By way of Dampit



Seen from the air the crater lake of Mount Ijen could be a blue gem, a round turquoise. And at sunset when the crater rim catches the sun’s rays, it is a turquoise in a setting of gold. Mount Ijen, a live volcano, rises out of the Ijen Plateau at the eastern end of the island of Java. Betty had gone ahead, so I travelled there alone. The province of East Java has its own character. Production is ahead of population growth, so Jakarta papers say; for family planning projects are working well in East Java. The countryside is lush and towns such as Malang, Jember and others are notably clean and tidy. Because this is not tourist country, there is not so much worry about prices and bargaining; I liked it very much.

Though I could have ridden a bus on the main northern road, I came east from Malang by the southern route, by way of Dampit. The bus was an old Chevrolet that took the winding mountain roads at little over walking pace. It was so crowded that a boy shared a seat with the driver. When we passed police posts, the

conductor yelled and the many standing passengers squatted low, ducked their heads and giggled. Above the driver was a notice that read: Maximum load – 36 sitting, 1 standing.

They were farming people mostly, who had gone in the early hours of the morning to the market at Malang and returned now to their villages. One man who squatted on a packing case at the front of the bus seemed to be the village wit. He wore a drooping moustache and a whisp of beard and he talked without cease to the amusement of everybody close at hand. He spoke in Javanese, or perhaps Madurese, the local language, so I couldn’t understand a word of what he said… until he turned his attention directly to me and made a change to Bahasa Indonesia.

‘Sir, he said `if you are seeking a wife, this one would be very good.’ He indicated a plump girl who sat nearby. The girl burst into giggles, hung her head down, and smiled and smiled into her bosom. `Truly’, the man said and looked around him in the fashion of a wise bird.

He was what we call a ‘hard case’ and he drew out the subject of marriage between me and the plump virgin for twenty kilometres or more. In the end, he trapped me. ‘Boleh? Boleh?’ which meant, `She may?’ I gave in and said ‘Boleh,’ and to my astonishment, the whole busload echoed me in one happy shout: ‘BOLEH!’

The hard case and the girl’s mother began to speak earnestly in Javanese and the plump virgin and I dared not look at each other. I began to believe I really had gained a travelling companion: The fact that I was already married didn’t seem to worry the Muslim wag at all, but I was wondering how Betty would feel if I brought home a pretty, plump girl.

When we reached Dampit and the hard case, the plump virgin and her mother alighted and I was relieved. They farewelled me nicely: even the plump virgin gave me a broad smile.

We passed close to the south of the holy mountain, Semer, a perfect volcanic cone. We climbed a jagged range textured with coconut palms. The road twisted in a series of hairpin bends and long loops. ”

At the top of the range at a small village, the driver stopped the bus, leapt down and invited me to follow him. I would like you to stay here at Picket Nol’, he said. `Here it is quiet, there is beautiful scenery, many kinds of orchids and from here, you can walk to Seemer.’

He introduced me to a friend of his, the head man of Picket Nol, who offered me the traditional `empty house’ of the village. But like all westerners, I was on the move and I was short of time. I promised that, someday, I would come back. The driver was sad; but no hard feelings. `Walk along the road a bit to see the view’, he said and he called a passenger out of the bus to walk with me.

We walked about a kilometre to a bend in the road. We looked down a sweeping gorge to the lava flow of Semeru, to the Indian Ocean, to the sky beyond and it was just as beautiful as the driver promised. After about a quarter of an hour, the bus trundled round the corner. My fellow travellers smiled at me. Nobody resented the delay I had caused while they sweltered in a crowded bus. They had kept my seat. They smiled at me and I loved them just for their politeness. I felt ashamed of my western way of wasting time by always hurrying along. I shall go back one day to Piket Nol.

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