Sunday, 2 April 2017

An Eastern Outpost

Exploring Kupang, capital of East Nusa Tenggara
Originally published in Garuda in-flight magazine
Small fishing boats move slowly towards the horizon.  A soft breeze runs in from the dark hills across the bay, shifting the sagging leaves of the lontar palms, and an itinerant ikat salesman wanders lazily along the street.  A bright sun reigns over everything, lighting the white paintwork of the seafront buildings, and dancing on the surface of the Sawu Sea.  This, it seems, is the perfect tropical backwater, a place where nothing moves very quickly. 
But then, with a thunderous blast of noise and a dash of dazzling color, something roars onto the scene to shatter the illusion – an earthquake?  A meteorite?  No; it’s a bemo, a public minibus.  It screeches to a halt, paintwork gleaming, windows and bodywork covered with decals, multiple aerials lashing, bass-heavy musical accompaniment throbbing from the under-seat speakers.  The fare collector, with an ear-to-ear grin and hair as luridly colored as his vehicle, leans from the door – where do you want to go?
Welcome to Kupang, where the pace is slow and the public transport fast. 
Closer to Darwin in Australia than to Jakarta, the capital of East Nusa Tenggara is one of Indonesia’s most remote cities.  But it’s also a place with a decidedly quirky character and more than a few dashes of startling color.
Kupang is the gateway to a galaxy of small islands where the roads are rough and the traditions are strong, a harbor town from which rusting ferries roll towards lost horizons.   Most visitors arrive with their sights set on wilder landfalls: the pristine dive sites of Alor, the green mountains of Flores, the surging surf of Rote, the ancestral villages of Sumba.  But those who linger in the city before heading offshore will find a place with a distinctly offbeat charm.   So clamber aboard one of those spectacularly decorated bemos, the colored thread that runs through Kupang like the weft of a length of ikat cloth, and check out what the city has to offer.

Long a hub of interisland trade links, Kupang’s 340,000-strong population is a polyglot mix of Timorese, Rotinese, Sabunese and others.  Head for the traditional markets that line the backstreets and you’ll meet people with roots on offshore islands, and find smiles given an extra dash of bright scarlet from betel nut.  Betel, a mild intoxicant chewed with sour catkin and a dab of lime paste, is the lifeblood of Nusa Tenggara.  Grab a bag from one of the roadside stalls if you want to try it yourself, but be warned – you’ll end up with a mouth like a freshly feasted vampire!  You’ll also run into wandering ikat salesmen.  Ikat is the iconic hand-woven cloth of Nusa Tenggara.  Each island has its own unique colors and patterns and motifs, and Kupang’s traders usually have a bundle of fine pieces from around the region draped across their shoulders – just don’t forget to bargain hard!
Kupang is a curious mix of deep tradition and bright modernity.  This is a Christian-majority town where everything shuts on Sunday, where nuns rub shoulders with punk rockers on the streets, and where the rear window of one candy-colored bemo might be decorated with a picture of Jesus, but the next will be adorned with a portrait of Valentino Rossi or Avril Lavigne.
Heart of the town, and throbbing hub of the bemo network, is the seafront at the western end of Jalan Siliwangi.  The water’s edge is studded with palms; there’s a skyline view of Pulau Semau, and local fisherman work right from the shore.        This was the site of the original port of Kupang, where Dutch and Portuguese traders came to buy fragrant sandalwood and sturdy horses from the hills of the hinterland.  It was also the spot where Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame finally stumbled ashore after his epic 7000 kilometer voyage in an open boat.  Bligh was stuck in Kupang for 47 days, but unfortunately for him the Pantai Laut Bar wasn’t open in 1789.  Today it’s one of Kupang’s two prime waterfront watering holes.  With sunset views and ocean breezes it’s a fine place to while away an afternoon, as is its rival at the other end of the seafront, Lavalon Bar, run by colorful fount of tourist information, Edwin Lerrick.
But if exploring is more to your taste than indulgent idleness, take a bemo heading east from the seafront, and perhaps bring some earplugs if the deafening “full music” soundtrack – anything from Kupang’s homegrown brand of country and western to imported gangster rap – isn’t to your taste.  The bemo will take you hurtling along Jalan Garuda.  At night this road fills with flickering gas lamps and mouthwatering aromas as Kupang’s night market, the best place to sample the city’s super-fresh seafood, gets underway.  The catch of the day is on display and the street chefs will cook up your choice while you wait.
But in the meantime rock on along the palm-lined shore to Pantai Lasiana.  Kupang’s best beach is a broad stretch of sand with fine views to the rugged mountains on the far side of the bay.  Outrigger fishing boats are pulled up above the tide-line and the shore is backed by a bank of lontar palms.  Known as “the tree of life” in Nusa Tenggara, the lontar provides fruit, sugar, leaves for weaving, and sweet sap for making tuak, a mildly alcoholic palm wine.  Lasiana locals are adept at shinning up the sheer trunks to harvest the juice, which is sometimes distilled to make a rather more fiery beverage known as sopi.
A little way beyond Lasiana in the village of Oebelo you’ll find another lontar product, and an emblem of Kupang.  Originating on the neighboring island of Rote, the sasandu is a harp made of lontar leaves.  The best are crafted in Oebelo by sprightly septuagenarian, Pak Jermius Pah, who’s also something of a maestro when it comes to playing the instrument.  Pak Jermius has given virtuoso sasandu performances all over Indonesia, and has played for politicians and celebrities, but he still spends his days crafting the instruments from lengths of dried lontar leaf in his humble Kupang workshop. 
The wild world of Nusa Tenggara opens all around Kupang, and a glance at the map here will be enough to tantalize any would-be island-hopper.  But even for those on a flying visit without time to cross the Sabu Sea to Flores, Sumba or Alor there are chances for adventure a short hop from Kupang.
Two hours east from Kupang, into the rolling hills of West Timor, is the sleepy town of Soe.  Here you’ll find cool, misty mornings and a market full of ikat and betel nut, and out amongst the surrounding ridges and rugged river valleys there are traditional villages with thatched, beehive houses where women weave bright cloth on clattering wooden looms.  Out here Christianity blends with ancestor worship, and ikat is part of everyday dress.  The stony landscapes are a world away from the jungles and rice terraces of Bali and Java, and in the dry, scrubby forest here it is easy to remember how close to Australia this part of Indonesia is.
There’s another remote and rugged place a short voyage south of Kupang.  The little island of Rote rides off the western tip of Timor like a ship at anchor, and a daily fast ferry makes the crossing from Kupang’s Bolok harbor to the jetty at Ba’a.  Rote would be a forgotten corner of the archipelago if not for one thing – the waves.  On the southern side of the island’s spine of low hills is Nembrala Beach, a strip of blinding white sand backed by drooping palm trees where the full might of the Southern Ocean unloads in long lines over sharp coral.  Surfers from all over the world flock here in the dry season to ride the waves, while less adventurous visitors make the most of the sheltered waters inside the reef, of the fresh seafood –lobster is a specialty in these parts – and the fiery sunsets. 
But even without straying far from Kupang itself there’s a chance to get back to nature.  When the tropical heat brings a torpor to the town that slows even the bemos, locals head for the hills south of town and cool off in the natural power-shower of Oenesu Waterfall.  Surrounded by dense green forest, dappled sunlight and birdsong, the deep plunge pools are a fine place to wash yourself free of travel grime before returning to Kupang to catch the sunset from the waterfront, gorge on fresh fish in the night market, knock back a glass of sopi at Pantai Laut, or plot an onward voyage into the nether regions of Nusa Tenggara in Lavalon Bar.
Kupang after dark takes on an air of tropical tranquility.  Lontar leaves are silhouetted against the moonlit waters of the bay, the last few ikat salesmen wander sleepily homewards, and everything is still – until, of course, you catch the throb of bass and the screech of tires as a late bemo blazes through the night in a blur of flashing neon…
© Tim Hannigan 2017

Sunday, 20 September 2015

A Journey to Boti

West Timor’s most traditional village community

Originally published in Bali and Beyond Magazine

The sound of the motorbike’s engine faded and I was alone at the end of the rutted red track.  Quiet returned in the form of a gentle tapestry of birdsong and the busy whisper of the river, running through its field of bleached stones.  Green hills rose on all sides.         
I had spent the night in the little upland town of Soe, 110 kilometers east of Kupang, setting out early in the morning in a brightly colored public minibus.  The passengers were old men dressed in sarongs of hand-woven ikat cloth.  As we wound along a tortuous forest road they had asked where I was going.
“Boti,” I told them, and they nodded – ah yes, Boti, of course! – and when a heart-stopping view opened from a high ridge, the man sitting beside me pointed towards a scattering of rooftops on a distant green slope.
“Boti,” he said; “there it is…”
The minibus dropped me at the roadside and a young man on a motorbike took me along a rough track through the trees until we reached the stony riverbed, the point beyond which vehicles could not travel.  I would have to complete the last part of my journey on foot, and as I was heading for a village famous for having guarded its traditions more closely than any other community in West Timor, that seemed like the best way to go.
I shouldered my backpack, picked my way to the edge of the rushing water, then slipped off my shoes and waded to the far shore…
The rugged green uplands of Timor are chock-full with traditional villages, but Boti stands out as something special.  This is a community still ruled over by its own, self-styled king, a place that over the generations kept colonialists and Christian missionaries at bay and that still prefers its own age-old adat customs to the modern Indonesian nation state.
But if that all makes it sound like a daunting place for the would-be traveler, then rest assured that there is one foreign phenomenon that Boti has welcomed, shrewdly, successfully, and entirely on their own terms – tourism.  Well-behaved, culturally respectful visitors, prepared to brave the rough roads to Boti’s ridge-top fastness, will receive a warm welcome.
Across the riverbed the track reappeared, rising into the forest.  Houses with neat gardens and thatched, dome-roofed outbuildings appeared beneath the trees.  Chickens and bristly black pigs wandered ahead of me along the track.  A small boy politely led me to the threshold of what looked like a beautiful half-wild garden – the inner compound of Boti where I was to be the guest of the village’s royal family.
At the end of a stone paved path stood the king’s house, a neat little chalet with a tin roof.  Sitting on the wooden veranda were a gaggle of women in ikat skirts.  They welcomed me as if they had been expecting me, and in a few minutes a glass of sweet tea and a plate of fried bananas had been placed in front of me.  The women, grouped around Mama Tua, the Queen of Boti, talked softly, the beads of their heavy jewelry clicking together as they moved their hands.
Guidebooks make much of the fact that little Indonesian is spoken in Boti.  However, village children now attend government schools, and while most older people know nothing of the national lingua franca, many villagers, including Mama Tua, do speak Indonesian – slowly, carefully and precisely, handling the language like the foreign object that it is.
Around twenty people live in the inner compound of Boti, while another 70 households beyond its wickerwork fence also closely follow the original adat customs of the village.  They are mixed in amongst families who have adopted Indonesian identity and Protestant religion, but according to Mama Tua a total of “315 souls” still follow Boti’s original ancestor-worshipping faith.
After a welcome meal of rice, fresh greens and chickpeas – I was hungry after my uphill walk – I wandered along the muddy yellow track above the village.  Across the green ridges evening was falling, pale cloud clinging to the hillsides like smoke, and as I made my way back to Boti in the dusk a cool rain began to fall.
The village has received a steady trickle of foreign visitors since the previous king, father of the current ruler, cannily decided that welcoming low-key tourism would not only provide cash income; it would also help to preserve the traditions of his little realm.  The guestbook reveals a couple of hundred separate visits in 2009, and in the green forest garden of the royal compound a simple guesthouse – four rooms with wooden beds and ikat blankets – has been built.  For a donation you can stay the night, and that was what I decided to do, falling asleep to a chorus of frog-song and insect noise, far beyond the reach of roads and electricity.
I met the king, who had been absent the previous day, in the coolness of the following morning.  Nama Benu, known as Bapa Tua, only took over the role a few years ago, after the death of his father, but he is keeping Boti’s traditions strong.  With a gentle, handsome face and his long, frizzy hair tied back in a ponytail – Botinese men must wear their hair uncut after marriage – he spoke just enough Indonesian to welcome me to the village, but no more.
Royal audience over, I wandered through the village.  The traditional houses of this part of Timor are roofed with thick thatch, reaching to the ground and pierced by a low doorway.  They are known as ume kbubu, which simply means “round house”, and are usually used as kitchens.  The morning cooking smoke was leaching out through the wet thatch as I walked.
There are other traditional buildings in Boti.  Lopo are cones of thatch raised over stone platforms used as a meeting place and for storage.  The top of the royal lopo in Boti is marked by a carving of three birds.
Pah, one of the young men of the village, told me that the Botinese believe that they are descended from people who came from the nearby Lunu mountain – and also from the birds.  Because of this avian ancestry the hunting of small birds is forbidden in Boti, and the branches are full of song.
“When they are being hunted in other villages the birds fly here to be safe,” Pah said.
Boti is famous for its ikat, the loom-woven cloth iconic of East Nusa Tenggara.  But unlike in other villages where the hard-sell can mar the visits of inquisitive outsiders, the people of Boti handle the business of selling their work perfectly.  When a visitor arrives the community showroom – a traditional thatched building – is simply left standing discreetly open for anyone who wants to buy one of the beautiful pieces at a very reasonable fixed price.
With a couple of small lengths of ikat packed in my own bag it was time for me to make my departure from Boti.  It was such a beautifully, dreamily peaceful place that I was reluctant to return to Indonesia and the modern world.
Pah walked with me to the threshold, pointing out the lower village where many people now follow Christianity.
“But not us,” he said; “we follow only what came from before, what has descended.”  Under the rule of Bapa Tua, and with the benefits of tourism to show the value of traditional culture, it seems likely that the next generation of Botinese will continue to do so.

© Tim Hannigan 2015

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Through the Atlas Mountains

Trekking on the Mgoun Massif in Morocco 

Originally published in Venture Magazine

The path spooled away behind me across stony slopes.  I paused on the sharp elbow of a switchback and leant against my trekking pole, struggling for breath in the thin air.  Looking back the way I had come I could just make out the green levels of the Ait Bougmez Valley between iron-grey ridges, but its wheat fields and orchards seemed impossibly distant now. I was 3000 meters above sea level, inching my way towards the Tizi-n-Tarkeddit Pass, high in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, and every upwards step was taking its toll. 
When eventually I reached the top, a lost world opened ahead.  Across a cold void the huge hulk of the Mgoun Massif rose; beneath it was my destination for the night – the Tessaout Plateau, walled in by sky-scraping ridges.  Thin trickles of smoke rose from rough campsites; great flocks of sheep picked their way across the stony soil, and as I dropped from the pass and ambled towards a likely campsite a little caravan passed me – four thin camels laden with dusty bundles and three men in long brown robes, heading east into the evening.

            The Atlas Mountains form the spine of Morocco, stretching some 500 kilometers across the country, and walling off the Sahara from the fertile Atlantic coast.  These mountains are the heartland of the Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa who have endured the invasions of Romans, Vandals, Arabs and Europeans, and have somehow always come out on top. 
            The Berbers have deep roots in this top corner of Africa. The Romans called them “Maures”; later Arab invaders gave them the derogatory moniker “Berber”, drawing on an older Greek term, “Barbarian”.  But they call themselves the Imazighen, the “Free Men” – and that is what they have always been.  Their own name for the Atlas, meanwhile, is Idraren Draren, “the Mountains of Mountains”. 
            Throughout their long experience of outside incursions, the Berbers have often managed to turn foreign rule deftly on its head.  The greatest of Morocco’s dynasties – the Almoravids and the Almohads – have sprung from the Berber tribes rather than from the immigrant Arab elite, and violent resistance to later French rule saw the colonialists leave the tribes to function under their own customary laws.
            But in the 21st century a new kind of outside influence is threading its way into the mountains, a double-header of tarmac and tourism that may, finally, bring the people of the High Atlas into the fold.

            From the old imperial city of Marrakech I had traveled east to the Ait Bougmez Valley, a locked world, deep in the mountains.  Closer to Marrakech adventure tourism has long form, and snaking lines of trekkers traverse the passes around Jebel Toubkal, Morocco’s highest peak.  But Ait Bougmez, 200 kilometers to the east, lies further from the beaten track.  Until the surfaced road arrived in 2001 the place could be cut off for months by the winter snows.
I found myself a place to stay in the village of Agouti, then set out to explore the patchwork of wheat fields and apple orchards.  Frogs croaked in the irrigation ditches, and a soft breeze ran through the leaves of the poplars. 


            That evening I sat out on the roof terrace, sipping mint tea and chatting to Mustapha Ben Ali, one of the dynasty of experienced trekking guides who owned the guesthouse.  He told me that tourism had increased markedly in Ait Bougmez since the arrival of the surfaced road.  Guidebooks now dub the place “the Happy Valley”, and in the soft summer sunlight it was easy to see why. But the whole place lies 2000 meters above sea level, and in the winter, once the last trekkers have gone, life is still hard.
            “But things are much easier than they used to be,” Mustapha said.
            The Moroccan government has been steadily pushing roads deeper and deeper into the mountains in recent decades, bringing essential services to remote communities, but also finally binding the Berbers into the Moroccan state – and that, some cynics suggest, is the point.  And there is already a tension developing between the road projects and the demands of tourism.  In the Toubkal region some one-time trekking paths have turned into roads, robbing village guesthouses of passing trade in trekkers.
            This is an issue in mountain regions across the world.  Foreign trekkers bring a cash economy to remote communities, while roads bring easy access to markets, schools and hospitals.  The two things are not always compatible.  In Ait Bougmez, however, Mustapha was unconcerned.
            “We can always make a new route if they build a road on an old one,” he said, and poring over the map he helped me to plot one for myself, across the Tizi-n-Tarkeddit to Tessaout, and then east to journey’s end in the village of El Mrabakine.
            On the map El Mrabakine appeared to be many days’ walk from the nearest town.  But Mustapha smiled and shook his head.  “There’s a road now,” he said; “they built it last year…”


            The driving wind seemed to slice through every layer of clothing.  I had camped out amongst the herds on the Tessaout Plateau, then set out at first light for the summit of Jebel Mgoun, the 4068-metre hulk that is the Atlas’ second highest mountain.  It had been a hard slog up a stony cwm, but now the effort all seemed worthwhile.
Far away to the west I could pick out the distant snow peaks of the Toubkal National Park.  To the south the land poured away in a chaos of interlocking ridges towards the last bastion of the mountains, the Jebel Sarhro; beyond that lay the sands of the Sahara.  It was an epic prospect, and though Mgoun does attract a steady trickle of trekkers, today I had it all to myself.
When the cold wind got too much, I headed back down to my campsite with aching limbs.  Along the way I passed the Berber camps that were slotted into every sheltered corner of the plateau.  These temporary dwellings – usually just a stone wall and a roof of branches and tarpaulins – are known as azibs.  Many families from the lower villages still spend the summers in the high pastures with their livestock.  It was these herders who originally broke the trails now traversed by trekkers.


I heard their voices before I saw them – bursts of laughter and foreign accents.  From the plateau I had headed east, crossing the Tizi-n-Agoumar Pass and descending a long valley. I had camped beside a stream, and now, picking my way along a gorge in the heat of the morning, I had run into a large French trekking party, all reflective eyeshades and bare limbs.  They were a very different vision from the camel caravan I had passed three days earlier, but they greeted me cheerily, and their guide – a Berber from Ait Bougmez – told me that they were on a circuit of Mgoun.
This kind of organized, high-spend tourism is a strange presence in these remote mountains, but the Berbers have been guiding wealthy outsiders along their trails for centuries.  Once they were traders and pilgrims; today they come with gortex and guidebooks, but the net result is the same – a flow of cash and opportunity to poor villages.
I walked on.  There were tangles of willows beside the stream, and soon I saw the first buildings – not the bleak azibs of the high pastures these, but more substantial mud-walled dwellings, lived in year-round. 
I was hot and tired by the time I shambled into the village of Tighremt-n-Ait Ahmed, and I was glad when a man in a stripy jalabiya called me into his house for tea.  His name was Omar, and he had a guestroom for passing trekkers.  But I would not be staying the night.  In a mind-bending mix of French, English and Arabic Omar explained that the only bus for the week would be leaving the valley on the new road that night. 
Once I had rested through the heat of the afternoon Omar sent me on my way down the valley to El Mrabakine.  The bus – a spectacularly battered shell on bald tires – left at nightfall.  The drivers were local men who had seen an opportunity when the government bulldozers finally broke the road the previous year.  Now they made the journey a couple of times a week, carrying out produce from the villages and bringing back orders of manufactured goods from the town of El Kelaat Mgouna, south of the mountains.
Tonight I was the only passenger, squeezed in amongst the grain sacks.  The road was a raw scar driven along the line of an old goat trail; tarmac was still several years away, and snow would still block the way in winter.  But the people of this remote valley were now just eight hours from the towns – closer than they had ever been to urban modernity.
We thundered through the night in low gear.  I lolled in and out of sleep until the driver shook me awake with a grin and pointed.  We were at the summit of the Tizi-n-Ait Ahmed Pass and far, far below El Kelaat Mgouna was glittering in a clot of lights…


I am sitting at a little table in a street-side café in the town, waiting for the bus to Marrakech.  A waiter in a shabby black waistcoat has just brought me a croissant and a café-au-lait.  It is warm in the morning sunshine and I can smell fresh bread from the bakery across the way.  To the north, out across the stony foothills, I can pick out a great bank of mountains: the Idraren Draren, the Atlas.  It all looks impossibly distant, though I now know that this wild range is not quite as isolated as it once was…

© Tim Hannigan 2015

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Indonesia, Etc.

Review of Indonesia, Etc. by Elizabeth Pisani

Originally published in the Asian Review of Books, 22/06/14

Indonesia is vast, stretching more than 5,000 kilometers from top to toe and home to almost quarter of a billion people. And yet for much of its recent history it has had an international media profile far smaller than its status as the world’s fourth most populous nation deserves. Newspaper readers in America, Europe, and even much of Asia could be forgiven for thinking that Indonesia is a place where little happens besides the occasional natural disaster. When it comes to English-language books, meanwhile, Indonesia has largely been the preserve of scholars and specialists. The last general travelogue about the country was probably John Keay’s Indonesia: From Sabang to Merauke, and that was nearly two decades ago.
But in the last few years there have been hints of a change. With its burgeoning middle class and impressive growth figures, some commentators have begun proclaiming Indonesia a rising economic superpower, set to take to the podium alongside India and China. If such a rise to prominence really comes to pass it may well prompt a rush of books attempting to explain the place to outsiders, and Elizabeth Pisani and her publishers have got in ahead of the field with Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation.

* * *

At first glance Indonesia, Etc. looks like a book of the familiar sort in which a Western travel writer descends on a far-flung country for a few months to produce a “portrait of the nation” complete with potted history and pithy descriptions of grueling bus rides – and probably a certain amount of oversimplification. But unlike some travel writers of the past Pisani is exquisitely well-qualified for the task in hand.
Her relationship with Indonesia, the country she regards as her “bad boyfriend”, has been a long one. She first lived there as a Reuters journalist under Suharto’s New Order government, and then as an epidemiologist working on HIV for the post-New Order Ministry of Health. These qualifications, and her decision to draw inspiration from the epidemiologist’s principle that “the best way to get a picture of what’s going on in a large population is to draw a sample at random”, have enabled her to produce a formidably insightful and engaging book on Indonesia for a general readership.
Beginning at Sumba in the southeast, Pisani traced a meandering route north through Maluku and Sulawesi, onwards to Sumatra and Kalimantan, before finally descending on Java. She travelled hard and light, and in gloriously informal fashion, often boarding ferries with no particular destination in mind. She was on the road for just over a year, and along the way she took up any number of offers of a place to stay with chance-met strangers.
Pisani’s fluency in Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian national language, gives the encounters with village school teachers, fishermen and minibus drivers a depth that would be missing if they had to pass through the warping prism of English, and they form the foundation of the book. She uses these encounters to explore many facets of modern Indonesia – corruption; environmental issues; separatism; poverty and more – and she is able to bring to such topics the deep knowledge of someone who has worked within Indonesian government and society, but who retains the objective eye of an outsider.
Occasionally the blend of travelogue and critical assessment creates a slight tension: an armchair traveler might feel a little left behind by a lengthy discussion of political patronage, while a reader seeking serious insight might be rather nonplussed when the latter segues into a description of New Year celebrations with backpackers on the Banda islands. But for the most part Pisani’s brisk, journalism-forged prose—and her sense of humor—will carry readers from both sides of the coin happily from island to island. The descriptive passages on markets, landscapes and boat trips are thoroughly convincing, and she captures perfectly the peculiar mix of torment and pleasure that marks a five-day ferry trip through Maluku – with bad karaoke and perfect sunsets.

* * *

Throughout Indonesia, Etc., Pisani adds helpful notes of caution to all the recent talk about the country’s economic ascendency, drawing attention to the new layers of corruption and inefficiency created by devolution of power to the districts, and highlighting the chronic infrastructure problems. She pulls no punches in criticizing Indonesia’s woeful educational deficiencies. This is a country with near-universal literacy—a legacy of the paternalistic New Order regime—and smaller average class sizes than the USA, but which routinely comes close to the bottom in international league tables of numeracy and reading skills.
She also highlights the phenomenon of credit-fuelled gengsi—a concept often translated as “face”, but which Pisani calls “showing off, keeping up with the Joneses”—in which Indonesians of the nascent middle classes lumber themselves with crippling debts to build ostentatious houses and buy the most fashionable motorbikes. It is, Pisani writes, “a habit that most Indonesians say they despise, and many engage in with great enthusiasm”.
A writer with a less intimate knowledge of Indonesia might miss these problems or shy away from addressing them – or alternatively descend to petty sneering. But Pisani deals with them clearly and honestly, without ever being patronizing or condemnatory.
While tempering hyperbolic predictions of economic glory on the one hand, Pisani also skewers prophecies of doom on the other. Indonesia, she convincingly argues, is unlikely to fragment, bound by many threads of collectivism, patronage, and migration.
Perhaps most refreshing of all is how little emphasis the book gives to Islam. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, and some more hysterical foreign commentators have conflated the disparate phenomena of increasing public observance of Islam, the emergence of Islamist parties at the ballot box, and a smattering of suicide bombings against Western targets into a single sinister whole, proclaiming an inexorable slide towards intolerant theocracy. Pisani deftly dismisses all that, arguing, for example, that the PKS, the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera or Prosperous Justice Party, one of the most discussed of the Islamist parties, has been effectively stripped of its ideology by the nature of Indonesian politics:

The Muslim Brotherhood-inspired PKS ... has been thoroughly Indonesianized, its formerly idealist members woven tightly into the country’s deeply transactional political system. Patronage is proving an effective way of taming religious extremism.

Pisani also points out that the FPI, the Front Pembela Islam or Islamic Defenders Front, a sporadically violent rabble of Islamist activists, is really little more than a traditional Indonesian street gang under a Muslim flag of convenience. Islam in this book is for the most part simply a background fact of life—as it is for most Indonesians—rather than a dynamic political force.
Given the fact that Pisani leaves Java—the lodestone of Indonesia, home to its biggest cities and most of its population—to the very end of her journey, the island does become something of a brooding, unseen presence during the course of the book, the place from which all political power and television soap operas emanate. In this there’s a danger of giving credence to the simplistic notion of a “Javanese colonialism” dominating the country, but Pisani is careful to counterbalance this effect once she actually reaches the final landfall.
She also winds up on a note of quiet optimism, amongst the local collectives that have turned Surabaya—Indonesia’s second biggest city—into a remarkably “clean and green” place.

* * *

If Indonesia’s economic advancement does continue, and if the attention it then receives does create a rush of explanatory books about the place, then Pisani’s excellent offering will provide a high benchmark.
On another level, meanwhile, the book also provides a model for “portrait of the nation” travelogues fit for the 21st-century, in which properly qualified authors like Pisani produce not tired misconceptions and glib generalizations, but authentic insight and real understanding.

© Tim Hannigan 2014

Friday, 16 May 2014

Secrets of Southern Sumatra

Exploring the southern regions of Sumatra

Originally published in Bali and Beyond Magazine

The lake stretches before me in a sheet of steely grey water.  Small boats creep across the glassy surface, and skeins of white mist cling to the green ridges that rise on either side.  To the west the smooth cone of Gunung Seminung rises, and olive-grey monkeys shift through the branches of the trees.  I am standing on the shores of Danau Ranau, a large lake locked in the jungle-clad hills of Southern Sumatra.  It is a beautiful, peaceful place, and there is not another traveler in sight.
            Sumatra is a land of superlatives.  A great green oblong, tilting at the Indian Ocean, it is the world’s sixth largest island, a place studded with towering volcanoes and speckled with lakes.  Most travelers stick to the string of fine attractions in striking distance of the heaving northern city of Medan – Lake Toba, Bukit Lawang, and Berastagi – while others head for Padang to trek the nearby mountains or the jungle trails of the offshore Mentawi Islands.  But I am here to explore Sumatra’s forgotten side, the great sweep of the southern provinces, where the tracks remain resolutely unbeaten.
            Danau Ranau, on the borders of Lampung and South Sumatra provinces, is my first stop.  Lack of temples notwithstanding, the setting reminds me of Bali’s Lake Batur – but here, locals tell me, tigers still slip down into the villages from time to time.  Villages built on stilts – an anti-tiger defense – stand amongst the trees, and the potholed roads that loop around the shores are free from traffic. 
            Danau Ranau is cradled in the hills of the Bukit Barisan, a great ridge of mountains that stretches along the entire length of Sumatra, walling off the rugged west coast from the forested flatlands to the east.  After leaving the lake I cut through these hills and head north past stormy beaches to Bengkulu, a sleepy little city with a very strange history.  While most of Indonesia was once a Dutch colony, until 1824 Bengkulu, and the surrounding province which bears its name, was British territory. 
Bengkulu was Southeast Asia’s original hardship posting; it made an unremitting loss for the British government, and many of the men sent to run the place died of fever and alcoholism.  Today it is a sleepy, friendly town, studded with echoes of an earlier age.  I explore the tranquil cemetery where the crooked graves of soldiers and civilians stand amongst the tall grass, and admire the rusting cannons on the ramparts of Fort Marlborough, an imposing hulk of masonry looking out across the red roofs of the old town to the empty sweep of the ocean, and the dark line of the Bukit Barisan.
            The most famous British resident of Bengkulu was Thomas Stamford Raffles, who founded Singapore while serving as governor there.  After taking up the post in 1818, Raffles set out on an expedition into the mountains, discovering the famous Rafflesia, the world’s biggest – and smelliest – flower along the way.  After a few days exploring Bengkulu I set out in his footsteps.
            The great sweep of the Pasemah Highlands lies far beneath me under a blanket of creamy cloud.  A bitter wind is blowing, and the light of a steely dawn is leaching into the South Sumatra skies.  I am approaching the summit of Gunung Dempo, the 3173-metre mountain that looms over these green uplands. 
            After arriving in the cool township of Pagaralam, I have explored waterfalls and villages of carved teakwood, and picked my way through the rice fields to find the enigmatic 2000-year-old megaliths that dot the countryside.  This region, the Pasemah Highlands in South Sumatra province, is a place of tea gardens and fresh air.  Again, I find myself wondering why so few tourists come here. 
The area is dominated by the looming presence of Gunung Dempo, and now I am approaching the summit in the company of a local mountaineering enthusiast called Maman.  We set out at midnight from the trailhead deep in the sprawling tea gardens which cloak the lower slopes, clambering through dense forest in the hours of darkness.  Maman tells me that the mountain was traditionally viewed as the receptacle for the souls of departed ancestors, ruled over by a deity called Puyung Raja Nyawe.  Now, finally, we are approaching our goal, passing through stunted bushes cloaked with the grey-green lichen known here as jengot angin, “the beard of the wind”.  It has been a hard climb, but the views are worth it.  The mountain is a dormant volcano, and from the summit we look down on a deep, lake-filled crater.  To the east the coppery cloud is melting over the highlands, and the dark ridges of the Bukit Barisan rise like sharks’ fins.  To the west, meanwhile, beyond a descending tangle of green ridges, I can see the pale coastline of Bengkulu province.
Once I descend from the mountain my journey takes me on east to Palembang, the seething capital of South Sumatra, and once the seat of an independent Malay kingdom.  This is a watery down, straddling the banks of the great Musi River.  I make my escape by boat, heading downstream to the beaches of nearby Bangka Island.  A handful of low key resorts dot the coast here, but there are no other tourists in sight, and I relax and let my Dempo blisters heal in splendid isolation.
Beyond Bangka I return to the mainland and head north once more to my final destination in this unexplored quarter of Sumatra.
The jungle stretches away on either side, full of furious insect noise.  The air is damp and clammy, and very still, and I wonder nervously for a moment about those tigers.  I am standing in a clearing in the forest at Muara Jambi, feeling a little like Indiana Jones.  Before me lies a chaos of tumbled red bricks and knotted creepers – I am looking out on the ruins of a civilization.
This spot, 25 kilometers from the modern regional capital, Jambi, was the seat of the Melayu Kingdom in the 11th and 12th centuries.  This powerful Hindu-Buddhist realm ruled over a vast swathe of territory, and controlled much of the trade that passed through the Straits of Melaka.  Far from the mountainous sources of basalt, the rulers hear built their massive temple complexes from red brick, and when the kingdom collapsed in the 13th century, they jungle took over, the buildings crumbled, at Melayu was forgotten.
European explorers first came across this place in the 19th century.  Since then the central temples have been restored.  But there are hundreds of other structures out in the forest, some only recently discovered.

As I wander alone along the forest trails fragments of 1000-year-old pottery crunch beneath my feet.  Eventually I emerge beside a narrow creek where a local villager is dipping a cantilevered Chinese-style fishing net into the green water.  I sit down at the edge of a bamboo bridge to watch him work.  Muara Jambi is a far cry from the crowded relics of Indonesia’s other ancient civilizations at Borobudur and Prambanan in Java, and indeed the whole of this untraveled region is a world away from tour bus routes and beaten tracks.  But my journey has taken in everything from white beaches to mountain peaks, Buddhist temples to colonial relics, and all along the way I’ve met with warm welcomes from local people, eager to welcome travelers to their forgotten corner of Indonesia.  I’m sure I will be back!
© Tim Hannigan 2013

Monday, 24 February 2014

The Myth that Shaped Nations

Tim Hannigan introduces the story behind the myth of Thomas Stamford Raffles in the city with which he will forever be associated - Singapore.

from Hurrah Productions on Vimeo.

The story of Raffles' forgotten role in Indonesian history is told in Tim Hannigan's latest book, Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, published by Monsoon Books.

For more information see

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

An Island Apart

The Island of Sabu in Nusa Tenggara

Originally published in Bali and Beyond Magazine

Sabu is an island apart.  Six hundred kilometers east of Bali, it drifts alone in an empty sea – a strip of pale sand, a line of white surf, and a long, green bank of lontar palms. 
Of Indonesia’s myriad landfalls, this is one of the remotest of all, a place still straining at the furthest end of tenuous transport links.  Flashy motorbikes and mobile phones have yet to dominate here.  Small boys ride half-wild horses across the windswept hillsides, old women weave dark ikat cloth on bamboo verandas, and a warm welcome in thatch-roofed villages comes in the form of a mouthful of betel nut and a mug of palm wine.  If you’re looking for the Indonesia of travel fantasy, a place where you can feel as though you are following only a few steps behind the earliest European sailors, this might just be it…
            Sabu is part of East Nusa Tenggara Province, and getting there is half the adventure.  It is just 450 square kilometers in size, and home to some 60,000 people, one of the archipelago’s most isolated communities.  Kupang, the capital of West Timor, lies 250 kilometers to the east; Waingapu on Sumba is a similar distance to the west; to the south there is nothing until Australia.  Kupang is well connected by air to Bali and Java, but beyond that point you’re at the mercy of time and tide.  When the weather is good a rickety government ferry makes the crossing – 16 empty hours rolling over the swells of the Sabu Sea – once or twice a week, and a somewhat faster if equally unreliable air connection is maintained by Merpati with its smallest twin-prop planes.  But once you arrive, banking in over the tree tops, or stepping ashore with wobbly legs on the little jetty, you’ll find that the journey was worthwhile.
            The point of arrival in Sabu is the little township of Seba.  This is the quintessential tropical outpost – a place of potholes and puddles where a handful of motorbikes heading for market counts as the rush hour.  The electricity supply often fades and falters, and the arrival of the ferry from Kupang is the highpoint of the week.  Tin-roofed mosques and churches stand between the palm trees, and vendors preside over mounds of betel nut, or lengths of dark, hand-woven ikat cloth.  There are a few friendly homestays here, where adventurous travelers can bed down and plot excursions to the wilder parts of the island.
            For a place that still seems to teeter on the edge of the known world Sabu has had a remarkably long history of European engagement.  Sometime early in the 17th century Portuguese travelers from neighboring Flores and Timor made it here, and in 1674 a lost Dutch trading ship ran aground, prompting the first open conflict between the people of Sabu and the outside world: the terrified islanders killed the shipwrecked sailors, and when the Dutch authorities heard the news they launched a punitive raid.  At the time Sabu was ruled by five warring kings, each master of a miniscule realm.  The Dutch formed an alliance with the ruler of Seba, but they failed to defeat the neighboring principalities, being beaten back by Sabunese warriors lodged behind high defensive walls. 
You can still see the stone defenses of the local stronghold at the village of Hurati in the east of the island.  An old Dutch cannon lies in the undergrowth.  Eventually the Dutch signed treaties with the chiefs, but the European presence amounted to nothing more than a single lonely administrator, camped out among the lontars and left to his own devices for years on end.
            In 1770 the great English navigator Captain Cook stumbled upon Sabu on his way home from exploring the Pacific.  The island, rising unexpectedly from the horizon, was “so little known that I never saw a map or chart in which it is clearly or accurately laid down,” he wrote.  Cook and his crew spent several days exploring the island, bartering with the locals for cloth and supplies.
            Cook’s writings about Sabu form the earliest significant foreign account of the island, but what is striking is that much that he saw remains recognizable today.  And standing on Sabu’s white beaches in the 21st century, it sometimes seems as if the topmasts of the Endeavour have slipped over the western horizon only a few days earlier.      
            Today most of the people of Sabu are Christians, and barnlike churches stand on the steep hillsides of the interior.  But old traditions are still strong, and in some of the more remote villages families still pursue their own Jingi Tiu faith, with its ancestor worship and sacrifices.  The village of Namata, south of Seba, is a stronghold of old ways.  Great stone graves dot the village outskirts, and the roofs of the wooden houses rise in long ridges of lontar palm thatch.  Locals here will tell you that the first settlers came to Sabu from India, and when they arrived they upended their open boats for shelter.  The ship-like rooftops of the village houses commemorate these first dwellings.  On the edge of Namata, on a slab of soft yellow sandstone, there is a carving of a European sailing ship, a record of some early landfall by outsiders.  It looks as though it was carved yesterday.
            Travelling further afield from Seba you will find white roads winding through rolling hills.  Sabu is a dry island, grazed by fine horses brought to the island by Arab traders in centuries past.  At times the windswept landscape looks more like African savannah than the Indonesian tropics.  The southern shoreline is a place of bony limestone outcrops and angry seas, but on other, more sheltered coasts there are empty beaches of soft white sand where seawater is left in upturned clamshells to evaporate – the old way of collecting salt.  Hollow waves wrap along the offshore reefs: most of the trickle of travelers who make it here are wayward surfers seeking to escape the crowds of Bali and Lombok.
            The shores of Sabu are studded with lontar palms.  For local people this is “the tree of life”, a source of fiber for thatch and clothing, of sugar, and of course, of alcohol.  Captain Cook noted that the locals brewed “a very sweet agreeable Cooling liquor” from the sap of the lontar, and they still do today, collecting the liquid each day in cups made of leaves.  It ferments as it collects and is ready to drink straight from the tree.  Visit any village here, and once the excitement has died down you’ll likely be offered a cup of this mild, refreshing wine.
            The other mainstay of Sabunese culture is the island’s distinctive ikat cloth, died by hand and woven on back-strap looms by local women.  While the cloth of neighboring islands is all bright colors and wild motifs, Sabunese ikat is dark and understated in a series of earthy browns and blacks.  The key designs are creamy floral whorls, borrowed from Indian cloth shipped into the east of Indonesia before the arrival of European sailors.
            When Captain Cook left Sabu, sailing west, past the hulking offshore island of Raijua, then one of Sabu’s five separate kingdoms, and clipping the tiny uninhabited islet of Dana, home of departed souls in the Jingi Tiu faith, he swore his crewmen to secrecy about the place they had just visited.
            More than 200 years later the secret is still well kept…

© Tim Hannigan 2013