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Rien Samudayati: Back to nature, with traditional handicrafts

Features - October 10, 2006

Duncan Graham, Contributor, Malang

It started as a hobby. Now it has become Malang's latest tourist attraction.

In the hill town of Batu, about 20 minutes drive out of the central East Java city, former architect Rien Samudayati had long nurtured her herb, flower and vegetable garden.

For 10 years it was a pleasant pastime and a fine location for entertaining relatives and her academic husband's visitors -- particularly scholars from overseas. They enjoyed the ambience and natural setting, the lack of pollution and absence of crowds.

Though close to a major road it was a real getaway, a place to relax among the vines and trees.

You can't keep places like this secret in Indonesia where gossip is the universal currency.

"News was spread by word of mouth," said Rien. "More people wanted to visit. Europeans and other guests made suggestions on improvements. It stopped being a place just for family and friends. So I decided to go public."

Ten workers were hired and six cottages have been built for overnight stays. These vary from basic to luxurious at prices between Rp 200,000 (US $22) and Rp 600,000 a night.

There's an outdoor seminar room in a roofed but otherwise open area complete with all the standard electronic aids to enhance a presentation.

But unless the speaker is particularly scintillating or the topic riveting, participants are going to find their attention wandering. It's difficult to stay alert when a waving canopy of green shatters the sunlight into fragments.

Are those butterflies dreamily fluttering through the eggplants fruit-friendly -- or pests to be exterminated?

If the latter they won't get zapped by commercial pesticides. For de Daunan (many leaves) is run without using chemical fertilizers or insect killers. Instead, the project makes its own compost and mixes plant species to avoid monoculture. Predator numbers build rapidly when there's only one crop available.

"All this takes a lot more work and time," Rien said. "but we want to keep things natural. That includes filtering the water we use for irrigation through sand and reed beds to eliminate any impurities."

De Daunan covers only half a hectare, but almost every square centimeter of land is occupied by something budding, blossoming or fruiting. Although the soil is fertile it's relatively shallow -- meaning that deep rooting fruit trees can't thrive.

However, vegetables can, and those that aren't used in the kitchen or sold to tourists are sent to the Sunday markets in Malang. There's no restaurant, but visitors can get snacks and drinks made from the produce.

When applause for the keynote address has floated out of the seminar area, through the cabbage stalks and dissipated among the tomatoes, it's time for a stroll.

"I want visitors to get out and explore the area by foot," said Rien. "There are many people making handicrafts in and around this district and foreigners often want to see creative people in action."

For those who are too seduced by the setting to get moving, the craftspeople will come to them. Workshops (buildings, not talkfests) for teaching batik and basket-weaving have been erected.

Tourists can try their hands at steering a thimble of hot wax across fabric without spilling on naked flesh -- all the while maintaining integrity of design. Tricky? You bet.

A serious promoter of traditional crafts, earlier this year Rien organized a major up-market fashion show of village batik at a luxury hotel in Malang. The idea was to stress the importance to the moneyed set of supporting the old skills and rich designs that flourish in the backblocks of East Java.

"But I don't know for how much longer," she said. "The older women have the patience but it's getting rare now to find the younger girls who want to spend hours at the work."

She turns the plants on the property into art works -- though this is not to infer they weren't perfect in their natural state. She presses flowers and leaves, and uses these in paintings. Her philosophy is: "God gave us plants, so we should use every part of them for food, practical purposes, and art."

Also at de Daunan is a showroom of batik and other handicrafts, including open-fired pottery and woodcarvings.

Rien said maintaining quality was a major concern. Some craftspeople lured by tourist interest in their work turn from the creation of individual pieces to mass production, failing to understand that buyers who seek originality may have fat wallets but they're also are finicky and discriminating.

Who wants to go to a fancy function and see that everyone's wearing the same "exclusive" outfit? Or find the centerpiece of your feature wall prized from the grasp of a gnarled geriatric in a mountain hideaway can be bought for half the price at any Kuta kiosk?

Rien said her venture would appeal to Europeans and well-traveled Indonesians with sophisticated tastes. But if air-conditioned shopping malls are your natural environment, then de Daunan should probably not be on your itinerary.

"I feel sad that so many Indonesians don't appreciate nature and traditional crafts," she said. "They seem to want TV, luxury and prestige. When we lose our heritage, we lose our culture."

However, if you enjoy the open air, beautiful scenery, handicrafts and rustic rambles, de Daunan may be worth a visit.

(For more details phone (0341) 594466.)

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