Kalianget: A sad reminder of vanished prosperity

Jeremy Allan, Contributor, Madura

When I mentioned my plan to ride across Madura during Ramadan, fellow author Bart Santema asked for my assistance in researching the life of A. Alberts, author of The Islands and other volumes of Indisch Dutch colonial literature.

Alberts had been an administrator in Marengan, eastern Madura, during the 1920s. Bart had visited the area in 2005, but was informed by a fellow passenger on the ferry back to Java that he had missed the Dutch-era social club, the precursor to today's expatriate bars, which Alberts had presumably frequented to assuage the boredom and loneliness of his remote posting.

A bar operator himself in his spare time, Bart had been intrigued by descriptions of an Italian marble dance floor and a solid teak bar, both perfectly preserved, according to his informant.

I began my search shortly after dawn in the port of Kalianget, where the ferry from Java had landed. Unfortunately, I had overslept, and missed the opportunity to have my own breakfast while the devout, which seems to include the entire population of the island, stoke up for the long fast with a substantial pre-dawn meal.

Kalianget is a cultured, almost stately community of thick-walled colonial houses lining wide, shaded streets with well-kept open areas. This oasis of former prosperity in otherwise impoverished Madura was based on salt. The Dutch had employed the flat seaside topography and blistering midday heat of Madura to manufacture this essential commodity, on which they held a lucrative monopoly.

Asking directions from the numerous residents taking early morning walks yielded no clues. I was directed to several colonial-era public buildings. One possibility was the Gedung Rakyat, an open-sided structure which I assumed to have been a Stamboul theater, where Dutch and Indonesians alike had enjoyed overwrought melodramas not unlike today's television soap operas. However, marble tiles and a teak bar were nowhere in evidence.

I decided to ride to Merangan, where Alberts had been stationed and where a little-known VOC-era fort is located. The fort proved to be an interesting juxtaposition of history and utility. The stout teak doors and three-meter-high stone walls were intact, but now enclosed an animal quarantine facility.

Bart believed that the social club might have been located close to the fort, so I asked at the nearby crossroads, and was directed to a warehouse. This, I was told, had been the social club in Alberts' time. But only the foundations remained, on which rested the low-grade concrete, rotting wooden beams, and zinc roof of a utility shed.

Disappointed again, I returned to Kalianget, hoping to track down the illusive dance hall.

I had long abandoned hope of breakfast, but I really needed a coffee. I looked despondently at the row of shuttered shops along the main street, then noticed one woman, in full Islamic dress, sweeping the sidewalk in front of an open door. Since in most Islamic traditions a person, like myself, traveling a long distance for a valid reason is not obliged to fast, I asked her if there might be a warung nearby that serves people who are excused from fasting.

She asked me to wait, disappeared into her shop, and reappeared a few moments later through the doorway of an adjacent house. She made surreptitious waving motions to me and whispered ""Mister, Mister"" just loudly enough for me hear. She indicated I should enter the house. When I did, she closed a curtain tightly behind me, blocking the interior from public view.

I was in a gloomy, ramshackle room, lit only by rays of the morning sun passing through cracks in the wooden wall. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and I could see an old man sitting across a makeshift counter from an equally ancient woman. This was reasonable, as the elderly need not fast, though many do. Without a word, the woman poured my coffee and placed it on the counter. My fellow customer was friendly and we chatted. He became enthused when I told him the purpose of my visit to Kalianget.

In his youth, he had worked in the salt warehouses. To my astonishment, he praised his former supervisors, the Dutch expatriates who had continued to manage the salt-panning operations after Indonesian independence, and roundly vilified the local managers who had stepped in after the operation was nationalized and foreigners deported in the late 1950s. My informant told me, with some pride, of a failed attempt by nationalist guerrilla fighters to dynamite a Dutch-built power pylon.

I was most surprised by the reverence that he, and other residents I encountered that day, granted the Dutch managers, 50 years on. They remembered their names -- Kaiser, Simon -sometimes with the honorific tuan which carries semantic overtones of ""lord"" or ""master"".

I asked the old man about the social club. He insisted that the building I sought was the Gedung Bioskop, the cinema I had visited, but had been unable to enter. I returned to the structure. With no one in sight, I climbed the back stairs and pulled on a door, which opened. I found myself in a projection booth, staring at a decades-old film projector, all parts intact.

I looked through the slot to see rows of park-bench seating and a cloth screen nailed to the back wall, as though the building would soon be opened for the matinee.

Returning to ground level, I walked around the rear of the building, facing the sea a hundred meters distant, and saw an empty, crumbling swimming pool and a terrace paved with what looked to be good-quality tiling, presumably the Italian marble that Bart had mentioned.

Judging the distance from the projection booth to the screen, I realized that the theater only accounted for half the length of the building. I noticed a breach in the wall. Squeezing myself through, I stumbled over a decades-old upright bass, and saw other evidence that this had, indeed, been an entertainment center, with a sizable dance floor, a stage, and a service area at the opposite end of the building. Probably the ""teak bar"" described to Bart had been two semi-circular wooden partitions, which could raised to allow drinks and food to be passed from the service area to the ballroom.

The intact cinema projector and narrow-gauge locomotive -- an icon of the region -- indicated that at one point the Gedung Bioskop might have been intended as a museum. Nevertheless, like most of the other colonial structures engineered to last for centuries, neglect was transforming what could have been an intriguing glimpse into a bygone era into a sad reminder of vanished prosperity. Now only a handful of colonial-era buildings remain in good repair. I passed one on my way to Sumenep, where my long-delayed breakfast awaited in a hotel coffee shop. The towering, whitewashed structure seemed alive, and with good reason. The building was set up as a nesting area for swallows to manufacture the ingredients for bird's nest soup.

Sumber: The Jakarta Post, Mon, 10/29/2007

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