Categories
Anthropology Indonesia Reflexive Ruins

Puncak in Ruins, Part 5: The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins

This post is the fifth of five in a series.

The first is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 1: Arrival Scene”

The second is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 2: Lost Detour”

The third is “Puncak in Ruins, Part 3: The Year of Living Dangerously”

The fourth is “Puncak in Ruins, Part 4: Return to Villa Kota Gardenia”

Since I started writing about the ruins we saw at Villa Kota Gardenia (VKG) up in Puncak, West Java, I’ve been attuned to the presence of and fascination with ruins all around us. Ruins, it turns out, are EVERYWHERE, and there is no shortage of literature to evaluate our preoccupations with them whether we find ruins utopian, dystopian, or somewhere in between. The ever-growing corpus of printed words devoted to ruins over the centuries is nothing short of an accumulated ruin of its own, every scholar pushing their analysis forward, leaving prior analyses behind them in the academic dustbin of history. I fear the whole subject—so comprehensively reviewed elsewhere and with more sophistication—began to feel rather mundane and pointless (kinda like my dissertation, frack dammit!).

I found a nice review of the social science literature on ruins by Shannon Lee Dawdy that narrows its focus and critique upon two of anthropology’s subfields:  archaeology and socio-cultural anthropology.* Dawdy relies generously upon my hero Walter Benjamin, and also name-checks the piece by Ann Stoler that I wrote about in my previous post. In a broad-stroke summary, Dawdy writes:

“The creation of ruins is a function of capitalism’s fast-moving frontiers and built-in obsolescence, as well as political hubris and social conflicts.” *

Yep, so that’s about it … j/k!!1

When I was searching for online documentation about VKG, my jaw dropped when I found this proposal to build a small waterslide park (called a “water boom” in Bahasa Indonesia) next to the swimming pool, right where the annotated map in my previous post shows a small pond near VKG’s main entrance:

"before"
"before"
"after"
"after"

The cognitive dissonance between this proposal and the kind of engineering that resulted in so much devastation at VKG (the drainage channel turned out to be a kind of “water boom” did it not?) utterly mocks the hubris of slapdash Indonesian contractors. The last thing I expect anyone who is left at VKG would want to do is simulate the sensation of riding down the slopes of Gunung Gede upon an avalanche of water! What’s worse, the fiberglass contractor markets their Kabayan Waterboom at VKG as if it already exists on site. Even the reputable Tempo magazine name-drops Kabayan Waterboom in a list of other waterpark developers that joined together to construct a new water boom in Sulawesi, without even checking to see whether Kabayan Waterboom actually exists.

As I wrote in the previous post, a moment of rupture—such as the flash floods that took out VKG’s main road up in Puncak—is an easy starting point for a discussion of ruins. It’s a raw knockdown of the arrogant impulses that characterize development practice up in Puncak. Moments of construction and destruction easily propel the development plot line forward, which in turn privileges certain kinds of progressive stories we tell ourselves about modernity, but it’s harder to look at the economic downturns and slow aftershocks that characterize the long social life of ruins. Periods of decay and vacancy frequently last much longer than the golden ages of construction and production that preceded them. Back to Dawdy:

“Studying why and how ruins are not only made but also erased, commemorated, lived in, commodified, and recycled can tell us at least as much about society as the processes that created the original edifices.” *

If there is one thing we’ve learned about Indonesian society from the VKG story, we’ve confirmed that it’s possible to win contracts based on the as if merits of sham achievements that were built on sites of shameful catastrophes, as if there were never any floods that prevented the construction of a marvelous water boom. Ruins beget more ruins so easily!

Apart from my quick overnight trip to VKG when Dezant and I took the pictures that figure in these blog posts, I’ve relied upon the following mass media texts to thematically explore the ruins we found there. Not surprisingly, they all highlight moments of creative or destructive rupture:

  1. Lost’s Dharma Initiative commences its ruination and decline around “The Incident,” one of the most climactic moments of the entire series, when an atomic bomb detonates near a powerful source of electromagnetic energy.
  2. The Year of Living Dangerously has a plot that culminates in the destructive military coup on September 30 1965 that effectively ended Soekarno’s rule and ushered in Soeharto’s New Order regime. The scene set among the ruins of an old Dutch villa up in Puncak echoes the destruction of an earlier regime, highlighting what is at stake for the story’s ex-patriate characters living in Jakarta while simultaneously effacing what is at stake for the Indonesians who live and work there in between historical ruptures (which is to say, most of the time).
  3. The mudslides that bring about VKG’s ruin are recounted through newspaper reports archived online, from both Pikiran Rakyat and Pelita.
  4. Kabayan Waterboom is brought to you by an Indonesian fiberglass contractor that advertises a design for their imaginary construction at VKG via several promotional blog sites online. Kabayan Waterboom inadvertently receives further legitimation from Tempo magazine in their story about Indonesia’s latest water boom being built in faraway Sulawesi.
Better Homes & Gardens:  Villa Kota Gardenia
Better Homes & Gardens: Villa Kota Gardenia

But if I could seriously take up Dawdy’s (and Stoler’s) suggestions, I would spend more time up in Puncak, i.e. conduct actual fieldwork and not simply rely upon mass media documents that stick to rupture-oriented moments in relation to their ruins. It takes more time than a weekend and some googling online to make sense out of how people live with decay and vacancy in their midst. Dawdy suggests that a different kind of plot line may emerge in which the creative and regenerative forces of social life take center stage instead of the overdetermined but reckless designs of development practitioners and the capital they mobilize for both production and destruction. Everyday life among ruins yields not only dystopian resentment (see previous post), but maybe also some utopian—or at least some make-do—improvisation. If there was anything that gave me an inspirational pause among so much wreckage at VKG, it was the small garden that someone had planted on the banks of the ravine forged by the mudslide that destroyed VKG’s main boulevard. Then again, I’m a sucker for pastoral nostalgia. The point is, we’re left with images slightly more nuanced than total destruction and disillusion. A tiny terraced garden among the VKG wreckage brings Puncak’s primarily agricultural past into our present scene of destruction, and vice versa. Ruins fold our temporal perceptions upon each other in unexpected ways. For at least a moment, modernity’s temporal logic—that endless linear series of ruptures that progressively usher in ever new creations—enjoys a temporary reprieve. Another perspective. Living with the ruins amongst us.

* Dawdy, S.L., 2010, “Clockpunk Anthropology and the Ruins of Modernity” Current Anthropology, 51(6), pp. 761-78.

The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins
The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins
Categories
Anthropology Indonesia Reflexive Ruins

Puncak in Ruins, Part 4: Return to Villa Kota Gardenia

This post is the fourth of five in a series.

The first is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 1: Arrival Scene”

The second is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 2: Lost Detour”

The third is “Puncak in Ruins, Part 3: The Year of Living Dangerously”

What happened at Villa Gardenia?

In my previous two posts, I wrote about the haunting and nostalgic associations that ruins inspire when portrayed in popular film. I chose the artifactual remains of the Dharma Initiative on the TV show Lost and the old Dutch villa in The Year of Living Dangerously because the broken housing development that I visited up in Puncak earlier this year strongly reminded me of them. The once grand but now crumbling and overgrown entrance of Villa Kota Gardenia (VKG) in Cianjur has rusted abandoned buildings and a fetid stagnant swimming pool that tweaked my mass media memories:

This mess was just the main entrance, at the bottom of a hill, just off of Puncak Pass. A treeline blocked our line of sight up into the residential area (VKG’s so-called villas), which is why upon arrival we thought we had the wrong location because there was nothing to suggest that these damaged buildings were part of a functioning development. After confirming that we were at the right place, we cautiously pulled into the entrance and drove up the hill.

Road Collapse at VKG
Road Collapse at VKG

Past the trees and around a bend we discovered that the main artery of the housing development had been almost completely washed out by landslides. Emergency embankments were temporarily preventing more of the road, and also the villas, from falling into a constricted river. I use the word “constricted” because it appears that the developers had originally built a deep but narrow channel to direct the flow of a mountain stream (a tributary of the Ciherang River, coming down the slopes of the volcano Gunung Gede) that passes through the VKG complex. The cement conduit used to be a lane divider for VKG’s main residential boulevard, now a minor ravine after the landslide. We got lost on a lattice of emergency roads that were built around fallen sections of the road that cut off access to the houses further up the hill.

no access
No Access

We settled into the house where we would spend the weekend and I explored the neighborhood. Puncak is typically mobbed with visitors on weekends but VKG was nearly empty. Many of the houses had small “for sale” signs posted on their fences, and indeed I discovered later that if you browse for “Villa Kota Gardenia” on Google, the majority of listings are real estate sales (“dijual MURAH!!”). Toward the bottom of the hill, the dangling power lines were hanging dangerously low over the stream, while someone had resourcefully turned the banks of the landslide into a small terraced garden.

Electric Garden
Electric Garden

When I got back to Jakarta, some further Google reconnaissance quickly revealed the broad contours of what happened. A screenshot from Google Maps reveals a picture of VKG before its destruction, when it was still under development (a different annotated version of the same map is available here on wikimapia):

annotated map of VKG development in Cianjur
Annotated map of VKG development in Cianjur

According to local news sources archived online (links in the next paragraph), on at least two occasions in early 2010 (4 January & 10 March), the Ciherang River sent flash mudslides through the VKG complex. Boulders and other large debris from above clogged up the narrow drainage channel. The massive volume of mud spilled out of the drain and over the landscape, taking out the main road of the VKG complex and then completely covering the main entrance down below with so much mud and rocks that VKG residents were unable to reach the main road (Puncak Pass). The floods also damaged at least five houses beneath VKG across the road.

Resentment

While the Pikiran Rakyat article from January 2010 reports just-the-facts of the flood and damage, the March 2010 article in Pelita after the second flood strikes a more activist tone and speculates broadly on the causes.* After describing VKG as “luxury housing” owned by people with “deep pockets,” the Pelita piece relays an eyewitness account from one of the VKG security guards who asked that his name not be published but is qualified to speak about Ciherang flash floods since he was witness to the Ciherang ash mudslides after Gunung Gede erupted a few decades ago. The article suggests that a number of unlicensed developments up above VKG may be responsible for the floods due to the environmental degradation they caused, but sources from VKG management refused to join in on such speculation. Uncontrolled development projects disregard both local and national environmental regulations, the article states, and somehow avoid the required impact assessments. The Pelita journalist gives a brief historical summary:  since roughly 1984 rampant development of tourism infrastructure and real estate have radically transformed the Puncak landscape and destroyed the region’s ecological functions as watershed and buffer zone. My favorite sentence from the article verges on the poetic:

The hills and valleys, the farm fields, have been transformed into steel-reinforced concrete gardens with glowing neon lights.

To be fair, VKG did not strike me as a “luxury” development for the super-rich. The villas are densely packed, modestly sized, and few (if any) have remarkable views. Each house on the hillside struck me as an “I made it!” status symbol, a weekend getaway retreat for upwardly mobile Jakartans that are newly able to afford it. But collectively the VKG development is a recklessly engineered pox on the Puncak landscape. A critical development failure occurred here, and the wreckage all around VKG suggested to me that one year after the mudslides no one had been held accountable. In fact, a sign at the foot of the hill announced that road and drain repairs are paid for by VKG resident contributions. With so many “for sale” signs across the complex, and no doubt a collapse (along with the road) in the value of their VKG investments, it’s no wonder that the community hasn’t raised enough money to repair the damage. Where has the developer disappeared to? What do local officials who allowed VKG to be built on such shabby foundations think of this ruinous outcome? Are the VKG property owners really wholly accountable for cleaning up this mess?

"perbaikan jalan & saluran dibiayi oleh sumbangan warga villa gardenia"
"perbaikan jalan & saluran dibiayi oleh sumbangan warga villa gardenia"

Ruination:  Disenchantment, Disavowal, and Disenfranchisement

As I thought through these questions, that precious enchantment I first felt upon arrival at VKG’s desolate entrance increasingly gave way to a combined sense of disgust and outrage. As a part-time resident of Jakarta for several years now, I have heard the abstract accusations lobbed up at overdeveloped Puncak for causing the floods that regularly plague us. But it doesn’t make all that much sense to frame the question in terms of antagonistic geographies when the rapacious appetites that have destroyed Puncak are indistinguishable from (if not have their origins in) business-as-usual in Jakarta.

These are the corrosive forces that ruin, i.e. “inflict or bring great and irretrievable disaster upon; destroy agency; reduce to a state of poverty; demoralize completely” (Concise Oxford Dictionary). The ruins I described in the prior three posts are objects, trace metaphors of decay that inspire introspective contemplation, but I agree with the anthropologist and historian Ann Stoler who argues that an account of the ruin-as-object remains incomplete without a complementary account of the ruin-as-process.** We must traverse and explore the inherent tensions between “two poles of decay,” both the evocative metaphors and violent degradations.

By definition ruination is an ambiguous term; both an act of ruining, a condition of being ruined, and a cause of loss… These three senses may overlap in effect but they are not the same. Each has its own temporality. Each identifies different durations and moments of exposure to a range of violences and degradations that may be immediate or delayed, subcutaneous or visible, prolonged or instant, diffuse or direct.**

Villa Kota Gardenia in Ruins

The catastrophic mudslides at VKG in early 2010 do not signal the beginning of ruination in Puncak. Pelita suggests 1984, and I might even go further and look at Puncak’s history as a hill station retreat for Dutch colonials in Batavia and Bandung. But the recent floods are a good place to start not just because the event is a relatively contained illustrative example of a larger problem, but also because the disaster and its immediate aftermath are a great point of entry. Disasters momentarily disturb everyday business-as-usual and in turn render ordinarily opaque (and unequal) social relations suddenly visible. Setting aside for now its journalistic merits, I enjoyed reading the Pelita article because it inadvertently reveals a lot about local dynamics in Puncak. Readers know why the security guard does not want his name given, just as we can probably guess why VKG management refused to comment on the allegations that rampant unlicensed development caused the disaster. The journalist ascribes more authority to local knowledge—the security guard who witnessed Ciherang River ash floods decades ago—than any developer that refuses to conduct an environmental impact assessment before building touristic agribusiness ventures and densely-packed villas. The total absence of any government officials from the account is as telling as it is troubling. Pelita’s accusations and sympathies are implicit and disorganized, but unambiguous.

In the wake of the Sidoarjo mud lava catastrophe in East Java, we can well imagine that the destruction at VKG was simply written off as a “natural disaster,” allowing the conspicuously absent voices from Pelita’s account to continue their destructive business-as-usual without accountability. Meanwhile VKG lies in ruins and life goes on there, albeit more quietly and at a much lower net worth, despite so much damage and loss to VKG investors and the surrounding community. Stoler’s call to ask “how people live with and in ruins” snaps us out of the melancholic gaze upon the leftovers and redirects our engagement with ruins toward processes of ruination, and their attendant disavowals and disenfranchisements.** Along the way we begin to understand not just the mechanisms by which ruination occurs with impunity, but also how resentment sediments almost imperceptibly into the lives of the ruined. The Pelita article only begins to hint at festering resentments in the community around VKG.

To be concluded:

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 5:  The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins”

* Note that the two newspaper articles use the names “Bukit Harmoni” and “Villa Kota Gardenia” interchangeably, or in some combination of the two. Perhaps VKG replaced the original BH name for the development at some point.

** Stoler, A.L., 2008, “Imperial Debris:  Reflections on Ruins and Ruination” Cultural Anthropology, 23(2), pp. 191-219.

Categories
Indonesia Status Updates Travel

Krakatau Day Trip

Krakatau Islands (circa 2000)
Krakatau Islands (circa 2000)

This past weekend my friends Chloe, Simon, Rob and I learned that if you’re willing to hit the road at 5am then it is possible to have a complete, unhurried, outstanding day trip to the Kraktau volcano islands! I’ve been wanting to do this for years, especially after I read Simon Winchester’s history of the Krakatau explosion in 1883 and its aftermath (including the birth of Anak Krakatau island in 1927).

Book Cover:  Krakatoa by Simon WinchesterWe took the toll road west all the way out to the Krakatau Steel Industrial Wastelands Park, and then caught a Banten provincial road along Java’s west coast, arriving in the sad beach resort town of Carita at 8:30AM. At a roadside warung beside a river, we drank a quick coffee and bought some durians, then hopped onto a speedboat that our guide chartered for us (more on our excellent guide below).

The boat trip to the Krakatau islands out in the middle of the Sunda Straits took another hour and a half.   The weather was just hazy enough that we couldn’t see Krakatau from Carita, and once the islands emerged on the horizon we could no longer see the mountains and shoreline of western Java.

Foolhardy Pine Trees
Foolhardy Pine Trees

A small grove of pioneering tree species and other plants has grown on the black sand eastern shore of Anak Krakatau island. That’s where we landed and registered our visit with the park rangers posted there. Just a few meters down a leafy path, and the ascent quickly begins in earnest. The only growth on the slopes are the foolhardy pine trees, impressively sturdy, but there were probably more dead tree stands than living, as they die en masse with each major eruption that blows hot gas and lava their way. The hike up did not take more than 30 minutes, and we enjoyed stunning views that set the steep dark gray slopes against scorched trees, green lowlands, blue ocean, and the neighboring islands. In front of us, Anak Krakatau’s cone towered above like a pyramid.

Anak Krakatau's volcano cone (looking up from "Level One")
Anak Krakatau's volcano cone

Anak Krakatau is currently active, so we were not allowed to climb up to the top, but there is an older caldera rim that our guide called “Level One,” and that was actually a perfect place to stop, rest, take pictures, and then explore.

In the gully between the older caldera rim and the huge cone there are sulfur deposits that look like light patches of snow. We walked down “Sulfur Avenue,” littered with steam vents and lava rocks that could only have been hurled out from the newer caldera way up above us during eruptions. Simon observed that many of the rocks were fresh arrivals because we could still see the crater-like dents where they landed or the tracks they left in the ash as they rolled to their current positions.

the big rock at the upper right rolled around a bit before arriving at its spot

These pictures here are all from our walk down “Sulfur Avenue.” (Complete set of pictures, including some of Rob’s and Chloe’s pictures, are collected HERE at my flickr site.)

Big Lava Rock (Chloe's photo)

Big Lava Rock Detail

Sulfur Crystal Detail Dead Tree

Burning Descent (Chloe's photo)
Burning Descent (Chloe's photo)

After exploring around for another half hour or so, we started back down the hot slope. My feet burned as the black sand sifted through my sandals; the faster I tried to slide down the slope the worse my feet were burning (ow! ouch! Oh no no OUCH! OMG OW ADUH GANTENGNYA PACARKU AUW!!!!11!), and for a few scary moments I thought I might get stuck until I realized that a slow step-by-step descent kept the sand *beneath* my sandals instead of in them.

Back on the boat, we circled around Anak Krakatau, and saw the barren landscape across the vast majority of the island. Rocky lava shores encircle nearly the entire island except where we first arrived.

Signs of Life western slope of Anak Krakatau

After circling around, we took the boat over to Rakata Island, which was part of the original large Krakatau Island before it exploded out of existence in 1883. We parked on a small beach where some fishermen had made their camp and ate our boxed lunches. During lunch we had the unsettling experience of getting harassed by a monitor lizard (biawak). Every time we chased it away, it came back, and when we poked it with sticks and rocks it would thrash its huge tail as if trying to betch slap us. Another first in a long day of surprises… every other time I’ve seen monitor lizards they would scramble away from people, but this one must have been familiar with the tour lunch routine, regularly getting leftover scraps.

Biawak (monitor lizard) on Rakata Island
Biawak (monitor lizard) on Rakata Island

After lunch, we went snorkeling near where we ate, but I was actually more interested in the floating sheets of pumice rocks that surrounded us while we were swimming (another first!), and I collected some to bring home as my Krakatau volcano souvenir. Less appealing was the floating plastic trash, which even got caught in our boat engine on the ride home. Our guide said it comes from Lampung province at the southern tip of Sumatra.

Anak Krakatau Eruption (Chloe's photo)
Anak Krakatau Eruption (Chloe's photo)

On the boat ride home, we saw dolphins! And then, while I was jotting some notes from the day into my phone, Chloe grabbed me to point back at Anak Krakatau, fading away into the haze, and we saw a huge belch of volcanic ash shooting up into the sky. Eruption! We missed it by just an hour or so… good thing it didn’t happen while we were at the Level One caldera poking around the sulfur crystals, “moon rocks” and steam vents.

I think we all agreed that the whole day was a smashing success by any standard. I am grateful to Chloe who found our tour guide and planned the trip for the rest of us. The tour operator Chloe found is based at Jalan Jaksa in Central Jakarta, called Krakatau Holiday. The owner of the company, Thommy Samba, who grew up in the Carita area and speaks excellent English, was our capable guide. He packed our meals and lots of cold drinks, chartered our car and boat, handled the park visitation permit, and took us up to the volcano. Krakatau Holiday also organizes tours to Ujung Kulon National Park (and more!) just south of Krakatau, another big to-do on my Indonesia travel list. If you can get a group of friends together to share the cost of one of these all inclusive tours, Krakatau Holiday has my recommendation!

LINK TO FULL FLICKR PHOTO ALBUM: KRAKATAU ISLANDS TOUR

Southeast view of Anak Krakatau (as we headed toward Rakata for lunch)
Southeast view of Anak Krakatau (as we headed toward Rakata for lunch)