I entered Setu Babakan, a Betawi heritage reserve in Srengseng Sawah district, South Jakarta, through a gate, Bang Pitung (Brother Pitung), named after a Robin Hood character who came to represent for the Betawi the struggle for independence against the Dutch in the 1940s.
The reserve, which is not far from the University of Indonesia in Depok, was established as a Betawi enclave in conjunction with Jakarta’s 474th anniversary in 2004, with the aim of consolidating the culture of the Betawi, who were for years marginalized because of their low hierarchy under Dutch colonial rule.
The Betawi emerged in the 19th century from a melting pot of different ethnicities, including the Javanese, Chinese, Sundanese and Balinese, which were brought to Batavia by the Dutch rulers.
Over time, the Betawi became known as the original inhabitants of Jakarta. A 2000 census found that there were 2,301,587 people of Betawi ethnicity living in Jakarta.
The word setu means small lake. And, as the name suggests, the Setu Babakan reserve is bordered by a lake, which is considered its main attraction.
Getting to the lake requires walking along a rocky foot path, past houses in various stages of construction and a strip of rather patchy garden planted with tropical fruit trees.
Still, the numerous teenagers I encountered along the way seemed to be enjoying the garden, and even more so, the privacy.
Setu Babakan is a favorite location for first dates and young couples can often be found making out on the banks of the lake, seemingly oblivious to the villagers watching them from afar. Indra Sutisna, a member of the Committee of Living and Cultural Order, a group of Betawi leaders appointed by the government to manage the heritage reserve, said there were about 5,000 traditional Betawi houses around the lake, most of which were built in the 1920s.
Every June or July, a special event is held at Setu Babakan in celebration of Jakarta’s anniversary. But Indra said the festivities had been delayed this year until the tentative date of July 18.
He said no events had been scheduled either aside from a performance by Betawi actress Mpo Nori.
Indra said the celebration would showcase the rich culture of the Betawi, including ondel-ondel effigies and Betawi comedy theater and dances.
I chose a pedal boat shaped like a duck in which to ride around the pristine lake, as I chatted with Ina Latifah who has been running a food stall in Setu Babakan with her husband for the last three years. She said the anniversary celebration was good for business.
“We’re allowed to stay open until midnight and can sell our food around the lake, which is not normally allowed,” she said.
As I pedaled around the lake, I noticed that the 100 fish breeding cages described in the tourist pamphlets for Setu Babakan do not exist.
“We have a master plan,” Indra said. “Right now there is no parking space and we’re going to provide that, as well as displaying the ondel-ondel and delman [horse and cart] everyday, instead of once a year.
Indra said that they were about a fraction of the way through the project, but did not mention a targeted end date.
Ina said the anniversary celebration attracted more visitors. “Some of them are researchers interested in Indonesian traditions,” she said.
It is easy to see why they would find a trip out to Setu Babakan worthwhile. Many of the residents speak Betawi Malay, which borrows Balinese, Sundanese and Javanese words, as well as some Arabic, Dutch, Chinese and Portuguese ones.
Visitors also have the opportunity to interact with the villagers, listen to live Betawi music and try Betawi food, such as kerak telur , a crunchy omelette made from duck eggs, red onion, dried prawns, ginger and sticky rice .
Indra said that last year there were 133,000 visitors to Setu Babakan, and this year’s target is 150,000, an increase that will be achievable if the anniversary celebration goes well.
Setu Babakan may be a work in progress, but strolling around the reserve still makes a good alternative to spending the weekend at malls or in clubs.