Tuesday, September 02, 2008
  Good and Badui

Anyone contemplating a weekend in West Java and seeking an insight into the mysterious, even mystical, ways of the Badui should be forewarned that getting within reach of their 'national park' is not the easiest of journeys. It's not so much the appalling condition of the roads, both major and minor, as the fact that it's necessary to travel through much of the night in order to arrive at the 'gateway', the small town of Ciboleger, in time to put in a full day's hiking.

For city folk such as ourselves, this could be a serious undertaking. Our group of three grandparents, seven parents and seven children aged between five and fifteen plus a pembantu (housemaid), an aunt and a mate - a total of sixteen if you can work out the relationships, did okay.

We made contact with our guide and porter just beyond the gate in Kadu Ketug, one of the outermost outer Badui villages. As we were kitting up, adjusting supplies and generally wondering how we were going to cope after a fairly sleepless Friday night, we watched a long line of army squaddies wending their way in escorted by Badui from both the inner area, wearing white, and outer area, wearing black. A couple of squaddies told us that they were happy to be there because "there were no police".

The first day's trek, to our overnight stay was accomplished without great difficulty, apart from me having to cope with the extra bucketload of beef rendang prepared by 'Er Indoors for our evening meal. It didn't make for easy portage and I was tempted to dump it into the river below this swaying and creaking bamboo bridge. After all, I am nominally a vegetarian.

The bridges in Badui land are expected to last six years, with occasional patches, before they are torn down and replaced. Most of us thought that this particular representative of vernacular architecture was at least eight years old.

Just on the right can be seen a building site; the erection of a wood framed rumah panggung, a house built on wooden stilts placed on rocks or dug into the ground. Layers of split bamboo make up the walls and floor that, according to Badui custom, must remain above the ground, overlapping layers of sugar palm leaves tied to the top of the wooden stilts act as the roof. Construction is very much a manly and communal occupation, and remarkably quick.

On the left is one of a series of rice barns, not that I saw any rice growing. Something I did notice on the outskirts of a couple of villages were round holes in the ground which at first I took to be partly drilled wells. Actually they were banana stores: the fruit is placed in the holes, covered with banana leaves and left for a couple of weeks, after which thebananas are semi-cooked and ready for consumption.

This is a view of the village we stayed in that night.

That was some night. Sleeping on a bamboo floor exposed to the elements, albeit with a roof to keep off the rain which didn't come, is not the best way to recover from a day's trekking after a sleepless night, but somehow the repeated sleeps - is it light yet? - worked.

We had eaten before it got dark and then ghost stories were told to the children - "It's ok to scream now" - and we adults settled down to chat about this and that. As darkness drew in there was an overwhelming sense that we were returning to humanity's roots where artifices and inessentials were few.

At some point, needing a pee, I was pointed in the right direction but couldn't. It wasn't so much that I can't when being watched but something was preventing the flow, so I prayed to the tree in front of me: "Excuse me tree, I need to pee" and, lo, it worked.

'Er Indoors told us of one of our party who'd given me a much-needed foot massage whilst I was trying to haunt the dreams of our younger ones; she had come to realise that she could 'cure' people, as she certainly did with my foot. Both wives are taking 'lessons' from a 'wise' lady we know who Suharto's wife consulted regularly..

A strange sight, apart from a youth wearing a T-shirt declaring that "Punk's Not Dead", was the amount of litter along the paths, much of it actually dropped by the Badui themselves. Here we were doing our best to leave the place as we found it, only to realise that we were actually trying to leave it better. I wondered if the Badui, with ancient roots, were similar in certain respects to the Mentawai of Siberut Island who I visited some 15 years ago. They believe that their environment is pre-ordained and everything has a value. They adapt to the modern world in limited ways, but the outer ring protects their inner 'sacred' sanctum, and what we are allowed to see is of relative insignificance.

Litter is ephemeral, as are we visitors.

There is much more I could record, of the torrential rain the next day which lead me to wipe out a few of my friends as I failed to ski down a muddy incline, and of the joys of fresh air and the sound of nature with no electronic intrusions as we had left iPods and PSPs back in the car park. However, I could also ponder the significance of one of our party 'guiding' us with a GPS phone - "It's 400 metres in a straight line" took way over an hour.

I bought some souvenirs, some honey in a Tehbotol bottle, a length of ikat, woven cloth we'd seen various women clicking-clacking at on their looms, and a length of 'traditional design' batik cloth, made industrially, probably in Solo. Whatever, our little injection of cash should go some way to fueling their lamps.

We were strangers in a strange land and I don't think we were particularly welcome. Anthropologists make it their business to explore the traditions, language and culture of 'ethnic' groups, but I'd prefer to let them be and to learn what I can as I pass through without asking too many questions.

I was contented that weekend, so I'd like to cross into their world again.

Photos 1 and 3 © 'An Old Blogging Friend'


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