A short walk through the streets of Sumenep

Two friends head home after mid afternoon prayers at Sumenep's Grand Mosque

Two friends head home after mid afternoon prayers at Sumenep’s Grand Mosque

The plan was to walk seven kilometres through the streets of Sumenep, leaving my hotel room in the mid afternoon and returning at nightfall as I had done two weeks earlier in Jogjakarta (see “A twenty-first century walk along Jogjakarta’s ancient axis”). It was a very modest target, or so I thought. But when I stepped into Trunojoyo Street the plan unravelled immediately. In the end I managed just three kilometres in three hours.

Before I tell you why, let me step back a little and paint some context. If you squint and look hard at a map of Indonesia you might see Sumenep (pronounced /SOO.m’n’p/) at the eastern end of Madura, the flat, dry island that stretches out snoozing in the tropical sun off the north coast of east Java. Indonesia’s economic boom has been looking in another direction and hasn’t noticed Sumenep yet. Its economy still relies mostly on fishing, the production of sea salt, some cattle farming and small orchards. Pilgrims visiting the royal burial ground of Asta Tinggi on the outskirts of town, and the nearby holy tomb of Sayyid Yusuf, also contribute. A bit of revenue comes from support operations for oil drilling in the Kangean islands further east.

There are a few new cars and motorbikes in the streets, of course, but unemployment – or more accurately, gross under-employment – remains endemic. Consumer goods that are everyday items elsewhere in Indonesia may be luxuries in Sumenep. I went into a supermarket looking for chocolate (my weakness). I couldn’t find any on the shelves but staff led me to a locked, glass-panelled cabinet. Behind the glass there were KitKat bars, and Indonesia’s Silver Queen chocolate bars, even a lone packet of Australian TimTams. But no-one could locate the key so I had to peer longingly, swallow hard, and move on.

Burn marks left by cigarette butts n the table in my hotel room. I'm surprised the hotel hasn't burned down.

Burn marks left by cigarette butts on the table in my hotel room. I’m surprised the hotel hasn’t burned down.

I stayed at the Wijaya I Hotel, which was once Sumenep’s premiere hotel. It may still be. (You’ll find it mentioned in Lonely Planet guides). My VIP room cost Rp.135,000 a night, around $10.00 US. The hotel was a fairly typical small town hotel, but even by small-town standards the label “VIP” was way over-the-top for the quality of the room I was given. It had no towel or soap. It had no hot water or toilet paper. Its Formica-topped table was covered in black welts from cigarette butts that had burned out along its edge over many years. But I don’t want to sound sour, so let me be even-handed. It did have an air-conditioner (with the reassuring buzz of a diesel tractor), a small table-top fridge (that kept my drinks nice and warm), and a tiny TV set (with exotically snowy pictures from its three channels). And when I moved in I was given an enthusiastic welcome by a family of mosquitoes.

The bathroom in my VIP hotel room. You flush the toilet by bailing water into it from the adjacent tub.

The bathroom in my “VIP” hotel room. You flush the toilet by bailing water into it from the adjacent tub.

I have to confess that despite these comforts I was quite pleased to leave the room and stride out into the mid afternoon heat. But in the hard streets of Sumenep I was tripped up by a problem that sabotaged my grand walking plan. The people were much too friendly… in fact so spontaneously hospitable and curious that my progress slowed to a crawl. Again and again I was waylaid and invited to chat, and the chat always included the compulsory ceremony of group photographs using mobile phones.

A large black akik opal ring, typical of the rings currently fashionable (for men) in Indonesia.

A large black akik opal ring, typical of the rings currently fashionable (for men) in Indonesia.

My first stop was about a hundred metres from the hotel. I walked past a street side workshop where an artisan was squatting on the footpath trimming coloured stones (akik) with a small circular saw. Beside him a display counter was loaded with opal-stone rings. Customers could choose a raw stone and have it shaped, polished and fitted to their preference, or they could choose a ready-made ring. There is something of a mania for akik rings in Indonesia at the moment. They are especially popular with men who believe they confer protection and special powers on the wearer.

A tray of akik rings on sale in Sumenep.

A tray of akik rings on sale in Sumenep.

Surprisingly, the young akik salesman, Dayat, didn’t want to sell me a ring. He wanted to talk religion. Madura is one of the most strongly Islamic regions of Indonesia. Its brand of Islam is conservative and closely bound up with the power of traditional religious leaders called kyai who rule with iron authority over mosques, religious schools and social life. On the two nights of my stay in Sumenep I was blasted out of bed at 3.30 in the morning by an hour of high-decibel dzikr chants and sholawat songs hammering on the doors and windows of the neighbourhood from loudspeakers in the local mosque. As far as I could tell the neighbourhood slept sweetly through the half-musical cacophony, but being unused to it, I couldn’t. Nevertheless, as my head cleared and I relaxed into the rhythms of the incantations, I felt – as I always do – a powerful affection for the music of Islam. It is an ambience as public, as comforting and as beautiful (yes… beautiful, even when distorted by screeching, tinny, pre-dawn loudspeakers) as Islamic architecture, dress, food, etiquette, calligraphy, decoration etc.

Dayat, the youthful akik salesman, turned out to be an amateur sociologist and theologian. He stumbled into an apology for the tarnished reputation of Islam.

“Some people say the Bali bombers and other Muslim terrorists are not real Muslims, because they act contrary to the peaceful tenets of our religion. But Islam is a community and extremists have come from that community, so they are Muslims.”

He looked at me with agonised earnestness.

“As a Muslim I am ashamed of the reputation my faith has acquired for indiscriminate violence (kekerasan membabibuta was the phrase he used). I’m truly sorry.”

Inwardly I thought Dayat was being much too tough on himself and his religious community. Much (not all… but much) of the “indiscriminate violence” he was apologising for was frustrated, blind retaliation for innumerable instances of equally indiscriminate violence visited on Muslims in many parts of the globe by the ruthless forces of Euro-American power. This doesn’t excuse indiscriminate, violent retaliation, of course, but it helps us to understand it without having to put up with the gormless rhetoric of moral outrage and cultural superiority that marks so much discussion of “terrorism” in Europe, America and Australia. Unfortunately Dayat had adopted some of the premises of this rhetoric.

With Dayat, the akik salesman who felt ashamed of the violence committed in the name of Islam.

With Dayat, the akik salesman who felt ashamed of the violence committed in the name of Islam.

I took my leave and walked on towards Sumenep’s Grand Mosque in the centre of town. Built in the late eighteenth century with the tiered, pyramid-shaped roof characteristic of Indonesia’s pre-modern mosques it is fronted by a massive, multi-level gateway painted in an attractive combination of white and bright yellow. In front of the gate I fell into conversation with two young women, visitors from Pamekasan about 50 kilometres away in central Madura. Rennie, aged around 25, was wearing a full length black shift with her head swathed in a close-fitting, black hijab scarf. She radiated a forbidding aura of nun-like severity. Her younger friend Ita was also dressed in irreproachable Islamic style but her clothes were more colourful, even a bit trendy. Both were under the watchful guardianship of Ita’s older brother.

Sumenep's Grand Mosque with its traditional pyramid shaped, tiered roof.

Sumenep’s Grand Mosque with its traditional pyramid shaped, tiered roof.

They wanted to take a photograph of the tall, grey-haired foreigner doggedly plodding the streets of Sumenep with a rucksack on his back. They used their mobile phones, of course. When I suggested a reciprocal photo on my camera, Rennie glanced around nervously and declined, presumably out of religiously inspired modesty. But Ita had no such scruples. She handed my camera to her brother and simply commanded him to take a photograph of her and me. When Rennie saw the image her resistance evaporated and she solemnly but very willingly joined us. Moments later, looking at the images, she even let out a delighted laugh, although her chaperone was frowning.

I pose with Ita (left) and Rennie (right) in front of the big entry gate leading to the Grand Mosque.

I pose with Ita (left) and Rennie (right) in front of the big entry gate leading to the Grand Mosque.

Religious bigots take note. If you allow smart-phone technology and social media into the fortress of your ideology, sooner or later they will escape your control and bite you where it hurts. Eventually (though not always immediately) new media will subvert your messages. As Marshall McLuhan – the Canadian pioneer of media studies – famously said “The medium is the message.” Mobile phones, their cameras, their photos and Facebook are not the ultimate as tools of female emancipation, but for many women they are an unstoppable beginning.

It's got everything. Pak Sariman's iced fruit confection, just Rp.5,000.

It’s got everything. Pak Saniman’s iced fruit confection, just Rp.5,000.

I was feeling thirsty and noticed a drinks stand in a side street beside the mosque. I sat down behind it on a rough bamboo bench. Pak Saniman, the proprietor, picked up a dessert bowl and with a few deft flourishes of a ladle lifted diced pineapple, mango, avocado, water melon and jackfruit from a colourful row of fat jars. This was followed by some squares of sweet bread and a psychedelic landslide of green rice-flour noodles. Cloudy sweet syrup was poured in and diluted with a bit of coconut milk. To complete the concoction pebbles of ice were added. All this cost Rp.5,000, about 30 US cents. Pak Saniman had been at his stand since nine o’clock in the morning. It was now around 5.00 pm. As I slurped up the refreshment he told me he had almost emptied his jars of fruit and was about to go home. He had Rp.150,000 (about $12.00 US) in his pocket. The early weeks of Muharram (the first month in the Islamic calendar) are usually very profitable, he said, but when the rainy season begins in November business would drop off. With a gleam of pride he told me his fruit drink stall had put a daughter through nursing school and was paying the bills for another daughter to complete secondary school in distant, trendy Surabaya.

I take a selfie with Pak Sariman (left) and another customer Muhammad Hayat (centre).

I take a selfie with Pak Saniman (left) and another customer Muhammad Hayat (centre).

Hmmm... every walker should try this. Delicious.

Hmmm… every walker should try this. Delicious.

Looking warily left and right I crossed Sumenep’s main street in front of the mosque and headed into the town’s park-like central plaza. I sat down on a concrete bench to watch children driving battery-powered mini cars and motorbikes around a circular pathway in the park. I was joined by Lisa, Layla and four friends, secondary school girls from Sumenep. They demanded (with perfect politeness, of course) that I pose with them for photographs. Smoothing down her blouse and pulling at her headscarf Lisa asked a question that her friends had been whispering to her.

“Which are prettier, the girls of Australia or the girls of Madura?”

My answer produced a dazzling row of smiles and demands for more photos.

With Lusi, Layla and friends. Note the mobile phones in their hands.

With Lisa, Layla and friends. Note the mobile phones in their hands.

I walked a little further and stopped in front of the Labang Mesem, the Gate of Smiles. This is the entrance to Sumenep’s royal palace. Night was now approaching with its usual tropical swiftness, but a young man emerged from the gate and invited me in. He was neatly dressed in a batik shirt, immaculately creased trousers and polished black shoes. His name was Inong and he worked for Sumenep’s tourism service. Inside, the front reception hall of the palace was already brilliant with light from the many bulbous colonial-style lamps that hung from the airy ceiling among carved, gold-embossed wooden posts. A group of university students were rehearsing a ceremony to be held there the next day. I tried to sneak around the edge of the hall, but I was spotted.

“Photos!” someone cried.

The rehearsal came to a sudden halt and a more immediate, more urgent ceremony got under way. Smart phones appeared. I estimate that in the good-natured ten minutes that followed at least 30 photographs were taken, each one accompanied by laughter and calls for more.

Photo-time in the front portico of Sumenep's palace.

Photo-time with local university students in the front audience hall of Sumenep’s palace.

It was hard to get away but eventually I arrived back in the street to find that night had fallen. I circled around through some back streets and went down a grimy alley behind the Grand Mosque.

“Good evening, sir!” a voice called in English from the streetside shadows. “Please come and talk with me.”

I was in front of a motorbike servicing workshop. Engine parts lay scattered on the oil-blackened floor. To one side, on a bamboo bench, sat Pak Romadon waiting for his bike to be fixed. He had once worked in Bali where he used his English every day, but in Sumenep very few people knew English, he told me, so he grabbed any chance he could to practise with foreign visitors.

A thought-provoking conversation in English with Pak Romadon.

A thought-provoking conversation in English with Pak Romadon.

Our conversation roved far and wide and eventually settled on the Suramadu Bridge, the 5.4 kilometre bridge finished in 2009 that spans the Strait of Madura and connects the island with the city of Surabaya. I asked Pak Romadon whether the bridge had brought changes to the previously stagnant economy of Madura.

“Yes, it has transformed the city of Bangkalan,” he said.

Bangkalan is at the other end of Madura near Surabaya. It was once as quiet and as isolated as Sumenep is now, but the bridge has transformed it into Madura’s biggest and most commercially dynamic city.

“But the bridge has not yet touched us here in the east of the island,” Pak Romadon said. He paused, then added “…except negatively.”

“What do you mean?”

“The bridge has made it easier for Surabaya’s drug dealers to access the young men of Sumenep,” he said. “Sabu-sabu (crystal methamphetamine) has become a real problem since the bridge opened.”

He looked up and down the dark alley only metres from the city’s grand mosque.

“It’s even here,” he murmured. “That’s all the bridge has done for us. So far.”

It was now completely dark. Reluctantly I left Pak Romadon and headed to the Wijaya I Hotel. I had fallen far short of my walking target, but somehow it didn’t matter. Sumenep had spoken, and it had a story worth hearing. Plus… I had taken quite a few photos.

An Italianate mausoleum in Sumenep's Asta Tinggi royal burial ground

An Italianate mausoleum beside a traditional Madurese rest pavilion in Sumenep’s Asta Tinggi royal burial ground.

A twenty-first century walk along Jogjakarta’s ancient axis

This will be a short walk – around ten kilometres – but I sense it is going to test me to my septuagenarian limits. I’m in Jogjakarta in Central Java, Indonesia. I’m planning to walk from my hotel, the Novotel, in General Soedirman Street, down the main axis that runs north – south through the centre of the city to the alun-alun square in front of the sultan’s palace. That’s the half way turn-around point. I’ll find a shady place to rest there, maybe a drinks kiosk or eatery. Then I’ll start back, retracing my steps for part of the way, stopping to rehydrate with a big ice-laden Coca-Cola at the McDonalds restaurant in Malioboro Mall. Then I’ll veer off across the Code /cho.day/ River through the Kota Baru neighbourhood to emerge on General Soedirman Street not far from the hotel.

This is where I'm headed, the front portico (pagelaran) of the sultan's palace in Jogjakarta

This is where I’m headed, the front portico (pagelaran) of the sultan’s palace in Jogjakarta

That’s the plan. The challenge is (1) to survive the afternoon heat (it will be over 30 degrees and very humid), and (2) survive the ultra-dense unpredictable traffic, the narrow footpaths cluttered with vendors’ stalls and parked vehicles, and the relentless crush of people. More than a test of stamina, the walk will be a test of concentration. The important thing will be to stay focussed, well hydrated and take it slowly. If I bomb out – if I succumb to the conditions – I can get home by taxi or becak pedicab, or even by horse-drawn andong carriage (hmmm… that last option is a temptation). And the hotel is right opposite Bethesda Hospital. So I think I’ve got my safety nets fixed up.

But wish me luck anyway.


I walked from the lobby of the hotel in the afternoon warmth of Tuesday, October 6th and crossed busy General Soedirman Street. I turned right and headed towards the small pillar-like monument at the north end of Jogjakarta’s two-kilometre-long main street. The temperature was a sliver above 30 degrees and it was quite humid. But the sky was very hazy and this filtered the harshness from the sunlight.

Instantly I stepped into an obstacle course, or so it appeared to my wary eyes. The tiled footpath was densely packed with parked motor bikes and, in some places, cars. Here and there I was forced to go around them by stepping into the traffic boiling past on the street. But I couldn’t just look left and right. I had to look down to check that my feet were not straying into the drainage ditches that flanked the path here and there. At the same time I had to keep my eyes raised, looking intently ahead to avoid the sharp edges of the awnings on street side stalls. They came at my tall body more-or-less at forehead height.

I stooped under a cloth awning propped up by bamboo poles. It stretched across the footpath to the edge of the street, so to avoid stepping around it into the street I had to duck my head and go straight ahead under it. I found myself in a small tent-like eatery where two ladies were standing at a table hammering and grinding spices, mixing them with crushed chilli peppers and carefully blending them in a concave mortar stone ready for the evening’s cooking. As I manoeuvred past my foot caught on a low plastic stool and toppled it towards an iron brazier that was smoking on the footpath. There was no danger, no emergency, no damage, but the two ladies grabbed the chance for a chat. I was pressed down onto a stool, a glass of tea appeared in my hand, and we exchanged introductions. They were Ibu (Mrs) Putri – wearing a red tee shirt over a practical calf-length skirt – and the older Ibu Sungkono – wearing a dark floral blouse over an ankle-length brown batik sarong.

Ibu Putri and Ibu Sengkono in their streetside eatery.

Ibu Putri and Ibu Sengkono in their streetside eatery.

They had plenty to complain about but their complaints came with bright smiles. Their main beef was the celebration of Jogjakarta’s 259th birthday the following day.

“It will suck customers away from us into the centre of town,” Ibu Putri said with a resigned laugh.

I pointed out that the tee shirt she was wearing was stamped with a message promoting the anniversary celebration. She laughed again.

“The sultan wants us to support the celebration,” she said. “So of course we do.”

I left the tiny eatery and a few minutes later crossed the Gondolayu Bridge over the Code River. (Gondolayu means “the smell of death”… what a great name for a bridge!) To the left I saw a jigsaw puzzle of flimsy houses lying stacked one above the other up the bank of the river. They were painted in a kaleidoscope of bright colours. I recalled that a visionary Catholic priest, Father Mangunwijaya, had bustled past his more conservative colleagues in the neighbouring Catholic catechism centre and decided something had to be done about their demoralised, crime-ridden neighbours. He cajoled and inspired them to take pride in their settlement. New, healthier houses were built, trees and gardens planted, and paths repaired. The favela revived and to further lift spirits, the residents were given paint and encouraged to brighten up the whole precinct. Father Mangunwijaya died fifteen years ago, but his vision stuck. Today the riverside suburb is no estate agent’s fantasy, but its residents take pride in it and no longer see it only as a place to escape from.

The colourful favela on the banks of the Code River

The colourful favela on the banks of the Code River

A quarter of an hour later I was standing at the intersection famous for its small obelisk known simply as The Monument (Tugu). Built by the first sultan of Jogjakarta in the late 18th century, it is one of a series of landmarks connecting Jogjakarta with the guardian mountain Merapi to the north, and the realm of Nyai Roro Kidul, guardian queen of the southern ocean. This fragment of an ancient geography is alive and well. In fact as I stood pondering the Tugu I heard a clattering behind me. Chairs were being set in place for a ceremony to be held the following day (Jogja’s 259th anniversary) to formally open a new commemorative site. One corner of the intersection had been demolished and replaced with a flat, polished stone platform. On it stood a series of tiny models lined up to represent the sacred axis that fixes Jogjakarta’s place, and the sultan’s authority, in the world. From north to south in a straight line… mountain, tugu, palace, royal hunting lodge, sea.

Jogjakarta's Tugu landmark (Wikipedia image)

Jogjakarta’s Tugu landmark (Wikipedia image)…

... and beside the Tugu a model of Jogjakarta's sacred axis. Krapyak Fort, the palace and the Tugu are visible here.

… and beside the Tugu a model of Jogjakarta’s sacred axis. Krapyak royal hunting lodge (bottom), the palace (centre) and the Tugu (top) are visible here.

I turned into Prince Mangkubumi Street and headed away from the Tugu along the two kilometres of arrow-straight thoroughfare that leads south to the palace. Halfway along its name changes to Malioboro and it turns into Jogjakarta’s famed shopping precinct. On both sides of Malioboro Street vendors jam the footpath, selling mostly batik clothes and touristy tee-shirts, but also antiques, jewelry, fake watches, traditional sweetmeats and garishly coloured drinks. In places the footpath is scarcely a metre wide. It is difficult to squeeze through as shoppers stand haggling or trying to prise the vendors away from their mobile phones.

Looking into the setting sun at the bottom end of Malioboro. I'm about halfway through the walk.

Looking into the setting sun at the bottom end of Malioboro. I’m about halfway through the walk.

At the bottom end of Malioboro – now about two hours into the walk and not far from the palace – I swerved away from Jogja’s old pre-Islamic axis and headed into the strongly Islamic Kauman. This is the crowded neighbourhood around the city’s main mosque where the kaum Muslim, the “orthodox” Muslim community, live. In its quiet alleys women are hooded with hijab scarves (called jilbab in Indonesia) and wear long tube-like shifts. The men wear the black peci fez caps or the white embroidered takiyah skull cap. Arabic dominates in names and signs and there are little shops selling religious books. The tiled, pyramid shaped roof of Jogjakarta’s old mosque rises modestly over the neighbourhood. As I approached it twilight was starting to spread its pastel blue across the sky. Presently the maghrib call to prayer would roll gently over the neighbourhood. It would draw unhurried eddies of worshippers from their houses and, for a short time, would still the shouts of the children playing dusty soccer in front of the mosque.

Jogjakart'as old mosque rises above tghe alleys of the Muslim Kauman neighbourhood

Jogjakarta’s old mosque rises above the alleys of the Muslim Kauman neighbourhood

I turned away from the mosque and walked a few metres to the spacious, bare, sandy alun-alun square. On its south edge stood the low profile front portico of the palace, and ahead of me the two rather battered but still sacred banyan trees in the centre of the square. A small group of teenage girls, all wearing hijab scarves, were being coached in sprinting techniques. They lined up with their backs to the palace, crouched, and when their coach (a head-scarfed woman) shouted “Go!” sprang up and ran towards a finishing line stretched between the two sacred trees. Something deeply symbolic is going on here, I thought, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.


Athletics practice on the alun-alun square in from of the palace. The girls are running towards the square's two sacred banyan tress (top image).

Athletes practice on the alun-alun square in front of the palace. The girls are running towards the square’s two sacred banyan trees (top image).

It was time to start back. I walked from the alun-alun to one of my favourite places in Jogjakarta, a nearby strip of cubicles and stalls selling magazines and books. I stopped to chat with my friends, stall holders Ibu Paimin and Ibu Mini. I asked after a particular title. Ibu Mini frowned for a second, sitting among half a dozen metre-high stacks of books under magazines hanging like dense washing from wires above. She pondered for no more than five seconds then her hand groped behind her and her fingers ran down a pile of books like fingers on a vertical piano keyboard. With scarcely a backward glance she extracted the book I was looking for.

I pose with my favourite bookseller, Ibu Mini. She says her name fits her stature.

I pose with my favourite bookseller, Ibu Mini. She says her name fits her stature.

My backpack was considerably heavier and my wallet somewhat lighter as I left the little book market. Night was falling and I hurried north along Malioboro towards its big shopping mall. I was thirsty, and only a Coke from McDonalds would quench that thirst. There, half way along the ancient axis that would be commemorated in a ceremony the following day, stood the golden arches of McDonalds. I almost ran up the steps into the dazzling glitz of the mall. Shamelessly I jostled ahead of other diners through the glass doors of McDonalds.

“A large diet Coke, please,” I said. “No… make that two.”

Smiles with those fries?

Fries with those smiles?


An hour later, back at the hotel, I noted that the walk had taken almost four hours (too many stops!) and I had covered 10.54 kilometres. I felt good, but as I prepared to take a bath I noticed that my black inner shirt, and my long-sleeve outer shirt, were crusted with big streaks of white salt, the dried residue of my perspiration. Hmmm, I would have to replace that somehow. Extra-salty French fries at McDonalds, maybe?

Mister! Can we practise our English with you?

Mister! Can we practise our English with you?