Mon, 06 Mar 2000

Madurese are not coarse -- they are just direct

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): All the warnings about the unpredictable temper of its people could not lessen Lorraine's love for Madura.

In fact, the stories told to her about the coarse and unrefined manners of the Madurese made her even more determined to sail across to Java's neighbor to the north to check out the island for herself.

Being very interested in cooking, she also was intrigued by signs that confronted her in almost every corner of Jakarta screaming Soto Madura and Sate Madura. She wanted to find out what was so special about the food of this near, yet seemingly remote place.

During her five-year stay in Indonesia, she has crossed Madura Strait three times and still cannot get enough of the batik, boats and bull races. She is in the process of planning her next trip to Madura later this year, mainly to find out more about the role of batik in the daily lives of the Madurese, an extremely colorful and friendly people whose zest for life she finds most infectious.

"Actually it is like the flip side of a coin. For what people on this island (Java) call uncouth, I call open, direct and natural," Lorraine, an expatriate, told The Jakarta Post after giving a talk on Java's less luxuriant, but no less lascivious neighbor. The talk was part of the on-going lecture series organized by the Indonesian Heritage Society to explore the country's diverse cultures, both contemporary and traditional.

She compares the difference in attitude on the islands of Java and Madura this way: "A Javanese may be too polite to object to me parking my car in a certain place. He will not say anything to me. But I would not be surprised to find the air from my tires gone as soon as my back is turned. However in Madura, I feel more comfortable about being told what is appreciated and what is frowned upon by them. I know where I stand in Madura. In Java, I can only keep guessing."

During her trips, Lorraine has struck up a close relationship with a Madurese family that she considers very precious, and she wonders why more people do not visit the island when it is just a 30 minute boat ride from Surabaya.

Besides the view of the northern coastline of Java and of Mount Arjuna, south of Surabaya is so spectacular that people are known to have fallen in love all over again with Java.

Lorraine has stayed overnight in Sumanep, a town in eastern Madura that was a prosperous center of trade in the 18th century. There you can find a small but charming castle and a mosque built by affluent Chinese Muslim traders. She drove along the northern coast of Madura stopping for delicious cups of coffee made from green beans, boiled in cardamom and sipped amid scenery that is out of this world.

She rowed to one of the many islands east of Sumanep to witness an amazing fleet of fishing boats, decorated in all the colors of the rainbow and in all conceivable patterns.

These boats come in different sizes and are made for various weather, from dangerous wind, treacherous currents, rough seas to cruising over shallows.

However in fair weather or foul, the sea continues to be treated with great respect. Although the Madurese are conservative followers of Islam, they still appease the spirits of the sea by hanging beautifully painted talismans on their boats. This is believed to help them avoid poor catches, loss of their boats or death by drowning.

Lorraine sat in one of the Lis Lis boats that bring fish ashore from Mayang. These boats are virtually floating factories, where salt and water are kept boiling all the time in terra-cotta pots on firewood for blanching the fish and keeping them from rotting. As the stock thickens it turns into delectable terasi, or fish paste, which is eaten with much relish along with rice.

She has been to the famous bull races, but regrets that the final race was over before she could blink. Also, the crowds prevented her from seeing much, even from the VIP galleries. She prefers the more muddy, crowded, lively scene when the bulls are auctioned and later when the more informal, less crowded bull races are held at the village level.

Ever since she was a child in her native Sri Lanka, Lorraine was fascinated with islands. "And the smaller they are the more they tend to tickle my imagination. It is their capacity to home diverse people all practicing different religions, customs and festivals that is so noble. If a tiny country like my own can accommodate so much diversity, imagine how colorful the world must be."

As luck would have it she left for England where she married a geologist, whose job led them to live in different parts of Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. For Chris, Lorraine's husband, Madura is just one of the many interesting places he has come across during his travels. "But it is very special to me," adds Lorraine, who feels that maybe it is the similarity between the Madurese and the people of India and Sri Lanka, along with the glaring differences between them, that excites her.

She is a great admirer of the fierce individuality of the Madurese, which is reflected most in the batik found on the island. Each design is unique and even pieces made by the same person rarely look alike.

"But why should anyone be made to follow another's idea of perfection," questions Lorraine, who hopes that one day people around the world, especially in her troubled home of Sri Lanka and in Indonesia, will stop attacking those who are different.

For all the magic in life is said to lie in that very area where similarities between human beings fade into differences and differences fade back into similarities.