When Australian Graeme Steel (left) first arrived in Surabaya to work at an international school he wasn’t about to do handstands.
Back in 1988 the sprawling East Java capital was smokestack central, far from being a bigger version of rice-terraced Bali. Road signs proclaimed the port’s green and clean status, but if the words hadn’t been corroded by acid rain they’d be obscured by smog.
“I kept comparing Surabaya to Morocco, a country I loved and where I’d been for almost eight years,” he said. “I left only because (US President) Ronald Reagan had bombed Tripoli in 1986 and anti-Western feelings had got too much.” The Sydney University graduate had also worked as a researcher in Britain and continental Europe for prominent historians.
“After a brief stay in Sydney I got a post in Surabaya. Not much fun for about a year – until I bought a car.”
No matter that it was an almost retired Renault, it took the young teacher out of the city and into worlds that few other Westerners had visited.
He circumnavigated Madura the oblong island off Surabaya ignoring warnings of knifemen for the Madurese have a fearsome stab-first, chat-later reputation. Instead he discovered rough roads offset by warm welcomes and knockout scenery.
He first-geared into East Java’s mountain villages where Indonesian is an alien tongue; so he learnt Javanese to communicate beyond smiles and handshakes. Fortunately he has the necessary language learning gifts - and writing skills.
Graeme’s accounts started appearing in the Rough Guides travel series published by Penguin and pitched to the adventurous at a level above student backpackers. The Renault has long gone but his four-wheel drive has clocked 900,000 kilometers exploring what he calls “the real Java.”
“I didn’t just find marvellous beaches, wonderful scenery and a wealth of historical and cultural sites, I also learned about the warmth and friendship of Indonesians,” he said. “I started to realize what an exciting place this is.
“I don’t know anywhere else in the world – and I’ve travelled a lot – where people respond so well to your good intentions. Indonesians are a lot friendlier than your average Australian.”
Now Graeme want to share his discoveries with other foreigners. He’s quit teaching and set up a Sydney-based company to promote heritage tours of East Java.
Although Authentic Java Tours is pitched towards Australians it takes visitors from anywhere, with the Dutch being particularly keen to see their former colony.
These are not trips for bogans trying to sober up after a week in Kuta, but travellers with a genuine interest in the world west of Gilimanuk; most are middle-aged to elderly, are international travellers alert for rip-offs yet hungry for fresh experiences.
It’s a market little understood by government tourist bureaux, which still believe Westerners are happiest in five star pools with swim-up bars.
His other clients are local expats who “work here but don’t live here.” That includes diplomats. He’s even encountered some planning to spend their holidays visiting Cambodia’s ancient Angkor Wat before getting to know Borobudur and East Java’s fabled Majapahit Kingdom, for the province bristles with temple sites dating back centuries.
Visitors who book get sent fact sheets outlining the differences they’re likely to encounter. Even then some find it hard to believe that CNN is not available in remote area hotels. Then there are the deeply embedded myths that make some nervous.
“The view is that Java is unsafe, poor and chaotic,” he said. “Few seem to know much about Indonesia and how things have changed.
“Although the company is based in Sydney with a branch in Surabaya we employ local providers and ensure we’re contributing to the community. We don’t use retailers or middle men, and we don’t pay commissions. I insist they have travel insurance.
“We put together tours to suit interests. For example we take people beyond the temple sites to see cottage industries that still thrive in the villages, often using techniques that are centuries old.
“The tourists that we cater for prefer to see batik, jewellery or bronzeware being made and to deal directly with the craftsperson rather than buy in a shop. Others are interested in social development projects. They want to get up close and personal.”
His particular beef is with robotic tour guides who memorize facts and figures, then deliver these without sense or feeling, never building a relationship with the folk who are paying for the experience.
Costs vary according to time taken and distance travelled, but an example indicates prices. A three-day tour of Madura for a couple in a hire car with Graeme as guide and staying in hotels will cost a total of around Rp 5 million (US$ 420).
There’s no significant competition, though a cigarette company in Surabaya puts on free heritage bus tours around the city. Graeme does a walking tour that includes sites important to Indonesia’s recent history.
That includes the Internatio building occupied by the British in late October 1945. In the street outside Brigadier Aubertin Mallaby was shot and killed, the incident which triggered the Battle of Surabaya.
For those interested in culture and religion, and prepared to don a headscarf there’s the Kampong Arab specializing in perfumes, clothing and Middle Eastern foods. This leads to the 15th century Sunan Ampel Mosque alongside the cemetery holding the graves of Walisongo Sunan (one of the nine mystics who introduced Islam to Java) and his followers.
This is a sacred place that attracts tens of thousands daily – though few outsiders. (When this non-Muslim foreign writer visited there was no hostility, only friendliness.)
“We try to make the individual tours right for the client,” said Graeme. “We check everything – including toilets to ensure they flush. I don’t want anyone to ever say: ‘This is not what I expected’.”
Banking on tourism
For decades historians and travel promoters have pleaded with governments for Surabaya’s rich past to be preserved. At last that’s starting to happen, though the lead is often taken by corporations.
The key area is around the Jembatan Merah (Red Bridge), once the central business district. Just behind the Internatio building is the De Javasche Bank (above), built by the colonialists in 1829 and enlarged 80 years later.
The bank was nationalised in 1951. For many years the place was left unoccupied, its thick-walled vaults flooded. However Bank Indonesia has recently renovated the building and opened it to the public.
The main banking chamber with its splendid stained-glass roof light is now used for art shows, concerts and exhibitions.
Tour guide Angkita Kirana (Kiki) (left) said there was strong interest in the building from overseas visitors, though less by locals.
“Europeans love the architecture, the history and the stories of the bank,” she said. “I’m continuing to research its past and trying to discover whether it’s true that there was a robbery to finance the Revolution.
“If correct it must have been clever because the systems in place to protect the money were extremely strong.
“The interest in heritage has come about since Tri Rismaharini became mayor of Surabaya and started promoting tourism. Opposite the bank is the old prison – and that’s also set to be renovated as a tourist destination. ”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 6 July 2014)