In the highlands of Central Java exists a string of small villages nestled between the active volcanoes of Mount Sindoro and Mount Sumbing. Bowongso lies furthest up the roadon the flanks of Mt. Sumbing; Bakalan is a short walk away. Parakan, with its avenue of tobacco sellers and narrow warehouses, is down valley.
It is on these streets lined with drying tobacco, on which motorbikes laden with a fresh harvest of verdant leaves fly past in a blur of browns, greens and diesel fuel, where I found kretek country.
Kretek is to Indonesia what champagne is to France or tapas are to Spain. It is symbolic of the culture, a favorite pastime. It is a deeply integrated element of the Javanese and Indonesian story.
Kretek cigarettes—made with a blend of tobacco, cloves and other flavors—are world-renowned for their unique flavor and much adored for the crackling “kretek” sound of burning cloves.
In Bowongso and Bakalan, generations of families have farmed tobacco. Palettes of tobacco leaves dry in front of houses, along the roads and in backyards. With every meal, there is tea, coffee, and kretek.
Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, work alongside one another to harvest and process the leaves, which are then molded into large bricks, where they often spend 20 days curing and drying before being sold, frequently down in Parakan.
Smallholder farmers are the lifeblood to any agricultural economy. Their story is the story of the land, and their culture is one where crops are king. To talk of Bowongso and
Bakalan is to speak of kretek, for it permeates nearly all elements of life in this small slice of Central Java. Wedding parties process through tobacco fields; men gather in the early morning hours to discuss the weather and market prices; women ride home in the backs of pickup trucks with hats pulled low on their heads after a long day in the fields.
The cultural heritage of Indonesian kretek is strong and stretches back for centuries. This photo story is a glimpse into a beautiful land tucked between two volcanoes in Central Java, where tobacco is king and the hospitality and generosity of its residents is second to none. [kes]