Wednesday, September 21, 2005


I had a Sunday morning visit from my youthful kampung neighbours and we decided to go for a jog around the sunny local streets. Winsome Agung, attired in well-patched shirt, ran about like a happy puppy. Cheeky-faced Hermanto, his mother now restored to health, was in a cheerful mood and was wearing his baseball cap at a jaunty angle. Half-Chinese Andri had managed to borrow an ancient bike which he unselfishly allowed Ali, the young street musician, to use. Ali was still a skinny little creature but he was making good progress in his recovery from TB. Gangling Fajar, now clear of TB, moved at his usual leisurely pace.

I wondered how safe we were going to be. To my relief, the streets were peaceful and my stress was being burned up. I felt secure in the company of my young bodyguards. I happily trotted past ocean-liner-style art deco houses, food carts giving off aromas of shallots and shrimps, and smiling schoolgirls seated outside multicoloured kampung houses. What was it that made this part of the world so attractive? I supposed it had something to do with sunshine and blue skies, birdsong and woodsmoke, and jasmine and hibiscus. But the main factor was the happy-go-lucky attitude of many of the poorer people; the schoolgirls looked so at ease with the world and so full of laughter and fun; perhaps they were ‘going with the Tao’.

When we came to some trees, on a patch of waste ground, my fellow joggers decided to become monkeys and do some climbing. Unless you become like a little child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. I stretched up to a strong looking branch on a healthy looking tree and began to swing like a gibbon.

As we returned to my street, I spotted fourteen-year-old Saban, the boxer-faced Huckleberry Finn who lived rough. He was not at ease with the Universe. He was positioned in the middle of the road, outside my front gate, and he was involved in a vicious argument with a sturdy and more expensively dressed youth, of unknown origin. The sturdy youth had the sort of face I associate with handsome bullies. He was calling out insults at Saban who was responding in kind.

"Ignore him," I shouted to Saban. "Come into the garden."

Saban hurled himself at his tormentor and a fight of some savagery began. This was no pretend fight and I was worried that serious injury would take place.

I retreated into my garden, with my fellow joggers. I called to Saban to stop fighting and come into the house. Eventually, after one or two neighbours had appeared at their gates, Saban took my advice, perhaps remembering that his original purpose had been to pay me a visit. The sturdy youth picked up a large stone and hurled it in my direction, narrowly missing my head. I retreated indoors.

Saban explained that he had never seen his tormentor before. I advised him to ignore insults and avoid fights. His response was that if he saw this youth again he would return to the fray.
Around January 1999, the school offered to renew my contract for another year. I was in two minds about this. In the past I had seen Indonesia as my ideal country in terms of its culture and I had always been overjoyed to sign up for extra years. However, the press was now full of stories of crime and violence and I had a feeling that the country might be in for a very long period of turbulent decline.

In December, two people had been killed in Bali during some political dispute; student demonstrations had continued in Jakarta; General Wiranto had spoken of training militias to deal with dissenters; anti-Christian rioting had broken out in Sulawesi; killings continued in Aceh; there had been riots in Lampung and on main roads near Jakarta vehicles had been stopped and robbed by thugs.

On the morning of the first of January I stepped outside my house and found the street littered with many hundreds of stones, some almost as large as fists. My maid explained that some of the older youths from the kampungs had been having a fight the previous evening and that one young man had been seriously injured and had possibly died.. When I called in at the office of the little local mosque to find out what had been going on, an unflappable young man with a tranquil smile assured me that these fights between two local kampungs were an annual event. It was a case of letting off steam. There was nothing to worry about, he assured me. But I could not remember ever before having seen any street covered in stones.

On a trip to the outskirts of Bogor, I was being driven along a street lined by kampung houses when I noticed a gang of around twenty schoolboys armed with knives and sticks. My driver explained that a fight was brewing with a rival school and serious injuries could be expected.

While returning from my local supermarket in an ancient red taxi, driven by a cheerful and careless little man in his thirties, there was a slight collision with a passenger-carrying minibus. The taxi driver had turned the corner too fast. After we had skidded to a halt, I swiftly paid the taxi driver as I suspected that a conflict would erupt. Both vehicles had been scraped and both drivers got out of their vehicles to have an argument. A vicious fist fight developed. As I hurried off, I was thinking to myself: Jakarta was becoming as violent as parts of London.

January saw rioting in Maluku, in East Timor, in Bandung and in Karawang, which is right next-door to Jakarta.

I am not good at making big decisions. If I left Indonesia, would I be able to find a source of income and would I be able to find an affordable house? If I left Indonesia, what would happen to Min? I reckoned that Min was now settled in happily with his family. There were gaps of many months between my visits to him and he seemed to be surviving these gaps. If I left Indonesia, what would happen to the people to whom I had been supplying money for medicines? I looked in my note book and saw that there were now only a small number of people who still had TB. Some would never get better. Some would be cured within a few months. I sent my driver off to hand out sizeable sums of money to all the people in my book: sufficient money to cure the curable and to be of some comfort to the others.

I was still in two minds about whether or not to renew my contract and decided I should have a chat with the senior boss of my school. He listened to me sympathetically. He was a fit-looking man in his fifties, someone who had a reputation for toughness, whether in playing football or in running an institution. The desk of his office was clear of files or folders. I explained my reservations about the renewal of my contract.

He confided in me that he too had had health problems: he had been suffering from bad headaches. He explained that the school was going to have to get rid of yet more teachers, and that although I had been offered a new contract, I might well be on the next list of staff to be told there was no longer any job for them.

It was time for a last visit to see Min. I had decided to leave Indonesia. As I was driven to Lamaya, I kept on reminding myself that I must be in a good mood at all times when meeting the family. Sometimes in the past I had arrived at Min’s house feeling tense and grumpy; partly this was caused by the stress of the lengthy journey over roads that were often bumpy and traffic-filled, and partly it was caused by a fear that Min might not be being properly looked after.

On arrival, Min and family were all smiles. Their antennae no doubt detected that I was in a generally relaxed and uncritical mood. I explained to them that I was leaving Indonesia, but would arrange that they continue to receive a little money each month. They beamed. Min looked relaxed. He did not have the vocabulary to understand what I was saying.

"Jakarta is not a safe place these days," said Wardi. "You will be better in England."

"Jalan jalan?" I suggested. The family agreed to a walk.

We took a path through woodland which ran on either side of a wide mahogany-coloured river. There were glimpses of pink-roofed houses and sunny rice fields. The scent of oleander and gardenia floated in the warm, moist air. Happy songs emanated from insects, possibly cicadas and crickets. A sky of deep tropical blue shone down benevolently on the wings of yellow butterflies, the feathery needles of tamarisk, lianas of great length, exotic tree ferns, the intense reddish-green, satiny leaves of bananas and the immense coiled roots of trees.

The river was busy with people; shapely women were washing utensils; young girls, wrapped modestly in towels, were washing legs and arms; and young boys, not wrapped in anything, were swimming, splashing and shouting.

These Sundanese, both male and female, had doll-like faces, dreamy eyes, and slender waists. They walked with swaying hips.

A none-too-serious game of football was in progress on a stretch of dusty earth. Barechested young boys danced around, performed cartwheels and swung from goal-posts. Min’s bright sparkling eyes suggested that he was enjoying his excursion.

When we eventually returned to Min’s house I said a quick and simple goodbye. Min gave a loud whoop of happiness.

Many old friends turned up at my doorstep to say goodbye. Dede travelled all the way from Bogor; a small boy came with his dad from Teluk Gong on the other side of Jakarta; Agung accepted some of the books I was throwing out and then hurried away at speed. Unfortunately I was not always in the best of moods when people came to say goodbye. I was still feeling stressed.

Irfan, the young house-guard, announced that he wanted to come with me to the United Kingdom. I found this surprising because, although he had always been friendly, I had always suspected that he saw me as some kind of alien, someone who was not of his religion or tribe. I spent some time persuading him that he would be unlikely to obtain a visa, that he would find Britain cold and that he would find it difficult to make friends. I made sure that he and the other staff were rewarded for their past work. I owed most to Mo, my driver.

As I flew back to London, I was thinking about my nine years abroad. I had gone to Indonesia for adventure and discovery, for a chance to find a soul mate, and for an opportunity to help some waifs and strays.

Adventure and discovery? I had lived on possibly the most beautiful tropical island on Earth. I had joyously explored kampungs and forests and met dukuns and gurus.

Soul mates? I had made warm friendships with Min and a whole host of people at the bottom end of society. I had gained happy memories aplenty. I had discovered that it is the poor and the handicapped who are the nearest to the angels.

Waifs and strays? There had been apparent successes and failures. I had gained the most from my various encounters and hopefully had learned some lessons of the spiritual sort. Many people, including the Buddhists and Christians, believe that suffering can strengthen virtue. One of the main lessons I had learnt was that when you have a friend, such as a leper, you must not forget to visit him. You must not be distracted by the cares and pleasures and riches of this world.

I had not, of course, found the answer to all of life’s questions, but I had become more open-minded. When I remembered visits to certain traditional Indonesian villages, back in the
mid-1990s, I recalled mainly happy, smiling communities where most of the people helped each other and shared with each other. Most people acted with moderation, humility and compassion. Unfortunately it seems that American culture and American-style self-centredness have been invading Indonesia and people have been becoming less civilised.

One of John’s pamphlets had a piece of sound advice about becoming a happy, smiling person: switch off the small, selfish ‘self’ and tune into the bigger ‘Self’, the immortal soul; helping people can make you happy but only when the action is not intended to make you happy; a kindly action should be done without the expectation of a reward; if you act in tune with ‘God’, then you don’t have to worry about bad karma; if you do selfless acts of kindness, then fear and anger will vanish; you will begin to feel oneness and you will be full of joy.

This advice ties in with the ideas of more than one religion. It ties in with the ideas contained in the 4th century BC Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita. We should not forget that Hinduism-Budhism had an enormous influence on Indonesia and may be partly responsible for the happy, smiling nature of many villagers. One of the lessons I learned in Indonesia is that every religion makes its contribution. For example, the animists remind us that there is a spiritual world; the Moslems remind us to be hospitable and to put our faith in God.

Everything fell nicely into place. By the summer of 1999 I was settled into a pleasant new home in a small rural town in a part of the United Kingdom that was one of the most attractive and, in terms of housing, least expensive. I have a regular income and my health has rapidly improved. At regular intervals I receive photos of Min and family. These are sent to reassure me that all is well. One of the photos shows a rather sick looking Min and a very sick looking family group; there had been floods and the family had probably been in contact with contaminated water. Another photo, some months later, shows Min and family restored to good health and smiling.

In 2004, I got a phonecall from Carmen. She had been taking a holiday in Scotland and was heading south to Heathrow, from where she would fly to a teaching job in Greece. She told me that Fergus had been taking a holiday in the North of England and was about to fly off to a job in Ecuador. She suggested that we should meet up at a motorway service station which was convenient to all three of us.

I spotted my two friends immediately I entered the service station. Neither of them had changed much in appearance, apart from the odd wrinkle or greying hair. We bought some expensive cups of coffee, carried them to a table, cleared the table of the plates left behind by the previous occupants and sat down on uncomfortable plastic chairs.

"Not quite the same as the Mandarin or Grand Hyatt," said Fergus.

"The prices are higher here," I pointed out.

"I had a dream last night," said Carmen. "In the dream I was in Jakarta and I was very happy that I was still there. Then I woke up. No maid to bring me a cup of tea. No sunshine. No happy people out in the street. Only grey skies."

"I know the feeling," I said.

"Have you been back to Jakarta?" asked Fergus, looking in my direction.

"I’ve nearly been back, several times," I replied. "1999 was not a good year for a quick trip back. Those militias were massacring people in East Timor."

"Ha!" exclaimed Carmen. "The scandal there was that the Australians’ electronic eavesdropping showed the militias were being given their orders by top government people in Jakarta. Some of these people are still in very high ranking positions. At first, the Australians, Americans and British pretended they didn’t know the full story. They didn’t want to fall out with the Indonesian military."

"I thought things might settle down in 2000," I continued. "But in 2000 there was huge car-bomb explosion at the Jakarta Stock Exchange."

"Two special forces soldiers from Kopassus went to jail for that," said Carmen. "The bombs at the Attorney General’s office were also traced back to army people. And the bombs in the churches were blamed on the military, at least by some of the human rights folk. It was all supposed to be about bringing to power a government that would be led by a general, rather than a civilian."

"2001 was no more peaceful," I said. "This group called Laskar Jihad was involved in fighting in the Moluccan islands and Sulawesi."

"Laskar Jihad is linked to the military," said Carmen. "There have been reports of them being set up by the military and armed by the military."

"I nearly went back to Indonesia in 2002," I explained. "The Bali bomb made me change my mind."

"Moslem terrorists," said Fergus.

"The Sydney Morning Herald was interesting on this," said Carmen. "They had a report of a military attache from a western country visiting the Indonesian military HQ. Senior Indonesian officers told the attache that the source of the explosives was the head of the counter-terrorism unit of the army’s special forces."

"So the arrested Moslems may have been minor players?" asked Fergus.

"In Indonesia, anything’s possible," said Carmen.

"When I was in Oman," said Fergus, "I was told that the British had deliberately bombed civilians, back in the late 1950s. All armies are pretty much the same."

"2003," I continued, "I was planning an Indonesian visit. Then Jakarta’s Marriot Hotel got hit."

"That was weird," said Carmen. "According to Sky News, the hotel bosses said that hotel guests were evacuated before the bomb went off. According to Detik magazine, the US Embassy had booked a number of rooms at the hotel but cancelled the booking four and a half hours before the blast."

"Anyone heard from Bob and Anne?" asked Fergus, after a moment of silence.

"They’ve moved to Australia," I said.

"Ian’s about the only one of our lot left in Jakarta," added Carmen.

"I feel like Rip van Winkle," announced Fergus, adjusting his sunglasses. "I’ve been out of Britain for at least twenty years and now I can’t get over all the changes."

"What’s the biggest change?" asked Carmen.

"People in Britain seem fed up," said Fergus. They no longer trust the politicians or the courts or the media. They assume we are being ruled from abroad."

"Brussels?" I suggested.

"Somewhere further to the West," declared Carmen.

"The biggest change I noticed was house prices," I said.

"I used to have a flat in London," said Fergus. "Pity I sold it."

"My little place in Dorset is worth a few bob," said the canny Carmen.

"I was back in Indonesia for a brief visit," said Fergus. "Visiting my Indonesian friend."

"How was Jakarta?" said Carmen.

"The local people say that things have got worse," said Fergus. "Prices have rocketed."

"It’s good to be away from the terror," I commented.

Carmen chortled more loudly than normal. "You can’t say that the West is free of terror," she said.

"2001?" I suggested.

"1962," said Carmen.

"Cuba?" said Fergus.

"Well done," said Carmen. "In 1962 the Joint Chiefs of Staff of a certain western nation discussed a plan called Operation Northwoods. They were considering the possibility of carrying out acts of terror in the USA and then blaming the Cubans."

"Presumably western governments wouldn’t go along with that kind of thing," said Fergus.

"You don’t remember the terror in Greece and Italy?" asked Carmen.

"What terror?" queried Fergus.

"Greek colonels took over the Greek government in the 1960s and there was a certain amount of torture and murder."

"I’d forgotten all that," said Fergus.

"Colonel Papadopoulos," continued Carmen, "was reportedly working for a certain western intelligence service. In the 1970s there were bombs going off in Italy and that was said to be linked to a western intelligence service. A General Maletti, an Italian military intelligence gentleman, gave evidence on this during a recent court case. In the 1980s, Belgium had shootings in supermarkets. Some people linked that to the spooks."

"What about these Moslem terrorists?" asked Fergus.

"They have a dalang, a puppet master," said Carmen.

"So, who was Mohamed Atta’s dalang?" I asked.

"Well," said Carmen. "This may be a clue. A certain Mr Mohamed Atta attended an International Officers School at an air force base in a certain western country."

"How do you know that? asked Fergus.

"One of the news services. Knight Ridder," said Carmen.

"I don’t remember reading anything about it," said Fergus.

"Operation Mockingbird," said Carmen. "Control over the media by the security services."

"Carmen’s going to start a crusade," said Fergus. "A one woman crusade against the forces of evil."

"No I’m not," said Carmen, with a grin. "The wisest of warriors always avoid a war. They go with the flow. They rise above conflicts. They deal with the plank in their own eye."

And where will I go next? According to thinkers from the East, what we are right now could be the result of what we have thought in the past. And what we are about to become could be the result of what we are thinking right now. I have a dream of a simple, unspoilt culture and a people who are healthy, easygoing and friendly.

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