PanaJournal – Ango’an pote tolang atembeng pote mata (Better have white bones than white eyes, or better dead than humiliated) – Madurese Proverb.

Javanese manuscripts dating from the 16th century have described the Madurese as fierce warriors, prone to looting and butchering. Even Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the grandest name in Indonesian literature, characterizes Darsam, a Madurese man in his novel ‘The Earth of Mankind’, as someone incapable of resolving even small issues without resorting to violence.

So as Lobo, my wife, and I crossed the Suramadu bridge, bejewelled for the night. I felt as if the infinite chains of incandescent lights that hold Indonesia’s longest bridge high above the sea was guiding us from Java, the heart of politeness to the heart of rudeness, to Madura. My friend Adi had said, ‘They even stole the lights and cables from Suramadu within a week of its opening.’

The next evening, we visit the Fire Circle in Pamekasan. Our driver for the entire trip to Madura is Umartono, who had travelled with us on earlier occasions in and around Java. Umartono, 57, is a model Javanese with his politeness and mild manners. His real profession is farming potatoes and onions in a small field on the slopes of Mt. Bromo in East Java and he occasionally gets jobs to drive tourists around the area. Perhaps because of this, he has a good grasp of English and a rather open mind. But here in Madura, even Umartano gets edgy, ‘You guys go ahead. I will stay inside the car. I better be careful in Madura. This isn’t my car after all.’

The Fire Circle is a small round area, five metres across, fenced with an open entrance. A ring of fire is burning along its inner edges. The soil here ignites if a lighter is lit close to it because of the natural gas that seeps out of here. If this had been located in India or Nepal, it would have been a massive religious site inspiring a billion pilgrims. But out here, there are just a handful of local families who have come to boil rice and grill corn while enjoying some quality family time.

Inside the fire circle, a group of children are trying unsuccessfully to light some stones, each receiving a load of loud advice from the adults for every failed attempt. Women in hijab are posing for pictures next to the fire-holding corn cobs. A rather fierce looking man in Islamic attire struts around, sticks of corn in his hand, looking for the best spot. We maintain our distance from him. Perhaps, I am too keen to spot signs of rudeness. Suddenly he comes over to us, holding a long stick to my face, ‘Put this inside the corn, it will be easier to grill.’ Perhaps, I am too keen to disprove the hypotheses of Madurese rudeness.

The next day, we visit the local Islamic high school. The students we are meeting are members of the Fun English Club (FEC), a forum to practise speaking in English. They are in high spirits. I ask them if Madurese are really rude.

‘In olden days, you could have said that,’ says Elma, the outspoken leader of the group. ‘Those days, we used to have carok and that gave us this reputation of ferocity. But it isn’t really true now.’

Madurese men are famous all over Indonesia for their penchant to settle disputes over carok or duels. While carok is most commonly associated with advances by ‘other’ men on someone’s wife or fiancé, it has also been used on other occasions to defend someone’s honour. There are YouTube videos aplenty about the aftermath of carok—wounded victims lying on Madura streets asking for help. The typical image of a Madura man is that of one with a ferocious moustache, wearing red stripes on a white shirt, holding a sickle, launching his carok.

Elma continues, ‘But even today, many Javanese would still run away if they got to know that there was a Madurese standing next to them. It is they who have created this image of us.’

But was it actually the Javanese who transported rudeness to Madura? According to local myths, Dewi Bendoro Gung, daughter of a Javanese king, became pregnant unexpectedly. As in any myth, this meant trouble. The angry king, rather rudely, proclaimed capital punishment for Dewi Gung. However, the officer in charge of carrying out the penalty showed her mercy and she sailed away on a raft that took her to Madura. Dewi Gung’s son, Raden Segoro, then went on to be a capable warrior who after winning many wars, asked his mother a very rude question, ‘Who is my father?’ Angered, his mother turned his residence into a forest and his soldiers into monkeys and perhaps that’s how the legacy of rudeness and hot-headedness began.

‘I would rather say that Madurese people are more direct and straightforward,’ says Jamal. ‘We are not complicated, long-winded people like the Javanese. Maybe this is what leads to our reputation.’

The next day, we are on our way to Kalianget, the southeastern tip of Madura and this gives us an opportunity to probe Umartono about the Javanese perception of the Madurese. He starts off in his usual temperate manner, ‘Yes, in Java people think Madurese are coarse, but I think that’s because they are so poor and we see them only as lowly laborers. Also in Madura, the climate is dry, very little rain. It is not as fertile as Java. Maybe the tough life here makes them a bit rougher.’

Most Madurese in Madura are subsistence farmers growing corn or rice, fishermen, or workers in salt mines, brick pits, and tobacco plantations. Most of them who work outside Madura are engaged as manual labourers, satay sellers or pedicab drivers. The average income in Madura—albeit higher than some of the poorest areas of Indonesia—is a third of that in Java.

The harsh reputation of Madurese people could indeed have been a result of their large-scale emigration. During the early days of Dutch colonial rule, the Madurese were employed in big numbers as mercenaries to quell uprisings in Java. But it was also migration that made the Madurese one of the worst victims of sectarian violence in Indonesia’s recent history when in separate incidents in 1999 and 2001, Madurese migrants were murdered in thousands by the indigenous Dayak and Malay tribes in Kalimantan. Both parties blamed each other for the origin of the conflict but the most haunting image from the violence was that of Dayak men—once infamous for their practice of headhunting—dragging decapitated bodies of Madurese victims behind their motorbikes.

Kalianget Port has a foreboding look as all ports have. Young men walk around aimlessly among the trash that is steaming, decomposing fast in the heat. We are on our guard again. A ferry comes in, loaded with the famed Madura cows, looking out to the sea through their huge eyelashes. Madura is known for its annual bull races. Competitions begin at the village level and the finals take place in giant stadiums located in the key towns of the island. The bulls are whipped with thorny bushes or belts with nails to urge them on during the contest, something which animal rights activists have objected to. The bull owners, on the other hand, retort that that the bulls are well cared for and the wounds heal fast. Bull races are also common occasions for carok and often there are bloody fights between rival owners and their supporters during these contests.

We head to Sumenep, the cultural capital of Madura. At the Royal Palace, Yusuf, a young painter volunteers to give us a tour for nothing in return. He has paint splotches all over his shirt and his trousers have many holes in them. He pulls me to a pond, ‘Look at that fish,’ says Yusuf, ‘He is a 120 years old. He has seen the king, the Dutch, the Japanese, Soekarno, Soeharto, Jokowi, everything.’ The fish is a mid-sized cichlid with a white forehead unlike the other cichlids in the pond which are uniformly black.

Yusuf is rather proud and hopeful about his humble office complex, ‘People from all around the world come here. Just three months back, there were a group of Americans. I think they are studying this place. If they find something interesting, this place will become world-famous.’

‘Come, come, I want to show you the male tree,’ he says excitedly. The ‘male’ tree is a giant fig tree that has a smooth phallic branch at its base. A group of villagers are also visiting the complex and the male members queue up to rub this sign of manhood. ‘Do what they are doing,’ Yusuf commands me, ‘It’s good for married life.’ I ask Yusuf if he is married. He is shy, ‘I am still young and I have no money.’ I ask him if there is a female tree as well. ‘There it is,’ Yusuf shows me an identical tree on the other side of the complex, ‘But that one isn’t so important.’ The female tree is identical to the male tree, but has an enormous hole in its base instead, much bigger than the male tree’s phallus, large enough for a grown man to squeeze in. I ask this man with gentle eyes if he has ever witnessed carok. ‘No, no,’ he says, ‘I am just a poor man. I stay out of trouble. Anyway, it’s very rare. And what can I say? Sometimes, we poor people have no other option. The police don’t listen to us. The courts don’t listen to us. Then some people feel helpless and they turn to carok.’

Perhaps so, during Dutch colonial rule, Madura increasingly fell off the radar for the ruling powers. The security and legal infrastructure in Madura became grossly inadequate for the bulging population. People began settling their disputes in their own way and in the late 19th century, Madura ended up with murder rates more than twice that of present-day Honduras, the most violent country on earth. But today, as we venture outside the museum, street vendors of trinkets and fast-food forget about their business of selling and ask about us with curiosity. The sun is strong, but Madura is becoming more and more likeable.

We head towards Dungkeh, the eastern-most point of Madura, and on the way, we buy a durian. The woman manning the fruit-stall splits open the spiky fruit with her bare hands, a display of raw-power and bravery that I have not seen among durian sellers anywhere else. While the Madurese men have a reputation, the women are not to be taken lightly either. They are famous all over Indonesia for their secret sexual techniques, an indigenous form of Kegelian movements. Arguably, even Madurese men struggle to keep up with their women’s prowess and the island was therefore forced to become a large producer of traditional aphrodisiacs that recently also became big in Japan, if only for a short while.

The road to Dungkeh is narrow with wild vegetation closing in from both sides. Since this is the rainy season, the landscape looks rather lush contrary to Madura’s typical aridness. The sea peeks in from time to time as do graves. Graves vastly outnumber the living in Madura. Every road in the island is lined with neat graves, decorated with colorful small tiles, arranged in rows, marking the resting spots of those Madurese who couldn’t escape to richer islands. These humble structures almost make death seem comfortable and appealing.

Carok is no longer only associated with defending someone’s honour but as a means to unleash hatred. This Madurese capacity for violence was in full display during the Shia-Sunni violence in Sampang district in 2012. The spark for this round of violence was when Shia schoolchildren were apparently barred from attending their local school. Sunni villagers, over a 1000 of them, then began attacking Shia households, eventually forcing about 500 of them to leave all their possessions and take shelter in a stadium compound. Two Shia men were hacked to death with machetes during these attacks, carok style. After a few days, this compound was attacked by Sunni mobs again and the police transferred the Shias to low-cost housing in Java. A year later, the two communities signed a peace agreement but local priests began disputing this insisting that the Shias convert to the ‘correct teaching’ as a precondition for their return. After two years of conflict, the Shia families are yet to be able to come back to their homes. The police stand outside their property, arguably to prevent them from coming back.

In Madura, nobody talks about the Shia-Sunni incidents—there is a collective amnesia. Collective amnesia is nothing new in Indonesia. Apart from the annual ritual of watching the anti-red film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, Indonesia as a whole seems to have forgotten about the massacre of communist party members and their sympathizers during the turmoil of 1965. This polite, humble, gentle nation, a land of 76 active volcanoes, has a remarkable ability to go through phases of dormancy and violent explosions. And when it explodes, it struggles to find comparable in history—1,000,000 killed during 1965, over 2,000 deaths during the Christian-Muslim conflicts in Maluku in 1999, and over 1,000 breaths erased during the nationwide riots of 1998, to name a few.

At Dungkeh’s port, white bricks are piled up, ready to be shipped to Java, framing the sky and the sea. Men are turning into glistening coal as they mend their boats in the ferocious equatorial sun while children float their kites into the blue ocean. On the beach, a million crabs dig out small balls to sketch the Milky Way.

We see an island in the horizon and ask the fishermen about it. They tell us that the island is Gili Yangyang, a magical place for oxygen. So it is; a quick investigation on the internet reveals that the oxygen content in the island’s air is the second-highest in the world. Tourists haven’t started going there yet but researchers from Surabaya have begun visiting to understand this natural peculiarity. We find a family whose father-son duo agrees to take us to the island. Again, Umartono gets anxious about our safety and asks many questions of the family, like the ones an agent in a credit card call center would ask. ‘This is Madura, we have to be careful,’ he whispers to us, ‘But now I have all their details and I will be sitting at their house. So I think it is safe. You may go ahead.’ The entire neighborhood begins teasing the father-son duo as they start raising the anchor, ‘So lucky, the two of you. You get to be with foreigners.’

Dolphins join us on the way to Oxygen Island. Aryo, the son, tells us more about Gili Yangyang, ‘People there live much longer. Even when they are 90 years old, they can go out fishing in deep seas.’ As the island approaches, an old man overtakes our motor boat just by rowing. He is toothless but has perfect physique. In the setting sun, his skin glows an orange-gold.

The old man takes us inside the island and informs the entire village of our arrival. A bunch of teenagers arrive with motorbikes and soon we have an entourage worthy of a presidential procession, taking us to the ‘oxygen spot’. I wonder for a moment if these teenagers are in their 90s as well.

The ‘oxygen spot’ is nothing but a small badminton court-sized field where an elevated bamboo platform has been constructed for sitting. Yovan, the oldest among our biker party, tries hard to explain the significance of this place. ‘When it is cold or raining, it is still hot here. When it is hot everywhere else, it is cold here.’ He asks us to breathe deeply. ‘If someone is sick, we bring him here for a few hours, sometimes a few days. Breathe deeply, keep breathing.’

Since it is getting dark, we take 10 deep breaths and prepare to depart, denying our bodies a good shot at the longevity promise of this island. But the villagers won’t let us go till we have posed for pictures with every one of them. By then, Yovan’s wife has prepared fish balls for us to take along. I am suddenly overwhelmed by this abundance of innocent eyes and their warmth. Who can dislike the Madurese? The extra oxygen is working its way through me, giving me an ego boost, a conviction that I am worthy of so much attention.

As we head back, the bright moon begins behaves suspiciously. The father-son duo tell me that it is the night of a complete lunar eclipse. The moon is lost while we are in the middle of the sea, so they sail following the Milky Way. On shore at Dungkeh, I change my trousers, wet from jumping on to the shore, while the earth gives me cover by hiding the moon.

The next day, we drive along the less-traveled north coast of Madura with pleasant beaches and jetties where local teenagers gather for a good time. Often, they whistle at us and request us for pictures. Upon hearing that we are from Singapore, they give high-fives to each other, delighted at having met foreigners.

The north coast is even poorer than the rest of Madura. As we pass by the village of Batu Marmar, we come across an excavation site for white bricks. A group of miners are at work, digging and cutting out the bricks. In the afternoon sun, the whiteness of the excavated area is blinding and the workers look prepared for a bee-attack, having covered themselves completely, only their eyes and noses exposed. In the strong wind, one worker struggles to hoist a sail-like structure that they use to provide some shade during lunch. They don’t respond to my greetings. They just keep looking at me. Then they mumble something. They appear numbed, perhaps from the repetitive nature of their job, marking, cutting, cutting, and some more cutting, fully exposed to the noise of the cutting blade and the blaring sun. Abdul, the oldest of them all, tells me, ‘These bricks will be sent to Java. It is very popular there. But, we get only five cents for cutting out one.’ That translates to an income of less than 10 dollars a day.

On the way, we pass by many villages where the residents have lined up along the road holding buckets. They are requesting passers-by to ‘throw in’ money to help build local mosques. Umartono speeds by whenever we approach such yearning buckets.

We continue on our journey. Near Aryasoba, the ancient capital, we ask at a shop for directions to the beach near Bangkalan. The owner, Arif, a man with impeccable manners, draws a map for us. This drawing of directions by strangers is a favorite part of my travel experiences. There is always a road ahead that ends in a T where a star will be drawn and then the drawer loses a sense of scale and finally gets confused. Arif follows the same pattern but then adds the Madura clincher, ‘I suggest you don’t go there. It will be getting dark by the time you reach there. And you know Madura people, so I strongly advise against going there.’ ‘Are you from Madura?’ I ask him. ‘Yes, I am,’ says Arif, ‘That’s why I know.’

I had the same attitude as Arif before. I have been cautious in my home province, Assam, in India as I’d imagine all the terrors that lay in wait if one stayed out too late, ventured into crowded areas, or engaged with natives beyond the cursory. I would be puzzled when I saw foreigners. What on earth were they looking for out here?

So where were the rude, hot-tempered, deceitful and violent people of Madura? But then, the YouTube videos of carok are real. The nailed whiplashes falling on the racing bulls are real. Or are the Madurese just in denial just like many Indians deny the prevalence of caste-based discrimination in India? Or is there something about such societies, steeped in tradition, governed by stringent codes of honor, bordering on the edge of male chauvinism, whether it’s the Madurese or Sumbanese in Indonesia, or the Nagas and Bodos of India, that makes them prone to bad temper and violence? If so, such a code of honor can be so easily disturbed but at the same time these societies are inexplicably warm and friendly to strangers who just pass by without going any deeper, without stirring the water too much, because in their hospitality lies the honor.

Our final stop in Madura is a waterfall that falls into the sea. At the top of the waterfall, I am mesmerised by the might of the cascading water, framed by big trees and tall grass, and the vast sea in the form of a million broken shards of glass shining back at the sun. If this was in Japan, it might have become a legendary suicide spot. But out here, it was just a good spot for locals for selfies.

As we are about to reach the Suramadu Bridge, I realize that some Madurese, at least those who have set up an endless row of souvenir shops at the Madura end of bridge, haven’t given up hope that some day the reputation that follows them everywhere will be shed and people will come to the island, only to cross the bridge if not for soaking in oxygen. These enormous shops, all identical, dress up daily for the day with carok sickles in all sizes, red-striped t-shirts, and the local batik textiles with their bold colorful patterns, distinct from the ones in Java. Each shop also displays a billboard prominently, ‘Public toilet.’

So life goes on in Madura and till the day the island becomes as popular a tourist destination as the Vatican, these shops will make ends meet by charging 20 cents per use of toilet from locals and truck-drivers on their way in or out of Madura.***

(Excerpted from Angels by the Murky River: Travels Off the Beaten Path, 2017, YODA PRESS)

About the book

Angels by the Murky River is a collection of travel narratives that stay off the beaten track. During the course of his travels, the author encounters people who would not typically attract a tourist’s attention—homeless people in Mumbai and Seoul, ageing anarchists in Melbourne, the crew on board a container ship, poverty-stricken diamond miners in Indonesia, renunciant monks in the material city of Singapore, farmers-turned-painters in Morocco and China, an elderly couple who scribble love poems on walls of small-town China while not daring to meet each other, Filipino women boxers and beauty pageant specialists, and a group of migratory mothers-in-law, to name a few.

These are narratives that capture human resilience in the midst of adversity, our passion for cherished ideals, and our capacity for creativity, kindness, and humour, irrespective of our backgrounds, and no matter what may be the traveler’s destination.

Available in Jakarta at Salihara and Post Bookshop as well as on

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