Friday, December 02, 2005


I received two young gap-year students from England. Paul and his girlfriend Helen had been exploring Sumatra and were about to make a trip to Bali. Paul was one of my former pupils from my days in London; I remembered him as a thirteen-year-old schoolboy: handsome and intelligent but also modest and polite. I remembered that he had sometimes worn a rather serious facial expression, perhaps the result of a troubled early childhood. Paul did not seem to have changed except in height. After his year of travel, he was planning to study politics and economics. Helen’s accent and grooming suggested that she was from a respectable upper-middle-class family; she had the quiet good manners of someone who had been to one of the better private schools. I was delighted to be able to take two such charming people on a tour of my city, a city of skyscrapers, shoeshine boys, canals and kampungs.

After breakfast we drove down to the heart of Old Jakarta to see the Stadhuis, the former City Hall built in 1710, a building as Dutch as a Vermeer painting. I explained to my guests that this place had once housed a famous prisoner, the Javanese Prince Diponegoro. Back in 1830, the prince had become a national hero after leading a war, on horseback, against the Dutch.

Having left the Stadhuis we took photos of an old Dutch drawbridge, a fish market and the Bugis sailing ships. Helen, who was going to be studying Geography at university, had done her homework; she was able to tell us that the Bugis, who come from Sulawesi, hand-build these wooden ships and use them to transport much of the cargo that travels from island to island within the Indonesian archipelago.

After lunch we took a look at the big concrete and marble Istiqlal Mosque, constructed in the 1960’s, and designed by a Christian architect. The vast rectangular prayer hall is covered by a central dome, forty five metres in diameter, supported by twelve round columns. Although it is a 1960’s concrete construction, the interior of the mosque has an atmosphere that is both classical and sublime. Paul and Helen were impressed.

Leaving the mosque we crossed the road to inspect the twin-spired Catholic Cathedral, built in 1901. To me it is like a Legoland copy of a European cathedral, being small and soulless, but Paul and Helen had no criticisms of it. After taking in Cikini Market , Merdeka Park and a few more monuments such as the little white-painted State Palace, we ended up having tea at the Grand Hyatt hotel.

"I hope you didn’t find my house too noisy last night," I said, as we munched the Grand Hyatt’s chocolate pastries and looked out over Jakarta through enormous glass windows.

"It was no problem," said Helen politely.

"There was just a little noise," said Paul, "but it wasn’t a problem."

"You heard the dogs?" I asked.

"There were some mad dogs barking," said Helen.

"And a very loud clunk," said Paul. "Someone banging a metal street pole with something hard."

"And a cockerel or two," said Helen.

"And the cry from the loudspeaker at the mosque," said Paul.

"There were some fire crackers," said Helen, who was finding it difficult to suppress a chuckle.

"Then a hollow tap-tap sound from someone selling food," said Paul, a grin beginning to appear on his face.

"We’re used to the noise," said Paul, who must have observed my worried look. "But the metal clunk was a puzzle."

"That was the night-time security patrol," I explained, noting with relief, that both Paul and Helen were now smiling broadly. "They’re letting you know they’re doing their rounds. How did you sleep?"

"The usual way, with my eyes closed, and my fingers in my ears," said Paul, eyes twinkling.

"I slept very well," said Helen.

"Me too," said Paul, "except when I was looking out the window wondering which of your books I could throw at the dogs."

"Was Sumatra quiet?" I asked.

"A little quieter," said Paul. "Incredibly friendly people. We got invited into houses and mosques."

"The secret is to dress appropriately," said Helen. "No bare legs or arms unless you want malaria and dengue fever, not to mention Japanese encephalitis."

"No hassles?" I asked.

"The bus drivers all seemed to be drunk or on drugs," said Paul, his worried expression returning to his face.

"Did you go to Aceh, the bit of Sumatra that wants independence?"

"We kept well away," said Helen. "The army seems to be very active there. We were mainly around Lake Toba."

"People kept on asking us what we thought of the army," said Paul.

"We were careful not to comment," said Helen.

"We asked them what they thought," said Paul. "Some of them hinted that they were scared of the army. One student said that the army used to be popular, but not any longer."

"What turned people against the military?" I asked.

"The soldiers have a reputation for raping and torturing people in Aceh," said Helen, putting down her dainty teacup. "The army turned the people against Jakarta."

"Don’t speak too loudly," I cautioned. "This hotel is owned by Indonesia’s most important person. Now, tell me, what did you think of Lake Toba?"

"It’s big," said Paul. "One hundred kilometres long. It was made by a volcano erupting masses of material from underneath itself. Then collapsing, leaving a big hole. That was 75,000 years ago."
"It must have been an unusually big volcano," I commented.

"It was a supervolcano," said Helen. "Some scientists think it wiped out masses of plants and animals throughout the world. They say that only a few thousand humans can have survived."

"It may have triggered the last Ice Age," explained Paul.

"Talking of Ice Ages," said Helen, "The air-conditioning in these hotels is quite fierce. Glad I brought a sweater."

Did you enjoy today’s walkabout in Old Batavia?" I queried.

"It was good," said Helen. "On the plane, I was reading about Jakarta’s Chinese population. It seems that in the eighteenth century about a third of the Jakartans were Chinese and often very rich from banking and business. The Dutch decided to push the Chinese out. There was big trouble and in one incident the Dutch killed about ten thousand Chinese. The Dutch Governor General ended up in jail."

"The Chinese are still not too popular," I commented.

"I don’t suppose the Dutch were too popular," said Paul. "The Dutch East India Company was often brutal and corrupt."

"And sometimes bankrupt," added Helen.

"Things have never been too well managed," I said, thinking of my local supermarket and bank.

"I was interested in seeing the little white Presidential Palace," said Paul. "I was trying to imagine great hordes of people shouting ‘Merdeka’ , freedom, back in 1945 or ’49 or whenever."

"1945 was when the Japanese were defeated," I said, pleased I could remember a date.

"Sukarno declared independence, the British arrived and the Dutch tried to get their colony back. I remember reading about some senior British officer who got hacked to death by the locals in East Java. The British were blamed for letting the Dutch come back. The Dutch didn’t give up until 1949, when Sukarno became President."

"It seems Sukarno was popular," said Paul.

"His family’s still popular among the masses," I said.

"But in 1949 he had enormous problems," said Helen. "The fighting had left the economy in a mess."

"Then there were all the different factions, just like now," I said.

"Communists and Moslems," said Paul.

"Traditional Moslems, orthodox Moslems, extremist Moslems, secular Moslems, Chinese Christians, indigenous Christians, communists, socialists, capitalists, fascists, people in parts of Sumatra, Sulawesi and New Guinea who wanted to break away from Indonesia, and then the army with all its different factions." I had probably left out some vital groups.

"Didn’t Sukarno abolish political parties?" said Paul. "And eventually put some of the politicians in jail; not very democratic."

"He tried to be all things to all people but was eventually accused of being too friendly with the communists. Not a good idea in a Moslem nation believing in God."

"The Americans and British are supposed to have sent help to the rebels in Sumatra and Sulawesi," said Helen, impressing me again with her knowledge. "They were trying to undermine the Indonesian economy and topple Sukarno. Not very democratic trying to topple an elected leader by supporting terrorists and causing starvation."

"Sukarno had upset many people in the West," I said. "He grabbed the western part of Papua New Guinea from the Dutch. And he wanted to grab Sabah and Sarawak from Britain."

"Where are Sabah and Sarawak?" asked Helen.

"Same island as Borneo," I said, pleased I knew something Helen did not. "He wanted to stop the future Malaysia getting Sabah and Sarawak. So he attacked the British, unsuccessfully. He’d left the UN and become close friends with China by this time. People were starving."

"Hence the coup of 1965," said Paul, "and the takeover by Suharto. Was it a communist coup that failed, or a coup by part of the army and the CIA that succeeded, or both?"

"Don’t forget MI6," I whispered, aware that the waitress was listening.

"Up to a million people rounded up and murdered," said Paul, as he jabbed his fork into a piece of cake. "The army’s supposed to have been given a hit list by the Americans and the murders were well organised."

"Others disagree," I said, for the benefit of the waitress.

"It’s like the 1991 shootings in Dili," said Helen. "The army says it was not planned in advance. That they hadn’t dug trenches ready for the all the bodies about to be killed."

"So after 1965," I said, getting off the subject of East Timor, "Indonesia’s economy began to recover and it joined the UN."

"The army pulled all the strings," said Paul. "And American and British companies moved in to get the oil and the cheap labour."

"The army’s helped build a lot of infrastructure," I said. "And it’s helped keep the peace in most of Indonesia."

"Time for more sightseeing?" asked Helen, when the last crumbs had been scraped from our plates. "Someone recommended Sarinah Department Store."

We drove to Blok M, and while Paul and I strolled through the markets, Helen did some serious shopping on her own. We ended our pleasant day with some beers and satay in a little restaurant in the backpacker area of Jalan Jaksa. Next morning, before heading for the airport, Paul and Helen thoughtfully presented generous gifts to me, my maid and my driver.