(File under: solo travel in Indonesia; quiet places in Indonesia; off-the-beaten-track in Indonesia; loner travel in Indonesia)
Every dawn has its dusk, every night has its day. Consensus thus achieved, it became clear that the group’s discussion neared its conclusion. Their talk had taken on a localised, regional tint, which created the same excitement as any voyage into the unknown. If the places they visited caused such a stir, how many similar scenes might they find that have the same impact?
Conjecture, of course. Nobody deigned to list the exotic places they had been or the things they had done, for better or worse, once they arrived. Part of the mystery, they found, lies in the not telling, of letting things become known organically. Of not screaming about them from atop a lofty platform.
Too much noise, they said. Better for peace and quiet and stillness, although the latter may not just take the form of silence: it could just as easily signify a slight withdrawal from the world. A place from which to observe and reflect rather than engage. So buoyed, the next of the group prepared to speak.
Banda Neira (Maluku)
And thus did the topic move further east from Java. It settled on Maluku, a province comprising northern and southern divisions. This is a place famed for its vibrancy and the purity of its produce and welcoming for the obscurity it may provide. Many islands and outliers exist within the Moluccas chain, and it is very easy to become stranded upon them.
The traveller must decide whether such a scenario proves attractive, spake the ninth. It clearly did in this case, judging by the passion apparent in the speaker: not so much by the volume with which they spoke but the seriousness of their tone and the decisiveness of their words.
The speaker presented to the group the Banda Islands in Maluku’s south. They then spoke at length of the boat journey from Ambon, the closest city, and the many hours it took to reach seemingly nowhere. And all the while, civilisation receded ever more completely ‘neath the horizon. Only when the Bandas, of which the ninth saw but three of the tiny chain’s constituent parts, hoved into view did they become convinced that the place truly existed.
And what did the ninth find? A place of incipient stasis, where the world may continue to move but at a slower pace than elsewhere. Thus, the Bandas enjoy a unique position on the periphery of things; and at their heart, Banda Neira, where nature slowly reclaims decaying colonial buildings and the odour of spice, and the memories of former trade attached to such things, lingers in the air.
Exploration reveals that Gunung Api, the resident volcano, casts its glare over Banda. Under its auspices, one can clearly make out an airstrip, rendered dormant by the infrequency of flights, that demarcates the island: on one side, the bustle of town life and, on the other, thick forest and a smattering of villages therein.
There is a secret beach that the visitor may only find with the aid of the forest’s children, who bounce and move with joy as though they are the spirits of that place and happy to hint at its secrets. And this, said the ninth, shows Banda’s worth as a place to escape. One may easily become entrapped there, seduced by its distance and obscurity, and stranded by the whims and tides of currents that make passage unpredictable; the ocean, and the ocean alone, decides when one may leave Banda.
‘But,’ continued the ninth, ‘listen to what the boatmen say. It is they who know when to test the waters. And if the visitor seeks passage and they are told ‘sekarang’, do not delay. The boat is leaving now, with or without the newcomer.’ As they spoke, the ninth shook their head and became flushed, as though reliving the hard-learned experience of becoming an unintended strandee.
The tenth speaker, perhaps prone to recidivism, decided that the conversation should divert back to Java. Recency bias thus reared its deceptive head. The speaker had only recently returned from a trip to the region and felt compelled to tell of a site in Kabupaten Mojokerto.
Trowulan wields huge historical influence. There the visitor will find all manner of ruins that point to the town’s previous life as a centre of the Majapahit kingdom. And such ruins emanate great elegance and dignity due to their distinct paduraksa-style covered gateways.
But the tenth found even greater solace, not in the sites themselves but in the journey between them. They spoke of the path between Candi Brahu and the Buddhist Centre of Maha Vihara Mojopahit. Here awaits an enormous reclining Buddha, quite at odds with the Hindu and Islamic architecture about it.
The walk took about 20 minutes, but it proved so becalming that the feeling remained long after the event. It was everything a minor pilgrimage to a religious site should entail: a walk amongst fields bearing healthy and sizable offerings of rice and corn through a village of wide streets with a calming air. Expanses of green land nullified the outside world.
A feeling of openness descended upon the walker. They felt comfort in their solitude and let the calming atmosphere settle upon them like a fine vapour.
‘But,’ ended the tenth, ‘remember that nothing lasts. And the same is equally true of Trowulan. Beyond its borders rages a busy road and all the trappings there associated. Be sure to absorb what lessons and feelings float upon the currents; let them settle and act as they may.’ So saying, the tenth gave a slight nod to the sky, as if in deference to such notions that hovered around them.
The eleventh conjectured that Madura would serve those who seek to remove themselves. Clarifying, they meant that whilst quiet exists on Madura, its far-off air results more from observing a different manner of life. A guest is a gift from God, so they say in this corner of Java. This notion will come under discussion later, but suffice it that such an attitude allows one to glimpse the inner workings of a mindset they may have otherwise missed.
Not that such a notion defines Talango. The eleventh found comfort more in the silence of an island reachable from Kalinaget in Kabupaten Sumenep. A short ferry ride involved the typical Madurese welcome typified by the locals’ adoption of a newcomer and finding joy in making them feel at ease.
Thus sated, the eleventh alighted the boat at Talango. They then forged a path across the island. A long, straight open road brought them to the interior, broken up by brief diversions along tributary paths that led through villages under canopies of trees. Disembodied calls to prayer reverberated wherever the eleventh walked. And shimmering in the distance lay Kalianget, an entire strait away.
But the eleventh told most loudly about the greenness and effusive welcome that placed their solitude upon a fulcrum. On Talango, one could be alone because they choose to be so. But they can just as easily return to the slipstream and play an active role in proceedings.
‘But’, warned the eleventh, ‘take heed. To reach Talango, linger about the kantor pos on Jalan Raya Sumenep. A van should arrive and whisk the visitor to the terminal in Kalianget. The suggested price is 10,000 rupiah, or sepuluh ribu. However, some more wily drivers may charge double. Dua puluh ribu. The traveller should decide how much effort they think it is worth bartering the price down.’ The eleventh seemed unmoved. They trailed off, muttering about the difficulty of predicting travel costs in such a large country.
Gili Labak (Java)
Madura claimed the imagination of a great many of the group; time and time again, the speakers extolled the virtues of an island that, they clarified, was most definitely not Bali or Lombok. Such a dismissive attitude was beneath them, so they explained further. Madura, so they said, does not welcome nearly the amount of outsiders as its more illustrious neighbours.
This creates a knock-on effect: fewer visitors means fewer concessions and fewer distractions. The visitor may well find that their host location is uninterrupted, and they receive a glimpse into the life of a new place untainted by the prism of tourism.
Gili Labak, spake the twelfth, was a prime example. Elaborating, they added that the island, a place of tiny size a single kilometre in diameter, could easily host those seeking solitude. Consider, said the speaker: only 50 people live there, and it is easy to escape, given Labak’s small size, to another side of the island, should one side become too busy, to watch the wooden bagan fishing structures conduct their lonely vigils along the coastline.
The break of day and its end, when the sun collapses and the moon takes its place, are both visible from Gili Labak. So too are the mainland of Madura and the bulk of Talango. Thus situated, the visitor can attain a sense of depth, which negates any fears of a loss of perspective, when one finds themself far out in the ocean with no frame of reference.
‘But,’ warned the twelfth, who, like everyone else, had become tired of this topic, ‘consider the size of the place. It may require visitors to recalibrate themselves and lock on to a new rhythm. The first hour or two may feel discombobulating. But it will pass.’ Abruptly, the twelfth took heel and fled, and there was no more to say.