I awake at 4 in the morning to the rhythmic chanting of the devoted being called to mosque for the first prayers of the day. It’s Christmas Day in this predominantly Muslim country of Indonesia and I’m preparing to leave Cibodas, a mountain village some distance from Jakarta. After a cold shower and breakfast, I get a ride down to the main road. There is no direct bus to Bandung because it’s Christmas Day (yet nobody I've met so far is actually celebrating it), so I get on a bus for Cianjur (pronounced Chianjur), where I hop another bus for Bandung. Finally I’m on my way to Pangandaran, a beach town situated on the South Java Sea.
Prize awaits at Pangandaran
We wind for hours and miles through tropical mountain ranges and deep, green gorges followed by lush green valleys of banana and palm trees—vast expanses of totally unspoiled, undeveloped land, touched only by the people who farm it. We ride through a mid-afternoon downpour but the sun comes out again as we get closer and closer to the coast. When we finally ride into town, I haul my heavy pack off the bus and hire a becak (trishaw) to take me to my guesthouse. (Mind you, this is in the days before searching online and booking ahead. I’m going purely off my Lonely Planet Indonesia guidebook and the author’s recommendation of a place called Delta Gecko run by an “eco-groovy Aussie” named Kristina.)
Gateway to Pangandaran Wikipedia/Michiel1972 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
After pedaling a short while, my driver starts to realize how far I’m asking to go. "It's seven kilometers!" he protests, and tries to persuade me to go to another place for the same price per night. "I'm meeting a friend there," I lie, realizing I should’ve just taken a motorcycle taxi from the bus station. He keeps pedaling, and when we got within two kilometers or so I tell him I'll walk the rest of the way.
Where the trishaw comes to a stop, we’ve just turned right down a long dirt road that hugs the South Java Sea/Indian Ocean. The wind is whipping through the palms and the waves crash on the beach as the sun begins to set. I’m struck by the drama of the scene and inwardly grateful to have to walk the rest of the way, just taking it all in. Up the road a way, I see a sign over the entrance of Delta Gecko Village. I duck under a bamboo archway and ivy-covered trellis, soon entering an enchanted world of two-story bamboo and thatch-roof huts built on stilts in an enclave of trees and gardens. I find my way to the office and am met by Kristina with a lit Djarum dangling from her lips and a hearty welcome. "You're just in time for Christmas dinner!" In that moment, all my weariness, tinged with a touch of self-pity and loneliness, dissolves. I feel as though I’ve been chosen to arrive at this special place.
The beach at Pangandaran By Kondephy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
My bamboo hut: Bed, bath and beyond
I settle into a dorm-style hut with one bed up and two down, our own mandi (a toilet hole in the floor and a well of clean water in the corner to pour over yourself and down the hole). There’s no electricity but all the huts and gardens are lit by the soft glow of kerosene lamps in the evening. My roommate is Milly, a dynamic 29-year-old Australian girl. When I ask her how long she's been on the road she replies matter-of-factly, "Five years." She's done Africa and South America, and has just returned from five months in India. I inundate her with questions about traveling alone as a female and she says she wouldn't have had it any other way. People look out for you and always want to help you if you're traveling alone. I realize I've already experienced some of that on my way there.
Christmas dinner includes traditional Sundanese dancing and martial arts. Gathered around three large dining tables are about 30 people—foreign travelers and Indonesian friends and neighbors—being served a huge buffet of Indonesian food, under a bright full moon on Christmas Day. Kristina tells us the next full moon on Christmas wouldn't be for another 100 years. I allow the profundity of the moment, this time and place and my being in it, to sink in.
Feasting on Javanese and Sundanese culture
She goes on to explain the first act of the evening, a traditional Sundanese dance. Pangandaran officially marks a divide between Sundanese and Javanese, two entirely separate ethnic groups with different languages and related, but distinctly unique cultures. With apologies to the Dutch in the audience she talks about the Dutch occupation of Java and how the Sundanese had been the main victims of oppression. During a period of several hundred years, the Sundanese were not allowed to practice their traditional martial arts so they disguised it as a dance (similar to slaves in Brazil who developed kapoera to disguise fighting techniques, so they could continue their martial art tradition). A young Indonesian girl performs a beautiful dance followed by demonstrations of the martial art itself, called pencak silat, fluid and rhythmical movements accompanied by beating drums and flute music.
After dinner we’re invited out to the beach for a bonfire. Milly performs a flame-throwing demo and the Indonesian guys sit around strumming their guitars, singing Bob Marley. “Don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing, gonna be alright.”
Indeed it is.