We’ve traveled this road before so anticipate the emerald lushness of rice fields, teak forests, mushroom-shaped hills, and the more distant and indigo volcanic mountains. One can hear the jungle hiss its promise of insects and snakes. The effect, in this humidity, is claustrophobic.
Once when crossing a bridge we were accosted by monkeys. They were squatted in a haphazard row, haggling for handouts. The leader among them stood and screamed. The group became aggressive, even jumping on the vehicle behind us. We left to a chorus of shrill verbal assaults.
Rural roads throughout Java are traveled at tremendous speed. Often, these roads are not paved and are pitted with cracks and potholes. Hens and their chickens scuttle under our wheels in their careless determination to reach the other side. Pigs, goats and donkeys scratch the dirt just inches from the path our tires tread. Children stand unattended, their hair and skin caked in dust.
To the Western eye, the villages of rural Java are most beautiful viewed from behind. Dwelling fronts are painted. Not so the sides and back. The unpainted, natural hue of the mud-colored bricks is especially soothing when humbly paired with roofs of grass or thatch.
What I find bucolic from a distance is the raw-end of life in a village nature refuses to bless. We’ve traveled 15 km from the sea. Here the basalt soil is stingy in its yield of crops. Able farmers seek work in Malaysia. Some return embittered, demanding change.
A minority returns practicing a rigid form of Islam imported from the Middle East. Some join groups who fought for Indonesia’s independence, and were outraged when it was declared a secular state. Within these groups are those who retaliate with violence. They target temples, hotels and nightclubs with collateral damage the Hindu-Balinese, foreigners, and even other Muslims who, like the majority of Indonesians, practice a relaxed form of Islam.
2002. An explosion in a Kuta nightclub leaves 202 dead. Days ago, rioting cut short our business in Denpasar where three men faced a firing for their role in the bombing.
Now, in rural Java, we are confronted by images we left behind. On entering the village, armed police swarm our vehicle. Civilians shoulder up to our windshield and press against our windows and doors. We cannot see. For a moment, our driver’s foot on the accelerator loses all impact. The sensation is one of being lifted. We are sucked into the chaos, funneled forward in darkness, and then released. Within seconds, the village is behind us.
Later, I will relive each moment and weigh the danger so briefly encountered.
I will recall our driver’s face. How sweat poured from his brow. I will recall those minutes when hands blackened my world and wonder. Which among them were meant to threaten? To protect? Whose palms hit our windshield the hardest?
Following the execution, the bodies of thee terrorists were flown by military helicopter from the Batu Island prison to their home villages in Java. Here, violence occurred when mourners clashed with riot police.
With eyes wide open, we resume our travels. I glance back at the village, beautiful from a distance. I see a mud-colored hamlet rooted organically in arid soil. Our car swerves. Another hen and her chickens cross the road unscathed.