Photo essay: Harmonie von Banyutowo – Inside Indonesia

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Hutama Limarta

Wide, open rice fields lined both sides of the narrow road. The rhythmic change of scene between the extensive rice fields and the dense sugar cane finally ended at the entrance of a lush forested village.

I was greeted by a six-meter high gate with a symbol of a boat wheel and anchor, which meant I was about to enter a fishing village. I had reached the village of Banyutowo.

Banyutowo fish auction house and its regular visitors

The village is located in Pati Regency on the north coast of Central Java, extends over 115,000 hectares and has over 3000 inhabitants. The nearest town, Pati, is 37 kilometers away. This trip took me at least an hour. The name Banyutowo means “fresh water” in Javanese, although every well in the village gushes salty water. The salt content decreases the further you are from the sea.

I arrived in the late afternoon and drove straight to the local fish auction that takes place in the port every day. The big fish trade takes place in a large hall that the locals call Tempat Pelelangan Ikan Banyutowo (Banyutowo Fish Auction House). The auction features fresh catch from fishermen returning from the sea, with different species of fish and shrimp of different sizes. The auctioneer called the prices in Javanese while buyers raised their hands to bid higher. This auction house is always full.

Banyutowo fish auction house and its regular visitors

The port is the main local attraction for the villagers. It’s the place where street vendors and beautiful sunrises meet. There are sellers of sugar cane juice, roasted corn, cilok (tapioca batter in peanut sauce) and other delicious street snacks.

The port also attracts outsiders. I saw many young parents with children on motorbikes and teenagers with friends hanging around the edge of the pier, around which there were no fences or safety devices. The pier faces the eastern horizon, making it the perfect place to enjoy the sunrise. After spending one night in a villager’s house, I managed to get to the port at 5am, but that day it was cloudy so I don’t have a nice picture of the sunrise in Banyutowo.

A fisherman in Banyutowo sets up his fishing net in the middle of the day

The port of Banyutowo attracts sailors from the outer regions as well as from the surrounding area. “During some fishing seasons, it is easy to find Jakarta fishermen here,” said Utomo, 42, a local fisherman. This part of the Java Sea offers a better catch than Jakarta Bay. In Banyutowo the fish are fresher and healthier.

Utomo led me through the village. He explained what the port means to the people in the village, most of whom come from fishing families who rely on the sea as their main source of income. “I remember when I was a kid the fish were more diverse than what we find today,” said Utomo. Nowadays he and other fishermen are looking for alternative sources of income, in the countryside. They believe the sea will not be able to provide what they need forever.

Locals fish at the end of the pier in the port of Banyutowo

We roamed the village on Utomo’s motorcycle. He showed me where the fishermen are and what they do during the day when they are not fishing. I saw many boats parked on the rivers that are directly connected to the sea. Some fishermen serviced their gear, mostly their fishing nets, while others just lay around like they were sunbathing.

Fishermen repairing fishing nets in the middle of the day

Sometimes boats need to be pulled out of the water for major maintenance, such as repainting. Over time, mold and insects can penetrate the paint, especially on the deck. “The color of the deck and hull are different to keep costs down,” said a local handyman we met en route who had just repaired a large eight-meter boat on his own.

Locals enjoy the sunset at Banyutowo harbor

It was also interesting to see how the boat was put back into the water. Utomo said it was rare for visitors like me to see this process. People gathered around the boat on the riverside as it was prepared for sailing again. A local shaman brought an offer of local food and snacks wrapped in banana leaves. The shaman prayed for the victim and placed it on the deck. Then, a moment before the crowd was ready to push the boat, they raved about the offering and demanded what they could.

A sacrifice used to prepare a boat for the river

“It is a gesture of thanks from the boat owner to the people who are willing to help,” said Utomo. It was the local custom in Banyutowo to help each other in this process. Anyone who passed the scene would volunteer to help.

According to local news media, the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries proposed a few years ago that Banyutowo be declared Indonesia’s national fishing village. If successful, it would be the first village in the country to receive the title, which would involve government-paid renovations to local fishing facilities, mainly around the port. Recognition was proposed for 2020, but to date there are no signs of implementation.

A joint attempt to push the boat into the river

My visit to Banyutowo ended by witnessing a scene of harmony as the villagers dragged the boat into the river. I remember an Indonesian folk song from my childhood called “My ancestor is a sailor”. When I look at the people here I think it wasn’t just a folk song.

Hutama Limarta is a photographer from Jakarta. He enjoys traveling around the country and looking for subjects to photograph. Twitter: @limartahutama Instagram: @hutamalimarta

Within Indonesia 145: July-September 2021


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