Sunday, March 01, 2009

24 BANTEN AND MERAK


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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 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.

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