Surabaya – moving forward despite challenges

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Sukarno Museum in Blitar

Benedict Lopez shares with us his visit to the charming city of the white shark and crocodile.

Popularly known by its moniker as the land of the white shark (Sura) and crocodile (Baya), Indonesia’s second largest city Surabaya is a hive of activity, with a thriving commercial centre and a chequered history.

Located in north-eastern Java, along the Madura Straits, Surabaya earned a reputation as one of the earliest flourishing port cities of South East Asia.

Since 2010, Surabaya has moved forward visibly, remaining on the global radar screen in no small measure due to its effervescent mayor, Tri Rismaharini, better known to locals as Ibu Risma. Mayor Risma’s leads this city of 3.5 million people by adopting a self-motivated leadership style and discharging her duties often in unanticipated pro-active ways to accomplishing her mayoral responsibilities. No task for the city is too small or menial for Risma.

Recently, together with friends, I visit Surabaya and its outskirts for a few days. Despite being an eternal optimist, I must admit a little pessimism weighs me down on the flights to and from Surabaya. I am haunted by the memory of Air Asia flight QZ8501 from Surabaya to Singapore which crashed into the Java Sea, just 40 minutes after take-off on 28 December 2014. The crash claimed 162 lives.

Sublime dawn, Bromo Crater, green vista, whispering sands

Humidity in the city disappears into a much cooler milieu as we drive from Surabaya to the hill resort of Bromo. Even for an experienced driver, the journey along narrow roads and alleyways to reach this town is a challenge. But the lush greenery and falling mist, which augments its beauty, makes it worth the effort.

Early next morning, we drive for more than two hours along a congested road further up to the summit of Bromo to witness the arrival of dawn. We stand on top of the hill overlooking an active volcano, which erupted a few years ago, the cold winds blowing against us.

Sunrise at Mount Bromo

Many others have converged on this spot as it is a public holiday. Everyone is warmly attired to cope with the 14C cool air. As the sun starts to rise at around 6 am, we all marvel at the breathtakingly colourful and picturesque scenery.

After witnessing the break of dawn, we take a close-up view of the Bromo Crater, the sea of sand and Pura Luhur Poten (a Hindu temple).

We then tour the green vistas of the Jelapang Valley (Teletube grass hills) and Pasir Berbisik (whispering sand). All three places have their own distinctive and enchanting beauty.

The spectactular sands of Pasir Berbisik

On the return journey from Bromo to Surabaya, I notice an Indonesian tuition centre with an Indian name, Ganesha Operations, offering students a revolution in studies. Among the courses offered are optimisation of the right and left brain, a student activity book, a brain gym and mind map.

We stop over in Blitar and visit the Sukarno Museum, which honours the life and times of Indonesia’s founding father (see photo at the top) and the numerous photos of his meetings with world leaders. I am surprised to find unisex washrooms at the museum!

Traffic jams and traffic marshals

Traffic jams are a common daily occurrence in Surabaya, especially during peak hours. Despite the congestion on the roads, motorists remain cool and composed and refrain from honking or showing their annoyance and tantrums to their fellow motorists – a far cry from a city like KL with its share of uncouth and ill-mannered drivers.

Assisting police in easing the traffic bottlenecks are traffic marshals. These are ordinary members of the public who volunteer to direct the traffic in Surabaya and the rural areas. The beauty of it all is that motorists observe the directions of these marshals. Many appreciative motorists give tips to these marshals.

Perhaps our police and all local authorities can rope in those interested in becoming traffic marshals.

A hive of activity

Surabaya is well-known as a commercial city, the diversity of its business activities conspicuous all over the city. Amidst the city’s rickety houses and buildings, new buildings are being constructed.

An interesting place to visit is the Submarine Museum in the heart of the city. The Russian-built submarine, Pasopati 410, belonged to the submarine unit of the Eastern Fleet of the Indonesian Navy, and was decommissioned in the 1990s. For the first time in my life, I enter a submarine with seven rooms and learn about its operations.

Despite my disapproval of smoking, my friends and I visit Indonesia’s oldest cigarette factory, Sampoerana, which started operations in 1932. It is startling to observe the dexterity of the production workers. Inside the factory is a good restaurant that serves excellent coffee.

Perhaps the city’s most iconic landmark is the monument of sura and baya. Local legend narrates just how Surabaya earned its name: it was the expanse where the white shark and the crocodile fought a malicious battle for the supremacy of the animal kingdom. Both were eventually killed in the ensuing clash. This myth may now be archaic, but Surabaya continues to wage and win its battles on different fronts, moving the city and its people forward.

As was my practice during my visits to other cities in South East Asia, I make my observations and engage with the locals in Surabaya and its outskirts. Courteously referring to someone like me as Bapak, they are simple people who still exude warmth, friendliness and generous smiles despite having to eke out a daily living. To me that is a manifestation of the richness of the human spirit.

All photographs by Benedict Lopez

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Benedict Lopez
Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. During the course of his work, he covered all five Nordic countries. An eternal optimist, he believes Malaysia can provide its citizens with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime.

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