Letter to Bandung

The unofficial symbol of Bandung
The unofficial symbol of Bandung


Feb 7, 2014


1 Jalan Raya

Alun Alun

Bandung, Jawa Barat



Dear Bandung,


Don’t get the feeling that I’m stalking you or anything, but I can’t stop thinking about that weekend we had together—it was great to finally chat after having heard so much about you. If you don’t mind, I’d like to keep in touch.


To be honest, before I met you, I always got the feeling that you were just Jakarta’s weekend escape. You know, that half the capital runs up to your mountains to escape the heat and the jams and the smog and the stress around here. Actually, it seemed true at first—I couldn’t find a flight or a train or even a bus to get to you. Every seat was full—every last one. I had to go all the way to the airport just to find a shuttle headed your way. Kind of crazy, I know, to pay for a taxi to the airport just to catch a bus, but I was really hoping to see you.


Swanky Dutch digs -- no a seat of government
Swanky Dutch digs — now a seat of government

To be honest, though, I was a little surprised at meeting you—you’re not the tiny little mountain retreat I found myself picturing: you’re all grown up with crowded streets and choked traffic and factories humming and thumping out all kinds of products. You’re no glitzy show-pony just for tourists, I mean. You’ve got infrastructure all your own. You’re buzzing with life and thriving—business and factories, white collar and blue, the artist and the investor and the factory line-worker buying Nasi Uduk and Bakso from the same street vendor. You’re diverse. You’re independent. I like that about you.


But you’ve got that other side, too, Bandung. You’ve got designer boutiques and hipster cafes and burning lights all along the chit-chat of Braga street. You once were home to all the swankest Dutch generals, and you’ve still got their columned mansions and broads streets sporting 30 meter shade trees along each sidewalk—and even in the median. You’ve got that classy architecture, too—all those sleek lines and cool curves that carry my mind to Casablanca times, back when trench coats weren’t creepy but cool, back when cigarettes were fun and not nasty habits, back when cars had long, narrow windows and when bow ties were elegant and not a fad—you’ve still got that feel, Bandung. You’ve still got that swag.


Bandung street art
Bandung street artist

Not that I’m trying to flatter, you, just so you know. I just think you’re cool.


Everyone told me when I met you I had to go out to the volcanoes—just had to. So I did. I got a car and wound my way up through the hills, up through the tiny houses shouldering each other out for roadside space, up through ancient mountains carved into fertile terraces, up into clouds frowning down as they glided by, leaving patchwork brilliance of light and shadow over lush and verdant crops. It was more than picturesque, Bandung, it was inspiring. Field hands waded muddy ankles out to into green fields so bright you’d swear they were made of fireflies, and over and around them loomed the pearl-string peaks wrapping gray clouds and blue light around each other. I wondered, Bandung, whether these guys ever realize the brilliance they wade into each morning, or whether they grumble, thinking all life everywhere boasts such scenery, or even something better. I wondered how many mornings I slog into just the same way.


Andy leaned over and whispered, “How are we ever going to go back to Jaka—”


“No,” I cut her off, “don’t mention that yet.”


But even so, Bandung, I admit I got annoyed with you there—it’s nothing personal, just that your roads were so small and so crammed with all your admirers that I couldn’t get anywhere: too many cars honking bumper to bumper, too many motorbikes chugging up those mountains, too many strawberry stands creeping onto the road’s shoulder. All around me shone the beauty of crisp mountain panoramas, horizons draped in rainbow beauty, and I was stuck on an asphalt belt of frustration.


Tea agriculture at its finest
Tea agriculture at its finest

But it’s probably too much to ask—to have some quiet, some alone time with you, to have you to myself.


Up there, I found that strawberries are the name of the game—you grow them bigger than golf balls and sweeter than sugarcane, and everybody’s got barrels full to sell. Yes, Bandung, I freely admit to lightening my wallet for some of that strawberry action.


Fruit ninja, anyone?
Fruit ninja, anyone?

But something else surprised me in the tourist stalls: swords. Samurai swords, pirate swords, Arabian scimitars, and Javanese daggers. You’ve got real swords, fake swords, wooden swords, steel swords. And everywhere you look, there’s still more swords. Bandung, I never figured out—what’s with the swords? Are you filming an epic kung fu movie or do you use these to harvest strawberries?


On the highway, I remember we were passed by a motorcyclist I swear was toting a hunting rifle on his back. Forgive me for my excitement, but I hadn’t seen a shootin’-iron since waving good-bye to my Missouri home. Well, it turns out this fellow was using the rifle cases to transport his stacks of swords. It’s funny, really—you come to see a volcano and walk away with an armload of berries and blades.


Well, hey, in case I ever get bored with Fruit Ninja on the smart-phone, I have an alternative.


Putting the fruit to good use
Putting the fruit to good use–mix with fresh yogurt and enjoy

But I was trying to say something about your volcanoes: I almost couldn’t handle the turquoise gem of Kawah Putih, the bright white shores glistening as the teal waters lapped gently at the sand, the clouds of sulfur fumes rolling delicately off its surface. The crater was amazing, to be sure, but… well, just imagine for a second if all the hordes parading around the French Riviera decked themselves in rain-jackets and sock caps, mix in Scottish rain clouds and fog, and soak it all in rotten egg brine. That’s exactly what Kawah Putih was like.


I’m getting ahead of myself, though. How’d we get to the peak? Well, we had a couple options: (1) go on up in the car we’d hired and pay a hefty entrance fee, or (2) pay the normal entrance fee and head on up crammed into a shuttle bus with seats apparently meant for kindergarteners—I’m talking knees to chin and ankles to butt and some stranger’s elbows in all the tender places on your back and ribs. But it’s cheap. So you already know which one I chose.


I shouldn’t complain, though—having my knees jammed into the kidneys of the passenger in front of me kept us both from flying out the open sides as we careened around the mountain hairpins in the slick roads and thick fog. Toss in a few more switchbacks, a few more shaded plantations of coffee, a dozen more motorbikes, some cigarette smoke blown in your face from your surprisingly intimate new buddy, and some serious leg cramps—and that was the ride to the peak. I wished, I really, sincerely, genuinely wished I had bought myself a katana at that point. I could have thinned the crowd. I could have taken a few swipes at the passing motorbikes. I looked at Andy, she was staring dagger’s into the back of the smoker’s skull—definitely thinking the same thing.  She had grabbed a window seat for the express purpose of fresh air and photo ops–now she had second-hand smoke and full-speed fog-shots.


Atop the mountain, we clambered out and stumbled around like freshly-birthed fawns. The smokers donned their sterile cotton dusk masks to protect themselves from the poison gases wafting by. Seriously—that really happened. They smoke in our face the entire ride up, and now they feel like protecting their lungs?  Missing her sword, Andy grabbed the tripod and clocked them over the head. It was epic. Worthy of a Lord of the Rings scene.


Good luck finding a spot on the volcanic beach
Good luck finding a spot on the volcanic beach

From there, Bandung, we followed the herd over the rim to the crater proper, to revel in the glory of the sulfur’s uncanny resemblance to bad eggs. We basked in the frigid alpine wind whipping the poison clouds past our faces, and we wondered aloud why we humans drive hundreds of miles and spend hefty sums of cash to subject ourselves to volcanoes, why we elbow our way past each other to steal snapshots of the sulfur-stained beaches, why we gripe that we aren’t the only ones their to make the scene pristinely our own.


Because that was the problem with Kawah Putih, you see. We had to trample with the herd to get there. We shuffled shoulder-to-shoulder with so many strangers, and all I wanted was just you and me. It was clawing for some space for a photo, just you and me alone, Bandung.


A moment alone with Kawah Putih
A moment alone with Kawah Putih

I didn’t like the crowds much. I’m sorry, Bandung—I don’t mean to complain; I’m still grateful for the chance to visit. I’m still so glad I got to see you. Maybe, though, some more time just me and you would be cool.


But don’t think I’m a complainer! I loved those rolling hillsides of yours, you see—the strawberry patches in blossom and the heads of lettuce poking through the rich red earth, and the giant slivers of rice-paddies carved into moon-crescents draped down the slopes of the living volcanoes. The clouds cruised by and the men and women stepped through the thick, slick mud, almost oblivious to the beauty they were soaking in—but I’ve already said all this, Bandung. You’ve really got to stop me when I start waxing so poetical. You know what, just go ahead and stop me anytime I start any sort of waxing. Waxing’s always painful.


Local friends make the best guides -- thanks, Willie!
Local friends make the best guides — thanks, Willie!

What I wanted to say was that, as much as anything else, your hills impressed upon me the fact that I love to see tea grow. Yes, Bandung, your tea estates amazed me to no end.


I’m not a newbie to the rich, rich greens on the hillside farms, nor to the science and the art of a tea shrub carefully plucked into stunning row upon row of visual and palatable bliss. I’ve been to Sri Lanka, after all. But I want to proclaim, in all sincerity, is that your tea estates are nothing short of glorious—and the way you spread these out like a glowing buffet for the eyes, green upon green under the grinning sun, and throw open your arms in the rich embrace of growth and goodness and lush, thriving leaves—I mean, I loved it, Bandung. We parked the car and wondered into the fields—up and down rows all so uniform and yet all so unique. We trickled our hands and camera lenses past hillside upon hillside of rolling perfection. We even forgot for a moment that we’d somehow missed our chance to purchase sabers and foils and broadswords.


Loving the tea estates
Loving the tea estates

To see tea grown is a masterful fact of agriculture and art merged into a single scene of triumph over the weeds and weather and rocks and wild—it speaks of man’s capacity to tame nature into something not just useful, but beautiful.


I’m from the states, Bandung, straight from the Midwest, and I know firsthand the glory of a field golden with wheat. My heart rejoices in crisp rows of corn, whether tender green shoots or the brilliant yellow tassels. But Bandung, your Javan hillsides roll that glory into a hundred shapes and contours, crank up the color, and spill it all before the eyes in a panorama of unreal symmetry and taste—and all on this narrow stripe of island sandwiched between two wide seas of richest blue.


Lose yourself in the agricultural phenomenon of tea
Lose yourself in the agricultural phenomenon of tea

Bandung, your tea estates are mesmerizing. If Sri Lanka had graced us with weather as rich as what you did, I may have never left. But you held nothing back for us. You smoothed the finest, silkiest green carpet for me to step into, and I’m forever grateful, Bandung.


I’ve got to come back and make sure I wasn’t dreaming.


And just so you know, I made it up your other famous peak—Tangkuban Perahu. It ,too, is no less than majestic, Bandung—I could hardly believe what I was witnessing: poison steam jetting out of a fissure in the lava rock, a crater bowled out by what must have been God’s own ice cream scoop, and then two more peaks and craters, each bubbling in its own noxious frenzy—the one at 900C, fast enough to boil an egg in three minutes, they say, and the other in such violent convulsions and thick gases that you cannot approach. They’re a trio of peaks to explore—in fact, if you don’t mind me saying so, the best part of Tangkuban Perahu is hiking around to the various craters. I mean, I never would have expected to the see such fern-laden jungle frizzling out of such toxic and super-heated hillsides—the rich, deep green clinging to mountain springs and bubbling channels, and the wispy fog rolling through the dense undergrowth, while palms and pines fight skyward to thrust their leaves to the sun, hiding the path ahead in shade and fog so deep that each new turn stumbles into a tiny new vista. Is euphoria too strong a word? All around me swooned the lush and the green and the verdant jungle, and over a tiny ridge lay the rock upon rock desolation of deleterious gas seeping from the earth’s fiery core. The contrast was horrific and brilliant, genius and terrifying, and all shrouded in a cloak of cloud sliding silently through it all, dripping constantly on my poncho.


The Queen's Crater at Tangkuban Perahu
The Queen’s Crater at Tangkuban Perahu

You definitely know how to arrange your attractions, Bandung.


I’ll never forget sneaking into the “Do Not Enter” crater. I just wanted a look, you know, even though they said it’s rumbling was overactive and highly unstable. But the trail was there, and Andy and I were all alone, and we said why not—it’s just little hike further… It’s just a tiny rope and a sign keeping us out… No one was watching…


The "Do Not Enter" bridge
The “Do Not Enter” bridge

So we did it. And the ranger from the station a dozen meters back guided us—he was a nice guy, willing to break the rules for a few extra bills of Rupiah in his pockets. We ducked under the inhibiting notices and panted up the jungle path. We trod carefully across the mossy bridge, and slowly, slowly I found death seeping in around me. The once-lush trees became strangled and bare; the clouds weren’t just fog—now they stung my nose and eyes; our feet picked through gravel and scree instead of padding the soft brown earth. Soon, only the reeking skeletons of trees waved bony arms of warning through the clouds. Desolation was here. Perhaps this indeed was the twisted garden of a horseman of the apocalypse.


I shivered, there, Bandung.


Garden of the Apocalypse?
Andy in the Garden of the Apocalypse.

I knew I was on the doorstep of something immensely powerful and majestic beyond my comprehension, but your clouds, your clouds kept your panorama hidden. I was straddling the jagged ridge between twin boiling craters big enough to fit the moon in, but all I could see was the shroud of stubborn clouds sweeping around me. If they would have lifted a moment, just enough for a snapshot, I’d have loved the moment forever and spoken of it for generations to come. But you wouldn’t have it, Bandung, and now my only views were the gray cotton wisps rolling by; the only sounds the rumble of the earth masked by the thunder of the sky.


At least I was finally alone with you.


I loved the shiver and the tremble of that moment, and I wanted it to last. So I picked my way down into the off-limit crater, over the loose rock and into the skin-tingling sulfer: close and closer to the cliff emptying into void below, to the sheer drop veiled in the deep clouds, to the poison vent belching gaseous death below. Hands and feet hunting for traction on the slope, I slowly picked my path down through the clouds. Coughing in the methane, blinking my stinging eyes, I peered over the sudden spike of earth.


Did I mention the clouds?
Did I mention the clouds?

And all I saw were more clouds.


Only the wispy white folds flitting in and out of depth before me—and behind it all the while the soundtrack of vast caverns venting the echoes of subterranean power lodged deep, deep in the rock beneath.


I admit, Bandung, that I was angry again. I admit I wanted more—after so much effort to come and see this, this was what you did, just brushed me back with the heavy hand of clouds stacked atop the mountain? I shivered again, and I stomped off back up the smoking path to the strangled trees, to the crater-to-crater lip, to the seething jungle waiting beyond.


Of course I explored more—the narrow paths back to the hidden caves led to sacred wells and hidden temples. These were deep green treks through ferns bowed in thick globes of water-coated leaves, the winding paths past the tourist hubbub and back within the jungle’s creeping grasp.


Thick and healthy jungle paths
Thick and healthy jungle paths

Of course I also stopped for my fair share of grilled corn—a nice chat on the edge of oblivion with the grandmotherly woman with few teeth, a small shack, and a chatty husband who fires up the charbroiled ear for a dollar. We stared into the clouds together, listened to the rumbling away and below, and tried to make sense of each other’s smiles and words.


This, Bandung, was Tangkuban Perahu. I loved this about you.


Grilling corn -- if only all the locals were this friendly
Grilling corn — if only all the locals were this friendly

But to be honest, though, it wasn’t all a walk in the park. Getting there was a hassle. I mean, it didn’t have to be—I could’ve hired a car and driver, gone the easy but expensive way. I’m sorry, Bandung, but I got greedy and wanted to save cash. I took the angkots.


Lonely Planet made it seem so easy. Now don’t think I’m trying to blame them or anything, but I thought it’d be simple to get buses to the peak for cheap.


The real terror of Tangkuban Perahu isn't the volcano...
The real terror of Tangkuban Perahu isn’t the volcano…

I never knew we’d get waylaid by a thuggish tour syndicate.


Please lose the yellow angkots that haunt Tangkuban Perahu, Bandung. They stopped our shuttle and told us this was the place to change buses. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t true at all, but how could I have known? We got out, got ready to board the little yellow bus, and all of a sudden, they wanted to charge us twenty times the normal price.


Bandung, I know it’s not a quick spin around the block, I know they bargain hard with tourists, but Bandung, that price just wasn’t fair. Of course we refused.


We eventually made it back to our buddies in the city
We eventually made it back to our buddies in the city

And they weren’t polite about it either—these were young hoods with long hair and cut-off sleeves. They stood too close when they spoke and smoked too heavy for anyone’s comfort. They shouted at us and then at each other for asking for a fair price. Then they drove off and sent more back.


Worst of all, though, I’m afraid they might have done something bad to someone nice.


Some guys we met offered to carry us up on their motorcycles—the ojeks, you know. They said they would, and their price was fair, but as Andy and I climbed on, these yellow angkot drivers came running and shouting and pointing. My new friend’s face turned pale.


“Is everything OK?” I asked him.


He was dead silent.


Behind him they were still shouting and pointing at him.


“I don’t think this is a good idea,” I told him.


“Actually…” he didn’t want to say it, but I already saw. “I’m sorry. It’s probably better… they might… after you go…”


“I get it,” I said, and patted his shoulder. “We’ll walk.”


And we did—we took our packs and trudged off into the drizzling streets and the steep climb. We weren’t about to give any money to any thugs in any yellow bus who’d threaten a friend who’d offered a favor.


Fresh fruit anyone?
Fresh fruit anyone?

We grabbed our packs and started up the hill, Bandung, with these men in the yellow angkots jeering at our backs. We hoped they wouldn’t hurt our friends who offered us a ride. We hoped they wouldn’t do anything worse than shout.


The ride back down, though, was much more pleasant—first bummed off a guy cleaning up a cooking stall who slid us through the mountain curves amid a van load of used oil and clanking frying pans, and from there we caught a rusted old minivan to your bus station.  And all that for two dollars.


Because we can't get enough of the tea...
Because we can’t get enough of the tea…

That one was fun—we swapped stories with Indonesian grandmothers and fellow international teachers. We met an immigrant from Papua who was thrilled to find other Christians in the car. We shared mandarin oranges and laughed over nothing as our rusted bus wound down out of the mountains, out of the clouds’ drizzle and into your overcast streets.


In your city, we stepped through the shops you’re so famous for—the factory outlets and markdowns and all the leftovers from the garment industry’s mega-orders and mega-factories, and those were cool, I guess. And we strolled through a mall with our friends, and we saw the shopping available, and the traffic that strangles the downtown.   We tasted the nice cafes, and we liked that, but there’s a time when it’s time for some time with your roots. And when that time struck, Bandung, we headed to Udjo’s.


City streets, city cafe, city scenes
City streets, city cafe, city scenes

Thanks, by the way, for Udjo’s. I don’t know if I was expecting some tourist trap. I don’t know if I thought it would be corny. I don’t know if I knew anything about it at all. But now I know there are some seriously talented kiddos at Udjo’s.

Udjo's angklung prodigies
Udjo’s angklung prodigies


I mean, those guys can really play those angklungs, Bandung. It seems so simple to rattle around the bamboo sticks. It seems so primitive, so basic. I mean, they even got me to do it. How hard can it be?


Then they start throwing the wrinkles in. Then they started with a dozen musicians with a dozen angklungs each. And then that single hollow rattling of the bamboo tube becomes one voice in a vast choir, and the notes and pitches start blending together, and a melody took shape from the noise and lifted over a rolling bass and wove itself through lilting harmonies—so deep and so rich that to close my eyes and let my mind wonder would carry me over Java’s rolling fields in a cloud-sweep of wonder.


The maestro
The maestro

It’s amazing, Bandung—and then I opened my eyes so such smiling youngsters making the complex seems so simple, molding the melody from so many hands rattling such simple bamboo sticks.


And that’s not even half the show, you know. They sing. They conduct. They take up masks and dance the ancient island’s dances immemorial, they swirl their colored costumed through rituals fearful and fantastic. They left us wondering how so much art could be trained into ones so young.


It's not just the angklungs, though
It’s not just the angklungs, though — Bandung’s got dance

Udjo’s was awesome, Bandung, I don’t know how else to say that.


And as we stepped outside and waited on a taxi to take us away, we watched those same kids, those same kids that just set up the most amazing cultural performance in the city, set up some rocks into goalposts and start in a pick-up soccer match there in the parking lot. There in the fading day, the musicians turned to sportsmen, and you couldn’t see these guys were any different than any other kid in any other country, and that was something amazing all over again.


Udjo’s spoke to me, Bandung; it spoke to me of Java and of the Sundanese, it spoke to me of life and art and what it means to dedicate yourself to something amazing. It asked me what beauty I was creating with my own time on this planet.


The tiniest dancers
The youngest of the dancers

Bandung, thank you for the kids of Udjo’s.


And all too soon the sun was setting and our train back to Jakarta was whistling and steaming on the rails, and Andy and I were running through the station with our backpacks once again. The weekend was up; work was calling us home.


But we won’t forget you, Bandung.


I hope you’ll write back. I was enchanted to meet you, and I can’t wait to step through your streets and stroll your plantations again. Please write back, Bandung; I miss you.





Got to get back to Bandung
Got to get back to Bandung


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