“Please take me somewhere out of town. I want to see something refreshing.”
That was a request my mother made over a phone call prior to my week-long holiday in Semarang back in late May/early June this year. For months until my father’s death in February, she had been taking care of him nonstop which meant weeks after weeks of sleep deprivation and mental exhaustion. And just as the traditional 40-day mourning period had ended, in April she had to accompany her brother who was hospitalized for about a week due to a problem in his lower abdomen (sadly he passed away a few months later due to a heart attack). So for her, my visit this time would be cathartic, hence that request.
At first, I had the city of Solo on my mind, partly because of the cancelled trip to this part of Java James and I had planned right before the start of the pandemic last year. However, due to the rising number of Covid cases (later I realized it was in fact the beginning of Indonesia’s deadly second wave which brought the country’s health system to the brink of collapse) and the complexities that might arise should we insist on making this trip, I opted for a place that is much closer to Semarang and somewhat less popular among tourists.
Ambarawa was an easy choice since James and I had never been and it’s supposed to have a beautiful landscape, something my mother needed. Also, its relatively short distance from Semarang – around 40 km south of the city center – meant we could go there on a day trip as opposed to staying overnight at a hotel. This town of around 60,000 residents – which would probably qualify as a city in other parts of the world – is famous among Indonesians not only for its view of Lake Rawa Pening with the backdrop of some of Java’s towering volcanoes, but also for its historical sights. And the good thing is all of these are outdoors, a safer option for the three of us as the pandemic is not over yet. With that in mind, I looked up the weather forecast to make sure that we would go on a sunny day.
Weather forecasts can be wrong, unfortunately.
The morning we left for Ambarawa, I looked up to the sky and was immediately worried at the prospect of a cloudy day. But it was supposed to be sunny! However, we had no other option but to stick to the plan, because how would we otherwise spend the day?
Driving along the picturesque toll road that cuts through the hills to the south of Semarang managed to lift my worry about the weather a little bit. It was one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever done in Indonesia, and seeing my mother’s happy face when she saw the scenery – verdant, undulating terrain with a vast expanse of land in the east where the sun was slowly coming out of the clouds – was enough to assure me that all would be well.
Just before 7 am, we arrived at our first stop on the northeastern shore of Lake Rawa Pening. Created more than 10,000 years ago, the natural body of water was very calm that morning, with only a handful of other visitors in sight. The three of us followed a path that led to a bridge, past an excavator which reminded me of a sad reality this otherwise peaceful place has been facing for years: its area is shrinking due to sedimentation, driven by the relentless spread of water hyacinth (Eicchornia crassipes), an aquatic plant native to the Amazon and an invasive species that now covers many parts of the lake. This causes problems for the local fisheries, further exacerbating other ecological issues in this area.
However, upon seeing how life unfolded for the locals amid the serene surroundings, my mind was immediately transported to Inle Lake for the apparent similarities both places share. James and I took a boat to explore the latter in Myanmar back in 2015, and we were fascinated by the water-bound life the local residents were tied to. Although this time we didn’t hop aboard any small craft to tour Rawa Pening, I could imagine how much the people in this area also depend on the lake to sustain their lives: from fishing, farming, handicraft-making to tourism. The view would have been even more dramatic had the clouds on the horizon not obstructed the volcanic peaks in the background.
From the village, we headed to the center of Ambarawa to visit our second stop of this day trip: Fort Willem I. The 19th-century Dutch-built stronghold was constructed in this part of Java due to its strategic location as a choke point between Semarang (where the main port of this region was located) and Surakarta (the seat of one of Java’s most influential royal courts as well as an important hub for the island’s sugar industry). This allowed the colonial power to watch the movements of the local population as a preemptive measure should there be any uprisings against the Europeans.
I decided to park the car at the railway museum, our third stop which is located just a kilometer away from the fort, not knowing that I could actually park very close to the latter’s entrance instead. But it made for a nice morning stroll along the town’s main road, down a narrow street next to an expanse of ripening rice paddies. Of course, both James and I had to adjust our pace with my mother’s.
The fort, now better known as Benteng Pendem (sunken fort), was turned into a prison after Indonesia gained its independence, and it has been serving this purpose up to this day. Only the northern, crumbling part of the compound is open for tourists, quite a contrast to the southern, whitewashed section of the fort. Some would call this place eerie or haunted, but to me the exposed red bricks, the weathered walls partially covered by moss, and a small wooden bridge that might collapse at any moment were collectively beautiful despite their imperfections. Earlier this year, however, the Ministry of Public Works and Housing announced that they would revitalize this Dutch-era fort. How successful it will be is something we can only see in a few years’ time.
Due to the compact size of the area that visitors can explore, it only took us around fifteen minutes to get all the photos we wanted. And as the sun was already quite high, we decided it was time to walk back to the museum, our third stop. Fortunately, we were not in Semarang, a city whose heat and humidity can be unbearable especially on sunny days.
Officially the Indonesian Railway Museum, the compound which was declared a heritage building in 2010 is also tied to the history of Ambarawa as a Dutch military outpost. Several years after the completion of Fort Willem I, a new train station was built in the town by the Nederlansch-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij (NIS – one of the first railways operators in the Dutch East Indies) which was headquartered in Semarang. It was commissioned to help the Dutch transport their troops to other places in Java that were under the European power’s control.
In 1976, decades after Indonesia’s independence, the train station was converted into a museum to house steam locomotives from the Dutch colonial era. And today, it’s the place to go in the country for railfans. It’s also quite popular among the general public, especially on weekends when people can take a train ride aboard a vintage carriage specifically operated for tourism purposes. But we were there on a weekday, so we should be content with exploring the museum only. While it was interesting to see how a train station was run back in those days, there were a few things at this place that intrigued me more than others. First, a turn table. Not the one used by DJs at night clubs, but rather a giant circular rotating platform onto which a locomotive was loaded to change its direction. Then a train used on the island of Madura – off the coast of East Java – that was only rediscovered in 1985 after being buried in mud for years. Also vintage train stops that were dismantled at their original locations to be reassembled at the museum. For today’s standards they look no different from a warung, a modest stall that sells anything from groceries to food.
It was nearing lunchtime and my mother started looking tired, but I could tell that she was happy because that was the first time in half a year that she was finally able to leave the city for a change of scenery and not think about taking care of anyone. Mission accomplished.