Wednesday, September 21, 2005


I needed some fresh air and cheering up.

When Saturday came, I agreed to the request by Min’s family to take them to visit their relatives in the market town of Dengklok, a journey of forty miles.

The toll road took us eastwards from Jakarta through flat and unremarkable countryside. This could have been Western European, except that, alongside the occasional industrial estate, I could see the sort of impoverished hamlet you might find in parts of Eastern Europe.

Near the town of Karawang, we turned north, taking a series of minor roads into an older world of spacious rice fields. There were long straight villages heavily shaded by massive trees and prettified by hibiscus and bougainvillea.

Dengklok itself was a sprawling settlement on a wide flat plain that stretched away to the horizon. The town had probably not changed that much in the previous hundred years.

The tropical sun shone down on our air-conditioned vehicle as we drove through town. Hordes of happy and rumbustious schoolchildren, dressed in immaculate white uniforms, were heading home from morning school; goats grazed on patches of rough grassland; elderly residents sat outside dog-eared bungalows which were in need of some repair; women were washing clothes beside a wide brown river; shoppers in the market place seemed neither affluent nor in a hurry; I spotted a Buddhist temple, a number of small mosques, a rather large church and the usual army barracks.

Min’s uncle and aunt lived on the edge of town, in a homespun house, sheltering under palm trees, and with a view of rice fields stretching to a far distant area of woodland. Uncle and aunt had warm smiles, thin bodies and the sort of hands and muscles I associated with people who did farm work; aunt’s dress was simple and well worn, in contrast with the magnificent green blouse and long brown Javanese skirt worn by Min’s mum. The greetings were formal, involving kissing of hands; the language spoken was Sundanese, not a word of which I could understand.

The inside of the house seemed to be one large, sunless room divided up by interwoven split bamboo partitions. At the front was the living room and at the back were three small sleeping areas, very dark due to the absence of window light. The kitchen was in a kind of outhouse at the back. The floor was spotlessly clean, but there were cobwebs in the high roof, and the stained walls both internal and external could have done with a coat of paint.

I felt it was best to let Min’s family have their get-together in private, and so took a walk with a chirpy Min and with Gani, Min’s impassive-faced brother-in-law from Jakarta. We followed a path sided by coconut palms and fruit trees, and passed a variety of types of habitation.

"Why do people live under the trees?" I asked Gani.

"The sun and the heavy rain," he said. "The trees give protection. The trees also give firewood."

"And is the wood from the trees used to make the houses?"

"The coconut wood makes the frame of the house. But bamboo is used for some walls."

I could see that the poorer houses had walls entirely of bamboo, while the slightly wealthier houses used brick or a combination of brick and bamboo.

"What are the houses built on?"

"Sometimes concrete. Sometimes the floors are just earth. It’s not like in some other parts of Indonesia where the houses are on stilts."

We came to a weather-beaten bamboo house and I imagined it was of the same design that had been used back in the Middle Ages, when Java was Hindu-Buddhist. At the back of the house was a bamboo structure housing goats and another one full of chickens. There was a definite farm smell in the air.

"Do these people build their own houses?" I asked.

"They get help. All the local men will help."

We came to a group of tired-looking bungalows which were typical of certain lower-middle-income sections of Javanese towns. These homes appeared to be held up by pillars of concrete rather than wood. And they had the usual mass-produced and slightly tacky neo-classical pillars and the usual mildewed ceramic roof-tiles.

On our return to Min’s uncle’s house I sat outside on a wooden bench, alongside Gani, Min and a couple of teenage boys, and watched the world go by. In the distance a man on a bicycle was transporting great bundles of what looked like animal-fodder. Closer to hand, a youth was high up in a coconut palm, hacking away with a machete. The small children who came to stare at us looked slightly ragged, but they had gorgeous sparkling eyes, wide mischievous grins and sensuous curving noses and lips.

This seemed like the sort of place where I might be happy to live. The sky was a dense and warming blue; ruffling the palm fronds was a gentle breeze; and the air was sweetly scented by pink hibiscus and solandra of a yellow hue. And yet, we were many miles from a modern supermarket or a modern hospital. And there was the problem of overpopulation.

No comments: