Thursday, December 26, 2002



I drove up to the glass and concrete shopping mall and stepped out of my air-conditioned Mitsubishi. The rains were bucketing down and it was wonderfully steamy and hot. Three barefoot and bare-chested umbrella boys came charging through the puddles in my direction. All three arrived in front of me at the same time. How was I to choose which one to escort me the short distance to the front entrance to the mall? I picked the skinniest one as he seemed most in need of the few rupiahs I would pay him. And he had a cute face.

Once inside the air-conditioned building I began to feel distinctly cold. This seemed appropriate as a Christmas tree had been set up in the middle of the main hallway and Christmas carols were being broadcast from loudspeakers. The shops were crowded with rich but unhappy-looking Chinese Indonesians buying everything from Italian designer clothes to Japanese computer games. Most of the money, in this, the largest Moslem country in the world, seemed to be circulating within the capital city, among the small elite. Having bought some Christmas cards and some Scottish shortbread, I returned to my vehicle and drove to North Jakarta in order to see Min.

As there were floods in Min’s part of Teluk Gong, I had to find an ojek motorcycle to taxi me through the slums to Min’s house.

Min was in good humour but it was too wet to take him for a walk.

"When can we visit Iwan?" asked Min’s mum, who was busy patching up some well-worn items of clothing. Iwan was the boy who had had leprosy and who was now living with his granny in Min’s former house in South Jakarta. The house was still owned by Min’s family, even though they had moved to Teluk Gong.

"We can go now," I said. I was guiltily aware that I had not seen poor Iwan for many, many months, although my driver had continued to visit him monthly, to deliver a little of my money.

It was over an hour and a half before we reached Cipete, such was the volume of traffic. There were just too many five-car families.

Iwan was at home with his granny and limping like a ragged puppet whose strings had got twisted. Min and Iwan were pleased to see each other, both grinning shyly. I was not pleased to see that the walls of the front room had become grubby with finger marks and that on the kitchen floor there were dirty cloths, plates of abandoned food and broken pots. In the upstairs bedroom there was some pencilled graffiti on the walls and the curtains had been broken.

"You’re not keeping this place tidy," I complained to Iwan. "Look at the curtain rail."

"We haven’t got much money," said Iwan, looking at me with big dark eyes. "The kitchen pump needs repairing."

"But there’s no need for the graffiti," I said. I was perhaps forgetting that I had seen childish scribbles on the walls of many a front room in the poorer kampungs.

"It’s my friends from the rubbish tip," said Iwan.

"You must stop them," I insisted. "Remember this is Min’s house."

"Sorry, Mr Kent," said Iwan, looking down at the floor. Granny smiled an embarrassed smile.

"I’ll give you money for the pump. Can you find someone to paint the walls and sort the roof?"


"How much will it cost? Is one hundred thousand rupiahs enough?"

"Not enough, Mr Kent. Maybe three hundred thousand."

"OK. But make sure you get receipts." It was likely that Iwan would get some uncle or cousin to do the work, at an inflated price.

I had intended to be kind to poor limping Iwan, but the neglect of the house had brought out my grumpy side.

January 1996 brought the worst floods for twenty years. My home suffered only from a slightly leaking kitchen roof, but houses beside some of Jakarta’s rivers were flooded above roof height, forcing their occupants to flee to higher ground. I escaped from Jakarta by taking a holiday trip to a hotel at Carita Beach, near the tiny port of Anyer, on Java’s west coast.

The route to Anyer is the same as that to Merak, except that you turn south rather than north, as you approach the sea. Although the coast at Anyer is not as dramatic as that at Pelabuhan Ratu, it has the sort of sultry charm that you might expect to find on an Indian Ocean shore. As always, I hoped that there would be no ten meter high tsunami, as there had been back in 1883, when nearby Krakatau had erupted. That tidal wave had left many hundreds of dead bodies floating in the bay; many stories, or carita, had been told about these departed ones.

The hotel was supposed to be of international standard but could have done with some refurbishment; the air conditioner seemed full of dust. On the other hand, by the time I had unpacked, the rains had stopped and the sun was shining.

Beside the hotel’s sparkling little swimming pool, I spied a long-legged Caucasian girl in sleeveless T-shirt, white ankle socks, and short culottes. Her pantat moved alertly, as Nabokov would have said. I thought of the words of the numerologist, about things of the flesh, and decided to chat to the much older woman over at the pool-side bar. Her name turned out to be Disa. She was a small, cheery Australian, in her early fifties, and she reminded me of one of these salt-of-the-earth mothers you get in Australian soap operas. Disa was a keen amateur historian, had formerly had a job as a librarian and was a regular church attender. Her husband, who normally worked hard in some office in Jakarta, was busy on the golf course.

"Always nice smiling people, the locals," I said, after the friendly barman had delivered my Singapore Sling.

"Smiling but not necessarily always nice," said Disa, in a gentle tone of voice. The lines around her eyes became pronounced.

"How do you mean?"

"The smile you get here, and in Thailand, could be a sanuk, fun-smile. But it’s often a smile of submission. Or hidden aggression. There are two sides to the people. One moment the Indonesians are smiling. Next moment a mob is beating to death some poor thief. Or a gang of schoolboys is stabbing to death a boy from a rival school."

"I see what you mean," I said. "Captain Cook found the girls on the Pacific islands more than friendly. But there was the other side to it. Things started to get stolen. And Cook discovered that the islanders went in for human sacrifice."

"There are always two sides to people," said Disa, grinning. "You get the Australian whose happy and jolly one moment and the next moment he’s hunting down Aborigines."

"Cook came to Jakarta, didn’t he?" I said, wanting to stay on the subject of Indonesia.

"He anchored in Jakarta, where most of them got sick. They’d been healthy until then. Jakarta gave them dysentery and malaria. Doctors couldn’t do much for them." Disa sipped her beer.

"I met a dukun recently," I said, remembering my session of foot reflexology. " Do you think these people can really cure sickness?"

"I’m sure they can. President Suharto’s supposed to make great use of advice from dukuns."

"Is it working?"

"Dukuns have warned that Suharto’s fortunes are changing, for the worse," said Disa. "I read that in the local press."

"Dukuns seem to be taken quite seriously," I said, "The majority of Moslems, the traditional Moslems, reportedly use dukuns."

"Wahid’s apparently a great believer in dukuns. Have you heard of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama? It’s the world’s biggest Moslem organisation. It’s headed by Abdurrahman Wahid."

"Wahid is the man who helped set up Forum Demokrasi," I said. "An opponent of the government."

"He’s very moderate. Wants to be friends with everyone, including Israel. Bit of a character."

"And what about Suharto? What’s your verdict?"

"It’s a mixed verdict," said Disa, looking serious. "The institutions are all so corrupt, as my husband could tell you. The courts, the banks, the civil service, the military. On the other hand, Suharto’s brought stability and prosperity. To some. I certainly can’t complain about our villa in Pondok Indah. We’ve more rooms than we know what to do with."

"Whose missing out?" I asked. Thinking of the slum dwellers, I thought I already knew the answer

"A lot of poor Moslems feel the oil and timber money has gone to Chinese Indonesians and government people. Also the people in the outer islands feel they’ve been colonised by the Javanese, and bullied by ignorant soldiers."

"East Timor?" I suggested.

"Yes. Then there’s Irian Jaya, in New Guinea: lots of mineral wealth but most of it goes to the Jakarta people. West Kalimanatan in Borneo: the Dayaks feel they’ve been invaded by the migrants from Madura. The Christians in Maluku are fed up with the Moslems who’ve come in from Sulawesi and taken over government jobs, and the various rackets."

"And in Bali," I said, feeling I should demonstrate some knowledge of the country, "some Hindus feel that the Javanese don’t always respect their shrines. And Moslems in Aceh feel their oil is being stolen and their people murdered by Javanese."

"Aceh used to be independent," said Disa, impressing me with her superior knowledge of History. "It was independent until 1903."

"Do you think there’s going to be big trouble in Indonesia? Like Yugoslavia?"

"Certain countries might like to see Indonesia broken up."

"Who would want that?

"Some of the generals are frightened that countries like America, Israel and Australia want to break Indonesia up. That would make it easier to control. Remember that Suharto’s getting old. After Suharto goes, it could be like it was here in the 1950’s."

"The 1950’s had some violence." I could vaguely remember being told of troubles in Ambon.

"There were revolts in Sumatra and elsewhere. The problem in the 1950’s was that the army was divided. Some soldiers sided with the rebels."

"Suharto sorted out the army?"

"In a sense."

The teenage girl who had been wearing the culottes was now attired in a light blue bikini and lying on a towel on the far side of the pool. I was momentarily distracted by the curves of her downy limbs. I tried to think of something to say to Disa, to prove that I had been listening to her.

"What was Suharto’s background?" I asked. I was sure Disa would know the answer.

"His mother was reportedly a peasant. There was a rumour that his father was Chinese, but that’s only a rumour. Young Suharto was brought up by a lot of different relatives. He joined the Dutch colonial army, then during the war he worked for the Japanese military, and then after the war he was part of the rebellion against the Dutch."

"Where do his rich Chinese Indonesian business partners come into this?"

"Bob Hasan and Uncle Liem? They were his partners. While he was in the army, Suharto went into business. He got into trouble for smuggling."

"Presumably Suharto also did some fighting?"

"He helped Sukarno put down a rebellion in South Sulawesi; He was part of Sukarno’s fight against Malaysia."

"He always manages a nice smile, Suharto."

"The smiling general." Disa finished her second beer.

"Is it modern history you’re interested in?" I asked.

"All history. I’ve been studying Java Man, also known as Homo Erectus, from Sangiran in Java." Disa bought us two colas.

"You can’t get much older than Java Man," I said naively.

"Java man’s about a million years old. The world’s at least 4,000 million years old. And so-called civilisation only began about five thousand years ago." She said it in a friendly way.

The girl on the towel was adjusting her blue bikini, but I was still taking in what was being said.

Disa enlightened me about the beginnings of civilisation. It seems that cities and writing probably began in Iraq with the Sumerians around 3000 BC. The Sumerian civilisation lasted about 1,500 years and it was apparently the Sumerians who came up with the first written stories of a flood, an ark, and a fall from innocence. The latter story involved a man called Enkidu, whose sin was sexual.

"When does Abraham come into all this?" I asked.

"If he existed, it was probably about 1800 BC."

"I suppose the problem with the Old Testament is that it was written down long after the events described."

"Our present version probably dates from around 600 BC," said Disa. "Not long ago. Some scholars think the idea of the Last Judgement, and heaven and hell, came from the Zoroastrians."

"Remind me about Zoroaster."

"The Iranian prophet who may have lived around 600 BC. He said that people have to choose between the Good Spirit and the Bad Spirit. Some Zoroastrians believed that a Saviour would come to save the world."

"What happened to Zoroastrianism?"

"Islam took over in Iran. Very few Zoroastrians are left."

"How come our Bible’s been so important throughout the world?"

"Maybe it’s brainwashing. Some of the Old Testament writers put the fear of God into the reader. The reader becomes frightened to think for herself. I don’t like the God who’s a tyrant."

"But you attend church."

"Some of the writers in the Bible see God as a good mate. Someone who loves everyone, even Australians. That’s my kind of God."

"There’s more than one point of view in the Bible?"

"In one book of the Bible it looks as if it’s only one particular tribe that gets to heaven. In another part of the Bible it’s clear that people like Samaritans get to heaven. People have their feet washed by God’s son."

"Competing views." I finished my cola.

"Here comes my daughter, looking hungry. Must go." Disa got up, smiled sweetly, took the hand of the teenage girl in the blue bikini, and departed.

I thought about the words of the numerologist and decided to walk along the beach, to get some exercise. The beach was a plane of misty sun, coconut palms, damp sand, steaming sea, distant islands and bathing children with sparkling skins.

When Ramadan came round again I made a point of visiting my former-neighbour, Samsu. Due to the heavy rain we sat in his dark and humid front room. Samsu drank nothing, but I was given a cup of tea.

"Tell me about your new paintings," I said, as I cast my eyes over a picture showing a group of Balinese women. "You seem to have added to your collection."

"They’re only cheap prints. The one you’re looking at is by the Dutchman, Willem Hofker. The girls look both beautiful and noble. It reminds me of a Tiepolo."

"Hofker only painted Balinese?"

"He found that some Moslems didn’t like being painted in a sensuous style, so he stuck with the Hindu Balinese."

"What about the big painting with the wonderful bright colours and the cartoon-like characters?

"That’s Bramantyo. His mother’s Scottish-Australian and his father’s a Javanese noble."

"And the portrait of the young man?"

"That’s by Auk Sonnega, another Dutchman. There’s something of the Art Deco about it. I find it has spiritual qualities. It’s more refined than a Matisse or a Modigliani."

"And the photo of the beautiful beach?"

"That’s East Timor."

"There’s still an awful lot of trouble in East Timor," I said, referring to the territory where a majority of the population was trying to break away from Indonesia. "Are you one of those people who blames foreigners for stirring up rebellion?"

"We should never have taken East Timor. It was never a Dutch colony."

"Why do people blame the Australians?"

"Scapegoats. The rich, right wing, Moslem elite can’t face up to their own mistakes. They blame Christians and the Pope. They can’t see why the Christian people of East Timor are angry with the Javanese."

"Who do you blame?"

"Indonesians are to blame for Indonesia’s problems," said Samsu, frowning. "We’ve been independent since 1949 and we still can’t get our civil servants to work properly."

"Police who have to be paid before they’ll come to investigate a burglary?"

"Soldiers who won’t stop riots because they’re too busy protecting gambling dens or collecting money from certain foreign sources. I went to a government building last week to get a license. It was mid-morning and the top people weren’t at their desks. There were some clerks there but they were sitting gossiping. The boss has more than one government job and he runs several private businesses."

"He must be a rich man."

"He’ll probably use the government cars for his various businesses. He’ll give jobs to his cousins, who probably won’t bother to turn up for work."

"No discipline," I commented. "Didn’t we have a conversation once before in which you blamed the Dutch for keeping the wages of civil servants too low, thus creating the need for bribes. You blamed the cutting down of Indonesia’s trees on the Americans’ need for toilet paper?"

Samsu smiled a great big smile. "I’ll agree that it’s a world-wide problem. Some of the problem is the foreigners. We all need a jihad."

"You’ve become a militant?"

"What the country needs is a jihad to change the minds of the government people. A non-violent jihad. A jihad against corrupt judges and soldiers."

"Make people good Moslems?"

"Honest, educated, tolerant Moslems. They will make this a happy, prosperous country like Switzerland. There’ll be no more manipulation by crooked businessmen or foreign powers. No more need to blame scapegoats."

"In the 19th Century," I volunteered, "Britain was full of riots and starving children. We had people like Florence Nightingale and Lord Shaftesbury struggling to put things right."

"We’ve got people like Y.B. Mangunwijaya, the pastor who fights poverty."

"You need more like him."

"You need someone to do something about your football hooligans," said Samsu with a giggle, "your Northern Irish and your British Broadcasting Corporation."

"What’s wrong with the BBC?" I asked, slightly surprised.

"I keep hoping it will tell us the truth about Indonesia, about the part played by the British in backing Suharto. But it doesn’t happen. I think it doesn’t want to endanger Britain’s trade. When I switch on the World Service, I seem to hear more Jewish voices than Moslem voices."

The rain suddenly stopped and there was a peaceful silence. My teacup was empty. It was time to let Samsu return to his books.



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Blogger Ricky Peterson said...

Very informative post. Jakarta is a bustling town, you can find shopping centres and luxury hotels. Most of the people are involved in plantation, they mostly use motorbike taxis and three wheelers for this purpose. Majority of people work in metal shops, small scale factories and vending food. You may find brave people in Kampung Pulo located in the core of Ciliwung as they live happily despite facing flood problem. For more details refer Jakarta Indonesia

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