By Heather Stewart-Johnson (Semester 9/Aug 1999)
Indonesia! Where else would you find so much diversity in one country?
The first of my experiences with Indonesia was on the island of Roti, a tiny rain-shadow island to the west of Timor. The island has not much in the way of natural resources and its people are way below even Indonesia’s poverty line. They experience frequent droughts and although the island stays superficially green, the clay soil cracks and hardens and food supplies often get rather thin because food crops have not flourished. Water is either coming out of the sky in torrents and draining into the sea over the hard clay or trickling down extremely shallow streams from all too few springs. Carrying water is one of the first skills a child learns to do.
On Roti the villagers were suspicious of Indonesians from other Islands but amazingly welcoming towards bules. So much so that wherever I went I had a comet tail of children behind me. We joked that Bules were never alone and on the one occasion we thought that maybe we had escaped the village undetected, a local dropped down to the ground in front of us from a lontar palm as we spoke.
To arrive in Jogja after the impressions of Roti in my mind, was to find a huge contrast. Water was on tap! Although drinking water was still boiled or bought bottled, it was a far cry from buying the water for every purpose from the hand drawn cart full of bottles belonging to an enterprising villager in Roti.
However Bules were just as conspicuous and locals often would find a reason to chat with you, ask your age and marital status and whether you had kids.
In Jogja, there was frequent rain and the town stayed green always. It was not uncommon to see a mansion planted next to a rice paddy with oxen ploughing through the mud right past the BMW parked on the verge.
It is a university town with vast diversity of origins amongst its students, everyone was welcomed and exchange of cultural information and bits of language was an everyday occurrence. And for me, a middle aged bule joining classes of kids just out of school made me rather a novelty. They were astonished that I was there in their country alone. ( As alone as you can be with about 60 other acicis students.) They mostly felt sorry for me because I was not home being looked after by my children in my old age!!!
In Roti if anything went wrong (a theft, a disaster ) it was often attributed to some Javanese who had passed through. In Jogja there was also always a wish to find out causes but not an instant conclusion drawn about the culprits.
Never the less the supernatural was consulted in both parts of the archipelago.
In Roti we had some pictures go missing from our house. Not a disaster but the packet had some travellers checks in it so they had to be reported so that they could be replaced. The owner of the house was very worried about this and called in a “ wise man” who solemnly looked into a glass of unboiled water and declared that the thief was female and had short hair. However “the picture was dark “ and he had to come back the next day. When he arrived the next day he had six others with him and they all looked with great concentration into glasses with uncooked eggs cracked into them. ( Great waste of hard to get good food!) They declared that they knew who the thief was and asked did we want them to tell the police.
In comparison, in Jogja, when an intruder tried to get into a window during the night, meetings were held and “wise men” were called to discuss who it might have been. Black rice was burned in west facing doorways and incense and a special dust was wafted around the doorways and windows. It took a weeks worth of meetings and endless cups of tea to come to no conclusion at all and a decision to double check that the gate was locked at night.
In Jogja I stayed with a family where there was a grown up nephew who was a lecturer in veterinary science and two younger school age children. The husband was the head of the agricultural department and the wife was a lecturer in psychology. They took me in and made me family. I was much older than all of them but I was family to the point of needing to be careful to let Bapak know where and when I would be going places. Although I initially found this a little irritating I appreciated that there was a safety net here if anything did occur. When I bought a bike, he was very worried and wherever I went he seemed to be ‘going too’, until he was sure I would manage the traffic well.
They were good representatives of the Jogja people and we had many long discussions that coloured and filled in my picture of Jogja with fine detail.
I was there during the time of the Timor referendum and there was a bit of reaction towards Australia at that point with the Indonesian students at the university producing very witty anti-Australian t-shirts. I wondered what they thought when about 50 of us went down to the square and bought up all their stock. There were so many wonderful experiences on a daily basis that you would need a book to include them all. All of them contributed to changing me in ways that are difficult to explain but will be lasting. I came away from there with a wish to find ways to keep channels open between our countries. We are neighbours who need to know each other.
I left Jogja reluctantly with a never- to- be -satisfied curiosity about the country, a love of the language, and a love for the people. It was an experience which will stay vibrant in my memory forever.