CONVERSATIONS AROUND A LOST BICYCLE
Bicycle was still in place, with a cardboard tag tied to the handlebars, with ‘Mahasiswa Australi Jg berjenggut’ (Australian student with a beard). I had come out at the west entrance in Block M. This was the bike that was sold as a Raleigh, stamped “Made in English.” Just down the road was a permanent evening show of Wayang Orang which began after sunset and ran for a couple of hours. The household servants were the happiest of audience members (there was no charge to watch, the show being funded by bigger shops) and while half of the plays were spoken in traditional Javanese the rest was in very slick Bahasa. The jokes about the long list of government shortcomings, the fat waists of certain ministers, the length of their cars and their ‘extra’ wives, acted as a safety valve in an era where printing such comments in the daily press would led to confiscation of the newspaper, and its press, and whole staffs suddenly finding themselves unemployed.
I was interviewing editors in Bandung at the time and the editor of Fikiran Rakyat saying Manipol-Usdek may have been fine but it didn’t fix bus systems, didn’t keep prices stable, couldn’t fix the telephone system, and so on. Once one is ‘inside’ the system, particularly wayang in its many forms, native Indonesian humor is truly side-splittingly funny, not to mention courageous in its delivery. I soon understood why certain Dalangs (puppet masters, of shadow play (behind the screen) or golek (puppets on the stage) had immense followings. They got away with the most daring of fact-based criticisms of the incompetent, corruption ridden, sloganeering government at the time – a situation that did not improve, as far as the general public was concerned, until mid-1966.
CONVERSATIONS WITH A YOUNG TELEPATH
Marwon Shah was his name. I expect he is still alive, a wise handsome Sumatran. He is such a likely candidate for a central role in a fictional mystery story based in Indonesia, but for now I will stay with the facts of the story, which were at the time sufficiently impressive without resorting to embellishment.
Marwon Shah was a handsome Sumatran boy of 15 years when he first introduced himself to Douglas Miles and me in our asrama in Jalan Darmawangsa VIII, Kebayoran Baru, around April 1961. He had heard from neighbors that I had hoped to find a Sumatran student to help me find my way to the bigger population centers in Sumatra, Medan, Padang, Palembang, where newspapers had been long established. My Indonesian reading was almost to the “editorial” level but my spoken language a bit awkward, and going into Sumatra I knew I would encounter the added difficulty of not being able to differentiate the regional from the national in general conversation. My assignment from the Yayasan Siswa Lokantara Foundation, sponsors of my Fellowship, was to interview newspaper editors, which I misunderstood as being genuine research. A year later I was told the interviews were intended to teach me more about the national ideology of the era, as expressed in tightly censored newspapers, a thankless task (had I done it) because this was the start of the era of intense sloganeering and quite unworkable political theories promoted by the president in his attempt to solidify a position in the world of New Emerging Forces.
But this was a time of almost absolute innocence, a state in which young inquiring minds feel there is a beginning of a great journey among new peoples, in new landscapes, hearing new languages and street sounds, that somehow merge with the scents of nearby jungles or the aromas from native kitchens.
In this state I was open to suggestions of help for whatever journey I had chosen when young Marwon Shah came by. A little into the conversation he told me he would like to practice his English when he returned from his native village in southern Sumatra. Although the Republic had abolished titles, he said, his late father and his father, Marwon’s grandfather, had been among the elite during the Dutch times, and he has inherited the title. But he was staying with his grandmother who had a house near the Pasar in Kebayoran Lama. Marwon heard voices and “spoke” to his relatives by a form of mental telepathy that worked incredibly well, if imprecisely, predicting when he was being called home, or getting him to bring back some purchase. I met him again three years late when he was training for a job as a pilot and he was devastated because he had lost all his telepathic powers just like that! and they never returned after he turned 16.
CONVERSATIONS ON A COLOMBO PLAN ASSIGNMENT
CONVERSATIONS ON MY FIRST INDONESIAN TRAIN
The executions of drug smugglers last week created a mild climate of fear and loathing and discernible unease in both Indonesia and Australia, and perhaps a second thought on holiday plans for Bali. Yet young Australian travelers have a reputation for being headstrong and daring which strikes fear into parents who take headlines too seriously as their offspring venture into places politicians and noisy radio commentators tell us are dangerous and customs, appearances and language are quite uncivilized. Thus it was natural for me as a twenty-one-year old on a Lokantara Fellowship in the relatively new Republic of Indonesia to take a train through the southern Sumatra provinces that in 1961 were supposedly simmering with discontent. According to the news headlines outside Indonesia, and foreign correspondents based in Jakarta, the soldiers of the Permesta breakaway rebellion were still hiding in the Sumatran jungles ready to pounce on anyone from the main island of Java and especially nosey foreigners.
Wishing to learn a Sumatran dialect, and to see my first pepper tree in the Lampung area, I accepted a poorly paid assignment from Molly Bondan, the famous Australian working in the Indonesian Foreign Office, to write a chapter on Transmigration for their upcoming 1962 Year Book. Moving people from overcrowded Java to sparsely populated areas was then thought to be the answer to the growth of poverty on Java, but later it was recognized as just moving poverty from one location to another.
Molly was the fearless Australian lady who had married Bondan, an Indonesian intellectual the Dutch in Australia had called “a dangerous brigand” and had exiled to Boven Digul prison camp in West New Guinea, along with Dr Mohammad Hatta, Indonesia’s future first Vice-President. They had transferred Bondan to Brisbane ahead of the Japanese occupation. Far from being a brigand, Bondan was a pipe-smoking, placid idealist who aspired to establishing an apprentice training scheme for Indonesian youths to learn trades in the new Republic, copying training systems he learned in Brisbane.
Molly was then a senior translator for President Sukarno and the Foreign Office, where my first tutor young Alex Alatas worked. In later life he was Foreign Minister in the Suharto cabinet after nationalizing his name to Ali. Molly and Alex saw no harm in sending me into the Sumatran jungle, but did ask me to avoid discussing politics. The Year Book in my library today reminds me of my trip and how important it is to travel inland, so to speak, even when headlines suggest otherwise. We were not dealing with the China-inspired, anti-Western Communist Party thugs who came onto the scene a few years later, but rebels who had demanded Sumatra and the Celebes at least form their own breakaway state.
My advance for this assignment was around US$5 for the train ride from Teluk Betung in the south, to historic Palembang, with a stopover in a (then) small town of Batu Raja to write the story. Indonesian teachers at university were fearful for my safety, telling me rebels were hiding out in the jungle. They attacked Javanese and were hateful of foreigners, although no proof was ever given for these claims, and none of them had ever set foot in Sumatra.
For about US$2 I travelled peacefully by overnight bus to a ferry that took me over the Sunda Strait, passing the old Krakatoa volcano and landing me at Teluk Betung where I was to board the 0700 train at Teluk, to go north into WHAT MY FRIENDS CLAIMED WAS THE LAST OF JUNGLE WARFARE TERRITORY. danger.
Yet, a strange peace pervaded the little town and the platform area. No one else seemed anxious that we were on the frontline in a supposed civil war. The steam train puffed gently awaiting a start, but the passengers for this three-carriage train were in the canteen, playing cards, drinking coffee, and generally lazing about. They soon got over the surprise of seeing a foreign student in their midst, asked my origins, my family’s size, what Australians had for breakfast and were puzzled that I wished to know about Transmigration, which none of them had heard about. Time ticked by, and my fears of missing the train (not in view from the canteen) were evident to them. “It won’t go without us. This is Hamid, the driver, with us now.” Hamid’s uncle, a key player in this railway schedule it seemed, finally arrived with a “titipan”, a new word for me meaning a present for someone faraway. Hamid’s wife was sending it to her family in Palembang, the alleged nest of anti-Jakarta rebels. Not a gun or a secret message, but a twine-bound package of Lampung coffee and pepper, both said to be “more expensive up in Palembang.”
Good manners suggested Hamid remain for a coffee before we departed. The timetable said the train was an ‘Express Teluk-Palembang’ stopping only at Batu Raja, but it stopped a dozen times between stations, arriving at Batu Raja an hour or more late. THE Chief Administrator of the town MET ME AT THE STATION A, but he was in no hurry to take me to see the Javanese TRANSMIGRATION CAMPS.
newcomers living in the jungle. He had arranged for a group of colorfully dressed prominent locals, with no apparent livelihoods to attend to, to welcome me. For two days I was taken around town in a horse drawn, decorated buggy and introduced as a “person from the Foreign Office” and given sumptuous food and exquisite fruit. There were numerous references to how little revenue Jakarta gave to the Lampung area and there were broad hints things were definitely heading for a true showdown. On day three the Chief Administrator called in a military driver to take me into the jungle. We started late in the afternoon. The road was in bad condition, heavy rains had slowed us down, so we stopped in a run down plantation where there were half a dozen huts surrounding a main residence. There were bullet holes in the walls from previous fighting. The plantation manager instructed the driver to put his jeep INSIDE the main house for safety, and the driver and I were each given a bed in a vacant hut. The air was musty in my hut, so I opened a small window which faced away from the residence. This was my fight night in a jungle camp, so I looked in at the driver, but found him fast asleep already, after his difficult driving conditions. I took no notice that his room was musty, but he had not opened his window. Halfway through the night I heard shouting and saw an arm holding a parang being dragged back from my window. The administrator ordered me out, while the shouting continued on the jungle side. “He got away” the assistants said. “You’re lucky! He saw your window open so wanted to cut you and take your bag.” The driver, now also awake, suggested to the administrator that I sleep in his room, and it was agreed. Over a light breakfast the Administrator and his workers said casually: “Still a lot of rebel sympathisers around here. They usally don’t kill, but they would have thought you are Dutch, and from Jakarta, so you were a double enemy to them.
When we arrived at the Immigration settlement the driver said nothing about the attack of the night before. “These Javanese scare easily! He said. “We do not wish them to worry every time they go near the jungle.”
The Immigration village was built in a huge clearing in the jungle where an entire Javanese town of one thousand inhabitants, small shops, school and teachers had been shipped from an overcrowded area in Central Java, leaving me to my work.
The Javanese immediately claimed me as one of their own because I spoke with a Javanese accent I had shamelessly copied from President Sukarno. They were homesick and a little tired of the rather grating Malay of the Lampung locals, darkly suggesting that the jungle surrounding them was the home of anti-Java rebels. I felt duty bound to stay the night with these friendly people who fed me delicious Yam snacks and coffee, entertained me with a brief shadow play (no wayang, they said, in ‘uncivilized Lampung!’) while pressing me for extended descriptions of green paddy fields and idyllic life in rural Java. My hosts’ unpaved street had been replicated from the original, arranged so everyone had the same neighbors they had grown up with in their original village on Java. Such was the spirit of nostalgia abroad that when they learned I had lived briefly in Kuningan not far from their original home, they pressed me for my laudatory descriptions of the peaceful life, the green rice fields and backdrop scenes of volcanoes. The women asked me to visit again, and please bring some jamu village all-cure medicine packets the local Sumatran bumpkins were yet to learn about.
Next morning, back in the village chief’s house in Batu Raja, I was up early and back in a Western frame of mind, to ensure I would be on time for the 0830 train. Worry, worry! I was uneasy, yet my host seemed relaxed about the train’s arrival time. It would be a bit late, he said. But being a gracious host, he delivered me to the station and seemed truly bewildered when we arrived to find the train ready to depart right on 0830. Travelling north through magnificent green jungle, the other dozen or so passengers soon knew my name and how many children my mother had, my father’s home village, whether he smoked, and any news about tall buildings in the capital city of Djakarta. I told them of my assignment (none of them knew about the transmigration towns) while praising their railway system, because we had departed precisely at 0830, as the timetable had said. This comment sent them into howls of friendly laughter, some of them paralytic, the joke running up and down the carriage before it was politely explained to me that I was on yesterday’s train! This one was already a day late.
A very slow day later the entire train was halted, in danger of being swept off the rails by floodwaters. The rails ahead and behind us were inundated. We had to catch fresh rainwater by holding cups out the window. We slept or talked our way through the utterly boring three-day delay. Baboons and colorful birds came by to look at us, but turned away when discovering we had no food to give them. Secrets were unfolding. Many of the men admitted to being sympathetic to the rebels and would introduce me to certain leaders when we got to Palembang. I was suffering hunger pains whereas they were not, so they showed me how to smoke a kretek clove cigarette. That cured the hunger pains.
We got to Palembang almost a week late. By now I was considered one of their rebel gang, so we shared a taxi ride in a roofless, beaten up Morris Minor, to a small hotel where several Makassar businessmen, also rebels to the anti-Jakarta cause, were apparently plotting the government’s downfall, between cards and coffee.
A newspaper reporter from the Batanghari Sembilan joined us for lunch, with an invitation for me to meet “the most famous smuggler in Indonesia”, a certain Dr Gani. Actually, Adnan Kalapu Gani, an exhuberant man of 56 years, who had briefly been in an early government cabinet, but better known as a “smuggler” who got valuable raw materials to market in Singapore by breaking through the Dutch curfew (better word) lines to get money from the sales for the Republican cause. He was now back in South Sumatra, nursing a grievance about Jakarta and the president, whom he considered was “too far Left”. Although he made no secret of his sympathy for the rebels, he was left alone and indeed, it was at his place I finally met an intelligence officer posted from Jakarta who suggested it would be wise if I returned. “But not before you see some of the men in the jungle” Dr Gani (a real doctor) said, so he instructed one of his friends to take me several miles west from Palembang where there was a thriving pepper market, the green corns laid out in thousands on canvas sheets to dry. The pepper came from “rebel” families, the buyers were shopkeepers from the “other side” (Jakarta). I was so naïve I expected the rebels to wear bandoleros and sidearms but in the hours I was there I saw no one weapon.
Messages were sent to families inland, rebel brothers separated from brothers loyal to Jakarta had coffee together and talked about family. This was a very civil, civil war.
Finally, the a uniformed Javanese military intelligence officer called again for me with a Garuda ticket, firmly suggesting it was time to go home to Jakarta. He had never shot at the rebels, nor would they shoot at him, because he knew their relatives who were always pressing for news from their jungle hideouts.
When delivering my Transmigration article and photos to the Pejambon Avenue headquarters of the Foreign Office, Molly and Ali Alatas thanked me profusely and asked if I had I seen any signs of anti-Jakarta rebels.
I confessed to meeting people “from various levels of society” and told them I would be willing to do another story for them next year. It was many years before I told Molly and Ali of my adventures, by that time it was humorous.
© Francis Palmos, Scarborough May 2015
¹Anthropologist Dr Douglas Miles, then from Sydney University, who travelled by cargo ships between Jakarta and Sampit in Kalimantan, researching what would later be the significant Masters study of The Islamisation of the Dayaks