At the airport in North Jakarta, a woman made announcements over the public address system. Billboards and signs in Indonesian, incomprehensible. Worse than incomprehensible: Since I didn’t expect to understand Chinese in Hong Kong, anymore than I did in New York’s Chinatown, I wasn’t uncomfortable there. Here, though, the signs were in the Roman alphabet and the sounds of the spoken language were so close to English—no tones—that my brain kept revving fruitlessly, the key twisting in the ignition, determined to find cognates.
More surprises: When I walked from the plane to baggage claim, there were no benches. Whole families sat on mats on the floor, waiting for returning relatives to arrive. This country has its own airline, I thought. Can’t they afford to put in benches? Or maybe they just prefer sitting on the floor? And the people looked different. Except for one of my students, I’d never seen an Indonesian before. The men were no taller than I was, the women a few inches shorter, and they were all dark-complected with straight black hair. The first time I saw a person from India, when I was a child, that combination of traits had astonished me. But the Javanese didn’t look at all like Indians.
Both sexes wore long skirts—sarongs—down to their ankles. The men had cylindrical black caps, the women went bareheaded. I later learned that the black cap says you’re Muslim, just as a yarmulke says you’re Jewish, and if a man’s cap is white, it means he’s made the hajj.
My illusion of worldliness began to evaporate.
I collected my luggage, which consisted of an oversized suitcase with straps that doubled as a backpack. I stuffed my newly purchased camera inside, to join the changes of clothes, canteen bottle, iodine tablets, malaria pills, and mosquito netting already in there, along with a small portable stove that I’d picked up at a camping gear store in Berkeley.
In addition to the phrasebook that I’d been trying to memorize during the long flight, I’d acquired two guidebooks to Indonesia. One was rather staid, confining itself to listing the various places of interest and discussing some of the nation’s history without passing judgments one way or another.
The other was the Lonely Planet guide, aimed at a younger, hipper crowd, budget travelers who wouldn’t be staying at the Jakarta Hilton, who wouldn’t be bussed from one temple to another while listening to a lecture by the tour bus driver. This second book had a great deal of useful information, mixed with the author’s sometimes offensive First World opinions of the people and the culture. These opinions could not but help color my reactions.
The guide advised travelers that we had to bargain for everything, including bus fare, and that the locals would jack up prices for visitors. The book’s first instruction after arrival was to taxi to a neighborhood with cheap hostels. As I was about to leave the airport I was lucky enough to encounter an American, a tall Black man who worked for one of the oil companies, and asked him how much the ride should cost. “Four thousand rupiah,” he replied (at the then current exchange rate, US $4.00). I negotiated the driver down to 5,000 and told myself that was pretty good for a first attempt.
Then I trudged up and down the street with the hostels, trying one after another until finding one with a vacancy—actually a room with two sets of bunk beds, one of the mattresses unoccupied. I forget the price of a night’s stay, but do remember that I didn’t care for my roommates, all appearing to be in their 20s, all of them complaining about the owner of the place. I draped my mosquito netting around the available bunk and fell asleep, despite the lack of privacy and the stifling heat, with no fans. It was worse than any summer I could remember, but then I had never been in the tropics before.
The smell of coffee and sizzle of frying rice woke me. After breakfast I walked to the railroad station and purchased a ticket for the ride across the length of Java to its eastern end, the port town of Banyuwangi, where I would catch a ferry to Bali. Already daunted by the heat and humidity, and the prospect of at least 18 hours on the train, I opted for first class, meaning an air conditioned sleeping car. It cost US $39.
Departure was in the evening, so I had the day to explore the neighborhood. Around noon I stopped at a luncheonette near the station. An Indonesian man pulled over a chair, ordered something, and introduced himself with a flirtatious smile. I got the impression he was hoping for a quickie with a foreign woman. The food came and we dug in. “Unfortunately I can’t fast,” he said, still smiling. “I have a kidney disorder.”
Oh, it’s Ramadan. The workers at the cafe were serving tourists but fasting themselves. I felt sorry for them. I didn’t feel sorry for the flirty guy, however. I had a strong suspicion that there was nothing wrong with his kidneys. I finished my lunch and left quickly.
My peregrinations took me along one of the canals that the Dutch dug through Jakarta after razing the old town in 1619 and making themselves the colonial masters. Per an article Salience, an on-line magazine from the University of Sydney, the new rulers built roads and port facilities over vegetation and soil beds that had absorbed the abundant rains of the area and then, to reduce flooding and also provide boat transportation of goods throughout the area, excavated the new waterways. This solution worked very well in Holland. In Jakarta, the result was an explosion of malaria and typhus—the former spread by mosquitoes, the latter by various insects, including rat fleas.
The canal I passed was stagnant, a brownish gray, and looked like what’s left in the bucket after it was used to mop floors. Several floors. A decomposing rat floated on the surface. Tin-roofed shacks clustered along the slopes down from the road to the water. I watched a woman hang her laundry on a line and wondered if she’d washed it in that canal. And what she and her family did for drinking water. (The article in Salience says that people dig wells for ground water. As a result, the city has been sinking—four meters alone since 1990—and around 40% of the city is now below sea level.)
I had seen poverty, American style, while working in Harlem but this was worse, deeper, more like the photos of the favelas in Rio, only now I was staring at it up close. Yet when I raised my eyes I could see tall buildings along the distant horizon. Some of them might have been the headquarters of international banks or oil companies. Perhaps one was the presidential palace. (In office from 1966 to 1998, President Suharto and his family amassed a fortune estimated to be between $16 billion and $35 billion.)
That year, 1983, having chosen not to take a full time job, I was living in poverty in Oakland, in an illegal apartment that was the penthouse of a slum that I described in a previous post. It lacked a shower but had a flush toilet and clean tap water. Living there, I had saved enough to finance my summer vacation, and here in Indonesia I was a rich American.
To be continued…