Then a sugar factory fell into our laps

Despite the fact that I’ve lived in this city for a year and a half, my knowledge of Jogja is still severely limited. I live in the northern part of the city and I can get around fairly well, as long as I don’t try to stray too far outside the city limits. The southern half of the city, though, remains largely a mystery to me. I can find my way to a few choice locations and I have enough of a map in my head that I can get back home. But that’s about it. Ask me to go somewhere besides the Kraton, Prawirotaman1, or ISI2 and I’m at a loss. It’s one of my goals to explore more, but I’m lazy and very much a creature of habit.

Nevertheless, last week saw my friend and I driving around in the south, rather lost. We were supposed to be finding the house of some foreigners with the goal of interviewing them for an English teaching position. However, the directions we had were less than specific. Then my friend’s phone died and we really had no way of finding the foreigners.

After driving aimlessly through neighborhoods for a bit longer, we decided to head home, which was when we took another turn and came upon what I hypothesized to be abandoned railway tracks. These tracks led to large, mysterious-looking buildings overlooked by tall trees.

“What’s this?” I said.

My friend agreed.

A few blocks later he said, “I think that was a sugar factory.”

Knowing nothing about sugar factories, I accepted this.

We went back the next day, partially because we still had to find the foreigners and interview them and partially because we were both curious about this apparent sugar factory. When we arrived at the factory for a second time, I had half a mind to just wander in. Fortunately, my friend was in charge and took us through the front door. Unsure if we were allowed to actually see the factory, we went with the premise that I was a foreigner interested in the factory and he was serving as my interpreter.

This wasn’t easiest premise to maintain, since I could understand almost everything that was being said. I attempted to channel the glazed-over expression that I adopt after hearing too much Javanese. It didn’t work too well, though. As it turns out, it’s difficult to pay attention to a foreign language while simultaneously trying to look disengaged.

Luckily, we didn’t have to keep the premise up for very long. As soon as we were assigned a guide for a tour of the factory—a completely normal occurrence, as it turns out—my friend informed her that I actually could speak Indonesian and everyone (or at least me) breathed a relieved sigh.

The factory was, unfortunately, not in operation. As our guide explained, they process sugar for about six months starting in May and spend the rest of the year working on repairing the machinery. This gave the whole factory a slightly eerie feel, as we wandered past towering bits of machinery and very few people. Or perhaps I’ve finally developed the ability to sense ghosts. According to our tour guide, there are many in the factory, though we were discussing them in such roundabout terms that it took me quite a long time to figure out what we were actually talking about.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the factory is owned by the sultan. Any other details are hindered by my poor retention rate for facts learned in Indonesian and by my complete lack of knowledge concerning anything to do with sugar processing. I can tell you that East Germany played a large part in the construction of the factory and that the original German locamotives (“Limited edition,” our guide said.) are still in use. When one breaks down they have the parts on hand to fix it.

The factory also manufactures alcohol, mostly for use in cosmetics. This is apparently a very costly initiative and our conversation quickly progressed into a discussion of numbers and regulations that I admit to not having understood at all. However, my best guess is that we were talking about government taxes and, in particular, government taxes on exports. Though they used to export to Japan, they no longer do so.

My friend commented that the air smelled of kecap manis3. Our tour guide said that was molasses and added that this was nothing compared to the smell when they’re actually processing sugar.

At the mention of molasses, I perked up. I have spent many an afternoon wondering about brown sugar substitutes, as I have never, ever seen brown sugar in Indonesia4. Unfortunately, as far as I could tell, any brown sugar that they do produce5 is exported.

1A tourist area.
2The arts university.
3A sauce that’s commonly added to food. Kecap manis is basically soy sauce with a lot of sugar added to it. It’s as delicious and as awful as you might expect. I refuse to disclose how often I eat it.
4Except for this one time when I had really overpriced mint tea and they brought me two little packets of brown sugar. I took them home and used them as part of the filling for pumpkin cinnamon rolls.
5But I can’t say for sure if they produce any.

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