Karimunjawa reflections

Back from a few days in Karimunjawa. A rest from the city and the noise and laptop screens. This is the third time I’ve been to Karimun, a tiny outcrop of islands in the middle of the sea between Java, Kalimantan and Sulawesi. Its central position is highlighted by the different communities who call the island home. To the south of the island lies the small town of Karimunjawa populated by those whose roots lie primarily in Java, and Kampung Bajau, the village for the Bajau ethnic group who are famous for their nomadic lives on the sea. 45 minutes along the coastal road you find yourself in Bugis territory, more houses are built on land on stilts than found in the other areas. You can notice slight differences in use of space, less bird cages, more grass in front. The island is also home to a small Ahmadiyya community, a group who have for years experienced persecution for their faith, as well as the Mandar who originate from Sulawesi and a small number of Madurese. For generations, different peoples from larger islands have sailed and discovered this land, some moving on when necessary, some becoming permanent residents. It has been a home for fishermen and small scale farmers. Everyone lives alongside the fish, birds, crabs, bats, snakes, butterflies and monkeys who claim their space on the hills and beaches.

The main island of Karimunjawa and the little islets that surround it are breathtaking. The water shimmers against white sand, hills cloaked in green stand tall against the sun, the palm trees bend towards the sea like they do in Windows screensavers. Along the one main road around the island, families sit chatting on their verandas with doors perpetually open because it’s just so safe to do so. Children play in paddling pools, cats stretch lazily on the grass. When the evening comes and the waves lap gently on the shore under the glow of the milky way. As a tourist to this place I have felt every time I have been there like there could be nowhere more beautiful, although this time pressures on Karimun were a little more visible than before.

As with islands all over the world, there are challenges. Rising sea level has caused abrasion across the beaches. In 1990, the creation of the Karimunjawa National Park was meant to stop over fishing in certain zones, but also allow the potential for tourism. In recent years that has meant a boom in both local and domestic tourists like myself, a wealth of new resorts and hotels and a depleted coral due to up to 200 people snorkelling in one spot at any one time during peak season. The opening up of the land to commercial interest has also meant that fish farms have been carved into the landscape, sand is dredged for building and land reclamation elsewhere. Plastic waste from the island and nearby Java, as well as used oil tossed into the sea by near by tankers, floats to the beaches and creates a new manmade shoreline – although most beaches remain remarkably spotless as beach caretakers meticulously pick up floating debris. It’s really sad, my friend Morgan who works as a guide told me, and people are giving up too much for too little. But people need money and jobs. What if a family member gets sick and has to go to the hospital? He asked, I couldn’t do anything but agree. I was there, after all, as a tourist, fuelling and propelling some of the very issues that were painful to see.

A huge beach club being built on the shoreline among mangroves stood out like a metal, gentrified sore thumb. I remembered the first time I came to Karimun a few years before, all toilets and showers had little stickers telling users to be mindful of water consumption due to the limits of the island’s capacity. That mentality didn’t seem to apply to places like this. The manager of the small homestay next door, overshadowed by the large new concrete construction, grumbled – but what could he do? He shrugged. These people had money and could do what they liked.

The continuing pandemic has been a struggle for communities on Karimun, large building sites and cleared plots sit empty, tour guides and hotel workers struggle to find employment, most men have turned back to fishing and the sea becomes alight at night with boats looking for a catch. Islanders were expectant for after Lebaran, hopeful that despite the continuing pandemic the beginning of the holiday would bring back tourism to some levels of normality.

I think islands are important to look at because due to the sheer limit of ‘resources’ on these masses, the small amount of land, of creatures, of space for people, of water — the impact of climate change and -dare we mention it- globalisation is so much more exaggerated and visible than on large patches of land. Both on the environment and the people who call it home. I read online that the Karimunjawa National Park is a collaboration between local government, local citizens and NGOs, a transformative connection of interests to manage the different challenges and needs of human and non human subjects, but this doesn’t seem to be enough. How can you effectively manage and balance not only what is happening on the islands – the economic and short term and long term issues that will always exist – but also the larger ecological crises that are being caused elsewhere?

Yet despite its issues, life on Karimun remains warm, welcoming, safe. Everyone knows everyone. In the evenings young people gather at the only angkringan to eat nasi bakar and maybe sing karaoke. As it was during Ramadan, at dusk the roads were closed for neighbours coming to sit together and break the fast. Children ran to buy fireworks and firecrackers. The is stress and there is happiness and sometimes you have to focus on the latter to try and get through the former.

The Mango Tree

I’ve been looking at trees a lot lately. In particular, the mango tree that grows in my garden. The last mango season came and went and no fruit hung from the branches, but instead, a multitude of different forms of life took its place. When the sun sets around 6pm and the call to prayer warbles longingly across the fields and cities, a sharp continuous thud can be heard at the very top of the tree.

Silhouetted against the pink sky, a thousand beetles about the size of a thumb ricochet off each other and the branches, crashing into leaves and making whole boughs sway. The sound is loud enough to make me think perhaps a cat has jumped into the tree and has found itself stuck. A third sound enters, after the prayer call and the beetles, the scurrying of a gecko against the wall and another thud as it lands in the tree. A second gecko comes – the flurry of life above meaning dinner for these normally shy creatures.Further down the tree, silently working from the ground up, march ants. Three different sizes, carrying leaves, bits of mud, crumbs from the kitchen. They work their way up the trunk, tiptoeing across the washing line and forming a huddle against the back of an ageing leaf. A nest is formed around them, and they are protected in the gentle sway of the leaf against the ruckus above.

Stretching out between the leaves is a spider. Steady, silent, waiting. A network of webs connects the community, some yellow, some black, one spider with a large swollen backside. They await the caterpillars, moths and butterflies that also call these trees home.

A few streets away, another sound is heard, the incessant whining of an electric saw. A sound common across the city where slowly slowly, one-by-one the trees are felled. Felled for land, felled to make way for roads, felled for wood. With each tree felled, one micro-world, all the beetles, the spiders, the ants, the butterflies, caterpillars and geckos lose a home. We speak a lot of protecting the forests, but we should also celebrate and protect the city trees too, the forgotten trees which obstruct telephone lines and whose roots uproot pavements. They remember to sustain life where in day to day life, on the road, at work, on campus we sometimes forget.

But for now, right now, I sit and appreciate this mango tree in my garden, and from her I get both rapturous noise and peace.

First features in The Garden Zine. You can read it here: https://thegardenzine.co.uk/


My mother, her mother and I were sat in a cafe. Three generations cradling rooibos tea as the rain and the wind ripped through the streets of Brighton outside. We were discussing language, and in particular the language of mothers.

I was explaining how it works in Indonesia with parents of loved ones. The first of the linguistic jumps one has to make when speaking to a parent – or parent of your partner -in Java is speaking using the passive, third person. So, as an example, rather than saying directly to your mum, “would you like a drink?”, or “would you like a drink, mum?”, you would ask, “would mum like a drink?”, “is mum cold?” “what time will mum get here?”. At the beginning of mine and Obi’s relationship, this way of speaking felt particularly unnatural, as if you were speaking to your mother, but focusing on the space next to her. The bodily reaction to not using the direct ‘you’ for me was strangely intense, I felt myself shrinking when using this passive voice.

For Obi the situation was equally awkward as he was thrown into the world of first name terms. My mother was – and continues to be – Deborah, something particularly rude in his mother tongue. “Would you like a drink, Deborah?” wouldn’t quite cut it in Yogyakarta, and, at the beginning, we shared many a whispered conversation about if each of us were doing it right.

Before marriage, you refer to your partner’s parents as om and tante, or uncle and aunt. Once married, the titles change, and they effectively become your second parents – your partner’s mother becomes ibu and their father becomes bapak, literally mother and father. Their family too, becomes your family, with aunts and uncles also being referred to as om and tante.

My mother, grandmother and I discussed the significance of calling another’s mother your own. In Indonesia, marriage is only partially about two people uniting, and much more about two families. The families are involved throughout the whole process: there is the symbolism of the engagement, in which both families meet to discuss the arrangements, and agree or disagree on the union. Education is discussed, whether the partner’s family is suitable enough is discussed, where they will live is a topic of conversation, how big the wedding will be is a family matter. Families will generally only meet the boyfriend/girlfriend if there is the intention that they will marry. Careers are important, and if parents decide ‘no’, then that is usually final. In this sense, you are receiving two new parents.

From a UK perspective, this could seem a little suffocating, depending on your community. While the tradition still somewhat exists for the father of the bride to be asked whether the groom can marry the daughter, this is dying out, and the decision is very much the couple’s own choosing. If parents were to disapprove, I imagine in many cases the marriage would go along anyway. That’s assuming couples choose to marry, as every year the institution of marriage looks a little less necessary for young people. Two years ago it was made legal for heterosexual couples to hold civil partnerships once reserved only for LGBTQ communities. This year saw the first of the hetero civil partnerships – the argument? For most couples going down this route, they want all of the legal and social recognition of their relationship, but none of the outdated and negative associations that come with the institution of marriage. When marriage – or civil partnerships – occur, parents are often involved as a blanket of support, yet they are not fundamental, and that’s the difference. A marriage for many couples in the UK is primarily about two people, not two families.

In our discussion, my grandma, mum and I discussed the feelings of betrayal, perhaps, that comes with calling your partner’s parents your own. As I live on the other side of the world, did that feel like I was moving away from my parents? Was there a fear it’d look like I was replacing my own mum? Did it feel like doing something that takes me away from my own upbringing? Maybe, maybe not. Obi’s family, his mum and dad and aunts and uncles have always supported me, smiling encouragingly every time I’ve slipped up with my Indonesian, gently squeezing my hand to help me feel welcome. We didn’t have any sort of official engagement meeting with parents, and they willingly helped organise our wedding in the way that we wanted it. While linguistically it was difficult to call his parents my parents, has there been an emotional struggle? Perhaps I do feel a tug for my own mum when I call Obi’s mum ‘mum’, but at the heart of this new naming comes emotional expanding rather than switching.

At the same time, we considered ibu and bapak as phrases. The other confusion for me when thinking about what to call Obi’s parents was that all older people in Java are called ibu and bapak. Neighbours, people sitting next to you on the bus, your lecturer at university, your doctor. While it is significant to call your partner’s parents ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, really, this is what you call everyone anyway. So it was weird changing from the specific tante and om when referring to Obi’s parents, which seemed closer almost, and moving to what to me felt a more general ‘bu’ and ‘pak’. Strangers around the same age are called ‘kakak’, ‘mas’, and ‘mbak’ or ‘brother/sister’. In general, society is then reflected as one big family. There are rules within this, and subtleties which I have not yet learned, but the sense of a communal connection is much greater than that I’ve experienced at home.

My grandma, having lived a lot longer than I, and a little longer than my mum, reminded us that this used to be how it was in the UK. You would call your spouse’s parents your own, and everyone would be an aunt or an uncle. My mum considered when she was growing up, and couldn’t pinpoint when the change happened, where this familial language was lost. She would never have called my dad’s mother ‘mum’, but after I was born called her ‘nanny’ for my sake. She remembered the widespread use of ‘auntie’ though. And I did too, growing up all of my mum’s friends were ‘auntie’ to me, although we couldn’t say if this was still common with children today.

We questioned what this decline in familial language meant for the UK, and what the effect is of using familial language. Our combined first reaction was sadness, it is sad that there is growing individualism (is this the right word?) that draws people away from these familial terms for strangers, an awkwardness, a wariness. But then again, with movements like #metoo, fear of stranger danger, everyday sexism, is it something necessary? Are communities actually tighter in Indonesia for this use of language? I think so, but then again there are issues surrounding domestic violence, and difficult family relations with families not liking partners, issues where different religious followers aren’t allowed to be together. There’s also racism towards Papuans, Indonesian Chinese – despite this closer language, it doesn’t always make it so in action.

Yet I can’t help that thinking in a lot of ways, the Indonesian community systems in place have got it right. ‘Social capital’, the way of assessing the ‘wealth’ of the community is high. If someone dies, the whole community will come together – whatever the hour – to comfort the family, and they will continue to be there for the first week, the first month, the first 1000 days after. Recently, after a large storm my favourite soto restaurant’s roof blew off and everyone from the local kampung came together to fix a new one. Next to my house, the ibus of the kampung work in rows planting rice together in a patch of field, sharing irrigation and resources. A small table set to the side with water and biscuits to be consumed in the midday heat. While this does happen in the UK in many cases, one example being the shelter created by students at my university, it is not something that would happen often without thinking, or hesitation. Particularly not in cities like London. The saudara, or siblings, don’t come together in quite the same way.

Whilst we didn’t come to a fixed conclusion, my mother, my grandmother and I, in that moment, in that context we felt the importance of family – those genetic, those prescribed and those chosen, and the importance of connection between mothers, daughters, aunties, sisters, best friends and neighbours. At that time, a few weeks before the Brexit deadline, the UK felt more removed from familial language than ever, rather than aunts and uncles there were brexiters and remainers, traitors and bemoaners, cosmopolitan elites and millenials, foreigners and immigrants. Perhaps its time we all reflect on what we call each other and the language we use for our both local and wider community, remembering that whether we call someone aunt or immigrant, they are human, we have some things in common and some things we don’t. We all have to work harder to build up that social capital, those bonds wherever we find them.


Sentimental Moments, Shared Songs and Ngayogjazz

For me, one of the best ways to get to know a place is to know what songs everyone in a group can come together and sing. In the UK, it’s probably Mr Brightside by the Killers, a handful of Queen songs, Gloria Gaynor, or perhaps Don’t Look Back In Anger by Oasis. Whether we like it or not, the lyrics are somehow ingrained in our psyche – too many family parties growing up, watching our mums dance around the kitchen to the radio, or those giddy nights as a teenager singing with your friends in a car or on a park bench.

Across the other side of the world in Java, singing together (excluding the religious kind) is just as common as in the UK, if not more so. Not a group setting goes by without someone rooting out a guitar or finding a particular song on Youtube. Often these shared singing experiences include a number of the songs that are the same as the UK – I genuinely think I’ve heard Don’t Look Back in Anger more in the past two years than I have done throughout my whole life – but perhaps more soulfully, more like oxygen, are the songs of local legends Didi Kempot, Tombi, Nella Kharisma and the wholesome genres of campur sari and dangdut.

Last weekend as the final few acts were left to play on the main stage of Ngayogjazz festival in Yogyakarta, a few thousand people, primarily young but with a noticeable older presence too, crammed together to watch the above-mentioned legends take to the stage. Having sat relatively restrained throughout the performance of Arp Frique (who were excellent but very unknown to the crowd), it was like someone had switched a light on, or like loved family members coming home for the first time in years. Where everyone had previously been sitting, there was a wave as all took to their feet, phones were either hastily brought out to document the moment, but equally phones were hastily put away to focus on what was happening. With the opening song of Kartononyo Medo Janji and Soimah’ piercing, distinctive warble, followed by the anticipated kicking in of the percussion, standing from the back of the stage it was the perfect position to see a thousand souls souring as the audience bellowed the words back to the band.

The best, best thing about campur sari and its younger, cheeky brother dangdut are the call and response elements that everyone knows and waits for throughout each song. The lyrics are stories of heartbreak and waiting for your lover, different locations for meeting your love and the pains of finding out that your lover has gone off with someone else. Meanwhile, the distinct formula of the songs means that while singing along to the main lyrics, there’s anticipation for the right moment to shout out ‘oh-ah-oh-eh!’ in the bridge. As new versions of old classics become popular online,  the audience throws in additional lyrics: in the gap between Didi Kompet swooning ‘janjineeee’ (your promise) the audience in a wave shouted back ‘janjine, janjine, janjine pie?’ or ‘your promise, your promise, what happened?’ if translated loosely into English. The songs evolve on their own, developing a relationship between the younger audience and the classic singers, and it works. Everyone sings together like a big extended family.

It’s that euphoria, that joint experience and knowing that every single person at that moment is sharing what you shared, grew up knowing what you knew, if it was that particular high school heartbreak, that particular glimpse into life at home listening to those songs, the way maybe one point in your life you actually probably dismissed that song as a bit old and lame, but are now coming to realise just how much it means. Watching Didi Kempot pour out the lyrics and the audience throw their hands up into the air was so personal, so local, but at the same time so universal. It reminded me of all the times I’ve sung songs that I’ve loved, or haven’t loved but could sing without thinking, the hollering until you’re a bit sore, the not caring how good you sound, or how ugly your face is as you strain to get the words out, but mainly that magnificent euphoria of togetherness, the slight tackiness and the unabashed, uncontrollable love of that moment, the musicians, your community, and every single person around you.