Memories from a Night in Old Java

A while ago I went to an unusual performance in Seattle, at the Cornish art school’s auditorium. An ensemble of baroque musicians and a local gamelan orchestra took turns playing pieces from their repertoires, to explore the similarities and differences between the European and Javanese musical traditions, which both reached their artistic peaks at about the same time. The concept was ingenious, and the music was well-performed all round, but something about it left me a bit uneasy.

We were in an auditorium. It was a warm, dry, crowded room full of people who remained mostly still, and quiet. Everyone was staring right at the performers, who were all dressed in black and stood or sat still on the stage. The stage’s backdrop was black, the room’s walls were some other neutral color. The room smelled like a worn school auditorium, which it was. People were there for an educational experience. They had dressed for the cold, but not dressed up. The program discussed similarities in the music’s structure, emphasizing qualities like counterpoint and voice and improvisation. It was all very serious, and everyone was very serious about it.

The only things that could not be made serious were the instruments, which for one reason or another could not be painted black. The baroque instruments were decorated in subtle ways—some lines of gold leaf along the sides of the harpsichord, a contrasting blond tiger-striped maple tailpiece and fingerboard on a dark cello, and some silver bands around a flute carved from highly figured wood. The gamelan was even more out of place. The whole thing had a serpent theme—carved serpents writhed on top of most of the instruments. Those that could not support serpents had flowers or scrollwork. Some of the larger instruments had all these things combined, and the serpents had crowns. I’m not sure why the craftsmen thought that flowers and crowns and serpents go together, but it must have made sense at the time. Obviously, the instruments were made for a different context.

The patterns on the instruments reminded me of a very different gamelan performance I had attended, in a village outside Yogyakarta. It was part of a wayang performance held to celebrate a successful harvest. Bowo’s relatives had invited us, and as an unusual visitor, I was going to be an honored guest.  Wayang shadow puppet performances, like the gamelan, are an element of Javanese culture that has drawn a lot of attention—maybe too much—from anthropologists. They go from dusk until dawn, and at the end, the puppets themselves are ritually destroyed—thrown into the sea, Bowo said. A set of wayang kulit puppets alone costs a huge sum, plus the cost of the dalang (puppeteer), musicians and other performers, so it’s not something that anyone can organize—usually the performances are sponsored by a village orang kaya. Now, of course, tourists can go see a first-rate wayang performance in Jogja or Jakarta at any time, in a comfortable auditorium or something like that, but the traditional ones are still tied to the cycles of village life, and just as chaotic as village life tends to be.

We arrived at a large outdoor pavilion where the performance was to take place. First we went backstage and mingled with some of the villagers. The backstage was behind the translucent screen onto which the shadows of the puppets are projected, so the show could be seen and heard from both sides—though the “front” allows viewers to see the ornate painting and gilding on each of the puppets. There was a sound system for the dalang and the singers, but the gamelan needed no amplification. There was a huge spread of snacks, and tea saturated with sugar in proper Indonesian style. Each guest got a box of sweets. As the show was about to start, we moved into the seats in front of the stage, and we were ushered into a couple of gilded chairs with plush cushions, real seats of honor, right in front of the stage and next to a very talkative village elder who, like about half the audience, was chain-smoking kretek clove cigarettes. People moved in and out of the seats. Children ran around. It was kind of chaotic.

The gamelan orchestra and the dalang made preparatory motions and noises. The whole set of puppets, formed from leather (kulit) shaped, pierced, painted and gilded into the bodies of heroes and villains and in-between characters from the Ramayana, was arrayed to the left and right of the screen. Everyone was dressed to the traditional nines, in intricate batik sarungs and shirts. The women had elaborate hairstyles, and were decked out in gold and silk. The men and boys wore blangkon, the traditional turban-like headgear of central Java. Each of the older men also had a kris, a ceremonial dagger that one finds throughout much of Island Southeast Asia, in a gold or silver scabbard, stuck in the back of his sarung. The hilt and handguard of each kris was different, carved out of exotic wood, sometimes of contrasting colors, or, in a couple cases, of ivory. Kretek smoke pervaded everything. The stage was basically outside, covered with a large tent, but open on the sides, so that the night air could mix with the kretek smoke. Everything was anticipation. We made small talk, Bowo and the orang kaya and I, though I was still having trouble understanding the Javanese accent and dialect. The orang kaya offered me one of his kreteks—a gigantic, unfiltered Dji Sam Soe, so full of nicotine that it’s probably illegal everywhere except Indonesia. Who was I to refuse? It went well with the tea. Finally, the orchestra began to play, slowly.

The audience did not become less chaotic—people came and went, chatting, albeit in respectful moderation. After all, it would be a twelve hour performance. The dalang began to narrate a story from the Ramayana in Javanese. Of course I couldn’t understand a word of it, but it didn’t matter. The music of the gamelan undulated like waves, and the voices of the women who accompanied it in song floated on top of it like ships. The dalang flashed each figure back and forth, projecting a strange, distorted version of the story he was telling onto the screen behind the stage. He accentuated every rolled R, and tapped a stick against the base of the screen for dramatic effect. People in the audience joked with each other. There was smoke everywhere. Every so often, the bass gong of the gamelan spoke with an authoritative, resounding boom. It was sublime.

I can’t say that I’ve ever been to a really authentic baroque performance. After all, the style had its puncak kejayaan (peak of glory, to use an Indonesian phrase), in a cultural context that is basically irreproducible today. Perhaps we, in the present, could reproduce the outfits, the architecture, the food and drink, and with a lifetime’s worth of effort on the part of everyone involved, the language and the turns of phrase that were current at the time that a particular Baroque piece was composed. But we can’t possibly recreate the full cultural context, social structure and all. However much it was documented, not having grown up in it, we cannot reproduce the way that it shaped our thinking, at least not exactly. In many cases, we probably wouldn’t want to. How could we understand what it was like to live in a world where fox tossing and public executions were common, and even generally enjoyed? We can imagine intellectually sophisticated, even logically consistent rationalizations for these uglier elements of the past, but it’s harder to understand how some of them could have coexisted with, say, a Telemann recorder concerto. In that way, there is no such thing as a period-correct baroque performance anymore.

In the strictest sense, that is also true for gamelan music. The social world that surrounded gamelan performances at their peak has changed radically: though there is still a sultan in Yogyakarta, his role now is very different than it was three hundred years ago. The language has changed, as have the surroundings. It would be reductive to claim that Javanese culture has remained frozen in time, and as a westerner observing Javanese culture from the outside, I have to guard against concluding that it has changed little based only on my very superficial experience of it.

Yet, gamelan music remains an indisputably living form in a way that Baroque music, for the most part, does not. Children still come to gamelan performances for reasons other than education. The context in which it originated—local festivals, weddings, events that brought small communities together—persist, though perhaps in a slightly attenuated form (as with folk traditions in many places, the younger generation risks abandoning Javanese music in favor of a more global culture). Alas, you don’t see baroque music played much at Euro-American wedding receptions anymore, though some of the more nauseating baroque pieces are now often inflicted upon the world as elevator music surrounding the ceremony itself. The context that surrounded baroque music in the past, the setting for the gemstone, has been removed, so that now we are left measuring the angles of each facet, or just staring at the thing through the glass of a museum case.

To remove these musical styles from their context is almost to neuter them. Performing the music without the original trappings—the food that was served, the sights and smells and tactile sensations of the original environment, the emotional associations of the moment the music was designed to adorn—is not to deny the music its ability to reproduce. Indeed, you can at least partially reconstruct these lost elements with a bit of research and hermeneutic inquiry. Yet, if the audience as a whole does not understand all these nuances of context, to which the music was necessarily tailored, they are missing a crucial element of understanding, and in that sense the music becomes something like a neutered animal, deprived of its raison d’être.

The performance in Seattle emphasized the music’s cerebral qualities—the program was all about structure, about the more quantifiable elements of each musical style. Really, it was about instruction. To the extent that the audience was expected to enjoy the music, it was supposed to be an intellectual, abstract kind of enjoyment. The performance near Jogja was a strange mix of delectation, comedy, and moral instruction. The moral instruction came from the tales that the dalang acted out in front of the screen: Rama, the model of a refined Javanese gentleman, moved though a world populated by dwarves, monsters, buffoons, and jealous relatives. Wayang shows always have an element of the morality play about them, but heavily overlaid with ornaments and temptations (there remains a traditional association between pesindhen, the female gamelan vocalists, and prostitutes, though this is changing). And yes, there was comedy.

After about an hour of playing, the gamelan slowed down and stopped (just as it had begun to speed up, really). The dalang was narrating an incomprehensible story with some goofy looking puppets… it seemed to have departed from the heroic narrative. That was when the transvestite clowns got onto the stage. Well, that phrase is probably misleading. They were two men dressed somewhere between the two genders. One of them may have been wearing a blangkon. They had longish hair, lipstick, and eyeliner, and some of their teeth had been blackened. They both had strange, leering expressions, and exaggerated, creaky voices. They were acting out some kind of comedy routine—walking among the gamelan, insulting the performers and some of the elders. The performance’s sponsor eventually got on stage with them, and began giving a speech. They continued to make fun of him.

This was all a bit strange to me. My image of Javanese culture as refined, modest, polite, and stately did not have room for this kind of thing. I should also say that watching a comedy routine in a mostly incomprehensible foreign language was trying my patience, and I eagerly awaited the return of polite, noble Rama to the screen. I was having thoughts along these lines when I heard the word “America” in the orang kaya’s speech, and saw him gesturing towards me. My chain-smoking friend in the next seat almost grabbed me, and started shooing me up toward the stage, where I found myself with a microphone, standing next to the orang kaya and the two strange gender-ambiguous clowns.

The clowns asked me a few questions which I couldn’t understand, and pointed out that my pinstripe pants looked ridiculous. Indeed they did, in a room full of be-sarunged dudes with daggers. The orang kaya removed his blangkon and gave it to me, and eventually I understood that I was supposed to put it on my head, which I did. The whole audience was bent over laughing. I tried, as respectfully as possible, to return the blangkon, and eventually succeeded.  They asked me what I was doing in Indonesia, and I stumbled through a few words of explanation. I think I managed to thank everyone for their hospitality. Eventually I was able to escape the clowns and the orang kaya. Then I sat back down in my chair, and Bowo said that the orang kaya had accorded me a great honor by roasting me in front of everyone. The lesson from this is that if you’re traveling in Java, and have good local connections, and it happens to be during a season when you might end up at a wayang performance, be sure to have a short standup routine prepared in Indonesian, preferably one that makes fun of westerners and their pants.

Actually, that was not the end of the strangeness. The orang kaya next to me offered me another Dji Sam Soe, and asked me which of the three pesindhen on stage I thought was the prettiest. At this point I was suspicious of everything, and imagined that any answer would put me up on stage again—would they make me dance? Fortunately, nothing came of it when I picked one singer out at random; the old man seemed partly satisfied. Though the wayang performance proper started to pick up steam again, Bowo said that his relatives’ children were getting tired, so we would have to depart. Probably for the best, I thought, though a bit sadly, as I had weathered the roast, and had looked forward to becoming a passive, slightly reddish-colored spectator again.

Looking back on it, this bizarre mixture makes sense in the context of a twelve-hour long performance. The dalang and the gamelan need breaks (a practical concern), and the audience can’t be expected to sit through that much moral edification, no matter how brilliantly adorned, without the occasional change of pace (a more aesthetic one). You can see the same variation of pace in a baroque concerto that alternates between fast and slow movements, and operas and suites usually introduce some deliberate variety to keep the audience’s attention. But I imagine that the way baroque music was originally performed, there would have to be even more variety, more breaks in the music. A combination of logistics and human nature dictate that this had to be the case.

Really, the practice of sitting in an auditorium and listening passively to high art music, presented in an austere and didactic environment, seems to be a recent invention, tied to academic values that seek to separate the skill of composing and playing music from music’s function as an object of pleasure. Sometimes I wonder if academics who study music consider it to be pleasant at all. The archaeologist James Deetz, who had a great fondness for bluegrass music, still describes it in his landmark book In Small Things Forgotten as a “technomic” artifact—in other words, as a tool, whose purpose lies mostly outside of the social realm. Perhaps he was thinking that music’s utilitarian function was to produce pleasure, but this must be read between the lines. Scholars—especially those who tend toward the more scientific end of the spectrum—seem to have a very hard time integrating pleasure into their theories. It has only recently become quantifiable… and good luck hauling that MRI machine to a concert! To the extent that archaeologists deal with pleasure, it’s usually mediated through an evolutionary perspective, though perhaps some post-processualists are making more humanistic efforts.

In many ways, the performers in Seattle made the best of the environment in which they played—they were obviously enjoying it, and they had put together a truly unconventional performance. Yet they couldn’t do anything about the expectations that come with classical music these days: the auditorium they performed in had certain rules, explicit or implicit. The fact that they were performing at an art school, as well, meant that they had to frame their performance in educational terms. They were doing their part for the education industry, which has imposed a really dull set of constraints on how an audience is supposed to appreciate music played in an academic setting. We, the audience, were supposed to contemplate the music in a detached, analytical sort of way. The village performance was a different thing entirely, with the music performing its true “technomic” function, and some other ones besides.

I am painfully aware that art schools and conservatories are too strapped for cash to bother adding the kind of contextual elements that make a living performance so much more pleasant than an academic one, and so even if they have a change of heart about what audiences should get out of a performance, we’re stuck with the current mode of appreciating high art music, at least for now. I worry that it goes beyond that, however: the academic community has been pretty jealous about appropriating art for its own goals, with predictably dulling consequences (the writer and art critic Dave Hickey has written eloquently about this topic, and he deserves mention in another post). This may leave only American Idol free from the ivory tower, in some hideous dystopian future.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Despite the establishment of officially sanctioned gamelan and wayang academies in Indonesia, that seek to elevate traditional arts to prestigious, academic pursuits, those arts also remain genuinely alive (messy context, gender-queer clowns and all) in Javanese popular culture. I may be too optimistic to hope for a reinvention and rebirth of baroque music that puts it back into an equally chaotic context, but hell, it’s worth a try.

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Modern Life in Jogja

My last week in Indonesia was a testament to how diverse the country is. The ancient city of Yogyakarta, or Jogja for short, was a different planet from Maluku province. The language sounded different, even when people bothered to speak Bahasa Indonesia instead of Javanese. I was closer to the developed world here; there were full-on western style shopping malls, a large university, and well-lit supermarkets. The people were more used to seeing bules. After I landed, I spent several hours walking around near the Universitas Gadjah Mada, carrying my full backpack, which attracted some looks but not as much comment as I expected. Jogja seemed like the perfect town for western backpackers—the population is young, there are cultural sights to take in, and it isn’t so far off the beaten path that getting there strains the budget. It’s popular with Indonesian tourists, too.

I met Ari, an archaeology connection, near the campus in the evening. Ari and I had coffee in a little warung kopi, our discussion interrupted briefly by a couple of musicians, dressed in drag, who invaded the warung and started up a horrendous racket. This is a traditional form of entertainment/extortion in central Java. Ari gave them some money and they obligingly departed. We rode Ari’s motor to Bowo’s house, where I would stay. Bowo had studied museology and archaeology at the UW for a while; it was good to know someone in Jogja, and he and his fiancée spend most of their time for the next few days showing me around. He lives with his gracious mother in a quiet suburb, the house and all the surroundings very much from a different time. I was overwhelmed by their hospitality, as usual.

We spent a day touring around the ancient temples that surrounded Java, of which Borobodur is the most famous. It is almost a step pyramid—indeed, that is basically the shape of it, but it is studded with hundreds of openwork stone stupas, each of which originally had a Buddha sitting inside. The walls are covered with reliefs that start, at the bottom, with images of the Buddhist hell, gradually becoming more pleasant and virtuous as one ascends to the top. It is a huge tourist attraction, so there was no monastic serenity there. The rearview mirror covers from Bowo’s car were stolen while we visited the temple; apparently this is a common occurrence.

There were more temples, these ones Hindu. The Loro Jonggrang temple complex was the most spectacular, also heavily trafficked with tourists. These temples are well looked-after now, though for a long time they were neglected, or occasionally vandalized as idolatrous by religious fanatics. We also visited several minor temple complexes—really, the number of these things dotting the landscape is incredible, and it speaks to the fact that Java has been densely populated for millennia.

The density of sites, and the pace of development today, come into conflict with each other frequently. While I was in Jogja I paid a visit to Daud Tanudirjo, one of the most prominent archaeologists in Indonesia, at the Jogja museum just outside the sultan’s palace (kraton). He talked about the constant pressure for development, and the difficulty of pushing back against it. After all, it can be hard to justify protecting archaeological sites when there are so many of them around. The spectacular ones like Borobudur and Loro Jonggrang have proven to be big tourist draws, but smaller, less flashy sites may actually tell us more about the past, and these are the ones that usually get destroyed as a new shopping mall or highway is built. The sultan of Jogja, who still has political authority over his traditional domain, is caught between his desire to preserve the region’s heritage, and the equally urgent desire to improve his subjects’ lives by attracting investment. This problem plays out all over Southeast Asia in different forms, but it bears remarking that even in a place like Jogja, whose past has attracted global attention (Borobudur is now a UNESCO world heritage site), protecting that past remains a constant struggle.

This is true even though the past remains very much alive around Jogja. I had already noticed in Bali that the locals have maintained their traditions sincerely, in spite of the pressure to commercialize them for the tourist market. I was shortly to find something similar in Java, which deserves a long post of its own.

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Another Ambon: Part III

Hengky’s family are Seventh Day Adventists, or just “Adven,” as they called themselves. Morning, evening, and every meal were accompanied by long, elaborate prayers, with Hengky’s mother in law usually leading the service. Like American Adventists, they did not smoke or drink—not even coffee or tea, though hot chocolate was acceptable. Unlike most American Adventists, though, they ate meat, something unavoidable in Indonesia. They went to prayer meetings at least twice a week, moving from house to house among their community. The pastor was a tall, handsome man in his forties. His wife, when she learned I studied archaeology, said, “all you need to know about the world is in this book,” pointing to her bible.

I was a bit surprised to see this minor American denomination had such a following in Ambon; they were also building a great church, with a forty-foot high ceiling. The church was half-finished, but the lighting and sound system were in place. Scaffolding filled the back of the church, but the front was empty, white concrete, except for a podium, lectern, and microphone.

A young woman preacher spoke in rapid-fire Maluku dialect; her voice echoed off the hard walls. The preacher asked the young men in the congregation, including myself, to sing a hymn. We got up on the podium, and I quietly mouthed the words from the hymnal, understanding about half of them. The hymns were Indonesian and Maluku translations of American spiritual songs—I recognized some of the melodies. In fact, the hymnal usually had the songs in two languages, English and colloquial Indonesian, right next to each other. The melodies seemed utterly alien in this context, as did the cavernous interior of the church.

I’ve come to expect that a religion, descending on an indigenous culture and trying to proselytize to an unfamiliar people, will adapt itself at least a bit to their tastes and history. For example, the Catholic and Protestant missionaries, despite inflicting the appallingly frumpy “Mother Hubbard” dress upon the women of Polynesia, either could not prohibit, or had the good sense to accept, a native interpretation of their church music, with the new Christian sentiments expressed in much older harmonies, and often just thinly veneered over a much older story. Why should things be different here in Ambon? Was the foreignness of the Adventist hymns an attraction to new converts? Did it seem a welcome change from traditional sounds? By the time the Adventists got to Ambon, Catholic and Protestant missionaries had been at work on the island for centuries. I’m not sure whether the Catholics adapted their music to Ambonese tastes. In any case, it isn’t only the Adventists who seem to have transplanted a whole cultural complex to Ambon along with their religion—the two largest mosques in Ambon, and much of the Muslim quarter’s public architecture, could have been airlifted in from Arabia, and doesn’t make any concessions to a local tradition. For that matter, not much in Ambon does. The Ambonese are relatively comfortable with foreign influence. Oddly enough, something that happened in Ambon, the Amboyna Incident, also had outsize influence on European culture very early, and that bit of history shows how early the island had become a European outpost. Wallace was a bit incredulous at the Ambonese adaptation of European formal dress in the nineteenth century, and he noted that although the Portuguese had only a tenuous control of Ambon for a few decades before the Dutch got there, some Portuguese words had survived in the local dialect into the nineteenth century. The whole Maluku region has been subject to so many unusual foreign influences for so long, there may be no “indigenous” style of anything left there.

So, in this strange foreign church, a piece of Iowa or Nebraska with Indonesian subtitles, I sat next to Hengky’s uncle Jemmy, who worked as a hairdresser and lived in a town a bit to the west of Ambon. He had arranged for a special surprise after the service—durian.

The durian has inspired much love, and the same amount of hatred, from Europeans who visited Indonesia in the past. The locals are generally not so quick to hate it, but many are perfectly content to avoid it, and the distinctive smell has caused laws to be enacted prohibiting the transport of durian inside airplanes’ passenger cabins, and on public transit in some cities.

Wallace was quite taken with durian, and wrote a long tribute to it in his Malay Archipelago, which is worth quoting at length.

A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience.

The smell of the ripe fruit is certainly at first disagreeable, though less so when it has newly fallen from the tree; for the moment it is ripe it falls of itself, and the only way to eat Durians in perfection is to get them as they fall. It would perhaps not be correct to say that the Durian is the best of all fruits, because it cannot supply the place of subacid juicy fruits such as the orange, grape, mango, and mangosteen, whose refreshing and cooling qualities are so grateful; but as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed. If I had to fix on two only as representing the perfection of the two classes, I should certainly choose the Durian and the Orange as the king and queen of fruits.

The Durian is however (in another way) dangerous. As a tree ripens the fruit falls daily and almost hourly, and accidents not unfrequently happen to persons walking or working under them. When a Durian strikes a man in its fall it produces a fearful wound, the strong spines tearing open the flesh, while the blow itself is very heavy; but from this very circumstance death rarely ensues, the copious effusion of blood preventing the inflammation which might otherwise take place. A Dyak chief informed me that he had been struck down by a Durian falling on his head, which he thought would certainly have caused his death, yet he recovered in a very short time.

Poets and moralists, judging from our English trees and fruits, have thought that there existed an inverse proportion between the size of the one and the other, so that their fall should be harmless to man. Two of the most formidable fruits known, however, the Brazil Nut (Bertholletia) and the Durian, grow on lofty trees, from which they both fall as soon as they are ripe, and often wound or kill those who seek to obtain them. From this we may learn two things:–first, not to draw conclusions from a very partial view of Nature; and secondly, that trees and fruits and all the varied productions of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, have not been created solely for the use and convenience of man.

Others have been less complementary; one of my favorite authors, Anthony Burgess, who spent some time in the region, incorporated this description into his trilogy The Long Day Wanes:

Over all presided the fetid, exciting reek of durian, for this was the season of durians. Nabby Adams had once been to a durian party. It was like, he thought, eating a sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.

I too was going to a durian party. I hopped on Hengky’s motor and we sped east, past Ambon’s surprisingly large and modern looking mall on the outskirts of the city. We were heading to Jemmy’s barber shop, where he would meet us with the durians. When we got to the barber shop, Jemmy wasn’t there, so we had some nasi kuning to prepare our stomachs, and watched The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on satellite TV, in English with Indonesian subtitles.

I was pleased to have something in English to listen to, but it was more interesting to see how the subtitles had been translated: a lot of the jokes couldn’t be translated directly, because they depended on familiarity with American pop culture. A whole dialogue that compared Uncle Phil to Ward Cleaver had to be altered in the subtitles. Phil shouting “Do I look like a white guy named Ward?!” just wouldn’t make sense to someone who’d never seen Leave it to Beaver, so it was translated “Do I look like I’m stupid?!” Imagine all the subtle, culturally specific allusions that don’t survive in subtitles.

After the show had ended, and we’d moved on to Al Jazeera English, Jemmy arrived with three durians. We had buffered our stomachs with the rice, which was important. One of the remarkable things about Indonesian food is how conditional much of it is. That doesn’t make much sense, I know. What I mean is, according to widely accepted folk knowledge, there are certain times when you can’t eat durian. If you eat it on an empty stomach, you’ll get heartburn. If you eat it with alcohol, you might have a heart attack. Eating durian while pregnant is bad for the fetus. Durian is one of the most conditional foods, but not the only one. A particular type of bean makes delicious crackers when mashed and fried, but eating too many of these crackers will give you high blood pressure. Another kind of bean is also delicious, but will cause your urine to smell very strange. Sago starch is toxic before it is washed, but after being washed becomes edible, and actually quite boring. Indonesian food often comes with a caveat or two. So it is with durian. Some people are convinced that durian ferments slightly during ripening, and contains a kind of alcohol. Everyone seems to agree that it produces a certain mild intoxication.

There must certainly be an effect from eating a lot of durian, because Jemmy insisted that I eat a whole one to get the full experience. He gave the biggest durian to me. “If you don’t eat this whole durian, I’ll hit you,” he said as he broke open the duri, the spikes on the outside, and offered me a section of strange whitish flesh.

The scent of this durian was not as foul as some reports had led me to expect, but it was uncannily similar to rotting onions. I imagine that an accident in a chemical plant might smell similar to a durian, if the right things were mixed together. Aromatic is the word, like aromatic hydrocarbons. The really odd thing about the “smell” is that one can also almost taste it while eating the durian—the fumes seem to rise up above the palate and into the sinuses whether you want them to or not. The flesh itself is not very substantial—it surrounds a huge seed, and is wrapped in a thick, spiky husk—and it is definitely an odd contrast to the smell. If you could completely turn off your olfactory senses, it would taste very mild, quite sweet, not tart at all. The texture is soft, something like a peach that has come dangerously close to being rotten.

My senses disagreed with each other about how I should treat this food. My nose actually wasn’t too horrified, but it did urge caution—these vapors wouldn’t be out of place in a chemical weapons test. There was something volatile about durian—it demanded to be eaten slowly and carefully. Eating the whole durian, especially in one sitting, might exceed my willpower. My tongue thought it was perfectly fine, but hardly worth calling raja buah (the king of fruits). My eyes were ambivalent about the utter strangeness of the whole thing—the evil looking spikes on the outside, and the strange geometry of the husk, were very nice, but the sections of flesh inside looked a bit too similar to internal organs.

On the whole, I had to conclude that I wasn’t totally repelled by durian, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat it again, either. This is odd, because everyone else I’ve talked to either hates it immensely or gets a far-off, amorous look in their eyes when durian is mentioned. Jemmy’s half-joking threats didn’t motivate me to eat the whole durian, but he insisted that I take the durian back to Hengky’s house and finish it before I went to bed.

The next day, I was on a plane to Yogyakarta. Hengky and his family had been wonderful hosts. Hengky gave me his copy of the New Testament, in English on one side, Indonesian on the other. I offered them my water filter as a parting gift, but they wouldn’t hear of it. I did manage to give Hengky my mask and snorkel, since I figured he’d use it on his fishing boat. Even by Indonesian standards of hospitality, they were incredibly gracious, and I hope I can visit them again soon. Now it was on to a new city, a new island, and a new province—practically a new country. That will be the subject of the next post.

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Another Ambon: Part II

Hengky offered to show me around the jungle in the hills above his house. He wasn’t very familiar with it–he said he preferred the coast to the interior–but he had heard there was a Japanese bunker left from the Second World War, and we would probably find some durian and rambutan as well. We walked up a steep, rutted, rocky logging road, crested a ridge, and then descended into a densely forested ravine. There was a trail–a sort of trail, anyway. It was barely visible through the thick undergrowth, and very slippery. The difference between a trail and a watercourse is often very slim in lots of places, not least a rainforest. Hengky was wearing flip-flops as usual. He slipped and fell, but we kept on going for several hundred yards before he realized he had lost his cell phone. This was a very serious problem.

We retraced our steps, but I didn’t have much hope of finding it. We were bushwhacking most of the way, and I didn’t see how the phone could keep from sliding down the steep mud, to rest in some liquid or other. The whole hill was basically liquid. Hengky went on ahead, and he eventually found it near the spot he’d fallen, nothing short of a miracle.

We continued back down the slope, and arrived at a group of cattle stalls with a roof built over them. There was a little hut nearby, but nobody was home. It didn’t look like we were heading in the right direction for the bunker. We tried a different direction, up another trail that followed the bottom of another ravine. Some rambutan had fallen on the trail–they were tart, not quite ripe. Further on we found a durian tree. “Careful, Joss,” Hengky said, “don’t let a durian fall on you!” He was serious. These durian trees are at least thirty feet tall, and a good-sized durian can injure or even kill someone if it falls on their head. This is pretty common. The word durian translates literally as “spiky thing,” and the spikes are sharp and sturdy enough to do some damage. I will have more to say about durians in a further post; my paean to this odd fruit will have to wait, because in this particular instance, none of the durian had fallen to the ground. We kept going along the trail.

The jungle opened up into a big clearing, on the lower slope of one of the ravines. Some crops were planted near the trail, and further up the ravine there was a tiny hut, with smoke from a fire nearby. “Maybe they can sell us a durian,” Hengky said. “You really need to try one.”

It was a small, narrow building, with two stories. The second story was completely enclosed, and must have been about half the size of a shipping container. The first level didn’t have much in the way of walls, but there was a small deck, on which sat a young woman and an old man, who had perhaps two teeth left in his mouth. Sheltered from the rain, the woman was grating some kind of vegetable, as the man rolled a fat tingwe cigarette for himself. Hengky talked with the man for a while, in a dialect I half-understood. They did have some durian, but they were asking an exorbitant price. Hengky asked them about the Japanese bunker, and the old man told him about a cave that the Japanese had dug into a hillside nearby. He pointed us back the way we came.

On the trail to the cave, which ran along the crest of a lush, forested ridge, we met a man carrying a parang (machete), equally good for hacking through undergrowth and fighting in Ambon’s enclosed alleyways—something not unheard of, even though the tension of the early 2000s has dissipated somewhat. Of course, this man was friendly, and pointed the way to the cave, down the ridge which grew rockier and more slippery. The trail dropped to a river below, next tow which was a small neighborhood of huts. The cave was actually part of one family’s yard, and they graciously allowed us to look inside.

I never have a flashlight when I need one, but the designers of my cheap Indonesian cell phone had the forethought to put a small LED light on it, which barely illuminated the first couple feet of a tunnel. The tunnel had been dug into the earth of the hillside –it was ordinary dirt, with pebbles sticking out of it, not auspicious material to dig tunnels in, but somehow it had held for half a century. A bend in the tunnel brought me into a slightly larger room, and for a split second I saw my light reflected off the eyes of several bats, before they flew past me, out into the daylight. The room was empty except for an unmarked green metal ammunition can. The roof had begun to cave in; there was a high shaft of empty space above me. It didn’t occur to me then, but I bet the collapse of the roof has covered some more interesting artifacts.

We weren’t sure where we were—we had traveled a long ways through the jungle, and then dropped to small town somewhere along the main highway between Kota Ambon and the airport. On our way through the town, we saw that a funeral was taking place in the middle of the road. To get around the funeral, we walked through a field filled with little brown cows.

I was surprised that Hengky had little interest in all these fascinating inland things—he only really got excited at the possibility of durian—but then, he’s a fisherman, and looks to the sea rather than the land. I think it also speaks to something more general about Indonesia, though: in the same way as most Indonesians don’t walk around for pleasure, there isn’t much exploring for exploring’s sake. I don’t think that’s so much closed-mindedness as it is contentedness with one’s surroundings.

 

 

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Another Ambon: Part I

When my plane landed at Pattimura airport, the first objective was to find a ticket to Yogyakarta. Normally this would be easy—there were airline offices right outside the terminal. The only problem was that I was out of cash. Even for expensive things like plane tickets, it is still extremely rare for people to pay with a card, at least in the Malukus. So I wasn’t really surprised when none of the airlines had a credit card reader… at least not one that worked. I would have to get more cash in the city, and find a travel agent there. Then I’d have to wait at least a couple days for the next flight. I called Henky and took him up on his offer of a place to stay.

He arrived on a rather small motor, with an extra helmet. This would be interesting, I thought. I had a backpack that weighed about forty pounds, and I’d only ridden pillion on one of these things a few times. Henky knew what he was doing, though. We sped through the rain, lucky to be on one of the island’s widest and least crowded roads. The combined weight of my pack and myself must have made the motor hard to handle, but Henky zipped through the traffic as deftly as if alone. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride, though—I had to stay in a very specific, unnatural position, sitting ramrod-straight but fighting the backward pull of the pack without moving my feet or shifting my weight too abruptly. It takes about half an hour to get from the airport to the city, mostly through farmland and suburbs, and by the end of it I was half-crippled.

Henky lives on the outskirts of Ambon, at the foot of some forested hills, an area blessedly free of the city center’s noise and pollution. His wife, daughters, and several in-laws greeted us and prepared breakfast, and after the obligatory interview (Where are you from? What are you doing here? What is your religion? Are you married?) Henky prepared hot water for a traditional bucket shower (mandi). I think that was the only time I ever had a hot mandi (let alone shower) in Indonesia, and at that point it felt like the pinnacle of luxury.

After breakfast, we went into the city. It’s hard to express the sheer sensory overload of an Indonesian city in any medium—even a heavily amplified IMAX movie wouldn’t do the trick, unless you could pump steam, tobacco smoke, garbage fumes, and motor exhaust into the theater. I have already written something about Kota Ambon, which in retrospect gives (at most) a Thomas Friedman-esque, cab-driver-interviewing look at the city, but it deserves more than that. Now that I’m back in the States, and have the privilege (is it?) of unlimited time in front of a computer, it’s worth looking at Ambon in more detail.

Wallace visited Ambon (then called Amboina or Amboyna) several times, beginning in 1857. His description is shocking to anyone who has visited the city today:

Passing up the harbor, in appearance like a fine river, the clearness of the water afforded me one of the most astonishing and beautiful sights I have ever beheld. The bottom was absolutely hidden by a continuous series of corals, sponges, actinic, and other marine productions of magnificent dimensions, varied forms, and brilliant colours…. In and out among them moved numbers of blue and red and yellow fishes, spotted and banded and striped in the most striking manner, while great orange or rosy transparent medusa floated along near the surface. It was a sight to gaze at for hours, and no description can do justice to its surpassing beauty and interest. For once, the reality exceeded the most glowing accounts I had ever read of the wonders of a coral sea. There is perhaps no spot in the world richer in marine productions, corals, shells and fishes, than the harbor of Amboyna.

Since Wallace’s time, all this gorgeous ocean life has disappeared, at least from near the city, the superlative clarity long ago having yielded to muddy effluent from Kota Ambon’s garbage-filled canal. The Lonely Planet guidebook now lists “muck diving” as Ambon’s main underwater attraction. The stately buildings of what was once an old colonial city were blown to bits in the Second World War, and the replacements are not very good. The profusion of noisy, polluting two-cycle motors has delivered the coup de grâce to what was doubtless once a beautiful city. 

To get to the travel agency, we found our way through Pasar Mardika, Ambon’s main public market. The streets outside were filled with vendors, but Henky said the quickest way was through the claustrophobic tunnels of merchandise inside the buildings on either side. “Careful, Joss,” he said, “there are lots of pickpockets around here.” It was easy terrain for them. The indoor market is a maze of dark, very narrow hallways, at most a meter across. Two people could not pass each other without touching. Every possible space on the walls was covered with products: shoes, bras, headscarves, shorts, pants, motorcycle helmets, electronics, jewelry, cosmetics, hardware, music (still a lot of cassette tapes for sale in Ambon), and in short, anything that you can imagine being in a well-stocked American mall, but a little different. The selection of flashy soccer cleats was striking, as was the huge proportion of space devoted to cell phones—Ambonese may not use credit cards, but they are deeply attached to their “hand phones.” In a few places, the corridors opened up into something closer to an American department store, but in fact it was just a well-decorated collection of small vendors. We probably walked a bit less than a mile through these corridors before returning to the muddy streets, and Henky pointed out the travel agent, dark and chemical-smelling on the inside, but mercifully air-conditioned. Three well-dressed travel agents were talking to one customer.

When my turn came, I explained I needed to fly to Yogyakarta, and asked the most important question: would they take credit cards? Yes! This was wonderful. I asked (at least I think I did) for a flight next Thursday, the 12th. They quoted a price that seemed remarkably cheap. One of the agents (and this is not a figure of speech) dusted off an old card reader, and began figuring out how to work it. It was clearly going to take them some time. Meanwhile, they took my passport and spent a long time copying information from it. The separation from my passport always made me uneasy, especially when it was taken off to be photocopied. Henky was still waiting patiently, though he had to go to work. I told him it was okay, I could finish buying the ticket and meet up with him later.

After several phone calls to the bank, they announced that I was all set to go, my flight would leave at eight in the morning on Thursday, July 19th.

My heart sank to somewhere in my lower intestine.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I wanted to go on the 12th.”

“But this is for the 19th,” the travel agent said.

“Yes, I know, that’s the problem.”

The agents canceled the flight and found another one on the correct date. This time we used a calendar to confirm it. So far so good. There was still the problem of reversing the charges to my credit card. At least I got them to give me my passport back, but the travel agents continued to have problems with the credit card machine. I sat despondent in a chair that must have been designed to give people back problems. I withered in the air conditioning. I imagined myself destitute and trapped in Ambon because of inadvertent charges they’d made on my card and could not reverse. The single dim fluorescent light cast deathly shadows over everything. Everything was bad. For the first time since I arrived in Indonesia, I knew I was losing my cool.

One simply does not do this in Indonesia. Although blowing up at service staff is common (even fashionable) in America, as anyone who’s worked in a service job will agree, Indonesians value sangfroid far more. This is true even in Ambon, which has a reputation for hot-bloodedness. An American might think that losing his cool is a way to instill respect, but in Indonesia, it does the exact opposite. (Let that be a lesson to anyone with foreign policy aspirations!) This is complicated by the fact that Indonesians, valuing sangfroid so much, often perform little tests on foreigners to make sure they are sufficiently calm in character. Perhaps this nonsense with the credit card machine was such a test. I don’t know. But around the second or third hour of waiting, I began to lose patience. I was on the brink of some kind of unhingedness—maybe purple-faced screaming apoplexy, or perhaps collapsing on the floor in tears—when one of the agents informed me that everything was arranged. They had credited the previously charged amount to the correct ticket, but could not charge any more today. I would have to return in two days and pay the remaining money then, before I could collect the ticket.

This produced a strange mixture of emotions, which may be unique to interactions with Ambon travel agents. I could not resist thinking of another passage from Wallace, where he says “…the Amboynese are dreadfully lazy…” and yet another, totally false (not to mention racist) but poignant in my exasperation, “The native Amboynese who reside in this city are a strange half-civilized half-savage lazy people….” These are horrible slanders to the Ambonese en bloc, who were invariably charming and eager to help, but in the frustrating gloom of this little office, may I be forgiven a lapse into post-colonial arrogance? Things ended well, though; the agent wrote out a receipt, and offered to give me a motor ride to a bank where I could exchange US dollars for rupiah. This travel agent was really heroic, considering the appalling rush hour traffic he had to drive through.

This brings me to another piece of advice for the traveler in remote Indonesia: If you plan on bringing cash to exchange, know that most banks (in Ambon, anyway) are very particular about it. It must be in crisp, clean, undamaged, 2006 series or later $100 bills. This is particularly ironic considering that most Indonesian cash looks like it has passed through a luwak‘s digestive system at least twice. I went to four different banks, each apologizing that they could not exchange my cash, but suggesting another, usually one I’d already been to. Finally, I found one (CIMB-Niaga) that would accept my pre-2006, slightly worn hundreds, fifties and twenties, after a stately and august bureaucratic ritual involving a senior and junior teller, my passport, many signatures and initials, and the assertive thuds of three rubber stamps. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, I can recommend CIMB-Niaga most highly to everyone.

My mission in Kota Ambon accomplished, I stopped at Sibu-Sibu, the city’s most stylish coffee house, and collected myself. Sibu-Sibu makes local specialties including a fiery ginger-laced coffee with kenari nuts floating on top. The walls are covered with photos of Maluku celebrities, and they play Polynesian-sounding local music. It’s popular with expats, but most of the clientèle are locals. Afterwards, I caught an angkot back to Henky’s house, and spent a couple days with him and his charming family while I waited for my flight. That will be the subject of the next post.

 

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Mau ke mana?

Time passed fitfully for my last couple days in Dobo. I had run out of money for any more boat trips, and the constant attention from the locals made an afternoon stroll something of an ordeal. The concept of walking alone for fun was totally alien to the locals in a couple of different ways: the “walking” and the “alone” parts in particular. Travel on foot, and solitude, are both things that Indonesians avoid at all costs, and my desire to seek them out for pleasure was incomprehensible to most people I met. This was especially true when it was raining, something that happened quite often in Dobo at that time of year. I walked to the post office through a small rainstorm, and a group of schoolchildren became curious where (and why) I was going.

“The post office is very far away!” they said. “It’s raining!”

“Yes, I know it’s raining.” I said. That was fairly obvious. But the post office was not actually that far away.  The group, maybe seven or eight boys, all in matching uniforms, led me to the post office, which doubled as the postmaster’s house. Though it was closed, he opened it for me so I could mail a letter. (This letter actually made it back to the States, to my surprise, while one I sent from Ambon still hasn’t arrived).

The streets of Dobo had some interesting sights. There were at least two statues of the admiral Yos Sudarso, a hero of Indonesia’s early nationalist years, who died in a battle during the annexation of Papua. One was close to the hotel, and showed Sudarso standing on the prow of a warship, surrounded by bouquets of bombs and missiles. The other was simpler, and in front of a school that bore the admiral’s name. Both are made of painted concrete, and show the admiral standing as concretely as can be, with a set of binoculars, staring boldly off into… the future or something. The paint is very glossy, and the color used for Sudarso’s face and hands hasn’t held up under the constant sunlight, fading to a greenish grey, so he looks like Indonesia’s first zombie admiral.

Half of Dobo is built on stilts over the water, and I finally had time to explore this part of town, including a market that took place on the wharves. I didn’t recognize much of the produce, but the things I did recognize made me wish I had access to a good kitchen. Instead of onions, Indonesian cooking uses very small shallots, which are absolutely delicious. These were piled high in the market, along with garlic and small chiles. There was some seaweed for sale, something I never saw served in the warungs, but which must be part of the local cuisine. Sago starch was sold out of huge barrel-like containers made from banana leaves. Of course there were bananas, plus more exotic fruits like mangosteen and durian. Durian, of course, deserves its own post, which will come soon. Along with fruits, vegetables, fish, eggs, and spices, the market sold the same things you’d find in a large supermarket—toothbrushes, clothing, electronics, tools, cosmetics, tobacco, housewares, and fuel.

In addition to the houses on stilts, some houses closer inland seemed built on solid foundations, but instead of a yard around them there was a pool of water, which one crossed on a little bridge to get to the door. Often this water was green with algae. The water section of the town was wonderfully quiet, as all the unmuffled vehicles couldn’t drive over the flimsy wooden walkways.

Later, I ran into Richardo and some friends of his at a warung outside the hotel, and he introduced me to another guest in the hotel, Henky, who would fly to Ambon the next day. Henky had heard that his father was very sick, and he was racing back to Ambon to be with him. We all went back to his hotel room and drank sopi mixed with Anker beer. The room filled up with clove and tobacco smoke, and Henky told me about his life as a fisherman. It sounded like he worked on a medium-sized fishing boat, mostly off Thailand. Much of the crew was Thai. He spent most of his time at sea. Much of this fishing, I gathered, wasn’t entirely legal. Henky supported his wife and extended family back in Ambon with this job. He had two daughters; his wife was pregnant again, and he was hoping for a son this time. He offered to put me up when I got to Ambon, and insisted that I give him nothing in return; he would pick me up from the airport when I got there.

The next day, as I was on my way out the door, two journalists ambushed me in front of the hotel, and I sat down for my first newspaper interview in Indonesian. I wasn’t expecting this; they probably thought I was trying to escape when I ran back to my room for my dictionary and notebook. But they were friendly, and after explaining what I was studying, and why, they started asking about where I had gone to school, and what things were like in America. One of the reporters was actually part of an anti-corruption task force, and had been dispatched all the way from Jakarta.

Later that night, the night before I flew out of Dobo, the journalists brought an old man to the hotel, and he told me about an archaeological site in a cave near his hometown. This site had already been identified by the Australian team in the ‘90s, but the old man added some fantastic details, including a huge throne carved out of an incredibly hard rock, and giant crystals that transmitted light through the cave’s ceiling, or perhaps glowed themselves. There was also something in there about samurai swords and armor, but he was already pushing against the limits of my Indonesian. It was good the journalists were there to help make sense of his story. The old man was also a musician, and he gave me a little, meticulously carved palm wood jaw-harp, which he played effortlessly. I made a feeble attempt to copy him, but very little sound resulted. In exchange, I gave him my UW hat. As a farewell gift, one of the journalists also gave me a little bronze medallion from Thailand, with a Buddha on one side and the portrait of a monk on the other. He got a Northwest Maritime Center hat. Richardo had taken my Seattle Mariners hat earlier. So, I was all out of hats, but touched that everyone had been so welcoming to me.

I walked out to Dobo’s tiny airport in the early morning dark. There was a frog hopping around the waiting room.

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Obrol (chit-chat)

My room in the Penginapan Suasana Baru was right next to the hotel’s conference room, which had a very excessive sound system. It hosted business meetings and religious services, and some events that seemed to be a combination of the two. Across the hall was a sort of restaurant, which never seemed to be open but served as a hang-out for the hotel’s guests. Sometimes it was possible to order coffee or Anker beer or instant noodles from a waitress who usually pretended I was not there. Otherwise, I attracted a lot of attention, and got into conversations with the others in the restaurant. When a tourism development conference was in town, I talked with two fellows charged by the government with promoting tourism in Aru; they were local, but now lived in Ambon, as it seems most people who make contact with the outside world do. I met them before I had made it to Ujir, and so was anxious to find a guide through them, but like the linguists, their proposed route involved doubtless time-consuming bureaucracy. It’s a bit odd that they think Aru is ready to be developed as a tourist destination. The potential is undeniable—the coasts have flawless white sand beaches, and the possibilities for diving and ecotourism are obvious. The sheer remoteness is also a sort of benefit, but it has obvious practical implications.

The Aruese are without question proud of their island group, not least of its natural beauty, but the state of Dobo and its surroundings would appall most Western tourists. The beaches nearest to the town are almost completely covered with garbage. The general procedure for the disposal of garbage is to throw it into the bay, from which it is drawn out by the tide and later deposited on a beach a short distance away. Even my otherwise smartly-run hotel did this. I suspect that the nonchalance toward the profusion of garbage everywhere must be something like the attitudes in 19th century Chicago about horse dung and coal smoke everywhere—it’s a sign of progress. The old (young) Dobo was a true frontier town, wooden sidewalks and all, but now it has reached a comfortable, dowdy middle age, thinking of little but its own prosperity. Unfortunately, it seemed while I was there that Dobo was between next big things, and that might be one reason for the town’s desire to promote tourism.

Later on in the hotel restaurant I met another tourism booster, political candidate, and as far as I know, Dobo’s sole fluent English speaker, Sonny Djonler. Shortish, slightly bald, and constantly smiling, he was an excellent politician, unusual among his profession for being visibly smart. He had learned English in New Zealand, where he worked and studied, but returned to Aru to teach and perhaps run for office. His political goals reflect a change taking place—slowly—all over Indonesia.

A bit of history might be useful here. Indonesia broke off from the Dutch colonial system in the late ‘40s, guided by a nationalist movement and Indonesia’s first president Sukarno. The new country struggled to define itself, and the nationalists’ desire to create a unified but diverse state was sometimes at odds with the wishes of minorities, who felt they wouldn’t be treated fairly by the Javanese-dominated nationalists in power. The nationalist government successfully (sometimes brutally) suppressed various separatist movements in the provinces, including one that broke out in Maluku in the early ‘50s. Despite these dissents, Sukarno succeeded in promoting a nationalist vision of Indonesia as a champion of the developing world, with a system of “guided democracy” that gave the military considerable power. Sukarno coined the term “third world;” originally this referred to countries aligned neither with the capitalist US nor the communist USSR: neutrals in the cold war.

To this strategy Sukarno added a good dose of personality cult, familiar in tone, which helped ally ordinary Indonesians with him, and play political factions against each other. The heady early days of independence, combined with Sukarno’s flair for self-promotion, still causes most Indonesians to remember “bung karno”—“buddy karno” fondly.

This relatively innocent age of Indonesian independence ended abruptly in the mysterious coup of 1965, when a group of military officers assassinated six senior army generals. The reasons behind this coup are still not clear, but at the time it was attributed to communist elements within the government. The officers themselves suggested that they had prevented another coup against relatively left-wing Sukarno by the right-wing generals. Up to that point the communists had been a legitimate and powerful political party, but many saw them as a threat to the established order. The coup gave their opponents an excuse for a purge of communists from government, combined with a nationwide massacre of communists and suspected communists.

Sukarno gave a general named Suharto control of the army, with a mandate to restore order. This eventually led to Suharto’s assumption of the presidency, which he held for over 20 years. During this period, Suharto distributed Indonesia’s levers of power, and much of its wealth, into the hands of his relatives and friends. It was only after the economic collapse of 1998 that he was forced to resign, amid riots and massacres of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese population (the position of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese is worthy of several posts on its own, which will come later).

A lot has happened in Indonesia since 1998, some of which I’ve alluded to in earlier posts, but for our purposes right now, the important thing to remember is that many of Suharto’s cronies remained in power in the government and military—Indonesia has a “deep state” that remains despite elections, just like most other countries. Despite the admirable efforts at reform undertaken after 1998, Suharto’s two decades in power left behind a magnificent tangle of corruption at the higher levels of government, something that is also replicated at the provincial and local level.

Every Indonesian with whom I talked about politics mentioned the debilitating effect corruption has on their country. The Suharto generation still maintains control of much of the country, and in general they haven’t been shy about diverting its resources for their own gain. They have maintained a sufficiently functional government in most places, but not much beyond that. It’s worth noting that Aru has become far more accessible since its government became an autonomous kebupaten (regency). This attracts government money for infrastructure, plus new attention from airlines and shipping lines. The Bandas, still subsidiary to an outside kebupaten, are largely neglected. The new governmental status was the main reason the Aruese gave for their relatively developed capital.

The younger generation of Indonesians recognizes the problems that come with corruption, and aren’t shy about complaining about it to foreigners. Nonetheless, they usually say that they are relatively powerless at this point, and they are frustrated with the pace at which reforms take place in the government. One Aruese said that although he agrees with the current president’s attempts to slowly reform the government, they were too slow. “He’s too much of a pussy!” the man said (this is a loose translation).

Sonny Djonler and I had a long conversation along similar lines. He is planning to run for local office in the hope that he can reform the local government, make it more efficient, and perhaps even improve the state of Aru’s environment. He talked about the need for Aru to have a powerful voice at higher levels; a difficult prospect when so few Aruese ever leave their island group to get access to the relative metropolis of Ambon, to say nothing of Jakarta. Sonny also wants to develop a full-on resort here, somewhere that wealthy Indonesians and foreigners can go to relax, dive, and admire Aru’s natural beauty. As usual, the main obstacles are bureaucratic in nature.

Corrupt people in power have fortified their positions to such an extent that some Indonesians despair of things ever improving. However, a few, like Sonny, are trying to start reforms. The universal consensus, among the people I talked to, was that Indonesia could become a world power if it tackled corruption—but that was very unlikely to happen.

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Warungs of Dobo

The boat ride back to Dobo, in the dark afternoon of the musim hujan (rainy season), was almost as wet as the outbound trip. The trip to the village had exhausted me, and I said little as we motored back to the town, only looking at boats on the horizon. We were all so soaked and anxious to get home that when we arrived at about 4:30, Saimin just dropped me off at the hotel’s dock, and said I could pay him later. I dumped cold water over myself in the traditional mandi attached to my room, and tried to wash the salt out of my clothes. I didn’t have high hopes for my shoes, which had been completely immersed in saltwater. My only water came from the tank in the mandi—the hotel’s plumbing had stopped working almost completely. I left the faucet open to refill the tank when I could, and occasionally a trickle came out. The hotel’s electricity also had a tendency of failing at inconvenient times, but at least the place was clean.

At some point I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, and would have to find something. Dobo, like any Indonesian town, has a multitude of nocturnal warung, streetside stands, with varying degrees of infrastructure. The nicer ones have tables and chairs and electric lighting, but for this night I ended up at a smaller one that specialized in sate ayam, chicken satay. Although I’m usually a vegetarian, that’s almost impossible in Indonesia even if you speak the language flawlessly. Refusing a host’s offer of meat would also have been very rude, so I had reconciled myself to eating animals while I was there. The husband and wife who ran the warung grilled the chicken skewers, smothered in peanut-chili sauce which they made from scratch in a stone mortar and pestle, over a coconut husk fire. A huge meal (excessive, really) of ten generous and delicious chicken skewers, plus cassava as the starch, cost about $1.50.

People who read a lot of travel writing must get tired of hearing that some of the best food in the world can be got cheaply from roadside stands in developing countries, but it is certainly true. The ambience may take some getting used to, with the unmufffled motor-scooters passing by every ten seconds, and the precarious bench and table, lit spottily by a hissing Coleman lantern. An American health code inspector would recoil in horror at the conditions of preparation, though these warungs are kept clean where it matters. The important part is that I never had a bad meal from a warung, and often had an excellent one. The options are necessarily limited; as at a great restaurant, it’s best to trust the chef’s judgment: there’s a reason that the cook has assembled the ingredients for a particular dish. Dispensing with vegetarianism made it easier to trust the koki, especially in the Malukus, where everything has fish or chicken in it. The street food is always worth checking out—most often, it’s better than food in the restaurants, if the town has restaurants at all. Dobo didn’t, of course, apart from a few establishments that qualified only by being enclosed by walls and a roof. Apart from that, they didn’t differ at all from your usual warung.

My best culinary experience in Dobo was probably the mie goreng (fried noodles) in a warung a couple hundred yards from the hotel. The combination of noodles, finely shredded chicken and vegetables, and fried eggs, with a perfectly balanced spicy sauce (the chilis not overpowering the flavor of anything else), was immensely satisfying. All this for the princely sum of $1.65! I also developed a reputation for liking the ayam kampung (village chicken) of a warung nearer to the hotel, a roast half chicken served with rice, greens, and sambal, the chili sauce of which there are a thousand variations, most of them quite good, as long as they’re made from scratch. That was really a bit exorbitant, at $ 2.50. Despite being left-handed, I managed alright with the custom of eating everything with the right hand. I even made some progress toward the skill of rolling the rice up in little balls: the proper way to eat it, apparently. Ripping out pieces of chicken and fish was easy enough, but the rice took some practice.

The most basic food sources were women who sold food on the sidewalks, setting up at dusk with a cloths spread on the bricks, piled with fried fish, fried chicken, and bungkus (banana leaf bundles) of fried rice or papeda, a polenta-like substance made from sago palm starch. This food was all amazingly cheap, and almost as good as warung food, though fried fish does get a bit tiring after a while.

Refrigeration is still a luxury in Indonesia, and the local (eminently practical) custom of serving many dishes at room temperature is unnerving at first, but Indonesians are perfectly aware of all the microbes besieging them; they boil their drinking water religiously, and when that’s not an option, they have taken to buying bottled water, or filling their jugs up from commercial filter stations. The people who saw my little portable water filter admired it suspiciously.

Back in the states, I’d often tried to proselytize to my friends about the joys of life abroad, and it’s interesting to note that the threat of exotic diseases seemed the insurmountable obstacle for many of them. They were terrified of coming down with something like malaria or elephantiasis, and my observation that millions of people managed to live comfortably in these mephitic regions without contracting horrible diseases didn’t have much of an effect; they chalked their survival up to a natural immunity, which a full-grown American could not hope to attain. There may be a small amount of truth to this, but in fact the locals in most places, especially the cities, take the same precautions as the average tourist, and “immunity” as such seems mostly to come from behavior rather than predisposition. With that in mind, I’m always amazed at Americans who arrive in a distant country and insist on maintaining their own customs and diet, then becoming surprised when they fall ill. The same thing happened with European colonists, who seem to have suffered far less once they learned to adopt local customs, wherever they were.

The next morning, I booked a plane ticket out of Dobo; the earliest flight was in four days. There was no way for me to get cash in Dobo, and I was running short, so more boat trips were out of the question. I would have a few days of enforced laziness to read, write, and explore the town.

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Photos are up!

Brilliant web guru/ninja Sandra has added a photo page, and a gallery of photos from Ujir are up for you to look at. Expect more galleries soon, covering the previous posts. Click on the picture below to go to the photo page.

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Ujir: Part III

Near the bomb craters we saw our first surface scatters of porcelain and glass: mostly Qing dynasty Chinese porcelain, with some European imitations, and the typical light green or olive green bottle fragments, though the ones I saw at Ujir looked more recent than those from Kota Lama. I noticed a couple unmistakably odd fragments: one a late 19th-early 20th century French trademark on ceramic, and the other a light brown bottle base with a Scandinavian “Ø” making up part of an incomplete name. The Australian team in the late ‘90s mentioned seeing Danish bottle fragments, so this may be the same material. We think globalization is a recent development, but a surprising amount of global trade was also happening much earlier on. It was a more specialized trade than today’s distribution of every commodity across the globe; it happened at the source of unusually valuable commodities, and wasn’t universal, but the distances are still astonishing, especially considering the wooden ship that must have brought some of the earlier bottle fragments from Europe to this tiny and remote island, most likely in search of bird of paradise (cenderawasih) feathers.

From the craters we took the boat around a sandbar to the mesjid tua, “old mosque,” Ujir’s most puzzling feature. Saimin came in hot, almost holing the boat on a submerged branch. We landed next to an old, heavily calcified cannon, perhaps salvaged along with the anchor. Any inscriptions or decorations have been lost to weathering, so it would be impossible to date it precisely from looks, but it’s probably late 17th-late 18th century. The mesjid tua itself is a high stone platform with sloping walls, built out into the sungai. There are open or partially open arches in the sides, suggesting that it was once more than a solid foundation. Mandja said that before the old village was bombed, its mosque had been built atop this foundation, with more perishable materials. From the landward side, a stairway ascends to the top of the platform. There were still some sheets of corrugated metal lying among the plants that grew among the coral blocks. In places, there were hollows that also suggested empty space beneath the platform. It is not a large structure; maybe the size of a small cottage. The odd thing is where it was placed, projecting out into the sungai from the bank. It must have taken a lot of work to build a stone structure there, and for what purpose? Maybe defense:  it has a commanding view of the sungai, and the nearby cannon is another clue, perhaps reused to defend the village after salvage. On the other hand, it could have been a mosque originally, though an oddly placed one. It’s worth noting that next to Ujir’s present mosque, which is in the middle of a huge renovation, the villagers have placed another, smaller old cannon, this one painted (appallingly) green and yellow. In some parts of the Muslim world it’s traditional during Ramadan to fire a cannon at the end of each day’s fast. However, the foundation of the mesjid tua likely pre-dates the cannon nearby, so that only offers clues about later use, if any.

Mesjid Tua

Saimin's boat in the sungai, with an old cannon bottom right.

Near the structure we found a bowl or mortar ground from coral limestone—something also mentioned in the Terra Australis paper—and more glass sherds, including the base of a shot glass. It’s far easier to draw some kind of meaning from these small fragments, which, even if they have been broken, retain enough of their original form to give some idea of what they were used for in the beginning. Of course, objects get re-purposed or used in unexpected ways quite often, especially across cultures: there is some evidence that porcelain plates were set into the walls of some of Ujir’s buildings as decoration. At least, however, we know that they were shipped over as plates. With something like the mesjid tua, its origins are more enigmatic, and the possibility remains that it has been modified enough over time to obscure the original function. A thorough excavation might provide an answer, but maybe not. From the surface, not wanting to disturb the building and not having much time, I would have to content myself with guessing. This all drove home the fact that Ujir’s wealth of archaeological evidence would take vast amounts of time to make sense of—a survey could take up a whole season. The material itself is very accessible once you get there, but the logistics of arranging a survey in Ujir, let alone an excavation, are fairly hellish. In a perfect world, a research vessel with a couple fast, long-range dinghies would be ideal, but I doubt that anyone is willing to provide yachts to archaeologists in the current economy.

The villagers said that tsunamis strike Ujir occasionally, and often wash up more pieces of porcelain. Apart from the distant shipwreck that provided the anchor and cannon, which must have been quite large based on the size of the anchor, there is another old shipwreck closer to the village. I was already in a daze from the wealth of information just lying around on the surface, and now another shipwreck! The research vessel of my dreams would need a compressor.

On our way back to the village, we stopped at an old graveyard. All the graves had conical mounds of sand on top of them, fenced in with stone or concrete, and a small headstone, often with no visible inscription. Mandja had brought a bag of flowers and leaves, which he scattered on two of the graves, those of his mother and grandmother. In a far corner there was a grave with a fence of plastic netting around it, which Mandja said was the grave of an old imam. He scattered some flowers there, and gave the rest to me. “Where should I scatter them?” I asked. Richardo suggested the grave of the imam, so I stepped over the fence and placed some flowers on top of the mound. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” I said to Mandja, and he shook my hand very firmly and said he was happy I had come and paid my respects.

From there we returned by boat to the house, stopping at the partially built new mosque, which is close to the beach. The villagers were especially anxious that I publish pictures of this mosque, of which they were very proud. For such a small village it was a huge structure, three stories high, which made it two higher than any other building in Ujir. A couple men were working on it, climbing up bamboo scaffolding and mixing cement with the fine local sand. They would stop work on the mosque for Ramadan, which was coming up soon, and then resume construction once the month of fasting was over.

Ujir was unique among the places I’d visited in Aru for appearing exclusively Muslim—I didn’t notice a church there, and it is worth noting that Mandja’s peci, a traditionally Muslim hat, was one of a handful I saw in the island group. Most native Aruese are either Protestant or Catholic, though many just nominally so, the result of a 1970s effort by the Indonesian government to convert the whole country to one of a few recognized agama, “religions,” from their traditional animist beliefs, which didn’t count in the government’s eyes. Muslim missionaries were part of this effort, but Christian denominations won out, perhaps because of an already established presence in Aru, or a better fit with previous beliefs. There are some native Muslim pockets such as Ujir, and half of Kota Lama, but many of Aru’s Muslims, especially in Dobo, immigrated during one of the islands’ periodical natural resource booms.

We returned to the house, where we exchanged addresses, and I promised to send copies of the photos I’d taken. I asked if I would be permitted to return and excavate in Ujir, and the villagers responded that I should come and work there for a month next year, preferably during the dry season. I said I would start organizing the project, and keep them informed as it developed, but cautioned them that it would take time to assemble the funding and the team. It was a very kind welcome; I felt bad that I couldn’t express my gratitude as emphatically as I wanted in Indonesian, a recurring problem. I signed my name in the village’s guest book, made a small donation toward the construction of the new mosque, and said farewell to Mandja and the villagers. It was getting late in the afternoon, and we still had a three-hour trip through the same choppy seas and rain squalls ahead of us.

 

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