Published in Now! Jakarta, June 2009


Last month I travelled around South Asia (a term with about as much meaning as ‘Middle East’) visiting Surabaya, Madura, Mumbai, Dubai and Trivandrum in Kerala, for a pre-monsoon wedding.
Only in Dubai, the plastic paradise, did I hear a lot of whining about the economic downturn; elsewhere people have their noses down (to the grindstone) and bottoms up, trying to catch any passing trade.
Now read on:

3rd April 2009: To Makam Sunan Ampel in Surabaya
On the last leg of my magical mystical Muslim tour of East Java I today visit the tomb of Sunan Ampel one of the much revered nine Muslim saints who brought Islam to Java in the 15th century.
Generally the Majapahit Era gates and gardens of Muslim saints’ tombs across Java are well-preserved but today I find the garden gone, replaced by a Malaysian-modern fantasy of chrome railings and high gloss tiles.


Muslim hat vendor outside the Mesjid Agung Ampel in Surabaya.

The grand mosque is still magnificent, though, and mercifully un‘restored’. The lanes leading onto the mosque and holy tomb (makam keramat) are caked with vendors selling dates from Mecca, Muslim fashion items and delicious East Javanese warung food. I have two triple by-pass savoury donuts (oté-oté) dipped in a piquant tamarind sauce that are to die for.
I find a cardamom coffee shop full of hombres playing dominoes and was reminded of Surabaya’s hey-day in the 1960s, when everyone had gold teeth and packed a gun.
Now it is intensely, municipally, manicured…….but the people still have that old Majapahit magic!


The new, grotesque entrance to Tanjung Perak Harbour, Surabaya.

12th April 2009: To Madura, Java’s answer to Sicily
I am working on the restoration of my Majapahit garden at the Hotel Bumi in Surabaya and get to make side-trips to favourite old haunts.
I have never been to Madura so I am excited by our dawn departure (to beat the traffic and heat) to Tanjung Perak, one of Indonesia’s busiest harbours, the entrance to which is now announced by possibly the world’s ugliest monumental gate.
May will be the last month of the fabulous ferries which ply between Tanjung Perak and Kamal. (A new bridge connecting the island to the mainland opens in June, Insya Allah).


Carved pillar bollard at the Aer Mata royal tombs outside Bangkalan: Madurese Style is often flamboyant.

Local hombre-eccentric at the cardamom coffee stall, Ampenan, Surabaya.

A Madurese rural house compound in the interior—very similar to a Balinese house compound!

Today’s ferry is full of colourful high-spirited Madurese: there are more stylish slumdogs with Dji Sam Soe cigarettes surgically attached to their fingers than one can count. Gone are the gold-toothed ladies but in their place are a younger generation of tough, leathery matrons, in ALL the colours, barking out instructions to hapless, chain-smoking husbands.
The drawback is definitely the national sport of Madura.

•     •     •


The view from the smoking lounge on the ferry to Madura from Surabaya.

Passenger cat naps in ferry’s smoking lounge.

Man in traditional Madurese travelling uniform here photographed outside the ferry washrooms.

Hot cop, Madura-style, at the old Cakraningrat Palace in Bangkalan, now the Town Hall and Mayor’s office.

During a morning tour of the Bangkalan Regency I see the remains of what must have been a magnificent Cakraningrat Kraton colonial-style palace and a magnificent late Majapahit-style terraced sanctuary (kramat), built in the 16th century at Aer Mata, for the remains of the Cakraningrats.
In the Geger hills nearby I find village after rural village of courtyard architecture not dissimilar to the Balinese model!! And lots of Nasi Bebek stalls. (Duck Rice is the local delicacy—tough, but delicious, like the Madurese).

15th April 2009: Dubai Airport, a midnight massage at a Balinese outpost!
At the Timeless spa above the First Class lounge at Dubai’s spanking new glitter-dome airport I insist on an Indonesian masseur. I luck out with young Ketut Wardana, from Bakti Seraga Village near Singaraja, who is bussed in every day from the air-conditioned hostel he shares with twenty other Balinese of both sexes.
“Do you all have sex?” I ask politely (“Sing magae banjaré ditu?”).
“No, they have security and one gets a warning letter if you go into the girls’ room. They have cameras too.”
“But I bet the Filipinos do it standing up in the toilets,” I counter.
He laughs, knowingly, as he pours half a bucket of German moisturizer (‘all natural’) on the tundrascape that is my back.
It seems that the Balinese are allowed chaperoned excursions to ‘Mac D’ and other places of cultural interest in this city-state-emirate-gulag, and are bussed about like detainees.
“We bought some pig meat at Galungan” he confides naughtily, “and made LAWAR!” (Balinese delicacy. Ed.).
“But where did u get the coconut and other ingredients?” I enquire.  
“Carrefour” comes the answer.

16th April 2009: To the Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay, to start work on the post-terrorist renovations
Back at the scene of the terrorist crime of the century I walk around the familiar corridors in a daze. There are no bullet holes—nearly all of the hotel has reopened—just staff in hyper-drive proving the resilience of the Bombay and the Taj spirit. Every few metres I come across a familiar face. I feel a sense of relief to count him or her still amongst the living.


Gateway to India Square, in front of the Taj Mahal hotel is again hustling with day trippers.
This shot taken from the Taj Mahal’s Business Centre.

Business as usual: Taj Mahal duty manager at work in front of the memorial to the staff who perished in the incident.

Over twenty staff members died during the five day siege. A memorial has been set up in front of the lobby waterfall with a ‘Tree of Life’ sculpture by well-known Bombay sculpture Suresh Waghmare.

19th April, 2009: To Trivandrum, Kerala, for a pre-monsoon wedding
Today we all gather at high noon in the Sri Babu Community Hall inside the old fort in Trivandrum for the wedding of Santhoosh, a dark ksatrya project manager, and Anju, his fair bride.


Santhoosh and Anju on the starting block: the entire ceremony was over in two minutes of merry mayhem!

The wedding ceremony breaks a state record for speed (the custom of this clan) with a bank of photographers basically directing the proceedings with barked instructions to the bride and groom and other hapless participants in the extended Kodak moment, including the officiating priest. There is a stampede for the wedding lunch as soon as the final garland is exchanged. My group flee, swimming in sweat, as a plastic trident is being borne in by excited relatives.


| back |

Subscribe to the Poleng Magazine! Get your hard copy of the diary with large format photos and contributions from some of the island's more talented essay writers, cartoonists and photographers. E-mail your request, and kindly send letters or useful travel tips to: wwords@indosat.net.id


Copyright© 2009, strangerinparadise.com