We are feasting on fresh seafood in the harbor village of Popoh, having crossed Java by car from the Indian Ocean to the Java Sea. Rains have driven us under cover in a beachfront warung where the fisherman are gathered. The catch today has not been good. No one smiles. Somewhere in my head rings the words of Joseph Conrad. “There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than life at sea.”
We face that tumultuous sea, the crossroads for trade for over 2000 years. Here, monsoon winds breed unpredictable storms while treacherous currents stir a graveyard of sunken ships. Recently, a 10th century shipwreck was excavated and revealed a startling array of artifacts and treasure.
Pirates add to the archipelago’s lore. The Bugis once ruled the seas, traveling with the monsoon winds between Makassar and the Spice Islands in prahu, the largest working sailing ships in the world. The Bugis were acclaimed sea traders and warriors often hired as mercenaries. This, and their involvement in the opium and firearms trade, inspired those frightening tales of Boogey man.
Stories regarding fish with women’s faces gained momentum around the same time. Even George Eberhard Rumphius, the botanist employed by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, penned a mermaid into his factual drawings of Indonesia’s flora and fauna. Perhaps he had seen the Indian Ocean’s shape-shifter and soul-robber, Nyi Roro Kidul. This mermaid reeks havoc in southern Java. Especially when someone dares to wear her favorite color, green.
The Indian Ocean and the Java Sea are connected by the Lombok Straits between Bali and Lombok. This is part of the boundary referred to as the Wallace Line, named after the man who first noted the striking differences between species present in Indo-Malaysia and those found in Australia.
Musing over this, I make my own comparisons. The ancient Balinese believed the ocean represented the underworld and the source of their demons. Across the Wallace line, in Lombak, the ocean is home to a female immortal whose status is equal to sainthood.
Folklore has it that wars were waged to compete for this beauty’s hand when she was merely a princess. To end the dispute, she threw herself into the sea. Here, she earned her immortality when her hair spawned thousands of colorful sea worms.
Here and now. My musings have done little to curb my appetite. I’ve wolfed down my portion of this seafood feast. I lean back as the rain breaks through the warung’s tin roof and douses me in dirty water. Across the room a fishermen smiles.