Published in Now! Jakarta, July 2009


Last month I travelled with friends along the scenic North Coast Road of Madura, past fishermen’s villages and long beaches, past men in pirate costumes selling chicken soup, to the easternmost tip of the spirited island, to the cultural capital of Sumenep.
East Madura, I discovered, is a fascinating mix of the pious and the profane, with a healthy respect for strong cows.
To me the island’s east is the last frontier: smoking is still compulsory and real men wear cowboy hats and eye make-up.
Now read on:

Saturday, 23rd May 2009
We rent an Innova from Pacto Travel at the glorious Hotel Bumi in Surabaya and hit the road at 7 a.m., in order to get the ‘fun crowd’ on the ferry (the ferry crosses the narrow strait between Surabaya’s port, Tanjung Perak and Kamal in  Madura).
The crowd in the all-smoking/all-eating non-smoking lounge on the upper deck are fine fodder for a camera bug: I manage to capture some colorful characters as I ply between the Soto stall, the dangdut stage (Endang is on fire this morning!!) and the sundeck. On the sundeck I find a gang of Arek Suroboyo, (Surabayan ‘homeboys’) who look as if they’d slit your throat for sixpence.
It should here be mentioned that Madura’s reputation for fierce crimes of passion and revenge are nowhere to be seen on our trip, but I do find myself shouting “Don’t touch me” a lot.


The drawback is the national sport of Madura (this marathon smoker is captured in the non-smoking lounge of the ferry).

A feisty mason at the Mbah Kholil tomb-mosque hugs my travelling companion, Mr. Rick Johnson of Sydney, Australia.

From Kamal we drive to the delightful village of Kedemangan a famous pilgrimage site where the tomb of Mbah Kholil, one of Indonesians most revered Muslim saints, is being turned into St. Paul’s Cathedral!! I have never seen so much marble and ormolu (the rural Madurese do ‘go to town’ on mosque-building); and such industry; and such a charming group of masons and carpenters. One very flamboyant mason attaches himself to my travelling companion, Mr. Rick from Sydney and proceeds to ‘camp it up’ in front of the camera in a most alarming manner. This instantly dispels any misapprehensions that my friend may have had about Al Qaeda training grounds, while also leaving him with a mild sensation in his sarong.
Behind the mosque and down a pastoral lane we find a ‘medieval’ graveyard replete with Moorish-Madurese-Majapahit-style gates and walls and tombs. The graveyard is surrounded by clumps of tall bamboo and spotted with bright yellow croton shrubs and an occasional plumeria.


The unique coastal Majapahit gates in the graveyard near the Mbah Kholil tomb, near Bangkalan, West Madura.

Another unique post-Hindu Majapahit gate at the Aer Mata royal graveyard on the east cost of West Madura.

From the tomb we go straight to the Aer Mata royal graveyards—north of Bangkalan, the island’s commercial hub—to drink in the Sufi-tomb-like atmosphere; and to admire the simple 15th century early Islamic Majapahit gates fashioned from the local limestone (see photo above).
The next four hours we drive along the north coast. It is sublime: dwarf casuarina trees and coconut palms line the seashore; colourful fishing boats create harbours of loveliness along the banks of the river estuaries.
Halfway to Sumenep, at Ketapang Bus terminal, we have the best goat satay ever, and in the evening find a pretty cow competition in a roadside field just west of Sumenep.
Pairs of well-groomed cows wearing beaded necklaces and tethered to psychedelic orange yokes prance around the field to the rhythm of a country gamelan band parked under a plain tree. The cowherds, all-male, all-macho are straight out of central casting’s “High Noon at the Sumenep Satay House”.


Father and son cowherds atop a truck at
the bull-racing stadium.

Young bull-racing jockey after a fall: mass lower abdominal massage seemed to revive him.

Colourful Madurese cowboy breaks into a local ‘Barn Dance’ as my camera is whipped out.

Local pilgrim in Madurese Muslim dress at the Asta Tinggi graveyard, Sumenep.

“Their outfits are in the sumptuous Javanese Batik/Moghul India colours that so compliment their mahogany skin tones,” says Toto our Central Javanese driver.
From the pretty cow contest we go to the kraton (palace) in downtown Sumenep. It is the only East Javanese palace still extant, but it is buried under decades of municipal beautification programmes. Once occupying 25 hectares of Central Sumenep, the kraton now consists of a dusty museum, the original main palace─with an intriguing mix of Dutch and Javanese furniture and architecture─and the ‘TAMAN SARE’ royal baths which are now painted a gaudy blue. Here we find a bad modern play being rehearsed, and a young man listening to an iPod in a painted pleasure pavilion.
The palace is underwhelming but well worth a visit (at least I now know where the idea for all that uncomfortable carved furniture in Bali comes from).
Just before sunset, our enthusiastic palace guide leads us to a bull race practice in the handsome new purpose-built, orange and lime-green bull-racing stadium.
The bull-races for which the island is famous are indeed very exciting to watch: it is Ben Hur meets Kampong Cowboy, and not a little dangerous for the juvenile jockeys. One human tragedy almost takes place before our eyes in the brief time we are there.
Back at the Garuda Homestay in town we are in luck: Hadi the room boy masseur has magic hands and lots of gossip about the black magic that has consumed his young wife!


Fisherwoman on Lombang Timur Beach.

Colourful Madurese fishing vessels line a river estuary along the East Coast.

Sunday, 24th May 2009:  To Sumenep’s favourite beach resort
At  Javanese beach resorts the main idea is to take concrete promenades, carparks and plaza as close to the water as possible without actually harming  the concrete. At Lombang Beach Resort, one also finds the perfect soto madura in the extensive carpark (most day-trippers don’t actually go beyond the carpark to see the beach; and the dwarf casuarina forests for which the area is famous have all been humanely culled and placed on the carpark’s median strip, as bonsais in pots, for easy viewing).
On the way home we discover an idyllic fishermen’s village, called Lembung Timur, famous for the white sand pits in the living rooms. In these pits tough Madurese fishermen’s wives lie, like the late Eartha Kitt on a woolly carpet.
It is from this village, it transpires, that the fishermen of Jimbaran, Bali  trace their roots!

Monday, 25th May 2009
The highlight of our trip is a morning visit to the ravishingly romantic Asta Tinggi royal graveyards, south of Sumenep town.
The Muslim tradition of ziarah (pilgrimages to the graves of ancestors or saints) is a principal tenet of Islam: this morning the main ‘tomb-pavilions’ are full of devout school children, mostly from the madrasah/pesantren of East Javanese towns.


The principal walled courtyard of the Asta Tinggi royal grave complex, outside Sumenep.

All the vast complex’s gales are in the European Style as is the main tomb, a domed Italianesque structure, which houses the graves of the founders of the Cakraningrat Dynasty.
All other pavilions are Javanese, some with exquisitely carved and painted ceiling coffers, doors and wall panels.
The architect of the Sumenep kraton (palace) was Chinese and one finds here also refined chinoiserie decorative panelling in many of the buildings.
A visit to Asta Tinggi is a sumptuous and spiritual experience.


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