This is the blog of journalist, Lonely Planet author and photographer Stuart Butler. It features news and travel updates from the regions in which Stuart works, including northeast Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan), Yemen and Sri Lanka.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Tracks Magazine - Java feature.

The new Tracks magazine is out in Australia with 'Conversations with a Dancer', my article on surfing in Java in it.

And for those of us unlucky enough not to be in Australia then here is the full version of the story (but minus the pretty magazine style layout).


Her name means melody and she could be the modern face of Java. I first met Nada in a hotel in-which I was staying. She worked the day shift behind the reception. She told me her hotel job paid the bills, but that she saved her passions for the night.

I had been to Indonesia before of course. What surfer hasn’t? I’d surfed with the masses in Bali and some years ago I spent several slow months riding cargo boats and ferries down the entire length of Sumatra; back then some of the waves I surfed were mere whispers of rumours, but now they host surf camps and yacht charters. And though, like many surfers, I knew all about the surf in Bali, the Mentawais, Nias, Lombok and so on, all I really knew about the waves in Java was G-Land. Yet, after Sumatra, Java has more Indian Ocean exposed coastline than any other island in Indonesia, but stories from the line ups of Java are few and far between. This silence couldn’t help but make me think that I was missing something. And so I decided it was time I went for myself to look for surf in the heart of Indonesia.

And what a heart it is. With over half of Indonesia’s 240 million inhabitants, Java is the undisputed political, economic and commercial powerhouse of the archipelago. From its glittering fields of rice to its equally glittering shopping malls, Java, with its backbone of slumbering and lumbering volcanoes, is an island of extraordinary beauty and great diversity. It was Nada though, and my conversations with her, who really brought home to me just how refined, artistic, cultured and utterly contradictory this island could be. I had been on the road for a month or more when I first met Nada and in that time I had experienced the whole range of Java’s different surfing moods. From skirting the reefs of One Palm Point to playing in crumbly beach breaks or kicking back in hidden villages fronting idyllic beaches with perfect reef breaks. But I hadn’t just come to Indonesia for the waves. I’d done that too many times before and always left without really getting to know the place. This time I had vowed to explore Java in depth. I would venture inland, away from the waves, and explore the islands towns and cities, hike its mountain trails and peer into its volcanoes and I would talk to as many Javanese as I could. Nada, the smiling girl who had checked me into her hotel, was just one of these people. Our conversations began one afternoon, as I was sat in the hotel lobby waiting for a rainstorm to clear, she came and sat down beside me and offered me some bandrek (ginger tea with coconut and pepper) and spicy snacks. From then until the day I checked out every afternoon was the same; as the heavens opened we sat together drinking bandrek and, watching the rain flood the streets outside, we talked. She told me how it was to be a young woman in Java and she told me about Javanese culture and in return I told her stories about sleeping under a sickle moon on creaky, wooden boats and about diving into the ocean at dawn to race the swell lines of Antarctic storms.

In the steamy tropical night, when the cry of cicadas was strongest and fruit bats swooped low on the horizon, I squeezed past coy couples and noisy families and eased myself down onto the hard stone bench. Moments later a rhythmic drum beat brought silence to the audience and the darkness of the stage was pierced by a spotlight. And there stood Nada. She was transformed, like the melody of her name, from demure hotel receptionist to something confident and bold, something full of energy and passion, something of art and sometimes something of sin. Her exact form depended on the night and the stroke of a make-up brush. On one night she could be a graceful ballet dancer, or another the cowered and veiled girl in a gritty tale on contemporary life in the slums of Jakarta, but tonight she was a dancer in her favourite role; that of Sita, the beautiful wife of Rama, from the Hindu Epic the Ramayana.

Our first conversations were tame. We spoke about the sights of Java. I told her about the beautiful beaches I had seen and she told me where she likes to go for picnics with her family and friends when she has a day off. Her favourite place to picnic, she said, was on the grassy lawns in-front of a Hindu temple complex more than a thousand years old. She asked me where my favourite places to surf had been and I told her about how I had ridden down muddy dirt roads in clapped out bemos (minibuses widely used as public transport throughout Indonesia) and on the back of slowly-dying mopeds to reach a tiny half-forgotten village in the middle of nowhere where I had found a room in a villagers house and each morning I had walked across a beach that bubbled with ghost crabs to surf a long left point break with nobody else around. In return I asked her about her home city, Malang, and she said that each year, when a big festival was held, dancers, actors and musicians took over the roads for a week of street theatre. I could just imagine how much she enjoyed such a show. “But”, she said, “I prefer my adopted city of Yogyakarta because here the streets are art and everyone is an actor or an actress all of the time”. She asked me where else I intended to visit in Java and I told her of a newly found wave not far from where we were sat which broke more like something from Tahiti or Hawaii and of course I told her of G-Land and how you slept in a hut in the jungle and rode endless lefts that set the standard for waves the world over. But I also told her of how I would venture inland to exploding volcanoes and to photograph miners who descend into the depths to dig stinking sulphur out of the belly of one such volcano. We both sighed and agreed that there could be few islands as diverse as Java.

One evening, a fortnight or so after I had met Nada, I was in the small fishing village of Batu Karas, about halfway along the Javanese coast. Breaking off the rocky, forest-clad headland that fronts the village is a right point. The wave begins with a steep, sucky drop before quickly reinventing itself as a gently sloping wave that peels down sandbars for a couple of hundred metres. It might be far from Java’s best wave, but as a fiery-orange sun dipped below the horizon, I was still able to get out of the water happy to have surfed a rare righthander in this land of lefts. Walking away from the waves, I reached the point where the beach became the village and found dozens of red plastic chairs being set out around a makeshift stage. I rushed back to my guesthouse, hurriedly changed out of my wet gear, and returned to the centre of activity just as the wayang kulit, or shadow puppet performance, began. Wayang kulit is one of the most visible forms of Javanese cultural expressions. It is also, with its performances based on the great Indian Hindu epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, an obvious example of how Javanese culture reaches back into the days long before Islam when Hinduism dominated the island. Traditionally a wayang kulit performance lasts all night and is performed by a single puppeteer who manipulates dozens, sometimes hundreds, of puppets in a performance. As if this weren’t enough the puppeteer also has to direct a gamelan orchestra at the same time. Consisting of around sixty instruments the hypnotic tempo of a gamelan performance could be described as the sound of Java. Whilst this wayang kulit wasn’t as grand (or as long – something I became thankful for after a few hours!) as some, it had a rough and authentic feel to it that made it stand out from the more polished performances I had seen elsewhere. As the show wore on I remembered back to one of my conversations with Nada. She had told me how her grandfather had been a renowned puppeteer and that when she’d been small she’d been fascinated by how he could make these static puppets burst suddenly to life and enthral an audience. She thought perhaps it was this early exposure to the glitz and glamour of the stage that had led her to dancing and she said that even now she loved the stories of the wayang kulit. “There are so many different characters in the puppet shows, some are Kings, some are Gods, some are ordinary people and some are monsters with magical powers. In the old days people believed they were all real. Maybe some people still do. It would be nice to believe that stories like these could be real don’t you think?” Then, with a hint of a smile creasing across her lips, she asked “Do you know the stories of the Queen of the Southern Sea? Do you believe in her?” I had told her I knew that Nyai Roro Kidul, as she is called, was responsible for the storms that wrack the oceans, that she was both gorgeous but deadly and that it was she who took fishermen to a watery grave. I then told her that there was one place in Java where I’d genuinely felt close to Nyai Roro Kidul. “Really?”, she had cried, “Tell me about it”. So, pouring another bandrek I had launched into my tale.

I told Nada how my journey to Panaitain Island, a tiny wild blob of an island, had begun in a sleepy fishing village close to the western tip of Java where I had boarded a rickety wooden fishing boat and puttered and spluttered off out into the treacherous channel that separates Java from Sumatra. Passing the brooding cone of Krakatua; the volcano that in 1883 was responsible for the most violent eruption in recorded human history, my boat had rolled with the swell into one of Panaitain Islands wide bays. I described to Nada how before me had been immaculate coastal forests, pristine white beaches and waves. My goodness what waves they had been. On seeing One Palm Point for the first time I was simply silenced. There, in-front of me was the most perfect wave on the planet. It was 4-6ft, the winds were offshore and there was not another human being for a hundred kilometres. I instantly dived off the boat and paddled to the line up and my close encounter with Nyai Roro Kidul. However, as faultless as the scene appeared to be, as soon as I took a look over the edge of a wave I had realised that there was a beast hidden within this beauty. Never before had I attempted (and I use the word ‘attempted’ with reason) to ride quite such a ferocious wave. What looked like the worlds best wave from the safety of the boat had turned out to break at the speed of a hunting shark and it had teeth to match. The wave raced off across ankle deep, fang-like coral for hundreds of metres and once committed to it there was no emergency escape exit. It was merely a case of outrunning the lip for as long as you could, but in the end the wave would always win and then it was just a matter of how hard she’d whip you over the reef. Yes, I’d told Nada, if ever there was a place where the presence of Nyai Roro Kidul was palpable then it was surely in the beautiful but deadly waves of Panaitain Island.

Nada was sublime in the role of Sita. Sitting on the hard bench I was transfixed for hours as she and her fellow dancers spiralled and twirled under a rainbow of spotlights. With their dance they carried us far away from the Java of today, across an Indian Ocean ripe in spice, to an India of thousands of years ago, when Sita and Rama lived and loved together. As the night wore on the Javan dancers told us a story as old as Asia. They showed how the happiness of Sita and Rama was not to last. Sita, the goddess of the Earth, and the embodiment of the perfect woman, may have been in love with Rama, but that didn’t stop her from having other admirers. One of these was Ravana, the evil King of Lanka, who abducted Sita and took her back to his island kingdom where, (in what is probably a classic example of how not to win a woman’s heart), he kept her prisoner for one year. Meanwhile, the heart broken, Rama and the monkey God Hanuman scoured the world in their search for Sita. Through the use of acrobatics, fireworks and fire walks the dancers showed us how Rama and Hanuman finally found Sita hidden away in Lanka and then how they launched an almighty battle against nasty old Ravana and Sita was rescued. As the final explosion of fireworks died away, the drums fell silent again and the dancers wiped away their make up it was hard not to reflect on how the many thick layers of local and foreign cultures have shaped the past of Java and will continue to mould its future.

The old ideas of Java are being left behind and a tide of new thought and influences is flowing over the top of them. In the distant past Java had been both a Hindu and a Buddhist island. Today Islam rules supreme but even here Java has put its own twist on things. In some parts of Islam’s Middle Eastern homeland for a girl to dance in-front of a mixed sex audience would be unheard of, and possibly even dangerous for all involved, but here in Java it seemed as if Islam was a colourful, cosmopolitan and accepting version of the faith that stands in utter contrast to the Islam of Saudi Arabia. Nada had laughed when I said this to her and she told me that this was only partially true. Yes, for the vast majority of Javanese there was something of a live and let live attitude to other peoples beliefs, cultures and desires, but it wasn’t always like that. “When I was younger, I suppose about fifteen years ago, people here became more conservative. More and more people started to attend the Mosques and some people called for Sharia law (a code of conduct, or Islamic law, as laid out in the Quran). Imagine Sharia here? I suppose if that had happened then I would have had to have stopped my dancing – at least in public”. She paused, as if reflecting on what could have been, before continuing, “We Javanese are very religious you know, but we are not extremists. You are right we have a colourful form of Islam. We still believe in spirits and magic from the old religions before Islam and so when some people started killing for Islam with bombs in Jakarta and Bali the rest of us turned against them and now not so many people talk about Sharia and I can still dance in the evenings!” That Javanese Islam is like this is important, because with Indonesia having the worlds largest Muslim population, some 90% of whom are found on Java, what happens to Islam here matters to the whole world.

My journey through Java eventually came to an end on the surf beaches for the city surfers of Jakarta. Don’t get me wrong, Cimaja isn’t all that close to the capital but even so every weekend a jam of cars and buses carries surfers the five hours from Jakarta to the long, playful waves found around here. Proximity to the big city wasn’t the only reason why Cimaja seemed to me a suitable place to end my trip. You see the Cimaja region, with it’s small fishing villages and often remote coastline, is a Java of old. It’s here that the myths of Nyai Roro Kidul, the Queen of the South Sea’s, are strongest (a large hotel in the area even has a room set aside only for her use) and traditions run strong. Yet for two days every week the waves of Cimaja are invaded by the new face of Indonesia; and some of these people no longer fear Nyai Roro Kidul. For better or for worse, as the surfers of today’s Jakarta arrive with their big city ideas and aspirations and Java, old and new, meet on beaches that have been ruled for so long by Nyai Roro Kidul, a wave of new ideas is being spawned and another layer of culture, this one dominated by Californian surf vibes, is slowly being added to the tapestry of the coast of Java.

But in the end, no matter how much Java moulds itself into an ever more complex, artistic, refined and cultured an island some things will probably always remain the same. The people will continue to smile at visitors, the volcanoes will continue to bluster and blow, dancers will continue to recreate the Indian Epics, the cities will continue to bustle, the villagers will carry on consulting the Gods of old at the same time as attending the Mosques of today and the Queen of the South Sea’s will continue to guard her lair with it’s precious liquid jewels born a thousand miles away across an Indian Ocean ripe in spice.

Kenya 2011

Turkana women near Lyagalani Kenya black and white 3 (1 of 1)Pokot tribal people north of Lake Baringo Kenya 12Portraits of Samburu south Horr black and white 2 (1 of 1)Cheetah Lewa Kenya 11Takaunga creek Kenya 3Pokot tribal people north of Lake Baringo Kenya 3
Fisherman Mida Creek Kenya 5matatu stuck in sand between Lodwar and Kalakol passengers pushing one way and Toby pushing the other KenyaMasai in Samburu Serani lodge Kenya 2Turkana women near Lyagalani Kenya black and white 2 (1 of 1)Rendille woman in Loyangalani Kenya 9Donkey Lamu Kenya 2
Turkana portraits Loyangalani Lake Turkana Kenya 18Samburu man in photo studio Maralal Kenya 2Zebra Samburu National Park KenyaPortraits Samburu South Horr Kenya 25Ranger tracking lions Lewa KenyaRoad from Turbi to Moyale Kenya 2
Weaver bird Lake Baringo KenyaTurkana portraits Loyangalani Lake Turkana Kenya 29Pokot tribal people north of Lake Baringo Kenya 13Dhow between Lamu and Pate KenyaPortraits of Samburu peoples Loyangalani Lake Turkana KenyaTwo friends relaxing on hill in Cherangani Hills North Kenya

Kenya 2011, a set on Flickr.

Finally I have got around to editiing my pictures from a Lonely Planet research trip a few months ago to the remote north of Kenya and to the beautiful Kenyan coast. I was there updating the relevant chapters of the Lonely Planet Kenya guide - and the Kenya book is always one of my favourite jobs to do!