Having arrived at Dad’s, Isla and I spent a night in this strange land. Isla is used to the hum of Bangkok; here there was nothing save the frog song chorus from the rice paddies below the house and the early morning Adhan recited by the muezzin. A recitation that is meant to be beautiful, melodious and loud for all Muslims to hear….it echoed across the valley we were slumbering in, picked up and echoed by answering mosques. I am told that in inhabited Java there must be a mosque every kilometer.
4:15am passed and we both retreated to slumber again, waking with the incessant crowing of the cockerel next door. The black of night was giving way to a wash of grey half-light; followed gradually by a pallid yellow blotch rising through the morning mists, strengthening as Eos rose to push away Nyx. In this land there is no urban cacophony; yet it is as noisy at times as any squeezed cul-de-sac in a city, with its more natural roar of creatures who walk, run, fly, swim in a symbiosis beholden to the seasons alone.
With the sun comes the life of the Javanese rural peoples, with night they fall asleep. In between there is hard work under either a blistering sun or monsoon rains. Here there are no night clubs, no parties, no intrusions. It is J.S Mill’s concept of individual liberalism made manifest, it is a place where you can see the whole night sky, it is a place where the rest of the world matters little. In this world there are those who have never heard of 9/11, who care not for the global groanings and jostlings of those who would tell others how life must be led; here, opining on social media is worthless. Oddly, perfectly, it is a more complete vacation than you will ever find in a five-star spa hotel in a spot chosen for you by TripAdvisor.
For a rare moment indeed, I saw what it was like to live in harmony with the seasons; chained to it, perhaps yes…if I were cynical. But this is not a place that fuels the misery of cynicism. It’s a place where dawn rises and with it the beauty that is Java is evident and breathable.
Dad, Isla and I jumped in a rickety jeep (which oddly felt more sturdy and safe than any glittering, computer-driven, new car ever will….it was solid.), spun the wheel right and followed the winding road deep into the hills. It was tarmacked in most places, cars could pass in others. And along its entire length, as mile after mile rolled by, was the carpet of Nature – verdant, efflorescent, lush; every peak we passed, every gorge we plunged into…all were a feast of natural beauty it was hard to tire of.
We rumbled along, a twisty road that followed the contours of the volcanic land; every metre a photo opportunity. We were in the heartland of West Java, a mountainous part of the island, yet home to fully 1/5th of Indonesians. It sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, has more volcanoes and mountains than any other part of Indonesia. We were driving through the mountain region of Parahyangan (trans: ‘Home of the Gods’) which is the heartland of the Sundanese people. Everywhere was the traditional dry rice cultivation (known as ladang), peppered with plantation areas for or coffee, tea, quinine, vegetables, and flowering plants amongst other crops. The mountainous region of West Java is also a major producer of vegetables and decorative flowering plants.
After a few kilometres we came across a vast scar in the landscape, an angry red slash through the green where a new four-lane highway is being laid on its 116km+ route. Called the Cikampek-Palimanan toll highway (it connects both these two existing highways either side of the Parahyangan mountains it commenced work in early 2012 and is a planned section of the eventual trans-Java Highway (about 1000km). It was earth moving on a scale I had never seen, trucks moving slowly like ants along dusty, hard packed earth roads, shifting tonnes of rich soil to facilitate another human endeavour. To say it was swarming with workers would be incorrect, yet there was an inexorability about it all that was both splendid and scarring. The existing highway 5 (which we got onto for a short stretch) is part of the “north” road route from one end of the island to the other – a trip of about 3 days. Not as perilous as say, the roads through Nepal, or an Alaskan Ice Road, or a route through the precipices of Peru…yet I was told it claims lives regularly. Usually because of the impatience of people trying to overtake trucks on a road that has no straights. Bends become death points. You can see why they are building a new highway:
We reached a decision point in the road, turned left towards Jakarta (though it would have taken half a day to get there) and wound through gorges that boasted more affluence: a fish farm, new buildings that were two storey or more. Each valley here is a microcosm – one road in and out, each one self-sustaining. The people here are connected to the world but at the flick of a metaphorical switch they can cut themselves off. We were two white bule and a Canadian child bumbling along…people stared at us like curios…and why not?They didn’t know why I wanted to photograph their daily lives, but they nodded politely when we stopped frequently to do so. Their curiosity was reserved for Isla; never believing she’s just two years old. She was as exotic to them as they were to us. Here are some photos of those people, their lives…
It was approaching midday and we had a drive back to Bandung to consider, a three hour ride back to Jakarta…so, reluctantly we pulled a U-turn and headed back along the same road to Dad’s home. It’s a beautiful place this…not at all on the usual tourist venue. It’s a fair trek to get out here, but if Isla and I can manage it…then I’d encourage others to do so. You won’t be disappointed.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?