Saturday, November 05, 2005


Photo of Bandung by Nikonrobin © All rights reserved, from

The summer sun was shining through the big staff room windows but my boss, who looked like John Major, had a stressed expression on his face.

"Kent," he said, "we've had an invitation from the school in Bandung. They want us to take a small party of students to their seminar on languages. Depart Friday morning and return Saturday evening. Are you interested?"

"I'd rather be getting on with revision for the exams," I explained. I was also thinking of my obligations to Min and Wisnu.

"There are six girls who've volunteered to go and I'd like you to accompany them."

"If it's girls, then surely they'll need a female chaperone."

"No, that's not necessary. You'll have a rented minibus and an Indonesian driver. The students will be staying with the families of students from the Bandung school. You'll stay with one of their teachers."

So I found myself with six excitable young ladies, in a tiny bus, speeding towards the high plateau on which sits the administrative capital of West Java. I sat at the front of the bus. The girls sat at the back, whispering, giggling, studying girls' magazines, and showing no interest in the volcanoes, rice fields or tea estates that lay along our route.

On arrival at the Bandung school, a homely collection of relatively small buildings, my students were taken off to lunch at various private residences. My host was Robert, a thin, tense-looking bachelor aged somewhere in his thirties. Robert's small Japanese car whisked me off to his nearby bungalow, a modern two bedroom place with views of hills and volcanoes. In his living room, I noted a shelf of books on the Christian religion and a coffee table piled high with old newsmagazines.

Over a pleasant lunch of minty salad and spicy fish roasted in banana leaves, but no wine, I asked Robert about life in Bandung. He explained that his school did not pay a high salary and that the number of students on the school roll wobbled up and down, depending on the state of the local aircraft industry. He related that he was an enthusiastic Christian and believed that other religions were false. Eventually we got onto the subject of churches.

"I was told that in Bandung the occasional church gets burnt down," I said.

"It has happened," said Robert, "but don't jump to conclusions."

"Is it anti-Chinese feeling, because the churchgoers are mainly rich Chinese-Indonesians?"

"It could be that, or it could be more complicated," said Robert. "There are the criminal gangs, some of whose members may be mainly Christian or mainly Moslem. The gangs may be linked to factions within the military. There could be rivalry over territory. Then there's the question of the intelligence agencies."

"Local or foreign intelligence agencies?"

"Let's go back to Sukarno, Indonesia's first president," said Robert, putting down his fork. "It was here that Sukarno held the famous Bandung Conference in 1955. Sukarno wanted Third World countries to be neutral between America and Russia. That displeased the extreme right-wingers in the American government who always want to be the dalang-dalang, the puppet masters. The story goes that the CIA trained some mercenaries in the Philippines and Japan. In 1958 these mercenaries began a series of rebellions in various parts of Indonesia. CIA pilots began bombing Indonesia. They hoped that Moslem separatists would be blamed, that the country would become chaotic and that Sukarno would be toppled." Robert paused while he took a forkful of fish.

"The Americans were the real terrorists?" I said. I was actually rather pleased that fervent Christian Robert was not automatically blaming Moslems for Indonesia's troubles.

"Sukarno claimed that in 1958 the Americans bombed a church in Ambon in Maluku, killing everyone inside."

"What about proof?"

"What I read was that, back in 1958, a CIA pilot was shot down and captured. That was just a few days after a marketplace had been bombed. The CIA pilot was reportedly carrying documents that showed he was a pilot with the CAT airline, an airline run by the CIA."

"Did this get into the papers?"

"There was a news conference at which the pilot and his documents were shown to the world's press. But you know what the press are like."

"How do you mean?"

"They are controlled by the powers-that-be."

"But any recent attack on a church wouldn't be an attempt to topple the President. After all, Suharto was allegedly put into power by the Americans."

"Who knows. Maybe the Americans think that Suharto has become too powerful."

I looked at my watch. "Should we be getting to the seminar?"

"Don't worry," said Robert, frowning. "The teachers who're not running the sessions don't have to attend. I thought you might like a quick look around Bandung, and then we can drop in on the evening disco to check your students are OK."

So I was given a tour. I was driven through leafy suburbs where elderly villas showed off the architectural styles of Holland, Indonesia and America. In the hill-town of Lembang, on the edge of Bandung, we sniffed the strawberries and avocados in the market. And finally we ascended a path that took us to near the top of a volcano called Tangkuban Prahu. We peered into the crater and saw strands of smoke rising from grey ash. I was really enjoying myself.

"About one hundred miles from here," said Robert, "you get Mount Gulunggung. It erupted in 1982 and went on erupting until 1984. The sky went dark. Cars in Bandung had to have their headlights on during the day. Lots of houses were destroyed. And two Jumbo jets nearly crashed because of the dust."

"You live awfully near to an awful lot of volcanoes," I pointed out.

"Gulunggung had been dormant for centuries. Then bang!" Robert was not smiling.

On the way back to the centre of Bandung, Robert instructed me about the dangers of Mount Merapi, near Yogyakarta. It was probably Merapi which had covered Borobudur in the year 1006. And during the Twentieth Century, Merapi had erupted about once every five years, and had killed almost two thousand people.

At the evening disco in the school hall, my students were wearing rather skimpy skirts and rather serious faces. The boys from the Bandung school were dancing only with their Bandung classmates. Robert and I retired to a bar across the road from the school.

"Bandung is bigger than I'd thought," I said, as I gulped down a Tiger beer.

"Must be about two million people," said Robert. "Bandung's got over fifty universities and colleges, a nuclear research place, and IPTN which makes the aircraft. If the Indonesians could get their act together, they could catch up with the West."

"Catch up with the West? You mean cover the land with nuclear power stations, car parks, fast food outlets and shopping malls?"

"The Indonesians would make faster progress if they could play as a team. If they could cut down on corruption and factionalism."

I wondered if Robert had misunderstood my point about shopping malls. "I'm not a fan of the American way of life," I explained. "I wouldn't want the Indonesians to give up their kampung life: houses with their doors unlocked, children playing out of doors late at night, and people looking unstressed."

"I don't know too much about kampungs," said Robert.

I proceeded to tell Robert about some of my encounters with the locals, including the little boy I had once found in the streets of Bandung; but I got the impression that he was not madly interested in the idea of fraternising with poor Moslems living in shanties; he was more likely to stick with doing good works among his Christian friends.

On the Saturday morning, Robert and I looked over Bandung's elegant old Asia-Africa Building. It was there in 1955, at the Bandung Conference, that Sukarno, Chou En Lai, Nasser, Nehru and other Third World leaders had met to promote the nonaligned movement. Robert told me that scores of prostitutes were allegedly used by the Indonesians to spy on top conference delegates. He also told me that eight members of the Chinese delegation had been killed in an air crash. The Chinese suspected it was an attempt to assassinate Chou En Lai. Then in 1975, according to Robert, an American Senate committee had heard testimony that CIA agents had considered disrupting the Bandung Conference by killing an Asian leader. Robert was keen on history.

After lunch, we joined the students at a light and airy wooden building housing an institution promoting local culture. As we watched a performance of Sundanese dancing, performed by young boys, Robert decided to tell me more about the entertainments offered by Bandung. We were sitting well back from the stage and the students.

"There's plenty of music, if you like gamelan and angklung," said Robert.

"Takes a bit of getting used to," I commented. "Bamboo instruments, gongs and strange vibrations."

"That's the problem. To understand the wayang puppets takes a lot of effort. I stick to western music and films. There is ram fighting, but that's for the locals. And there are hordes of banci, males dressed as females, down in Maluku Park."

"Do you like it here?" I asked, having decided not to ask if Christian Robert had ever sampled the Bandung night life.

"I'd rather be in Jakarta. Bigger place. More to do."

I was certainly relieved when I was safely back in Jakarta with my little group. My mind was already on the summer holidays; and I was worrying about how Min and Wisnu would cope with my temporary absence from Indonesia.