Indonesia: Sooney’s Adventure to Cirebon

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Justine and Caroline, two friends of Emma’s from the Saint Monica prayer circle she actively participates in, helped organize an overnight trip to Cirebon after Emma shared I was coming and very keen on Cirebon batik. Justine is familiar with the city since her father, was born there. She and Caroline had visited before and were keen on returning with us.

We met at Gambir Station, the central station in Jakarta. After quick introductions we gathered on the platform and waited for the eastbound train. Caroline, originally from Sumatra, I had met in Balikpapan in the late 70’s. She worked during those years for Huffco. She now works for a furniture company and lives in north Jakarta on the coast, a pleasant location for walking with the sea breezes and cleaner air. Justine, who also lives in Jakarta and has a mother living in Semarang, spent four years in Germany and worked for Bayer in Jakarta until her retirement. A dedicated gym goer, she and Caroline are a strong traveling duo. Joyce, a Singaporean, married to a French Cambodian scientist presently working in Jakarta is also in the prayer group and part of the international community of worshipers in the English language who rent their space at St. Theresa Church in Jakarta. She was reading a book about Bali, Gifts of Unknown Things, by Lyall Watson. Roz, a Malayan Chinese, and her American husband have roots in Seattle. He is now the Consulate General at the American Embassy. She might win a prize for having lived in the most places. Penny, a Malaysian, lives in Penang and Jakarta. Her husband came out of retirement to work in a faith based NGO, headquartered in Baltimore, and worked with housing issues after the tsunami and is now doing AIDS prevention work and travels throughout Indonesia. These women are involved with their families, religious communities, various social programs, and traveling.

How surprised I was to hear that Penny has family in the pacific northwest, Ashland, to be exact. I was even more surprised to learn that I know her sister-in-law, Susan, of Susan and Trish. How amazing is that! She even contributed to the auction during the fund raising for Trish. Penny promptly sent Susan a text message informing her about who she was traveling with. Susan responded with a message to me to “Keep the Fire Burning” (one of our songs we sing with Women With Wings)! Small world indeed.

The train traveled east, leaving some 15-25 million people behind, through flat agricultural land, small towns and villages. We had no view of the coast. We went directly to Cirebon in just under three hours. Reserved seats that reclined and swiveled in twos along large, clean picture windows with red, white and blue floating cloud Cirebon batik patterned curtains in clean air conditioned cars with boxed snacks of water and sweet rolls were possible for 150,000 rupias. Sounds expensive? ($15 round trip)

My eyes were constantly scanning the outside: singkong or cassava, also known as tapioca, bananas, kangkong (type of greens), ubi (sweet potato), bamboo, kapok trees, mangoes, bananas….. Much land appeared to be already harvested rice fields (sawah), some fields recently burned, others burning. Where water was more available the padi fields (growing rice) were in various stages. Some rice (beras) was on mats to dry.

My ears were tweaking, trying to understand the rapid Indonesian mixed in with mostly English. I had my pad and pencil, writing down some forgotten familiar words and phrases I spoke some 20 years ago. Saya senang bertemu anda (I am pleased to meet you)…..

A van from the hotel picked us up at the station. Caroline gave some of the box lunches away to folks and Justine checked on the return trip. Off we went to a Chinese restaurant where we dined on kodok (frog legs), prawns in butter sauce, battered soft shell crab, crab omelet, kangkong cha tau cho, (sounded like) which was greens in soy bean sauce.This spread came to 100,000 rps! (about $10 for all of us).

We waddled out and climbed into the van (wouldn’t want to walk much in the intense heat and humidity at midday), stopped at a specialty food store that featured different kinds of krupuk and then proceeded to a batik home industry (turusmi). We removed our shoes and entered into a darker, cooler environment.

After exchanging greetings (salamat siang) our eyes adjusted to seeing other women quietly selecting Cirebon batik. Young Muslim girls, adolescents, wearing dilbab also (head cloth) in different colors, styles and sparkles were there to assist. Their dark brown friendly eyes and lovely smiles never changed even though they spent a good portion of their time opening up carefully folded batik of every fabric (cotton, cotton blends, silk….) to show with outstretched arms or give to an interested woman. Or, that batik might be directly added to the growing piles of rejects on the rug in the center of the main room. At a lull, the girls began folding up everything and restacking into bundles of a dozen and retying those, later to be returned to a series of sliding shelves that went way deep, revealing layers upon layers of precisely stacked batik, within a price range of a few dollars to a few hundred.

We must have spent a couple of hours there, or so it seemed. I love batik and made batik at our school on Pasir Ridge in Balikpapan and studied the process in Yojakarta for a month in the early 80s. I quit doing it when Alicia was little. A smoking pot of hot wax and a toddler wasn’t a good match. I was reliving those times with the sights and smells of batik. It was not a factory situation where I could wander and see the process and talk to the folks making it, just buy it.

We then drove (were driven) to our accommodations. The 30 minute drive took us to a higher elevation of hills, more trees, cooler and clearer air to Kuningan, located on the higher land with a closer view of Ciremai, the highest mountain (volcano) in West Java at just over 3,000 meters. Grage Sangkan Spa hotel greeted us warmly. Emma and I shared a room. It didn’t take long to hop into swim suits and make our way through a beautifully landscaped garden to the aquamedic pool with hot water containing 60% natural sodium direct from Mount Ciremai. The owner, the daughter of a general, has a strong flow in from the mountain.

One by one our blood pressure was taken and one by one, under the direction of a couple of girls, we slipped into the pool and made our way around to the various stations to experience different depths and water pressure to different spots on the bod, bubbles, and pebbly places to stand. We languished in the water and talked. Joyce shared with me about her two cancer occurrences and how her perspective has changed and her faith has grown.

After a hot sweetened ginger drink, we showered and returned to our rooms, relaxed and feeling as if we might just climb in between the cool clean sheets, but, we were famished from our busy day. We dressed for dinner and walked out into the cool windy air and made our way into the quiet somewhat empty town.

After a 1/2 mile we found an open restaurant. Out in the front the 7 of us sat at a long rectangular table covered with colorful plastic and we enjoyed tofu and tempeh goreng, 2 fresh water fish, one fried and one grilled, acar (vinegared shallots, carrots, cucumbers, chillies) and tea. Came to around $14. (Inflated!) A pleasant walk back, stopping at a local vendor to purchase a few newspaper cones full of boiled peanuts.

Breakfast was at 6:00, so I took a quick walk on the 1 km path around and through fertile fields. Bulb onions and ubi (sweet potatoes) growing everywhere with papaya, mangoes, jackfruit, bananas, hibiscus and more along the walkways. I hurried back to an omelette and nasi goreng (fried rice) breakfast and local coffee. I then rewalked the “jog path” before regathering for our van excursion, banking on the others taking 15 minutes to prepare for the outing.

Even though my feet would have loved some attention and a pedicure shine, I chose to leave the spa with Caroline, Justine and Emma for a 30 min. drive through a few villages to a shrine to the Virgin Mary. I figured it would give me an opportunity to see some of the country side and with the devotion of these ladies I would be in good hands.

Feeling somewhat starved for nature I was thrilled to be in the countryside with long vistas of fields, hills, trees and sky, even if it was as bit gray and misty.

The van stopped and we commenced walking on a path. My atrophied lungs from shallow breathing in Jakarta took in lungful of fresh air. I was a wild woman out to have as many lung orgasms as I could! I reminded myself of a puppy wandering about, smelling this and that, as I was trying to identify plants, talking with farmers and sometimes with the woman who became our guide and with the three others. Justine had walked at a quick pace ahead. Caroline was helping Emma take the walk of mostly up with her MIND ON the views and the interesting happenings in the fields. Meanwhile, I was scampering about, always coming back to the path and catching sight of the others. Coffee plants, avocados trees were new. Fabulous greens and textures in the diverse crops in the fields. People sitting along the path taking work breaks gave me a few more opportunities to grease the language wheels. Higher up pine trees were added to the list. Walking in and out of the canopies, past a couple of small dairy farms, a few men carrying harvested produce and up, up up some high steps took us to the sacred place, build under the direction of a Dutch priest 17 years ago. As I looked around at this outpouring of love for the Prima Donna, I did a quick loop, having to reclimb the steepest steps again. I then found my sweet three friends sitting on a mat, beads in hand, with Emma leading the rosary as the beautiful statue of Mary gazed down upon us with her sweet smile. She knew I was loving all the nature!

On our way back down and across the hills I felt like wandering off for a couple of weeks. We bought some special krupuk from sweet Ibu Ibu (women). I also tasted a homemade sweet and as I unwrapped the wax paper and plopped it into my mouth tasting the mushy sweetness, I thought “hmmmmm, was that smart?” I found out the next day that it probably wasn’t!

I walked the trail again back at the hotel. Made friends with a farmer growing ubi. Made it back in time to throw the bags in the van and head for another batik store where I went a bit crazy. Batik orgasm!

A delightful lunch of nasi tembel. Nasi dahun pisang (cooked rice and steamed in wrapped banana leaf, ayam goreng (fried chicken leg), tahu dan tempeh goreng, ikan asin (salted fish), lalap (raw veggies that, come to think of it, might also have contributed to my discomfort), sayur asem (a sour sweet soup which I adore), and, of course, sambal (crushed red chillies, lime, salt and garlic) and tea. This feast cost us all another whopping $2.00 per person.

Back on the train, I got to sit at the other widow and see the views I missed. Three hours later, were back into Jakarta. Fond farewells and then an hour + drive through gridlocked traffic back to Emma’s. Just in time to reconnect with Joe, a Peace Corps buddy of Nick’s, presently working for Oxfam and living in West Timor who we hadn’t seen for 20+ years.