Many goats, few cats, ample fish
The Indonesian government’s Ten New Balis program aims to beckon investors to create fresh tourist lures. One obvious candidate is an islet off East Java’s north coast. But transition won’t be easy.
Gili Ketapang ticks most boxes as a desirable destination: It’s less than an hour from a major port so day trips are easy. Although ferries are grossly overcrowded the passage is usually calm and busy with traffic.
The timid will discover an outlet for their limited adventuresome spirits while those keen on culture, history and ecology will find puzzles to stimulate the mind. But how to promote all without spoiling?
“This is our development dilemma,” said village head Suparyono, 49, (right) the senior government official on the 68 hectare island eight kilometers from Probolinggo.
“We definitely want more tourists to help our economy and tell the world about ourselves. But we don’t want visitors to start buying land for their businesses or damage our traditions.”
Whether disembarking at the public jetty or beaching a charter boat on the sandy western tip of the tear-shaped isle the newcomer is met with a welcome and a warning.
The prohibition could have included bans on littering – which is a serious concern – but highlights instructions on how women should dress, particularly while snorkelling. Unsurprisingly Bali’s bikinis are taboo; so is even modest beachwear.
While men can make a splash in shorts women struggle to keep covered as tugging waves threaten to reveal a sliver of skin. However there are few chances of locals suffering a moral upset because visitors, mainly from social clubs, hang around the beach where they camp and frolic among themselves.
Unchaperoned outsiders wandering the kampong concerns Suparyono. “Some locals want to pinch guests’ skin, particularly if it’s white, because it’s so unusual” he said. “They also stare a lot and ask for cigarettes as they assume everyone smokes.
“We need to provide tour guides who can explain the cultural differences. We don’t want outside agents doing this. Our religious leaders are not ready yet to understand tourism. But people are friendly and this is a safe place.”
(In the interests of factual reporting your correspondent found much curiosity and only benign harassment.)
The islanders may be sedate but the elements are less easily controlled. With only two metres between high tide and the peak a tsunami could sweep all away.
“Impossible,” said Suparyono. “We’d be shielded by Madura.” The bigger island is 60 kilometers north and tethered at its west end to Java by the Suramadu Bridge; Madura is more than 6,000 times larger than the islet and its population 375 times greater.
It would be a brave soul who confessed to following a faith other than Islam on Gili Ketapang. The majority are Madurese and speak a different language.
Few locals over 30 seem to understand the national tongue; those who do were schooled on the mainland or married into the community from elsewhere. The effect makes visitors feel they should have brought passports and phrase books.
Suparyono taught elementary school before taking his present job and is proud that most people want to remain.
“There are 9,671 residents and only six have gone overseas (as maids or laborers),” he said with bureaucratic precision, presumably up-to-speed on overnight births or deaths. “Unlike Madura our population is growing. (Half the seven million ethnic Madurese live away from their homeland.)
“There’s plenty of fish because we are conservationists. We don’t use cantrang (trawl nets banned by Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti but this year unbanned by President Joko Widodo) because we want to sustain stocks.
“Anyone who isn’t lazy can get work on the boats (there are around 800) or processing the fish. What we don’t eat we sell in Probolinggo.” The kids look fit and there are many oldies, suggesting a piscine diet helps folk thrive.
Some families have clearly done well judging by their modern homes. Seen from the sea the terracotta roofs and whitewashed walls give a Mediterranean feel. However authorities are behind on planning; grand mansions front old shacks and narrow tracks of crushed coral.
Houseprouds’ kitchen devices don’t get overused as power is rationed. Suparyono said new diesel generators will be relocated away from the school where the rhythmic bang-bang disrupts classes.
The island is dry so water is pumped from Java through an undersea pipe. Yards have rain tanks and there are a few wells. Some have become mystical – see breakout.
In Gili Ketapang everyday is car-free – the ferries are too small to carry large goods; an armada of motorbikes has made it across the straits, though more for status as they are poorly suited to squishy sand and tyre-ripping coral.
Only the toughest trees survive the goats which probably outnumber humans. Some have adapted to gnawing cardboard and tissues but so far haven’t evolved into plastic digesters – which is a pity as there’s little shortage.
Around half the women wear bright headscarves but not the all-covering jilbab found on the mainland. Sarongs are unisex fashion. Babies are made up like dolls.
Another aspect of local lifestyle is practical. Properties are fenced – not because of theft (there are no police on the island) but to repel the voracious nannies and billies patrolling the perimeters like an occupying army, ever alert to a breach of security.
There’s no formal tourist accommodation on Gili Ketapang so visitors need to make prior arrangements with householders. Otherwise there are beds aplenty in Probolinggo’s hotels and guest houses mainly catering for trekkers heading to Mount Bromo.
Semeru, Java’s highest (3,676 meters) mountain, features in pre-Islam cosmology as a transplant from India where it was called Mahameru.
Geologically it’s a perpetual puffer with 55 major eruptions in the past two centuries. In local mythology Gili Ketapang used to be part of Java but was blasted away during some massive explosion of Semeru long ago.
The hard science is less romantic: Basically the island is a coral reef and barren sandspit in a shallow sea.
A more recent oral history has Shaykh Maulana Ibrahim, one of the 14th century Walisongo (nine saints) who brought Islam to Java, visiting from Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan). Along with spreading the word he also cleansed a cave occupied by hundreds of felines.
Goa Kuching (cat cave) is now a quaint shrine with some old wells cut into the coral and donation boxes prominent. The slightly deaf custodian Mang, 87, (right) shouts a lot which might be why only one shy black cat was spotted near the building which is also used as a snooze spot for pilgrims.
For those with faith and an empty bottle Mang will go down into the hole and bring back some blessed water.
It’s said that on certain auspicious nights much caterwauling can be heard which should make Gili Ketapang an ideal location for a spooky sinetron (soap opera).
The story seems more fable than fact: Even if the cats were crying the calls to prayer and the pounding power plant would smother any pussy pleading for release.
First published in The Jakarta post 7 June 2017