Look on a map at Java’s northeast corner and you’ll find a tear-shaped island. It’s a jagged, rugged spot, just obscure enough to be considered ‘off-the-beaten-path’.
Speak to many people about it, and they’ll blanche; centuries of conflict have bred a complicated relationship with the mainland. The island is known as Madura, a place seemingly given a wide berth by the rest of Indonesia.
Considering the country’s vast size and diversity, this wasn’t a surprise. But still, I wanted to experience any enmity for myself. Luckily, an opportunity had presented itself: a cross-island bus journey, from Bangkalan to Sumenep. Four hours of cold shoulders and outright hostility awaited, I figured.
Well, no. ‘Welcome to Madura, sir. I’m glad you’re here,’ the stranger said, not five minutes into our journey. He joyfully pumped my hand with a vice-like grip. This turn of events was disarming; I wasn’t expecting the warmest greeting in the entire country. Not here, wedged in a bus stairwell.
‘This is a beautiful place,’ my new friend, Andi, continued, gesturing proudly at the blurred landscape. Vast stretches of sandy flatland stretched into distant craggy limestone hills. The windswept panorama was closer to that of the wild west than Indonesia. Even the mosques, normally such grand, solemn edifices, shimmered with an added lustre.
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The journey wore on. I spent my time admiring the myriad colourful Batik shirts – a Madurese speciality. Eventually, with the bus idling silently on the approach to Sampang, Andi piped up. ‘Today’s Saturday,’ he shrugged. ‘It’s market day.’ His implication was clear: lots of traffic, many people, long journey.
How Long Now?
We went our separate ways at the next stop; Andi to Sampang, me to a new seat. I felt confident and relaxed. It was time to deploy my Bahasa language skills.
‘Berapa jaw di Sumenep?’ I ventured to the ticket collector. He smiled, an arched eyebrow indicating his confusion. I tried again before reverting, somewhat sheepishly, to English. ‘How far to Sumenep?’ He repeated the phrase to himself before wandering off.
Not to worry. Outside, the scenery opened up; we were on the coastal road past Pamekasan. A fleet of Madurese fishing boats, replete with scimitar-like curves, lay dormant in the swell.
Suddenly, the conductor appeared beside me. ‘Berapa jow-oo! That’s how you say ‘how far’! Berapa jow-oo,’ he exclaimed before elaborating further. ‘Satu jam’. He held up an index finger. One more hour. ‘Berapa jaw,’ I heard him parrot, chortling contentedly as he headed down the aisle.
Sure enough, we arrived in Sumenep. All around was an undulating sea of green: rice fields swaying in the breeze. ‘Where you go, boss?’ a becak driver asked when I stepped onto the tarmac. His wooden rickshaw looked inviting. I gave the name of a hotel and clambered in.
With the sun setting behind us, we headed along Sumenep’s main street. I was no closer to unearthing Madura’s spiky reputation, and for now, it remained beyond my ken. More important things, namely, a shower, beckoned.
I turned to the driver and spoke. ‘Berapa jow-oo?’