Sleepy island a home to boatbuilding tradition
Pagerungan Kecil island is so far from mainland Java that it takes several tiring days and changes of transportation to get there.
But this remote backwater is playing a crucial part of a landmark event in Indonesian maritime history.
Resident As'ad Abdullah al-Madani was commissioned to reconstruct an ancient ship based on reliefs found at Borobudur temple for the Borobudur Ship Expedition.
The tiny island, made up of four hamlets, is part of the Kangean Islands, lying east of East Java's Madura island and north of Bali, and coming under Sapeken subdistrict, in Madura's Sumenep regency. If it is known at all, it is for the natural gas project on a neighboring island.
Pagerungan Kecil village head Muhammad Ali said some 1,300 families, consisting of 4,600 residents, lived on this 3.5 kilometer by 1.6. kilometer island.
The islanders speak Bajau, a language native to South Sulawesi, but the people trace their descent from Abdul Rauf al- Madani, who was a religious leader at Nabawi Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
He went to Sulawesi to propagate Islam with a friend, Sheikh Hasan Yamani. Both were married in Sulawesi before Yamani decided to return home, leaving his friend behind.
Sheik Yamani, according to As'ad, is the grandfather of former Saudi Arabian oil minister and OPEC chairman, Zaqi Yamani.
Al-Madani moved to Bali before relocating to Pagerungan Kecil in 1910, where he died 22 years later.
Most of the established families on the island are related, but there are also new settlers, especially from Madura, and other ethnic groups of South Sulawesi who also speak the local dialect.
The passage of time and the development boom in the country in the last 20 years exerted little effect on the sedate way of life on the island.
Although there are several modern homes owned by wealthier residents, most of the houses continue to be built in the traditional way, on stilts.
"We are quite lucky here because the island is not inundated, even during high tide. Several neighboring islands are flooded to a depth of about 50 centimeters during high tide," said Ali.
The island is clean and well-kept, defying the common reputation of fishing villages as dirty and unkempt.
The main footpath connecting all the hamlets is made of concrete and the houses are surrounded by low, picket fences.
"We have also built several public bathhouses so islanders who do not have their own bathroom can use these public facilities," said Ali.
"Most used to wash themselves on the shore, and it was so dirty back then. But continuing campaigns on leading clean and healthy lives have changed behavior."
Unlike Madura, where the barren soil and lack of water resources is a chronic problem, Pagerungan Kecil is considered fortunate, as there are several sources of freshwater for the people's needs.
"The islanders may be isolated, but our village was named as an exemplary village (by the government) in 2000," Ali said.
"We have hosted several ministerial and other official visits since then."
But it is a long, rugged journey there and back. A ferry service every five days connects Sapeken village with Kali Anget in Sumenep, Madura island and Ketapang harbor in Banyuwangi, East Java.
Sapeken is a one-hour boat ride from Pagerungan Kecil. The ferry to Kali Anget leaves Sapeken at 11 a.m. and makes a stop at Kangean harbor after a three-hour trip.
Then the ferry leaves Kangean at 4 p.m. before arriving at Kali Anget at about 2 a.m. the next day.
It then entails a three-hour drive to Kamal harbor on the other side of Madura before taking another ferry to Surabaya's Tanjung Perak Harbor.
This time, thankfully, the journey takes only about 20 minutes.
If you are in a hurry, hire a motorized wooden boat from Banyuwangi. Usually, the trip takes about 12 hours, depending on the weather. Banyuwangi is some six hours drive from Surabaya.
If you have the money and are not looking for an adventurous trip, you can hire an airplane from Juanda Airport, Surabaya, to an airfield in Pagerungan Besar island for US$2000. A boat shuttle service to Pagerungan Kecil is available at a cost of Rp 10,000 per passenger.
All the hassle of getting there pays off once you see its beauty, which is ideal for lovers of the sea, divers or those who just want to get a glimpse of a part of Indonesia that is far from the beaten track.
The islanders are very friendly, and will invite visitors into their homes.
They are also becoming more conscious about preserving their little piece of paradise.
"The fishermen used to use bombs to catch fish but we have established a local rule that no bombs are allowed, to protect the coral reef," said Ali.
"There are several good sites for diving and we want to keep them, not only for the divers, but also for the sake of the fishermen themselves."
-- Novan Iman Santosa