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Rice Festival in West Java Celebrates Rural Life, Indonesian-Style

February 28, 1988|DOROTHY AKSAMIT | Aksamit is a San Francisco free-lance writer.

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Magical, mystical land below the wind, the Indonesian island of Java. Sometimes in the daily round of my expatriate life in Jakarta--during study groups, coffee mornings, trips to the butcher, the baker and the dressmaker--I would wonder: "Where is the real Java of bygone days?"

The Dutch call it tempo dulu , the time before. Then, one day in October, I picked up a calendar of events issued by the director general of tourism that stated: Oct. 21, Rice Festival, Cigugur, West Java.

A harvest festival--visions of medieval splendor danced round my head . . . offerings to the rice goddess . . . a ceremonial wedding of the goddess and her consort . . . animistic fertility rites thanking the gods for a bountiful harvest.

Not one of my friends could conjure up such visions. Nor were they interested in a trip based on such scanty information. Nor were their husbands anxious for them to go with a woman who sometimes disappeared into the jungle for weeks at a time.

Taking a Chance

But Cigugur was so close--a four-hour bus ride to Cirebon on the north coast of Java, then a short ride to Kuningan. I had to take the chance.

Besides, if the ceremony didn't pan out, a bus ride in Indonesia is always an adventure.

Before the bus left the station an entire contingent from the pasar strolled through the vehicle selling supplies for the trip--chewing gum, fans, washcloths, calendars, socks, outdated magazines--anything portable.

Small boys entered the bus chanting, "Es, es, es (ice)," and as the bus moved, they leaped daringly to the ground.

Smiling girls sold oleh, oleh-- presents for the people at home--while engaging in good-natured banter.

No less intriguing than the vendors was the management of the people by the ticket seller.

When the bus was chock-a-block full, every seat taken and luggage piled in the aisles, seven more people with luggage, boxes, bags, chickens and stalks of bananas boarded and discovered that they were to occupy the "hot box" over the engine.

Overflowing, the bus slowly left the station, the conductor clinging precariously to the outside and still calling, "Cirebon, Cirebon!"

Dutch Influence

In Cirebon, Dutch influence is still visible in the whitewashed, tile-roofed bungalows lining shady streets.

I spent the night in one of those bungalows long since converted to a small hotel. The closet-size room was spotless and I felt like Sleeping Beauty under a snow-white mosquito canopy.

The next day the bus from Cirebon to Kuningan left the coast and started climbing the slopes of Gunung Cermai through a series of small towns, each with its own mosque and statue of a prancing stallion.

Timidly Spoke English

After passing three such towns and horses, my schoolboy seat partner timidly risked his five words of English: "Where do you go, Mrs.?"

He had never been to Cigugur, but knew that the name meant "falling water."

By the time we reached Kuningan he had decided that going to Cigugur with a foreign woman was more educational than going to school.

At 7:30 a.m. the tropical sun was already high as we started down the brown dirt road. I felt as if I were in a painting, a perfect rendition of the "Beautiful Indies Rice-Scapes" painted by the nostalgic Dutch, longing to take a piece of Indonesia back to Holland.

The picture was executed with broad strokes of primary colors, equal splashes of blue sky meeting green rice paddies, with the obligatory volcano in the background.

But something was wrong. Then I realized why I was uneasy. I had never before seen an empty road or field in fertile Java. We seemed to be the only people in the world. Until, rounding a bend between two hills, as if by magic a Ramayana frieze from a Hindu temple sprang to life.

Ceremonial Dance

An enormous pond on the right side of the road gurgled water through bamboo pipes to terraced ponds falling below. Directly ahead, a dance was in progress around a flagpole. Men and small boys dressed in black pants and shirts danced in measured steps.

Some of the men beat drums with their hands, others shook bamboo angklung instruments. Soon the dancers lay writhing on the ground, their bamboo instruments held high.

A dense circle of villagers surrounded the dancers. Some men were dressed in black, others in white. Young women in tightly wrapped batik sarongs held platters containing representations of fanciful animals fashioned from fruits. Bearers shielded these women with ingenious umbrellas made of palm leaves topped with a pineapple.

A closer look at a three-tiered bamboo palanquin revealed the royal cargo. It looked like a snake's head made entirely of fruits.

Men shouldered bamboo poles, some sagging with the weight of tubers, others heavy-laden with sheaves of rice.

Harvest of Offerings

The dance ended. The music was replaced by the melting brass sounds of a gamelan orchestra as the whole procession moved slowly into a large tile-roofed building, the Madrais Palace.

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