Thursday, January 01, 2004

24. BANTEN AND MERAK

It was a warm sultry evening in downtown Jakarta, back in July 1992, and I was with someone who looked like Maureen O'Sullivan, star of many a Tarzan film. My companion was Sue: in her late twenties, demure good looks, slim figure, long dark hair and long black dress. I had got to know Sue while teaching in London; we had spent quite a few evenings eating out or watching films such as ‘My Life as a Dog’ and ‘Life is a Long Quiet River.’ Back in London, Sue had seemed a relatively reserved sort of person, but also someone who could think for herself. Sue had a kind and sympathetic side to her nature and she was someone with whom I felt relaxed and comfortable. What was Sue doing in Jakarta? She was spending some days in Indonesia’s capital as part of her six week holiday in Asia. She was taking a sabbatical from her work as a secretary and having an adventure.

We stepped out of my vehicle and through the small front garden of a very large bungalow. A gong sounded, a uniformed footman opened the door, and Sue and I were ushered into the Oasis restaurant, the former home of a Dutch millionaire. After a Singapore Sling in the bar, we were shown to a table between the musicians and the marble statues of the Italian garden.

"You’re half way through your Asian journey," I said, as I studied the menu. "What made you decide to do all this traveling?"

"I’d been reading a book called ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, by Joseph Campbell," said Sue, as she stared at the melting candle in the middle of the table. "Campbell argues that in all the world’s cultures, heroes go on journeys. Think of Marco Polo and Luke Skywalker. Journeys help us to understand how the world works."

"All the world’s cultures have the same dreams?"

"Campbell thinks we all share the same subconscious. Consciousness is a form of energy and it’s in everything, all over the world."

"We all go on similar types of journeys?"

"Campbell says that all journeys have the same pattern. First you get the inspiration to go on an adventure, but when you think about it you see all the possible dangers and you’re reluctant to set off. Then a series of events push you into the adventure. As you travel on your way, you face a number of difficulties. At some point you are tempted to take detours from the correct path. Eventually everything works out fine and you return home safely."

"I was reluctant to leave London," I said. "I was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to cope abroad. Then I felt events pushing me; some of the children I was teaching became so awful. There may be something in all this."

A waitress had arrived and she was trying to look cheerful and trying to catch our attention.

"I’m having the rijstaffell," said Sue. "A mixture of dishes."

"Me too," I said. "And to drink, the Australian white."

"This place is how I imagine a colonial club," said Sue. "Lots of wood paneling."

"Makes me think of a scene from the film Casablanca," I added. "The dim lighting and the rich and shady customers."

"I’ve been to some shady restaurants recently," said Sue. "In Bangkok I had lunch at a little restaurant near Silom Road. When I went back in the evening it had completely changed. The tables and food were gone. It was just crawling with scantily dressed teenage girls. Probably run by the German Mafia."

"You’ve been having an exciting time," I said, as I glanced at the beautiful young Chinese girl at the table behind Sue. "Is Thailand a Mafia country?"

"In a subtle way. I liked Bangkok because of the wats and golden stupas, but I didn’t like Pattaya. It seemed like a tacky gangster town."

"A bit rough?"

"Quite a few tourists die there," said Sue, giving me one of her serious looks. "They say it’s heart attacks or accidents; but one Thai businessman told me people get murdered and it’s covered up."

"Murdered for money?"

"Or because the locals secretly hate some of the single male tourists."

"What about the military? Are they powerful in Thailand?"

"Discreetly so. But then they’re powerful here too. Someone on the plane told me Indonesia’s controlled by the military."

"So they say. And how did you like India?" I asked.

"It’s the most foreign of the places I’ve been to. You know, giant lingams and temple sculptures showing people in acrobatic positions. I took scores of photos of sahdus and ghats."

"And the food?"

"It’s my favourite, but you get better tasting Indian food in Ealing. Some restaurants in India didn’t have lime pickle."

Our rijstaffel arrived, brought to our table by about fifteen maidens.

"It’s the same with Indonesian food," I commented, as I ladled spoonfuls of spicy chicken and beef onto my plate. "It seems to taste better in Amsterdam than it does here, although this place is good."

"I’d expected India to be more spiritual," said Sue solemnly, as she helped herself to salad, "but it seemed pretty earthy. Some of my chief memories are of cockroaches, crashed buses all along the highway, women in cages, lines of people squatting on the pavements emptying their bowels. I’d been hoping to find some kind of enlightenment, but it didn’t happen."

"And what about Jakarta?" I asked.

"The airport was clean and efficient; and the centre’s got some amazing looking bank buildings. I’ve been to some impressive shopping malls. Better than Singapore’s malls. Friendly smiling faces."

"According to the Jakarta Post," I explained, "about sixty per cent of Indonesia’s wealth ends up in the posh parts of Jakarta. The people of Sumatra and Irian Jaya are not very happy about that."

"They say Indonesia’s an empire run by Java," said Sue.

"I’ve heard it’s an empire run by the Jakarta elite, mainly generals and ex-generals and their Chinese-Indonesian friends." I spoke quietly, as the elite might be at the next table.

"Do you think that’s true?"

"It’s what some people say. I suppose in Britain in the 19th Century there was a small upper class that owned most of the land or the industry."

"Not much has changed," said Sue. "The Third World’s not so different from parts of London or Birmingham. Civilised bits and primitive bits."

"What makes the bad bits bad?" I asked.

"The Third World should be called the Low Standards World," said Sue. "Singapore used to be slummy but they raised their standards. Careful family upbringing, efficient civil service, clean hospitals, good schools, decent housing."

"Whereas in Low Standards Areas, you get low standards of honesty and cleanliness." Was the wine leading me to silly generalisations?

"Low standards," said Sue. "Uncaring parents. Uncaring employers. Corrupt police and so on."

"Indonesia’s not all low standards," I pointed out, in case the waitress was listening.

"How are you liking living here?" asked Sue.

"It’s wonderful. Sunshine, heat, bright colours, friendly people, no depressing winters, streets full of interest. I could go on."

"Any bad bits?"

"The traffic’s getting worse. And too many kids have TB."

Our conversation began to be drowned out by the Batak singers.


On the Friday afternoon I took Sue to see what was to be Min’s new house and hopefully hand over the money for its purchase.

"Nice neighbourhood," said Sue, as we walked down the lane leading to Wisma Utara. "The houses look clean. Look at all the flowers."

"My driver was telling me," I pointed out, "that even in a peaceful area like this, you get occasional drunkenness and student brawls. Touch wood, I’ve never seen any trouble around here."

"Student brawls?" queried Sue.

"From time to time gangs of school kids fight each other. Kids get killed."

"The children all look friendly."

"I saw a bunch of them once, in the middle of town, jumping onto a crowded bus. They were all armed with sharp weapons. Be careful with buses, by the way."

We reached Min’s house and were greeted by Wardi, Min, Min’s mum and dad, and all Min’s siblings. They seemed in a good humour and they were intrigued by the sight of Sue.

"Goodness! Your furniture’s here already," I said to Min’s mum. "How did you get it to the house?"

"A neighbour’s truck," explained Wardi.

The smart looking young lady who was selling the house arrived and we all sat down in the house’s low-ceilinged lounge. Gone was the bright blue settee, replaced by Min’s family’s simpler furniture.

"I’ve got the cheque," I told the lady-owner. "Have you got the documents?"

She handed over a piece of paper which didn’t seem to be related to ownership of the house.

"This is not what we need," I said, pretending to be an expert. "I can’t give you the cheque without the proper document. Can you get it for us?"

Off she went, presumably to find the missing bit of paper.

"What does her family do for a living?" I asked Wardi.

"They own the tiny shop at the corner."

"It’s good to find a non-Chinese person owning a shop and property," I commented.

"Her husband’s Chinese," said Wati.

"Are there lots of Chinese Indonesians?" asked Sue, wearing her earnest look.

"About four percent of the population," I explained. "But there have been mixed marriages over the years, so it’s difficult to be exact. They’re not all rich and they’re not all Buddhist or Christian. You get Moslem Chinese."

The lady returned with the necessary certificate, took my cheque and departed with a smile and a handshake.

"I must have some photos of you all in your new home," I said to Wardi.

Min put his arms around his dad and both smiled ecstatically. Click. Things seemed to be going well.

"What did you think of Min?" I asked Sue as we headed back to my Mitsubishi.

"He’s lovely. And I liked his family."


Sue and I used the Saturday to head West from Jakarta.

"To Banten and Merak," I instructed the driver and off we drove, past industrial Tangerang, with its textile and rubber factories, and then over a flat green landscape. Occasionally we would see long, low barn-like buildings, used by the brick and tile industry. The journey, mainly along a wide, straight Toll road, gave us another chance to talk about travel and life.

"The guidebook," explained Sue, "states that Banten used to have a harbour, before it silted up, and it’s where the Dutch had their first settlement."

"And before that the Portuguese." I had my guide books on my knee.

"What’s it famous for now?" asked Sue

"My maid told me it’s famous for magic."

"Magic?"

"Dervish dancers who eat glass."

"Is magic a big thing in Indonesia?"

"Nyai Loro Kidul, Goddess of the South Seas, gets a lot of attention," I said. "There’s a story that, in the late 1970’s, high up government people, wanting to help the president increase his power, arranged some ceremony involving the sea goddess."

"So it’s not just for the peasants," said Sue. "What about witch doctors or shamans?"

"They’re called dukuns. They say that dukuns have been used by President Suharto, and by former President Sukarno. Oil men get dukuns to help find oil. Businessmen and civil servants use them to ensure they grow rich. Women go to dukuns if they want men to fall in love with them. Sick people go to them for cures. Bad people use wicked dukuns to kill their enemies. You can have someone killed for about fifty pounds."

"That’s cheap. How do they get people to fall in love?" asked Sue, smiling.

"A businessman friend, who shall be nameless, was told that a girlfriend had secretly given some powder to his maid. The maid was supposed to sprinkle it over his clothes."

"Did it work?"

"Well Mike hasn’t married her, yet, but she’s done very nicely out of him financially."

"Where does Islam come into this?" asked Sue.

"Even some orthodox Moslems believe in good and bad spirits. Most traditional Moslems certainly believe in spirits. Last year there was a big Moslem rally in Jakarta and the newspapers quoted Moslems as saying there were thousands of genies in the air, protecting the meeting."

"Flying about in the air?"

"Like angels. In Java you get Islam mixing with ideas that are animist or Buddhist or Hindu. The government doesn’t mind, so long as everyone believes in God. The most important thing for the traditional Javanese Moslem is avoiding being selfish or self-assertive, which sounds good to me. That’s how it should be and I’ve met lots of Moslems like that."

"I told you that in India I was disappointed not to find things more spiritual," said Sue.

"Same here in some ways. A lot of the top people simply want to loot and pillage. Although they pretend to be good Christians or Moslems."

"You’re more likely to get in touch with the spiritual by keeping away from priests."

"You’ve given up on the Church?"

"I have," said Sue, with a touch of firmness. "Joseph Campbell argues that all religions are true but their stories mustn’t be taken literally. The Bible is not necessarily the word of God. God wouldn’t really want the Israelites to slaughter the people of Canaan or Egypt."

"Time for a snack?" I had spotted a food stall at the side of the road and wanted to stretch my legs.

"Yes please," said Sue. "I’m beginning to find the air-conditioning in this van rather fierce. It’ll be nice to get some heat."

We reached Banten about midmorning. The sky was full of soot-black clouds which made the houses, the trees and the ruined 16th century Sultan’s Palace look dark and eerie. There wasn’t much to see at the palace, other than its foundations. We had a look at the Agung Mosque, built around 1559 and recently restored. It had a slightly Chinese appearance, because of its pagoda-shape.

"I’m surprised how small Banten is," said Sue.

"Why’s that?"

"It’s like a farming village, yet the guide book says it was once the largest city in South East Asia and one of the world’s greatest ports. The spice trade made this place world famous."

Sue was going to take a photo of some schoolboys standing beneath tall palm trees, but one of the boys decided it would be fun to urinate and Sue put her camera away.

"On to the hotel for lunch," I announced, and soon we were passing by Indonesia’s biggest steel works at Cilegon, and then coming in sight of the little port of Merak.

After lunch at the Merak Beach Hotel we explored the town and a nearby beach. The sun was managing to shine full blast on gorgeous blue and red fishing boats and wooden houses built on stilts. Merak itself seemed to be a delightfully mucky little town, reminding me of certain ports in Italy like Barletta.

"It’s frightening to think," I said, "that Merak, and the other settlements along this coast, were wiped out by a tidal wave, taller than the palm trees."

"The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa," said Sue.

"The guide book says the tidal waves reached the coast of France."

"Are we going to be safe if we go along the coast to Anyer?"

"You can see Anak Krakatoa from the beach. If there’s a major eruption, we might consider leaving."

"Have you noticed the large number of provocatively dressed young women outside the cafes and restaurants here?" said Sue, eyes twinkling.

"It is a port," I said, as I noted the tight little skirts and long schoolgirl legs of a group seated outside a wooden shack selling beer.

"There’s the ferry to Sumatra, all the truck traffic and the Pertamina oil base. Lots of potential customers. Lots of risk of disease."

"Let’s have a beer and watch the world go by," said Sue.

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