matched match. They became one large symmetrical monster as they clung upright, together. In this prehistoric wrestling match, all bets were off. As we floated past, I was too mesmerized by the scene to think of my camera.

 

The Kitchenware Specialists of East Java

All over the world, most pots and pans are machine made;  yet in Indonesia, many small home industries exist that produce aluminium cookware entirely by hand. Near Banguwangi in East Java a row of these small factories stand side by side flanking both sides of the highway.

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Making rice and bakso steamers by hand. Banguwangi, Indonesia
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Hand beating pots into shape. Banguwangi, Indonesia.

Banging and hammering noises rhythmically reverberate from behind the street-front shops displaying all manner of utensils and containers. All are the same, every shop. They compete selling identical products.

A walk behind the scenes, and we enter a dimly lit world. Large rolls of Aluminium sheeting wait to be turned into rice steamers or woks. Groups of men bang and bend the metal, all sitting barefoot on dirt floors. Razor-edged curls of offcuts and sharp pieces of wire litter the ground. They are surrounded by half drunk glasses of coffee, overflowing astrays and mobile phones. Facebook statuses need to be updated regularly. One man had three phones, I joked that he must have three girlfriends. He smiled wryly. In the corner of most workshops a wooden fire burns, and a blacked pot sits steaming the rice for the next meal, or heating the water for the next coffee. The sheltered dark rooms are cool, but the lighting is poor. There are light fittings, but all are turned off. Electricity is expensive.

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Sheet aluminium to be made into cookware.
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Garuda cake tin, a perfect souvenir.

Back on the street, the shops are the women’s domain. Once you show an interest and ask a price, the bargaining begins. If they don’t have the item you’re after, they’ll get it form a nearby store – for a commission. Cake tins, biscuit containers, kettles, steamers, ovens, rice moulds, you name it they have it, or can make it for you. This visit we bargained for Garuda shaped cake tins, the eagle emblem coat-of-arms of Indonesia and the perfect souvenir for the cooks in our group. Several were to be purchased, so we had the bargaining power of a group sale. The first stall owner had none, but asked us to wait while she quickly ran next door to get one. Her price was too high, so we moved to the neighbouring shop, where the tin had originally come from, and settled on a price. My group and the seller were happy. Being the experienced businesswoman that she was, the owner was convinced that we would also like a  butterfly cake tin, or perhaps a rabbit?

"Just one more?" Banguwangi, Indonesia
“Just one more?” Banguwangi, Indonesia

Yogya Street Art

Yogyakarta is one of my favourite cities in Indonesia, in fact it’s one of my favourite cities anywhere. It’s chaotic, ugly, confusing, overcrowded, polluted, but vibrant, charming, and full of energy. There’s never enough time. Beyond the regular tourist sights, one of my highlights is to wander the streets and back lanes to see the ever-changing gallery of street art.

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Blindfolds and Chicken Cars

I don’t know which is more fun: trying to walk blindfolded through two trees (well watching other people try to do it), or riding the chicken car.

Whenever I visit Yogyakarta in Central Java, Indonesia I try to convince my groups to join me for an evening of fun and games at the Ulun Ulun Selatan, the southern square of the Sultan’s Palace. As here, every evening Large crowds gather to try their luck waking blindfolded through two large and ancient Banyan trees, as the local belief is, if you succeed in this task your heart is pure. The game is known locally as “Masangin“, an abbreviation for masuk antara beringan, literally ‘entering between banyan trees’. It may seem a simple task, as the trees are rather far apart, but it’s surprisingly difficult, to a degree that I’m sure there’s some magic involved.

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The “magical” trees of the Alun Alun Selatan. Sultan’s Palace, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Yogyakarta and particularly the Kraton area (Sultan’s palace), are full of mystical stories and legends. It’s a melting pot of Animism, Hinduism, and a Javanese mystical version of Islam. The palace itself is the geographical centre of Yogyakarta, and is also the centre of an imaginary line running form the very active volcano, Mt Merapi in the North, to the wild and dangerous sea at Parangtritis Beach in the South. Legend has it that the Queen of the sea is the spiritual wife of the Sultan, and once a year she comes for him in her chariot following this very road.

In the square, blindfolds can be hired for 5,000 Rp (about 50 US cents), but some just tie a scarf around their eyes. It’s hysterical watching the participants in this blind man’s bluff – some make a beeline to the gap between the trees, then suddenly, at the last minute, turn abruptly off course. Some start off badly; from the beginning taking a direct route to the grassy area at the the side. Others seem to walk around and around circling the square, never making it near the trees. Groups of friends gather to guide and yell “Permissi!”, “Awas!”, “Excuse me!”, “Watch out!” to people in the path of their blindfolded friends. Everyone is laughing, photographing, and pointing to the hapless trying. Ironically there are usually a couple of blind beggars too, adding more obstacles to the task

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The chicken car – a mobile karaoke extravaganza.
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Pedal cars and real cars and motorbikes fight for space on the road. Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

In recent years this game has become so popular, that other businesses have taken advantage of the instant crowds, and have opened here too. The are many stalls selling glow sticks and flashing light novelties; food stalls, and the aforementioned chicken car. Actually there is more than the chicken, there is the shark car, and numerous cartoon character covered beetle cars. They are pedal powered mobile karaoke machines covered and adorned with multicoloured flashing lights. You pay to peddle one or two circuits of the square jostling for space on the road amongst the regular cars and motorbikes. I’ve paid between 30,000 Rp and 80,000 Rp ($3–$8 USD) for the same journey, so depends on your bargaining skills and how many in your group. The chicken car, however, is rather special. It’s powered by four people peddling, with space for two extra passengers on the bottom (5 extra if you’re Indonesian), and another 4–6 passengers on the top level (there is a ladder to climb). The music blares from the speakers and everyone waves to each other as they pass. Some take their time and slowly meander around the street, others hoon on by, narrowing avoiding other cars. I can’t guarantee the health and safety of this activity, but I can guarantee that it’s LOTS OF FUN! However, be warned, don’t combine the two and wear the blindfold while, driving!

The Condom Factory

Growing up in Australia in the early 70’s, it was a common Saturday afternoon treat to go to the cinema (we called it ‘the pictures’). There was the main feature, of course, sometimes a double feature, and usually preceding this, a short film followed by intermission – a chance for the candy bar to increase profits. The short was often a documentary produced by the Canadian Film Board. It was often about the rubber industry. Often. Odd. We saw how the trees were tapped, and the latex collected in small coconut cups. The collectors were always wearing pointed hats from some generic South East Asian country. The formal voice over in a plummy, trying to be British, but with a Canadian twanged accent, explained the process. I knew all about rubber. Well that was my memory of it anyway.

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Collecting latex. Glenmore, East Java.

Having spent several years now in South East Asia, escorting tour groups – I too have been explained this process again by our local guides, as they have shown my groups around rubber plantations in the various countries I have visited. I have seen the sticky latex collected, poked my finger into the gooey liquid, and let it dry, then peeled it off. I’ve wondered if it hurt the trees as they bleed. I’ve even slept in dark and smokey longhouses in the jungles of Borneo surrounded by stacks of the stinky semi processed rubber matts. It was not until recently that I have learnt more about this process and seen the next steps in the production, as one of our trips take us to Glenmore plantation in East Java, Indonesia.

Glenmore, an incongruous name for an Indonesian village, was began (so one story goes) by Scottish mercenaries who had been in the service of the Dutch some time in the mid 18th Century. As they had been fighting the British crown, they were no longer welcome in their homeland, and exiled to make a new life in the Dutch colonies. Today the plantation here is still the largest employer in the village, and the rubber processing factory continues to operate much in its original condition.

I love stepping into the ‘living museum’ of an office here to pay for our tour. The time machine takes me into a room where the fan whirls slowly as a uniformed lady always types out my receipt. Yes, types clickity clack with an actual typewriter. With ribbon. And carbon paper. Often a group of uniformed men sit around smoking and drinking coffee. Yes, smoking cigarettes in the office – this is Indonesia where the anti-smoking laws have yet to take effect in many areas.

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Watch Out! – “There’s a barrier”

Our tour of the factory begins in a large airy white room. The cement floor is wet and the whir of the rollers occasionally override the constant hum of the machinery in the adjoining room. Workers, both men and women, are dressed in faded flowery sarongs and stained T-shirts. Some of the woman have headscarfs. All are wearing flip flops. Large water filled vats line one wall, and a watery conveyor belt ends with a series of rollers. A few ancient looking safety posters adorn the wall warning workers not to trip on the belts and machinery.

Our guide jokes that we are in the “condom factory”. He lifts one of the frames from the vat of water and revels a large spongy white sheet about 3cm thick. He explains that at this stage, acid has been added to the latex, and after several hours, it coagulates into this form. The sheets are then transferred to the belt, and are fed through the series of rollers. A worker aiding its journey by guiding it with his bare hands pushing the sheet into each roller, no safety guards to stop if his fingers accidentally follow the path of the sheet.The rollers wring out the excess liquid, and leave a criss cross ribbed patten, branding the mat with the Glenmore logo.

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Rubber sheets drying. Glenmore, East Java.
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A woman sorts and grades rubber sheets. Glenmore, East Java.

These thinner, firmer matts are now carried to the adjoining building, the door is opened and a blast of acrid heat whooshes out. This is the smoke-room. Underneath we can see the wood fuelled furnaces burning, heating the room to 50° C. The matts already hung drying for up to a week, have changed from opaque white, to a translucent golden brown, like flayed skin hanging over the bamboo poles. It looks like a serial killer’s storeroom. The smell and the heat are overwhelming, and our guide quickly shuts the door. The building opposite, also a similar drying room houses the poor quality rubber, the froth that’s skimmed from the tops of the vats. It’s black and bubbly, more like a filthy kitchen sponge. This will be used for the local market to make flip flops and foam mattresses.

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“Clean is Healthy”
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Baling machine. Glenmore, East Java.

Our tour continues to the sorting and packing room. A hand painted sign in beautiful calligraphy announces ‘Bersih itu Sehat’ Clean is Healthy. We must remove our shoes before entering. The now dried and smoked rubber ‘hides’ are inspected on the surrounding light-boxes. Small deformities are discarded using a blade cutter. The sheets are then graded, and sorted. There are two baling machines in the opposite corner where stacks of the rubber sheeting are compressed into large cubes. The huge vice is turned by a shirtless muscled man, the sweat beading across his shoulders. This is hard manual labour. Everything is manual here.

The whitewashed bales are causally placed on the slightly raised whitewashed wooden platform, like cubed chess pieces in a contemporary art installation, ready for export. Each one is worth several months wages for the workers.

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Rubber bales waiting for export. Glenmore, East Java.

The heat of the day becomes too much for the group, so we exit and walk towards the shady forest of rubber tress. They are planted in even rows, and all bend slightly in the same windswept position, as though they are made of… rubber. Our guide expertly scrapes a slither of bark with his pocketknife, and the tree begins to bleed. I am back in the cool cinema of my childhood, all that is missing is the Canadian voice over.

A Sea of Yellow Krupuk

Curly yellow flower buds spread across the yard on woven bamboo sheets. These are not flowers, but the makings of krupuk, the popular crunchy Indonesian snack. Krupuk comes in many forms, and these particular ones are made from fish, tapioca flour and turmeric, giving them their bright yellow colour. We are visiting a small home industry near Pangandaran, West Java, Indonesia.

Krupuk or ‘prawn chips’ or ‘crackers’ as is often the translation (sometimes misspelled ‘creakers’) is the generic onomatopoeic name for a variety of crispy type snack foods in Indonesia. They can be made of various types of flour, but usually tapioca or rice flour, and are sometimes flavoured with fish or prawns and spices. There is even one kind that is flavoured with sulphur. Some are also made from fruit, or animal skin. They are ubiquitous, and often accompany many local dishes.

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Sacks of tapioca flour wait to be turned into krupuk. Pangandaran, West Java.
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The “3D Spirograph” krupuk machine. Pangandaran, West Java.

This small family business produces thousands of krupuk per day, and we have arrived on a day when the sun is shining, perfect for drying the dough, hence, the carpeted front yard. The small factory is busy when we enter. In one corner a large mixer is kneading the tapioca flour, fish paste and spices into a thick dough. The nearby walls and floor are covered in flour. Bags of the fine white powder sit stacked neatly against the wall, as though they too are waiting their turn. A large green machine clunks and whirls, as a young man climbs to fill the chute with dough, underneath another man is fitting mesh sheets into the base that will receive the curly noodles of paste. The machine begins the spew out the small, even, curly circular discs of spaghetti like strands. It’s a 3D spirograph. He picks one out of every batch, and discards it. I ask is it to let air in when they steam it? He replies, no, one of the spigots is damaged, and that krupuk is not up to standard. Quality control.

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Laying steamed krupuk out to dry. Pangandaran, West Java.
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Krupuk factory. Pangandaran, West Java.

The mesh sheets are then transferred to colander like boxes, stacked and placed in the large hissing metal steamer where they are cooked until they resemble translucent plastic. If the day is sunny, like this day, they are moved into the yard to dry. After a few hours they become quite brittle and hard, and even more plastic-like in their appearance. At this stage they could be stored for several weeks, or sold for people to do the final cooking at home, however these ones are destined to be cooked here, and sold ready to eat. Once thoroughly dry, the yellow plasticy discs are lowered into one of the industrial size woks filled with hot coconut oil. The fuel is discarded rice husks, everything has a use. Within seconds they hiss and expand and rise to the surface like fluffy phoenixs, then are scooped out to drain and cool.

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Young boy helps with a big bag of krupuk. Pangandaran, West Java.

In an adjoining room two headscarfed women sit on the cool cement floor packing the krupuk into plastic bags, and tying the tops with string, ready for sale. They hand us a sample to pass around. Fresh light and crispy, slightly salty, slightly sweet, hardy fishy at all, and very very moreish. It’s hard to stop at one.

A Music Lesson in West Java

Many years ago when I first started learning Indonesian, I found a set of rather curious Indonesian language cassette tapes (remember them) in a thrift shop in Sydney. They were recordings of simple stories on an odd collection of subjects: the weather in Japan, New Year’s Eve in Scotland, the life history of an Australian pop star, and the story of Pak Udjo and his angklung music school in Bandung, West Java. I listened to these tapes repeatedly until I could understand every word and turn of phrase. The last line reminding me, that if I ever had the opportunity to visit Bandung, be sure to visit Pak Udjo.

For many years our trips in Java just passed trough Bandung, we transferred from the train station to the local bus station, with no time to stop in between. I was delighted, when a change of itinerary now included an overnight stop in Bandung, along with the inclusion of a performance at Angklung Udjo.

Angklung is a bamboo musical instrument made from a series of bamboo tubes, that when shaken produce a single warm tone. It is a traditional Sundanese (the ethnic group of West Java) instrument, that is also popular all over Indonesia, and its neighbors. I refer to it as ‘the recorder of Indonesia’, in that (like the recorder), it is simple to learn, and most school kids in Indonesia will have their first music lessons on this instrument. In 2010 UNESCO added the angklung to the representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Anklung Udjo Foundation began in 1966 by the late Udjo Ngalagena and his wife Uum Sumiati, with the aim of preserving the cultural Heritage of the Sundanese. The foundation is continued today by their son. The school offers free classes for children from the surrounding villages where they can learn music, dance, singing, and public speaking. The children have the opportunity to preform in the daily cultural performance presented to tourists, earning them a little pocket money into the bargain.

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Master angklung maker at work. Bandung, Indonesia

I have now visited Anklung Udjo several times, and am always impressed. The show’s format is a little cheesy, not unlike a daytime TV variety show; but it’s such a celebration of joy, my groups can’t help but love it too. There’s the charming, sometimes funny bilingual presenter, a puppet performance, some cute dancing and singing kids, and the angklung. The performers and presenter are different each time, so a variety of children have a turn performing to an audience, but the basic show remains the same.

One of the highlights is the music lesson – Angklung instruments are distributed to the audience, and following our host and teacher, we learn to play some simple tunes together. I am glad to be lost in the musical crowd. As a child I overheard at my kindergarten concert someone commenting that I couldn’t sing in tune, and have been musically scarred since. I was once unhappily described as been ‘as musical as a door’. Back at school, we learnt the recorder but my playing was always screechy and out of tune. Music wasn’t my thing. I stuck to listening. Being handed an anlklung, amongst the masses was a great relief … How could I go wrong with just one note? I had the freedom to make music without fear.

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Angklung studio. Bandung, Indonesia

As beginners we only have to play one anklung. The professional musicians have about 50 rigged up together and pluck them expertly like a piano keyboard. One note is enough for me. This version of the angklung has been adapted from the pentatonic scale of the original to a, more pleasing to the Western ear, eight note scale. Our host / teacher / conductor is the son of the founder, and has a syrupy warm voice, not unlike the warm sound that the angklung produces. He jokes with us, as we learn some basic harmonies, directing us with a series of hand signals – each representing the note numbers on our respective angklung. We joyfully laugh as we play. Today the audience has visitors from all over Indonesia, Oman, England, Holland, Ireland, Korea, and Australia; a quiet day. The tunes become longer and more difficult we slowly master the simple action of shaking at the correct time. We play uncomplicated children’s songs, that seem familiar to all nationalities present, then some more popular Pop songs – Including ‘We are the Champions’ by Queen, as indeed, we all thought we were.

Eventually, we reluctantly return our instruments as they are collected by the children. Our host askes us “How do we feel?” “HAPPY!” is the unanimous reply. He then explains that this is his father’s legacy. The intention of his father: that by having fun, playing music together, even tough we are from different cultures and backgrounds, will bring understanding, harmony and world peace. I wholeheartedly second those sentiments. So to quote my recoded Indonesian lesson – if you ever have the opportunity to visit Bandung, be sure to visit Pak Udjo.