Pagowan looks like a nice place to raise the kids.
On the eastern flank of smoking Semeru, at 3,676 meters Indonesia’s highest volcano, the village soils are so rich signs should alert visitors against standing stationary lest they take root and sprout leaves.
Instead notices tell people not to dump trash. Such prohibitions can be found elsewhere in East Java, usually presiding over garbage-filled gullies. However in Pagowan the warnings work for the landscape has yet to be plastic-wrapped.
The lushness, density of palms and paddy, air so clean it should be exported, winding roads reasonably maintained, quaint bridges and spacious well-spaced houses make Pagowan look like an Indonesian version of rural England. Or New England. There’s just one thing missing – jobs.
“There are no factories here,” said Salim Gombloh, 38. “Apart from shops, government offices and a few hotels in Lumajang [the nearest city of around 130,000 souls] the work is farming and laboring.
“If you don’t want to sweat in the fields all day or hang around with an ojek [motorcycle taxi] you have to look elsewhere. For me that meant the Middle East where I was employed as a driver.”
Agus Nadir, Salim’s younger brother by eight years, also quit the village. He headed first to Malang [East Java], then Bali working for tour and travel companies. Inevitably he encountered foreigners; by observing their curious ways he soon discovered why they’d come to Indonesia, their likes and dislikes, anxieties and expectations.
On the top of his list for pickiness are the Russians. “I had one group that spent the whole day complaining because their driver arrived one minute late,” he said.
“Indians always look for problems – but that’s OK because it means we learn how to cope with all the possibilities.
“Europeans are fussy about time keeping. People from Sweden and Norway know what they want. I’ve found Australians the best. They’re friendly, don’t discriminate and seem to like our more relaxed lifestyle.
“Above all most visitors want good service and value for money.”
All this has been an education Agus has put to good use with Salim. The siblings have turned entrepreneurs, boosting the economy of their birthplace without building smokestacks or digging mines.
When Salim returned from overseas he knew he’d have to invest carefully. Otherwise he’d run out of cash and be forced to pick coconuts, hew timber or grow the pisang agung [giant bananas] that thrive in the area to support his young family.
Salim had long been an adventure sportsman, particularly keen on Motocross, aka MX. This is the British-originated cross-country motorcycle racing, now an international sport with MX 77 a famous event.
Like his brother he knew backpackers were also keen on outdoor activities. Fine, but apart from pastoral charm Pagowan had little else. Except Kali Asem.
Although labelled ‘an intermittent stream’ by geographers, on the mountain lowlands it’s a well-trained river running year round, fed from Semeru’s regular rains and emptying into the Indian Ocean. The name translates as ‘sour river’ – and maybe it is when the volcano spews sulphuric acid but now it provides the fresh water needed for the rice.
The brothers had some money – but only half the Rp 30 million [USS 2,250] needed to purchase a five person raft. So they deflated rafting and turned to tubing.
After picking up 50 old bus and truck tyres and a compressor they got their mates to add rubber seats. Then they knocked up a base camp out of bamboo, bought helmets and life jackets – and trained local staff.
Ngibar 77 from nginyut bareng [drifting together] with the two digits as a sop to Salim’s MX obsession, opened for business early this year. It now employs up to 30 villagers in a variety of jobs.
“It would have cost us ten times more if we tried to create this in Jakarta,” said Agus. “Apart from the banners we’ve done most of the work ourselves.”
How about the neighbors? Having rupiah flow into Pagowan seems a noble notion, but progress has an undertow: Strangers sticking camera lenses into folk’s faces, churning up the tracks with their four-wheel drive Menteng monsters, discomforting the comfortable.
“Fortunately there have been no problems,” said Agus. “The village heads support us. It’s easier because we were born here. It might have been different if an outsider had tried to start a business.”
So far all their clients have been Indonesians paying Rp 55,000 [US4.20] per person for a couple of hours on the river. The price includes being picked up seven kilometers downstream and trucked back to base, use of the gear and snacks.
“I’ve seen adventure tourism in Bali and know how this appeals to young people,” said Agus. “The problem is getting overseas visitors to find us; this is off the regular tourist route that only features Mount Bromo and Yogyakarta.”
It takes about two hours by bus to reach Lumajang from Probolinggo, the northern coast city used by many as the starting point to reach Bromo.
The southern approach road between Malang and Jember is a scenic switchback as it climbs to 700 meters at Picket Nol, overlooking a Martian rubblescape of giant boulders flipped down the hillside like marbles during Semeru’s 1967 eruption.
There are other regional attractions close to Pagowan including the Mandara Giri Hindu temple in the adjacent village of Senduro, but again the visitors are local. During two days in the area J Plus only saw Indonesian tourists.
The crew working for Ngibar 77 can handle little more than the gender-neutral kampong cry of ‘Allo Mister’. This is no great problem as the compensation for minimal English is an abundance of helpfulness, though fussy foreigners used to Balinese language skills may find this worrying.
“This is something we have to improve,” said the enthusiastic Agus keen to cover all bases.
Another factor is insurance – a yawn for Indonesians but an issue for litigious travellers from afar. Ngibar 77 employs one guide for every two tubers – or one for one if the client is a child. The river runs fast; there are boulders aplenty to churn white water and tip a tube. However Kali Asem seldom tops two meters and the riverbanks are not distant.
“We’re hoping to get insurance through the local tourist department and some financial support – but that hasn’t happened yet,” said Agus. “Maybe later this year.”
Salim’s wife Tutik Hariyanti, 37, and other women prepare snacks and drinks for the tubers and guard their vehicles parked in a private yard.
In a good month a guide can earn around Rp 3 million [US$ 230] which is far above the gleanings of farm laborers; but the work is seasonal, depending on school vacations and other holidays to push people onto the roads in search of something new.
“We ask our clients for feedback and spend time evaluating our performance,” said Salim. “The problem with success is that others try and copy. We now have another village that’s just started tubing so we have to keep improving.”
(All pix by Erlinawati Graham)
(First published in The Jakarta Post 23 June 2015)