Banyuwangi is primarily an agriculture town. It doesn’t have the economic clout of Bali, and when the coppers fleece you at every intersection, what hope do the women have?

The town, like most border towns, is a backwater where truck drivers, who have made the long journey across Java, make their way to the tourist island of Bali, to feed the bellies of the tourists and their insatiable appetites.

It is no wonder that next to the arrival road to the ferry terminal,  are warungs (cheap eating places)  that cater to the truck drivers. It’s seedy. “What you see is what you get,” said one punter. There’s no pretense here. Another designated zone for ladies of the night, an eight-kilometer drive out of town. Once you pay the parking ticket, 10 000, you pay another 10 000 for entry ticket into a village, that just caters for booze and lust. Sana and I spent the evening drinking indulging on the former.

Uncle, who wrote neat legible script on the bill, updated me after each round of drinks was brought to the table. One million Rupiah later, the lights went on at 9 pm. They had fleeced us of our money and we moved on. But when Sana tells him I’m a travel writer, he thanks me in advance for promoting his establishment.

We go to another warung, and meet two ladies. One is from Banyuwangi, and recently returned after a stint in Kalimantan. “I’ve got one child to support and my parents, who are poor rice farmers.” It’s a familiar story. A customer arrives and departs with his 100 000 and she disappears into the short time room. She’s back outside, fifteen minutes later, all smiles, masking her sad existence. It’s a big burden to carry at the tender age of 21 years old but this is the plight of many East Javans.

“These people are very poor,” explains Gil, a local expat here, “and many of the women go into prostitution.” He says that most of the working girls in Bali are from Banyuwangi. After the kite festival, Sana took me to a Wayan on the beach. Mae, from Banyuwangi, in her late thirties, and Anne, from Flores, the same age, and looking very haggard, serve us coffee. “These are girls who can’t work in the brothels anymore,” explains Sana, whose friend from Ubud is the owner of this coffee shop.

We are offered their services. The price drops after we have consumed ten coffees. Tourists are riding on their bikes and walking along the esplanade, oblivious to the trade that goes on in this warung. Taxi drivers pop in for a coffee, some go out the back and pay their 100 000 for short time love. Mae has two children in Banyuwangi to support, and Sana leaves her a 20 000 tip. She is at the bottom end of this lucrative industry yet she is all smiles and makes the best coffee in Bali.

Last day, a little sightseeing around the city outskirts. We had avoided paying a bribe to the coppers yesterday on the way to the forest. Kutut, a Balinese policeman, had the common sense to add two and two when he saw me taking photos of them fleecing law abiding citizens. He asked me to delete my photos, which Sana said I was taking for “funny” and then he asked for a few tourist shots, just with me and him.

The trip to the forrest was uneventful. The park rangers wanted to charge us 200 000 for entering the famous surf beach, and the same for exit. I chose to see a beach nearby that we weren’t charged for.  A pristine beach, white sand, and deserted.

As we left the national park, a Dutch tourist rides in on a big black motorbike. The park ranger tells him he can’t enter the surf beach on a motor bike. “You must go with a tour,” he says. “What about some where to stay?” asked the Dutch tourist. “The cheapest room is 500 000,” informed Sana. Indeed, this is very much a controlled market, and the Balinese who we saw driving in were also in for a surprise, when we told them the rates they are charging.

But at  half way point, we stopped at a fishing village, and the fleet of boats with their saturating colors more than made up for a trip to the national park, that had a ten kilometer dirty track that we had to bump along to to reach our desitination. I had to take a leak, and went behind a building. One of the fish mongers, and elderly lady, had the same idea, but she wanted to squat.

We grabbed some coffee at a local Warung. The owner of the coffee shop,  a female in her late forties, is alone supporting her child. “My husband has been working in Malaysia in construction for the past three years.” She says he sends money home every month, but obviously not enough, when she over charged us for the coffee. “Mahual!” I say, and repeat it over and over, which gets a big giggle from the fishing community. We were offered a trip to Bali in one of the boats, and I was tempted, but declined, saying we needed to return the hire car.

Sana made the connection between Bali and Java culture, by pointing out a village of Hindus. “They are a community of 154, and have a family temple. ” I had an appointment with the toilet – that food poisoning isn’t’ easing up – and was taken to a dunny out the back by a lovely woman from that village. She drew a pail of water from the well, and all I can say, it doesn’t get fresher than this!

Another encounter with the police today.  I put my seat belt on as the police pulled us over on a curve. Sana was too late. I tried to take photos, but thought better of it. I walked up to the police car, and was told to move on. They got Sana for 50 000 for not wearing a seat belt.

I’m at a roadside Warung, and the coffee is cheap. The water is lapping up the shoreline. From a distance I can see untouched beaches – I mean not a resort or bungalow on site. Nearby the warung is a symbol of Banyuwangi, a mermaid, who stands perched above a building that was once a busy establishment. It’s now dilapidated, and waiting for a wind of change.

I exchange my experience about the police to the owner, he says, “I’m very sad that there is corruption in my country. They even target tourists like you.”

The sea is choppy and the ferry awaits us.

Banyuwangi, the place of sweet-smelling water. I wonder what the Indonesia word for stagnant is?


2 thoughts on “The Town of Sweet Smelling Water, East Java

  1. Pingback: No beginning or ending, only a constant flow … | FARSIDE TRAVEL

  2. Pingback: Another journey ends | FARSIDE TRAVEL

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