The novel “Laskar Pelangi”, which has been translated into several foreign languages, has done a lot to put Belitung on the map of international tourism. Locals and foreigners come to see the rocky beaches, savour the seafood and immerse themselves in the local people’s traditions. Ina Hapsari and photographer Jan Dekker explored all corners of this island which is only 45 minutes away from Jakarta.
Gangsar Sukrisno, the Director of Bentang Pustaka Publishing, was instantly mesmerized by a manuscript sent to his office in a brown envelope. “The script deserved to be read by many people,” he said about the story.
In the middle of the night he rang the number written on the envelope. “Are you Andrea Hirata? Who are you really?” asked Gangsar. Because of its polished style, Gangsar suspected that Andrea was a well-known author writing under a pseudonym. Finally Gangsar said: “We want to publish it.” Andrea was bewildered after that call. He didn’t think he had sent any copies of his manuscript to the publisher.
In September 2005, 2,500 copies of “Laskar Pelangi” were printed. Gangsar’s instincts had been spot on. The public loved it. The novel was then reprinted. It was reprinted again and again until it reached one million copies—a record-breaker for a literary work in Indonesia, and at the same time a rare phenomenon for a writer who at the time was a “newcomer”.
What was also stunning was that demand from other countries was also high. “Laskar Pelangi” crossed geographic divides and was translated into Malay and English, and then into Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean somewhere next year.
The book was a success and Andrea became a famous novelist. However, the story did not end there. Another phenomenon piggybacked on its brilliance: the increase in Belitung’s attraction as a tourist destination. Public awareness about the place reached critical mass when the novel was later adapted for the silver screen under the cool hands of a dynamic duo: producer Mira Lesmana and director Riri Riza.
The first time I visited Belitung was five years ago, exactly when Andrea’s novel was hitting the bookstands. At that time, people were still oblivious to Belitung—Where was it located? What ethnic group lived there? Was there any cinema there? But now everything has changed. Hundreds of tourists arrive in Tanjungpandan, the capital of Belitung, every weekend to enjoy the beauty of the rocky beaches depicted in “Laskar Pelangi”. In the beginning of October 2010, more than 80 foreign tourists, the participants of Sail Indonesia, stopped there on their way from Darwin, Australia.
The Island of Belitung (or Belitong in the local language) lies between Sumatra and Kalimantan, right next to Bangka Island. The 140-square kilometres island can be reached by a 45-minute plane flight from Jakarta.
The ponds resulting from tin mining, known as kolong, were visible from the plane just before landing at Tanjungpandan’s HAS Hanandjoeddin Airport. The development of Belitung is indeed inseparable from the history of tin mining that the Dutch started in 1852.
We can still find the descendants of the Chinese brought here as mine labourers. Although the mining of tin by state-owned PN Timah (Andrea’s father, Seman Said Harun Hirata, was one of its employees) officially stopped in 1991, the inter-ethnic mixing continues to this day.
The footprints of cultural assimilation are visible, for example in Sijuk, the Sub-District in the northern part of the island which is home to transmigrants from Bali. Here we can find a temple built in 1818 which allegedly is the legacy of Admiral Cheng Ho. Not far from the temple stands an old mosque built in 1817.
The gate with Hindu architecture on both sides of the street indicated that we were arriving in the Balinese Village of Giri Jati. The Balinese ambience was very strong. About 200 families live here in houses decorated with statues and checkered cloth. Although it was only 6 pm, the day had ground to a halt. The inhabitants, who originated from the Island of the Gods, were originally pepper farmers, but the tin mining business, which promised more money, turned most into miners.
Syarif, a guide from the Levi Tour, took us to Tanjung Binga, around 20 kilometres to the north of Tanjungpandan. We met a fisherman getting ready to set sail. His name was Mardi, a native Betawi (Batavia). “Since the age of eight I have been following my father, who worked as a lighthouse keeper in Belitung,” he said. Except during the westerly wind season, every day he went to fish, which he would salt and dry.
On the beach of Tanjung Kelayang, we found a rundown house which was a favourite subject for tourists with cameras. This was the house of Lintang, one of the characters in “Laskar Pelangi”. The soft beach sand got in between my toes. It was easy to find big granite rocks in the sea in this area.
Tanjung Tinggi was our next stop. In “Laskar Pelangi”, this beach was the place where Ikal and his friends played. The granite rocks here are huge and there are caves underneath them which people can enter.
Besides its white sandy beaches, Belitung also has some little islands off its shores. We left Tanjung Kelayang in a wooden boat belonging to Mr Muslim. The first island we approached was Batu Malang Penyu (Turtle Rock). It is so called because it does indeed look like a huge turtle lying in the sea. Unfortunately we couldn’t reach its shore because the waves were too fierce. Snorkelling was not possible either as there were jellyfishes brought there by the easterly wind.
The boat sailed past the islands of Batu Garuda, Babi Kecil, Tukong Kelayang and Gusong. Some of them were mere mounds of sand made visible only because the tide was low. They looked like white dots on the blue of the ocean.
From Gusong, we docked at the island of Batu Berlayar (Sailing Rock). The pile of giant granite rocks on this island—true to its name—did look like the sail of a boat. After going around the island, we jumped into the sea to snorkel. The water was very clear. I saw a few grouper, moonfish, clown fish, and blue kima. The seabed was covered in various corals, such as brain coral, table coral and montipora, whose shape resembles rose petals.
Another island that was no less interesting was the Burung Island. Its characteristic shape, as its name suggests, is like a bird’s head made from granite. The waters around this island are used by farmers for breeding kerapu (grouper). From the walkway consisting of wooden planks across oil drums, I saw various sizes of mouse and tiger groupers in ponds fenced with nets. They will be harvested when they are one year old.
The 128 years old lighthouse in the Lengkuas IslandThe lighthouse on the Island of Lengkuas is the icon of Belitung and is always crawling with visitors. This 60-metre tower was built in 1882 to control shipping in the Gaspar Strait which divides Bangka and Belitung. For a 128 years old building, its condition is considerably good. Although its iron staircase was rusted, its sturdy steps securely took me to the top of the tower from which clusters of granite, docked ships, and crystal clear waters were all clearly visible. It is an interesting place—unless you suffer from acrophobia.
The lighthouse was manned by Ngadirun, from Jakarta. He has moved many times to guard many lighthouses around Indonesia—a real island hopper. Although being a lighthouse keeper seems like a simple job, it is a line of work fraught with risks. Once he was stranded because of a fierce hurricane and had to live on meagre food supplies for days. “I only had instant noodles until some people were brave enough to use a sailboat and brought me some food,” he reminisced.
The tide was coming in as we returned to Tanjung Kelayang. Several times big waves broke across the deck and made our shorts wet. On arrival we went straight to a simple cafe. On the table there were some stir fried genjer (a kind of water vegetable), fried squid and prawn, and a durian from a neighbour’s garden for dessert.
Many tourists visit Belitung to see the locations depicted in the novel and film of “Laskar Pelangi”. It is this demand that invented the “Following the Footsteps of Laskar Pelangi” tour package. The adventure usually starts from Gantong Village, about 30 kilometres from Manggar, the capital of East Belitung. One piece of memorabilia found there is a store called Sinar Harapan where Ikal bought some chalks for his teacher and looked at the beautiful fingers of A Ling, the girl he adored.
Sunset at Tanjung Kelayang beach. The streets in Manggar are full of coffee shops. There are so many of them that the town is nicknamed “the town of a thousand coffee shops”. In the vicinity the Sinar Harapan shop alone there are at least ten of them. Spending the day sitting down while sipping coffee is the favourite pastime of Belitung’s inhabitants.
We joined the crowd in Warung Dicky with Adit and his friends. According to Adit, there is a total of 187 coffee shops in the area alone. The habit of sitting around drinking coffee is said to have been started by the miners killing time after work. These shops open from 6.30 am to 11.00 pm.
Our guide, Syarif, then took us to the intersection where Mahar, one of the characters in “Laskar Pelangi”, led his friends in performing a colossal Papuan dance. Then we dropped by at a school visited by a rich girl called Flo, one of the characters from the film, before she joined the East Belitong Muhammadiyah Elementary School. It was life in this poor Islamic school that inspired Andrea to write the novel.
The story started with eleven children in a dilapi-dated school—“which would totally topple over if a goat rammed it” in the words of Andrea—who were anxiously waiting for their teacher. It was raining heavily with deafening thunderclaps. Before long, from a distance there hurried a hooded woman using a banana leaf as an umbrella. The name of this brave woman was N.A Muslimah Hafsari Hamid, but she was usually called Bu Mus. She was the real-life novel’s resilient teacher. When she got into the classroom, she was soaked to the skin. But instead of taking a rest and at least attempt to dry herself, she chose to start teaching immediately.
Her dedication was indeed extraordinary. She rode her bike hundreds of kilometres to Tanjung Pandan to get books, which were being thrown away by the Dutch, so her students could read them. She wrote her own syllabus and taught ethics to the children, and how to pray. She was like a beacon of hope for the poor children on that mineral-rich island.
Young Andrea was in the third grade of elementary school at that time and the image of Bu Mus was embedded deeply in his thoughts. “I promised that one day I would write a book about Ibu Mus’ dedication,” he said then. A dream which has come true.
The dilapidated school depicted in the film is still standing. However, it is not the original but instead a replica based on Andrea Hirata’s memory of it. The real school had been destroyed. Peering into the classroom, I could almost see the ghost image of Bu Mus—played by the actress Cut Mini—standing there, teaching.
Interviews with Andrea Hirata and Gangsar Sukrisno by Bajo Winarno (“Catatan Emas 2008”)