Bondowoso: My Childhood

Written: 28 April 2006

Revised: 7 July 2010

Writing about my hometown is somehow delightful. Like entering a time machine, I’d just need to key in some old numbers to return to the past: to my childhood years.

BONDOWOSO is a city in the eastern peninsula of Java Island. It lies in the vicinity of two mountains: Mt Raung (3332 m) and Mt Argopuro (3000 m).

Some people say Bondowoso is a quiet city, unpolluted city and kota tape (fermented casava). But some people abase this city, regrettably, as a retirement city. However, I would proudly say that Bondowoso is an apt place to contemplate and to inquire some inspiration. At least I was raised in this wonderful city, spanning between 1980 (when I was 2 years old) and 1992. Practically, I would always mention its name wherever I go: its name inevitably forged on my passport – as a birthplace! 🙂

The people spins on the alun-alun (city square) every morning and evening. Alun-alun is commonplace in Indonesian cities. It adopts the way kraton (Javanese kingdom) divides an open space into two: southern and northern parts. In the epicenter of alun-alun, there stands a beringin (banyan) tree acting as a canopy of whoever beneath. West side of alun-alun is masjid jami’ (great mosque) of At-Taqwa, Kodim (Commando of Military District) and Kotakulon I elementary school. Eastern part is filled with post office and its staff resident and prison. Kantor Bupati (Mayor’s Office) and SMP 1 middle school are located at the north of alun-alun. Whilst at the south, parliament and city office are resided. Radio Republik Indonesia (Radio of Republic Indonesia) has a small station on the north section of alun-alun. And today, eastern part of alun-alun is filled with food stalls selling variety of local delicacies at night. Bondowoso has an array of shops if we walk south of alun-alun. We call it pecinan or Chinatown.

Bondowoso was initially ruled by Kiai Ronggo, probably in 1819. His grave, along with his wife and family, is located in Sekar Putih.

In agriculture, Bondowoso can be considered advanced. It produces high-quality casava, sugarcane, rice, tobacco, coconut and coffee. Casava has been produced perpetually and people ingeniously invent local cake known as tape (read “ta” as in tough, “pe” as in pay). This fermented casava is arguably famous cake that everyone must try. Famous coffee from southern part of Bondowoso, uphill Sukosari called Mt Kawah Ijen (literally: solitary crater), is kopi luwak (civet coffee). In movie Bucket List (starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson), this coffee is discussed three times. This pricey coffee can also be found in Bondowoso, and it can be produced by two civets: wild and captured. The sugarcane is abundant: this was one of the reasons why Dutch came to Java and set up a huge sugarcane company in Prajekan, one of Bondowoso’s districts. Bondowoso has probably no tea plantation since it lies below 500 m of sea level.

Bondowoso is also famous with its gerbong maut, a deadly wagon during post-Japanese occupation (the year of 1946, I suppose). The monument, which is to remind the horror of war, is placed near the city square. The tragic death of around a hundred inmates remains in the mind of Bondowoso people, although many may forget the reason they died.

Bondowoso is a home to a famous person in the revolutionary decades: Njoto. Not so many people know this fact except that he was a leading figure in the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) – whose existence was legal to be banished by the previous regime.

Besides Bahasa Indonesia, Bondowoso people speak Madura and Jawa. It’s common that its people are basically tri-lingual. Other languages are also preserved, like Hokkien (Chinese dialect) and Arabic.

Most people work as farmers, vendors and government officers (city office, parliament, hospital, schools, armed forces, police, departmental offices).

Famous cultural event is aduan sapi (bull fighting), which normally takes place near riverbank of Sampeyan Baru (a river that splits Bondowoso).

Ethnographically, Bondowoso is not intriguing, so-to-speak. This is due to the fact that ethnicity mixture preforms a homogeneity and similarity with other cities, like Jember, Situbondo, Besuki and Banyuwangi. But the story of individuals could be of different matter. The anthropology approach employed to study Bondowoso should be of personal-basis. Biography matters.

Consciousness in politics is probably developed only within parties. The flow of democracy has been felt in a calm manner, not aggressively develop like that in Jakarta. The fact that it has little influence or bargaining position to the province should be used as a merit to concentrate more on city’s interest, not political dispute.

Science and technology are expensive features, unless they are related to the media. University of Bondowoso provides non-technological majors like agriculture, social science, education and politics. Is it needed to have technical college? Yes. One of the main reason why Pabrik Gula Prajekan (Prajekan Sugar Factory) has not been well-known (anymore) is probably due to lack of technical abilities in the young generations. Large agriculture laboratories are also needed in Bondowoso. Bondowoso needs an advanced library! This is a drawback. Cities I had been visiting have always a decent library to keep the citizen updated and informed. This creates literacy.

Bondowoso is a basis of traditional muslim. The pesantren or Islamic boarding school is organized by Nahdlatul Ulama. Kyai (leader of pesantren) whom I know is warm-hearted and friendly. It’s far from being radical. And, they take care of their pupils and neighbors. Islamic teaching is traditional, whereby basics are taught, Arabic is immensely delivered to facilitate Qur’an understanding, Tajwid (rule of reading Quran) is given to induce perfection in reading and translating. Islam in Bondowoso is brought and seeded by clerics educated in Middle-East tradition. Therefore, the image of Muslim in Bondowoso somewhat reflects Arabic cultures. The image is mixed with Javanese and Madurese cultures and it may become syncretism.

Masjid Al-Taqwa, which is the biggest mosque in Bondowoso, is located in front of city square. It performs unique ambience during Ramadhan and Idul Fitri. Sirene is loudly calling for buka puasa (iftar or evening meal) and sahur (breakfast).

Do you know that Bondowoso has vast amount of pre-history (megalithicum) artefacts? It has indeed!


When my fate brought me to the bigger cities (like Surabaya, Bandung, Singapore, Tokyo or Jeddah), Bondowoso turns to be a “village” for me. But, this village has always been my hometown: Bondowoso has served me with its indispensable tranquility which is worth to crave for. It was dynamics when I was child; it enriched me with humorous, good friends; it provided modest and dedicated teachers. It is a “pond” of friendly people and as clean as heaven (but, I think heaven analogy is too much!).

In Bondowoso, I learnt the joy of: swimming in the river; learning to speak Madura as well as English; riding my bike 125 km in 12 hours when I was 13 (Bondowoso – Pasir Putih, back and forth!); participating in the city carnival during independence day celebration every 17 August; joining pramuka (boyscout) on Sundays; taking becak (tricycle) to school (I even drove it sometimes!); learning to play organ; memorizing multiplication table and Pancasila clauses (five fundamental pillars – shit happened when I was kid!); liking cute girls; learning how to drive a car in a wet soccer field; climbing Mt Kawah Ijen, Mt Raung and Mt Purnama; enjoying canoe in Pasir Putih; eating “fly” satay (chicken kebab is extremely small – fly-sized indeed); reading hundreds of comics; buku Pintar (encyclopedia), Egypt and Rome history; reading Qur’an; loving soccer games; remembering sad story of loosing a close friend during secondary school (FYI, his body was found in February 1991 with only one leg; the rests were gone with the flood)

When I come home, I usually spend many nights talking to my parents over dinner. The staple was simple, and usually we bought some food from the alun-alun stalls. I have some favorite foods down there. In dining table, we usually discussed many things ranging from simple stuff, like food, until the way how human bone fractures (which can be represented by three different modes in the field of Fracture Mechanics). We also discuss about the subtle thing like relationship among family members, the postmodernity in Islam, god-men relations, movies (of course!), music, books, history and others. Although, I may not have that occasion anymore (especially with my father), what I can do now is to go back to Bondowoso, and inhale the fresh air.