Elections and Tea in West Java, Indonesia

As the hundreds of motorbikes reved their engine in noisy unison, I inwardly rejoiced at the fact that elections in Indonesia only happen every five years. In 1999 I was in Yogyakarta to experience my first Indonesian Election. Day after day the streets were clogged with motorbikes, each having ha its muffler removed in order to alert anyone who ws unware that election season was upon the nation. The riders wore their favorite parties colors- yellow for Golkar, red for Megawati's PDP, blue for Amien Rais PAN. Huge flags raised on tall bamboo flagpoles accompanied these parades. Sometimes one parties campaign entourage would be going down one street, an opposing rally heading up a paralell road.

This year the election is still two weeks away, and by Indonesian standards the lack of noise has been somewhat pleasant. There are millions of election posters glued, nailed or plastered up all over Jakarta and the other big cities, but all in all the Capital has been fairly devoid of the mass rallies that normally happen in the month prior to an election.Therefore I was suprised to find election fever, complete with the noisy motorbikes, alive and well in tea country near the Javanese mountain city of Bandung. I had decided to take a few days to complete my photographic mission that I had started earlier in the year. The appeal of cooler climes, shimmering green tea trees and teh misty blue of the mountains was enough
to head out of Jakarta for the weekend.

Climbing over the Puncak Pass traffic was light, suspiciously so. This road is one of the busiest in Java, linking Jakarta-Bogor and Bandung. A new toll road has reduced traffic somewhat, but what I was encountering on a long weekend Saturday made Eketahuna in NZ look busy. Arriving at the foot of the plantation after a fairly long trip, I realised the keys
to the Villa were in the 4WD back home. After breaking in with alarming ease, I sat back on the balcony with a cool beer and intent to enjoy the soft late afternoon sun. It was then I realised why the streets were quiet. The distant but distinct noise of a motorbike rally making its way up the valley towards the tea plantation. A noise, a deep metallic whooping, which
brought back memories of those Yogya days of hot dust and choking petrol fumes. Elections!!

The Javanese and the Sundanese may be universally regarded as cultured, well mannered and soft people. However Elections brings out a passion which is one part related to a fairly new democratic awakening and one part pure theatre (of the Wayang/shadow puppet variety). After the rally had rumbled past, I headed up into the village in the centre of the tea
plantation. Election posters were everywhere. I counted at least 20 different candidates- from the major parties as well as some fairly obscure minor ones. There were flags, banners, Umbul-Umbul, tea shirts, cups and even the occasional cow adorned with various parties election slogans and promises. The plantation itself had a small rally in progress for the PPP party. I
know many of the tea plantation workers and was introduced onto the makeshift bamboo stage to the candidate, a serious middle aged man with a firm handshake. Not being a political creature, I did not really enjoy the brief 15 minutes of fame and scampered away as soon was possible.

The tea plantation was looking good. Rain had been falling heavy the previous few weeks, the ground though was firm. The water drains off these slopes quickly, often creating flooding problems down on the flat alluvial plains to both the north and the south.

I wandered the slopes, enjoying the misty, cool air and the silence (apart from the distant reving of bikes). The tea shrubs laid out a like a blanket of vibrant green up to the distant ridges. No one was picking, although the drying factory was still working on leaves brought up earlier that morning. For once in Indonesia, I almost felt like I was alone!

I ended the day with the villagers down at the base of the plantation. As you will remember from my earlier blog, this is a private plantation. The housing, school and medical center are all in poor condition. Rusted corrugated iron roofs, decaying thatched walling. Despite the living conditions the plantation workers are warm and friendly people. Merdeka Coffee is a coffee only company, but my recent experiences in tea have encouraged me to look at ways in which in the future we could work sourcing tea from private plantations- if nly we can work out a way to build facilites and develop the people as part of this process.

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Comment by Jesse -D-> on March 31, 2009 at 10:35am
Great story, I always enjoy your entries, Thanks.

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