Tuesday 26 August 2014

Guests of honour: traditional Javanese wedding

Together we bend over the phone, but the map is not of much help. It shows a muddle of small roads without any names, landmarks, or anything else recognisable. When I asked Indah for her address, she shrugged. Her village does not have names or numbers. In vain we search for any pointers. Finally, we agree on meeting her and her uncle tomorrow by the sugar cane factory half an hour away. He will lead the way on his scooter. 

Indah, cleans, washes and babysits at out Singapore house, and visiting her village is the end, and the highlight, of our Java trip. Not only because we get to see her beautiful yellow house, the charming and quiet village surrounded by rice fields, but also because we have been invited to attend Indah's friend's village wedding. 

We are the first ‘white people’ to visit this village, in the Karang Anyar area near Solo, so we are quite a sight. Indah’s uncle stares into Linde’s eyes, and asks what we put in them to make that icy blue colour. Because of my six foot height and long legs, girls giggle I look like a Barbie doll. 

All the aunties and uncles spoil our kids with boiled soy beans, krupuk and sugary sweets and cuddles. The lunch we get served, cooked by Indah’s aunties, is the best we had in Java. My favourite crispy fried tempeh, pecel vegetables with peanut sauce, tapioca leaves in coconut milk, krupuk and chicken for the kids. 

Indah tells us that this morning her auntie tried to catch one of the kampong chickens roaming around the house for us. It fled into a tree, and Indah bought a chicken at the market instead. 

The music down the road lures us to the wedding. There is a band, a traditional gamelan orchestra, three professional singers, and a sound system that could blast across the sea to Singapore. The guests sit waiting, women in colourful kebaya’s on one side, men in batik shirt and black peci caps on the other.

The wedding has not yet started, and we are whisked into the bride’s neighbour’s house to greet the happy couple, just in time to see her traditional make up being applied. The couple looks stunning in their blue robes; both bride and groom heavily made up, and decorated with long tresses of sweet smelling jasmine flowers. 

At first uncertain whether we are welcome, we are quickly put at ease (and slightly embarrassed) as we are ushered in as guest of honour, with special seats reserved next to the bride’s parents. During the lengthy ceremony we will be showered with sweet tea, food and snacks. 

The bride’s house has been remodelled with superb woodcarvings and wooden thrones, and is decorated with bamboo, fruit and flower ornaments. A wedding planner walks around, directing all the guests in their roles, whipping the bride into shape if she slacks from her upright position for just a minute. 

Halfway the formal ceremony a lady comes over to invite me to come and see the kitchen, bring your camera, she points, and smiles. Behind the scenes are as many people as in front. These are the villagers, explains Indah, traditional Javanese weddings are a village affair, and everyone helps out. Dozens of ladies cook, scoop and prepare food, which gets served out by lads in matching pink shirts. Everyone smiles from the excitement of me dropping by, and I need to taste all the delicacies. In the corner more ladies wrap left over food in djati leafs, which we will be handed to leaving guests. 

Back at the wedding, the official ceremony gets wrapped up by the couple having their pictures taken, and then leaving to get changed in another stunning outfit. In the meanwhile the singers entertain the guests, and food gets served. By now I have eaten more than I normally would in a day, but it just keeps coming. 

The bride and groom return in gold, and we make more pictures while some of the guests have a go at the microphone. They try to coax me to sing a tune as well, but I shake my head, grinning. It would not be pretty.

When the wedding is over we press thick red packets into the hands of the bride, happy and thankful to have been part of their amazing day. Later, on our walk around the village we encounter the groom on his scooter. We struggle to recognise him at first in a simple t-shirt and without his make-up. He grins shyly, and we wave and thank him again. They will later go over to his village to celebrate again. We are off too, back to Singapore, where we can look at the pictures and marvel at this amazing day that we wil never forget.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Javanese impressions

After visiting colourful, bustling Yogyakarta and the stunning Borobudur, we leave the touristy part of Central Java behind and head into the country. Our trip will take us in a circle around the two large volcanoes that sit in the centre of Java, Gunung Merapi and Gunung Merbabu, and we’ll see the mountains from all angles. The first stop is Wonosobo, a small town at the foot of the mountains. 

We  see a lot of Wonosobo, as the town has an intricate web of one way roads and side streets, and we have to circle it a couple of times before we can find the hotel. Traffic is fluid, and the town pretty, so we don’t complain. Our hotel is a charming colonial one, build as a retreat for Dutch planters in the 1920s. The only other tourists we see are, if not Javanese, Dutch, unsurprisingly.

That afternoon we visit the hot springs in Kalianget. Concrete, tiled public baths have been built around the springs, and they are full of locals having a bath. Some scrub themselves and their young children with shampoo in the sulphuric water, which has a lovely temperature just under 40 degrees. Needless to say we are the only white people, and quite an attraction. The sulphuric spa water is rust coloured, and smells like rotten eggs, but very pleasant, especially in the cool mountain air. 

Our fellow bathers, like everyone in Java, are friendly and inquisitive. Despite the often-poor English (and my equally poor Bahasa Indonesia and Javanese) many come up for a chat. They ask where I am from, and if I say Belanda, I always get a big smile. ‘Ah, Belandaaaaa, gooood.’

What will usually follow with hand, feet and many smiles, is a discussion about the kids, how old they are, after which I enquire after their kids, and where they are from. Many Javanese travel to see the sights of their own island, and we are not the only tourists. Just the only white ones.

I will end with remarking how beautiful the temple/ area/ pool/ volcano is we are at, and then our limited vocabulary will be depleted. Off course no conversation is complete without a posed photograph. 

When we entered the park in which the hot springs are, we had to buy a ticket. Then, we had to buy another one to park the car. Then, we had to buy tickets again to enter the pool. The Javanese like selling tickets. If you want to enter a park, parking lot, lake, or any place more or less worth seeing, someone will whip out a ticket book, and you will have to pay a fee. The amount will sound staggering at first, but if you take off four zero’s you roughly have the amount in Singapore dollars, and you realise it is not really that bad. The  kids are often free, and for the bigger attractions Indah gets a local citizen ticket, at a fraction of the cost of the foreigner one. We are happy to contribute to the upkeep of Java’s beauty, and another good thing about all those tickets are that the kids are entertained in the car for hours folding them into paper planes and throwing them at each other. 'Not at papa, he is driving!’

We joke we should get our own ticket book, so we can start selling tickets whenever someone wants to take our picture. In Indonesia, we’d be millionaires soon.

Since we bought the ticket, we decide to explore the park, entering it through a giant fish head. The park is, like many things in Indonesia, badly neglected. You can see it has been nicely build, but has never been maintained. One of the problems in Indonesia is that especially rural area’s don’t know a collective garbage collection. Even if you could get people to not drop their rubbish where they stand, what would they do with it? The only answer is burning it, which makes villages smelly and smoky. Many gorgeous places are full of plastic, spoiling the beautiful sights for us Europeans, especially ones used to the immaculateness of Singapore. 

Behind the park is a football pitch, where lads in meticulous gear and shoes play on a rough field. We sit and watch it for a while and eat our snack, and try not to add our plastic to the garbage behind us.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Sulawesi part 2: The beach

Pulisan is on the most Northern tip of this funnily shaped island. To get there we drive further and further off the main road, through increasingly small villages, over increasingly bad roads, until we stop at one close to the shore. From here we have to walk half an hour to reach the place we will be staying. Village ladies arrive to help with our luggage. I worry about the one labelled ‘heavy’ by the airline, but one of them lifts it on her head, just like that. 

The hike leads us to paradise. White sand in front, jungle behind us, and a small area dotted with wooden houses in between, carved in the traditional Northern Sulawesi style. 

There is no swimming off the beach, as there is a coral reef just in front, but when the tide is low the whole area turns into one big adventure playground. All afternoon we scavenge around the tidal pools. Tijm meets his new best friend for the next few days, Xaver, a Sulawesi boy staying here for his school holidays. His mother works at a resort in the Highlands. Xaver’s English is limited, still they won’t leave each other’s side for the next few days. 

Xaver shows us to pull up stones, to reveal the critters underneath. Brittle sea stars wave their hairy arms spookily. We find sea cucumbers, bright blue sea stars, a sea slug, sea urchins (that Linde calls sea porcupines), anemones, corals, small eels, fluorescent blue fish, murder mussels, and heaps of hermit crabs. 

We build a pool by the sea that we defend to the upcoming tide, but the sea eventually swallows it, just as Tijm’s crocs, which he left next to it. 

At breakfast the next day, Xaver is sulky and whiney. He feels glum, because we plan to go out snorkelling today. So we take him with us, with the promise that the boat staff, who speak his language, will help looking after him. We sail to another beach where we can swim and snorkel. There we wrap the kids in bright orange life-vests, and they float endlessly on the surface, gazing at the brightly coloured reef below us.

What do we see? So many coloured fish we cannot begin to name them, impressive corals in every colour and shape, numerous blue starfish, a black and white striped sea snake, yellow pointy ‘nose fish’, a small school of ‘upside down’ fish, anemones with Nemos (clownfish) inside, an impressively winged scorpion fish, Xaver’s monster fish, and much, much more. 

The afternoon we spend on the beach building sand castles and collecting shells and corals. We wander to the small village down the beach, where a herd of dark pigs rooting with their noses in the sand to search for crabs. In the distance looms yet another volcano. In the evening Tijm teaches Xaver to make rainbow loom bracelets, who is hooked instantly. 

The next day, more snorkelling, at more amazing locations, with Xaver. We see why this area is famous with divers. In the afternoon we build a crab zoo, which we fill endlessly with hermit crabs that keep trying to escape over the rocky edges. 

We are rested for the next lap of our journey: Java.

Sunday 17 August 2014

Nusantara travels: Minahasa Highlands, Sulawesi

School has started and mama has her life back. Apart from catching up with work, I can now slowly start to process what we did the last few weeks, during our travels through Indonesia. What we saw. What we felt, smelt, ate and climbed. So much!

First stop: Minahasa Highlands, Sulawesi. We stay in a wooden bungalow in the village of Kinilow, just outside Tomohon. The mountain air is cool and crisp. Even in the afternoon mist the mountains are impressive, but in the clear morning sky we can see what is looming over us: Gunung Lokon, a perfect cone-shaped volcano. The kids are keen to climb it, but when we hear that the volcano is active, and not recommended right now, we head to it’s brother on the other side of the village: Gunung Mahawa. 

Here we hike around the crater, taking in the amazing views whilst making sure the kids don’t drop in, nor get lost in the high alang alang grass. Off course holding hands is not at all appreciated by the little (dare)devils. Where they whine if they have to walk even hundred meters on a regular road, they have no problems at all as soon as it gets difficult or scary, and instead of having to pull dragging-behind kids, I find myself calling out ‘wait, not so fast, stay with us.’ 

We survive the adventure, and have lunch at lake Tondano, full of water hyacinths and fisherman, where we eat Gunung Mas (goldfish) fried to a crisp with fresh dabu dabu sambal. 

Sulawesi villages are dotted along the mountains, decorated by colourful flags, either in the red and white of the Indonesian flag, or, surprisingly with Dutch, German, Argentinian or Brazilian ones, depending on which team was supported during the World Cup. Holland seems most popular, which makes Tijm very happy. There are more influences to be seen from the former colonisers, which were much more popular in Christian Sulawesi than anywhere else on the archipelago. Like Dutch villages, Sulawesian ones have at least three churches, one catholic, one protestant, and one other type of protestant, as our driver Ronnie tells us. It is Sunday today and people flock to worship in their best clothes. Only in the cities you can see the occasional mosque. Houses and roads are nice, the people are friendly and we know we are going to enjoy our stay here. 

Our Singapore kids shivered at the windy lake so we warm up in some sulphuric hot springs. In the middle of the rice fields is a small lake, and the only clue that something is out of the ordinary, is the steam rising from the edges. The water is a scalding 40 degrees, even hotter in some area’s, but Jasmijn jumps in first, unfazed. The pleasantly blistering water enveloped us, although sometimes squirts of boiling water bubble painfully through your toes. I mentally note this place as one as the most amazing on earth.

After this, Lake Linow, whose sulphuric water supposedly changes colour seems dull in the afternoon sky, but the sweet tea that is served in the cafĂ© makes up for it. 

We meet a man who tells us, in Dutch, how his grandparents taught him the language, which was the norm at schools in their time. The northern part of Sulawesi was always relatively pro-Dutch, to the extend of some resisting independence, and many are still unhappy being ruled by the Muslims from Java. At the moment Sulawesi is relatively calm, although some area’s have seen violent religious conflicts. Later, in a small warung by the road we buy water and sweets, and old lady proudly exhibits her knowledge of our ‘Belanda’ language. She does not get much further than ‘goedemorgen’, ‘opa’ and ‘oma’, but she does count out the ten sweets I buy from her jar with me in Dutch, beaming. 

The next day we visit Tomohon market. Messy, fragrant, smelly and colourful, I always enjoy markets, but this one goes a bit further. Sulawesians are notorious omnivores, and just outside the meat area we see a large dead dog offered for sale. Roel ventures deeper into the butcher section, while I wait by the vegetables with the kids. When Roel comes back with a sly grin I go in, together with Linde who insists she wants to see it all. ‘All’ includes rats skewered on sticks like satay, jungle hog and bat (paniki), which is a local delicacy. I am a bit disappointed the python the guidebook promised seems to be finished already. Gagging, I manage to steer Linde away from a pile of garbage, including dog intestines and heads, just in time. 

When we drive out of town my nose and stomach get cleansed by the scent of sheets and sheets full of cloves drying by the roadside, it’s sweet smell making it clear that Sulawesi is next door to the so-called spice islands. 

We head to freshen up further at a waterfall, buying a tier of small bananas as long as my arm to sustain us for the hike. A guide, Arno, shows up in the village, which we fortunately decide to take on, as the short hike to the waterfall at toddler pace turns out to be an hour hike through dense jungle. The banana’s come in more than useful, and the water we dip our feet in at the end make a delicious reward. 

For lunch we sample an all-you-can eat Sulawesi buffet. In no time the table is filled with small bowls filled with mysterious stuff. Jasmijn immediately digs into a bowl of jungle snails. Tijm and Linde prefer to stick to the ‘bruine bonensoep’, a soup of brown beans, another leftover from the Dutch colonisers, or the vegetable soup that tastes just like the one my grandmother used to make. Roel and I dig into the wild hog, local tuna fish, very greasy pork, and yes, the dog. The spices are amazing, hot and fragrant (Sulawesian cuisine is said to be the most spicy of Indonesia), but the meat is chewy and tough. My favourite of the meal are the Pangi leaves, from the Pangi tree, that are chopped really fine and fried, and a extremely crispy tofu dish. Paniki, or bat, is unfortunately not on the menu today. 

The next day we go for a swim at the public pool in Kinilow, where we are the main attraction, and get our pictures taken by the whole village, many times, and return the favour. Within minutes we get presented with plates of pisang goreng (fried banana) served with spicy sambal. The pool is filled with local spring water and amazingly fresh. The kids play with the village kids and our ball, and we have a great time. Afterwards we walk around the village and feel sorry it will be time to move on tomorrow.