Thursday, September 29, 2005

Anyer and Disa

January 1996 brought the worst floods for twenty years. My home suffered only from a slightly leaking kitchen roof, but houses beside some of Jakarta’s rivers were flooded above roof height, forcing their occupants to flee to higher ground. I escaped from Jakarta by taking a holiday trip to a hotel at Carita Beach, near the tiny port of Anyer, on Java’s west coast.

The route to Anyer is the same as that to Merak, except that you turn south rather than north, as you approach the sea. Although the coast at Anyer is not as dramatic as that at Pelabuhan Ratu, it has the sort of sultry charm that you might expect to find on an Indian Ocean shore. As always, I hoped that there would be no ten meter high tsunami, as there had been back in 1883, when nearby Krakatau had erupted. That tidal wave had left many hundreds of dead bodies floating in the bay; many stories, or carita, had been told about these departed ones.

The hotel was supposed to be of international standard but could have done with some refurbishment; the air conditioner seemed full of dust. On the other hand, by the time I had unpacked, the rains had stopped and the sun was shining.

Beside the hotel’s sparkling little swimming pool, I spied a long-legged Caucasian girl in sleeveless T-shirt, white ankle socks, and short culottes. Her pantat moved alertly, as Nabokov would have said. I thought of the words of the numerologist, about things of the flesh, and decided to chat to the much older woman over at the pool-side bar. Her name turned out to be Disa. She was a small, cheery Australian, in her early fifties, and she reminded me of one of these salt-of-the-earth mothers you get in Australian soap operas. Disa was a keen amateur historian, had formerly had a job as a librarian and was a regular church attender. Her husband, who normally worked hard in some office in Jakarta, was busy on the golf course.

"Always nice smiling people, the locals," I said, after the friendly barman had delivered my Singapore Sling.

"Smiling but not necessarily always nice," said Disa, in a gentle tone of voice. The lines around her eyes became pronounced.

"How do you mean?"

"The smile you get here, and in Thailand, could be a sanuk, fun-smile. But it’s often a smile of submission. Or hidden aggression. There are two sides to the people. One moment the Indonesians are smiling. Next moment a mob is beating to death some poor thief. Or a gang of schoolboys is stabbing to death a boy from a rival school."

"I see what you mean," I said. "Captain Cook found the girls on the Pacific islands more than friendly. But there was the other side to it. Things started to get stolen. And Cook discovered that the islanders went in for human sacrifice."

"There are always two sides to people," said Disa, grinning. "You get the Australian whose happy and jolly one moment and the next moment he’s hunting down Aborigines."

"Cook came to Jakarta, didn’t he?" I said, wanting to stay on the subject of Indonesia.

"He anchored in Jakarta, where most of them got sick. They’d been healthy until then. Jakarta gave them dysentery and malaria. Doctors couldn’t do much for them." Disa sipped her beer.

"I met a dukun recently," I said, remembering my session of foot reflexology. " Do you think these people can really cure sickness?"

"I’m sure they can. President Suharto’s supposed to make great use of advice from dukuns."

"Is it working?"

"Dukuns have warned that Suharto’s fortunes are changing, for the worse," said Disa. "I read that in the local press."

"Dukuns seem to be taken quite seriously," I said, "The majority of Moslems, the traditional Moslems, reportedly use dukuns."

"Wahid’s apparently a great believer in dukuns. Have you heard of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama? It’s the world’s biggest Moslem organisation. It’s headed by Abdurrahman Wahid."

"Wahid is the man who helped set up Forum Demokrasi," I said. "An opponent of the government."

"He’s very moderate. Wants to be friends with everyone, including Israel. Bit of a character."

"And what about Suharto? What’s your verdict?"

"It’s a mixed verdict," said Disa, looking serious. "The institutions are all so corrupt, as my husband could tell you. The courts, the banks, the civil service, the military. On the other hand, Suharto’s brought stability and prosperity. To some. I certainly can’t complain about our villa in Pondok Indah. We’ve more rooms than we know what to do with."

"Whose missing out?" I asked. Thinking of the slum dwellers, I thought I already knew the answer

"A lot of poor Moslems feel the oil and timber money has gone to Chinese Indonesians and government people. Also the people in the outer islands feel they’ve been colonised by the Javanese, and bullied by ignorant soldiers."

"East Timor?" I suggested.

"Yes. Then there’s Irian Jaya, in New Guinea: lots of mineral wealth but most of it goes to the Jakarta people. West Kalimanatan in Borneo: the Dayaks feel they’ve been invaded by the migrants from Madura. The Christians in Maluku are fed up with the Moslems who’ve come in from Sulawesi and taken over government jobs, and the various rackets."

"And in Bali," I said, feeling I should demonstrate some knowledge of the country, "some Hindus feel that the Javanese don’t always respect their shrines. And Moslems in Aceh feel their oil is being stolen and their people murdered by Javanese."

"Aceh used to be independent," said Disa, impressing me with her superior knowledge of History. "It was independent until 1903."

"Do you think there’s going to be big trouble in Indonesia? Like Yugoslavia?"

"Certain countries might like to see Indonesia broken up."

"Who would want that?

"Some of the generals are frightened that countries like America, Israel and Australia want to break Indonesia up. That would make it easier to control. Remember that Suharto’s getting old. After Suharto goes, it could be like it was here in the 1950’s."

"The 1950’s had some violence." I could vaguely remember being told of troubles in Ambon.

"There were revolts in Sumatra and elsewhere. The problem in the 1950’s was that the army was divided. Some soldiers sided with the rebels."

"Suharto sorted out the army?"

"In a sense."

The teenage girl who had been wearing the culottes was now attired in a light blue bikini and lying on a towel on the far side of the pool. I was momentarily distracted by the curves of her downy limbs. I tried to think of something to say to Disa, to prove that I had been listening to her.

"What was Suharto’s background?" I asked. I was sure Disa would know the answer.

"His mother was reportedly a peasant. There was a rumour that his father was Chinese, but that’s only a rumour. Young Suharto was brought up by a lot of different relatives. He joined the Dutch colonial army, then during the war he worked for the Japanese military, and then after the war he was part of the rebellion against the Dutch."

"Where do his rich Chinese Indonesian business partners come into this?"

"Bob Hasan and Uncle Liem? They were his partners. While he was in the army, Suharto went into business. He got into trouble for smuggling."

"Presumably Suharto also did some fighting?"

"He helped Sukarno put down a rebellion in South Sulawesi; He was part of Sukarno’s fight against Malaysia."

"He always manages a nice smile, Suharto."

"The smiling general." Disa finished her second beer.

"Is it modern history you’re interested in?" I asked.

"All history. I’ve been studying Java Man, also known as Homo Erectus, from Sangiran in Java." Disa bought us two colas.

"You can’t get much older than Java Man," I said naively.

"Java man’s about a million years old. The world’s at least 4,000 million years old. And so-called civilisation only began about five thousand years ago." She said it in a friendly way.

The girl on the towel was adjusting her blue bikini, but I was still taking in what was being said.

Disa enlightened me about the beginnings of civilisation. It seems that cities and writing probably began in Iraq with the Sumerians around 3000 BC. The Sumerian civilisation lasted about 1,500 years and it was apparently the Sumerians who came up with the first written stories of a flood, an ark, and a fall from innocence. The latter story involved a man called Enkidu, whose sin was sexual.

"When does Abraham come into all this?" I asked.

"If he existed, it was probably about 1800 BC."

"I suppose the problem with the Old Testament is that it was written down long after the events described."

"Our present version probably dates from around 600 BC," said Disa. "Not long ago. Some scholars think the idea of the Last Judgement, and heaven and hell, came from the Zoroastrians."

"Remind me about Zoroaster."

"The Iranian prophet who may have lived around 600 BC. He said that people have to choose between the Good Spirit and the Bad Spirit. Some Zoroastrians believed that a Saviour would come to save the world."

"What happened to Zoroastrianism?"

"Islam took over in Iran. Very few Zoroastrians are left."

"How come our Bible’s been so important throughout the world?"

"Maybe it’s brainwashing. Some of the Old Testament writers put the fear of God into the reader. The reader becomes frightened to think for herself. I don’t like the God who’s a tyrant."

"But you attend church."

"Some of the writers in the Bible see God as a good mate. Someone who loves everyone, even Australians. That’s my kind of God."

"There’s more than one point of view in the Bible?"

"In one book of the Bible it looks as if it’s only one particular tribe that gets to heaven. In another part of the Bible it’s clear that people like Samaritans get to heaven. People have their feet washed by God’s son."

"Competing views." I finished my cola.

"Here comes my daughter, looking hungry. Must go." Disa got up, smiled sweetly, took the hand of the teenage girl in the blue bikini, and departed.

I thought about the words of the numerologist and decided to walk along the beach, to get some exercise. The beach was a plane of misty sun, coconut palms, damp sand, steaming sea, distant islands and bathing children with sparkling skins.

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