Monday, November 17, 2008

There’s no speech or language where the voice is not heard

The photo that’s been doing the rounds in Indonesia this past week or two is the one below.


It is, as you may have guessed, the last moments before going sub-terrestrial, of one of the Bali Bombers. Now, I’m not a supporter of capital punishment at all, even in this case, but I can’t feel any sadness at the death of these three. Or for that matter, though, any feeling that justice has been done either. The scary thing here is because of the bumbling way the Indonesian government handled this, they managed to turn these three from convicted murderers into minor celebrities here. The larger version of this image appeared in print, in various local newspapers was a little scarier being as it showed a much larger crowd. And it caused quite a stir, not least when it was revealed that several high ranking cops attended as observers.

But for all that it demands a little perspective. This execution had had a several week build up, and a massive media frenzy (both inside and outside Indonesia) had accompanied the days before and after the shooting. The funeral of Samudra and the others was widely expected to provide a focal point for the hotheads and pull a crowd of the ardent caliphate desiring believers (or them what you will).

It, according to all reports, had a crowd of some 1000. We know they came from inside and outside the village:

Abdul Rahim, a key figure in the group, said: "Hundreds of us are waiting in Solo to come … but on the day of the execution there could be 1000 here."

In a country of 230 million.

Even allowing for the fact that most Indonesians living outside of Java would have found it hard to get there, there are still 130 million people in Java…so they managed, not even taking into account the local village population (200?, 500?) to pull one in 130,000 Javanese.

Huge. Your average wacko Church preaching the end of time in Alaska does much better than that, I’m sure.

Wandering around the top floor to Borobudur the other afternoon I offered to take a photo for two young-ish girls (20ish) who were climbing the central dome (quite contrary to the signs on the rather spectacular 9th Century monument, but in Indonesia rules are at best vague). The two, from somewhere in the country…the monument pulls in more local tourists than offshore, and it pulls in a fair few of those…but likely Java were dressed as about 10-15% of girls their age are here, with modest clothing and ħijāb. I thought nothing of this, smiled and clicked the phone’s camera button.

They then giggled at the bulé, said thank you and asked to take our photo. I don’t get a ‘can I take your photo?’ request that often, it’s much more often the other way around. So I said yes and they clicked.

I thought nothing of it as they wandered away but then it hit me, how much my attitudes had changed since I’d arrived in Indonesia. I first came here as a visitor and later a resident I was shockingly naïve. Sure I’d seen folks in various Muslim attire and even known a few across the years to talk to. And had spent the early part of my life in Singapore.

However never had I been immersed, for a very long time in such an alien culture to my own. We pride in ourselves in New Zealand and Australian at our diversity and multi-culturalism but the real truth is that we are mostly conservative folks out of the European grand tradition of what we see as liberalism, with a few bits of exotica around the edges to make ourselves feel diverse. And those bits around the edges are expected to divest themselves of where they came from, apart from a token nod here and there, over a generation or two, if they want to stay.

So to come and live in a society where I was the alien, and expected to conform was a shock.

I have to be honest, when I first delved into Java (Bali is different, there isn’t quite that cultural abyss to deal with..some but not absolute…2 million smiling tourists a year does that to an island).

But Java, yeah, especially once you leave the mega-opolis of Jakarta, is something else and we are taught in the west to be, more than that...terrified of it, and photos like the one above and the media, and relentless travel warnings all play their part.

This is, we a told, a nation that is 90% Muslim.

The reality, of course, as those girls are evidence, is quite different, dramatically so. And the Muslim mass, ħijāb or not, or the thousand variations of that religion that make up that 90% figure, are a million generous and welcoming kilometres away from that miniscule turnout at the funeral, or the travel warnings written in the comfy offices of Canberra and then transcribed without really any understanding of what they might actually mean, in further comfy offices in Wellington.


And so, this week, for perhaps the thirtieth time over the past four years, Brigid and I went back to Java. This time it was different. We’d decided to make our trek to the last beach at the end of the road, Jepara, by road trip from Yogyakarta, through the highlands of Jawa Tengah to Semarang and then north. The last part we’d done many times and much of it is a shitty endless stretch of endless road works.

The first bit, though was new to us both. So we’d contacted Ali, our driver (after the brief thought to hire a car had been dismissed) and said drive on down please.


We were staying as many times before at the Grand Hyatt in north west Jogja. It’s a big old sprawling behemoth, with a big curling swimming pool that goes under rock pools, waterfalls, bridges and down steps, and is a refreshing place to enjoy a snog with th’wife and a Bintang after a day in the grime of Javanese factories.

Last time we were there together they had a Mexican evening and I managed to stand next to a mass murderer, Suharto, a first for me.

This time, there were two events of note. Firstly there was an Audi convention. This meant that as we checked in Audi-less, our Hyatt Gold Card meant nothing. I flashed it and you could see the girl thinking ‘No TT, no upgrade’ thus we ended up on the ground floor.


The other event of note was the Cigarette Sales Convention. Anywhere else in the world post, about 1970, this would be a low-key event, so as to avoid negative comments verging on abuse. Not in Indonesia. Here the folks proudly wore their khaki uniforms with large Marlboro branding on the back and a dozen other badges on the front. And they sat in the restaurant for breakfast puffing with some pride. In fact the guy at the next table managed to eat, text on one phone, talk on the other one (important people always have two here) and smoke half a packet.

Ali arrived about 8 and we headed off.


I really had no idea what to expect. It was only 100km or so but in Indonesia, depending on the traffic and the quarries they often call roads that can take a while.

Ali said 2 hours would do it, which was ok, and happily it took a wee bit less than that. The road was little worse than large parts of the national roading system in New Zealand, albeit with the usual fairly hefty dose of homicidal maniacs. Fortunately the maniacs drive at a slower speed than the maniacs in the west, 80 km/h being a fairly high speed.

Ali had one of those in the front TV / DVD players that are so popular here..watching a sinetron, or singing karaoke, whilst swerving past or avoiding belching trucks and buses is quite the thing to do. He offered to put it on.

But since we’d not been this way before we demurred, deciding, for a variety of reasons, on the view.


The thing about Java is that it mostly consists of areas of unspeakable grime which, without warning, mutate into areas of unspeakable beauty. And so it was as we left Jogja and went uphill. But the higher we went the lovelier it seemed to become, and even the grimy bits, like the almost alpine desa of Ambarawa with it’s mix of Chinese Temples, towering Christian Churches and stately Mosques, seem quite pretty and aloof from the chaos of the bigger towns down the hill.

And it, as always in Java, hits me how clean, if you can call grimy clean, Java is compared to the trash that sadly covers Bali now. The rivers, excluding the big cities, run garbage free unlike any in Bali these days.java5

No, Java has a beauty and a serenity that runs counter to the fact that it’s the most populated space on Earth and the Javanese are, even in the mega-cities, perhaps the most gracious, welcoming people I’ve met. Not once have I felt as threatened as I do on an average Saturday night downtown in Auckland or Sydney. Not once have I felt the threat that the western media, paranoia and travel warnings tell me I should feel in this island where I am not just a minority but a bizarre oddity representing something that people can mostly only imagine from images and the mass media which offers them as twisted a view of the west as we have of places like the hills of Jawa Tengah. Where evil Muslim madrassahs are supposed to fester.

The next day, having worked our way through the endless concrete road works out of Semarang, being rushed to preempt the rainy season and the flooding that washes out the old bitumen road every year, we found ourselves back in the car, a shitty Izuzu Panther that shuddered above 60km/h and has broken back seat springs which twisted my back in a way that has meant I’m still stuffing painkillers in my mouth.

TV? No thanks Ali. So Ali put on a CD with a selection of some of the worst songs ever recorded, all cover versions mind, and off we trotted to visit Borobudur.

Borobudur was / is quite something. I think both Brigid and myself felt that we’d been remiss in not making the 15km trip there in past trips to the area, but there you go, and we’d made it now.java8

Outside it was your typical slightly rundown Indonesian tourist attraction. Lots of stalls selling the same sorts of things and dozens of folks who swooped on the tourist from the moment he or she alighted. We found our very own permanent attachment just after we got out. Brushing aside the masses wanting sell us fans/ books/photos/ things that made noises / dolls and everything else we’d never need, he introduced himself as Ali. Another one..but as one would guess Alis are never in short supply in Java. He was short, had shocking teeth, all smoke stained and broken but he grinned widely through them and offered us his miniature stone Buddhas. Do we need these…no…sorry…ma’af, pak, tak mau..

Only Rp100, 000 said he….

tidak, pak

We wandered in and Ali followed.

You have KITAS? He asked…


Ali pointed us to the locals’ entrance, where it was Rp9,000 (80c) rather than the tourist gate (US$11) and I smiled gratefully at him

Rp70,000? He said…

I was not that grateful.

He wandered in and pointed us in the direction of the big grey pile of ancient stone up the hill. A couple of wheeled trains sat by the gate with hopeful Indonesian families sitting in them. They were not, it seemed, going anywhere fast so we walked up the hill.

Borobudur was everything I’ve ever thought it might be. It was awe inspiring and we stood at the top of 1200 years (much of it spent covered up and lost) looking down at the clouds and the Indonesians, kids, army guys, families and students wandering around with obvious self pride in this monument to centuries of civilization, back to the time when Europeans were still thinking about working out stone castles and this was constructed, as were the other great monuments in the region. To the great Hindu Kingdoms that ruled this region and the Islamic armies that drove them east to Bali.

We walked down the stairs, the trains had still not left and the families still sat hopefully (Indonesians understand patience in a way I will never) and Ali was waiting.

Good, eh?



Tidak, mas.

As we walked out in search of the carpark, the swarms came at us again, but many more. The batik fans now came in all sorts of sizes and there were t-shirts. Ali brushed them away.



Anda berasal? said he.

New Zealand..Selandia Baru I replied. Anda?

Dari Indonesia, Bapak, he replied.

I smiled at that, how could you not, and looked for the car.

Tempat pakir disana, pak, he said and pointed towards our car.


No I said, and pushed a Rp10,000 note into his hand..for your help. Terima Kasih, Pak Ali..hati hati..

Ali did a happy little skip, shook my hand and ran off looking for someone else to help.


Writing this, and working online to clarify names, I realized just how little data there is available about Java. Type Java into Google and most of the hits come from the programming language...even Wikipedia has the island as second on it’s google ranking. And this island, the 13th largest in the word, with one of the world’s largest cities on it, and the centre of the 4th most populous nation in the world, has a far smaller entry (1969 words) than the programming language (6425 words).

We know nothing about it apart from some idea that we need to be scared of it.

We need to be very afraid, not necessarily of those people in the top photo but of the arrogance, blinkers and ignorance that add to that fear.

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