SUNUP IN SAWOJAJAR
Expat blogs praise the joys of living in Bali. A low-cost paradise, they say. Sundowners with fellow retirees while a maid (‘a real treasure’) prepares dinner and ‘our’ gardener trims the lawn. Good time to bitch about deemed interest rates on pensions. Below the green paddy, the cheerful reapers.
This is Indonesia. So is East Java, though unalike Bali on every measure. A peek next door.
All our street’s a stage
And all the men and women in it mainly hawkers.
They have their exits and their entrances
And all in their allotted time must play the scene.
The late Kiwi ethnomusicologist Jack Body used the dawn chorus of Java’s towns to compose strange soundscapes of vendors’ horns and hails, jingles and drums.
The welder bangs a spanner on an acetylene cylinder in his pedicab. The vegie seller sings out sayur. A rhythmic rap on hollow wood announces the bakso (meatball soup) cook.
He’ll boil a breakfast broth on his kaki Lima (five foot) pushcart while the neighbours in pyjamas collect to chat. Semi-feral cats gather and yowl in season.
The language is Javanese, an ancient hierarchical tongue where a wrong word can cause offence. Fortunately we’re egalitarian so all use the common version Ngoko.
The parade is thinning. The jamu lady vanished last year. She carried a basket of bottles on her head, stirring a herbal mix on the spot to fix most moans - menstrual cramps, a sore back, inflamed throat.
Now the shops sell sealed packs of traditional medicines. Stock up - no waiting for the pedestrian pharmacy’s cure-alls.
Though nothing for hangovers, an unknown condition in this dry community; we were pushed into prohibition a decade ago by Muslim enforcers demanding all adhere to their interpretations of piety.
These include setting the time. Alarm clocks are unnecessary. The 4.15 wakey-wakey comes with azan, the taped call to prayer through loud screechers.
Not all are as considerate as our local Al Ma’shum mosque which has dialled down the volume; others claim the shriller the din the holier the message. The blessings of uproar aren’t exclusive to Islam; Christians can be equally raucous in the eastern islands where they control the knobs.
Sawojajar is a suburb of Malang, eight degrees under the Equator. It’s a hilltown 444 metres above and 90 kilometres south of the provincial capital Surabaya, the Republic’s second biggest city and a major port.
Malang is a start point for the mainly European tourists heading to Mount Bromo, the spectacular volcano nearby. It’s named after Brahma, the Hindu creator god who once ruled all but now treads lightly on this land where 90 per cent are Muslims.
On its slopes live maybe 100,000 Tenggerese, remnants of the Majapahit Kingdom which ruled before the arrival of Islam in the 15th century.
Either that or a volcanic explosion or maybe both forced the royals and their followers to flee east to Bali, which may be why the island remains largely Hindu. Away from Bromo there’s a few scattered settlements.
In the hills behind our suburb is a modern Hindu temple and school, well hidden. It was trashed last century, then rebuilt.
Our street has 70 semi-detached cottages. When built 30 years ago all were single storey. Now second floors are common as prosperity rises; there’s only space to grow up and we’re doing the same.
No building permits required. What’s the load-bearing capacity of this crossbeam? Mmmm – looks OK. Whaddya reckon?
This is dicey and DIYCE (DIY + Civil Engineering ex Google) while hoping the wire-and-nails bamboo scaffolds hold. Health and safety laws - insurance? Sorry, not with you.
The workers were recruited through mulut ke mulut (word of mouth). Facebook is fast though less efficient. The rate is 100,000 rupiah ($11) a day per tradie plus coffee and cakes for smoko.
The guys start a bit before 8 and knock off around 3.30, six days a week. They’re jacks of all trades and licensed in none. They’ve mastered everything from plumbing to power on the job. On Fridays one takes a long break to pray. The others slumber.
I’m a bule – meaning Caucasian. Or londo, long nose. It’s assumed I’m from the Netherlands or the US. Few guess Australia, which is probably just as well.
This year the ABC’s extraordinary Australia Talks poll of 54,000 found 80 per cent ‘expressed distrust’ of Indonesia. Although no such survey here I imagine a similar result.
Our national reputation has been corroded by spying on a past president, a proposed embassy move to Jerusalem and securing East Timor after the 1999 referendum. That last action is defensible.
In local tabloid tales of fantasy and fear, Australians are coarse kafir (unbelievers) planning to splinter the Republic and plunder its riches.
Yet personal discrimination is rare. Neither government policies nor crass Okker behaviour in Kuta bars have been smeared on this head-down foreigner. So far no fist-shakes, only handshakes.
The only non-Indonesian within coo-ee is a Dutch businesswoman married to a local and with three wee boys.
Next August there’ll be a Big Bash. The 17th marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of modern Indonesia in 1945 with the proclamation of independence by Soekarno.
The Dutch ignored him and then jailed him as they set out to recover their lost colony. A four year guerrilla war took the lives of at least 100,000 before the Hollanders quit.
Australians were not passive onlookers as we are now with West Papua killings. The Jakarta Embassy says it plans to re-publish in English and Indonesian an old government-commissioned photo-filled book Australia and Indonesia’s Struggle for Independence.
Commented Ambassador Gary Quinlan: ‘Today’s generations, certainly in Australia, don’t know how important Australia’s energetic support for Indonesian independence was. We lobbied for Indonesia in the newly-created UN Security Council and were chosen by Indonesia as its representative in the UN discussions which led to independence.’
Opposite my mother-in-law’s house is the city’s Heroes’ Cemetery with hundreds of graves of those who died fighting on their own soil to create their own country. Most cities have similar fields of remembrance.
National pride in evicting the powerful Europeans after three centuries of occupation, dread of disunity and maintaining religion are the bedrocks of Indonesian culture and the bricks of identity. The most contested is religion. Officially the nation is secular. Unofficially it’s Sunni Islam.
Shia Islam, practised in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan is banned in Indonesia and its supporters persecuted.
Citizens must follow an approved faith which is stamped on ID cards - Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist or Confucian.
Australians would protest such gross invasions of privacy; Indonesians accept it as right and proper. However not all are committed. Society is split between the largely rural Abangan – who tend to blend traditional beliefs with Islam - and the more orthodox Santri who are more likely to be city dwellers and better educated.
Atheism is not allowed. Kebatinan, the original faith of Java has the official status of a folk tradition though still practised by millions, usually quietly. We know – we’ve witnessed under full moons in the ruins of once glorious temples built when Europe languished in the Dark Ages.
Al Ma’shum’s kyai looks like a cartoon preacher with white beard and matching robes; he’s a friendly fellow, waving to this lapsed Presbyterian on his dawn strolls. The parishioners nod as they head home to change from whitewear into work gear.
The women in mukenah (prayer shawls) sit apart lest their shapes and scents distract. Indonesia is not a Gulf State, but women are still in the rear – in this case literally – and presumably immune from lustful dreams about slim-hip lads in the front rows.
Separate are the misanthropes of the Saudi-funded Al Ashr pesantren (Islamic boarding house), just 300 metres and several centuries behind; young male ascetics chant inside high walls daubed with Arabic slogans. They’re good at glaring.
Seeing the satpam (security) knocking off triggers a reminder: Today it’s our turn on the refreshment roster and to pay 25,000 rupiah ($3) towards his monthly service.
He’s a bluff guy employed to frighten scavengers who upend bins seeking plastic bottles and aluminium cans, and put up red-and-white bunting on national days. Like the US, every house has a flagpole. He’s usually dozing or watching TV sport.
Like most men he’s soccer-mad, though Indonesian teams are spectacular losers. Football is big business, wildly popular and more wildly corrupt. The Archipelago has skilled players, lousy coaches and primitive facilities. Expect some changes now it will host the U-20 World Cup in 2021.
By 6.30 the babes are being nursed by plump carers while Dads and Mums head to work. The littlies kick balls around the commuters’ motorbikes. Whining kids with satchels and shining morning faces creep like snails unwillingly to school.
The stroke victims catch the sun in wheelchairs. All five are late middle-age. Once were smokers. Their wives look exhausted.
On this street stage there’s child care, aged care and everything between, blending, organic. The bitumen is a sports ground, a market, a community hall, a thoroughfare. Come weddings, wakes or circumcisions the road is closed and a tent raised. All attend, if only for the feed.
A quarter of Australians are reported to be lonely. Again no similar studies in Indonesia (mental health is not a front-page issue here) but chances are that there’d be only a few suffering solitude.
No need to open a smartphone app to know what the neighbours are doing and saying. Just open the gate.
The women run an arisan, a monthly get-together and microfinance business. Subs are pooled and distributed, and visits to the sick or bereaved are organised.
Indonesians engage easily in conversations with strangers. The steps into familiarity start with asking where you’re going and rapidly lead to questions about the family’s origins, age, the number of children and religion.
In the west we’d open with a weather comment and maybe venture into mention of work. Fertility and faith are off limits till much later but in Indonesia they’re the ice breakers.
Every year we elect a Rukun Tetangga, a neighbourhood leader. This is now a voluntary position and powerless as the formal local government bureaucracy has moved in, but the RT is still handy for whinges about things like potholes and telcos’ broken wires.
Rukun means harmony.
The Great Australian Fear of millions of Asians happily quitting their ghettos and pouring into the empty land below does not apply to Javanese, even though their island is already overpacked. Rindu Kampung Halaman is the common phrase for feeling homesick. The Javanese are not like the Chinese and Indians who move overseas, settle and adapt.
This is neither Struggle Street nor a Hollywood neighbourhood comedy. An old crank opposite gets shitty because my pigeons poo on his washing. Street parking causes friction. The avenue of mango trees lures scrumpers.
Yet rage is rare. When living is close, rukun must rule; keeping the peace is a task for all. That’s Java style.
First published in Pearls and Irritations, 29 November 2019. See: