Have you ever been in a situation where you have visited cities and towns far from home, but you’ve never set foot in the one just on the other side of the mountain or across the river?
In the late 1990s my parents moved to a small city in West Java province called Tasikmalaya. Prior to moving there, our neighbors in Pandeglang (an even smaller city where we lived which at that time was still part of the same province) warned us that the people in Tasik (how most people refer to the former) speak a much more refined and polite version of Sundanese. To give you a little background, in Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, there are two major languages: Javanese (mainly spoken in the provinces of Central Java, Yogyakarta, and East Java) and Sundanese (used in West Java and Banten). Although they belong to the same language family, the two are as different from each other as French and Spanish. And although I speak Javanese at home (since both my parents are Javanese), I grew up learning Sundanese at school in Pandeglang and Tasik.
West Java itself is currently Indonesia’s most populous province with almost 50 million inhabitants. However, what is culturally considered as the heartland of the Sundanese people is a mountainous southern upland called Parahyangan – which means the abode of gods – roughly two thirds of the size of the province. Also known as Priangan, it’s further divided into three regions: west, central, and east.
Now back to the warning we received from our neighbors. But why? you may ask.
Javanese and Sundanese are similar in a way that both languages have different levels of politeness used when conversing with others, depending on who you’re talking to. For instance, below are how the word ‘to eat’ varies in Sundanese. (The verb is the second word in each sample.)
Bapa tuang (father eats)
Abdi neda (I eat; used when talking to an older person or someone you don’t know)
Dede emam (younger brother/sister eats)
Urang dahar (I eat; used when talking to friends)
Aing ngalebok (the rudest way to say I eat)
This is why the people in Pandeglang had to warn us beforehand so that we wouldn’t make a faux pas when using Sundanese to talk to Tasikmalayans since the people in East Pringan (where Tasikmalaya is located) are known for their courteous way of speaking Sundanese. In addition to that, we were also told about the different intonation Tasikmalayans use where it sounds like every sentence is a question, and the manner in which they speak which is very soft. I still remember my score from the very first quiz I took in Sundanese class at secondary school in Tasik: zero. My father, who like most Asian parents usually demanded perfection from their kids, found the situation rather amusing.
Over time, I learned Sundanese in earnest and by the end of my father’s tenure in Tasik, I was pretty much able to speak Basa Sunda lemes (the most polite form of Sundanese). During those six years when we called Tasik home, we made the time to visit all nearby regencies (of which a province is made up) in East Priangan except for one: Garut. I’m not quite sure what the reason was, but I have this memory of my father telling me that the road to Garut from Tasik was difficult to navigate as it traversed the mountains and could be dangerous at times. Yet, the distance between the two cities are roughly the same as how far Washington, D.C. is from Baltimore, or Manchester is from Liverpool in England. (They’re very close!)
It was not until in recent years when my curiosity of Tasik’s neighbor to the west started building up. But only a few months ago, I finally said to James, let’s go to Garut!
On a fine Wednesday morning in October 2021, I drove my old trusty car to Garut. The journey from Jakarta took us through the southern outskirts of Bandung, which was a breeze since it was a workday, and as soon as we left Bandung the toll road abruptly ended. I used to drive my father’s almost-decrepit microvan from Tasik to Bandung and vice versa during my university years. Driving the same route again (the last time was more than ten years ago when I attended one of my best friends’ wedding in Tasik) certainly brought a sense of nostalgia. There were some apparent changes: like a new stack interchange replacing a simple U-turn at the very end of the toll road, and more buildings on the main Bandung-Tasik road. However, in general the atmosphere was surprisingly still the same.
Following the two-lane road that meanders through the hilly terrain of this part of West Java, I kept driving until we reached an intersection where going left would take us to Tasik and turning right meant going to Garut. In the past I always went left, but this time right was where we were heading. Then, about half an hour later I began to realize how different Garut was from how I imagined it to be. I thought it would look and feel very similar to Tasik, but I couldn’t be more wrong. When I was still living in the latter, I often told people how Tasik was surrounded by mountains because you wouldn’t find any straight routes going in and out of the city as you would along Java’s northern coastal plains. But now I know this description suits Garut better because from the city you actually can see the mountains. Also, there are quite a few sloping roads within town as opposed to Tasik’s mostly flat topography. As we reached our hotel, located in an area still dominated by rice fields just outside the city center, I noticed that Garut was also cooler than Tasik. Later I found out that the former is almost 300 meters higher in elevation than its larger neighbor.
When I was planning this trip, I knew it would be at the beginning of rainy season, which means weather-wise it was probably not the best time to go since everything we wanted to see was outdoors. I also told James to keep his expectations low, not to mention that many places were still closed due to the ongoing pandemic and Garut’s Level 3 assessment (Level 1 has the least restrictions and Level 4 means almost everything must be shut). However, on the day of our arrival I was pleasantly surprised to see blue skies with only a few clouds.
It was lunchtime, and while waiting for our room to be ready, we decided to walk to a Sundanese restaurant not too far from the hotel. I must admit I was a bit concerned with our choice. Seven years ago when I took James to Bandung for the first time, we had lunch at a place specializing in Sundanese food, but he wasn’t impressed with the dishes we had. Because of this experience, for a long time he considered it among his least favorite regional cuisines he had tried in Indonesia.
This time in Garut I ordered nasi timbel (steamed rice wrapped in banana leaf) with grilled chicken, fried tofu and tempeh while James opted for nasi tutug oncom (a dish originating from Tasik which consists of rice mixed with oncom – made from the fermentation of the by-products of peanut oil extraction, cassava starch production, or tofu making) with Sundanese fried chicken and fried tempeh. Both came with lalapan – fresh vegetables as a side dish to be eaten with sambal and everything else – that is so quintessentially Sundanese it’s hard to imagine a meal in this western part of Java without it. We also shared lotek (a salad dish similar with gado-gado but with different ingredients) and sambal Cibiuk, our choice of sambal that day which is named after a district in Garut where it originates. To my surprise, James actually liked everything. Whether he was really hungry, or his palate has adapted well to Indonesian flavors since moving to Jakarta in 2016, or the food really was that good, I couldn’t tell. I’m not a good food critic since I enjoy almost everything that goes into my mouth, so I concluded that it was a combination of all three.
During our four-night stay in Garut, fortunately most of the places we wanted to see were open, except for Candi Cangkuang, an eighth-century Hindu temple which was admittedly one of the main reasons for me to plan this trip. We were a short boat ride away from the small island where it is located. But on the day we went there, the gate was closed, and all the boats were moored and motionless.
However, we managed to do a really nice hike at Mount Papandayan to the southwest of the city, visited a traditional Sundanese village just across the border with Tasik, and enjoyed the magnificent landscape of the Ciwulan Valley where lush rice terraces cover the hills like a beautiful emerald carpet and along which its namesake river flows. Together, they all give visitors an idea of Parahyangan, a highland so fertile and majestic with air so pure and pleasant it’s reserved for the gods. Garut was significantly cooler than Jakarta, but the welcome was undeniably warmer.
I will share the stories on the volcano and the village in the upcoming posts. But in the meantime, I’ll end this entry with a music video of a heavy metal band formed by three hijab-clad girls from the small village of Singajaya, 2.5 hours away from the city of Garut, who just graduated from an Islamic high school in their hometown last year. They now live in Jakarta and last month they completed their first ever international tour with stops in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Switzerland. Talk about breaking stereotypes.