Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Old Smokey

Jakarta was too hot and humid and so I decided to do what many locals do and head for the hills. My destination was Bandung, Java's favoured hill station. The weather is certainly more pleasant than Jakarta's oppressive heat and humidity, but that's about it. Bamdung has now mushroomed into Indonesia's third-largest city and has much the same traffic and air-quality problems as Jakarta. Along with the weather most Indonesians come to Bandung either to study or to go shopping at the city's many outlet stores. Those of you who know me will know that neither of those could possibly be a reason for me to come. So what drew me to Bandung?

The smoking, sulphurous crater Tangkuban Perahu is Bandung's premier tourist spot and it's possible to drive right up to the rim in your car. Souvenir vendors do a roaring trade in furry hats as intrepid Indonesians brave arctic temperatures (well, it's around 10 degrees, which is freezing for them).

Being on the road for so long maintaining contact with friends and family is particularly important. Luckily the internet makes this relatively easy and access to it is now almost universal in every corner of the globe. E-mail, Skype, blogs and social networks such as Facebook have become an almost universal, international language. The latter, particularly, allows you to maintain links with people without being obliged to actively reconnect on a regular basis (critics might say that today's relationships have become virtual and that there is less human contact, but in a world where physical distances are no longer a barrier to communication and interaction, where our potential circle of contacts has exponentially increased, then it is an inevitable outcome). So I was both surprised and pleased when an old school friend who I had not seen in 16 years dropped me a message via Facebook saying that he was surprised that I was Indonesia and that he was now working in Bandung. I couldn't let such an opportunity pass and was determined that our paths would cross now that we were so close.

Of course we have both changed since we were 16 - though it seems to me for the better. It is a fascinating exercise in self-evaluation to meet up with an erstwhile friend after such a long time. How much have I changed? how much have they? do we still have anything to talk about? I think we have both become more accepting and accommodating people, comfortable with where and who we are. I was also interested to see how our respective paths, although divergent, had a lot in common so that it didn't seem to me, in the end, that strange that we should be meeting again after half our lives here, so far away from our childhoods in both space and time. And finally I also really liked the fact that his lovely, expat home had hot water so that I could have a warm shower after more than a month without (in a tropical country like Indonesia hot water isn't at all necessary, yet it is a very pleasant luxury nevertheless, and one I would hate to give up entirely).

Many of the places I stay are basic, shabby, dusty and usually downright uncomfortable. But sometimes not. The swimming pool of Andrew's condo in Bandung.

Further east is the city of Semarang. Generally overlooked by travellers in favour of the magnificent ancient temples to the south (see next post) the city is a standard workaday city, which nevertheless has the most extensive and best-preserved colonial centre of any Indonesian city. The uniformity of style - whitewashed art deco facades and deep, terracotta-red tiled roofs - also makes it the Indonesia's most beautiful, a rare thing in a country where town planning is a foreign concept and no buildings has any connection (other than a shared retaining wall) to its neighbour. The sleepy back-lanes of its Chinatown come alive on a Sunday morning when locals bring out their giant cocks (I have honestly never seen such big ones in all my life) for the weekly cockfights. Then a little further along, beside a less-than-pleasant canal was the rubbish collectors' alley, where the local rag people stored their retrieved detritus: towers of cardboard, castles of oil cans, battlements of drinks bottles and plenty else besides, ready to be carted off and sold for reuse. For all the apparent grime and dirtiness there is probably more efficient recycling going on here than in most of the developed world.

An old Dutch colonial building (a bank if I remember correctly) in old Semarang that has sadly fallen on hard times. The doors are padlocked shut, the windows grimy and trees are growing through the roof and balcony. Nevertheless its grandeur still shows through.

Aside from its urban pleasantness and quirkiness Semarang was memorable thanks to the nearby town of Kudus, dubbed locally as Kota Kretek, "Kretek City". The town is the birthplace of Indonesia's pungent clove cigarettes and their production forms the bulk of its industry. There are over 20 factories alone for only 90,000 inhabitants. My guidebook said that it was possible to tour some of the factories and so, with my host Mega in tow, we set off to see whether it was true. Upon arrival at the cigarette company offices the security guards didn't seem too sure either, but after some asking around it transpired that yes, it is possible to visit. And so we were led, through a small kampung, to the factory, a large, unassuming warehouse with a faint aroma of cloves. Rounding the doorway into the main hall the full force of the smell hit us like a physical presence. The factory itself was a large, empty hall filled with benches of women rolling the (in)famous kreteks using simple hand-rollers that look as if they've been around since before Indonesia's independence. Seeing the rollers was easy; seeing the women's hands move was not. Years of practice have made them unbelievably fast and skilled. Some of them can roll 4000 cigarettes a day and there is no need for for fancy tobacco-weighing instruments as the women measure out the correct quantities by feel alone. I got to try my hand as well and can test that it's certainly far harder than it looks and managed to mangle several ciggies before anything resembling something smokeable came out, much to the amusement of the nearby rolling ladies.

Lady kretek-rollers in the factory in Kudus. The smell of cloves was overpowering.

Nevertheless it wasn't going to make me to join the majority of Indonesian men who consider kreteks to be more akin to medicine than anything else (the cloves are slightly anaesthetic). The health time bomb that awaits is not going to be pretty devastating, but that's blithely ignored in this country where tobacco accounts for about half of all advertising.

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