Millisphere

: a discrete region inhabited by one 1000th of the world population.

I call this millisphere Malang after the largest city in the southern East Java. The millisphere of Malang (nearing 10 million) includes Malang City (0.8 million) and Batu, Bitar, Kediri, Pacitan, Ponorogo, Trenggalek and Tulungagung cities and regencies.

Read more: Fred Frederikse: El Chapo had tunnel vision
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Fred Frederikse: Java at critical juncture

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I once went there because Malang was where, during World War II, the Japanese occupation forces had captured my grandparents, sending the women and children to a camp in Semarang, and my grandfather to the men's camp in Bandung.

Wanting to follow the route my ancestors took across the Java Sea we had crossed from Singapore to the Riau Islands in Indonesia where we caught a government Pelni ferry to Surabaya.

Over the two-day voyage we learned that most of the other passengers were
Indonesian illegal immigrants who had been arrested in Malaysia, and were being sent home.

In the midday heat, on the Surabaya wharf, we were drafted off from our fellow travellers,
who were loaded on to army trucks, and we set off by taxi for the bus station with a new
friend from the ferry.

Jacob gave us our first lesson about catching buses in Indonesia; just get on and as soon as the bus is full it leaves; there will be a conductor and you pay, in cash, on the road; watch out for the buskers on the buses, they are crooks, but always pay them, but only a little amount, we were informed.

The full bus to Malang barrelled down the Surabaya southern motorway for about an hour, before the motorway disappeared into a sea of mud at Porong, where, a year earlier, a mud volcano had started erupting.

An Indonesian oil and gas drilling company, PT Lapindo Brantas, had been drilling nearby, and, many believe, caused the break-out of pressurised mud. PT Lapindo is owned by Golkar Party chairman and Indonesian rich lister, Aburizal Bakrie, who still denies responsibility. Thirteen villages were consumed and 30,000 people were displaced by the mud.

Some locals are cashing in on "mud tourism" as Indonesians come to see the world's largest mud volcano, but no one has ever been compensated.

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Our detoured bus wound through the congested main streets of small towns before Jacob told the driver to drop us at a crossroad. Dusk was falling, but we weren't to worry, motorbike taxis would turn up and take us to Trawas, Jacob assured. Soon we were weaving down the centre line, with no crash helmets, passing trucks and vans. The evening was warm and fragrant.

The people at the PPLH Seloliman environment centre were astonished that we had made it so quickly from the midday ferry. The PPLH dormitory had been built with New Zealand government aid money. The next day was independence day and we shouted "Merdeka" (freedom) along with Indonesian greenies from Surabaya - I wondered what my Dutch planter ancestors would have thought.

Java's volcanic soils and tropical heat produce spectacular growth. The local farms grew a bit of everything and generally there was a plot of tobacco.

The Gudang Garam cigarette factory at Kediri is Indonesia's single biggest employer and the owners are Indonesia's wealthiest family. In Indonesia (2019 population 270 million) over half of the men smoke and Gudang Garam is the number one selling brand.

The taxi to Malang passed brightly uniformed teams of schoolgirls marching down the road and we arrived in the centre of town as the parade reached the town hall. There were more independence speeches and tan police uniforms and military marching bands and red and white flags everywhere.

The latest news from Malang is that 41 of the 45 members of the Malang City Council have been suspended by the government anti-corruption commission for taking bribes paid out by the former Malang mayor.

Malang is a rapidly growing university town and we were asked if we knew Jack Body, the late New Zealand composer, who had started a gamelan orchestra in Wellington.

I found the stream under the main road where children swam, like in my father's day, before the Japanese army arrived, and I paused there to sketch the scene.

Fred Frederikse is a self-directed student of human geography. Mapping the Millsphere "a new millenium travel story" can be found at millisphere.blogtown.co.nz