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Part nirvana, part hell, Sumedang is in a time warp
SATELLITES AND THE SUPERNATURAL: In West Java, a unique blend of high-tech and the forest world
THERE are so many motorcycles in Sumedang, just 21/2 hours from Bandung, you cannot help but want to plug your headphones on and retreat from this traffic hell.
Outside your car's window, a sea of riders take their spin on the roads, zipping between cars and buses. The irony of this scene is, occasionally, a few horse-powered carts are also competing for space with SUVs and mega-machines on the road.
Every other teen who can afford one, has a motorcycle. Village girls ride down potholed roads downhill to get to school. Fathers carry an entire family on their motorcycles. If the world runs out of petrol, the villagers at Sumedang are truly stuffed.
The sheer weight of people in Indonesia -- a nation with more than 240 million people -- is reflected in the microcosm of Sumedang, a regency of more than 1.01 million people (as at 2005) with 26 sub-districts located 45km east of Bandung.
The latter is a two-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur and a branded goods haven for shopaholics across Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.
Half of Sumedang is still covered in forest and agricultural land. Mount Tampomas, a tourist site, lurks in the skyline.
Sumedang's most famous product is a fluffy tofu fried to perfect crispiness called tahu bungkeng. Sumedang is also an education hub, home to two prestigious schools, namely Padjadjaran University and IPDN (Institute of Home Administration).
Sumedang is a quintessential town planner's nightmare. Roads need to be widened to fit in more bicycles and pedestrians. Yet modern roads squeeze beside padi fields and cassava crops, competing for land and space.
Some form of overhead light rail would be good for Sumedang central; perhaps a big budget from the central government to build an arterial rail system servicing the major townships.
Across villages in Sumedang, modern cellphones are a must. The local midwife just cannot live without her reliable telecommunication tool. One midwife sent her runner three times to a local cellphone shop to check if her phone had been repaired.
Access to communication is the methamphetamine for a small village. Once you have your cellphone fix, your life can never be quite the same.
Sumedang survives mainly on farming. Every piece of fertile land is filled with padi, fruit and vegetables. A villager may own a high-tech cellphone or own a four-wheel drive but he still lives mainly on rice, salt and cili padi as he breaks for lunch after starting work at 4.30am in the fields.
Although primary education is compulsory, for many parents, it is not a priority. The school dropout rate is high. The legal age for matrimony is 16; hence many female teens are mothers soon after.
The average Sumedang village is one half high-tech -- with its television satellite dishes, washing machines and freezers -- and one half the domain of jins, dukun, tigers, civet cats, wild animals and oversized bugs. In some villages, there is only one well for bathing, shared by many.
On my first few days in Sumedang, I couldn't bear the thought of throwing rubbish into the river -- the only way to dispose of waste. By my tenth day in Sumedang, I was a consummate litterbug.
You can't impose modern value yardsticks on a place like Sumedang. It is trapped in a time warp although technology and globalisation have insidiously crept in. A Sumedang teenager wants to buy Vans, Chuck Taylors, Monster Drink and Billabong T-shirts.
The terraced padi fields that grace the place transport you to nirvana. Its poor roads and horrific traffic, however, bear the stamps of hell.
People are gracious, charming, polite. They are also weather-beaten, tough and incredibly proud. They take their life with all its missing bits in good stride.
As the muezzin calls for dusk prayers, all the day's toils are put behind, for tomorrow brings the promise of a better day.
A place such as Sumedang needs its own metamorphosis. If history has taught us anything, it is that given time, even the most remote of places have the capacity to modernise and integrate. One hopes Sumedang will make this transition in good shape.