BTW: Rot in Appletown
Batu is the small East Java hilltown famous for fruit, flowers and naughty weekends. It’s about 20 kilometers outside the city of Malang,
Half way up Mount Welirang it’s a place where parents and teenagers might for once agree on the correct descriptor: Cool.
We hadn’t been to Batu for a while. Expectations were 840 meters high; even if we caught a chill we’d be warmed with a boot full of cheap apples. No longer.
The local variety is called Manalagi [want more], and allegedly developed from the Rome Beauty introduced by the Dutch. There are more than 7,000 varieties in the world and the colonialists picked this one? They should offer compensation.
Harder than hockey balls these small apples are a dentist’s delight. The only redeeming feature is Manalagi’s long shelf life, so the best chance of ensuring freshness is to pick your own.
Once it was easy to chat to a farmer, potter round his plantation with a basket and share a few laughs. No longer. A cartel now controls visits at Rp 20,000 a head.
This is little more than a US dollar, though likely to be way below once you digest this column – but still a bite out of the wallet if the car doubles as the extended family’s bus.
Smart marketing – but it’s given a sour taste to the once casual experience of townies meeting toilers, and turned the smallholders into the sort of hucksters that have corrupted Kuta.
Batu also had a reputation for weekend getaways when the gracious hotels tended to be occupied by refined couples. On weekdays these cultured folk might be enjoying a respectable family life on the plains below, though with different partners.
There’s an old English joke about such places – the receptionist announces a call in the dining room for ‘Mr Smith’ and is besieged by all the guests.
Maybe this market is growing – certainly there’s a rush to build as many rooms as possible in the limited spaces.
Our day trip was strictly pleasures of the palate. With the political killjoys focussing on booze instead of poverty alleviation, fewer grog outlets and higher prices, cider-making now seemed a pressing need before a law bans home brewing.
Foolish idea. Nowhere could we negotiate below the Rp 20,000 a kilo tag all traders had connived to uphold. This was even for fruit that might have been fresh when I was a whining school-boy with satchel and shining morning face, as my literary hero once remarked.
Only back in Malang and in the supermarkets could we buy cheaper imported fruit that was sweet to eat, softer to touch and as unblemished as the salesgirls at the make-up counter.
But at least we got to enjoy the summits and cascading greenery while sitting in a café run by relaxed owners, topping up our lungs with fresh mountain air.
Wrong again. The restaurants are franchises staffed by bored teens. Batu is not Sumatra or even Riau so the local government hasn’t passed laws prohibiting open fires on windless days. Or maybe it has and they’re treated with the same contempt motorists give to traffic rules.
This segues to the road between Malang and Batu. Once a winding lane with a few motorbikes and fewer cars, it now carries a thousand times the traffic. And it’s still a winding lane.
If British poet Robert Bridges’ famous line is true – and that ‘verily by beauty it is that we come at wisdom’, then the opposite must hold.
Batu’s theme parks play more to Western than Asian images; then there’s the inevitable municipal monstrosities.
The town’s core has been uglified with the addition of giant cartoon characters that originated in the design studios of Disney, not the rich heritage of Java. Of course there’s a concrete Big Apple, which is appropriate given the armor-plated nature of the original.
Batu means ‘stone’ or ‘rock’. I don’t deny the town’s right to grow or its citizens to exploit its many attractions; nothing stays quaint forever. But with a little foresight and a touch of imaginative planning Batu could have blossomed and charmed as before. Unfortunately it has become a hard place.
First published in The Jakarta Post 15 November 2015