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Posts Tagged ‘morinda citrifolia’

Flores, Nusa Tengerra, Indonesia

4. Mama Maria Anselmia da Kunya from Sikka showing off her own produce. Its clear from people's names that the Portuguese influence is still strong (480x640)

Mama Maria Anselmia da Kunya from Sikka showing off her own weavings.

The Flores experience starts at the airport in Bali where we board a twin propeller plane and suddenly feel as if we are back in the 1960s. The Lion Air flight has no inflight magazine or Duty Free list but it does have an “Invocation Card”. This lists for passengers of any of seven different faiths the prayers to be said to ensure a safe journey for us all.

A couple of nuns and a tall blue eyed priest are on the flight and remind me of the fact that this island is not Muslim like Java, not Hindu like Bali, but strongly Roman Catholic.

Of course, that’s where it got its name – it has been in the hands of first the Portuguese and then Dutch Jesuit missionaries for a very long time – and it was the Portuguese who gave it the name of Flores.

1. Diane, Jim and Susi at the top of Kelimutu volcano (640x480)

Diane, Jim and Susi at the top of Kelimutu volcano

Let’s be clear about the reason we’re here – its not for the wonderful scenery and the amazing chain of volcanoes to trek up, its not for the tropical beaches or the diving, we’re not even here to hunt the famous Komodo dragons – no, we’ve come to wrong end of the island for that. We are here to hunt down something else entirely… ikat weaving. I’ve long been a fan of Flores ikat, which I’ve bought from shops in Bali. The colours are delicious – deep earthy browns and reds, just my cup of tea and the cotton is heavy and hand spun. I’ve finally got the chance to come to the place it ‘s made.

Maumere airport is tiny and we’re soon through and delivered to the tender mercies of the taxi drivers and guides who are waiting for fresh tourist meat. Its not long before we are nestled firmly and inextricably under the wing of guide Hieronymus (yes, he says, like Bosch) and driver Vincent (de Paul, no doubt)

2. It soon becomes clear why there are so many different languages on this island – nobody ever got to meet their neighbours, what with all those volcanoes and jungle in the way. (640x480)

It soon becomes clear why there are so many different languages on this island – nobody ever got to meet their neighbours, what with all those volcanoes and jungle in the way.

It is made clear to us that independent travel in Flores is just not for the likes of us. For a start self drive hire cars are out of the question – nobody would let a foreigner loose in their car on these roads. Secondly the public transport is shit. Sorry, let me rephrase that… yes there are extremely cramped and very small minivans, very bad roads, and very slow journeys which, were we 20 years younger and had 3 times as much time (and possibly 3 times less money) we could choose to travel by.

But, (and it’s a Big But) we have only got a week here, we want to get to some pretty remote villages and there are 3 of us. Susi, our Javanese friend from Jogya has come along just for the craic. So we open negotiations and soon realise that we might as well give in to the fact that we are going to have to part with a not insignificant sum to engage these two chaps for the next 5 days.

We next realise that there is only really one road through Flores and we have made the schoolboy error of buying a return ticket to and from the same airport. Never mind… once we get going and experience the state of the roads, the wild standards of the driving and the frequency of the land slides, we are quite happy not to be setting off on an epic journey.

As for the ikat, I am immediately reassured by the number of women I see wearing that beautiful characteristic cloth– worn either slung over one shoulder toga fashion, or bunched up as as sarong skirt. At Maumere market there are plenty to look at, and I keep Hieronymus (our Melanesian Eddie Murphy lookalike guide) occupied while Jim slips off to the textile stall to do a preliminary recce on what’s available and grab a bargain to establish the prices. Susi immediately starts chatting to a lady selling something who comes from Java. This is to be a pattern which is repeated everywhere we go – Susi makes lifelong friends very easily.

3. Women in Maumere market. (640x433)

Women in Maumere market wearing fine ikat

Before we can leave town for a few days upcountry, though we need a few supplies – snacks for the journey, mozzie spray for the rooms and what else … what about alcohol? Hieronymus, by now known as Hero,  takes Jim down an alleyway to see his mother in law who brews up arak palm wine spirit in her village. He comes back with a big grin and a large 1.5 water bottle full. Cost? about £3.

So well fettled for the days ahead, we set off to the first port of call – Sikka. It’s on the southern coast, white sand, coconut palm trees, a typical bloody paradise. There’s no work here though, only fishing for the men and ikat weaving for the women, so, lovely but maybe not paradise.

In most parts of Flores the women weave their own sarongs to wear. Indeed it is traditionally seen as a pre-requisite for marriage – a boy has to be able to plant enough crops to feed a family and the girl has to be able to ikat and weave to clothe the family.

A few villages though, have gained a reputation for weaving. Maybe the dyestuffs or the cotton plants are plentiful, or the women are particularly good weavers. Sikka village is one of these places, and the guides like to bring their charges here.

13. In the centre of Sikka is a huge wooden church founded in 1899. The interior walls are painted with the designs of the local cloth – its a strong reminder of the way ikat is part of life here.

In the centre of Sikka is a huge wooden church founded in 1899. The interior walls are painted with the designs of the local cloth – its a strong reminder of the way ikat is part of life here

The small market place is between the sea shore and a very large Catholic church.

At the market, the women are demonstrating – they spin cotton, tie the ikat,show us the local natural dyes and weave. Even the complete textile novice can’t fail to be impressed, and so I am completely bowled over. A quick walk around the village is rewarded with views of ikat in various stages of production. The red dyed warp threads are hanging on washing lines, the tying is being done with thin but strong strips of palm leaf, the cloth is being woven on back strap looms or the women run out bringing cloth to sell. It’s all I could possibly hope for!

If you know me well enough, and have read enough of my blogs, you will know that you don’t get too far before you will be made to read some technical explanation of how a textile is made. Well that’s the point we’re at here. So look away now if you just want an amusing account of exotic travel.

The ikat they make in Flores (and the neighbouring islands) is warp ikat – that means that it is the warp threads (the lengthways ones) which are ikatted. Ikat means “to bind” in Indonesian and that is the essence of the technique.

The threads used to weave the cloth must first be bought or made. If you’ve got some spare cash you may just go to market and buy some yarn. If not, you will have to start by growing and then picking cotton. It looks like cotton wool with big seeds which have to be taken out. Next it has to be fluffed up with what looks like a little bow, and formed into a roll ready for spinning. It always surprises me how similar textile techniques are in completely different parts of the world. I’ve seen women spinning cotton in Laos, Java and Turkey and its just the same. The cotton may be spun either with a wheel or a spindle to make a nice strong and even thread.

11. The tied yarns are dyed, dried and re-dyed many times to achieve a really deep rich colour. (640x480)

The tied yarns are dyed, dried and re-dyed many times to achieve a really deep rich colour.

6. The yarn may be spun by hand using a spindle (417x640)

The yarn may be spun by hand using a spindle

Next, the thread is stretched onto a frame which is half the length of the finished cloth. Bunches of threads are then bound up with little strips of lontar palm. This tied binding acts as a resist to dyes in the same way that wax does in batik. If a tie stays on all the way through it will keep the yarns underneath it white, if it comes off half way through the process, the yarns may be dyed another colour.

The different regions of Flores and even individual villages have their own designs – so women get to learn how to do their patterns without too much head scratching. It’s still pretty tricky to get it right though.

In Sikka and quite a few other places in Flores, the dyes used are plant dyes. Indigo of course and the very commonly used mengkudu (morinda citrifolia) This tree produces a green fir cone shaped fruit which also makes a common remedy for stomach ailments. The roots can be selectively harvested while the tree continues to grow. The bark of the roots is peeled off and then crushed and beaten up into pulp which is then just soaked in water to make a luscious red dye. The addition of various mordants – tannin from other local wood, aluminum from the leaves of the lobah tree (sorry I can’t find out what that is apart from “lobah”) and protein from candle nuts may be added to give various shades of red.

9. Bunches of warp yarns are tied with little strips of lontar palm leaf. (640x480)

Bunches of warp yarns are tied with little strips of lontar palm leaf.

In Java, the small northern coastal town of Lasem became famous for its red dyes and batik cloths were sent there specially to be dyed, possibly because of minerals in the soil and water. There are places in Flores where the red is wonderful too, the ikat around Maumere and Ende is particularly wonderful and the colours are brilliant. The other plant dyes used are mangrove bark (deep brown or black) and mango leaves (pale green). Turmeric is used for yellow.

Well we can’t leave without buying something here, and in fact we end up buying quite a lot. Once you start you just can’t stop (or is that just me?) But if you buy from one woman it seems churlish not to buy from another.  The cloths are all so lovely and the women are desperate to sell, so it’s hard to leave somebody out. I try to get some of their names, most of them sound Portuguese but the best of all is Mama Maria Anselmia da Kunya who sells me a wonderful cloth with a design of horsemen and cockerels. And she models it so fetchingly for me!

12. The weaving is done on a simple back strap loom. A plain coloured weft is woven into the patterned warp. (640x480)

The weaving is done on a simple back strap loom. A plain coloured weft is woven into the patterned warp.

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Northern Java, Indonesia

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The famous “megamendung” storm clouds design

Jim and I got off the plane in Jakarta and straight into the familiar sweaty heat and humidity of Java. Oh joy, we are literate. After the helpless incomprehension of written Thai, it’s amazing how good it feels to be able to read again. The smells are familiar too; the distinctive whiff of kretek clove cigarettes, verdant, damp vegetation, drains and poverty. We’re out of Jakarta as fast as we can make it, to Gambir Station to catch the train to Cirebon, about about 125 miles east. When the train arrives it has traditional batik designs painted down some of the carriages. Only in Java!

This is an eksekutif class train and thus we join the Indonesian middle classes in air conditioned splendour. We have comfortable seats with loads of legroom, a food and drink service, smiling ticket inspectors, and a violent American film to watch. Most of the time we gaze out of the window. It’s always a shock to come here after the neat and tidy orderliness of northern Thailand. Java is hotter, dirtier, shabbier, poorer and there’s just so many people. For every job in Java there are at least 10 people trying to get some little bit of it – there are too many minibus drivers, too many becak drivers with

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“Taman arum” another famous Cirebon batik design is painted on the train – a very superior form of grafitti!

their little cycle carriages, too many beggars, shop assistants, ticket collectors, motorbike taxis, market sellers. Java is just one of Indonesia’s 16,000 islands but it is the centre of Government, and culture in many ways. About the same size as Britain, it has 140 million living on it. As I said, there are just too many people!

Cirebon doesn’t look any different from last time I was here, although maybe there are even more cars – the pavements are always blocked with stalls and warungs. A warung is what might charitably be called a “pop up restaurant” great if you fancy sitting on a grimy mat or bench under a dingy 20 watt light bulb eating some questionable food which was made this morning and has had a day’s worth of flies settling on it. Still not everyone in the world has any better options. We are here for the batik.

IMG_8109 (640x480)

Becak driver hoping for a fare

Cirebon is famous for its its own distinctive style – “Batik Ceribonan”. Most of it is made at a village called Trusmi, a few miles out of town accessible by bashed and beaten up old minibus. You climb in the back, peer down through the filthy waist height windows and try to make some sort of a guess at where you want to get off and then pay the driver an absurdly small sum of money.

Up a narrow “main street” we squeeze through market stalls, school children (in batik school uniforms!) becaks full of women and their market shopping or empty and their drivers looking for a fare, motorbikes, reversing minibuses, piles of rubbish or building materials and mobile food carts. Eventually we reach the batik shops.

Every type of customer is catered for here. There are bargain basement shops selling shirts for men and shapeless housecoats for women in cheap, imitation batik print, and there are smart air- conditioned salons with VISA signs on the door. These establishments cater for women with elaborate hair dos who emerge from cars with dark windows (so they can more easily ignore the filth) who are looking for something nice to wear for lunch with the minister’s cousin’s wife. Their drivers wait patiently outside.

Java 2009 (38) (640x480)

Batik workers often work in small groups at home

Although a lot of it is printed imitation, there is real hand made batik on sale here in Trusmi. The prices start at a couple of quid and go up to 5 million rupiah or more – enough to rent you a decent house for a year. We want some silk batik scarves for the shop and some cloths in a famous Cirebon design – Megamendung.

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A woman with her baby in a batik slendang watches as her husband makes cap (stamped) batik in their home

This evocatively named pattern, it means “storm clouds”, came from China. You will have seen it on Chinese embroideries or ceramics – it’s even on a pattern we are all familiar with – the “willow pattern”. Chinese traders have been coming to this northern coast of Java for centuries, along with Arab merchants and later Dutch soldiers, traders from the East India Company, colonisers and settlers. All of them have left their mark and a study of the batik textiles from these parts is a veritable history lesson.

The Chinese are still here – many generations later they still keep to their own traditions. Being the enterprising sort of folk they are, some of them started up their own batik workshops. We met the present owner of one of these workshops – “Lina’s Batik”, the first time we came to Cirebon in 1986. She and her sister ran a sort of Chinese community centre here complete with a school to teach the children to read and write Chinese characters. Ibu showed me the certificate dated 1927, which her grandfather gained from the Sultan giving his permission to produce batik .

small megamendung (469x434)

Lina, a 5th generation batik maker with one of her wonderful batik tablecloths.

Lina’s now sells mainly to big stores in Jakarta, but they still make batiked altar cloths for the Chinese neighbours to buy at New Year, and the long cloths used to carry babies embellished with dragons and double happiness symbols. They also make beautiful megamendung cloths in the traditional colours; red, blue and white.

One year I came to the workshop just as two pieces were being finished. They were dyed in a red dye made from the roots of the mengkudu tree (morinda citrifolia) and a blue dye made from indigo. I swallowed hard when I heard the price, and bought one of them – now I wish I’d bought them both.

Java 2009 (267) (480x640)

Heri outlines the storm clouds pattern in wax. The first stage of the process.

To make a perfect megamendung cloth, the parts which will be white and blue are first outlined and then filled in with a thick, strong wax. The cloth is dyed a deep rich red colour. If the dyes are chemical, then this is a quick process taking just a few minutes. If they are plant dyes – or rather the “mengkudu” root dye, then this is a much more lengthy process. The cloth will be dipped and dried up to a dozen times.  Then that thick layer of wax is removed in very hot water and the next waxing process starts. First the red parts and the white parts are protected with wax and the cloth is dyed pale blue (chemical or natural indigo) and the blue layers are built up gradually in this way from the palest blue to the darkest. The more layers there are, the more times the cloth has to be waxed and dyed, and the more expensive it is. Mine has seven layers. Finally all the wax is boiled out and the cloth is finished. No wonder they don’t make more than a couple a year. The blue clouds seem to float and hover above the red background, and all in all its one of my favourite batik cloths ever.

Megamendung designs have been adopted by Cirebon and you can see them on street signs, wallpaper, school uniforms and, of course the trains. There was absolute outrage when it was reported that the perfidious Malaysian were trying to get it patented as one of their own National designs.

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Children in Java have a very rich street life!

Anyway back to Trusmi where we have spent a day reminding ourselves how to speak Indonesian, buying, bargaining and laughing with the sales girls in various shops. Just before we are ready to go home, the rain starts. Not just a drizzle or even a downpour but a deluge which forces us to stay for another half hour in the shop where we’re trapped. The road fills with mud brown water, the motorbikes come to a standstill, and soon the kids come out to cavort around and soak themselves.

Welcome to Java! We may be appalled at the poverty, the degraded environment that people live amongst, the overcrowded streets and the level of hassle but I have a feeling that it won’t be too long before we are hopelessly in love with it all over again.

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