Everchanging Faces of the Mountain-Sea

Trip Start Mar 26, 2006
Trip End Mar 26, 2006

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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Sunday, March 26, 2006

The women’s faces blush under the fierce sun as we approach them with our cameras ready to shoot. Their hands, however, keep on picking up the ripe paddies from the rice field, very ersatz in appearance, next to a Sundanese restaurant where we buy lunch. It’s harvesting time here in Ciwidey, south of Bandung. Or is it so, just to entertain the guests?

Maybe. For all we know, there are lots of government officials and Japanese tourists that come here in big buses, and three local and nationwide TV stations are doing a coverage of these guests as they eat and enjoy all the fun. A makeshift stage has been erected in the middle of the lawn, where four sindens (traditional Sundanese singers) sing to a gamelan tune. All the performers, including the waitresses, are dressed in elegant cultural attires.

All this hubbub is also the reason why it takes a really long time for them to complete our take-away order. Being so hungry, we wait rather impatiently, by chattering among ourselves and talking to a woman selling fresh produce just nearby. Sundanese are indeed very nice people; pleasantness seems to be embedded in their nature.

Another characteristic of the Sundanese is that they often confuse the letter ‘f’ or ‘v’ with ‘p’ (and sometimes vice versa). So the proper words ‘perfume’ and ‘video’ can be misspelled as ‘ferpume’ and ‘pideo’. There’s nothing funny in that—at most, it is only a bit strange to the untrained ears. But what ensues to us here is beyond that, so funny it successfully makes us laugh our heads off like never before.

It happens so suddenly. A waiter approaches one of us and says (originally in Indonesian), “I am sorry for keeping you waiting. The food is ready and is now being packed.” Indonesian word for ‘pack’ is ‘pak’: the ‘a’ in it reads like the ‘a’ in the English word ‘park’, and not ‘pat’. Now it occurs that the waiter confuses the ‘p’ in that sentence, so now it is more like this: the food is being facked. (In Indonesian: makanannya sedang difaking dulu.)

With those ‘facked’ foods we wind our way to the more mountainous area where tea plantations extend from both sides of the road. Thin streaks of rain clouds hang above us, resisting to clear off, so it is decided that we eat not on top of one of those tea hills, but under a roof.

A very light drizzle accompanies us as we eat and even as we trail the scenic road to the first destination of our trip: Situ Patengan. Like its meaning, Patengan (Sundanese for ‘in search for someone’) is a lake filled with romantic myths. Legend has it that whoever drops by a small rock called Batu Cinta and encircles the tiny islet of Pulau Asmara in the midst of the lake will meet their true love. This 48-hectare lake is situated by the green mountainside, boasting a park where people can sit down and enjoy the scenery, and maybe hop on to a boat to take a ride circling the vast expanse of this blue-green water and, hopefully, find their true love.

We take our chances. After settling for a price, the seven of us climb into a mini-boat (it shakes a lot!) and float on the serene, glasslike surface. Aside from our loud chatters and shrill shrieks of the occasional monkey deep in the islet’s jungle, as we advance farther from the lakeside the noises that relentlessly barrage our ears slowly disappear. Our surroundings become more and more quiet, so quiet at times the sound of the boatman rowing is clearly perceptible.

“In the rainy season, the depth of the lake can be 9 meters, while in the dry season, it's as shallow as 3 meters,” our boatman answers one of my friend’s question about the seemingly useless signs that are placed sparsely in the middle of nowhere (above the surface, that is), “they’re useful so that our boat won’t crash to the rocks.”

Half an hour later we leave Situ Patengan for today’s final destination. It is a massive crater on the foot of Mount Patuha, famously known as Kawah Putih or The White Crater. It takes ten to fifteen minutes of heavy uphill driving to reach the spot from the entrance gate. Sometimes there’s this thick white fog and patches of damaged tarmac that can be very challenging, and to some extent, prove fatal if not dealt with carefully. But the reward, the feeling after reaching it, is nothing less than transcendental.

Before you see the thing itself, you get to smell the strong odor of its sulfur-rich air first. It is as if introducing to your brain that you’re about to enter an out-of-the-ordinary world. Because as you descend via the stairs, no matter how many times you’ve been here before, you will always be dumbstruck with the beauty—a wholly, radically different meaning of it—of the colossal cliffs bordering the crater, of the immense white-green patches of moist soil and light-gray rocks, of the shriveling trees that stand heroically grandeur in spite (or because?) of their shape, of the lush red-green shrubbery that amazingly thrives on places where all else seem to fail, of the strokes of mist that dance chaotically like pieces of silk in the whispering wind.

But the wildest astonishment comes more often than not from the crater itself. Its face is constantly morphing: Today its contour is like this, tomorrow it may be different. In times of drought, you can see its isolated pools: some tiny and calm, some large, even seething and bubbly, trapped amidst the snow-colored desert. Then, when rain season stretches for months on end, every single pool bleeds excessively, ravishing the rocks, claiming the borders between the dry and the watery, and sets them anew. They all merge into one big mass of mountain-sea. And greatness is written all over it.

In Kawah Putih, the fascination never ends.


The pale-green water lies dead in the mountain hole,
Looking for a way out, a lower state
To flow into, but be it far and be it near,
The water’s surrounded, from departing denied.
In this giant pit, amidst hordes of rock,
The rain accumulates.
Today, a yesterday’s landscape is submerged, in a sea
Of sulfur. Deep down, the holes that yield
Earth’s everlasting heat must, against the cold liquid
shards of those shattering clouds, endlessly vie.
For now, the power of rain prevails.
Still it is foolish to boast the permanence of things,
For to the mountain, this flood is a mere passing.
Drought will return and reign, and salvation it’ll offer:
The water will levitate, like migrating fairies, or spirits,
And the face of this mountain-sea shall change again.
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