Archipelago diaries |

Under the Rainbow of Belitung

Archipelago Diaries | 22 November 2019
Museum Kata Andrea Hirata is a hidden gem in Bangka Belitung. Photos by Gerda Kassing/NOWJAKARTA

A pinkish painted wall stretches along Jalan Laskar Pelangi in Gantung, a village in the East of Belitung Island, two hours’ drive from the Airport of Tanjung Padang. Behind house number 7a there is a museum hiding: a colourful and charming place, intriguing in its simplicity and lavishness at the same time. You will be surprised to visit Andrea Hirata’s Museum Kata (Museum of Words)! It is a rarity about literature in the whole of Indonesia. The ticket to enter through the heavy and squeaky wooden gate is IDR 50,000. Included is a small piece of literature—a short version of Laskar Pelangi.

Pelangi means rainbow. And isn’t it, when you are lucky enough to see one, suddenly dreams came pouring out—childhood dreams. That is exactly the essence of Andrea Hirata’s autobiographical novel The Rainbow Troops. Published in 2005, after a writing time of six month, this book became the most read Indonesian bestseller ever, in Indonesia and abroad. And when the novel in 2008 was made into a movie, the stunning scenery of Belitung Island was put on the worldwide map.

Once a student himself in the crumbling Elementary Muhammadiyah-School of Gantung, Andrea Hirata promised himself to make it out of the poor within the tin mining community and to pursue his dreams. In the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, where Andrea Hirata was involved as a volunteer helper in the Aceh province, he finally started to write the book about his school, which was constantly threatened by closure and collapse. The story is as well a belated declaration of love to his two teachers: especially to the young and energetic Bu Muslimah, who had just started her career in Gantung; as well as to the elderly Pak Harfan.

The Rainbow Troops bears witness that dreams can come true - after all, Andrea Hirata has made it from the poor school to European universities. Both teachers tirelessly strengthened the believes of their pupils and promoted to their class of ten kids courage, faith and knowledge. In the end, with his autobiographical story, the author has clearly succeeded in giving a literary expression to widespread yearnings and hopes. For the few who dare to fight for their dreams, the world will be opened.

Wandering around in Andrea Hirata’s Museum is partly a journey through the history of world literature. It is a self-portrayal of Hirata and his work without being intrusive, and it is probably the most pleasant place in the whole of Belitung to relax, besides on the beaches. The whole place is striking and the mix of colours mirrors a rainbow throughout. Everything is lovingly painted and arranged by hand—the do-it-yourself character is unmistakable. Doorframes, windows and colonnades are opening up facing the greenery of the outside yard. You’re always waiting for one of the protagonists of the Rainbow Troops to appear just around the corner and sit down with you in one of the cosy corners.

These places with chairs and tables are not only for a little reflection or relaxation. A few times during the day, especially on the weekends, there are some activities offered: reading sessions, workshops about literature and of course a lot of children activities. Some of the rooms are dedicated to the main characters: there is one for Ikal (Andrea Hirata himself), one for the smart Lintang, as well as for Mahar a very versatile artist. From a lovely old kitchen, which has been converted into a warung, the smell of freshly roasted and brewed Belitung coffee attracts the visitors to hang out for a while and watch the movie Laskar Pelangi. It is shown in Bahasa Indonesia with English subtitles (available on Netflix).

Taking happy-mood pictures in this neat place one has to keep in mind, that the original school was a run-down place and that the parents of the kids in Hirata’s book were not able to pay for their education, but didn’t want them to become coolies in the tin-mines or fishermen. The Muhammadiyah Elementary School had been reconstructed not far from the Museum for the shooting of the film. In many interviews Andrea Hirata has stated, that Belitung—once one of the largest producers of tin—is and always has been a rich island. So it was even more ironic that there were kids who could not attend school because there were no government funds.

Bangka Belitung is, in the idea of most visitors, synonymous with beautiful nature, stunning marine life, marvellous beaches and tin mines. For sure, Museum Kata Andrea Hirata is another gem on the list of the island’s highlights. Andrea Hirata financed this unique institution, which opened in 2012. It embodies a small dream world that is directly located under the rainbow.