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Bule Kampoeng

This past weekend, we balik kampung, or returned to the village.  We spent the past four days in Tegal, so that I could be introduced around to the rest of the family, as well as the childhood friends.  Needless to say, I took the kampung by storm, becoming a minor celebrity by the end of the trip.  It didn’t hurt that I was able to speak a little of the local Javanese dialect.  That was a major ice-breaker and within minutes, I was fast friends with just about everyone we met.

It’s traditional for the children to care for the parents, so we brought money and oleh-oleh (gifts, usually food, from other places).  At first, mother-in-law was a bit icy, but by the end of the weekend, she was worrying about me (a good sign, I’m told) and when we left, I was calling her mami and was given cium-cium (double-cheek kiss).  Apparently, where my wealth and status had failed, my personal diplomacy had won the day.

We spent four days in Tegal, seeing the sights and meeting a thousand people.  We were so popular that we were double-booked for every meal, and everyone wanted to take us to this place or that.
Tegal is a small city of about 250,000 people, and it is also the equivalent of the county seat.  It has a mixed population of Java, Sunda and Chinese.  The local dialect is a confusing mixture of all three languages, and the culture is dominated by the Chinese.  In the center is a large traffic circle with traditional markets all around it.  At night, there’s a pasar malam, or night market, which is a distinctly Chinese thing.  There are food stalls and a small carnival, as well as hawkers of all kinds of trinkets.

Tegal is a very old seaport that has been taken over by Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and Japanese at various points in history.  Its primary agricultural product is sugar cane, which grows in dense fields all around the city.  It also has an area called Japang Indonesia, which is widely known for back-engineering Japanese machinery and making local knock-offs.

The city also hosts part of the Indonesian naval fleet, and there is a large compound on one side of Wati’s old neighborhood.  In fact, their band led the parade, which I’m coming to in about 43 pages.

I mentioned oleh-oleh before, which is typically some kind of specialty food from any given town or region.  Typically, when people travel to a place, they are expected to return with oleh-oleh for the folks back home.  It’s a regular cottage industry, especially in Tegal, which is famous for a number of foods.  In fact, even the restaurants that are peculiar to Tegal have become ubiquitous around the country.  They are called warteg, or warung tegal.  They are semi-permanent sheds built off the sides of houses that are known for being cheap, delicious and having good portions.  Various warteg specialize in one or two types of food and become well-known for it.

The street where Wati grew up is quite famous for its warteg.  They completely line the cobble-stone lane that stretches about five or six blocks.  There’s a morning market, where you can buy all sorts of cakes and rice dishes, as well as fruits and vegetables, and ginger coffee.  Around the corner is the Buddhist temple, which celebrated it’s 40th anniversary this weekend (more on that in a minute) and the hotel where we stayed, about three blocks from Wati’s home.  In the center of all this is a massive grey building with no windows, or door that I could see.  It looks at first like a factory, standing about four stories tall and spanning a full block.
Turns out it’s a bird house, and there are a couple of smaller ones (only two-story) nearby.  The Chinese love birds and consider having them live in the house to be very lucky.  Not only are there massive buildings dedicated to birds there, but many of the houses have roosting huts on the roof to encourage the birds to move in.

Wati’s mom, being somewhat ornery, chased the birds out of the house after Wati’s father died, because she was tired of cleaning up after them.  She’s a feisty little white-haired woman in her late 70s, and everyone is afraid of her (except me).  She has an opinion on every topic and is not afraid to speak it.  She lives with her maid in a large house, which is typical of Chinese design.  From the street, it looks like a small, simple brick house, but when you enter, it just seems to get bigger and bigger the longer you sit there.  It goes impossibly far back with a split second story facing on to a central commons that was probably open originally, but has been roofed over.  There’s probably six or seven bedrooms, plus formal living room, family room, dining room, and maid’s quarters.  When you step outside again, it’s hard to imagine how all that gets stuffed into the tiny façade.

We arrived in Tegal on the train.  This was my first train trip in Indonesia.  Tegal doesn’t have taxis.  The only form of public transportation, besides the usual angkot (small buses) are becak, which are the famous pedal-powered rickshaws one sees in movies.  Being so big, I had to take one by myself, along with the luggage, while Wati and her daughter Vanny followed in a second.  They delivered us to the hotel and the whole time I felt deeply sorry for the poor driver.  He was barely up to my chest and about as big around as my thumb, but he managed to get up a pretty good head of steam despite the load.
The hotel owners are friends of ours, so we stayed in their house at the back of the property.  This was also due to all the rooms having been taken by people coming for the temple celebration.  Their house was a large, breezy place full of plants, fish, birds, dogs, and a monkey.  It was like staying in the deep jungle, especially with the birds making all sorts of sounds that could have been the soundtrack to a Tarzan movie.

On Saturday morning, hour hosts loaded us in the car and took us to Guci (goo-CHEE) in the mountains northwest of town.  They have a mountain home there, on a ridge overlooking a broad valley, at this time full of cabbage, green onions and strawberries.  It was blessedly cold there, possibly the coldest I’ve felt in three years.  The views were jaw-dropping and the air was snapping clean, and it was blessedly quiet.  If our land ever gets a decent road, it would be a lot like this.

After spending a short while there, we proceeded up the mountain to Guci, which is a famous resort centered around a number of hot springs.  There are several high-end hotels that have a large swimming pool fed by the springs, but the poor folk go to another area of natural springs, falls and pools that are all steaming hot.  People flock to the area for the health benefits of the springs and the fresh air of the mountains.  I took a good soak in the pool, which was very refreshing, and even more so when I had to get out in the cold mountain air!
Going back down the mountain, we stopped at a restaurant famous for its sate kambing (goat satay).  They only use young kids, slaughtered and butchers on premise, and grilled to juicy perfection in the back.  Sate kambing is always served with kecap (where we get out English word), sweet soy sauce, and a salad of half-ripe tomatoes, cucumbers and chili peppers.  Sate kambing happens to be one of my favorite dishes, so I’ve become somewhat of a connoisseur, and I have to admit this was one of the finest I’ve eaten.
After gorging ourselves, we continued down the hill, stopping to buy durian, red rice (a special variety) and various other local goodies.

When we got back to the house, it was mid-afternoon, so we took a nap before meeting up with some of Wati’s family and friends for yet another round of sate kambing, which was also delicious and again we were rubbing our swollen bellies.
After coming back to the hotel, we went out to look at the festivities at the temple.  This was only the second time that the temple had been allowed to celebrate Sejit Kong Tjo.  Normally this is an annual type of festival, but the local wali (city government), being heavily slanted to Islam, had banned the annual parade for many years.  Two years ago, a more moderate group had been elected, and the temple had been allowed to celebrate with a parade.  For the occasion, groups had come from 42 other temples around Java.  There were literally bus-loads and truck-loads of people and stuff that had been arriving through-out the day.  Each temple had sent a toa pe kong, which are somewhat smaller versions of the old royal sedan chairs, carried on the shoulders of four to eight men.  They are intricately carved and painted, and each temple’s is unique.  There was even a small one from a temple in Bandung that was carried by children.

All of these were arranged around a large courtyard, and in the center was a massive incense burner.  It stood about 12 feet tall, and at the base was five feet wide.  It put out so much smoke that the entire neighborhood smelled of jasmine and sandalwood.  In the big hall, there was a shadow puppet play acting out the life of Buddha, which I had seen before in Houston, but never this elaborate.  The area in front of the stage was jam packed with food offerings from various families.  On a smaller stage were performances of dance and music put on by the various temples.

The next morning, we were supposed to go to the beach with more of Wati’s friends, but we were so exhausted from the day before, that we had to wave off in favor of sleeping a bit later.  By the time we got out, the parade was already forming up the street.  There was an incredible racket of drums, bells, cymbals, gongs, and fireworks.  Each temple had assembled in groups with the centerpiece being the to ape kong.  In most cases, there were flag-bearers, a push-cart with drums and bells, and a large group of ‘walkers.’ 

We watched as the parade led off with the Navy band, followed by a traditional Javanese band.  Then the first dragon came through the gate, followed by all the temples.  People were singing and banging anything that made noise and setting off strings of firecrackers on sticks, with little or no concern for anyone standing nearby.  Needless to say, we were pelted with shrapnel on a couple of occasions.  As each temple group came through the gate, they performed various things, such as flag-waving or group drumming or swinging the to ape kong back and forth while people timed themselves to run up and put offerings inside.

Finally, the last dragon came through and the whole parade began marching over the entire city.  There was a formal route, but at the end of it, the groups broke off and went in different directions, covering the town.

Wati and I took a position on a corner, because when the reached the wide spot in the street, they would perform various things, like swinging the to ape kong, or running around in circles, or various other feats, which you have to keep in mind, these things are quite heavy, made of jati and stuffed with offerings.

Unfortunately, the leader of one of the groups from the Tegal temple was Wati’s cousin.  When he spotted me (being the only six-foot tall white boy in the entire town), he ran over and recruited me to be a mikul (carrier).  He did this just as the group was reaching the intersection, which meant that, never having done this in my entire life, and being blind to boot, I was stuck in performance mode.  The lead mikul was barking directions and we all had to start running in a circle with the sedan car being the focal point.  Immediately, an entire herd of photographers appeared to document the bule mikul, as we marched another block or so, before they mercifully let me go.

The unfortunate part was, seeing that I was a good sport, three other groups recruited me, as well.  One was very heavy, with only four mikul, and I had to walk sideways with this thing.  At the intersection, they started dancing back and forth while swinging the to ape kong.  I had already lost my sandals while walking sideways, and the pavement was extremely hot.  I followed the guy next to me while the leader coached from the side.  People were running out to pour water on the street to cool my feet off while yet another herd of photogs and video cameras surrounded us.

The crowd went crazy seeing this giant white boy jumping into the festivities.  After that, I couldn’t walk ten feet without someone wanting to take a picture with me.  I’m sure there are several hundred of them floating around the internet by now.  Poor Wati was very patient and made jokes about people paying for the photo ops.  After the fourth to ape kong, Wati and I slipped away, before I died of heat stroke.
Needless to say, I’m now an honorary citizen of Tegal.

Even at 5 o’clock this morning, as we made our way by becak back to the train station, I heard several remarks to the effect of ‘there he is.’  As I sit here writing, my shoulders are bruised and battered, but none the worse for wear, and it was a good way to work off all the food we had eaten over the weekend.  I’m now, officially, bule kampung.

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