Out into the Wider World, Part III

Balinese woman carrying water

My first class ticket on the train from Jakarta to Banyuwangi entitled me to an air-conditioned sleeping car, which I shared with an elderly woman of Chinese extraction. She was either unhappy or in pain (headache? arthritis?—I never found out, as we didn’t speak each other’s language). Recently I learned that Chinese had lived in Indonesia for centuries, well before the Dutch colonization. Most were small traders or shopkeepers, but a few families had become quite prosperous. As she was traveling first class, my roommate was most likely in the latter category.

Meals in the dining car were served by Javanese workers who would have been observing the Ramadan fast. No smiles on their faces. Though I felt sorry for them, I wasn’t about to skip meals or go thirsty all day. Excellent strong coffee was available, as it was everywhere I traveled in Indonesia. No surprise—there’s a reason java became a synonym for coffee.

At Banyuwangi I took a night ferry across the strait to Bali and found a room. The next morning I breakfasted on eggs at the counter of a hotel café, sitting next to an American couple. The woman showed off a bracelet of silver and Balinese sapphires, bragging that it had been quite a bargain compared to what she’d have to pay back home. I mumbled “very nice” and made my exit.

It was a short walk to the bus station, and then a three hour ride to the town of Ubud, a center of traditional arts. The Lonely Planet book recommended a particular guest house and I was able to rent a room and bath there for $3.00 a night, breakfast included—a bowl of rice pudding and another of fresh fruit, often papaya, left at my door each morning.

Before traveling to Indonesia I had taken the usual precautions against tropical diseases, such as yellow fever and cholera vaccines and malaria pills. Now, in Ubud, I learned about sanitation—or the lack of it—in the so-called Third World. All my life I had taken indoor plumbing for granted. Here, the bathroom had neither a toilet nor a shower, just a waist-high tiled tank filled with water, with a ladle and a channel for the dirty water to drain out of the building. The tank was called a bak mandi. The guide book instructed me not to get in it, as that was extremely bad manners. You use the ladle to pour water over yourself, soap up, and and then use the ladle again to rinse. The toilet was a waist-high concrete enclosure outside the building, with an opening to step in. Anyone passing by could see that you were squatting down to do your business, and would politely ignore you. The Balinese cleaned themselves afterward using the left hand, soap, and water. I knew even then that it was an atrocity that we cut down trees merely to wipe our ass, but my American sensibilities revolted at what was, and is, standard practice in so many parts of the world. I bought a roll of toilet paper.

I had been warned not to drink the water. After filling my canteen, I purified it with iodine tablets. After a while I got used to the taste.

As I mentioned in Part I, Bali is Hindu-Buddhist. They have a four-caste system.  I can’t remember the owner’s name. I’ll call her Dewa. she was from one of the higher castes, either Brahmana or Ksatriya. She was slim and erect, with her black hair piled on top of her head, elegant in a blue batik sarong, and perfectly fluent in English. I can still see her sitting on a chair on her veranda, where most of our conversations took place.

During my stay there, I also met Dewa’s 20-year-old son. She doted on him, naturally enough, and had raised him as a young prince. He performed traditional dance with a small group of friends, and I once had the pleasure of seeing him rehearse. He was good—and rather imperious.

One morning while Dewa and I were chatting, a Sudra woman arrived with a plate of food and dropped to her knees before Dewa as she presented it. I made some comment about the caste system. My hostess smiled and shrugged dismissively. “It’s not like India. We’re all friends here.” I was dubious. I wondered if the woman on her knees would agree that they were friends.

On another occasion we were watching low caste or Sudra women coming down hill, balancing immense jugs of water on their heads. “They won’t have to do that next year,” Dewa told me proudly. “The government has promised to install a plumbing system.” Did one of those women refill my bak mandi, while I was out during the day, with water she had carried on her head? It never occurred to me to ask.

I hadn’t worn a skirt since quitting my last straight job in 1969, shortly before the Stonewall Riot, and a year or so later I gave the only such garment left in my closet to a transvestite guy. But it was too hot for trousers here. Since both men and women wore sarongs I bought two of them, one Persian blue and one magenta, without realizing that magenta was considered appropriate for teenage girls but not for adults of either sex.

Before my travels, along with the tourist phrasebook I had purchased an Indonesian-English dictionary. Dewa was kind enough to refer me to her schoolteacher cousin, a man about my age, and I hired him for language lessons. Besides correcting my grammar he made comments on the arrogance and rudeness of tourists, and radiated anger at his situation. According to the Lonely Planet book, teachers’ salaries were abysmal, and many found ways to moonlight so as to make ends meet—in this case, tutoring a foreigner. Another supplement to their income was the bribes students had to pay for good grades and to move on to the next level.

The guide book said that corruption was endemic in Indonesia. In some circles, it said, Madame Tien Suharto, wife of the current president, was referred to as “Madame Tien Percent.” When I mentioned this to Dewa’s son he was quite offended. He waved his arms in big arcs as though to gather piles of invisible money. “If there’s any corruption to be had, I want it coming my way!” Then he beckoned to the household cat, calling it “Jimmy Carter! Jimmy Carter!”

Apparently he expected me to take offense at a slight to an American leader. I didn’t try to explain my lack of identification with Mr. Carter or with any politician.

Sitting in my room that evening, with the smell of jasmine drifting in the window, I reflected on these conversations about privilege and corruption. American teachers, I thought to myself, don’t take bribes. But what about the Saudi boy who’d been in my class at the American Language Institute, obviously from a wealthy family? He hadn’t done the assignments in any of his classes, and was frequently absent. The other teachers had given him Fs. I gave him a D. Why? I had attended a party thrown by the Arab students, which he had attended, and that would have influenced me. It’s human nature. Taking something as simple as a coffee mug from a pharmaceutical rep influences doctors to prescribe their company’s medications.

At the end of that semester the Saudi boy was very upset, almost in tears. He didn’t understand what had gone wrong. In his own country everything had been handed to him, servants and tutors had kowtowed to him, and he had never had to work for anything.

*          *          *

Looking back on it, I’m chagrined at my naiveté. I had been a political radical since my teens, since my first anti Vietnam War march. Yet somehow I still believed that American institutions, unlike those in countries such as Indonesia, were essentially honest. It is true that our teachers don’t take money for grades. But we have legacy admissions to our prestigious universities. A child of an alumnus is up to eight times more likely to be accepted than a non-legacy, and those legacy families are overwhelmingly white.

Then there are the athletic scholarships that cheat the recipients out of the elite education they had been promised. In the 1980s I worked with a young Black man who had played football for his college. They issued him a BA degree, even though he was functionally illiterate. After graduation, the only job he could find was janitorial work. Like the Saudi boy, he couldn’t understand what had gone wrong.

As for political corruption in our country, I think the quote attributed to Mark Twain says it best: “We have the best government money can buy.” Nothing much has changed since his day.

One Response to Out into the Wider World, Part III

  1. Connie O Byrne May 24, 2023 at 8:51 pm #

    as always you speak the truth about how money buys power, even when not obvious. Here in NC we’ve just experienced the most real results of that system.

    Our State legislators have been cozing up to big business for years and this past election showed the results. Donations are handled so that big donor’s names are shielded, just like everywhere else, but it really bore fruit this time. We now have a veto proof legislature on both sides, House and Senate. The composition of the state Supreme Court also shifted to 3 Republicans and two Democrats. The new Court immediately reversed two decisions people had fought long and hard for over recent years. Realistically the nation’s Supreme Court’s decision to let states deal with gerrymandering played directly into that. Our new state Supreme Court immediately said the drawing of district lines belonged solely to the legislative branch. They also reversed the decisions on requiring a state issue ID to vote.

    NC may not have a caste system like the ones in India and other southeast Asian countries, but the effect is the same. The divide between the haves and have nots has just become cast in legislative concrete. I don’t see that changing with my lifetime. I’m 76 and expect to be around for another 15-20 years. With the Republicans drawing the new district boundaries, expecting or even hoping for that to change is like hoping rain will put out a major forest fire. Nothing will be left but ashes.

    Martha, please keep challenging the status quo by sharing your stories of what came before. And let’s all of we elder protestors of wrong come out of retirement and fight injustice again.

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