The sleepy village of Licin is situated in the Banyuwangi regency of East Java, Indonesia. It’s a 30-minute drive from the town of Banyuwangi – Java’s easternmost tip – and an hour from the slopes of Kawah Ijen, the legendary volcano famous for its electric blue flames. It’s often used as a base for hiking the world’s most fascinating crater, and foreigners usually pass through it. But during my travels in Indonesia last November, I was instantly drawn to Licin’s wild beauty and tranquility, making it my home for the remaining two weeks of my stay in the country.
The Forgotten Island
Java is largely ignored in favor of its neighbor Bali, which is known as “island of gods” and has increasingly attracted solo and spiritual travelers over the past decade. By contrast, Java, Indonesia’s second-largest province remains fairly untainted by tourism, existing on its own terms. In the face of the countless warnings I received to “be careful” when venturing to this less-trodden region, East Java felt incredibly safe and turned out to be one of the most welcoming places I’ve set foot.
The hauntingly beautiful Islamic call for prayer could be heard every few hours, from all corners of the village, successive chants blending in the air. Unlike the predominantly Hindu Bali, East Java has a mostly Muslim population. Islam was introduced to the island at the end of the 13th century with the arrival of Arab Muslim traders, gradually becoming the main religion after the collapse of the Hindu Javanese Majapahit Empire in the late 15th century.
The Osing People
The largest ethnic group in Licin is the Osing, who are a sub-group of the Javanese, known to speak Ngoko Osing, Java’s oldest language. They make up 70% of the population, with a small percentage of Madurese and Javanese also residing within the village. The Osing are descendants of the ‘native’ people of the ancient Kingdom of Blambangan – present-day Banyuwangi – whose rulers practiced Hinduism, until Muslim and Christian missionaries were sent by Dutch invaders in the 19th century to weaken and infiltrate the Osing community, as part of a plan to eventually occupy nearby Bali. There’s still a large number of Hindu Osing in Indonesia today, some of whom fled to Bali to resist conversion.
A majority of Osing people in East Java follow “abangan” Islam, which fuses Islam with Hindu, Buddhist, and animist beliefs. A small Christian population also exists among them. The preservation of their Hindu heritage can be observed in their bright and colorful clothing, intricate batik designs adorning their fabrics and homes, and various ancient practices passed down through the generations, including traditional dances, ceremonies, and art forms. The Osing are very superstitious, and in rural regions, like Licin, their traditions and rituals contain mystical elements, like those of the Balinese, honoring the spirits and deities.
“The most important celebrations for the Osing are the traditional wedding ceremony and circumcision party,” Achmed, a local tour guide working at my guesthouse, told me. Circumcision is an ancient rite of passage carried out on Muslim males before the age of 11, and the ceremony is a colorful and boisterous event where the community comes together to celebrate the young boy’s first step towards adulthood.
A Small Javanese Community
Achmed, who works and lives in Licin, describes himself as 100% Javanese. The Javanese are considered the native people of Java and the largest ethnic group in Indonesia, but only constitute 25% of the population in Banyuwangi and 10% of the community in Licin. Achmed, like most Javanese, identifies as Muslim. But with myriad ethnicities living side by side in Banyuwangi, including Madurese, Chinese, Manda people and Osing, Javanese culture also displays a range of influences, including animism, Hinduism and Buddhism. The Kuwung Festival is an annual carnival that celebrates the different cultures in this region of East Java, promoting ethnic diversity in Banyuwangi. The customs, traditions, and folklore of different ethnic groups and tribes are showcased through a parade that winds through the neighborhood of Banyuwangi.
A Series of Portraits
From the moment I arrived in Licin, locals were hospitable and eager to engage. Even though few people spoke English and my Indonesian wasn’t enough to hold a conversation, vendors welcomed me into their shops, mothers invited me to their homes for tea, and children waved from their windows and surrounded me in swarms to say hello.
Each day, as I made my way to the terraced rice fields within walking distance of my guesthouse, I encountered a young, elegant-looking woman playing with her daughter outside her home. She and her family run a bridal makeup and hair styling business, helping women look beautiful for their weddings. One day, she was sitting outside her home, drinking tea with several other mothers from the neighborhood when she noticed that I had a camera with me and asked me to photograph her and her daughter. This led to other people in the area asking for photographs, and a couple of portraits quickly progressed into a series of beautiful images.
Wandering through the emerald-green coffee plantations in the hills nearby, I met farmers producing rice, tea, and some of the best coffee on the island due to the region’s fertile soils and heavy rainfall. I found myself enchanted by our interactions, characterized by mutual curiosity and openness.
The next afternoon, I crossed paths with a man named Ajiz on my way to the rice paddies. He oozed coolness and charisma, and while the gun that he was carrying was intimidating at first glance, very quickly, I felt comfortable and safe interacting with him. I wanted to capture the subjects with a casual yet intimate quality, reflecting the immediate sense of trust and familiarity between us.
Living off the Land
“People in Licin are very proud and content living off the land of their ancestors. They are connected with nature,” explained Robbi, who leads tours to Mount Ijen for Western travelers and lives with his family in a modest house edging the rice fields. “Some farmers earn very little money – about 15,000 rupiah ($1.64) a day,” he told me. “Sulphur miners can make up to $10 a day, but their job is very difficult.”
During my unforgettable hike to Mount Ijen, I witnessed miners descend into the volcano crater in darkness and re-emerge with wicker baskets containing 90 kgs. of hardened sulphur, with only a piece of cloth wrapped around their mouths to protect themselves from the poisonous fumes. The baskets were hauled back down the mountain through the smoke-filled air and transported to a sulphur production factory in Licin, where they’re processed to make matches, fertilizer, batteries, sugar, and plenty more products.
A Serene Pocket of East Java
Like most hidden gems, Licin is tricky to find and easy to miss. There wasn’t much to do in the village, but this serene pocket of East Java was a perfect place to hike amid tropical forests that left me in awe at their greenness and allowed me to experience the charm and friendliness of local people. After traveling through many tourist-laden parts of Southeast Asia, Licin reignited my thirst for connection and an authentic cultural experience.
Cover photo taken by Ziba Redif