Sunday, March 01, 2009

Banten and Merak


Sue and I used the Saturday to head West from Jakarta.

"To Banten and Merak," I instructed the driver and off we drove, past industrial Tangerang, with its textile and rubber factories, and then over a flat green landscape. Occasionally we would see long, low barn-like buildings, used by the brick and tile industry. The journey, mainly along a wide, straight Toll road, gave us another chance to talk about travel and life.

"The guidebook," explained Sue, "states that Banten used to have a harbour, before it silted up, and it’s where the Dutch had their first settlement."

"And before that the Portuguese." I had my guide books on my knee.

"What’s it famous for now?" asked Sue

"My maid told me it’s famous for magic."

"Magic?"

"Dervish dancers who eat glass."

"Is magic a big thing in Indonesia?"

"Nyai Loro Kidul, Goddess of the South Seas, gets a lot of attention," I said. "There’s a story that, in the late 1970’s, high up government people, wanting to help the president increase his power, arranged some ceremony involving the sea goddess."

"So it’s not just for the peasants," said Sue. "What about witch doctors or shamans?"

"They’re called dukuns. They say that dukuns have been used by President Suharto, and by former President Sukarno. Oil men get dukuns to help find oil. Businessmen and civil servants use them to ensure they grow rich. Women go to dukuns if they want men to fall in love with them. Sick people go to them for cures. Bad people use wicked dukuns to kill their enemies. You can have someone killed for about fifty pounds."

"That’s cheap. How do they get people to fall in love?" asked Sue, smiling.

"A businessman friend, who shall be nameless, was told that a girlfriend had secretly given some powder to his maid. The maid was supposed to sprinkle it over his clothes."

"Did it work?"

"Well Mike hasn’t married her, yet, but she’s done very nicely out of him financially."

"Where does Islam come into this?" asked Sue.

"Even some orthodox Moslems believe in good and bad spirits. Most traditional Moslems certainly believe in spirits. Last year there was a big Moslem rally in Jakarta and the newspapers quoted Moslems as saying there were thousands of genies in the air, protecting the meeting."

"Flying about in the air?"

"Like angels. In Java you get Islam mixing with ideas that are animist or Buddhist or Hindu. The government doesn’t mind, so long as everyone believes in God. The most important thing for the traditional Javanese Moslem is avoiding being selfish or self-assertive, which sounds good to me. That’s how it should be and I’ve met lots of Moslems like that."

"I told you that in India I was disappointed not to find things more spiritual," said Sue.

"Same here in some ways. A lot of the top people simply want to loot and pillage. Although they pretend to be good Christians or Moslems."

"You’re more likely to get in touch with the spiritual by keeping away from priests."

"You’ve given up on the Church?"

"I have," said Sue, with a touch of firmness. "Joseph Campbell argues that all religions are true but their stories mustn’t be taken literally. The Bible is not necessarily the word of God. God wouldn’t really want the Israelites to slaughter the people of Canaan or Egypt."

"Time for a snack?" I had spotted a food stall at the side of the road and wanted to stretch my legs.

"Yes please," said Sue. "I’m beginning to find the air-conditioning in this van rather fierce. It’ll be nice to get some heat."

We reached Banten about midmorning. The sky was full of soot-black clouds which made the houses, the trees and the ruined 16th century Sultan’s Palace look dark and eerie. There wasn’t much to see at the palace, other than its foundations. We had a look at the Agung Mosque, built around 1559 and recently restored. It had a slightly Chinese appearance, because of its pagoda-shape.

"I’m surprised how small Banten is," said Sue.

"Why’s that?"

"It’s like a farming village, yet the guide book says it was once the largest city in South East Asia and one of the world’s greatest ports. The spice trade made this place world famous."

Sue was going to take a photo of some schoolboys standing beneath tall palm trees, but one of the boys decided it would be fun to urinate and Sue put her camera away.

"On to the hotel for lunch," I announced, and soon we were passing by Indonesia’s biggest steel works at Cilegon, and then coming in sight of the little port of Merak.

After lunch at the Merak Beach Hotel we explored the town and a nearby beach. The sun was managing to shine full blast on gorgeous blue and red fishing boats and wooden houses built on stilts. Merak itself seemed to be a delightfully mucky little town, reminding me of certain ports in Italy like Barletta.

"It’s frightening to think," I said, "that Merak, and the other settlements along this coast, were wiped out by a tidal wave, taller than the palm trees."

"The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa," said Sue.

"The guide book says the tidal waves reached the coast of France."

"Are we going to be safe if we go along the coast to Anyer?"

"You can see Anak Krakatoa from the beach. If there’s a major eruption, we might consider leaving."

"Have you noticed the large number of provocatively dressed young women outside the cafes and restaurants here?" said Sue, eyes twinkling.

"It is a port," I said, as I noted the tight little skirts and long schoolgirl legs of a group seated outside a wooden shack selling beer. "There’s the ferry to Sumatra, all the truck traffic and the Pertamina oil base. Lots of potential customers. Lots of risk of disease."

"Let’s have a beer and watch the world go by," said Sue.
~

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