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In early 1991 I Embarked on a series of journeys in Indonesia. The choice offered by an archipelago of thirteen thousand-odd islands is overwhelming, and a traveller setting out in youth, with the intention of leaving none unvisited, would find himself trapped in the bailiwick of old age before completing such an odyssey. Change in Indonesia is rapid and sometimes depressing. Today's luxuriant forest is tomorrow's bare hillside, and today's mountain tomorrow's copper mine. I was at pains to avoid areas that had succumbed to tourist influences, for mass tourism is the great destroyer of customs and cultures, and the purveyor of uniformity. There are astonishing resemblances between Spain's Costa del Sol and Thailand's Phuket.
For me the places holding the greatest interest were those that had withstood the standardizing processes of the Indonesian government, thus retaining an individualism that it was hard to believe could survive. Among those were Aceh in North Sumatra with a culture and history entirely separate from the Javanese one the government seeks to impose. East Timor was a former Portuguese colony which, having resisted an Indonesian takeover, had become the scene of this century's most ferocious small war. In Irian Jaya Stone-Age Papuans continued to resist absorption into the national amalgam. Fresh news awaited the visitor to all of these destinations, but apart from their special interest, urgency was the spur.
That Aceh should have been chosen for the first of these peregrinations was largely fortuitous. My son Gawaine and his friend Robin — both refugees from the stresses of life in the City — were taking a six-month therapeutic break in South-east Asia, and now they suggested we join forces. At this time almost all the islands of Indonesia were plunged into the season of rains. Only North Sumatra, projecting well across the Equator, offered a climatic exception. Travel elsewhere in the archipelago could be difficult indeed, but Aceh was dry — offering the benefits of uncomplicated journeyings if, and when, compelled to leave the beaten track. Enthusiasm for the project was general. We would refresh ourselves with new simplicities, relax among village people, drink boiled water, eat rice flavoured with chillies, and travel among basketed chickens and parcelled-up piglets by village bus. And so we flew to Medan, capital of North Sumatra, where the practicalities were to be tackled.
A minimum of prosaic information would be required: we needed to supply ourselves with local maps, find out where buses went, decide on routes, enquire as to the availability of accommodation at the end of the journey, collect whatever schedules and timetables might exist. With this object in view, our first visit was to the office of NATRABU, the government tourist board, where we were questioned by a series of smart girls, recalling the air-hostesses whose melting sympathy and charm so frequently advertised a short while back on British television quite certainly contributed to the success of the national airline.
We explained that we hoped to travel by bus from Medan to Banda Aceh on the island's northernmost tip, returning after various side-trips by the west coast. This part of the journey we expected to be by far the most interesting, for the road — much of it in poor condition — passed through what sounded like the least-visited part of the island, where the coastal villagers lost their animals to tigers coming down by night from the mountains. In the rainy season stretches of this route were impassable for weeks on end, and an oldish guide-book spoke of cars and buses having to be rafted across three of the rivers. Some difficulties had arisen here, we read, through problems of transmigration and the understandable resentment of Sumatrans to see newcomers, whom they considered as foreigners, settled on their land. Finally there were the reports of an insurrection in Aceh province by separatists, although little news of this was permitted to appear in the Indonesian press.
The three beautiful secretaries at NATRABU considered our project, expressing at first limited enthusiasm and encouragement and then the invasion by doubt, with the wonderfully subtle expressions and delicate finger gestures suggesting the genesis of a Balinese dance. Part of Indonesian protocol on such occasions prohibits the bringing of bad tidings — in this case conveyed in the use of the word impossible, either in Indonesian or English translation. 'Sometimes difficulties are arising,' said the spokeswoman, holding the telephone through which unsatisfactory news had been received as though she had just gathered a lotus. 'Maybe there are buses to Langsa,' she said. Langsa was seventy miles away up the easy east coast road.
'And after that?'
'We are waiting for answers to our questions. Soon we shall know. You see, perhaps today is bus, but tomorrow no. Maybe you are in Langsa and they say you this bus must go back. What will you do?' In spite or because of the possible predicament, all three girls burst into laughter, trilling their merriment in a most musical fashion.
The office was the personification of the Orient of our day, glutted with electronic equipment among shining spaces. All the apparatus in sight seemed to have been designed to disguise its actual function. A TV set succeeded in looking like a jousting helmet, and a shutter like the door of Ali Baba's cavern dropped over the computer in its wall niche when not in use. Of the past nothing remained but a small girl who kneeled to polish foot by foot the already gleaming floor.
The spokeswoman detached herself from her friends and glided back to where she had placed us under an air-conditioning vent which blew a breeze over us with the sound of distant prayer. 'We could hire a car for you,' she said.
We shook our heads. 'Not a car,' I said.
'What will you do, then? Walk?' She went through a mime of an exhausted pedestrian dragging himself down the road under the sun. All the girls laughed happily again, and we did our best to show amusement too. Groaning, I dragged my hand across a sweat-soaked brow, and the effort to enter into the spirit of the joke delighted them. Amazingly, the highly developed Indonesian sense of humour is of the slapstick kind, running to false noses and Chaplinesque moustaches. 'They like to look on the funny side of things,' said a booklet on how to make friends and influence people in Indonesia. The author instanced the case of a friend who had scored a social success at a party by taking out his false teeth and holding them in his hands to snap convivially at fellow guests.
By now we had the girls on our side, but with all the goodwill in the world, they couldn't make the buses run. It was clear that it was a car or nothing. 'We are making special deal for you,' the spokeswoman said, 'but' — she hesitated, and her smile increased in brilliance — 'it is necessary to take a guide.'
'Because you cannot find your way. Some new roads are not on map. The car is no problem. For the guide I do not know. Maybe we find one, maybe we don't. I can telephone.'
She went away to phone and came back shaking her head. 'I try them all. They don't want,' she said.
'Did they say why?'
'They tell me distance is very far. They do not want to leave their family. I think their wives are saying them don't go.'
'So what can we do?'
'Well, now I try another company. These guides have no work to do. Maybe one will come.'
This time she was joyously successful, with a gain of face as the bringer of good news. 'This is very good man, but very poor. When there are tourists he is water-skiing instructor, but now no tourists and he must take work. He will come. This man's name Mr Andy.'
'Real name you will not be able to speak, so he has taken short name. Many people are doing this, because short names are more suitable for us.'
We called back an hour later to meet Mr Andy, a small, neat man in a carefully pressed denim suit with meticulous repairs over the trouser knees where wear and tear had gone too far. He had a kind and sensitive face embellished with an army-style moustache, which in view of the extreme passivity of his expression seemed out of character. His glittering eyes were devoid of malice, and the impression he gave was of a responsible citizen occupied with a struggle to maintain the decency of his poverty. He could have been in his late thirties and for some reason the name he had chosen for himself could not have been more inappropriate.
The girls had retired to the rear of the office and from a diffused image of them through a glass screen appeared to be involved in the gentle gymnastics of what I supposed to be a Sumatran dance. 'You are wishing to go for water-skiing to Lake Toba?' Mr Andy asked. 'On this lake I am chief instructor Albatross Club.'
'No,' I said. 'We're going north to Aceh.'
'Ah, Aceh, you say?' His moustache flickered. 'In Aceh only Lake Tawar is good. You may enquire if Hotel Takingeun have boat for hire.'
'We don't want to go water-skiing.'
He smiled moving only the corner of his lips, as we were to learn he always did, as a matter of politeness, to conceal emotion of any kind. In this case he was resigning himself to a disappointing situation. 'What is purpose of your visit?' he asked.
'To look at the place. We wouldn't expect problems in driving from Medan to Banda Aceh, but we're told the west coast road is bad and we need a guide. The people here tell us you're just the man.'
'Ah,' he said. 'Yes. How long will we be away?'
'At this stage I don't know. Are you sure you want to take this on?'
A change had come over him. He straightened himself, and there was a briskness in his manner I had not seen before. For a moment he reminded me of a man I had known who had suddenly come to terms with the fact that he was about to go to prison, and I knew I was witnessing a case of resignation.
'I can take it on,' he said.
'And we can start tomorrow?'
'Tomorrow. What time shall I come?'
'Well, let's make it early. Say seven.'
Parting company with Mr Andy, we walked over to the main post office and picked up letters at the poste restante. One from London contained a Financial Times cutting which reported that the Indonesian government had sent in five battalions to crush a rebellion in Aceh. The newspaper spoke of the worst violence in years. If this were the case it seemed extraordinary that I should be allowed simply to pick up a hire car and drive it into an area of some sensitivity.
By coincidence a front-page editorial in the English language Indonesian Times caught my eye on a news-stand. It was headed — as might have been expected —INCORRECT REPORTS ON SECURITY IN ACEH, and the gist of what followed was that any such reports were the baseless inventions of the foreign media, produced with the intention of harming Indonesia's image. No more convincing evidence of trouble could have been offered than that from Jakarta's point of view the situation in Aceh was serious enough to have jolted the Indonesian press out of its normal silence in all such matters. This very long and puffed-out article provided absolutely no information on the subject of current happenings. There was nothing to bite on. The Indonesian people, who have lived for some thirty years in a news blackout, shy away like deer from any discussion into which politics enters. No one we spoke to in Medan admitted to any idea of what was going on in the North.
There was also a letter from my daughter Claudia — a medical student who would be working and travelling for a year in Indonesia — dealing with her adventures on the island of Sumba. Her letters were an ideal complement to my own experiences in these islands, and it was hoped that we would be able to meet and travel together to East Timor at some point during these travels.
Claudia and her friend Rod, also a medical student, had been engaged in a project with homeless street children in Java, and at the termination of this were visiting a number of islands where their principal concern was the predicament of the original inhabitants. In many cases these were threatened by the loss of their land, and under pressure to abandon traditional religions, dress, housing and means of subsistence, thereby becoming available as the labour force of logging, mining and plantation industries that were moving in. In Sumba the enemy was mass tourism, and as this letter shows the processes of deculturation involved were much advanced.
Well, we finally made it to the Pasola, and stayed in a house where a funeral was going on. The people were no longer Merapu but converted to Christianity and we heard some had been forcibly baptised. The only difference this appears to have made is they don't keep priceless ikats (traditional dyed fabrics) symbolising the Merapu religion in the rafters any more and they don't kill a horse to carry you off to heaven. In the one we saw they were not even allowed to inject the corpse to preserve it — so when they showed us grandma wrapped up in an ikat in the sitting position, she had a lot of bubbling red exudate coming out of her nose and mouth. They said tomorrow she'd be black and smelly, so they'd keep her covered up. We gave a donation to help her on her way, and so she'd protect us and give us a long and prosperous life. We also brought gifts of sugar, and were given local betel which we bravely tried but didn't enjoy too much, but caused a lot of merriment as we inexpertly spat it out. Three pigs were swiftly killed by a knife in the chest, then we got to eat pig fat served with blood soup — Mum enak! Yesterday the second day of the funeral saw the end of a cow and a buffalo, then off to the ancient grave with a massively heavy stone top. There were cries of 'Wooohhh' as they levered it up, then pushed her in. The Pasola was wonderful — far, far more exciting than expected. Full details in my next.
Next morning Mr Andy was waiting for us at the reception exactly on time. If possible he seemed to be even smaller and neater than on the previous day, and there was evidence of some further needlework on the doubtful areas in his denims. He was clutching a small wallet containing, it was to be supposed, the essentials of travel, and his moustaches were lifted slightly by his unrevealing smile as we came into sight. The car, delivered to the forecourt, was a seemingly new Toyota of robust appearance, with enormous tyres, a high ground clearance, and bearing a self-satisfied maker's claim about the construction of its body. The agreement was that the two boys would take turns to drive. Gawaine got in behind the wheel, I settled myself beside him, and Robin and Andy climbed up into the back. We drove to a filling station to top up with petrol and the man at the pumps asked Andy where we were bound for, and when Andy told him he laughed and drew his hands across his throat. Taking this to be a joke we paid little attention, but the menace it concealed revealed itself and grew until in the end it cast a shadow over the journey.
The road northwards from Medan to Banda Aceh, capital of the province, keeps close to the sea, and a wide coastal plain, now virtually cleared apart from recent plantations of rubber and coconut palms, is described in one of the guide-books as boring. This was far from being the case, for much of it is flanked by rice-paddies, and there are few livelier and more varied scenes of farming activity than those concentrated in these sparkling wetlands, and nowhere softer colours and more indulgent light. Rice-farmers everywhere enjoy and pride themselves upon their orderly existence, and orderliness is inseparable from the efficient production of their crop. The water in which they work can only be kept under control by exact practice and conformity with natural laws, and this enforces tidiness. One never sees a rice-field with a ragged boundary, and paddies are firmly geometrical and fitted into their surroundings in a lively mosaic of shapes that increases rather than detracts from the charm of the landscape. Monotony is avoided by variation from field to field in the growth of the rice seedlings: some barely pricking through the water's surface while others already display the viridian brilliance of full growth. The trimness of the paddies is accentuated by that of the little matched shelters where tools are kept, and from which the farmers operate the devices they hope will scare away the birds. These are waders of the most elegant kind: delicately stepping storks, herons and egrets. The familiar coolie hats of the East are normally worn by the rice-farmers here in Aceh, although as we drove north more and more wore black witches' hats, miraculously kept in place as they bent over their work, which added a stylish and dramatic note to the scene.
Excerpted from An Empire of the East by Norman Lewis. Copyright © 1995 Norman Lewis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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