Making it in Madura
The Madurese are famously holy. The roads on their small island off the north coast of East Java are notoriously holey. Neither fact should be a reason to avoid a visit. Duncan Graham reports:
When the grand Suramadu bridge crossing the Straits of Madura opened in 2009, politicians queued up to predict the start of a boom for the 160-kilometer long island which till then had been best known for exporting its inhabitants.
Less than four million survive on Madura, the majority around the capital Sumenep in the east – a pleasant, slow city of wide streets, closed shops and little traffic, dominated by a sulfur-colored mosque.
However more than ten million Madurese live elsewhere in Indonesia, driven from their ancestral homes by poverty and a lack of fertile land.
With the men chasing rupiah across the archipelago, the necessary manual labor has become women’s breakback, as Duriah, 30, rationalized while pulling weeds: “If I don’t work, where will I get money?” She farmed alone, no companions to chat and break the monotony.
The 5.4 kilometer cable-stayed bridge, the longest in the Republic, is symmetrical and spectacular. The Rp 4.5 trillion [US$ 445 million at the time] price tag was justified by reasoning that industry in Surabaya was running out of space so manufacturers would relocate if access wasn’t hampered by a cumbersome ferry.
Some over-the-top commentators forecast Madura could be the next Bali. Maybe for the pious abstainers, but for those whose idea of a holiday is doing things in Kuta you wouldn’t do at home, then strike Madura off your bucket list right now.
Madura is for the hardy and adventurous happy with Indonesian food and facilities, inquisitive about its culture, wondering over its convoluted history.
The Madurese are supposedly forever ready to unsheaf a kris in a quarrel – but most want to pull out a camera. Foreign visitors are so rare even shop staff seek selfies of a white-skinned customer. If stares disturb deflect with information about yourself. There’s no hostility, just curiosity as to why anyone would come when so many want to go.
It’s not just the terrain that’s dry; if there are restaurants selling alcohol they keep a subterranean profile. Bathing in the many delightful beaches wearing anything less than a shapeless full body covering is not recommended – unless you are a man.
The island has knock-out potential, particularly in craft. The batik home industries using natural dyes offer luscious designs of such originality and color that you want to buy them all because they surpass anything from the factories in Surabaya.
Finding the right handicrafts can also be rewarding, though there are limited attempts at quality control. The plumage theme common on old carvings has been replicated on children’s trams that wander slowly around Sumenep’s central town square, but await an entrepreneur to make this a notable symbol.
The local government has some funny ideas about promoting tourism; its two poorly-stocked shops won’t sell some artefacts because they’re ‘to display, not for you to buy’. So where can we purchase? ‘Don’t know.’
[The answer is the village of Karduluk, about 40 minutes drive south of Sumenep on the road back to Suramadu; don’t blink or you’ll miss it.]
The standout contrast is the Sumenep museum and kraton where the guides are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and funny. Here’s one of their tales:
The concubines’ bathing pool was painted yellow till past president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited. Officials feared he’d be annoyed by the color of his rival Golkar party, so added blue to represent his Democratic Party.
Madu means ‘honey’ and some etymologists reason this relates to the island’s famous jamu, herbal mixtures to ward off ills. Yet hives are rare.
If the factories, container terminals and other mega-businesses have moved across the shallow brown sea, their presence is well hidden. As a Ministry of Public Works report trying to explain a lack of progress noted, the Madurese are ‘very sensitive people and may not be very tolerant in [sic] anything.
‘The Madurese have their own culture that is strongly rooted in Islamic values with three pillars of leadership: Bapa and Ebuh [father and mother], kyai [religious teacher], and rato [government].
‘The Madurese demand that the decision making in the development process should involve
these three pillars. On the other hand, Eastern Java is inhabited by Javanese which is [sic] industrialized and modernized.’
The cliché ‘off the beaten track’ does not apply, because some sections of the north-west coast road have yet to be beaten, let alone surfaced. Madurese artisans erect stunning minarets soaring heavenwards, but earthly horizontal construction seems a skill too far. The regular roadblocks of youths jangling tins are not to raise cash for asphalt but to build more mosques.
The route wanders through villages lacking space for morning markets. So vegetable buyers and sellers take over the road, goat traders prosper and visitors go nowhere. The dangers here are not the jagged limestone rubber-rippers but squashing a farmer’s tomatoes under a tire, or her outstretched foot.
If your travel arrangements include packing impatience and keeping to a schedule, go elsewhere. However if you share the 19th century Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson’s belief that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive, then Madura is marvellous.
The pleasures come in places like Makam Agung, a pre-Islamic cemetery with royal family graves dating back to 1413. Here rests Pragalbo [died 1531], the king who apparently converted to Islam on his deathbed so his subjects discarded Hindu-Buddhism.
Unlike cultural sites in East Java where authorities have ‘beautified’ the location with trim hedges, straight paths and barbed wire fences, Makam Agung’s splendid decay, its rotting and rusting signs, are so genuine the sacredness is tangible.
In the distance the gleaming white and blue dome of the mosque at Arosbaya shimmers in the heat. Here passing motorbikes don’t rattle – they purr, the sound soaked up by the humidity. Mongooses dart across clearings. Swallows sweep the shadows where insects seek safety.
Doves coo in the centuries old banyan trees leaning together for support like a couple in their dotage. The eight-point sun symbol of the Majapahit Empire is here, along with Arabic calligraphy. The mossy walls are crumbling, the gravestones sinking into the space once filled by the Cakrangingrats regents, their loved ones and descendants.
The headstone shrouds create columns of ghosts. This is how it should be – dust to dust in serenity.
Caretaker and kyai Nari, 70, said villagers fearful of spirits moved away, leaving the graveyard an island in a sea of paddy.
“I have eleven generations of my family buried here,” he said. “There are many stories about this place. Once three men tried to cut down a tree. They went home and suddenly died. Snakes emerge at night, but I’m not afraid.”
Nor should visitors be fearful of the bronze-chested fishermen; if they weren’t hauling nets they’d be in Jakarta advertising cologne on TV, intimidating actors whose only claim to being macho is through splashing water on their designer stubble.
No need to preen in Batumarmar where Real Men prefer to show off their boats, painting swirling multi-colored images on prows and sterns. Yet these are working craft, catching tonnes of tiny fish to be dried on the docks.
Wandering and chatting, discovering places the guide books haven’t found and the government hasn’t touched, learning how different are the lives of the Madurese from other Indonesians and how few know of the world beyond though it’s there on the horizon - these are the visitor’s rewards.
(First published in J-Plus, a supplement of The Jakarta Post, 31 May 2015)